Maximizing redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
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If your main experience in the points and miles world comes from one (or more) of the U.S. 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, and has been the program that’s given me three of my most valuable redemptions so far. Today we’ll discuss some surefire ways to maximize your redemptions with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.
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Earning Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles
Because Alaska isn’t a member of any of the major airline alliances (though it will be joining Oneworld in the next year or two), Mileage Plan miles tend to be fairly hard to earn. The best way to rack up a large stash is by applying for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card which is currently offering an all-time high welcome bonus: new applicants can earn 50,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after spending $2,000 on purchases in the first 90 days. TPG values Alaska miles at 1.8 cents each, making this full bonus worth a very solid $900.
You could also take advantage of one of Alaska’s frequent sales on purchased miles to scoop them up at a discount. While we normally recommend not buying miles speculatively, if you’ve already found the award space you want buying Alaska miles can represent a very solid value. Additionally, you can transfer points from Marriott Bonvoy at a 3:1 ratio, with a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred.
Pick your partner carefully
Most frequent flyer 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 U.S. to Shanghai (PVG). An easy 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, American Airlines 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 U.S. 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 to 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
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 designated routes 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 two award charts:
Despite partnering with multiple carriers that operate flights from Europe to the Middle East, you can only use your Alaska miles to book Finnair or Singapore itineraries through the carrier’s respective hubs in Helsinki (HEL) and Singapore (SIN).
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, Singapore
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
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 U.S. to Asia. You could fly in business class from the U.S. 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. Other than that, the only downside comes with change fees. Alaska Airlines charges a $125 fee to change or cancel an award, and if you booked two one-way tickets as opposed to a round-trip you’d need to pay that twice.
Don’t miss a free stopover
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 U.S. to Bangkok (BKK) 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 Bangkok, 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.
If you’re flying an airline that is bookable directly through the Alaska website, you can book your stopover yourself by simply searching for a multi-city award ticket. Otherwise, you can do it over the phone just as easily.
The Alaska Mileage Plan program has some significant value, but you need to do some planning in order to take full advantage of it. Your best bet is to let 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.
Updated on 9/08/21
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