By Nikki Ekstein
December 22, 2015
commercial flights to antarctica
Credit: Adam Ungar/ALE

For serious players of the airline loyalty game, the holiday season has traditionally meant one thing: mileage runs. But with the changes that many carriers have made to their frequent-flyer programs, the practice of making last-minute trips just to reach elite status has been waning. Before you consider a mileage run, ask yourself these questions.

Am I trying to get status or miles?

"The basic strategy for mileage runs has completely changed," says Eric Rosen, an industry expert and Points Guy contributor. Because Delta and United have a spending requirement for elite status, "getting a long-haul flight on the cheap won't necessarily do the trick." Now that redeemable miles (those you exchange for free tickets) and qualifying miles (those that get you elite status) are two separate things, it's important to identify which one you're after.

If you're looking for redeemable miles, booking a cheap, long-haul flight is still generally the best way to go. This approach makes sense for travelers who had elite status in 2015 but aren't likely to re-qualify next year: they're a great way to take advantage of the mileage bonuses that come with top-tier status.

If status is your top priority, your strategy will look different than in previous years, according to Christopher Barnard, the co-founder and president of mile-managing app Points. "Before, the game was all about finding a flight that went farther for cheaper. Now that miles don't matter as much, it's about tracking down the shortest and most expensive flight," he says. In other words, better not to waste time if what you're after is spending money.

Loyal to American or Alaska Airlines? You still get the best of both worlds—these programs still bestow elite status based on distance traveled.

Is elite status worth it?

A mileage run can unlock significant perks if you're on the cusp of top-tier status. On American and United, the most valued members get automatic, unlimited, complimentary upgrades on all available flights; on Delta, benefits include guaranteed lounge access, dedicated VIP reservation lines, and special cross-over rewards with Starwood hotels.

If you're just about to crack into the first tier of status, though, think twice before booking a mileage run. Perks like priority boarding and security are probably not worth your time or effort.

Regardless of where you fall on this spectrum, it's all about cost-benefit analysis. Look up your program's benefit charts to see what you stand to gain—and which perks you'll actually to use. And don't forget about the bonus points you'll earn. "One of the biggest values of having status is that your miles become more valuable as you climb the ranks," explain Barnard. "That's thanks to accelerator bonuses that let you earn more miles per dollar spent, and easier redemption policies." A Delta Diamond Medallion member, for instance, earns 11 miles to the dollar, whereas a Gold member only earns five.

How much will I travel next year?

Looking ahead at your travel plans can reveal the value of airline status better than any benefit chart. Assuming that a free checked bag saves you $25, how much do you stand to save with that benefit alone in the year ahead?

"Go through the perks of your desired status tier and see what value they represent for your year ahead in travel," advises Rosen. "Is it worth spending the money that will get you there? Don't spend $1,000 to qualify for platinum status unless you think you'll actually get to use enough of the perks to offset that cost."

Can I get comparable benefits with an airline-branded credit card?

If you're looking to make it into a lower tier of status, you can often buy the same perks by signing up for a co-branded credit card. If you play your cards right, you can get any annual fees waived for the first year. Says Rosen: "Delta Silver comes with some great perks like priority boarding, free checked bags, and access to economy comfort seats, to name a few. But a card like the Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express offers all of those benefits—the same priority boarding, the same free checked bags—without requiring you to spend money on airfare and time away from family during the holiday season."