Mileage Running with Dan Pierson

Case Studies in the 9 to 5 alternative: No. 1

Welcome to the first in a series of profiles on alternative lifestyles. If you think that you (or someone you know) would make for an interesting interview, then drop me a line. Hope you enjoy!

danpiersonMeet Dan Pierson, an entrepreneur/digital nomad currently “planning world domination.” Originally from New York, Dan has been living in Buenos Aires with his dog Nevada, practicing his Spanish and running BsAs Copy, an Internet marketing firm specializing in sales copy and SEO articles.

Last year, I wrote a handful of SEO articles for Dan and we got to know each other through email and Gchat exchanges. Among other things, we chat about entrepreneurship and travel, so I was very excited to hear about his plans to travel on a round-the-world ticket.

Dan, in preparation for his future travels, used a frequent flier technique called “mileage running” to nudge himself to the top of American Airline’s elite statuses. Over the course of a week, he used my apartment as a launchpad for trips between BOS and LAX  (Dan, thanks again for cleaning up after yourself). I’ll let him tell you more.

Tell us a little bit about what you are doing. What is mileage running?

I’m flying back and forth between Boston and Los Angeles (there and back) for five consecutive days. On the sixth day (tomorrow!), I’m once again flying to Los Angeles, but only as a stop-over on the way to Maui. Aside from earning a butt-load of miles, my goal is to reach American Airline’s holy of all holies: Executive Platinum. This status entitles the holder to various perks, including free upgrades to first class more or less every flight, increased award availability, priority boarding, etc… and some bad-ass luggage tags.

First things first: I’m a novice when it comes to mileage running.

A “pure” Mileage Run (MR) is a flight taken solely for the purpose of earning miles or status on an airline. Aside from cost and whatever particular promotion might be running, the destination doesn’t matter. In fact, if the fare allows, the mileage runner will likely turn right around and hop back on the same plane to avoid having to pay for accommodation.

It’s purely an economic proposition; how many dollars will garner how many miles. That’s a bit simplified, and there are other considerations (am I really sitting in coach for that 14 hour flight to Bangkok?), but it’s a good, basic definition to start with.

It all comes down to the “CPM,” or Cost per Mile. A “good” mileage run will usually come in at under .02 cents per miles. For example, the current mileage run I’m on nets me 21,000 miles per 180 dollars spent.

I still don’t get it. What are you using these miles for, free tickets?

Let me preface by telling you a bit about my life these days. I’m pretty mobile. I’ve been living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, for about 6 months, and plan to devote the next 6 months or so to travel. I have no schedule: generally, May 5th is as free as May 6th is as free as May 7th. That’s the opposite of most folks with 9 to 5 jobs.

People assign “dollar values” to frequent flyer miles, but I think that’s a mistake, on a number of different levels.

  1. First of all, there are 1001 ways to accumulate miles. For example, opening a credit card could net you 25000 miles (essentially free). You could also go on an airline’s site and purchase 1000 miles for 30 dollars. Therefore, I don’t think it makes sense to say that x miles cost x dollars.
  2. For the sake of argument, let’s say that one mile costs one cent (an arbitrary number). A typical “saver” roundtrip fare within the 48 states “costs” 25,000 miles. Here’s the thing: it’s only available three flights per week. Most people can’t take advantage of any of those flights due to work, family, etc. Fortunately, I can.
  3. Airlines frequently announce frequent flyer sales, in which they’ll discount the number of miles needed to travel to a specific location. “Wow, they knocked Sydney down to 40,000 miles? I’m there!”.

To sum it up: the more flexibility you have, the more your frequent flyer miles are worth.

How did you find out about this promotion? Where should my readers look for information like this?

As I mentioned before, I’m a novice. The leading site for all things miles is FlyerTalk.com. You’ll find gurus who know how to work the system to a tee. This particular mileage run is pretty straight-forward, but there are others that require significant tweaking; I’m still learning myself. Don’t be intimidated by the abbreviations, acronyms, and words you don’t understand. You’ll pick it up soon enough, if you lurk for a little while.

How do you stay organized?

I entered all of the flight info into a spreadsheet: cost of each flight, miles flown, miles accrued, status points, etc.

Have you run into any problems so far?

Surprisingly, no! My third day of BOS-LAX, I arrived at 7:45 AM, only to find that I was on the 4:30 PM! Luckily, I was able to get on standby on the earlier, 8:20 AM flight, so I didn’t have to wait around the airport all day.

On the other end of the spectrum, I sweet-talked an off-duty gate agent (incidentally doing the same run to earn miles for her niece and nephew), and she “bumped” me up to the little cocoon where the flight attendants hang out on Trans-Atlantic flights. Way nicer than coach, and we enjoyed a nice conversation about the different destinations in Latin America.

Let’s talk some numbers here. How many flights? Days? Miles? Cost?

I’m factoring in some travel done aside from these BOS-LAX runs, including trips to North Carolina, D.C., New Orleans, Miami, and Europe. But the vast majority of miles earned and status gained will come from 7 round-trip Trans-Continental flights, as well as a trip to Hawaii.

Redeemable miles: 155,450
Qualifying miles: 100, 377 (100,000 necessary for Executive Platinum)
Butt in Seat miles:  (50,185)
Cost: $2,483.00

This cost includes a $100 change fee on my Hawaii ticket (“you know what, I’m gonna need that extra week on Maui after all these flights”), as well as a $150 Platinum Challenge (needed because of time constraints-normally, I could have waited for the miles to post and status to be attained organically). I also factored in the trips to both domestic and international destinations. The Pure “mileage run” cost came out to a little over one thousand dollars.

Here´s an example of what this all comes down to:

I´m sitting in an Internet cafe in southern Spain. I just got off the phone with AAdvantage after booking my flight from Thailand back to the United States. I´m going to fly Qantas BKK-SYD, and then SYD-JFK. In first class. On the new A-380.

Total cost=67.5k frequent flyer miles (three round trips BOS-LAX, or about $600).

Each of those first class tickets would normally cost about $10,000.

In a nutshell, that´s how to work the frequent flyer mile system. It´s not for everyone, but if you can make it work for you, those worthless miles you hear people complaining about can be turned into golden flights of Dom Perignon and world class service.

You can follow Dan’s travels on his personal website danpierson.com or via Twitter at twitter.com/danpierson.

9 thoughts on “Mileage Running with Dan Pierson”

  1. This idea is really cool – I’m all about taking advantage of the system and going against the 9 to 5 lifestyle. I’m gonna play devil’s advocate though and act like one of the Freakonomics dudes: while the price is much much lower, what is the value of all the TIME you’re spending traveling across the country? Not to mention scouring deals and talking to horrible airline people. Obviously you’re not losing money from missed work, but just in general what is a day off worth? I don’t necessarily believe all these questions but thought I’d keep the discussion going.

  2. I’ve never heard of anything like this, but it sounds awesome. It’s true that not everyone has the opportunity to make the best use of their frequent flyer miles, but for those who do it seems like a fantastic advantage. Perhaps the problem for “most folks with 9 to 5 jobs” is that they’re are not living the optimal lifestyle? Maybe some people enjoy the rat race and the 9 to 5, but to me nothing sounds sweeter than the open road and endless opportunities of freedom.

    All in all, this is a great look at a different kind of traveling scheme that really works. This reminds me a lot of Chris Guillebeau’s Frequent Flyer Mile Challenge.

  3. Well I think now I’ll definitely have to get in touch with Dan to find out what’s what. I haven’t heard of this tactic, either, but I can definitely see the value in it (though I imagine it can get hectic when the airlines change their FFM policies)…

  4. I could be wrong, but I believe that Platinum status, executive status, gold status, etc… with AAdvantage is only good for one year from date inducted or one calendar year. It’s possible there is a stipulation that is only good for one year if the frequent flyer does not use AAirlines during that year. If this stipulation is false, and if, in fact this Executive status is only good for a year, is it still worth it??

  5. Awesome post! It is great to hear real numbers for these frequent flier mile programs. I am seriously jealous, Japan doesn’t have anything as near as generous as you folks in the States.

    I have never heard of promotions with lower mileage requirements. I wonder if that is also only in America?

    Thanks for the post!

  6. I’m sorry I haven’t gotten to these comments earlier!

    @Mark-You’re right, the value of time must be factored into this equation, and it would seem mine is worthless if you take this into account! I basically gave up a week of my life, running an office from the air and an hour of layover at LAX. Unfortunately, this was about 6 months before they laid out the in-flight wireless, which would have made life much easier.

    I was actually able to get a lot of work done (it’s way easier to get off track when you have WiFi), but I did feel disgusting after a week of sitting on planes.

    In the end, it’s a hobby for me, and one that works well in a life that more or less revolves around frequent travel. Others mileage may vary. No pun intended. =)

    @Graham-I am definitely a big Chris Guillebeau fan (in fact, he lent me an upgrade coupon that I used to get to Spain, where I was when this was first published). Bottom line, anyone can find some semblance of freedom, regardless of their situation—it’s all about hacking the system to find personal success. This is one great example (and you’ll find many more at Chris’s site).

    @Dave and Deb-Thanks! I follow your interesting journeys on Twitter.

    @Colin-Hit me up anytime you want to chat! I also lived in BA (where I think you’re headed/are now) for 6 months last year, so if you have any questions, let me know.

    @Jason-I hit Executive Platinum on June 14, 2009, and it will be good until February, 2011, so roughly 20 months. It will be way easier to maintain this status for various reasons (first and foremost, the fact that I’m upgraded to first 99% of the time I fly domestically and internationally), and I get a 100% bonus on miles flown, which makes mileage runs much more appealing.

    At the same time, the airlines have these programs for a reason; a couple of months ago, I found myself stuck in Dallas at 3AM because I had chosen to AA over a direct flight on United.

    One possible way to mitigate this risk/negative is with a “status match”. I used my AA status to acquire similar status on Delta.

    @All-If you’re interested in this stuff, the end all and be all resource is Flyertalk. At your own risk. =)

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