It's getting colder, the leaves have turned colour, and that one house down the street put their Christmas lights up the morning after Halloween, which can only mean one thing; the end of the year approaches!
For frequent flyers, this means it's time to check your airline status; if you're on track to end the year just short of the next qualifying level in your program of choice, then it might be time to consider flying a "mileage run"; a quick trip to rack up enough miles to put you into the next tier of your chosen program.
For some travellers, planning these trips is a fun problem-solving exercise, while others find it boring and frustrating. No matter which one of these best describes you, the following tips should help you do this as efficiently and cheaply as possible!
Table Of Contents
Why Do A Mileage Run At All? Why Would Anyone Fly To Nowhere?
There's no one-size-fits-all answer here, and this is different for everyone. Mileage runs will make great financial sense for some people, and they'll be a terrible idea for others. In order to justify a mileage run, you should be able to clearly identify why you'll be better off after spending this time and money.
Airline status generally includes additional perks at each tier, ranging from free extra-legroom economy seats up to free upgrades and lounge access. Each of these will have a different value for each person, for example, I'm a tall guy who frequently has to travel with heavy road cases, so the year I first gained access to free extra-legroom seats and three free checked bags of up to 70 pounds each, I saved nearly $1,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, more than justifying the $300 mileage run I used to get there.
If you're 5'2" and always fly carry-on, however, these benefits won't be worth nearly as much to you.
Look at the benefits of the elite tier you're aiming for, and think carefully about what the extra benefits would actually be worth to you, compared to the money and time you'll spend on a mileage run.
Okay, let's get started!
Step One: Figure Out What You Need
It all starts with figuring out what you've already earned, and working out from there what you'd need to do to hit your target. You'll find your existing totals for qualifying (miles / segments / spending) by logging into your frequent-flyer account.
I've sketched up a hypothetical Aeroplan account to show a sample user - let's call her Sarah - who's close to hitting the threshold for 35K status:
35K status requires either of (35,000 Qualifying Miles or 35 qualifying segments) plus at least $4,000 in qualifying spend. So, Sarah will need either 1,582 Qualifying Miles, or 7 Qualifying Segments, plus at least $289 in Qualifying Spend. At first glance, it seems like we're better off pursuing miles than segments here; a single round-trip flight of at least 791 miles each way (that is, one-half of the 1,582 Sarah needs) will be a lot easier to fly than 7 separate takeoffs and landings.
Step Two: Learning About Earning
Each frequent-flyer program does things a little differently, but they all publish their detailed rules for status-qualifying earnings.
Those that base status qualifying on "miles flown" will have a chart detailing different earning rates for deep-discount or Basic economy fares, versus regular economy, versus business, and so on. Sticking with our Aeroplan example, we see the following:
On almost any airline that allows you to qualify on "segments flown", you earn one segment every time you land at the end of a flight.
Mileage and segments gets a bit more complicated if you're flying with one of your "home airline's" alliance partners, but that's a deep rabbit hole we don't have time to fall down right here, so if you're planning to do a mileage run that includes partner flights, check the rules carefully before you book. Your home airline almost certainly publishes a chart showing exactly what you'll earn in any given fare class on each partner airline.
Step Three: The Money Part
It's now common for airlines to include a minimum-spending requirement for frequent-flyer qualification, usually as a "you must fly at least this much, and also spend at least this much" pairing. You'll see this tracked right alongside your flight history in your airline's website or app.
Some people get to November and find they've got plenty of qualifying spend, but not enough qualifying miles or flights; this article is mostly for them, since anyone who's simply short on spend can likely just book a really short flight, and pay the highest-possible "business flexible" fare to reach their target.
Protip: it feels crazy to try and pay MORE for the same plane ticket, but if you're trying to hit a spending target, you can call the airline and ask to "up-fare" your ticket to a higher, more flexible fare class. This is 100% within the rules, and they'll be happy to take your money, so you can tell the agent exactly why you're asking.
One last thing about Qualifying Spend: it generally applies to airfare and airline fees only, not to taxes and things like customs or security fees; for example, on this $224 Air Canada Economy Flex ticket from Toronto to Ottawa, you''ll earn $156 in Status Qualifying Dollars (SQD) on the airfare and Carrier Surcharges, but the various taxes and airport fees won't count:
Point is, before you book your mileage run, be careful that you've checked that the ticket you're buying does what you need it to. There's nothing worse than thinking you've hit your target on the nose, only to find out later that you fell 3% short. Some airlines will be nice about this if you juust missed; most won't.
Going back to our hypothetical frequent flyer, Sarah needs $289 in SQD, which means she's going to need to spend around $325-350 on her mileage-run airfare.
So, we know what we need to earn, and we're ready to go find some flights!
At this point, you could just book a long-haul premium flight that'll put you well beyond your required targets - especially useful if you were already planning a holiday trip - but we're trying to do this as quickly and efficiently as possible, so let's press on!
Step Four: Finding Destinations
Sarah needs to rack up at least (1,582 Status Qualifying Miles or 7 segments), but since most people doing a mileage run will (A) fly somewhere and then (B) fly back home, we can probably plan for a trip that's half that distance outbound and the same on the return. So, that's a minimum of 791 miles, but let's call it 800 just for a nice round number.
We'll assume Sarah lives in Toronto. Using any of several free online tools, we're going to sketch out an 800-mile radius around Toronto Pearson Airport (YYZ) and then fly anywhere outside of that. We could technically fly multiple laps to somewhere inside that circle, but once you're ready to think like that, you don't need an article like this!
So, let's keep it simple, and stick to the map:
As you can see, there are several options throughout North America. Winnipeg, New Orleans and Dallas are likely options, though if I'm trying to knock this out in a single day, I'd probably avoid the extra time and hassle of clearing customs twice, unless the flight was a great deal.
It's also probably best to avoid options like Kansas City or Halifax, that are really close to the minimum distance, since each airline keeps its own mileage charts that don't always exactly match public databases like GCMap or AirMilesCalculator. Again, we don't want to do all this flying and then find out we ended up 5 miles short of 50,000!
So, our best bets are probably Winnipeg, Charlottetown or St. John's; respectively, 937, 827 and 1,323 miles from Toronto Aiport, enough that it won't matter if the airline's internal chart knocks off a few miles.
Personally, I'd pick Charlottetown and spend a day or two there as a mini-cation, since PEI is the last Canadian province to which I've never been, but let's assume Sarah is a busy person and needs to get this out of the way ASAP, and she's going to pick the fastest, most-efficient mileage run possible.
Step Five: Finding Flights
We're almost there. We know our targets, we have our destinations, now we just need flights! So, we'll head off to the insanely powerful Google Flights to find the best fit as quickly as possible.
By using a few of Google Flights' different options to customize our search, we can quickly limit it to only show us "Air Canada flights, departing from Toronto, going to any of Winnipeg, Charlottetown or St. John's". We'll search for outbound and return flights on the same date, picking Saturdays in early December to avoid price increases for last-minute bookings now, and the holiday rush in late December.
All of that gives us the following:
So, this is *almost* perfect. It's out and back the same day, just long enough to grab a drink in Winnipeg Airport, but... hang on, there's a stop-over in Calgary on the way back, *and* it's a red-eye flight home, or pay $200 extra to get onto direct flights?
Forget that nonsense!
So, we go back to the main search page, and add in a few more potential destinations - let's say Regina, Edmonton and Calgary - and see if we can't find something a little more efficient. And we find this:
A round-trip from Toronto to Edmonton is an extra hour of flying in each direction, but it brings the cost of the flight down considerably, and means direct flights out and back, which makes for an easier trip than flying Toronto-Winnipeg-Calgary-Toronto. Going this way will more than satisfy the distance requirement, as well as the Qualifying Spend requirement, and Sarah will be home in time for dinner.
So, we select those flights - booking in Flex to get 100% Qualifying miles - and then click through to the Air Canada website to buy the ticket, where we'll check before we hit "purchase" that the base fare before taxes is enough to cover the Qualifying spend requirement, and then we're all set!
All told, for this trip Sarah will earn 3,350 Qualifying Miles, plus about $300 in Qualifying Spend, and that'll put her comfortably over the limit to qualify for 35K. She'll gain additional free checked baggage above the 25K level, as well as priority security access when flying domestic, extra eUpgrade credits and higher priority when requesting upgrades.
Whether Sarah's example trip would be worth spending $459 is a very personal choice. As I mentioned above, for me the luggage-fee savings in my first year alone were worth 3-4 times what I paid to fly the milage run that earned me my first airline status, but as my flying patterns have changed in the years since then, the same benefits wouldn't be as valuable to me now.
In general, I believe the point at which this becomes worth spending more than a token amount of money is at the 'Gold-tier' level - this is Star Alliance Gold, Oneworld Sapphire, SkyTeam Elite Plus, etc - when you start to see benefits like international lounge access, free extra-legroom seats in Economy, and benefits when flying partner airlines and not just your "home airline".
At this level you'll also start to get meaningfully-higher priority for rebooking during flight delays, which I believe is one of the most-valuable and least-valued benefits of frequent-flyer status.
Anyway, now that you've learned the techniques laid out in this article, you can play around with variables to your heart's content - you can probably find a slightly-more-efficient routing, or get it done for twenty dollars less - but at the end of the day it's just a question of picking the best fit between money saved and time spent searching.
Good hunting, and safe travels!