My Mileage Run

Boeing 767-300

Image via Wikipedia

(Why I flew to these airports, GSO-IAD-DAY-ORD-MCI-ORD-GSO, in a single day)

Lately I have been digging into the details of ‘travel hacking’, which is a subset of (mostly business) traveling details where you exploit inefficiencies in how the travel industry operates to get either free flights, free hotel stays, or at least a better level of elite status, in order to get the former.

I’ve been doing something similar at Hilton hotels for years, because of how they’ve structured their Hilton HHonors program. To get to their Diamond level, you need to stay 60 nights, or 28 stays, in a calendar year. The 60 nights is self-explanatory. The 28 stays is where the inefficiency lies. I don’t travel enough to spend 60 nights at hotels per year. But 28 nights, that’s achievable.

At Hilton, a stay is a check-in +check-out. It can be of any length, and at any price point. And Hilton has a nice habit of putting their hotels near each other. To reach Diamond, I spend each night per business trip at a different Hilton property. Since most of my recent travel has been to the Washington D.C. area, I have 4 hotels there, and move daily. Most trips last 2 days, so it’s not a big deal to switch hotels once per trip.

28 nights/stays is still a lot of travel to many people, but it’s been pretty typical for me since I moved to America.

Note: An irony of doing a lot of business travel is that during your personal time the last thing you want to do is travel, but your family wants to ‘go somewhere’. Fortunately, when kids are small, even a local hotel is a treat, as long as it has a pool and breakfast.

So, back to travel hacking…

A few weeks ago I noticed that I could move up from Nobody, to the bottom level of Somebody on United Airlines, by doing the same thing I do at Hilton. I needed either 19,000 miles, or 7 segments, to get to Premier.

My local airport is Greensboro International, a small airport, and I almost always have to fly very small regional jets, the kind where one side of the plane has just 1 seat, the other side has 2. Small. No legroom. Always cramped. Premier level would let me select exit row seats and give me automatic upgrades, and ensure I always got on the plane before nearly everyone else. My trips are typically short, I only have carry-on luggage, and the front-of-the-line perk meant I’d always have enough overhead storage space (and yes, I know these all sound like small things, but what’s airline travel except many small inconveniences and indignities piled atop each other. Relief from a few of them means a lot).

In case you don’t fly much, a segment is the equivalent of a hotel stay. When the wheels kiss the runway, you just completed a segment. The price you paid, the length of the trip, the size of the plane, none of these matter. Did the plane land? Good, that’s another segment in your account.

Remember, to get to Premier, I needed 19,000 miles, or 7 segments, by the end of this calendar year. There was no way I would be flying so many miles. But the segments, that I could work with.

I knew I had one more planned business trip this year, for 2 segments, so that left 5 segments. I also wanted an extra segment in case I had a dispute with the airline. To book this mileage run (really a segment run), I needed a trip that could be completed in a single Saturday, would include at least 5 segments (6 for a safety margin of one), and it had to be inexpensive.

To book a trip like that, you don’t use the popular travel sites like Expedia or Orbitz. What I needed was a specialized tool. The travel hacking sites point to ITA, a company bought by Google a few months ago. You can’t buy a ticket there, but if you spend some time learning the different search options, it will find you a trip as crazy as you like. In my case:

1. I wanted a 6 segment trip

2. I didn’t want to pay much

3. I wanted to leave and return home in the same day

4. And I didn’t care where I went.

I ended up in Kansas City, Missouri, after trying a few options. Specifically, I started at 6AM in Greensboro, flew to Washington D.C., then to Dayton Ohio, Chicago, Kansas City, back to Chicago, and landed in Greensboro at 9PM the same day (last Saturday). The price was $158 plus tax. Because of how airline pricing works (or doesn’t work), it’s likely that anyone sitting next to me and flying between just two of those destinations paid more than I paid for the entire trip.

After ITA found me the trip I needed, I booked it at United’s website.

Summary

The next day, the segments posted to my account, and now I’m 1 segment away from Premier. Not bad for under $200.

Some observations:

1. It was boring. Many times that day, I thought about how I would have been happy to pay United Airlines the ticket price and stay home. Of course, travel hacking is about inefficiencies, and that option isn’t available. Someone pointed out that my carbon footprint for that day was really, really bad.

🙂

2. I didn’t bring a laptop, for probably the first time in 15 years. I did bring a Kindle, and it’s a great travel companion. I brought an Ipod, and never used it. I brought my Spint Evo cellphone to text my wife every time I landed and to use an app to keep my flights & gates organized. Highly recommend it.

3. The flight had so many segments, I couldn’t print all my boarding passes from United’s website. It has a maximum of 4 segments per day.

4. Kansas City has the stupidest layout I have ever seen. Every time you leave your gate area, you can’t return without going through Security (complete with X-ray) all over again. Want to cross the aisle and buy a coffee? That’s a security check when you return to the gate.

5. I’d probably do it all again, but I hope I don’t have to.