A Mileage Run: Step-By-Step

I did a pretty poor job of planning my travel this year.  I usually have everything mapped out months in advance so I know I have enough miles where I need them to make sure I re-qualify for my favorite status, Executive Platinum level with American Airlines.

This year, I started out thinking I would lose my 1K status from United, but then ended up with a bunch of travel on UA and was at risk of losing Executive Platinum.  That meant I was waiting for a fare sale to book a mileage run.  Just in that term doesn’t sound familiar:

Mileage Run (noun):  The act of buying a plane ticket and flying somewhere for the sole purpose of earning miles, whether to redeem for an award flight or to achieve a status level.

Let’s face it, you’ve got to be a bit wacky to plan a mileage run.  I am, and the treatment I receive as a result of my Exec Plat status is what makes it worth it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t enjoy mileage running.  I see it as a means to an end.  I do have friends that view it as fun, but they’re a couple notches crazier than me.  I know, hard to believe.

I figured I would detail a timeline of a mileage run I took this week so folks who might find it interesting could follow along and ask questions, or just poke fun if the spirit moved you!

October 12th:  Virgin America sends me an e-mail advertising a fare sale.  I’ve flown Virgin a few times and think they have a nice product but they royally screwed me on my mileage balance a couple years ago, so I tend to avoid them as a stubborn matter of principle.  But, I really like it when they offer fare sales, as American and United usually match them on routes from my home airport like IAD-LAX and IAD-SFO.  In this case, they decided to drop the price for IAD-LAX to $149 each way, giving me the round-trip I needed at a price I was willing to pay (less than $300).  I chose a flight that only left me about 40 minutes on the ground in LAX.  That’s a bit risky for a mileage run, but I wanted to be able to drop my daughter off at the bus stop in the morning before I left.  American Airlines quickly matched, I quickly booked and that was that.

I would be departing at 10:45 am in the morning from IAD.  I was scheduled to land at 1:40pm local time at LAX.  My return flight was at 2:20pm, so a very short time on the ground.  I was scheduled to land at 10:15pm local time back at IAD.

The Night Before My Mileage Run:  We were scheduled to have a decent amount of snow in DC the day of my mileage run.  I was keeping an eye on the AA website to make sure we had a plane and that the flight hadn’t been canceled.  There was an earlier flight I could grab that could give me some cushion for delays, but I really wanted to spend the extra time with my family.  A combination of mother nature and fate took care of that option when American canceled that flight well before it was scheduled to depart, meaning I didn’t have to contemplate getting up early and leaving the family.

I’ve got my backpack packed for the day, but certainly streamlined from a normal travel day.  I don’t want to haul more weight than I need to.  I strip out the backup battery I carry for my laptop because all American flights on the IAD-LAX route have AC power.  There are some snacks and a magazine along with my iPad, but other than that, I’m lean and mean.

6:00 am EST, Day Of Mileage Run:  My alarm goes off and it’s time to get my daughter ready for school.  Except the snow had lead to school being canceled, and it was really coming down.  Now I was bummed that I wouldn’t be spending the day at home with the kids to play in the snow.  We had played in snow over the weekend but who wouldn’t take another day to do so if they could?  We’ve got some snow time in Vermont after Christmas, so I took solace in that.

10:45am EST Departure:  I hopped in the car early since I don’t have 4 wheel drive and I wasn’t able to print out my return boarding pass from home for some odd reason.  I got to the airport around 9:15am and got my boarding pass no problem.  TSA Precheck had me through security in a matter of minutes and I was at the gate early.  I walked around a bit to get some more exercise and all signs pointed to an on-time departure.  I double-checked the status of the plane that would bring me home later in the day and all seemed fine there as well.  We closed the door and pushed back on time.  I knew we would need to be de-iced, but the pilot was predicting an early arrival which meant we had cushion.

11:00am EST:  At the de-icing station but nothing has happened yet.  Not too worried, but maybe just a bit.

11:15am EST:  De-icing still not started.  Creeping feeling in my stomach.

11:25am EST:  De-icing started, now feeling nauseous as time is growing very thin to make my connection.

11:30am EST:  Pause in de-icing.  I have now resigned myself to the fact that I’m missing my connection.

11:35am EST:  De-icing resumes.

11:40am EST:  De-icing finished, taxiing for takeoff.  AA.com shows us landing 4 minutes before my return flight leaves.  Maybe a glimmer of hope!

11:45am EST:  Takeoff, finally.  I do what I do best on planes, take a nap.  45 minutes later, I logon to the website to find out that we are now schedule to land 23 minutes after my return flight is scheduled to depart.  As it turns out, my return flight gets delayed 15 minutes, so I miss my connection by a net of about 15 minutes considering time to run from gate to gate and the door closing on my return flight.

1:00pm EST/10:00am PST:  I grab a bite to eat while I contemplate my options.  Since I’m on American I get to enjoy a cold shrimp plate with a salad which hits the spot.  I also get to sample the new snack basket.  Yum!

10:45am PST:  Time to start researching alternatives.  It’s always important to remember when you travel that you’re in control of your fate.  I don’t want to sound overly dramatic, but the airlines (even the best) are unlikely to be as diligent about accommodating you correctly during irregular operations as you can be yourself.

I know that American doesn’t have another departure to IAD after the 2:25 pm until the redeye later that night.  I hate redeyes.   Hate’s a strong word, and it sums up my feelings pretty succinctly.  They mess with my sleep schedule and, in this instance, mean less time with my family.

Using the United Airlines website and Expert Flyer, I’m able to find a 4:45pm PST flight from LAX to IAD that lands shorty before 1am EST.  That’s my best and only option to get home ahead of the redeye.  My goal is to try and get American to move me to that flight.

I’ve heard good things about the American Airlines Twitter presence, so I send them a Direct Message (DM) on Twitter.  I start to think that maybe I’m not such a social media troglodyte after all, but quickly remember I still am.  I wait about an hour (an eternity in social media timelines) and haven’t heard anything back.  I’m hoping to get this resolved prior to landing just in case something weird happens and the United flight fills up.

12:30pm PST:  After no reply on my DM, I take the more public approach.  I send a Tweet to American Airlines’ Twitter account.  The first response I get is less than helpful.

 Mileage Run

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.  I noted how I’d heard good things about the American Airlines social media team and hoped for the best.  The second response was much more positive and I was optimistic.

Mileage RunMileage Run

It took less than 30 minutes from then to receive a note back on the direct message I sent.

Mileage RunNot exactly the response I was hoping for.  It tells me that the folks monitoring the Twitter account aren’t EXP agents (not that I would necessarily expect that), since I know EXP agents have this ability.  Still, after checking Expert Flyer again, it sure looked like there were a lot of empty seats on the United flight.  I had about an hour to go before landing so all I could do at that point was cross my fingers.  I’ve already gotten a ton of work done and multi-tasked with an episode of the TV show West Wing on my iPad.  I continue being very productive until we land, using a forklift to clear e-mails out of my inbox.

2:30pm PST:  We land and taxi to a parking area.  We need to wait for a gate to open because we’re so late.  I’m not overly worried as I have just about 2 hours to make the United flight.  I hop on the phone with the EXP desk and explain to the agent my conundrum.  I rarely get an EXP agent that’s unwilling to help, and this is no exception.  She jumps right in and starts working, asking if she can place me on hold while she calls United to get me a seat on their flight.  She comes back on the line a couple times to apologize for the wait.

2:50pm PST:  We’re at the gate and I’m off the plane on my way to the Admirals Club.  I figure I’ll hang out near the desk just in case my call gets disconnected or the agent I’m on hold with can’t get the ticket transferred.  As I’m standing in line, the EXP agent hops back on the phone to let me know everything is all set.  She gives me the record locator for United and wishes me good luck.  I thank her profusely and call United to make sure the record locator is valid and everything looks right to them.

I’d say 3 or 4 times a year I have to switch flights like this.  More often than not, the ticket doesn’t get transferred correctly or there’s some other glitch, so it’s always a great idea to call and double-check.  The United 1K agent I speak to says everything looks fine.  I ask her to add my 1K number to the reservation so I’ll be able to grab an Economy Plus seat.  I’m at the front of the line at the Admirals Club and it’s just before 3pm, so I decide to grab a shower key real quick to freshen up before my flight home.  I’m likely to be in coach on United based on the way they upgrade elites, so a quick shower will hit the spot.

3:05pm PST:  As I’m standing in the shower, it hits me.  Just because the United agent on the phone says I’m fine doesn’t actually make it so.  I’m still not checked in and I still don’t have a boarding pass.  Dagnabbit, I need to get my ass moving.  American is in Terminal 4 at LAX and I have to get to Terminal 7 for my United flight.

3:15pm PST:  I’m now moving briskly to Terminal 7, walking outside on the departures level.  I’ve showered, dressed and run out of the Admirals Club and down to baggage claim.  I see there’s no line at Starbucks and decide to risk 2 minutes to pick up a Tall Chai Latte to further the efforts of staying awake and getting work done on the plane.  I take a few moments to call my wife and check-in.  I’ve been updating her via text and iMessage, but it’s always good to get a couple minutes to talk to her and have her tell me how nuts I am to be doing this.  She assures me the kids are driving her crazy in kind of a good way, but she’ll be happy when I’m home, and so will I.

3:25pm PST:  I arrive at Terminal 7 to realize 2 things.  First, I’ve never actually checked in at this terminal.  I’ve connected in the past, but never had to check-in.  Second, it’s a complete cluster.  There are about 40 kiosks, a good number of which are not working.  There are a lot of people trying to check bags.  I walk over to one of the self serve kiosks in the corner and try to get my boarding pass.  I get an error message saying a supervisor is coming to help me.  I wait 10 minutes, to no avail.

3:35pm PST:  I walk over to the line of kiosks where folks are checking bags to try and find a supervisor.  Everyone I can see is a contract employee just assigned to move bags.  No help.  There are a group of gentlemen standing beside me who have the same error screen I have who are trying to track bags and can’t get checked in.  They tell me they’ve been waiting 15 minutes for a supervisor.  Obviously, I believe them.

I try to access the kiosk again and get the same error message.  Now, I’m waiting alongside this group of guys for a supervisor.  I hear them say they have a 4:45pm flight as well.  It starts to occur to me that there’s a reasonable chance they’re on my flight.

3:45pm PST:  Still awaiting a supervisor.  Yes, really.  The gentlemen next to me have a supervisor helping them and I expect I’ll be next in line when they’re done.

3:50pm PST:  I now have a supervisor helping me.  The group next to me is still working with a supervisor but a second supervisor walks on the scene and I virtually jump over the counter to get her attention.  She says American didn’t send the ticket over correctly and hops on the phone with them.

3:55pm PST:  The group beside me start panicking, asking for help from the supervisor helping me.  Their supervisor has walked away and they still don’t have boarding passes or tags for their checked luggage.

4:00pm PST:  The group beside me is now openly panicking, pleading with my supervisor for help.  She yells down to the other supervisor that was helping them and asks her what’s going on.  The other supervisor says she doesn’t know and she’ll be back over in a bit, she’s working with someone else.  The supervisor working with me then looks at the two gentlemen and says, “If you’re flight leaves at 4:45, you’re now past the window to check bags, so you can’t get on that flight anyway.  I just got here, so it’s not my fault.  You should have been here at least an hour prior to departure.”  Can’t make this stuff up.  It’s at this point that one of the gentlemen points out that they’ve been there for an hour.  Again, I believe him.

4:05pm PST:  After hanging up with American, the agent helping me still can’t figure out what’s wrong.  She asks someone else, and at this point it firmly seems like a United problem, not American.  Can’t be 100% sure, but sure looks that way.  T-minus 40 minutes to my flight leaving and now I’m starting to get a little antsy.  A few minutes later she figures it out and spits out a boarding pass for me.  I ask if she can see my 1K number in the record and would she mind grabbing me a seat before they’re all gone?  She says my number’s not in there but she enters it and grabs me a window seat in the back of the plane.  I’ve looked online and know there are plenty of empty seats.  She’s managed to pick one of the few seats on the plane where the middle seat is full as well as the aisle.  Awesome.  I decide to fight this battle at the gate since making the flight is much more important than getting the right seat.  Duh.

4:10pm PST:  Sprinting now, I find the elite security line and it’s empty.  I’m through the line in the matter of a couple minutes and sprinting up the escalator.  Luckily, I have a long run, since I’m in the T7 part and I need to get to gate 86, which is virtually at the end of the other concourse.  I don’t fly into LAX often on UA, so there may have been a better place to check-in, but for now I’ve got a boarding pass and a seat, so it’s really just running to the gate.

4:20pm PST:  I arrive at the gate, realizing how out of shape I am.  I ask the agent if he can help me get a better seat since I’m a 1K.  He tells me there’s no frequent flyer number associated with my record.  He becomes the 3rd United employee to take the number from me and apparently the only one to do it correctly.  More on this in a moment.  He confirms what I already know, that First Class is full.  No worries, happy to be headed home.  But, could he help me with one of those aisle seats I saw earlier?  Nope.  Those are all gone now.  Okay, how about a window with an empty middle?  Sure.  34F.  Cool.  I even have a few minutes to grab a snack.

4:27pm PST:  A light jog to the restroom and I pick up a snack and I’m back at the gate, boarding with time to spare.  Who knew?  I make my way to the back of the plane and the gentleman in the aisle seat next to me gets up to let me in.  I get situated and take a few things out of my bag to get settled, remembering how much less legroom the non-Economy plus seats have and saying a quiet thanks I’m a small guy.  Seriously, I don’t know how someone who’s 6’4″ and 230 lbs fits in a regular coach middle seat.  I say goodnight to my kids via phone with the promise to check on them when I get home and be there when they wake up in the morning.

4:35pm PST:  I’m now wondering if those guys who were having so much trouble beside me at check-in ever made the flight, and I shortly got my answer (at least I think so, still not 100% sure they were on my flight).  The gate agent comes on the PA and asks me and one other passenger to come to the front of the plane.  Seriously?  I have a roughly 50% upgrade rate on United flights when I book well ahead of time.  I’m getting a battlefield upgrade on a flight that I’ve only been ticketed on for about 90 minutes?  Even the sun shines on a dog’s ass once in a while.  I make my way to the front and the gate agent says some folks didn’t make the flight so I got the bump up.  This proves he actually entered my 1K number successfully.  Good for him, and me!

4:45pm PST:  Nobody has come to steal back my battlefield upgrade and we’re on our way.  As we taxi out I wish there was some wood trim near my seat I could knock for my good fortune.  A day that could have turned ugly has turned out okay.  I’ll land a bit over 2 hours late, but Ill be home.  The captain decides to further enhance my good luck by telling me we’ll land 30 minutes early, right around midnight.  It turns out our plane is one of the very few United ones I’ve been on that now has wifi.  That means more productivity and a certainty that I need to check our Powerball numbers when I get home to see if the lucky streak continues.

5:00pm PST/8:00pm EST:  The flight attendant gives me a choice of Chicken Cacciatore or Spinach Canneloni for dinner.  United isn’t exactly renowned for their in-flight catering, so I play it safe with the chicken.  It turns out to be pretty good.  The chicken is juicy and the gnocchi accompanying it are soft, if not terribly flavorful.  It sure beats pretzels and hummus, my previously planned dinner in 34F.  After eating, I go back to being ultra-productive.  The forklift is still needed for my inbox and will be for some time.  But, as the number of e-mails shrinks, I’m pleased with my progress for the day.  I take a break to watch another West Wing episode while I sift through my spam folder.  Riveting stuff.

11:50pm PST:  Back home, 13 hours later.  We taxi to the gate at the stroke of Midnight, and I’m off and running to get home.  I take the stairs instead of the escalator because I know I need to get in shape.  Something tells me one flight of stairs won’t do the trick.  Maybe two?

12:30am PST, the following day:  I arrive home and everyone is peacefully sleeping.  I walk upstairs and my daughter has climbed in bed with my wife.  I kiss them both and head back downstairs to plug in my electronics and charge them for the next day.  There are still hot coals in our wood stove, so I stoke up the fire before I head to bed.  When I head back upstairs, my son has woken up and my wife is now cuddled up with him in his room.  I climb into my bed so my daughter can use me as a human kickboxing bag while she sleeps.

It’s good to be home.




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    1. Mary, we’ve all had that sort of experience with travel. I remember double-counting a flight one year on my spreadsheet, leaving me 1,000 miles short. Thankfully, I was able to fix it. Where do you connect for BWI-SAN? Just a simple DFW?

  1. Very descriptive: I was rooting for you as I read along. So much depends in these situations on whether you’re lucky enough to find an employee who’s a winner… or not. Glad it worked out so well for you.

    1. Fredd, we know you have to make a bit of your own luck to get everything to work. Thanks for following along! I’ve certainly had more stressful days in the air.

  2. Great stuff. Nice play-by-play. And don’t worry (because I know you’re not), I wasn’t offended that you consider me to be one of the folks “a couple notches crazier” than you. I view that as a badge of honor 😉

    1. jetsetr, I was most certainly NOT referring to you when I mentioned friends that were a couple notches crazier. You are at least a dozen solid notches crazier than me when it comes to mileage running. But, if I fly to DXB I’ll likely narrow the gap.

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