Mileage Runs: People Who Fly Just for Frequent Flier Miles

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What kind of nut would endure the pain of a five or 10 or even 15 hour flight, only to arrive at the airport and immediately turn around and go home?

A mileage runner, that's who. Yes, mileage runners take "flights to nowhere," but don't call them nuts. Call them people who love luxury but don't want to pay obscene prices to enjoy it.

So, they become "elites" instead, amassing miles to earn comfy perks. As mileage runner Karen Morrison explains it, "I am usually upgraded. I pay for coach, I fly first class." This is the time of year when you'll see them out "running," and you can do it too, if you've got the stamina for it. And the time. And the money.

But is it worth it?

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Mileage runners, naturally say, yeah, it is worth it. Which explains why Morrison of North Carolina once flew from the U.S. to Singapore, spending just a couple of hours in that Asian airport before turning around and heading home again. She did it simply to nab a whole bunch of miles.

Oh, not really for the miles, but for what they mean, and that's elite status with her airline's miles program -- what used to be called frequent flier clubs. What's elite status? The big time. The Holy Grail. The highest level in an airline miles program.

For Morrison, a member of United's Mileage Plus miles program, that means acceptance in the rarified 1K level, which is for fliers who earn (and maintain) 100,000 status miles or fly 100 status flight segments in a year. Many airlines have similar top tiers; the lesser levels usually start at 25,000 miles a year.

Few actually literally fly all those miles. Carriers offer "bonus miles" flights now and again which can allow passengers to earn double or even triple miles for status.

And what does elite status get you? The biggest perk, of course, is the aforementioned first class travel. For example, in United's program, 1K members get six complimentary "systemwide upgrades," and often are upgraded any time there's room in first or business class.

And there are plenty of other goodies, too, like three free checked-bags (which, if taken full advantage of, represents a savings of $320 roundtrip). Other perks include priority boarding, better seats, easier ways to earn miles, a dedicated phone line just for their particular needs or problems, and much, much more.

Note that mileage programs vary from airline to airline, and they can get complicated -- really complicated. Novices would do well to head over to sites like FlyerTalk, UpgradeTravelBetter or WebFlyer to learn the ins-and-outs of the often Byzantine rules and regulations of frequent flier programs.

Why are we talking about mileage programs now? Because this is when the elites start to notice if they have enough miles banked to make top status for the coming year. If not, they hit the road -- er, skies.

Fortunately for Morrison, she doesn't mind getting on a plane simply to rack up mileage. "I like to fly," she says, "otherwise it would be just awful."

Another mileage runner, Gary from Salt Lake City has a different take on this. (He didn't want his last name used since he's worried some of his professional colleagues may find his mileage running activities "a bit odd.") He's a Delta Air Lines Diamond Medallion member who likes to avoid traveling just for distance, so when he makes a mileage run, he tries to have a little fun.

Case in point: Gary had a great time during a recent mileage run from St. Louis to Ireland. "I arrived in Dublin on Friday morning and checked into a B&B then explored [the city] on foot and had a wonderful dinner at a pub with some Guinness of course. The next day I went on a tour along the coast and up in the mountains, had another great Irish dinner, went to a pub for some Irish music and returned on Sunday morning." Sounds good to me.

Of course, mileage running isn't exactly cheap, but Gary got a good deal on his St. Louis to Dublin run. His ticket was just $570 roundtrip, which is a relative bargain, and he was bumped up to business class to boot.

A true mileage run is only as good as the deal the runner finds for the ticket. And at my website, FareCompare.com, there are two ways to get that deal before the end of 2010: 1) Shop by PPM, price per mile, and pinpoint the deals on the FareCompare Where-to-Go Getaway Map, or 2) Get your miles for free by entering to win a Mileage Run designed by me, to get elite status before the end of 2010.

Oh, let me mention just one more perk mileage runners often acquire, though an inadvertent one: they fly so much that their chances of being asked if they'll agree to "voluntary bumping" rise fairly dramatically, so there's an opportunity to collect vouchers good for future trips, or miles -- or both.

So is it worth it? That's up to you. Mileage runners say "yes!" and I see their point.

I also see how tiring it can be. Frankly, the thought of getting on one more plane -- a plane going nowhere -- makes me yearn for nothing more than a nice long nap. On the couch. At home.

This work is the opinion of the columnist and does not reflect the opinion of ABC News.

Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations that include ABC News, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, the Associated Press and Bloomberg. His website, FareCompare.com, offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deals.