My Strategy for Finding Mileage Run (or a Cheap Fare)

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With the end of the year is a mere ten weeks away, I’m sure that many potential travelers are looking for airfares to either reach or maintain elite status with an airline or to just get a decent fare for the holidays. Finding a good airfare isn’t as easy as simply going to a travel booking site and sorting by price. That might work sometimes, but if you are flexible with your travel dates and times, as are most people doing mileage runs or booking leisure travel, you can really score a good fare with a bit of work.

What is the Lowest Published Fare?

Update: At the moment, the Fare Compare mileage run tool is not available. I’m leaving the instructions in case the tool returns, but until it does, the site is completely useless and full of SEO tricks to generate page views. Gross!

Throughout the day, I go to the FlyerTalk Fares at to find the lowest published fares for my region.You have to do this frequently because the best airfares are sometimes available for only a few hours, and airline sales have been notoriously bad deals. Also, don’t get lost looking at the rest of this site. The FlyerTalk Fares and the Custom Fare Alerts are the only useful parts of this site. The rest of the site stinks of link baiting and SEO gaming.

To find my fares, I use both “NYC” and “EWR” since those fares are listed separately. I rarely fly to international destinations so I stick with North America as my zone. The default list sorting is by Price Per Mile, but I change that to Sort by Total Fare. Then I look for places to go. If I want a mileage run, then I look for fares with low PPM, but if I want to go a specific place, then I look for fares. If I don’t like the prices, then I stop looking and go back to my life.

If I do like it, I then note the fare bucket (the first letter of the fare class) and the airline. Then I look for the fare rules.

What are the Fare Rules?

There are a number of sites that can help you find fare rules. The two sites I’ve used with great success are ExpertFlyer, which is a premium site with very powerful tools, and Wandering Aramean’s Travel Planning Tools. In either case, you want to pore over the fare rules. You should pay attention to:

  • is the fare one-way or round-trip?
  • if it’s a round-trip fare, what is the minimum or maximum stay?
  • what is the advance purchase requirement?
  • is the fare valid only on certain days of the week?
  • when does the fare expire?
  • are there blackout dates?
  • does the fare require nonstop travel or are transfers allowed?

If you feel you can live with the restrictions, which the cheapest fares almost always have, then look for flights that meet these requirements.

What Flights Can I Take?

One of the most valuable tools for frequent fliers is ITA Software’s Matrix. The company was recently acquired by Google, and we’re all hoping that they do not get rid of the Matrix because their new Google Flights is almost useless.

 

You have to use the advanced options to find flights that meet the conditions of the fare.

ITA Matrix Search

Note that the “Departing from” and “Destination” fields are pretty straightforward, but the codes below each city/airport need explanation. I used “UA+” to one or more flights on United, but you should use the two-digit code for your airline. The “/F” means to search for flights that meet the following fare conditions. The “BC=G” tells the Matrix to search for flights that are listed with the booking code “G”, but you should use the code that you found with Fare Compare.

Change the dates to what works for you, and begin your search.

It’s possible that the Matrix doesn’t find flights that meet your criteria. If that’s the case, then you should change your dates and search again. It’s also possible that despite the fact that there’s a fare published for your origin and destination (“city pairs”, as they’re called) but flights do not have any seats available in that fare bucket. This is how airlines manage their pricing: they published specific fares, the impose restrictions on those fares, they make available in or withhold seats from certain fare buckets.

Once you find flights that work for you, go to that airline’s site and buy the tickets there. There are lots of advantages to doing that, not the least of which is that the airlines can control the reservation should something go wrong. It’s probably not something you’ll need, but it’ll make things easier should your plans go awry.

Works for Me

I discovered this method about a year ago, while scouring the FlyerTalk message boards and finding a ton of valuable information that travelers have posted on online fora, countless blogs, and a couple of wikis. The “commons” have been a valuable resource for strategies on finding good airfares. Using this method, I was able to book some very inexpensive flights to the Pacific Northwest, including a pure mileage run to Seattle. There’s nothing more satisfying than learning to do something yourself and seeing it actually work.

But if you prefer to skip the research for learning the system, Nicholas Kralev wrote a nice concise explanation to Decoding Air Travel. I probably knew 80% of what was already written here, but had I read this a year ago, I would have saved a lot of time and spared my eyesight some. But I’m a scholar so I am not supposed to fear doing research.

Update: If you’re ready to delve further into The Matrix and use the advanced codes, check out Google’s support page and this explainer on how to use those codes.

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