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Continuing his series on the value you’ll get from the various elite tiers in frequent flyer programs, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Nick Ewen takes a look at Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan.
Here at TPG, we’re constantly asked questions like, “Is it worth it for me to earn ____ status with ____ airline/hotel chain?” While it can be next to impossible to come up with a quantifiable valuation to answer this question, it can still be a useful exercise to plug in some numbers to the various benefits offered. Earlier this month, I kicked off a revision of last year’s series that quantified the elite status tiers of the major programs. Thus far I have done so for the three major legacy carriers: American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus. Our next subject is the the Seattle-based upstart beloved by many points and miles enthusiasts: Alaska Airlines.
Before we get to the analysis, a couple of disclaimers. First, it’s important to note that these mathematical analyses represent just one way of calculating the value you’d get out of a given elite status level. You probably have your own way of calculating how much value you can get from these programs; if you (or your company) pays for first or business class, you probably don’t care about complimentary upgrades, while traveling exclusively within the US means you probably don’t care much about lounge access on international itineraries. Just like with any analysis, feel free to adjust the numbers to make it more relevant to your own personal situation.
Second, these numbers are all based on the benefits you’d enjoy after achieving the given status level and continuing to qualify each year thereafter. If you’re starting from scratch or if you suddenly have a drop-off in your travel, the calculations become significantly more complicated.
This brings me to the third and final critical part of this analysis: the underlying assumptions I’m making. To really hit a value for benefits, I have to assume a certain amount of flying. In addition, this exercise gets noticeably more complicated when looking at Alaska’s program, since you can credit a variety of partner flights to the Mileage Plan program (including both American and Delta). The number of flights you take on Alaska metal will significantly influence the value that you get out of the program, as many of the best benefits only apply to Alaska flights.
For the sake of this post, I’m making the following assumptions:
- You qualify for elite status with a combination of Alaska and partner airlines (split evenly between the two).
- You earn 20% more elite-qualifying miles than the minimum required for the given status level.
- You spend an average of 15 cents per elite-qualifying mile.
- Your travel is evenly spaced across the year.
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. If you are Seattle-based, you may be able to qualify based solely on Alaska flights, while paid first or business-class travel on partner airlines could net you a much higher average than 15 cents per mile. Remember, too, that if you credit Delta flights to the Mileage Plan program, you won’t earn full elite-qualifying miles on these flights, so take that into consideration if you’re a Delta flyer and have had enough of the program’s string of devaluations.
Two final bits of information. For the sake of this analysis, I’m valuing any bonus miles earned based on TPG’s most recent valuations, which peg Alaska miles at 2 cents apiece. In addition, I’m rounding all of the individual benefit valuations to the nearest $5 to make the math a bit simpler.
So, all that being said, where do the three elite levels of the Mileage Plan program land? Here’s my analysis:
Mileage Plan MVP ($1,075)
The lowest tier in Alaska’s program is MVP status, which normally requires 25,000 elite-qualifying miles or 30 elite-qualifying segments. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 30,000 miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $4,500 in spending), and that flying is split evenly between Alaska and partner carriers.
- Complimentary first-class upgrades ($200): All Alaska elite flyers are eligible for complimentary upgrades on Alaska-operated flights. Regular MVP members will start clearing 48 hours prior to departure, though you will fall toward the bottom of Alaska’s upgrade priority hierarchy and are not eligible for companion upgrades on Alaska flights. This benefit does (as of now) extend to Delta flights, though you’ll fall after all Delta elites and their companions. I’ll assume a conservative value of $200 for these upgrades.
- Preferred seats on Alaska, American and Delta ($200): One of the really nice things about holding elite status with Alaska is how it provides benefits when flying with two of the major legacy carriers in the US. As an MVP member, you can access preferred seats on Alaska, American and Delta, including Alaska’s premium seats in the bulkhead or exit row (normally $15 for non-elite members). This will also extend to the carrier’s new premium economy section that will begin rolling out this year, though it’s still unclear just how far in advance these will be made available to elite members.
- 50% off Main Cabin Extra on American ($50): In addition to accessing preferred seats for free when traveling on American, Alaska MVP travelers can purchase Main Cabin Extra seats for a 50% discount.
- Elite bonus miles ($300): Alaska offers its lowest-tier elite members one of the more generous mileage bonuses out there, as regular MVP travelers will earn 50% more miles on flights credited to Mileage Plan. With 30,000 miles in a year, that equates to 15,000 extra miles (when compared to regular travelers), worth an additional $300.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($150): MVP members can check their first two bags for free on Alaska flights (saving up to $100 on every round-trip flight) and enjoy a free checked bag on American flights as well. These perks also extend to companions in the same reservation.
- Priority airport services ($100): You’ll also enjoy a variety of priority services at the airport as an MVP member, including priority check-in with Alaska and American, as well as priority boarding on Alaska, American and Delta. While not the most valuable benefit, it can still make traveling a bit easier.
- Discounted Board Room membership ($25): At the time of writing, Alaska offers just four Board Room locations (in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland and Los Angeles). However, you’ll also enjoy access to more than 50 affiliate lounges, including all Admirals Clubs. MVP members get 50% off the initiation fee (regularly $100) plus $25 off a one-year membership and $75 off a three-year membership. Obviously this benefit will be worth much more if you actually utilize it, but I doubt it appeals to everyone, so I’ll peg it at a conservative $25.
- Priority phone line ($50): All MVP members will enjoy access to a priority phone line, which can be a lifesaver when things go awry.
Mileage Plan MVP Gold ($3,675)
The second tier in Alaska’s program is MVP Gold status, which normally requires 50,000 elite-qualifying miles or 60 elite-qualifying segments. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 60,000 miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $9,000 in spending), and that flying is split evenly between Alaska and partner carriers.
- Complimentary first-class upgrades ($600): MVP Gold members will be upgraded ahead of regular MVP flyers, and these upgrades begin processing 72 hours prior to departure. You can also bring a companion upgrade along with you, and he/she will clear in the same 72-hour window. Your upgrade percentage will likely be higher as a Gold member, though the true value of this depends on how frequently you travel on Alaska-operated flights, as your chance of scoring first class on Delta is slim-to-none.
- Gold Guest upgrades ($400): In addition to complimentary upgrades, MVP Gold members will earn four Gold Guest upgrade certificates after qualifying for elite status (note that these are also given to those who status match, as TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig discovered in upgrading his friends to Hawaii). If you book an eligible fare class (K or higher) and your flight has U inventory available, you can use these certificates to immediately upgrade to first class. This is a great way to get even more value out of the companion fare benefit offered on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card. You’ll need one for each traveler in each direction, and there’s unfortunately no way to wait list, so ExpertFlyer and the site’s alert functionality can come in handy. The premium between coach and first class on longer flights can easily be several hundreds of dollars, but I’ll peg each one of these at $100.
- Preferred seats on Alaska, American and Delta ($400): You’ll also be able to access the same preferred seats as regular MVP members, though you’ll utilize this benefit twice as much with the increased flying required for Gold status.
- Complimentary Main Cabin Extra on American ($200): While regular MVP members only get a 50% discount on Main Cabin Extra seats, Gold members can access these for free. I utilized this benefit courtesy of a status match in October, and on a one-way flight from Dallas-Fort Worth to Orlando, I saved close to $100. Again, the true value you’ll get out of this benefit depends on how frequently you travel with American.
- Elite bonus miles ($1,200): Alaska offers MVP Gold travelers a 100% more miles on flights credited to Mileage Plan. With 60,000 flight miles in a year, that equates to 60,000 extra miles, worth $1,200.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($300): MVP Gold members can check their first two bags for free on Alaska and American flights, and as with regular MVP members, these perks also extend to companions in the same reservation.
- Priority airport services ($200): As an MVP Gold member, you’ll enjoy the same priority airport services as regular MVP travelers plus access to express security lines at certain airports.
- Complimentary beverage on most flights when traveling in the main cabin ($25): If your upgrade to first class doesn’t clear, you’ll at least be able to drown your sorrows with a free drink. These drinks usually cost $6-$7, so if you always utilize this perk, it could be worth much more.
- Discounted Board Room membership ($50): MVP Gold members get the full $100 initiation fee waived plus $55 off a one-year membership and $165 off a three-year membership. Again, I doubt this appeals to many travelers, so I’ll peg this at a conservative $50.
- Fee waivers ($200): As an MVP Gold traveler, you can avoid some dreaded fees that can keep your hard-earned cash in your pocket, including the call center ticketing fee (normally $15), change/cancellation fee less than 60 days before your ticketed departure (normally $125) and same-day confirmed change fee (normally $25).
- Priority phone line ($100)
Mileage Plan MVP Gold 75K ($8,300)
The third (and top) tier in Alaska’s program is MVP Gold 75K status, which normally requires 90,000 elite-qualifying miles or 90 elite-qualifying segments. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 108,000 miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total of $16,200 in spending), and that flying is split evenly between Alaska and partner carriers.
- Complimentary first-class upgrades ($1,200): MVP Gold 75K members get top priority for complimentary upgrades and will begin clearing 120 hours in advance. You are also eligible for companion upgrades as well as upgrades on Delta (the latter of which will be few and far between). Again, the true value of this benefit depends on how frequently you fly on Alaska-operated flights.
- Gold Guest upgrades ($400): You’ll get four Gold Guest upgrades for qualifying for MVP Gold status, and unfortunately you won’t get any more for hitting the 75K level.
- Preferred seats on Alaska, American and Delta ($600): Same perk, more utilization.
- Complimentary Main Cabin Extra on American ($300): Same perk, more utilization.
- Elite bonus miles ($2,700): While Alaska slashed earning rates on Delta with the 2015 Mileage Plan program, it did increase the mileage bonus for MVP Gold 75K members to 125%. With 108,000 flight miles in a year, that equates to 135,000 extra miles, worth $2,700.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($400): MVP Gold 75K members enjoy the same benefit as regular MVP Golds, as you can check two free bags on all Alaska and American flights.
- Priority airport services ($400): Same perk, more utilization.
- Complimentary beverage on most flights when traveling in the main cabin ($25): This is the same perk offered to MVP Gold members, though I’m keeping the valuation the same given that you’ll likely spend most of your time up front with free booze.
- Complimentary in-flight entertainment player in the main cabin ($25): These are typically available on longer flights, as Alaska provides a variety of media options through the relatively new Beyond Entertainment program on board.
- Discounted Board Room membership ($50): Same benefit as offered to MVP Gold travelers.
- Fee waivers ($400): MVP Gold 75K members get the same fee waivers as MVP Golds, though you’ll likely utilize it more frequently during the year.
- 50,000 bonus miles ($1,000): When you earn MVP Gold 75K status the hard way, you’ll earn a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles, worth $1,000 based on TPG’s valuations. This bonus helps open up some great Mileage Plan redemptions.
- Gift MVP status to friend/family member ($300): MVP Gold 75K members not only get to enjoy perks themselves, they can also nominate a friend or family member to get complimentary MVP status. Like all of this analysis, the true value depends on how much the friend/family member actually travels on Alaska. Still, I’ll assume a relatively conservative value of $300.
- Four complimentary Board Room day passes ($100): The final perk for MVP Gold 75K flyers is a set of four day passes to Alaska’s Board Rooms. These passes usually cost $45, though I’m pegging them at a much more conservative $25 apiece, as you’ll have to consume a lot of snacks and drinks to get anywhere near $45 out of a visit!
- Priority phone line ($100)
Is It Worth It?
Given these values, is it worth it for you to push for that next elite level? Just like any analysis, there isn’t an easy answer to that question, as it entirely depends on your travel patterns. Here are some questions to ask yourself to help make this decision:
1. How much will you be traveling in the future? If you go out of your way to earn a given elite status level, it would be a shame to not utilize the benefits as much as you’d like.
2. What’s the incremental value of one level over another? If you’re close to qualifying for the next level, consider the additional (or enhanced) benefits you’d get. There’s no sense in taking a mileage run to earn a higher status when the additional perks you’d get don’t matter to you.
3. Would you sacrifice price or convenience for elite status? One of the hardest things to quantify in this hobby is whether or not it’s worth booking with your preferred carrier if it isn’t the most convenient or cheapest. As the father of a 14-month-old, I have come to love the nonstop flight both when traveling for work and for fun. As a result, I typically don’t go out of my way to fly a particular airline; if JetBlue is the best option, I’ll do it!
While the answers to these questions won’t give you an absolute answer, they can help bring out the key considerations to be made as you’re deciding whether you want to push for the next status level (or whether you want to earn status at all).
As discussed at the outset, it’s incredibly difficult to peg a specific value on a given carrier’s elite status levels, as everyone values the perks provided in a different way. Despite that difficulty, it’s essential to really think through this type of exercise to make sure that you select your preferred airline wisely. Hopefully this analysis has given you a framework to apply as you evaluate the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program and whether or not it makes sense for you to pursue MVP status.
How do you value Alaska elite status?