Is the Mileage Run Dead?
It’s the end of the year. That used to mean something for business travelers anxious to preserve elite status on an airline. For many of us, it meant planning a mileage run.
Back when airlines awarded you various elite-status levels for the next year depending entirely on the number of miles you flew in the previous year, mileage junkies used to devise clever ways to rack up the most possible miles for the lowest possible fare. Late in 2005, for example, I paid $40 to one of these freelance experts to plan for me a year-end mileage run so I could top off my mileage total for the year and qualify to renew top-tier Platinum Elite status on the old Continental Airlines. Here was the itinerary:
Newark-Guam-Tokyo-Guam-Houston-Newark (3 days) – 21,000 miles for a fare of $704.
That I was willing to put myself through this ridiculous ordeal said something about the benefits business travelers used to value for maintaining top-elite status, which back then almost always guaranteed that you would be upgraded to first class on any cheap coach ticket.
The only business meeting I had for making that mileage run was to get a column out of it. But one cranky reader didn’t quite understand. “Does your employer know you’re wasting time and money on this?” he demanded via email.
Ah, those were the days. Back before airlines figured out how to squeeze fliers with extra fees for many things that used to be part of the fare, for example like a guaranteed seat or a checked bag. (Global airline “ancillary revenue” for such things will reach $92.9 billion this year, according to the annual report by CarTrawler Worldwide and IdeaWorksCompany. That’s more than triple the amount in 2010, for the first year this was tallied.)
Airlines decided a few years ago that pikers like me (my company paid my expenses without a word of objection, but I was always a travel cheapskate) needed to be drummed out of the elite-status club. Instead, airlines are now awarding elite status based on formulas that might be comprehensible to the hardest-core business travelers or the most punctilious company travel managers, but are not to me. Basically, though, the deal is this: They credit you not for the number of miles you actually fly, but for the amount of money you give them.
Meanwhile, with all airplanes flying with all seats full almost all of the time, elite status has generally gone from being something that ensures you upgrades to something that reliably ensures you the right to walk on special high-priority carpet as you board a plane while the other ranks of less-elite passengers watch. That’s me back there in Boarding Group 5.
I am no longer loyal to any airline, naturally. I am, on the other hand, very committed to certain hotel brands, which still run loyalty programs that generate real benefits, like upgrades and free breakfasts. Over the holidays my wife and I are driving cross-country with the dog, staying at various hotels in the Hilton chain – all on mileage points.
Joe Brancatelli, who publishes Joesentme.com, a very useful (subscription) website for business travelers, agreed that the airline mileage run as we once knew it is pretty much history.
“The business of business travel has fundamentally changed,” he told me last week. “Add to that the drive to monetize first by offering cheap upgrades at almost every process, up to and including check-in, and you really have lost the best advantage of being loyal,” which is mainly the allure of the free upgrade. In other words, they’ve figured out a price point that will sell the seat.
“This, of course, really obviates the need to do mileage runs except in very rare circumstances,” he said. With a dearth of real competition, airlines are happily selling “the perks you want: upgrades, advance boarding, club access, free checked bags. And if elite status is irrelevant, why do a mileage run?”
Oh well, Guam is a lousy place to spend a late December night anyway.
Memo Pad – About 45.7 million people will be flying between Dec. 20 and Jan. 6, up 5.2 percent over that same period last year. The busiest travel days, according to the industry trade group Airlines for America. are Friday Dec. 21 and Wednesday Dec. 26…
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