There comes a time in one’s life when you need to make a change. For me and my family, that happened last summer after 20 plus years in the Windy City. We lived right in the city of Chicago in the coolest family neighborhood called Old Irving Park where we had made some great lifelong friends. All the while, I was an American Airlines Platinum with 2 million miles under my belt, cranking our miles with my job as a CFO for some public companies and private equity-backed portfolio companies in several industries. While we totally love Chicago and all it has to offer, we sensed it was time for a new adventure, especially after we had spent 5 weeks in Fort Collins CO the summer before. We knew how awesome living in Colorado would be. I have transitioned job-wise into an contract CFO and an internet entrepreneur over the last several years so I was able to make the move pretty easily.
Once we settled in Denver, I set about learning all I could about United Airlines, since Denver is one of their seven main hubs here in the US. While I love AA, I just did not want to have to always fly to Dallas or Chicago to catch another flight. Plus, as I read more and more, I learned that United has the most flexibility and breadth to its frequent flyer program and so the race was on. Once we got by the new year, I began to plot my journey to 1K status in the Mileage Plus program at United Airlines. To get 1K, you must fly 100,000 in-air miles on United or any of their partners. My first step was getting united to match my Platinum status with American Airline with the similar level at United, which is Premier Gold. It is usual for airlines to match each others statuses as long as the match is from a competing alliance (beware that airlines tend not to match from their alliance partners — i.e. United won’t match status from Lufthansa as they are both in Star Alliance). United has long had a status match program and they have just updated the terms and conditions of this program.
That process was very smooth. I just mailed my request with a screengrab of my AA account balances to firstname.lastname@example.org. Once approved as a newly minted Premier Gold, I need to fly 18,000 miles within 90-days to retain their matched status for the rest of the year. Elite status is extremely valuable and generally when you request a match or challenge after July 1 of each year, that status is then good until February of the year after next. That means if you were to get matched/challenged on July 1, 2013, it would be good until February 2015. Airline status comes with valuable perks including priority check-in and boarding, a speedier security line, bonus miles and, in the case of airlines with first-class service, upgrades to that cushy, curtained-off cabin. In short, it makes for a less-stressful trip. Achieving the top-tier 1K status with United gives me lots of great perks, including these not available at the Gold or Platinum level:
- Twenty-five percent more bonus miles for each flight taken during 2013.
- Higher priority for complimentary upgrades, wait lists and standby clearance.
- Instant upgrades to first class on mid-priced coach tickets, when flying domestically.
- Access to a dedicated call center line staffed by U.S.-based agents.
- A $60 statement credit on my United MileagePlus Chase Visa credit card.
- Six Global Premier Upgrades for use on international flights.
In this journey, I will document every trip, every mile gained, and every location I visit on my way to getting the illustrious 1K status. Join me as I take to the skies!
MILEAGE RUN STRATEGY
But first, before I go, I must discuss the two separate and distinct strategies people employ to get miles. Either you decide you want to sleep in your own bed so long days and lots of domestic miles are on tap for you or you decide to do your mileage runs on the weekends, thereby giving you access to longer international mileage runs while not infringing too much on your day job. Right now, there are $218 transcon flights from SFO-EWR, giving you nearly 10K in miles and back home that night in your bed. For me, the low cost of the long international flights along with the opportunity to see some faraway countries for 24-36 hours have made it easier for me to choose weekend mileage runs.
HOME WORK TO DO
My first step was to learn as much about mileage runs as I could at Flyertalk.com, the online frequent flyer community and mileage-runner Mecca, then use the first quarter of 2-013 to take advantage of the low fares in the winter months to knock out some mileage runs. What is a Mileage Run? In its simplest terms, it is a trip for the purpose of accumulating frequent flyer miles and elite status. Some people even combine Mileage Runs with vacations, business trips, and ordinary travel to increase their mileage balances or reach the next elite level. According to Flyertalk.com, “A true mileage run is a trip that’s sole purpose is to earn miles or points in a particular travel industry loyalty program.” That definition barely scratches the surface of a practice that is also a celebration of the mechanics of traveling, a sort of video game turned reality, and the opportunity to live the high life without paying the price. In order to be a mileage runner, you must embrace the attributes of modern travel that most people despise. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be a problem for most mileage runners, but rather an incentive. Randy Petersen, the founder of FlyerTalk.com and the editor of InsideFlyer magazine, estimates that about 50,000 passengers take off on what he calls “mileage runs” from mid-November to the end of the year. Most of them, according to Mr. Petersen, have the same agenda: “Don’t spend much time or money.” After all, it’s not a free perk if you have to work hard or pay much to get it.
TOOLS TO USE
Kayak has a great interactive map called KAYAK EXPLORE (see link below). You put in your starting city and your budget. It then populates all of the cities that you can travel to with the prices. It isn’t always perfect, because it just aggregates recent searches, so sometimes those deals are gone by the time you search for it. But for the most part, I have found the information pretty accurate. Try it, and I promise you will be off in travel dreamland. Right now, since I am searching DEN as a starting point, I am able to see that there are $640 RTs to Moscow (SVO), $660 to Oslo (OSL), $670 to Stockholm (ARN), $670 to Copenhagen (CPH) and $710 to Dublin (DUB), among others. There are also great filters to help you find your cheap dream place. Want to go somewhere warm? Eliminate all locations with an average daily temp below 75 degrees. Want to ski? Click on the ski box.
However, like most of the mileage runners, Matrix.itasoftware.com is my secret weapon when it comes to airfare searches. This site is great when my travel plans are pretty firm and I need to find the best flight combinations. With over 30 million scheduled commercial flights per year (about one every second), finding the right flight at the right price can be a daunting task. The big online travel agencies try to present options in a simple format, but sometimes you need to dig a little deeper to get the best deal. The power of ITA’s Matrix tool lies in its ability to specify multiple origin and destination airports in one query. For example, I often try to do long MRs out of DEN when I can. Matrix lets me search for all flights leaving from DEN going to Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, San Diego or the other coast, airport in a single search. This would require nine separate searches on any other site, but only a single inquiry with ITA’s Matrix. Add in the ability to be flexible around dates, compare non-stop vs. connecting flights, and multi-city itineraries, and you can easily see how this is by far the most power tool out there for airfare searches. It’s no wonder that Google acquired ITA last year to power their new Google Flights feature.
MY FIRST MILEAGE RUN – Denver to Dublin, Ireland
Soon I will start my first mileage run from Denver to Dublin, Ireland. Like many, to get psyched up as a mileage runner will require many cups of java at the home coffeepot and fill ups along the way, steeling myself for a grueling day in the air. For me, the first mileage run on United will be Denver to Los Angeles, enjoying one hour of bliss then off to a transcontinental flight to Washington DC, where it is dinner at the airport before the overnight flight to Dublin, arriving there Saturday morning. I’ll be able to take in about 24 hours of sights and sounds of Dublin, before turning around Sunday morning and heading back from Dublin to Newark, NJ, then another trancontinental flight to Los Angeles and then back to Denver and my own bed Sunday night. What does this craziness get me? I will earn 13,063 miles on this mileage run to Dublin, on my way to 1K status on United Airlines.