When American Airlines briefly had their FastTrack Promo back in August, I couldn't resist: by flying 30,000 miles by the end of the year, American Airlines would hand me their top elite status with eight systemwide upgrade certificates.
At the time, I had recently attained United 1K status largely through cheap mileage runs to ZFV (Philadelphia Amtrak Station), and had planned on re-qualifying for Chairman's Preferred status on US Airways by the end of the year. Adding a third top elite status in theory didn't make much sense, especially since Chairman's would presumably get me ExecPlat in the merger anyways. But I'm a sucker for a challenge, and the thought of completing the trinity of top elite statuses (on UA, US, and AA) excited me. More practically, it would get me eight highly-valued "systemwide upgrades" on American that I wouldn't otherwise get by just maintaining Chairman's.
Little did I know how much drama was about to unfold.
To complete the challenge affordably, I knew I would need some low-CPM mileage runs, ideally a few to destinations I wanted to travel to anyways. One challenge is that due to pre-existing travel and some planned destinations for my nomading, I really didn't have much time to spend mileage running for this goal.
I started out with a decent fare to Shanghai, booked for December with a one day turnaround:
$741 Los Angeles to Shanghai: LAX-BNA-ORD-PVG-ORD-MIA-LAX (19,858 mi @ 3.7 CPM)
The key to this fare working well was the routing I was able to attain, connecting through Nashville and Chicago on the outbound (way out of the way), and then Chicago and Miami on the return (even further out of the way), netting 19,859 miles for $741 (3.7 CPM).
A few months later I was able to find a low fare to Panama City for a one night trip with timing directly before the Shanghai trip, putting me within range of completing the 30,000 miles for the challenge:
$347 Los Angeles to Panama City: LAX-BNA-DFW-PTY-DFW-LAX (7,643 mi @ 4.5 CPM)
I then added in positioning flights from Austin, Texas (where I planned to be in December):
$161 Austin to Los Angeles: AUS-DFW-LAX (1,425 mi @ 11.3 CPM)
#### $123 San Diego to Austin: SAN-LAX-AUS (1,351 mi @ 9.1 CPM)
This all combined into the following compact nine day trip for December 6th - 13th:
$1,462: AUS-DFW-LAX-BNA-DFW-PTY-DFW-LAX-BNA-ORD-PVG-ORD-MIA-LAX,SAN-LAX-AUS (30,278 mi @ 4.8 CPM)
The above does not consider 500 mile minimums, as I didn't want to make any assumptions about earning those given the circumstances.
In the process of flying these miles, due to the fact that I'd earn mileage multipliers as soon as I hit Gold (6,000 miles) and Platinum (12,000 miles), I'd be earning about 42,000 redeemable miles, which I value at roughly $750, meaning on net balance I'd be paying $712 for ExecutivePlatinum status and eight international business class (not to mention, short trips to Shanghai and Panama). Not a bad deal, I thought.
Major Irregular Operations
My first day was supposed to be simple: fly AUS-DFW-LAX, then red-eye to BNA. Unfortunately, the huge cold front approaching DFW posed a significant problem and almost unraveled the whole thing from the start. On the morning of departure I got a notice that my AUS-DFW flight had been canceled, and decided to be taken to the airport immediately so I could try to deal with the issues with a lounge agent (phone agents were almost inaccessible with the significant DFW cancelations going on). Missing my first flight to LAX would destroy the rest of the entire trip, as there was almost no slack for re-booking. The lounge agent put me on standby for an AUS-LAX direct flight, still allowing me to clear the 30,000 miles. Given I had no status, the standby was very unlikely to clear, but my luck prevailed and I was the last standby to clear at the gate. I had never been so happy to sit in a middle seat at the back of the plane.
Having dodged a bullet by making it to LAX, I relaxed in the lounge a while before the next issue: a cancelation of my BNA-DFW flight the next day, which was supposed to connect me to Panama City. The lounge agent offered to rebook me through Miami (LAX-MIA-PTY), but I was relucant to accept given I knew this would put me under the 30,000 miles. Unfortunately there was simply no other option, and I had to accept. Perhaps I could do a quick AUS-DFW-AUS run the day I return to make up the mile deficit later.
At boarding time for LAX-MIA, the gate agents asked for volunteers to bump to the next LAX-MIA flight only an hour later for a $300 voucher. I immediately ran up and said I'm available with a safe connection and no checked bags. I once again got lucky and cleared this VDB (Voluntary Denied Boarding), scoring a $300 voucher, and successfully flying LAX-MIA-PTY with no issues.
Panama City for Three Hours
The drama got serious as soon as I arrived in PTY, where I was scheduled to spend one night and fly back in the morning. I took a cab to my hotel, was unable to check in quite yet, and upon sitting down to use the internet got a notice that my PTY-DFW flight the next day had been canceled. I immediately hopped on ExpertFlyer to investigate alternatives, and knew I wasn't going to be getting out of Panama City anytime soon - certainly not soon enough to continue on to Shanghai for the second half of the mile marathon. There was, however, a flight leaving Panama City for Miami departing in three hours with tons of seats. I told the hotel that I immediately need a cab and may not be checking in after all, then went striaght to the check-in desk to try to get rebooked out of Panama City on the next flight.
Lots of issues ensued from here: the check-in agents weren't directly powered to re-ticket, and there was some communication issues trying to explain my situation and the fact that I had literally just flown into Panama City and want to fly out again (and that I was flying to Shanghai the next day). I ended up spending one hour and fifteen minutes with the check-in agent, who was incredibly patient with me and at the last possible minute got me re-ticketed onto the next flight to Miami. In the rush of getting this done, she was only able to connect me back to LAX two days later on a direct MIA-LAX, which I knew was too late but also knew I needed to get out of Panama City as fast as possible. I ran through the airport and made the flight to Miami, again having dodged a potentially trip-ruining bullet.
Avoiding Miami & Reversing the Mile Deficit
Due to the huge irregular operations throughout AA's network, Miami was a madhouse. All the hotels were booked, and lines everywhere. But, I knew I had to get out of Miami and back to Los Angeles in time for my flight to Shanghai - earlier than I had originally been reticketed. In particularly, having done some research on ExpertFlyer, I wanted to connect through IAD - a spoke airport for AA, but one with seats available both MIA-IAD and IAD-LAX. Doing this had two major benefits: 1. By getting to IAD that night, I could stay at a reasonably-priced airport hotel which would have been impossible at MIA (I would have slept on a bench). 2. By going through IAD, I would recoop the mile deficit I gained through the rerouting on the outbound, and push me back over 30,000 without the need for more flying!
I ran through the airport to get down to a check-in agent, but they didn't let me through: only ticketed flights leaving that night or the next day were allowed for help. The directed me to the "future ticketing" office, which was full of some angry passengers. I finally got through to an agent, who could not have been more helpful, that was able to re-ticket me MIA-IAD that night then IAD-LAX the next morning, leaving me one night in Los Angeles before my Shanghai flight: perfect. She did the reticketing literally five minutes before boarding, so I ran back through the airport, was mistakenly told that TSA PreCheck was closed and waited in a long security line, ran to my gate and just barely made my MIA-IAD flight. Another bullet dodged. While sitting on my plane I booked The Westin Dulles Airport on my SPG iPhone application that night for $89.
Snow Slams Dulles Airport
After a short night's sleep at Dulles Airport, I went back for my 8:30AM flight IAD-LAX, but another problem was brewing: the same cold front that affected DFW was moving towards IAD, and lots of cancelations were expected that day. While onboard my 8:30AM flight, snow began falling and the pilot announced a delay due to a flight attendant calling in sick. We waited on the plane for nearly an hour before they found someone else, but finally departed around 9:30 and again I could not have been more happy for wheels up. I made it to LAX after all. Later on I learned that most of the flights after mine out of IAD had been canceled.
At this point I was halfway through my journey and had not taken a single flight I'd originally booked: they were all canceled. I had made up the mile deficit from my original re-routing and was incredibly grateful for my good luck in re-ticketing around the significant irregular operations at Dallas Airport. When in these kind of situations, it really pays to be pro-active and know what you're doing. Each time I ran into an issue, I was on ExpertFlyer looking at flight loads and possible re-routing options, minding my mileage total.
Shanghai for Lunch
Thankfully, my irregular operations issues ended there, and I was able to fly Los Angeles - Nashville - Chicago - Shanghai mostly without isssue. I'd even say my Chicago to Shanghai flight was excellent: I was in seat 41C (extra legroom, extra wide) and had a great sleep (well, mostly from sheer exhaustion). I had a wonderful day in Shanghai - my first time there - and ate some outstanding xiaolongbao for my only meal there.
While in Shanghai, I did had to call the AAdvantage customer service line to get my Platinum status manually applied. Apparently in the system update, the automated system that posts status for the FastTrack promo wasn't working as frequently as anticipated.
Shanghai to Los Angeles… Through Chicago and Miami
My flight back was also uneventful, and I was able to make it to Miami that night. Once in Miami I breathed a huge sigh of relief, since I knew at that point that no matter what irregular operations occur, I was far enough away from Los Angeles that any routing would still land me the 30,000 miles necessary for ExecutivePlatinum. The next morning I flew MIA-LAX, had a relaxing night in San Diego, then flew back to Austin having flown a total of 30,306 miles in nine days.
Final Nine-Day Routing:
ExecutivePlatinum Finally Attained
About a week later, my ExecutivePlatinum status posted along with my eight systemwide (international business classs) upgrade certificates:
All told, I paid $1,162 ($1,462 in airfare, less then $300 volunteer travel certificate) for: * 46,257 Redeemable Miles (~ $800, more than enough for a free round-trip to Europe in economy) * Eight International Business Class Upgrade Certificates * ExecutivePlatinum Status until February 2015, granting: 100% mileage bonus on future travel and unlimited complimentary domestic first class upgrades
Though the first part of the trip was drama-filled and stressful, navigating through the storm was a challenge unto itself, and I had a blast. It feels great to set a goal, dodge bullets, and see your goal fulfilled. Next year when flying American's new 777-300ER aircraft in lie-flat business class eight times, I'll look back on my nine days of mileage running and thank myself for doing this.
- Build in some slack with extreme itineraries. Irregular operations are a fact of life, and involuntary re-routing may destroy your mile goals ("original routing credit" is not a sure thing). I only made it through the DFW weather issues with a lot of luck.
- Be pro-activate with your itineraries: monitor incoming aircraft and keep an eye out on alternative routes with seat availability.
- When phone agents are slammed, stay in the lounge. Lounge agents ("AAngels") are always accessible and available to help you. I've had extremely positive experiences with all lounge agents.
- Regardless of your stress level, keep calm, smile, and address agents with the utmost respect and kindness. I have no doubt that my attitude towards the agents was a huge factor in getting me where I needed to be. Every time I got re-ticketed, the agents put me in a "Main Cabin Extra" seat. Thanking and giving praise to agents when due is also important.
- Don't ever check bags. I cannot imagine doing what I did on this trip with a checked bag, or even a bag that required an overhead bin.
- Flying between two major hubs in irregular operations can actually be a good thing: this means you can find re-routings through spoke airports! Connecting in IAD seems bizarre, but since MIA and LAX are both AA hubs, tons of connection possibilities open up that most people would not even think of.
- Don't book hotels early. Booking hotels commits your money to locations where you may not be. I book at the last minute only when I'm positive I'll make it to a given airport.