Here’s why Alaska Airlines miles are the most valuable

Mar 3, 2020

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I’m a big believer in the adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” which is why I was excited but admittedly a bit nervous as well when one of the biggest pieces of aviation news this year broke: By the middle of next year, Alaska Airlines will join the Oneworld alliance.

For years Alaska has thrived without the benefits of an alliance membership, leaning on individual airline partnerships to build its Mileage Plan loyalty program into one of the most valuable on the market. When TPG releases its latest set of points and miles valuations each month, Mileage Plan miles rank near the top. For a long time now, they’ve held the title of the most valuable individual airline miles, clocking in at 1.8 cents a piece (just a hair below transferable points currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards at 2 cents each).

Of course, TPG’s valuations are meant to be a starting point and certainly don’t represent an upper limit on what you can achieve with your hard-earned miles. On multiple occasions throughout the years, and as recently as last week, I’ve been able to redeem my Mileage Plan miles at a rate of 20 cents each or higher. Today we’re going to take a look at the program features and generous partner award charts that have earned Mileage Plan such a solid reputation.

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Mileage Plan overview

If you aren’t familiar with Mileage Plan yet, you should start by reading our comprehensive guide to maximizing redemptions with the Mileage Plan program. Here are a few of the highlights:

  • Alaska partners with some of the best international airlines in the world, including Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines. This is why Alaska can be a top-choice program, even if (like me) you’ve never flown on an Alaska-operated flight before.
  • Each partner has a separate award chart, and you can only redeem Alaska miles for partner flights listed in the chart (not all routes are eligible).
  • Stopovers are allowed on one-way tickets, and while there a few minor restrictions to be aware of, in most cases you can book these yourself online without calling in.
  • Dirt-cheap premium-cabin awards, especially to Asia. This right here is Alaska’s secret sauce

But just how good are these prices? Let’s dive in and take a look.

Related: The 6 best airline award chart sweet spots

First-class flights at business-class prices

Let’s start with one of the most aspirational redemptions you can make with your Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles: flying Cathay Pacific first class between the U.S. and Asia. While now may not be the time to plan a trip to the continent due to the COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak, knowing the cheapest ways to get there can save you a ton of points and miles down the line.

Alaska Airlines allows you to build in a free stopover in Hong Kong before continuing on to another destination in Asia, all for the same price of 70,000 miles, but to keep things simple let’s just focus on a one-way flight from New York-JFK to Hong Kong (HKG).

Not only is Cathay Pacific one of the best airlines in the world, but it also has the ticket prices to match. One-way first-class seats on this route routinely price out at just over $20,000, making this one of the world’s most expensive plane tickets.

Related: Cold ground, warm sky: A review of Cathay Pacific’s first class on the 777-300ER from Hong Kong to London

With Alaska charging you 70,000 miles for this flight (and a negligible amount of taxes, under $100), you’d end up with a redemption value of about 29 cents per mile. To get that number, we take the cost of the ticket and divide it by the number of miles being redeemed, or $20,000 ÷ 70,000 = $0.285.

Normally when you reach a valuation this extreme it stops being all that relevant, but it is useful to compare to other programs to see just how good of a deal you’re getting. Alaska offers the best price out there on this Cathay Pacific award, but you could book the same ticket through American Airlines AAdvantage, Cathay Pacific’s own Asia Miles program, or British Airways Executive Club (though I certainly wouldn’t recommend the last one). Here’s how these other programs stack up:

Frequent flyer program Cost in miles to fly JFK-HKG in first class Redemption value (cents per mile)
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 70,000 miles 28.57
American Airlines AAdvantage 110,000 miles 18.18
Cathay Pacific Asia Miles 125,000 miles 16
British Airways Executive Club 200,000 Avios 10

Now there’s a strong part of me saying that Cathay Pacific first class is such an incredible experience that you should fly it any way you can, even if your only option is to redeem a whopping 200,000 British Airways Avios. But this chart makes it clear that Alaska offers the best redemption value out there, and by quite a wide margin at that.

Even though Cathay Pacific first class is the best deal Alaska has in its repertoire, you’ll find that this same comparison holds true for other airlines and routes as well. JAL first and business class are a great example; though they’re slightly pricier than Cathay Pacific on most routes they still represent an excellent redemption value. Same goes for Qantas flights between the U.S. and Australia, which are an unbelievable steal at only 70,000 miles each way in first class if you can find award space.

Related: Spa at 35,000 feet: Review of Japan Airlines first class from New York to Tokyo

Alaska’s biggest weak spot: Miles are hard to earn

Creating value is all about balancing supply and demand. While Mileage Plan miles are undeniably some of the most valuable out there, they’re also among the hardest to earn. Hopefully that will change once Alaska formally joins the Oneworld alliance, but for now you have three main options for topping off your Mileage Plan balance in order to take advantage of one of these deals:

Related: How to earn miles with the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program

Bottom line

Even though it only flies within North America and to Hawaii, Alaska Airlines offers you one of the best ways to book long-haul first- and business-class flights for the fewest number of miles. Mileage Plan miles can be quite hard to earn, and many people pass them over if they don’t personally fly Alaska. But between an elevated bonus on the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card and some of the most generous partner award charts out there, this program is worth paying attention to.

Featured photo by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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