Saturday, December 1, 2012

How to Book a Mileage Run

Booking is easy. Finding is the tough part, but in case you're needing to top off an account or are looking to secure elite status before the end of the year, here's my hopefully-helpful guide on how to get it done. You might already have a destination in mind (say to visit a friend or family member), in which case you're ahead of the game, but if you have no idea where you want to go, or when, and you're in it purely for the miles, keep reading.

The Tools
  • Kayak.com/explore- Basically, deals on a map and the next best thing to Travelocity's Dream Maps which no longer exists. Enter your city and if you want, select a month from the drop down. You can further narrow your choices by region or interest (beach anyone?). To explore in greater detail click any of the orange tabs and if you find something you like you can proceed to book it through kayak.com.
  • The MileageRuns/Mattress Runs/Travel Hacking forum on milepoint and Mileage Run Deals on Flyertalk- This is where other frequent fliers share great deals that they've found. You'll typically find the airline and other pertinent information in the title and the subsequent thread will include any discussion about the fare. This is a great way to find deals from other cities you may have never considered and if the deal is sweet enough, it may be worth investing in a positioning flight (a separate flight to get you to that city).
  • Airfarewatchdog.com is a great site that lets you search for cheap fares from your (or any other city). It's pretty much domestic flights only, but there are select international trips (usually to Europe) posted occasionally as well. They also have a list of Top 50 Fares and offer a free Fare Alert service which you can subscribe to via email. I get weekly emails from them which is a great way to keep an eye on trends and consistently cheap destinations. You can also book through the site if you know your exact dates.
  • matrix.itasoftware.com- I cannot to begin to tell you how much I love ITA. The ability to quickly and easily search multiple dates over an entire calendar month makes it one of the best tools out there, not just for mileage running but for trip planning in generall. It's also cool because you don't need to know where you're going. You can also use ITA to search multiple airports at the same time. Below is the step-by-step method that I use to find most of my mileage runs. I've included screenshots. Some appear small, but if you click on any of the pictures you will get a bigger, more readable image.

How to Use ITA to Plan a Mileage Run 

1. Enter your origin. This can be your home airport and can include several nearby airports that you would also consider flying out of. I live near Sacramento, so I'll typically search RNO, SFO, SJC in addition to SMF. Sadly United no longer flies out of OAK, but if you live in the Northern California or the Bay Area and fly other airlines that is one to include as well. If you live in the New York area search "NYC" instead of just an individual airport like JFK or LGA. "WAS" for the DC area, "CHI" to search both MDW and ORD. You can also spell out your city and click the "nearby" button to the right in case you don't know your airport codes or what's nearby and a map will pop up.

Departing from Sacramento and some nearby airports

2. Make a list of destinations by region. Now's the time to break out that Hemispheres magazine or check the online route map of your favorite airline to see where they fly. Start by listing destinations in groups of up to about 10 or so, separating them by region (or however else you want to organize it- beaches maybe?). For example: Airports in Florida (one of my favorite mileage run destinations): MIA, FLL, JAX, MCO, TPA are some of airports that United serves. Asia: NRT, ICN, HKG, MNL, BKK, etc. You get the idea. Customize your list to omit/avoid any places where you don't want to go and take the time to find out all the airport codes; time spent now on this is time saved on later searches. Store your list in a spreadsheet, text file, or even in an email to yourself so you can easily cut and paste into ITA. (Obviously if you know where you are going, skip this step and just enter your destination). If you need help finding airport codes you can try a Google search or go to http://www.world-airport-codes.com/.

For this example I used airports in the East

3. Enter any routing codes. This is a more advanced feature of ITA, but it is fairly well explained if you click the "?" button to the right of the textbox. If you have a specific airline in mind, say United, enter the airline code. UA for a direct flight, UA+ for one or more flights. If you're on a mileage run, you're going to want that plus. You can also specify the number of legs you want (say 3) by going UA UA UA, but it's best to save that for a later step when you refine your trip. You can also enter stopover points here, but we'll again save that. If you don't have a particular airline in mind, leave it blank for now.
Searching for United Airlines flights

Advanced Routing Code Syntax, or what pops up if you click "?"

4. Enter you dates. Search specific dates or use the calendar (recommended) function. If you use the calendar function enter a range for length of stay. If this is a "true" mileage run and you don't plan on staying at your destination enter 0.

Searching the entire month of March

5. Search. A calendar will pop up showing your options. Click on it to explore your options.

$255 for trans-con looks promising

Some issues, like arriving at JFK and leaving LGA, but it looks like NYC airports and PHL are the cheapest options
6. Refine. At this point click "modify search" towards the top right to return to the first page and narrow down your options. You'll want to choose 1 departure airport and 1 or maybe 2 destinations. This is the step where you want to start adding stuff into the the routing code boxes to try and get more stops and more miles out of your trip. You can used a paid service like ExpertFlyer.com or KVStool.com to find the published routing rules on or you can guess for free. Now is when you will want to pull out that Hemispheres magazine again or pull up your airline's route map and find out their hubs. Since we're flying United, I know IAH is a hub and if you look on a map, it's not really on the way to New York or Philadelphia from California so that's a good one to try and use. IAD is another good choice because even though its close to New York, I'll get the 500-mile minimum between there are PHL based on my Premier Status. On the West Coast for sure I want to add in SFO or LAX or an extra 500 miles, so we'll enter all that into the boxes as follows. Try some different stuff here- I've successfully booked SMF-IAH-DEN-DSM before. Be creative. This step takes a little trial and error, but keep playing with it until you find something you want. As a general rule, try for at least 2 stops, and 3 segments in each direction. See the example below for syntax. Note SFO and LAX, our first stop, are separated only by a comma, then there is a space between that our next stop IAH or IAD. You'll notice the price goes up a little bit, but I'm earning a lot more miles by adding in the extra stops.

Adding stops in the routing code section

$278 for SMF-SFO-IAD-PHL-IAH-LAX-SMF


Itinerary details. At least 5701 miles and all the info I need to book my ticket.


Booking Your Trip

Now that you've found your trip, all you have to do is book it, which is the one thing you can't do through ITA. For the above example I would most likely book directly with the airline via united.com. Kayak.com is another good option and works best for itineraries that includes multiple airlines. Either way, you are probably going to use the "multi-city" or "multiple destination" function to find the itinerary you are looking for.

Note: ITA doesn't include 500-mile minimum in their mileage calculation, but you will be able to get that information from your airline or you can calculate it yourself manually. gcmap.com is another good tool.
For this run I would end up with 6623 miles once I count in my 500-minimuns  for $278 which breaks down to $.04 per miles. I also like that I am flying on the red-eye eastbound and making a same day turn. There are no ridiculously long layovers and it's also out of Sacramento which saves me a drive to the city. This is a good run! I might actually book it!

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