In defense of mileage running for top-tier elites

I have the rather unfashionable view that mileage runs on Delta, American, and United are more likely to be worthwhile for top-tier elites now that those programs are revenue-based than they were under the previous, distance-based regime.

Mileage running is definitely not for everyone: it takes time, and unless you actually like flying, it's not particularly fun. You may end up paying for transportation, parking, and meals, so it's far from free besides whatever you pay for your actual airfare. But there are still reasons you might consider it.

So here's why I don't think mileage running is dead.

Revenue-based programs give a fixed rebate on airfare dollars

Top-tier elites in all three of the legacy carrier frequent flyer programs earn 11 redeemable miles per dollar spent on airfare on their own flights.

That fixed rebate in miles produces a rebate in value that's likewise fixed, although not by the carrier, but rather by your own planned pattern of future redemptions. If you redeem miles for domestic economy flights, you might get 1.5 cents per mile in value. For international business class flights, you might get 2.5 cents per mile. And on partner first class flights, you might get 4 or more cents per mile in value.

In an extreme case, you could imagine a top-tier elite consistently getting 9.09 cents or more per mile in value, in which case their entire airfare expenditure would be rebated back to them in the form of a future high-cost flight: buy one get one free.

Most travelers, however, don't consistently get 9.09 cents per mile in value, and so even top-tier elites don't earn enough miles to completely rebate their out-of-pocket expenses, if they're paying cash.

Using fixed-value points to fund mileage runs

The above is a strong argument against paying for mileage runs with cash: the difference between the amount paid and the rebate earned in miles is too large to justify wasting a day or more in flight, unless you're very close to top-tier elite status and have no opportunity to qualify otherwise (and plan to fly enough the following year to take advantage of your top-tier benefits).

But what if you're able to fund mileage runs with cheaply-acquired fixed-value points? How would that change the calculus?

Rather than look at the out-of-pocket cost of manufactured spend, as I did last Thursday, let's look at four fixed-value currencies and compare a straightforward cash redemption value of 1 cent each to the redemption value when spent on a mileage run.

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth 1.25 cents in paid airfare, earning 13.75 redeemable miles for a top tier elite. To break even compared to a one-cent cash redemption, you'd need to get 7.27 cents in value per redeemable mile.
  • Citi ThankYou points in a Citi Prestige account are worth 1.33 cents when redeemed on Delta or United, or 1.6 cents when redeemed on American. Compared to a one-cent cash redemption (for example, for a student loan or mortgage rebate check), you'd need to get 6.8 cents per SkyMile or MileagePlus mile, or 5.7 cents per AAdvantage mile to break even.
  • American Express Membership Rewards points in a Business Platinum accounts are worth 1.43 cents each when redeemed for flights on your selected airline, requiring a value of 6.4 cents per redeemable mile to break even compared to a cash redemption.
  • US Bank Flexpoints are worth 2 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare, requiring 4.55 cents per redeemable mile in value compared to redeeming the same Flexpoints for cash at one cent each.

Obviously your out-of-pocket cost for those fixed-value points currencies will be lower than one cent each. However, once you've earned them, the question is how you'll redeem them, and at that point they're worth roughly one cent each in cash (slightly less in the case of Membership Rewards points, which have to be liquidated with American Express gift cards).

Why swap fixed-value points and time for redeemable miles and elite status?

My beloved readers sometimes accuse me of making arguments just to be difficult. My defense is that I don't give advice — my only advice is that people should do whatever they want to do!

But top-tier elites who have access to cheap fixed-value points and who redeem their Delta, United, and American miles for long-haul premium cabin awards may do well to consider mileage running to requalify for top-tier status for a few reasons:

  • Upgrade priority. Smaller domestic first class cabins and more pressure to sell first class seats for cash means top-tier elite status is the only reliable way to secure free first class upgrades on routes with a lot of elite volume. If you fly on paid economy fares regularly, that may matter to you.
  • Award flexibility. I haven't had high-tier elite status for a few years now, but when I was a Delta Platinum Medallion I used free award changes and redeposits constantly to make slight alterations to my itineraries or to recoup miles when cheaper awards became available. On my last trip to Europe business class award availability opened up at the last minute, which would have made our trip much more comfortable, but I couldn't bring myself to pay United's extortionate award change fees — top-tier elite status would have made the free change a no-brainer.
  • Top-tier elite status benefits. United Global Premier Upgrades, American systemwide upgrades, and Delta's Platinum and Diamond Choice Benefits have concrete value if you're able to take advantage of them. Not everyone will, so like everything in the world of travel hacking, they're not worth pursuing if you don't have a plan or intention to use them. But for many people, being able to upgrade paid economy tickets may provide even greater value and flexibility than booking award tickets in premium cabins.

If redeemable miles are based on revenue, only distance matters

One important thing to note is that unlike the previous era of mileage running, the number of cents paid per mile flown is totally irrelevant to this calculation: if you've accurately calculated that you'll receive the total price of your airfare back in redeemable miles, your only goal should be to maximize the distance flown on any given mileage run, in order to secure top-tier elite status while spending as little out-of-pocket time as possible.

Long, multi-leg, inconvenient flight routings are ideal regardless of whether they're more or less expensive than direct flights.


Most people rightly think that mileage running, if it ever made sense, only did so in the distant past. However, for top-tier elites with access to cheap fixed-value points, mileage running in revenue-based legacy mileage programs may still make sense, if they plan to redeem their miles for long-haul premium cabin awards, if they have a realistic expectation that they will take full advantage of top-tier elite benefits, and if they have the time to do so.

That may be a smaller subset of the travel hacking population than it was when the legacy carriers offered miles based on distance, but it's not nobody.