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I would fly 500 miles and I would earn 500 more: Meet Alaska's frequent flier die-hards

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: December 25, 2016
  • Published December 24, 2016

No one wants to sit on an airplane for hours on end only to arrive at their destination, hang out at the airport for a bit and fly right back from whence they came.

Except for a select few who do exactly that. They're the frequent flier die-hards, and some of them are Alaskan.

For some, racking up enough frequent flier miles to earn top-tier status with their airline is worth taking a multiple-stopover flight from Alaska to Costa Rica, or booking a no-frills overnighter in Honolulu, without taking a real trip. And the end of the year is crunch time for these die-hards, because travelers need to fly a certain number of miles within the calendar year to hit each tier.

Frequent flier Bart Parker said he is one of those people who make mileage runs — people who go places and come back for the miles. (Bill Roth / Alaska Dispatch News)

But is the trouble really worth it, just for some extra miles?

You bet, they'll tell you.

Bart Parker, 49, lives in Anchorage. By the end of the year, he said, he will have flown just under 80,000 miles on Alaska Airlines. That gets him the elite status of MVP Gold 75K, the cream-of-the-crop level for frequent fliers loyal to the Seattle-based airline.

To reach that threshold, Parker flew to San Jose, Costa Rica, spent some time at the airport and flew right back to Alaska. Twice.

"I had some time to go to the souvenir shop, prove I was there and then come back," he said. He made both flights over the course of about 2 1/2 weeks this fall, he said.

He's done the same thing with Singapore — flew there, hung out for about five hours and then hopped back on the plane, he said. He recently switched from Delta to Alaska Airlines, which offered to match his high-mileage Delta status.

For 56-year-old Brenda Lamoureux of Anchorage, it's worth it to hit mileage goals because then she doesn't need to pay extra in the future if she needs to change a flight reservation.

Earlier this month, Lamoureux flew from Anchorage to Honolulu (through Seattle), slept in a "fleabag hotel" on the island and flew right back the next day. That got her past her goal of 40,000 miles, which earns her MVP Gold status on Alaska.

"I wouldn't say I'm hardcore," she said of making a trip only to turn right back around. "This is the very first time I've done it."

But doesn't it feel like a waste of an opportunity to actually travel?

"I personally can't stand Hawaii," Lamoureux said. "I got off the plane and thought, this place feels like a germfest. Basically, you know, what I did was, I got some Hawaiian candy and cookies, and came home. I already have a million miles saved up. That's part of my retirement plan."

Then there are the more traditional travelers — those who actually explore their chosen destinations before returning to Anchorage.

Husband and wife Paul Michelsohn and Karen Kassik-Michelsohn, who live in Anchorage, flew to Boston for a few days to earn the miles that would get them to MVP Gold. They own a general contracting firm, Michelsohn and Daughter Construction, Inc.

"I do have some friends who have flown to L.A., had dinner and turned around and come back," said Paul Michelsohn. "That's more than I want to do."

They travel a lot for business and he said it's worth racking up miles for a frequent flier status that will let them change or cancel tickets at the last minute without having to pay fees, as well as early boarding privileges.

Michelsohn estimates that he and his wife have spent maybe $9,000 on flight tickets this year. They're planning to use some of their saved miles to get first-class tickets to Australia, or perhaps Italy or France, in the next year and a half or so. 

Not all of these mileage hounds have the jobs you might imagine. Parker works as a school bus driver during the academic year and as a tour guide during the summer. Lamoureux is a colorist and hair stylist at an Anchorage salon.

"I have a simple car, I have a simple apartment. I like to travel," said Parker. He estimates he spent about $3,500 on airplane tickets this year.

Lamoureux flies to Phoenix — where she has a condo — four or five times a year, and to Fairbanks just as much because she has family in the Interior. She also usually goes to Europe each year. For her, it's crucial to get enough miles to allow her flexibility to change flight plans.

In 2017, her goal "is to go as far away as possible, as often as possible, for as little money as possible," she said.

Jesse Carlstrom, a 34-year-old who lives in Anchorage, has been a mileage plan member since he was 4. His dad was the marketing director for the Fairbanks International Airport and his family went to Molokai, Hawaii, for Christmas every year. He celebrated one of his birthdays as a teenager with a trip to Namibia.

Carlstrom maintains a spreadsheet every year to keep track of his mileage status, and though he prioritizes travel he pretty much never buys business- or first-class tickets.

He recently flew to Washington, D.C., for a two-day trip with a friend to hit enough miles to make MVP Gold status with Alaska Airlines. He took his first "mileage run," as they're called, from Fairbanks to Cancun in 2008 to hit his mileage goal. That trip lasted about a week.

Carlstrom used to work for the state's tourism office but is taking time off from work to be a stay-at-home dad for their 8-month-old son. He said he and his wife, Jillian Schroeder — a social worker — are more interested in spending money on travel than on just about anything else.

"We have a 702-square-foot house. I drive an '89 Ford Ranger that drives like a champ," he said. "This is a huge luxury to be able to travel. This is a super-privileged status I'm able to have but I also think to some degree it's a lifestyle choice. When I hear friends say they want to see the world someday but just can't afford it, and they show up on their new snowmachine — I love snowmachines, but it's a trade-off. That's where we're coming from and that's what we value."

Carlstrom estimates that his family spent about $5,000 on tickets this year, and that's separate from the travel he did for work when he was employed by the state.

But these hardcore fliers will be the first ones to tell you it's not just about budgeting. It's also about how you work the system.

"You can travel a lot without having to necessarily spend a lot," said Parker. "If I can take three flights instead of two (to get to a destination), I'll do that. If I can take four flights instead of three, I'll do that. By doing so, you get a better chance to give up your seat. … I don't mind waiting two more hours."

That also improves his chances of being upgraded to a first-class seat, he said.

"Once you sit in first class with your status, it's a much better way to fly," he said.

Even if another person, like an employer or a family member, is paying for your ticket, you still have the opportunity to boost your own mileage.

It's not clear how many people are such die-hard frequent fliers. Some travel blogs even speculate about whether the mileage run is dead.

"We don't think they're dead," said Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Halley Knigge, in an email. "We hear a lot of anecdotal stories from our members taking them. From what we've heard, Costa Rica has been particularly popular this year."

Alaska Airlines wouldn't share specifics about how many customers it has at different tiers of the company's mileage program — Knigge said that's proprietary information.

Some fanatical fliers bank their miles for the future or squirrel them away for emergencies. Some just use them regularly throughout the year. For his parents' 40th wedding anniversary, Parker bought them business-class tickets to Europe. He's also given some miles to other people in his family.

Carlstrom summed up the frequent flier mentality when he explained his decision a few weeks ago to make the brief jaunt to D.C.

"For the first time in years, I was shy of MVP Gold status," he said, "and I just can't bear the thought of going the entire year next year as a lowly MVP."