Keeping up the miles
The Arizona Republic
Oct. 5, 2006 07:14 PM John Hanks is going to London twice this month, but he won't set foot near Big Ben, Buckingham Palace or the British Museum.
The retired Phoenix salesman won't get any farther than an airport Hilton, where he'll rest until it's time to fly home the next day.
Hanks, 64, is making the whirlwind trips solely to rack up frequent-flier miles on US Airways.
It's called a mileage run, and mileage junkies everywhere schedule them this time of year to keep, or upgrade, their frequent-flier status with an airline for next year. Some never step outside the airport, or even the gate area. The savviest among them trade mileage run strategies and fare deals on Web sites like FlyerTalk.com.
Status isn't on the radar of travelers who board a plane once or twice a year for vacation, but it's top of mind for frequent business travelers and globe-trotting retirees.
Airlines dole out free first-class upgrades, set up separate check-in and security lines, unload bags earlier and give bonus miles to their most frequent fliers.
The more miles flown, the higher the status and better the benefits. The 23,000 miles Hanks earns on the London trips, the first starts Saturday, will push his mileage over the 100,000 mark he needs to stay in the top tier of US Airways' program next year. That means another year of double frequent-flier miles and the earliest shot at free first-class upgrades.
"You get used to the perks," Hanks said. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
Travis Christ, vice president of sales and marketing for US Airways, said the Tempe-based airline notices a spike in travel among its most frequent fliers each fall. Hotels see it, too, as their frequent guests do mattress runs to keep their status.
"It's worth doing these mileage runs because it makes their life so much better for another year," Christ said.
Hanks is fortunate that he is retired and doesn't have to squeeze in his London red-eye flights between business trips. The vast majority of airlines' top frequent fliers are business travelers already on the road a lot, and the race to bulk up their mileage balance makes things even more hectic at work and at home.
"When you're hanging out there at 25,000 (miles short) you get nervous," said Scottsdale frequent flier Dave Bost, strategic development director for an environmental consulting firm.
He should know. As the summer ended, Bost was about 23,000 miles short of the 75,000 miles he needs to be in the second-highest tier of US Airways' program.
He is in the top tier this year but only because of a promotion tied to last year's America West-US Airways merger.
Bost looked at his business travel plans for the rest of the year, mostly back-and-forth trips to California, and calculated that he would still be about 13,000 short.
He thought a mileage run would be a perfect chance to visit his son or daughter at college, maybe even catch a Notre Dame football game, but neither child was too keen on the idea.
"My kids said, 'Dad you were just here,' " he said.
So last weekend, he took a red-eye flight to Jacksonville, Fla., to see his father. He even worked in a little business.
Bost's father told him not to go out of his way for a visit, and he said in the nicest way possible, "This isn't for you, Dad."
Bost literally went out of his way on his last mileage run to Florida to rack up more miles, hopping from Phoenix to Las Vegas to Philadelphia to Jacksonville. He didn't have to do that last weekend, making only a single connection in Charlotte, N.C., because he is also planning a planning a December mileage run to Hawaii with his wife.
Bost said the extra travel is more than worth it. He cashed in miles this summer to take his wife and two of their three children to Hawaii. And his wife automatically got status this year because he was in the top tier of the program.
"I need my miles," he said.
Airlines don't mind them, of course, because they are trips that otherwise wouldn't have been booked, and they breed loyalty the following year if they help customers retain their status.
The mileage runs are no windfall, though, as passengers generally don't buy the pricey last-minute tickets that keep airlines in business. Savvy travelers hunt for the cheapest tickets possible since these are often trips to nowhere, and there is a point at which buying extra miles isn't worth the benefits they bring.
The diehards do a cost-benefit analysis straight out of an MBA program. At FlyerTalk, members delight in posting ultra-low airfares they found, often through computer reservation system errors or other sleuthing.
Hanks did the math on his off-season London trips and figures the $1,500 it cost him, including two one-night hotel stays, is worth several times that amount because the extra 100,000 bonus miles he earns at his level are more than enough for a first-class ticket to Europe. Those tickets can run as high as $10,000 round trip from Phoenix depending on the season and ticket restrictions.
Bost bought his Florida and Hawaii tickets for just over $300 each.
There is usually no way around booking extra flights to rack up miles, because most airlines don't count miles earned on credit cards, hotel stays, car rentals and other partners toward preferred status.
US Airways temporarily lifted that restriction this week, launching an "Everything Counts" promotion that runs through the end of the year.
One frequent flier, short 10,000 miles, was ecstatic. To close the gap, he plans to order flowers from FTD, which gives 20 miles per dollar spent.
"While I normally wouldn't spend $500 in a year on flowers, it beats doing mileage runs," he said in a posting on FlyerTalk.
And, he added, "the extra brownie points I will get from my wife and family for flowers can't be beat."