It’s crunch time for frequent fliers chasing airline elite status for next year. If you haven’t booked your final flights for 2019 that will get you over the hump for 2020, now’s the time to do so.

Frequent fliers are quickly snatching up those year-end wintertime flight deals for so-called mileage runs — the act of hopping on a plane and going somewhere cheap with no specific purpose other than to accrue miles to reach elite status.

For some of United Airlines’ fliers, this could be the last hurrah for mileage running to score status. Starting in 2020, the carrier is shaking up its frequent flier program by removing miles from the elite equation.  Instead, United is awarding elite status based entirely on the number of flights (not miles) flown and dollars spent with the airline — excluding taxes and fees.

As a result, bargain-hunting United elites who’ve managed to fly long distances on cheap fares will likely see themselves slip to a lower elite level in 2021 or lose status altogether. The carrier has said it expects there will be more elites overall under these new requirements, but ascending to the very top of the hierarchy will cost a lot more.

Many fliers have made it a point to go all-out to re-qualify for 2020 so they can enjoy one final year at the top of United’s pecking order.

But time is running out to get those flights booked and flown. So double-check your mileage math (see mileage calculator here), set your elite status goals and see if any of the relatively cheap, long-distance, non-stop United flights out of San Francisco International Airport can help you fly in style for one more year. Best news: Most of these flights will be dirt cheap during the “dead weeks” of early December when demand plummets. Member of another program? Then check out Kayak’s helpful Explore map which I’ve filtered to show flights costing less than $400 roundtrip during December.

Keep in mind United requires fliers to also meet a spend requirement for each Premier level. The dollar amount you must spend with United to qualify for the bottom-tier silver status is $3,000. You can also waive this requirement if you put $25,000 on a United co-branded credit card from Chase.

San Francisco-Newark, N.J. or Boston

As far as mileage running goes, the flight between SFO and Newark, United’s hub in the New York City region, is as easy and economical as it gets. For about $300 on some days in mid-December, United fliers can accrue 5,130 Premier Qualifying Miles roundtrip.

With a dozen or so flights a day, there’s plenty of inventory available for a cross-country jaunt to New Jersey and back. Some mileage runners we’ve spoken to can do this in a single day. Others prefer to spend a night in Manhattan to make the most of their mileage running adventures– or maybe spend the night in Newark since NYC hotel rates are wildly inflated during the peak holiday shopping season.

In mid-December, Boston’s even cheaper– we found a handful of standard economy (not basic economy which only earn 50% of miles flown) fares at just $267 roundtrip.  That roundtrip will net you 5,408 elite qualifying miles …and about 12 hours on the plane.

San Francisco-Hawaii or Mexico

If you’re worried about being stranded by a Nor’easter on one of those Newark or Boston flights, you can enjoy the Hawaiian sun for a few hours.

The round-trip to Honolulu yields 4,796 miles roundtrip, but will run you closer to $400-$500 for a one day stay in O’ahu. Round-trip flights to Maui, Kona and Lihue are priced similarly. Airfare to Hawaii has dipped considerably in recent months given the highly publicized entry of Southwest Airlines to the California-Hawaii market.  More about that here.

We found cheap flights from SFO to Cabo and Puerto Vallarta, too, in early December… in the mid-300s, netting about 2,500 miles roundtrip.

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San Francisco-London

For those mileage runners who have a real deficit to overcome, maybe a long-haul international trip might work. Might we recommend London? For about $700 and a few days of your time, you can book a splendid winter-time trip to take in the British capital decked out for Christmas. Given the current state of the pound, your dollar will go further in the U.K. too. A round-trip standard economy class ticket will net fliers about 10,736 Premier Qualifying Miles.

With four carriers operating between San Francisco and London, United is matching some rock-bottom fares (as low as $711 roundtrip in regular economy) offered by competing carriers across the pond, which makes this a simple and affordable mileage run.

Photo: Chris McGinnis

Fly round trip to Hong Kong and keep your elite status for next year.

San Francisco-Hong Kong

Travel to Hong Kong has taken a hit given the rioting that’s overtaken parts of the city, but that hasn’t kept United from introducing a second daily non-stop flight between SFO and Hong Kong. Fares are a total bargain: as low as $579 round-trip for a journey in early to mid-December that will get you 13,854 United miles with a standard economy class ticket.

There are two other carriers flying this route, Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines, which keeps competition high and fares low.

San Francisco-Singapore

You really need to like flying to hop on this marathon flight — the longest United flight out of SFO. But you’ll get the most bang for your buck on this ultra long-haul flight that takes about 17.5 hours on the outbound and roughly 16 hours on the return.

For a trip in December, this itinerary will set you back about $780 for a seat in economy, and fliers will score just shy of 17,000 Premier Qualifying Miles. Just remember to factor in the cost of hotels in Singapore — while it may be dirt cheap to travel to the city, it can be exorbitantly expensive to stay there.

How are YOU dealing with keeping your United status this year? Any good mileage run strategies? Tell us all about it in THE COMMENTS. 

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