Monday, November 11, 2013

Anatomy of a mileage season....

This season's flight paths, yes really.
(via Great Circle Mapper)

Last weekend Mrs. CruisingAltitude and I had some friends over for our, now annual, 'Fall in California' party.  You can read more about it from her [here] at our 'grounded' blog.  Turns out if you put enough pumpkin and cider into it, even an 80 deg  SoCal day by the beach can take on a convincing seasonal shift.  My point in bringing this up is that, after a few glasses of hard cider, someone asked what 'the deal was with my travel thing.'

A slight look of worry then crossed Mrs. CruisingAltitude's face as she warned our unwitting friend not to ask that question if they didn't actually want the whole answer (or lecture as it might be).  However, they laughed it off and said they really did want to know.  In short- can open, worms everywhere.

From meeting other miles and points junkies and addicted travelers, I know I'm not alone in this particular proclivity. Whether it's the latest flight deal or best card offer, when asked we really can't help but give a full....some might say exhaustive... answer.

Maybe it's our personal excitement over the subject, maybe a little pride in having caught that great deal, or maybe it's just simply that none of this stuff lends itself to a short reply.  I mean, honestly, if anyone's devised a way to explain the concept and execution of manufactured spending or valuation of elite status in a charming, witty, cocktail party-appropriate manner please god let me know.  Immediately.  

This is something of particular concern as I'm on 'short final approach' to a whopper of a mileage season.  This year, as last, I'm just under 40k shy of Executive Platinum status with American.  This is, yes, a lot.  Last year they ran a end of year DEQM, making qualification much simpler.  This year, however, it doesn't look good, so I'm doing things the old fashioned way.  I went back and forth for months about whether or not to re-qualify given the numbers involved.  In the end, I left it to fate and passively cruised for deals in case it could be done reasonably.  And, as it turns out, it can.  ('Reasonable' being a very relative term here)

The goal was to get it done in a minimum of weekends away, and little to no time off work.  The result of my search is the following two weekends:

Trip 1- 'The Real Test Of Resolve.'
This is a 5 segment, 3 continent, 22.6k mile round trip itinerary from LAX-London Heathrow-Johannesburg, South Africa-London Heathrow-DFW-LAX requiring around 48 hours of flight time.  Yes, once again, I'm serious.  It is, however, not a 'true' mileage run by purist standards as I have a night (on cash and points) at the Hilton Sandton in ZA and the better part of two days on the ground.  I know, I know, serious bad form there ;)

-Well, 48 hours of flight time, at least 24 of which must be in Y (coach) as they're a British Airways codeshare with no option to use a SWU.
-Parts of Jo'burg require some situational awareness while sightseeing.
-Likely stuffed to oversold flight on the outbound to LHR in all classes.

-Long flights means lots of miles with fewer possibilities for misconnects.
-Both TATL segments on American's new 777-300ER (aka Tripp from 'Planes'!!) meaning MCE at worst, and lie-flat business class at best.
-Quite a few other mileage runners are going the same weekend- safety in numbers, and a chance to meet some new people.
-No visa requirement
-Totally new destinations/airports/planes - AA Flagship lounges, Arrivals & GF lounge in LHR!
AA's new metal- 777-300ER
& Animated counterpart (above)
Trip 2- 'Just A Little Jaunt Across The Pacific'
The second round, though a little dwarfed by the first, is pretty hefty in it's own right.  However, some hardcore mileage runners would consider it little more than a rambling tour of the Pacific Rim in 36 hours.

It takes 7 segments, and nets right around 18k EQMs.  It starts with a positioning flight LAX-SFO-ORD, with an overnight at the Aloft Rosemont, before a morning flight ORD-Shanghai Pudong.  Then I have a night at the Sheraton in Shanghai (hoping for a nice Platinum upgrade here) and some time to sight see, followed by an early flight Shanghai- Tokyo Narita, 6 hours to enjoy the JAL First lounge, then the long haul of Tokyo-ORD-DFW-LAX.

-Quite a few segments to make connections on.
-Early flight out of PVG may require a taxi ride rather than the train (more expensive).
-Final day is 18+hrs of flying consisting of 4 segments.

-Almost entirely on AA metal, with a high chance of upgrades clearing, and therefore, grabbing some actual sleep along the way.
-2 real hotel nights, one of which should result in a nice upgrade and free food and drink.
-Some high end lounges and time to enjoy them, especially in NRT.
-Segment to NRT allows me to waive the $150 Chinese visa.
-Maglev train to Shanghai (300+ mph!!)

All in all I'll fly 12 segments, to and/or through 8 airports, on 3 different Oneworld airlines, in 6 plane types.  If I call it 'extreme flying' does it make it better.....or worse?  True, I'm probably going to be exhausted once the adrenaline dies down, but from my past experience I'll say there's nothing like walking off that last jetbridge at your home airport knowing you've hit 100k, made a ton of miles, and had an adventure along the way.

Planespotting from the LAX AC

One thing I think people don't emphasize enough when they try to tell others about this pass time ( choice?) is that there are so many reasons to do a trip like this, and you can't really separate them out or give them value independently from the other.  Sure, there's the status and the miles themselves, which we always mention.  They're the tangible benefit- something you can try to put a price tag on.  But the rest matters too, maybe even more in the long run (pun intended).

When I look back on previous mileage runs what I actually remember are the 'war stories'-  The gamble on tight connections, solving the puzzle of how to get from point A to point B in C number of miles for under D price, and the fun insanity of a weekend in the closed off world of airports, lounges, and planes - the only place you can be sitting down to a 6am orange juice and cereal, then have someone next to you order up a Heineken and no one even bats an eye.

But there are also the real, personal, memories- like having the chance to meet up with friends in distant cities as if you lived just one town over, walking through an early snowstorm in the Boston Common when it's 80 degrees back home in LA, or sitting down next to a stranger in row 10 of your second transcon of a Saturday, feeling a little silly when you tell him the reason for your trip....only to have him start to laugh, saying, 'Me too, and I've been doing this since Thursday!!'

It's a strange thing, this flying we do, but it offers some of the most unique experiences one can have.  I've had long conversations with people I never would have otherwise met, seen places I'd never have otherwise considered going, and I've worked, dreamed, written, schemed, and had epiphanies all along the way.

So, my point...should I choose to get back to it... is no, I still don't know how to give the cliffnotes version of 'what's up with my flying thing' without it being either unintelligible rambling about cents per mile, or sounding like a ridiculous excess waste of time and money.  I have a hard time getting the charm of it all across.

However, Mrs. CruisingAltitude had some advice- "Maybe you should work on making the explanation sound funnier."

Okay, funnier, here goes:

".....So a 737, a ERJ 145, and an Airbus fly into a bar....and the bartender says..."

Well... maybe not, I'll keep working on it.  Luckily I'll have plenty of time at 36,000ft to do so.  If I can't figure it out by the last of these segments, it's probably a sign the world's not ready.


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