The Argument for Elite Status and Mileage Running

Although I wasn’t able to attend the Chicago Seminars for frequent travel geeks this year, there was one item discussed that I found interesting: whether mileage running and elite status is really worth it anymore. Ben from One Mile at a Time did a post of his view here, and I totally agree that elite status is worth it and I think it’s even more valuable than he states.

If you’re new to the game, having elite status with an airline bestows some pretty awesome benefits depending on your elite level: Special check-in counters, priority security, priority boarding, free/extra baggage allowance, bonus miles, and some fees are waived (if applicable). And these are just the BASIC benefits.

If you’re upgraded to first class and/or have higher elite benefits, you also get: Access to lounges (including alliance ones if applicable), a special assistance phone line, unlimited space-available upgrades to first/business class on domestic flights, free food on 3+ hour domestic flights (for first class upgrades), upgrade certificates for international flights, and the list seemingly goes on and on. Of course, all these benefits vary by airline.

I’m a pretty good example of elite status being totally worth it, actually. This year I’m a US Airways Gold elite member, and that membership has given me a first class upgrade rate of about 70%. On longer domestic flights, such as LAX-CLT or PHX-DTW, I’ve been upgraded every time. Needless to say this benefit has been very valuable to me, especially considering there are still two elite levels above me (Platinum and Chairman’s).

I’ll use an extreme example to prove how and why earning US Airways elite status by just mileage running is absolutely worth it, particularly for someone like me since I fly US Airways regularly anyway.

Right now, US Airways is having a Double Elite Qualifying Miles (Double EQMs) promotion for those that own the US Airways MasterCard, which I do. Every mile flown earns double Preferred Qualifying Miles (the miles counted towards elite status) AND double redeemable miles (the miles used for award tickets).

Also right now, The Flight Deal shows that there is a pretty cheap fare that goes from LAX-BWI for just $240 on US Airways. Keeping in mind that US Airways awards a minimum of 500 miles per segment, this trip should earn me a little over 11K EQMs and redeemable miles. Now say I do this trip 9 times more to hit top tier Chairman’s Preferred status.

Where does that get me?

The below chart details what someone that starts with no status and no miles can earn if they did 10 of the LAX-BWI mileage runs that I mentioned above.

A mileage run on US Airways, and what you’ll pay and earn.

If you spend $2,400 and take the time to do this mileage run (an entire day’s worth of time for each), you’ll earn top-tier Chairman’s Preferred status and 130,625 miles you can redeem for an award.

If you go by MileValue’s assessment of the value of US Airways miles, those 130,625 are already worth $2,547. You’re already ahead $147.

Let’s take a more visual example. Say I want to go to Hong Kong using my new award miles, and I want to fly business class both ways. Using United.com’s award search engine, I see Star Alliance availability for the following flight to Hong Kong on Asiana:

An award flight to Hong Kong on Asiana Airlines.

If I booked through United, an award ticket like this would cost me:

The cost of an award ticket to Hong Kong using United.com.

But how much would this flight cost me if I bought it using my credit card? If I find these exact flights on Kayak.com, the total comes to:

How much cash it would take to book the exact same flights on Kayak.

If I wanted to outright buy this trip, this would cost me $4,131.

Since I’m sure you read my Beginner’s Guide Part 3, you’ll know that, according to this chart, Business class to Hong Kong using US Airways miles (which is a member of Star Alliance and has the same flights available that show on United.com) is actually only 90K points round trip…a fantastic deal.

Let’s bring it all together now. A trip that Kayak says costs $4,131 will cost me 90K US Airways miles and about $60 in taxes. Again, the cost to get those miles was $2,400, meaning I’m up $1,731 PLUS I still have more than 40K miles leftover!

Keep in mind all the perks you now get for being a US Airways top-tier elite as well. You get 4 upgrade vouchers (2 for you, 2 for a friend) that can be used to upgrade you on international flights on US Airways, which saves you thousands over booking Envoy (business) class outright. You get unlimited upgrades on domestic flights on US Airways, and you’re first in line for those upgrades. Every flight you pay for earns the standard mileage plus 100% bonus award miles. You’re also Star Alliance Gold (top-tier). And in general everyone will just be nicer to you.

Of course there are some drawbacks and/or other considerations. Not everyone has 10 days to just spend on mileage runs, even if they are on the weekend. Not everyone can just spend $2,400 for the future benefits I named. Many will argue that instead of going through all that, just keep signing up for credit cards and take those trips for free. And particularly with US Airways, there are tons of promotions that simply allow you to buy miles outright for between 1.1-1.8 cents each.

Those are all absolutely valid points. This type of a deal is most definitely not for everyone, and really is only for a select group of people that do fly a lot on a particular airline and enjoy traveling. Hopefully seeing the math above will give you a better understanding of whether it’s worth it for you.

Note that if you’re lazy/wealthy/busy you can also buy Chairman’s Status outright for $4,000, or buy the amount of PQMs needed to attain status (this is unique to US Airways as far as I know). You don’t get the redeemable miles by buying status, however.

What do you think? Is it worth all the time and effort? Do you know any other tricks to help you attain status faster or cheaper?

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3 responses to “The Argument for Elite Status and Mileage Running

  1. I thought it was Double EQM for using the US MC and Double RDM for using any other MC. Is it now both for using the US MC?

  2. Pingback: A Great Website for Casual Travelers and Experts Alike | Travel Summary

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