Published in June 2015 issue

Joe Jarego lives a middle-class life with his family in a small Canadian town. He is a bank manager and his job does not involve a lot of traveling. He tells me he’s an average Joe. But flying from Seattle to Istanbul, with stops in Chicago and Frankfurt, two weekends in a row for no other reason than to pad his frequent flyer account seems anything but average.

By Ken Donohue

It turns out that there are others who, just like Jarego, pore over fare rules, routing options, and string together mileage runs, as they are known. The goal is to find a deeply-discounted fare, with a routing that maximizes the number of frequent-flyer miles accrued, and thus earn Elite status with an airline. You just need to find the right combination a couple of times a year and you will have achieved that goal. “I used to be naïve about the benefits of status with the airline,” says Jarego. “But, once I had tasted the perks and business class upgrades that came with the status, it was like a drug.”

After reading about what other people were doing, Jarego did his first mileage run, some years ago, from Syracuse (SYR) to Orlando (MCO) and back on a $99 fare. His loyalty is to Aeroplan, Air Canada’s (AC) frequent-flyer program. Last year, he did two runs on consecutive weekends from Seattle (SEA) to Istanbul (IST), with a fare for each trip of around $650. Those combined trips to Turkey netted him 32,000 miles. More importantly, those miles helped him retain his Elite status; he recently did a mileage run from his home in Red Deer (YQF), Alberta to Jakarta (CGK), with stops in Calgary (YYC), Vancouver (YVR), Seattle (SEA) and Tokyo (NRT).

“It’s all about the numbers. I’m a banker, so it has to make sense,” says Jarego. “I get a lot out of this hobby and, as long as I have the time, I will maximize a trip.” Some of his coworkers and friends think he’s nuts, while others are envious. Jarego adds that most people can’t or won’t do it, and he understands the looks he gets from people who don’t understand it. “I love to fly and travel,” he says. “With my mileage runs, I’ve achieved Super Elite with Air Canada; so, sure, there’s a bit of ego there.”

Jarego concedes that having Elite status with the airline brings him peace of mind when he hits a snag in his travel plans. While most passengers endure any delays in crowded departure lounges, Jarego waits comfortably in the airline’s business lounge.

“I will try to squeeze in whatever extra routes I can,” he says. “It’s not hard, once you know the rules.” The mileagerunner eschews non-stop flights in favor of more out-of-the-way routings. Coming from Canada, Jarego often finds routing through the US to be cheaper. For example, Air Canada offers 15 nonstop flights a day between Calgary and Vancouver but, oddly, he can often find equally cheap fares by flying first to Los Angeles (LAX), and then to Vancouver. When living in Ottawa (YOW), he would take advantage of cheaper fares out of Plattsburgh (PBG). Similarly, Canadians living on the West Coast look to Seattle for deals. Jarego accrues more than 150,000 miles a year by flying, and an additional 100,000 by maximizing credit card purchases and other promotions. And, like a true mileage-runner, he doesn’t spend much time or money at his destination.

“I make a game out of it, there is some excitement and a challenge to doing this,” Jarego says. “My wife understands why I do it, and she benefits from my mileage runs.” He does concede that some people don’t understand and think that he is running drugs or doing some other nefarious work.

At 22, Tahsir Ahsan became a veteran at mileage runs after reading about it on the FlyerTalk website and becoming intrigued. His first run was a return trip from Los Angeles to Pittsburgh (PIT)—for which he paid $130. “It was a crazy opportunity, so I jumped at it with four of my friends,” Ahsan remembers. Still in university, he is no stranger to the travel business. He blogs on a variety of topics, including mileage runs, and he co-founded Award Magic, the award-booking service that books travel for clients using their airline points.

When he first joined the mileage-run fraternity, he did about four trips a month; many of which were on United Airlines (UA), when they were offering $200 return fares from San Diego (SAN) to Boston (BOS). Each of those trips netted him 5,500 Elite status miles.

Having been a committed mileage-runner, Ahsan is not optimistic about the future of mileage runs. “The game has changed,” he laments. “United and Delta (DL) have completely changed the way passengers accrue miles, with points now awarded based on spend rather than miles flown. The airlines are changing the game and killing mileage runs, it’s harder than it used to be.” Devaluing frequent-flyer miles has been a trend for some time. Depending on the fare category, some airlines are now offering only 50% or less of the actual mileage flown.

In one year, Ahsan flew 92 segments, privileging domestic runs over international trips. That’s the thing about mileage runs—the goal is the same, but how to achieve it can differ based on circumstances. Status with an airline can be attained in two ways: by reaching a mileage threshold or by flying a certain number of segments. Ahsan tells Airways that geography has to be made to work in your favor. If you’re flying Coast-to-Coast in the US, consider a flight combination that zigzags north and south to maximize the number of miles and segments flown.

“Once a mileage-runner, always a mileage-runner,” Ahsan says. After recently finding himself in need of 35,000 miles to achieve Executive Platinum with American Airlines, he came across a $75 return fare from Las Vegas to Philadelphia; he jumped on it and purchased seven of them.

Like a lot of people, I had been a long-time lurker on the FlyerTalk website—always envious of those who were putting together impressive mileage runs. It was high time I joined the club and did my own mileage run. It seemed daunting despite both Jarego and Ahsan telling me it was relatively easy. There was a whole lexicon consisting of acronyms to figure out—CPM, PQM, and EQM (Cents Per Mile, Premier Qualifying Miles, and Elite Qualifying Miles).

I am a member in Air Canada’s Aeroplan and Alaska Airlines’ (AS) Mileage Plan, and I was willing to fly from my home airport to Vancouver or Seattle, which somewhat narrowed my search. FlyerTalk and Google’s ITA Matrix became my favorite tools as I scoured the web for a runworthy trip. I had to keep in mind that a good run would cost less than four cents per mile, although you are liable to hear lots of differing opinions on that from the gurus of mileage runs. Weeks went by and I still couldn’t find anything. At one time, I thought I had landed on an Air Canada Vancouver-to-London run that, when paired with some promotional miles on flights to the UK, would have netted me about 15,000 miles. Then I realized that the fare category only offered 50% of miles flown. It was the same for KLM (KL) flights to Africa. The other thing to remember about mileage runs is that sometimes you need to act fast or that great fare you see will be gone. This happened to me with one from Vancouver to Singapore (SIN), with stops in Los Angeles and Tokyo. The next day, the fare was gone. That trip would have given me almost 20,000 miles, which, combined with my other flights this year, would have landed me MVP status with Alaska.

Having noted that Delta—an Alaska Mileage Plan partner—was being very aggressive on pricing their flights to Asia, I persisted. With Singapore lost to fare increases, I set my sights on Hong Kong. While not as far as Singapore, if I planned it right, it would still net me a decent number of miles.

On Delta, the quickest way to Hong Kong (HKG) from Vancouver was a one-stop in Seattle, but that would have been no good for my goal of maximizing the miles; but, for the same fare, I could fly down to LAX and then backtrack to SEA before crossing the Pacific, netting me almost 2,000 additional miles. On the return, I noticed that, for $45 more, I could fly halfway across the continent to Minneapolis (MSP) before returning to YVR. So I jumped on it. For $765, I had my first mileage run, a six-segment trip—Vancouver – Los Angeles – Seattle – Hong Kong – Seattle – Minneapolis – Vancouver—for a total of 17,800 miles. I’m sure a mileage-run guru might have found something better but, for a rookie, it seemed decent.

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It was about 04:30 in the morning when I arrived at Vancouver International Airport for the first leg of my trip, an Alaska Airlines flight—operating as a Delta code share—to Los Angeles. I used the self-serve check-in kiosk, but it only gave me boarding passes for my first two flights, and not for the transpacific portion to Hong Kong. I went to the check-in counter where, after typing away at her computer, the agent looked over at her colleague and said, laughingly, “He’s going to Hong Kong via Los Angeles and Seattle. He must like traveling.”

“Or he’s racking up frequent flyer points,” the other agent responded. True on both accounts! Alaska’s Boeing 737-900 was fitted with new Recaro seats, which have power and USB outlets. Proper respect was due to the Santa Claus- looking flight attendant (minus the large belly), who entertained the children on board by making balloon characters and doing magic tricks.

Nearing Los Angeles and descending through a cloudy sky, the captain announced a rare landing from the west. We overflew the famed coastal enclave of Malibu and continued out over the ocean before turning back and lining up for Runway 06L. Upon landing, we taxied to LAX’s Terminal 5, which has few redeeming qualities. Fortunately, I didn’t need to spend much time there as I walked through the underground tunnel to the more pleasing Terminal 6.

Ninety minutes after arriving in LAX, I was zipping back north to SEA in one of Delta’s Embraer 175s. With just a little more than an hour to spend in Seattle, I went directly to the airport’s South Satellite terminal, from where DL stages its long-haul flights. Over the past year, the airline has been building up its transpacific hub in Seattle and expanding capacity, currently flying service to six destinations in Asia. I boarded the Airbus A330-200, operating as Flight 281, and settled into my Economy Class seat. With an on-time departure at 14:38, we took off to the north, tracking across Washington’s snow-covered Olympic Mountains. The announced flying time was of just over 13 hours and, with favorable tailwinds, we were expected to arrive 90 minutes early.

Not long after takeoff, hot towels were offered, followed by a drinks-andmeal service. On my meal tray was a fortune cookie. I was amused by the fortune inside, which read, “You will be surrounded by luxury.” I had no complaints about the onboard service, but luxury doesn’t sit in seat 23J, I thought, with the remnants of my plastic dinner in front of me.

About six hours into the flight and immersed in the airline’s in-flight entertainment system, Delta Studio, I noticed the cabin attendants coming around with a snack bag consisting of a delicious apple, a cheese bun, and cookies. Another meal service was offered as we neared Hong Kong.

With three flights complete, I touched down on Runway 07L at Hong Kong International Airport. The immigration proceedings were swift and, having no checked baggage, I went directly to the Airport Express station and hopped on the train for the 24-minute journey to Central, on Hong Kong Island.

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I had been to Hong Kong several times before. It’s a city I never tire of. With only one full day at my disposal, I made the most of my time. Walking along the ferry pier in Central, I decided, on a whim, to take a ferry to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong’s outer islands. I then spent a few hours walking along the island’s tranquil paths and narrow streets before returning to Central and crossing Victoria Harbor on one of Hong Kong’s iconic Star ferries. Later, I went to the top of Victoria Peak, and watched day turn to night. In the distance, the city’s old Kai Tak Airport was barely visible, swallowed as it has been by the expanding city.

The next morning, I was back on the train to the airport for a noon departure. The check-in agents were pleasant and helpful as they handed me my three boarding passes. Approximately 90 minutes before departure, Delta’s Airbus A330 was towed from its overnight stand to gate 35.

Additional security was present at the boarding gate as no water or liquids were allowed on board. Pop music played overhead in the cabin as the passengers for this full flight settled in their seats. We pushed back early at 11:50. After a short takeoff queue, we were at the end of Runway 07R for a northerly departure, and the beginning of a relatively short hop across the Pacific, with an announced flying time of 11 hours.

Overall, I was impressed with Delta’s long-haul service. Despite being in the rear cabin, the meals were tasty, the hot towel service was always welcomed, and the in-flight entertainment system offered lots of options for the long flight.

We arrived in Seattle an hour ahead of schedule. Despite living only 137 miles from Seattle– Tacoma International Airport, home was still a half-day away, as I was about to fly more than 2,800 miles halfway across the continent to Minneapolis before backtracking to Vancouver.

Alaska Airlines operated the Delta code share flight from Seattle to “Minnie.” With a full load of passengers on board and the minutes ticking away for our scheduled 10:25 departure, there was nary a mention of our imminent delay from either the cabin crew or flight deck. Finally, at 10:30, a passenger behind me asked the cabin attendant whether they would be announcing a delay, having received a text alert noting that our departure was delayed by 30 minutes. Minutes later, the captain announced that a lavatory gauge was malfunctioning, and that we had to wait for it to be fixed. We eventually departed an hour behind schedule.

After the three hour flight to Minneapolis and a three-hour stop on the ground, I was flying back to the West Coast on an Embraer 175 operated for Delta by Compass Airlines.

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Twenty-six hours after leaving Hong Kong, I touched down at Vancouver International Airport. My first mileage run was complete and, less than a week later; 17,843 miles were deposited in my Mileage Plan account. But, with just two weeks left in the year and no time to squeeze in a cheap, short flight, I was still 410 miles short of MVP status with Alaska Airlines. The veteran mileage runner would call that a colossal mistake. Lesson learned.

Is a mileage run for everyone? Probably not; as Jarego says, the numbers need to make sense. However, if you have some extra time, enjoy flying (who doesn’t?), and love the challenge of finding a sweet fare and a routing that will make your friends think you’re crazy, then you might want to consider it.