Planning a status run

A status run (also known as a mileage run) is when you take flights to places you don’t need to go to just to accumulate status credits in a frequent flyer program. Why would anyone fly when they didn’t need to? Flying is usually sufficiently uncomfortable that you’d have to be crazy to do it unnecessarily — or would you?

I’m a member of QantasFrequent Flyer program, ever since Ansett collapsed in 2002, taking my Global Rewards points with it. I’ve been doing enough flying in the past few years that I’m now off the bottom status rung (Bronze) and have enjoyed the privileges of Silver, such as extra checked luggage allowance and business-class check-in, since September 2008. I’m travelling to the US again next month, and that will earn me enough status credits to retain my Silver membership level next year. (Qantas bases its membership levels on status credits, whereas US airlines usually count elite qualifying miles (EQM) or some other count of miles flown.)

However, I wondered what it would take for me to get to the next status level, Gold. To qualify takes 700 points, and I’ll have 320 after my US trip. Another 380 points seems out of the question — at least it does to mere mortals, but to members of forums such as FrequentFlyer and Flyertalk, it’s a welcome challenge. And the key to the challenge is cheap US domestic first class fares, generally known as YUPP or KUPP fares (named after their booking codes, and also because they are Y-class (economy) UPgrade fares).

A recent FrequentFlyer forum poster asked how to earn 95 status credits (SC) in a weekend flying out of Sydney. One answer was a return flight to Canberra and a return flight to Melbourne, with one leg of each flight in business class, for a total of 100 SC at a cost of $898, or $8.98 per SC. Another involved a trip to Auckland, coming back via Melbourne, flying a mix of Jetstar Starclass, Qantas and LAN business, for 135 SC at $860, or $6.37/SC.

On the other hand, thanks to FareCompare and with the assistance of FrequentFlyer guru serfty, I’m looking at flights out of Portland, OR (where I’ll be for a conference) that earn 420 SC at a cost of $1170, or $2.78/SC — a much cheaper rate than options out of Australia. (And my flights aren’t even the best that can be done in the US — other routes from other starting points can be even cheaper.) All I’ll have to do is spend a whole day flying from Portland, OR, to Tampa, FL via Dallas-Fort Worth, TX and return. And, because it’s a KUPP fare, I’ll be in first class the whole way. (Don’t get too excited — most US airlines’ domestic first class is of a lower standard than Qantas’ domestic business class. But at least the seats are wider than economy, there’s more legroom, meals are provided, as well as a power port to keep my laptop running. There’s even a chance that wireless will be available on some of the flights.)

So I have a better value option available to me than if I were to do a status run out of Australia, but is it still worth it overall? Let’s look at the value of what’s provided by the Gold status level compared with Silver.

The most obvious improvement is free Qantas Club membership, which gives access to Qantas domestic lounges and international business lounges, as well as British Airways and American Airlines lounges. Lounge access typically provides free food and drinks, computing facilities (usually including free wireless access), as well as showers. I remember a couple of years ago when my Jetstar flight to Honolulu (on which I was flying Starclass, which entitled me to Qantas lounge access) was delayed by about four hours, I spent the time quite comfortably in the Qantas lounge in Sydney; the other passengers had to suffer with inadequate seating in a partially completed part of the terminal, with whatever food was available from vending machines.

How much is Qantas Club membership worth? They’ll quote you a price to join, which as a new member is $775, or less if you can join as part of a corporate membership. (If you join the FrequentFlyer forum as a Gold member (which costs $50), you can save $200 off Qantas Club membership — a net $150 saving.)

Another benefit of Gold is 50% points bonus compared with 25% bonus in Silver; note that this bonus is applied to Frequent Flyer points only, not status credits. So, if I flew 44,000 miles, that’s an extra 11,000 points, which is enough for a one-way flight from Melbourne to Sydney in economy (including taxes). Depending on what fares are on sale, that could be worth something like $90-$140.

The other benefits are priority baggage handling (the value of which is a bit hard to calculate — even if you think it has a value at all) and on-departure upgrades. These upgrades are available from Qantas Club desks and allow you to use frequent flyer points to upgrade to business class from all but the cheapest economy class fares. There doesn’t seem to be a great difference between the number of points needed for the upgrade and the number of points you’d use to book business over economy class in the first place, so it’s hard to say that there’s a great deal of extra value here.

There’s an additional cost to doing a status run that I haven’t included so far, which is the cost to the environment. Looking at the cost in greenhouse gas emissions alone, the Carbon Reduction Institute’s carbon offset calculator estimates that the dollar equivalent of the greenhouse gas impact of my flights would be around $100. (If this seems high to you compared with carbon offsets offered by airlines such as Virgin Blue, be aware that some offset programs are cheaper because they invest in less effective but cheaper offset methods.)

So, adding these benefits all up, there’s perhaps around $750 value in Gold status compared with Silver — that’s the benefit that can have a dollar value put against it. Other benefits are harder to calculate: if there are operational upgrades (i.e. free upgrades to open up lower class seats when they’re overbooked) available, you’re more likely to get one the higher up the status ladder you are. Similarly, when it comes to seating assignments, you’re higher up the ladder, and so should be able to get better seats in whatever class you’re in. On the other hand, the cost of taking the flights to get to Gold is around $1270, including offsetting the carbon impact of the flights.

So, the big question is whether it’s worth it. For me, needing the number of points I need to make Gold, and just looking at dollar values, probably not. Does that mean I’m not going to take the flights?

I don’t know — I’ll keep you posted.

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