Quito, Ecuador (CNN) — Isn't flying the worst? Endless lines. Cramped seats. Selfish armrest hoarders. That's why it's so amazing that some people -- OK, me -- fly simply for the joy of being on an airplane.
I do love flying. But that's only because when I fly, I'm treated like a human being. Airlines tend to respect their repeat customers. Their "regulars." The way they measure that is by tracking how much you fly with them and how much you spend, awarding every customer a rating -- pretentiously called "elite status."
Because I fly with my preferred airline so much, I'm always among the first to board and can take my chosen window or aisle seat, often in first class, but almost always toward the front of the plane. And there's always room for my carry-on bag in the overhead bin. Lucky me.
When I discovered last month that my personal and CNN work travel would only get me 80% of the way toward renewing my status -- and all of those benefits -- it was time to do something drastic.
It was time to book a mileage run.
Forty-eight hours in another country
A man walks along the narrow La Ronda street in Quito.
A mileage run, for the uninitiated, is a trip taken mainly to earn miles and bump up your frequent flier status.
I booked a first-class ticket from New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport to Quito, Ecuador, via Mexico City for $834. On Saturday, November 17, I set out for my first flight. After the two flights and a six-hour layover, I arrived in Quito on Sunday morning where I proceeded to sleepwalk through the Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site brimming with 40 churches and chapels dating back to the colonial era. On Sunday mornings, the streets are closed to vehicular traffic so I bought some pastries and reveled in the gorgeous plazas. The next day, I took a free walking tour of the La Floresta neighborhood -- one of the first in Quito and now a wealthy community with a ton of street art and even an underground independent movie theater. And did anyone tell you that you can get terrific Indian food in Quito? It's true.
After spending about two days in Quito, I flew home Tuesday, November 20, again via Mexico City.
Why would I pay money for the privilege of continuing to pay money to one airline? Well, it's not for everyone. But if you like to travel (check) and you like to be comfortable while traveling (check), then buying your way up to top-level status is a smart move.
You still might think I'm crazy, but there are many other Delta mileage runners like me. Pierre Tessier once flew from Detroit to Chicago and back for $129 two days after Christmas to lock down his airline status. "Arrived to O'Hare, got off the plane, got me a tasty (is that possible?) Chicago style dog in terminal and boarded back on the same [plane] that brought me to the Windy City," he says.
Paul Bevan flew from New York to Detroit to Tokyo to Singapore and back the same way without ever leaving an airport. The whole thing took 63 hours. Bevan says he "showered, ate a fabulous Indian meal at the food court at 3 a.m., mooched around a bit and flew back at 6 for 21,000 MQM's and ensured making Diamond again this year."
Here's how we do it.
Step 1: Calculate how many miles you need
A look at my Delta mileage profile.
Jeff Simon/Delta Airlines
The first thing you should do is figure out how close you will be to the top-tier status level with your preferred airline. Earning status is based on a combination of two things: the miles you fly and the money you spend. These miles (or flight segments in rare cases) are called different things depending on the airline. American Airlines calls them Elite Qualifying Miles. Delta Air Lines calls them Medallion Qualifying Miles. United Airlines calls them Premier Qualifying Miles. So you have to fly a ton of miles, and you'll also notice that all three require $15,000 worth of pre-tax, pre-fee spending each year. There's a shortcut though for some airlines, and we'll get to that later.
Before my Quito trip, I had already flown more than the 125,000 miles necessary to qualify for top-tier Delta Diamond status for next year. But I was $3,100 short on the spending requirement. If you don't know exactly how many miles you need to fly and how many dollars you need to spend, you could end up wasting money on flights that won't get you what you're after, or you could spend more than necessary to do it.
Step 2: Pick the right flights
A beautiful Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner that took me from New York City to Mexico City.
This is not (necessarily) a vacation. You're looking for the fastest routing with just enough miles flown and dollars spent to get the job done. Be open-minded about where the journey might take you. If your comfort zone is the few places you've already been or are on your bucket list, you may need to expand your horizons.
Step 3: Choose the right airline
When you have top-level status with an airline, you're often the first to board the plane.
This is the most important step in the process and the key to making this work. The secret sauce. Just because you're aiming for top-tier status with one airline does not mean you need to fly on that airline to secure it. In fact, in many cases, it means you shouldn't.
I said I was $3,100 short for Delta status, right? And I also said I booked an $834 ticket. So what gives? Two words: Partner. Airlines.
In the world of global air travel, there are three major airline alliances: Skyteam, of which Delta is a member; Star Alliance, of which United is a member; and Oneworld, which American belongs to. The alliances were built to expand the global reach of the member airlines and to provide reciprocal benefits to frequent fliers around the world. In practical terms, this means the three major American airlines all partner with dozens of other airlines. One example: When you fly on Lufthansa to Germany, you can earn United miles.
American, Delta and United all have web pages that tell you how many elite qualifying miles and dollars you can earn by flying on their partner airlines. The systems that airlines use to communicate with each other are intricate and complicated, but they have one noticeable gap in their capabilities: The airlines don't share with each other how much a customer spends on a ticket. This is the most critical piece of knowledge you can have.
My flights to Quito were booked on Aeromexico, a Skyteam partner of Delta. When I booked my flights, instead of creating an Aeromexico frequent flier account, or leaving that field blank on the booking page, I used my Delta frequent flier number. Because Delta never finds out how much money I paid to Aeromexico for my tickets, how are they supposed to calculate the Medallion Qualifying Dollars (MQD) to deduct from the $3,100 I need for Diamond status?
Delta, and most airlines, does what they can with the information they have. So Delta knows that I flew from New York to Mexico City to Quito and back. They know that is 8,058 miles. So, based on the type of ticket I booked, they award me a percentage of the miles flown as MQDs. In this case -- 40%. If you're keeping score at home, that's $3,223 qualifying dollars for a ticket that cost me $834.
Utilize partner airlines to earn your way to elite status faster and cheaper than by flying with your preferred airline. Note that some airlines, United being one, do not issue qualifying dollars for travel on partner airlines.
Step 4: Enjoy your flights
Expect to be well fed when flying in first or business class.
If you've done this properly, there's a good chance you'll be in a business class seat. Enjoy the early boarding, the meal and maybe even the lie-flat seat you'll be relaxing in for the next five to six to 12 hours.
Step 5: Enjoy your elite status and the benefits that come with it
First and business class passengers on many international flights receive proper menus.
What was the point of all of this? Well, there are plenty of benefits to having top-tier status with an airline, but the most potential value lies in the "coupons" the airlines give you for global upgrades. This means you can book an economy ticket to Paris, apply one of these coupons, and enjoy your flight up front, in a lie-flat seat that might have cost $3,000 or considerably more. Of course, these upgrades are subject to availability. Most airlines would prefer to sell their business class seats rather than upgrade you into them for free. But with some patience and flexibility, you'll be jetsetting in style.
Yes, I spent $834 to enjoy two days in Ecuador. But would you spend $834 to reap thousands, if not tens of thousands of dollars in upgrades and benefits? Get mileage-running!
Step 6: Go with the flow
Free walking tours will take you into neighborhoods and even houses you might otherwise miss.
Remember to be flexible, since mileage run flights don't always work out. Delta flier Brett LaBare got stranded with his father in Toyko's Narita International Airport during a 2016 mileage run, after a five-hour computer glitch shut down Delta's operations worldwide. "The Japanese equivalent of the Red Cross [came] and handed out hundreds of cots, air mattresses, water and crackers," LaBarre says.
Still, you never know when a problem flight will turn into a mileage run. Robert Kelley used bad weather as an excuse to complete an "improvised mileage run" in November. His original flight from Atlanta to Phoenix was delayed, and he was allowed to change his flight for free. So he booked a flight to Charlotte. Then his next flight was delayed, so he flew to Minneapolis. Then Detroit. Then Tampa. Then Atlanta. Then on to Phoenix.
The photographer said he was "already missing my shoot so I rescheduled for Sunday. Figured I would fly around. Free food and drink for two days."