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How to maximize your 'mileage run' to elite flier status

Do your homework and you can ways to get big miles for not-so-big dollars

By Cathleen McCarthy

Cashing In
Cashing In columnist Cathleen McCarthy
Cathleen McCarthy is a journalist whose articles on travel, commerce and consumer topics have appeared in dozens of publications. She writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Cashing In,
I need to do a mileage run and fast to get to elite status with United by the end of year. I'm about 9,000 miles short and want to see how I can get there without spending some ungodly amount. Any suggestions? And are there websites out there that help with this sort of thing? -- Richard

Answer for the CreditCards.com expert

Dear Richard,
You're facing a common problem -- even more so now that companies are cutting back on business travel. You're reaching the end of the year without the mileage minimum you need to maintain elite status.

Since you have so little time to amass those 9,000 miles, make sure you're doing everything you can -- beyond flying -- to maximize them. The easiest path to instant miles is via credit card. You can earn up to 40,000 bonus miles if you sign up for the Chase United Mileage Plus Explorer card, for example. Assuming you already have a United card, you can also boost your miles by shopping via the United portal, called MileagePlusShopping.com.

The problem with those two solutions, however, is that those miles may not help you become elite. Generally, only miles flown help you achieve that status; credit card purchases typically do not. So unless you have a card that specifically says it offers elite-qualifying miles with purchases -- and Chase's United Plus does not -- you're probably going to have to get on a plane to get those miles.

The good news is that if you really want to make a last-minute mileage run to get that elite status, you may still be able to meet your goal without overspending. Flight options have expanded since Continental merged with United, because flights on both airlines now qualify for MileagePlus awards. And bonus deals are out there to be had.

You don't say where you live, but United's best offer at the moment involves travel to and from Chicago's O'Hare Airport. You can double your elite status miles and your regular award miles on nonstop flights between Chicago and Los Angeles, San Francisco or Orange County for travel before January 31. Qualifying flights include United, United Express, Continental or Continental Express.

To answer your final question, you can use the Great Circle Mapper website to see how many miles a flight would yield. Also, the forums on Flyertalk.com are a great source of up-to-the-minute information, tips and tricks for serious fliers. A few participants have reported end-of-year mileage runs in order to hit an elite status goal.

On Dec. 17, 2011, someone posted that he had just booked a round-trip flight on United and Continental from Newark to Hong Kong by way of Chicago in order to achieve the 100k Platinum level on Mileage Plus. He paid $981 for a flight departing Dec. 23 and returning four days later. Thanks to United's double-miles offer on the flight, he ended up earning 34,652 total miles. Only half of those counted toward elite status -- the double-miles offer on that flight didn't extend to elite-qualifying miles -- but it was still a great haul.

You need far fewer than that person earned. Here are just a couple of examples of last-minute trips that could get the miles you desire:  

  • A round-trip flight from an East Coast city to Honolulu with one stopover, for example, can earn nearly 10,000 elite miles. However, that flight will cost you. For travel completed by December 31, you'll pay between $2,000 and $3,500.
  • A round-trip from Portland, Oregon, to London's Heathrow Airport with connections at O'Hare -- departing Dec. 26 and returning Dec. 30 -- costs $1,632 and nets you more than 11,000 elite miles.

In the second example, you can double the regular miles (but not the elite miles) that you earn on the flight if you register for it through United's website. And while those double miles won't get make you elite any faster, they can get you nearer to a free airfare.

People often go through incredible convolutions to add elite miles to the books at the end of the year. There are ways to puzzle a long route together with the help of a travel agent or online tools, but given that you have about a week left of this year and the holidays are upon us, I would try to take advantage of Mileage Plus promotions that include elite miles -- remember to register for the deal on United.com -- or I'd play around on Expedia and find an overseas destination on your bucket list that's accessible at decent fares from your city.

Meet CreditCards.com's reader Q&A experts
Vexed by a personal finance problem? CreditCards.com's Q&A experts answer questions from readers every weekday. Ask a question, or click on any expert to see their previous answers.
Gary Foreman, New Frugal You columnist Gary Foreman,
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"Opening Credits"

Published: December 24, 2011



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