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Mileage runs are last-minute dashes for airline status. But are they worth it?

In an era of lackluster loyalty programs and concerns over carbon emissions, even onetime fans question the merit.

(Maria Corte for The Washington Post)

René de Lambert is going to Brussels on Friday. For dinner.

The travel blogger and three of his readers from around the country will meet in Las Vegas, fly to Atlanta, then continue to Amsterdam and Brussels, arriving Saturday afternoon in time for dinner. After staying the night, they’ll turn around and head back, through Los Angeles and New York.

“It’s a blast, especially in first class,” he says.

For de Lambert, who writes for René’s Points, the trip will be an adventure and a way to lock in Delta Diamond Medallion status for 2020 and all the perks it entails.

The circuitous quick trip, known as a mileage run, is not uncommon this time of year among a subset of frequent travelers looking to attain a certain level of airline status for the coming year. Those who haven’t traveled quite enough during the year share tips online, seek out route suggestions and even turn to professionals for help as they race to make up the gap.

“It’s a thing a small, hardcore group of people do,” says Summer Hull, of the travel-focused site the Points Guy. “It’s a thing that’s fascinating to a larger group of people because … this is how some people would choose to spend their time and money, just flying around in circles.”

While many have predicted the demise of the practice — the New York Times published an article about “the fadeout of the mileage run” in 2014 — observers say it persists even as airline loyalty programs have shifted to prioritize how much a passenger spends over how far they are traveling. Some frequent travelers have also expressed discomfort about adding long, arguably unnecessary flights in an era where concerns over carbon emissions have sparked a “flight shame" movement.

There are other signs that end-of-year runs are losing their luster. Experts say the benefits to frequent-flier status aren’t as lucrative as they once were. Airlines that would have traditionally granted upgrades to their most loyal customers are increasingly trying to make extra money by offering those open seats for extra cash before a flight.

“Status is harder to get, and it’s less meaningful than it once was," says airline expert Seth Kaplan, who once routed a flight from New York to Florida through Los Angeles to top off his required miles for status on American Airlines. “It’s still better to have it than not.”

Those with the highest levels of elite status can still bank on getting first-class upgrades some of the time as well as lounge access, and even travelers with lower levels can get perks such as extra-legroom seats, free checked bags, a chance at upgrades and better customer service when things go wrong, experts say.

That promise of better treatment is valuable enough to a cohort of frequent fliers — especially business travelers — that a mileage run can be seen as a sound investment. Some companies even allow employees to expense their trip to nowhere because of the expected returns the following year.

For Juicy Miles, an award-booking service that calls itself “the expert mileage run itinerary crafter," that means the months between September and December are especially busy with travelers sprinting toward status. Founder and chief executive Adam Morvitz says the mileage run-crafting business has increased every year since launching the service in 2015.

He suspects that’s the result of a couple of factors: Passengers recognize that they need to get to the most elite and hard-to-reach level to truly recognize benefits, and getting to that number is trickier than ever.

(Maria Corte for The Washington Post)

In recent years, most airlines started awarding miles that passengers could redeem for future flights as well as elite status based not just on the number of miles their fliers traveled, but how much they spent. In the old days, a bargain long-haul trip would have been a bonanza for miles; today, not so much. Starting in the new year, United is solely counting the number of flights and amount spent on those flights toward status, leaving distance out of the equation entirely.

That means Kaplan’s solution from some 16 year ago — simply extending a domestic flight to make it longer — would not be the slam dunk it once was.

Rather, savvy mileage runners now look for long, cheap priced flights on foreign airlines that have partnerships with their preferred carrier. The key is to find a cheap flight on one of these partners, ideally in a higher fare category such as business class, where the distance carries outsize weight.

That’s why Juicy Miles has been booking travelers, for example, on Aeromexico flights to Brazil with stops in Mexico or trips on China Eastern Airlines from the East Coast to the Philippines with a stop in Shanghai. The deals are good, Morvitz said, and the partner airline, in this case Delta, can only estimate what a passenger is spending, usually resulting in a greater bang for the buck.

“Most of our customers come to us and say, ‘I have a family. I don’t want to be away from them for more than a weekend,’ ” Morvitz says. “ ‘I’m willing to fly out on a Friday; I need to be back home Sunday night or Monday morning.’ ”

For Hull, time is now too valuable a resource to spend in pursuit of loyalty status. Instead, she said she bought a few thousand miles to reach United’s premier gold level.

“It still is worth it to me to spend that money to close the gap,” says Hull, mother of a 4-year-old and 10-year-old. “I just wasn’t willing to spend a day on an airplane.”

Years ago, she had a different outlook and top-tier status. She didn’t enjoy the runs but one year took several cheap first-class round trips between Houston and Detroit, working during the flights. Another time, she flew to Hawaii to spend one night before coming back.

These days, there are other factors that led Hull to write a piece suggesting that airline mileage runs are a bad idea, including environmental considerations. She said that concern doesn’t seem to have taken root yet in the United States.

“Traveling when you don’t even want or need to in a circle is a little beyond what I feel warm and fuzzy about doing,” she says.

A report prepared for the Committee on Climate Change, which advises the United Kingdom government, proposed that frequent flier “reward schemes that stimulate demand” should be banned, and an escalating tax on leisure air miles should be introduced to “discourage excessive flying.”

Airlines in the U.K. were not receptive to the idea, CNBC reported.

Morvitz says carbon emissions aren’t really a consideration for his mileage run clients, who typically view the travel as a necessity. Their point of view, he said, is, “'I have a job, it requires me to travel, and I don’t want to sit in a middle seat all year so I need to get this done.'”

He said travelers who are redeeming award points for vacations ask for carbon offsets much more frequently.

Concerns about carbon emissions aside, even proponents of mileage runs are wondering how long the practice will persist. De Lambert, who is taking the Brussels trip, says travelers need to do the calculations to decide whether the efforts to reach elite status are worthwhile as airlines make extreme loyalty less valuable. He says this year’s trip may be his last run.

“I say this every single year,” he says. “I’ve said this for three years now.”

Read more:

Europe’s ‘flight shame’ movement doesn’t stand a chance in the U.S.

An Indian businessman attempted a ‘Catch Me If You Can’ scheme. He got caught.

Airline classes are complicated. Here’s how to know which one you need.

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