Maximizing Redemptions With Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan

Mar 4, 2019

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If your main experience in the points and miles world comes from one (or more) of the US legacy carriers, adjusting to Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan program requires a bit of a learning curve. Between some incredible award sweet spots, miles that are almost always more valuable on partner airlines than on Alaska itself, and restrictions on which flights can be booked as award tickets, this program has its fair share of quirks.

That being said, it also has plenty of reasons to use it as you’re planning your next award trip, so today we’ll discuss some surefire ways to maximize your redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

Pick Your Partner Carefully

Most frequent flier programs utilize either a zone-based or distance-based award chart, where the cost to travel between two cities is generally the same (no matter which partner airline you fly). With Alaska, the opposite is true, and picking your partner is thus of critical importance. Selecting one partner over another could save you a significant number of miles.

Let’s start with a simple example of a one-way, first class award from the US to Shanghai (PVG). A simple search on the Alaska website shows availability for two carriers: JAL and Emirates.

Now, the pricing makes it pretty clear that JAL is a better choice than Emirates (at less than half the price), but what this search doesn’t show you is that you could book the same routing on Cathay Pacific for only 70,000 miles in first class. Cathay awards don’t show up on the Alaska website, so you’d need to use a different Oneworld search engine (like British Airways, Qantas or even Cathay Pacific’s own Asia Miles program) to find award space before calling Alaska to book.

The pricing discrepancy can be just as severe on other routes, and it doesn’t necessarily reflect differences in the quality you’d get on one carrier over another. For flights from the US to Australia, a one-way first class award can be had for as few as 70,000 miles if you fly with Qantas (but good luck finding that award seat), 80,000 miles with Cathay Pacific, 110,000 with American Airlines, or a whopping 225,000 for the one-way flight with Emirates.

Alaska miles are some of the most valuable yet some of the hardest to earn, so even if you’re only saving 5,000-10,000 miles, it’s worth comparing all your partner options before you book. To do this, head to Alaska’s award charts page and enter your origin region and destination region. The site will then display the applicable prices at the right-hand side, including any restrictions or other details.

This will also highlight one of the biggest limitations when it comes to using Alaska miles …

Don’t Expect to Book All Partner Flights

If you want to fly Emirates’ A380 from Europe to Dubai (DXB), it won’t happen with Alaska miles.

Alaska Airlines partners with an array of carriers across all three major alliances (you can access a full list here). However, those agreements don’t always include unilateral award access to every single flight operated by those partner airlines. Instead, Alaska’s award chart is restricted to allowable awards only. Even if you are certain that a partner flies between two cities, if there’s no award chart on Alaska’s website, you can’t book that itinerary with Mileage Plan miles.

As an example, let’s say that you had a trip booked to Europe, and after some time exploring the continent, you want to fly from there to the Middle East. It’d be easy to assume that Alaska miles would be a prime currency to get you there, given the carrier’s partnership with Emirates and its extensive service from Dubai (DXB) to numerous European destinations. However, when you put in Europe to the Middle East, you’ll see just a single award chart:

Despite partnering with multiple carriers that operate flights from Europe to the Middle East, you can only use your Alaska miles to book Finnair itineraries from or through the carrier’s hub in Helsinki (HEL).

In some cases, an award chart won’t show up for any carrier between two regions. Here are a few examples (including carriers that operate flights between the two):

  • Europe to Africa: British Airways, Emirates
  • Australia to the Middle East: Qantas, Emirates
  • Caribbean to Europe: British Airways

Again, only partner flights that operate between regions with a published award on Alaska’s website are bookable using MileagePlan miles.

Utilize One-Way Redemptions

Japan Airlines 777-300ER first class. Photo by Eric Rosen
Consider experiencing two different airlines by booking one-way awards instead of a round-trip itinerary. Photo by Eric Rosen/The Points Guy.

Alaska doesn’t let you combine partners on a single award ticket, but there’s an incredibly easy way around this that will still let you experience two different airlines: book two one-way awards instead of a single round-trip. Not only do you still get a free stopover when booking one-way awards (more on that in a minute), but since you’re allowed to book one-way awards on nearly all of Alaska’s partners, there’s no real incentive to book a round-trip instead.

You could use this strategy again with our above example of flights from the US to Asia. You could fly in business class from the US to Japan on American Airlines, and then you could return on JAL. Both carriers cost the same 60,000 miles each way in business class, so you can try two competing products without violating any routing rules or wasting extra miles. While this isn’t bookable as a single itinerary, you can use Alaska miles to effectively book a round-trip flight by combining two one-way awards.

Note that flights on Korean Air are the only exception here. Korean flights are expensive to begin with when using Alaska miles (so probably not your best redemption option), but you’re also only allowed to book round-trip awards. If you try to book a one-way, it will price the same as a round-trip. This naturally defeats the point of booking a one-way award, so you’d want to avoid Korean Air if you’re trying to combine one-way awards.

Don’t Miss a Free Stopover

Star Ferry (Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board)
Why simply connect through Hong Kong when you could explore the city for a few days without spending any additional miles? (Photo courtesy of the Hong Kong Tourism Board)

Alaska’s award chart can be great for reaching more distant locales like India, Australia and Southeast Asia without breaking the bank, but you might find that a free stopover on the way will let you arrive at your destination better rested and let you see a second city for no added cost. If traveling on a partner airline, your stopover generally must be at the partner’s hub (e.g. Helsinki for Finnair), but this is generally easy to achieve.

A prime example of this would be flying from the US to Singapore (SIN) on Cathay Pacific, a trip that would set you back 50,000 miles each way in business class or 70,000 in first class. You could fly from New York-JFK to Hong Kong (HKG), stop for a few days, and continue on to Singapore, all for the same number of miles.

On the return, you could route back through Hong Kong (with or without another stopover), but you could also leverage the benefits of booking one-way tickets to add a second stopover city. For example, you could opt to return in JAL business class or first class. This would require 65,000 miles for business class or 75,000 miles for first class, but you could then enjoy time in Tokyo on the way home.

This is an incredibly generous policy, and it’s one you should do your absolute best to utilize. Even if you only spend a day or two exploring your stopover city, it’s a phenomenal (and free) opportunity to see a destination you would have otherwise missed. If it breaks up a long journey and makes it more manageable, that’s just an added bonus.

Bottom Line

The Alaska Mileage Plan program has some significant value, but you need to do some planning in order to take full advantage of it. Let the different award charts, routing rules, and free stopover opportunities help guide your trip planning. Flexibility is the key to scoring high-value redemptions, and you certainly can’t go wrong adding a few days in cities along the way on to your next international trip.

Featured Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy.

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