Delta Mileage Run Guide
In this “Delta Mileage Run Guide” we'll cover the components of elite mileage runs for Delta medallion status and how you can do it yourself. Back in the good old days when most airline loyalty programs awarded miles based on distance flown, mileage runs were an amazing thing. You could often earn tens of thousands of miles and hit an airline status tier in a single trip. Unfortunately, things have changed and while you no longer earn oodles of award miles (exception: Alaska), the mileage run is alive and well for the another reason: elite status. For more on why I love airline status over hotel status read “Maximize Extensions & Why Airline Status Beats Hotel Status!” The mileage run strategy can be applicable to many airline programs, but in this post we're gonna tackle the Delta mileage run because let's be honest- we all love Delta (at least when it's being compared to United and AA).
Luckily for us, It turns out that Delta is still one of the easiest elite status programs to mileage run. I'll get into the nuances of why Delta's airline loyalty program lends itself to this strategy later in the post. But if you're not locked into an airline and are about to start up leisure or business travel again, the shortcuts to Delta Medallion status I outline in this post might make DL a top choice. (Don't worry about all the confusing lingo- it'll be clear by the end.)
What is a Mileage Run?
A mileage run is a trip booked simply for the sake of earning qualifying miles, segments or dollars (spend) that help you attain elite status with a particular airline (or in some cases to earn a ton of miles cheaply). Often this means flying on a quick turnaround itinerary just for the elite status credit without even leaving the airport (yes, I'm a crazy person and have done this several times). However, you can also build a mileage run around a trip or fare deal, which is an excellent strategy if you're flexible on timing and on places you want to visit.
A mileage run is generally part of a larger status earning plan because it's generally not worth mileage running every single mile and dollar needed to attain frequent flyer status. If you're not flying enough to really use status, then spending extra money to earn status just doesn't make sense. If you're trying to hit a low-level status tier, it's also usually not worth a run, as the benefits aren't all that significant.
On the other hand, mileage running for a higher status tier when you fall just short or have a ton of travel planned can be quite lucrative. Say you end up about 10,000 MQMs short of Delta's Platinum Medallion tier after your annual work travel has wrapped for the year. Given that you'll enjoy one Delta Choice benefit, additional award miles and a better chance of an upgrade, spending a few hundred bucks to earn the MQMs needed might be entirely worth it.
Delta Medallion Status Requirements and Benefits
Delta elite status requires earning both Medallion qualifying miles (MQMs) or Medallion qualifying segments (MQSs) and Medallion qualifying dollars (MQDs). The requirements for each of the four status tiers are:
- Silver Medallion – 25,000 MQM or 30 MQSs and $3,000 MQDs
- Gold Medallion – 50,000 MQM or 60 MQSs and $6,000 MQDs
- Platinum Medallion – 75,000 MQM or 100 MQSs and $9,000 MQDs
- Diamond Medallion – 125,000 MQM or 140 MQSs and $15,000 MQDs
You can obtain a MQD waiver at all Delta Medallion status levels through spending on a co-branded American Express card. You'll need either a Delta SkyMiles® Platinum American Express Card or Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card to be excused from the spend requirement aka required MQDs. It doesn't matter whether you have the personal or business version of the cards. For Delta Silver, Gold, and Platinum Medallion, spending $25,000 on your card (or cards) will waive the MQD requirement. For Delta Diamond, you'll have to spend a massive $250,000! Terms Apply.
You Can Check out my Video review of Delta One Suites here
Delta Medallion Benefits
I'm not going to go into detail about all the benefits of Delta elite status but we can't do a whole Delta mileage run guide without at least mentioning a few highlights. You get things like waived fees, checked bags, extra miles and all that jazz. The benefits you really want to understand are the Choice Benefits offered at the Platinum and Diamond levels, which include:
- Delta Sky Club membership options
- Upgrade certificates
- Bonus miles
- Gift cards
- Status gifting
The best options are solidly the upgrade certificates, if you have the ability to use them. Lounge access is also nice but if you have an Amex Platinum Card you at least have access to the Delta Sky Clubs when flying DL. You receive one Choice benefit when you achieve Platinum Medallion status and three when you hit Diamond Medallion. The increased chance of domestic upgrades and the global upgrade certificates that book you into business class are worth thousands to some people and are definitely a compelling reason to book a mileage run.
Building a Mileage Run: The Basics
The goal of a mileage run is simple: earn as many qualifying miles possible for as cheaply as possible. You'll also be trying to earn as many qualifying dollars as possible, but let's hold that thought for now. Right now, I want to focus on earning Delta MQMs.
When flying Delta, you earn at least 100% of flown miles as MQMs for all paid tickets, even when booked in basic economy. When flying in premium cabins, you'll sometimes enjoy an additional boost to your MQM accrual. Another thing to note is that you'll earn a minimum of 500 MQMs per segment.
What you want to build, then, is the cheapest trip that will get you the MQMs you need. I'm going to assume I need 10,000 MQMs (since I found the perfect example lol). I'm currently seeing Delta tickets from JFK to Honolulu for just $334. Yes, it's economy class, so I won't be flying it. But it is a great mileage run example for anyone needing qualifying miles without spending lots of cash.
To determine how many MQMs you earn, use the handy milecalc.com tool. Another option is gcmap.com, which also maps the trip. I did a full guide explaining how to use these tools and easily figure out mileage earnings here: Easily Calculate How Many Miles You’ll Earn for a Flight.
A round-trip JFK-LAX-HNL itinerary will earn 10,062 miles. This is a very good 3.3 cents per mile (CPM). You usually want to look for trips that are less than 4.0 CPM, preferably less than 3.5 CPM. If you're extremely lucky, you'll find a Delta mileage run where you're paying less than 3.0 CPM. If you're flying a premium cabin, target a run in the 7-8 CPM range.
Searching Google Flights map view with “SkyTeam” selected and an open date range (e.g. weekend trip in the next 6 months) is a great way to look for potential Delta mileage runs. If you're locked into particular dates, just plug those in instead. You'll see the cheapest option to each destination. Some of the trips won't be pretty, but know that every connection typically increases your total MQMs earned.
Bonus Example (Not everyone wants to fly from JFK to HNL even if they are chasing status.) The below flight will earn you a whopping 6,000+ medallion qualifying miles which is a quarter of the way to Silver Medallion Status. Here's the milecalc.com search.
Seems easy enough right? Well here's the rub.
The issue with flying Delta on a cheap ticket as a Delta mileage run is that you lose out on MQDs. You can earn tons of MQMs by flying cheap long-haul Delta flights. But this is unhelpful if you need to also meet an MQD requirement. The ticket above would earn fewer than $334 MQDs, which hardly helps you toward status. If you're only going for Platinum it's not as big of a deal since you can pick up a co-branded Delta American Express card and spend to hit the MQD waiver. (Side note- I never do this because I prefer to use my spend to earn more valuable miles and I don't “create” spend on my cards because my time is way to valuable, with that being said it's an excellent option for most people.) So how do we solve this problem?
Delta Partner Flights AKA “The Secret Sauce”
Delta organizes their partners into bougie and not-so-bougie. The Bougier of the bunch are also called “Core Global Partners”, which are the ones you'll want to book for pretty much any mileage run. Delta Core Global Partners are:
- Air France
- China Eastern
- Korean Air
- Virgin Atlantic
- Virgin Australia
You can pretty much ignore the rest on the list (non-Core Global), unless you find a ridiculously cheap premium cabin fare. The benefit of booking Core Global (also called Tier 1) Partners is that they accrue MQMs and MQDs at much better rates than other partners.
Here are Some of the basics:
- All Core Global Partners earn 100% flown miles as MQMs for all non-award flight fare classes
- All Core Global Partners earn MQDs based on distance flown (minimum 5%)
- Core Global Partners have excellent MQM and MQD rates for premium cabins, typically at least 150% flown miles as MQMs and 30%/40% flown miles as MQDs for premium economy/business class.
The fact that all economy tickets earn 100% flown miles as MQMs means that you can look for flights with any of these partners and expect to earn as many MQMs as flying Delta. That's a win for sure.
The ability to earn high amounts of MQDs in premium economy and business class, however, is where the real magic is. For example, this Air France premium economy ticket out of Vancouver isn't half bad for earning miles. With the 150% MQM earning rate and 30% MQD earning rate, you'd accrue ~27,000 MQMs and ~$5,400 MQDs on a journey of ~18,000 miles.
Sure, the ticket does cost $1,784. But if you're interested in visiting India and a Seattle-based Delta loyalist, it might be something to consider for a trip. Plus, you could likely use Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards to book the ticket and save the cash.
How about this for an awesome mileage run NYC-AMS-CAI (11,400 miles flown round trip). The fare code if booked through Air France is Z. So if you look up the earnings chart on Delta's site for Air France you'll see that flights in class Z earn 40% of the distance flown in MQDs- so about $4600 in MQDs for a $2300 flight.
The main takeaway here is the MQD accrual. The ticket earns 3x the cost in MQDs, which is what you can often achieve (and better) by booking tickets Delta partner flights.
Tips for Finding High-Value Delta Mileage Runs
Finding high-value mileage runs really boils down to two things:
- Booking and flying a Delta Tier 1 partner airline.
- Flying in at least the premium economy cabin, but preferably business (of course).
Mileage Run Ideas
You can sometimes find good economy fares, but who wants to fly that? Ew. You should really hunt for cheap business class with Delta Tier 1 partners. Although they aren't a great airline, Aeromexico business class to Central or South America can work well. You can sometimes accrue over $3,000 in MQDs for under $1,000 spent. Not too shabby.
At time of writing, you can book a ticket from SFO to Madrid via Mexico City for under $1,500 in business class. This would accrue over $6,000 MQDs, which is incredible. You'll also earn ~22,500 MQMs and a bunch of redeemable skymiles.
Another note: don't restrict yourself to your home airport. If you live near an excellent hub like I do (hello, JFK), you probably don't need to bother. But there are other times where a quick positioning hop to a different airport will let you take advantage of a cheap premium cabin ticket.
Final Thoughts: Delta Mileage Run Guide
If you're short of your status goals, it might be worth booking a Delta mileage run. Always consider the costs versus the benefits. Having elite status that you don't use isn't fun but I know most people are planning their travel for upcoming year and jumping back in full force. Since Delta is still making concessions as a result of the pandemic there no better time to get going with status.