Reader Question: Any Issues, Concerns Doing International Mileage Runs?

Blog reader Richard sent in the following question:

… I would love to get UAL premier gold again this year but I think it will take an international mileage run (note:  my home airport is SFO). I have never done that—are there time concerns/security issues with flying internationally (e.g., to London) only to turn around and board a flight back to US? How much time should I allow and do you recommend certain international airports for their ease with respect to this?

First off, I have to say that I absolutely prefer international mileage runs to domestic ones. You can typically rack up a significant amount of mileage in much less time than it would take to earn the same amount hopscotching around the country.

These days it can be difficult to get them as cheaply on a cents-per-mile basis as domestic runs, but I will spend a bit more in those cases factoring in the value of my time.

Anyway, Richard first asks if there are any time concerns/security issues doing a quick turnaround. As far as time concerns, quick turnarounds can be easier than actually staying a day or two for a variety of reasons:

  • You only need to go through transit security at the foreign arrival airport, thereby avoiding customs and immigration. I am usually successful in getting my return boarding pass printed in the U.S. before getting on the outbound overseas flight. If not, transfer desks are abundant in most international cities upon arrival.
  • In some cases, the airplane you arrived on is the same one for the return flight. If you’re delayed on the way over, you know that you won’t miss the return flight.
  • For me, I never suffer jet lag after returning from a quick turnaround, even if my transit overseas is in the wee hours of the morning in my local time zone. My body never seems to realize it was gone in the first place. 😉
  • Once in the departures area, there’s often plenty of time for a refreshing shower in the lounge (assuming you have access).

As far as security concerns, the most important thing if you’re stopped and questioned is to be honest… never, ever, lie about why you’re taking the trip.

I’ve found that more U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents are used to the term “mileage run” than ever before. You might get a strange look, but that’s about it. And if you’re pulled aside for extra review (which I have been), it’s really no big deal and doesn’t take long since you likely have nothing but a carry-on to search.

If you have enough time between flights that you actually want to enter the country for a quick visit, some are easier than others. Asian countries have been incredibly easy for me, as has been Frankfurt. London was also quite easy (in 2008 anyway), but the two times I did it there, I remained for 24+ hours.

Countries that give mileage runners the most scrutiny (from my experience and others I’ve read about) include Australia, Canada and New Zealand.

I certainly understand Richard’s hesitation as I had the same type of questions before my first international run. But in a nutshell, they’re no big deal and can be a fascinating conversation piece.

“What’d you do over the weekend?”

“Oh, nothing much… I had lunch in Zurich.”

Readers… any other tips, suggestions or ideas for Richard that you’d like to add in the comments?

– Follow Darren Booth on Twitter, @FrequentlyFlyin, for more airline, hotel and travel industry news, reviews and opinions.


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  1. I’ve done a few mileage runs to Singapore with 30 hours on the ground and a few MRs or layovers of <= 6 hours. In every case, I have gone through immigration and have never had a problem. I've had stays of 20 hours and 8 hours in London without issue as well. And two trips to SYD of 20 hours and 6 hours, again without issue. In Seoul, Thailand, and Germany I've cleared immigration on layovers of a few hours and never had an issue.

  2. I prefer a location where one can stay in the transit area of the airport so I don’t have to deal with security and customs and such. Seoul is good for this; London, not so much. Definitely do it! A nice trip to Seoul via Shanghai or Beijing could be very interesting.

  3. I’ve done a few London runs from SFO with only a few hours on the ground at LHR. It’s really easy on UA. I generally leave SFO Saturday morning, make a connection on the outbound for a morning arrival, then a few hours later take either the nonstop LHR-SFO flight that leaves around 1:20 or the last UA flight of the day to IAD that leaves LHR around 4:20 (the connection from IAD-SFO arrives back in SFO around midnight, IIRC).

    I have done it with as little as four hours on the ground, always go through immigration, and have had no problems on any trip. I’ve gotten reactions from the agents that range from “you’re mad” to “yeah, we get a lot of people doing this toward the end of the year.”

  4. I totally agree! I have an upcoming mileage run to Singapore next month. I much prefer these to the domestic ones. Getting 17k miles done in one shot. And it’s always a great weekend story. What did you do? You went to a BBQ? That’s nice. Oh me? I went to Singapore for the weekend. 🙂

  5. I agree! I’m planning on doing a mileage run early next year to Singapore. I went this year for a 7 day vacation and noticed the cents-per-mile is actually very low! And at 21,000 EQMs, I’m not complaining! Leave Friday in the AM and return Sunday afternoon. 5 hour layover in SIN… And lots of space for upgrades 🙂

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