Are Mileage Runs Still Worth It? An Analysis of Delta Air Lines SkyMiles and Medallion Benefits

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Tuesday, February 9, 2016  by John @laptoptravel

Quick Note:  I am posting this a a guest article on behalf of René, who is a bit under the weather. Hope you get better soon, buddy!

Once upon a time, the backbone and foundation of the points and miles landscape was the ‘game’ know as Mileage Runs, or mileage running.  Personally, I have been doing that for a number of years but only recently has it made it to the ‘big leagues’ and the forefront of a lot of loyal elite members’ minds.

LAX-LIR RouteMap

One of My Typical Crazy Routings “Mileage Run”

What is a Mileage Run?

Following the September 11th attacks, airlines saw their passenger counts fall dramatically; it was a scary time for both travelers and airlines. It was not just limited to air travel, but included trains and cruise ships as well.  The airlines quickly took evasive action; parking airplanes in the desert near Tucson (more specifically, the Davis-Monthan Air Force Boneyard – in fact we are doing a trip there in March…come join us)

lots-of-old-jets

Davis-Monthan Air Force “Aircraft Boneyard”

and filing for bankruptcy protection. Then airlines turned to their loyal members of their frequent flyer programs and offered incentives to fly more than ever better benefits and plentiful upgrades. The recession of 2008/2009 then provided even more incentives by the airlines to encourage us to take to flight.  “Mileage Runners” began to get creative with routings with multiple stops at out of the way hubs to get the maximum miles out of (what otherwise would be) a simple A to B flight; perhaps with a single connection.  As airlines often priced multiple segments to a location the same (or in some cases lower) than the direct route the mileage runners were further incentivized to take circuitous routes. They would then reap the maximum benefits for themselves with additional miles and thus increase the number of miles earned for their frequent flyer accounts.

What’s the Logic Here?

The logic behind mileage runs is that airline points (or miles) have a relatively fixed value yet the cost to accumulate them can vary widely based on itineraries that are priced dramatically differently.

So there used to be two reasons for someone to take a Mileage Run:

  • To Earn Redeemable Miles (Miles that can be redeemed for Award Travel), and
  • To Earn (or renew) Status on an Airline of choice (as each airline requires a number of miles flown each year to achieve or keep status)

Well, the truth is mileage runs are, for the most part, a relic of a bygone era.  The primary reason for this is that, in general, mileage runs just don’t figure out to be economically feasible anymore for the typical flyer.  This is largely due to the introduction of revenue-based earnings; that is, the number of miles earned are tied to the base fare ticket price and based upon a person’s status with the airline and if they used an airline co-branded credit card (earnings can range from 5 miles per dollar spent to 14)  to make the purchase, the miles are no longer tied to the distances flown. Therefore a cheap ticket that flies a passenger twice as many miles would not earn the flyer any more or less than the same priced ticket for a much shorter distance. Delta and United have this revenue-based model in place and American Airlines will go to this in the latter half of 2016.  American Airlines had been the last bastion of hope for many mileage runners until that recent announcement. Now, you may say “what about error and mistake fares? Don’t they make sense economically?” Well, that is a topic for another day and not what this post is about today.

We can see that redeemable miles are no longer an incentive to mileage run. Certainly there are much easier ways to acquire these type of miles.  Credit card sign-up bonuses are easily attainable and require no flying. Earn 50,000 redeemable miles while still at home?

So, the next question is the big one in this new era of airline frequent flyer programs.  Does it make sense to mileage run for status? Yes and No.

Do Status Runs Still Make Sense?

Status comes with perks. I will address my comments here solely to Delta Air Lines SkyMiles, as this will be appreciated the most by RenéPoints readers.

I believe that mileage running today is to qualify for elite status, not so much for earning redeemable miles and that is where I put my personal and professional energies and resources to work.

Delta Medallion Status Requirements

Let us also set the bar for each of the Delta Medallion status requirements:

Delta Medallion Qualification Chart_01

Delta Air Lines has some pretty specific benefits for each Medallion level. I will not go into all of them, but touch on the highlights. You can research them all here on Delta’s website.

Here are some of the charts that explain the benefits by Medallion Level:

Delta Medallion Benefit Chart_01

Delta Medallion Benefit Chart_02

Delta Medallion Benefit Chart_03

So, the fact remains that if you want a status you must fly to get it or earn MQM’s in some way (you could stack AmEx co-branded credit cards and spend tons of money and get MQM bonuses, but that is not for most folks)

Upgrades…Upgrades

At the top of most elite members’ list in benefit priorities are upgrades. Well, Delta promises complimentary upgrades for Diamonds and Platinums (at 5 day prior to departure window), Gold Medallions at 72 hours and Silver 24 hours or less.  But in reality we know that upgrades are becoming more scarce.  It is Delta’s business plan to market and sell more, even at discounts, rather than give them away to a loyal elite. To me, this is mind-boggling since if they upgraded a Medallion they would accomplish three things:

  • They would take much of the burden off the shoulders of gate agents trying to deal with ‘at that moment’ issues to get a flight out orderly and on time
  • Delta would be showing its appreciation of a valued elite (just like they tell us when they say “thank you for being a [fill in status]”
  • The airline would open up a coach seat for which it could charge a lot more money as a ‘last-minute’ availability.

Case in pointI recently flew a long segment with Delta and there were cancellations due to a storm earlier that affected many other passengers; many from another carrier.  The gate agent told me he was selling these seats for $1,300 a piece! He was very proud that he could do that.  Ultimately, although he initially offered to upgrade me, he stuck me back in coach and lost a premium sale (not to say how he made me feel.) Why not upgrade me, make me happy and sell the seat to a waiting passenger who really wanted it? My mother always told me “actions speak louder than words” and we all know the saying “don’t cut off your nose to spite your face.” It seems Delta has forgotten both of those old adages.

As First Class Monetization increases, these upgrades will dry up. Delta has a corporate goal of leaving less than 20% of the First Class seats out there for upgrade inventory in the not too distant future.

To maximize your opportunities to still get upgraded, must you join #TeamBoardLast? If this becomes a trend, it could get ugly…just think “No, you get on, no you, no I insist after you…”

Complimentary Upgrades are also available for your companion, but as upgrade inventory diminishes you can bet your companions will be hard-pressed to experience an upgrade.

With the coming changes to travel after May 15th, 2016 a huge benefit will be lost to ALL Medallions; regardless of what status you hold!  You see, Delta Air Lines is selling Comfort+ as its own ‘fare class’ (‘W’ fare) and that changes everything for Medallions at the time of booking and for travel with companions.  It could also affect future first class upgrades as explained in this Sunday guest post.

Now for your 2017 Medallion Choice Benefits, Delta has ‘split the baby’ so to speak by allowing a Diamond to choose 2 Global Upgrade Certificates and 4 Regional Upgrade Certificates in the same choice. That may affect a person’s decision on whether going for Diamond makes sense if they do a lot of domestic (especially the transcontinental JFK to either San Francisco or Los Angeles) and could use the RUC’s to get more flat-bed seats.

Still, Global Upgrades remain a highly sought after and valued prize (a benefit potentially worth thousands of dollars) for achieving top elite status with Delta. Similar products are available to the top tier elites of American and United. Regional Upgrade Certificates are very valuable as well and become available to both Platinum and Diamond Medallions with Delta.

If you anticipate making a lot of changes to your itineraries or seem to also be making and then cancelling award tickets the waived fees for such activity may be worth a lot to you.  Baggage fees are not so much a perk as any AmEx co-branded card will get you and your travel companions the same benefit. The same can be said for a SkyClub membership; currently only available as an individual membership but the same can be had by carrying the AmEx Reserve card.

International Travel

International travel plans may affect your answer to whether Mileage Runs are still worth it.  Check out Noah’s post about how great SkyTeam Elite members are treated in international airports. SkyTeam Elite status comes with Silver Medallion and SkyTeam Elite Plus comes with the other (higher) Medallion statuses.

Partner Perks

Another piece of the puzzle might be if you are a true Road Warrior, probably for business, could you benefit from the Hertz Rental Car bonuses. Crossover Rewards with Starwood Hotels is also a nice perk if you have at least a Gold Level status with SPG.  That way you are getting Delta SkyMiles and SPG points whenever you use one or the other.

So, things have definitely gotten tougher for elites…but it is (no longer) specific to Delta. It’s a consistent move by the Big 3 domestic US airlines.  Do you think it will get better at Delta now that their CEO, Richard Anderson has announced his retirement in May?  René has a different take on that…

Is There Help?

If you are convinced that you (still) want to do a Mileage Run let me say you should not try it without professional help. I write a blog specializing in Mileage Runs. RenésPoints maintains Elite Mileage Runs plus you should definitely read this post!

laptoptravel Mileage Run

Some people just fly for fun and recreation!

What’s The Answer?

So, the answer to the question “Are Mileage Runs Still Worth It?” is still very specific and unique to each person’s personal preferences and travel habits.

Does anyone here still do Mileage Runs? If so, why do you continue; what is your motivation?  And lastly we would love to hear what you think were your most beneficial runs in your past?

I would love to hear your thoughts!  Enjoy your travels!  – John @laptoptravel

 

 

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