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So You Want to Be a Mileage Runner?

January 18, 2008

Amsterdam24 hours from now I’ll (hopefully) be onboard a KLM 747-400 winging its way across the Atlantic Ocean toward Amsterdam. After an hour or so layover, I’ll be headed to Frankfurt, Germany. I’ll arrive in Frankfurt on Saturday morning…and leave again Monday morning(via Detroit), in time for school on Tuesday. With recent news stories mentioning rising airfares and surcharges, you’d think this trip would be un-attainable for any normal working person, let alone a college student. Guess again! Without getting specific, the total cost of the trip (airfare and hotel–at the four star Marriott Frankfurt) will come in under $500. The Wandering Jew has done a similar trip recently over a weekend to Oslo, Norway for even cheaper, thanks to airline bump vouchers.

The route for this weekend’s trip is Grand Forks-Minneapolis-Chicago-Amsterdam-Frankfurt-Detroit-Minneapolis-Grand Forks. Many people wonder…why such a circuitous routing? These trips are all about two things: frequent flier miles (and the all important Elite Qualifying Miles or EQM) and Elite Qualifying Segments (EQS). Most major airlines out there today have frequent flier programs that allow you free tickets after a certain amount of travel. In addition, many airlines also extend special privileges to their most frequent travelers in the form of “Elite” frequent flier tiers.

On Northwest Airlines, the airline I fly most, there are three tiers: Silver, Gold and Platinum. Every elite tier is comes with frequent flier mileage bonuses, free upgrades to first class when available, and increased priority for things like standby and boarding. I’m a Northwest WorldPerks Silver Elite, which means I am at the lowest tier of the WorldPerks Elite program.

How does one achieve such lofty status on an airline? There are two ways to do so, at least on most US airlines. One is by flying a certain amount of mileage within a calendar year (usually 25,000 miles for the first tier). The other is by flying a certain amount of segments (a segment is usually considered one flight from takeoff to touch-down), beneficial for those who don’t necessarily fly long distances but short hops with regularity.

These programs are geared toward the frequent-traveling businessperson to build brand loyalty and business through these extra perks. Even though I do travel quite a bit for CISV and to go home during breaks, it is still barely enough to qualify for the WP Elite program. That’s where mileage runs come in.

The simple idea behind a mileage run is to maximize the amount of EQMs and/or EQS for a minimal cost. They can also be great chances to see the country and the world around you at a huge discount. Why pay thousands of dollars in airfare when you can afford the trip for $300? The typical domestic “run” usually doesn’t include an overnight stop–many people will leave themselves enough time for lunch or dinner before heading back, if that. I found a travel itinerary online from Duluth, MN to Detroit, MI via Minneapolis and both airports in Chicago with an hour and a half in Detroit’s airport. Northwest offered direct flights to Detroit from Duluth for $638. My circuitous route? $350, 6 EQS, and a bunch of extra mileage.

Interested in doing a run of your own? Here are a few tips:

  1. Know where to look.The internet has provided aviation nerds a place to congregate and discuss all things mundane and airplane-related. Flyertalk has a set of forums dedicated entirely to mileage runs and current airfare deals. You’ll see a lot of the terms I talk about above used there. Whether you are booking a mileage run or a trip to see your grandma, ITA Software’s Trip Planner is literally the best internet tool out there for finding flights and airfares. It isn’t run by any airlines and you can’t book flights on the site, but it will come up with the cheapest and best selections for where you want to travel.
  2. Be Flexible. This goes two ways: are one of the flights you are on oversold? Give up your seat for a voucher, take a later flight, and you’ll have $$ to spend on future travel–be it a mileage run or flight home. If you are looking to do a mileage run, it is important to be flexible with times and dates. Often times flight costs depend on things like date and departure time. When on your journey, make sure to be aware of any and all changes that might occur. It wouldn’t hurt to have a list of different flights ready to go in case of problems.
  3. Priceline is your Best Friend. Stuck someplace for a night by your own or someone else’s doing? Log on to Priceline and Name Your Own Price for a hotel room. You’ll often be surprised by what you might find. It’s not uncommon to find 3 and 4 star hotels for $35-70 per night, even in foreign cities. It’s worked like a charm for me in Toronto and Frankfurt, and saved me a bundle on exchange fees.
  4. Have fun & enjoy the ride! There is something very relaxing (for me at least) about airline travel. Remember–mileage runs are more about the journey instead of the destination.

My internet connectivity might be sketchy over the next few days. I’ll try to update from the road with pictures, stories and more. Keep an eye out on my Flickr page and Twitter as I’ll probably update those more readily than this.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. rickabbo permalink
    January 18, 2008 10:33 am

    Wow, that’s quite a trip for a weekend. How do you deal with the jetlag?

  2. martinrottler permalink*
    January 19, 2008 1:08 am

    Jetlag? Easy. Don’t get used to the new timezone 😉

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