Best sweet spots with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with current information. It was originally published on Feb. 8, 2019.
Even though Alaska Airlines is set to join the Oneworld alliance in the coming years, it built its Mileage Plan frequent flyer program into an absolute powerhouse though individual airline partnerships, long before an alliance membership was on the table. The carrier’s partnerships with international airlines like Cathay Pacific and Emirates have earned it a reputation as one of the most lucrative programs out there, and it’s made Mileage Plan miles the most valuable airline currency in TPG’s monthly valuations. But how can you be sure you’re getting the most value from your awards?
Today we’ll take a look at some of the best sweet spots redemptions in the program to ensure you’re making the most of your hard-earned Alaska miles.
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Mileage Plan is a unique program in many ways, so before we look at individual redemption options, there are a few rules and quirks we need to discuss.
First of all, you can’t mix partners on an award ticket, but you can tack on a connecting flight on Alaska Airlines to get to an international gateway. In addition, the carrier publishes award charts based on both region and partner. Just because you’re flying from North America to Europe doesn’t mean you’ll need a fixed number of miles; the rate depends on the airlines you’re flying.
You also can’t use Alaska miles to book every route its partners fly, only the ones for which it publishes an award chart. What does that mean in practice? If, for example, I wanted to fly from Sydney (SYD) to Shanghai (PVG) on Cathay Pacific, I’d actually have to book two separate awards. Alaska’s partner award chart for flights from Australia to Asia only covers flights to Hong Kong (HKG), so the connection to Shanghai would need to be booked as a separate award.
In addition, you can book most of Alaska’s partners online, though for award tickets involving Cathay Pacific or LATAM, you do need to call. However, you could use another website to search for Oneworld award availability before calling; the inventory on these sites should usually match what Alaska can access (though last month I had an issue with American Airlines displaying Cathay Pacific business class inventory that wasn’t bookable through Alaska).
However, the good news is that Alaska gives you a free stopover on international award tickets, even on one-way itineraries., Because of the aforementioned policy that restricts you to a single international carrier on an award ticket, the stopover is typically limited to the hub city of that partner airline. This would mean stopping in Hong Kong if flying Cathay Pacific, Tokyo Narita (NRT) or Tokyo Haneda (HND) if flying JAL, etc. There are some reports of stopovers being allowed in non-hub cities, especially for fifth-freedom flights, but that may not be possible.
So with these items out of the way, what are some of the best sweet spots in the program?
One of the best uses of Alaska miles is to book Cathay Pacific’s incredibly luxurious premium cabins. One-way awards from the U.S. to Asia are only 50,000 miles in business class or 70,000 miles in first class. You can see that all of Asia is eligible here, meaning you could stop in Hong Kong for free before continuing on to somewhere like Bali (DPS) or Singapore (SIN) for the same award price as ending your trip in Hong Kong. While this isn’t an award many will want to currently book due to the COVID-19 virus (coronavirus) outbreak, it’s a handy trick to save miles when you’re ready to plan a trip.
You could also choose to fly much farther at a very reasonable price. Flights from the U.S. to Africa on Cathay Pacific (via Hong Kong) only cost 62,500 miles each way in business class or 70,000 in first class, or you could fly from the U.S. to Australia, one of the trickier destinations to reach on points and miles, for 60,000 miles each way in business class or 80,000 in first class.
It is possible to get similar rates on JAL first-class flights as well, but this only works for the U.S. to North Asia. If you’re looking to book business class or need flights to Southeast Asia, your award costs will jump, which is why Cathay Pacific gets the edge here. Still, I was just able to book a $14,000 JAL first-class flight from the U.S. to Tokyo for only 70,000 miles and about $20 in taxes, including a free Alaska Airlines first-class flight from Washington Dulles (IAD) to Los Angeles (LAX) to position for my flight to Tokyo.
Alaska Mileage Plan miles can also be a great tool for getting you to the remote tropical paradise of Fiji. One-way awards on Fiji Airways cost 40,000 miles in economy or 55,000 miles in business class. It’s an even better deal if you can jump on an award sale, like the one Mileage Plan ran for 50% off Fiji Airways awards in January and February 2020.
The carrier flies from Nadi (NAN) to both Los Angeles and San Francisco (SFO), and since Alaska has a large presence at both of those airports, you should be able to tack on connecting flights from dozens of other U.S. cities. Premium-cabin award space on Fiji Airways is tough to come by for sure, but you can use ExpertFlyer (owned by TPG’s parent company, Red Ventures) to set award availability alerts and increase your odds of scoring a seat.
If you’re looking at this redemption option, you should consider adding a stopover in Fiji and then continuing on to Australia for the exact same price! The connecting leg to Australia is a much shorter flight, but you will have an easier time finding award space on these routes, especially for multiple people.
LATAM to South America
Another partner award chart that you can use to your favor is for flights from the U.S. to South America on LATAM (which you might also see referred to as LAN). One-way economy flights will cost either 25,000 or 30,000 miles, while business-class awards only cost 45,000 miles.
The real kicker here is that flights are priced the same to all of South America, meaning you can fly to LATAM’s hubs in Santiago, Chile (SCL) or Lima (LIM), enjoy a free stopover, and connect on to many other destinations in southern South America. LATAM flies to a number of major U.S. airports, including Los Angelese, New York-JFK and Miami (MIA), and many of these routes operate with modern 787 aircraft.
With LATAM set to exit the Oneworld alliance in just a few months, and ExpertFlyer not displaying LATAM award inventory, you’ll want to search directly with the carrier to find award space before calling Alaska to book. This alliance reshuffle also makes this sweet spot even more valuable. While LATAM is forming a joint venture with Delta, at the moment this appears to only affect revenue tickets and not include reciprocal award redemptions.
Earning Alaska miles
Of course, in order to utilize any of these sweet spots, you actually need to earn enough miles in the program. While Mileage Plan miles aren’t the easiest currency to earn, there are a few popular avenues to boost your account balance:
- Open a credit card: The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card is currently offering a limited time welcome bonus of 40,000 miles, a $100 statement credit and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from just $22) after you make purchases of $2,000 or more within the first 90 days of opening your account. You’ll earn 3 miles per dollar spent on eligible Alaska purchases and 1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else. For complete details on the card and its perks, check out our full review.
- Transfer Marriott points: The Mileage Plan program is also a Marriott Bonvoy transfer partner. You’ll get 1 mile for every 3 Marriott points you transfer plus a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 points. As a result, you could transfer 120,000 Marriott points (in 60,000-point increments) and have enough Alaska miles (50,000) for a one-way Cathay Pacific business-class award to Asia. Just be aware that Marriott transfers may take a few days to actually arrive in your Alaska account.
- Buy miles: A third way to boost your Mileage Plan balance is to purchase miles. Generally speaking, buying miles from airlines is a poor value proposition, but that isn’t true when Alaska runs one of its regular promotions. These offers can drop the price of these miles to under 2 cents apiece, and even though that’s slightly higher than TPG’s most recent valuations, it can still get you some terrific awards. Just be aware that the carrier now limits these purchases to 150,000 miles per calendar year, though Alaska elite members are still uncapped.
Redeeming Alaska Mileage Plan miles for maximum value isn’t as simple as logging in and searching for any old destination. Because of the unique way Alaska built its loyalty program — as a collection of individual partnerships — you need to know which individual routes and partners offer the best value. No matter where you choose to travel, the free stopover on award tickets is an incredibly generous perk and can effectively give you two vacations for the price of one. That being said, Cathay Pacific and JAL flights to Asia will guarantee you the most outsized returns from your miles, and are one of my favorite all-time sweet-spot redemptions.
Featured photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.
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