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Many road warriors are rabidly loyal to their airline of choice. After all, elite status confers an array of perks to make your travel experience more rewarding and less stressful, so it’s easy to love those value-added benefits (and the carrier that offers them. However, are you sure you’ve selected the best carrier to meet your needs?
Today I’ll be continuing my update to last year’s series that tries to quantify just how much value you can get out of each tier of elite status across the major frequent flyer programs in the US. After starting with the three major legacy programs (American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus), I’ll now shift gears and look at some of the smaller carriers. Our next target is the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan program.
As noted in previous entries in this series, these posts are not meant to cancel out or otherwise detract from the comprehensive elite status analysis I completed in fall 2017. That particular study looked at the value of the different benefits offered to elite flyers and the relative importance of those perks to travelers. In addition, I didn’t go into any in-depth analysis of the individual airlines, instead offering a high-level comparison across the major airlines here in the US. This post (and all posts in this series) will attempt to remedy just that.
Before we get to the details of the elite status tiers of the Mileage Plan program, 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. Everyone has his or her own way of valuing the various benefits of loyalty programs; some may always pay for first and business class and thus have no need for complimentary upgrades, while others may travel exclusively in the US and don’t care about free lounge access on international itineraries. As a result, feel free to adjust the numbers I use to make it more relevant to your own personal valuation.
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, these values are a bit skewed, since the first 25,000 miles you fly will provide no benefits. I’ve provided some analysis for those of you in that position toward the end of the post, including an Excel spreadsheet to help with your estimates.
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 and a corresponding amount of spending. For the sake of the airline portion of the series, I’m making the following assumptions:
- 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.
As always, be sure to adjust these numbers based on your given travel patterns. Those who travel exclusively in the US may spend less than $0.15 per mile, while those who travel in paid first or business class internationally likely spend significantly more. You also may qualify on segments rather than miles, and you may have heavier travel in certain parts of the year.
In addition, unlike with my analysis of Alaska Airlines in prior years, I’m assuming that you qualify predominantly through travel on Alaska and Virgin America and are thus subject to lower qualification thresholds. This adjusted approach is based on the fact that the Mileage Plan program no longer partners with Delta and has significantly scaled back its partnership with American. In the past, most travelers would likely earn elite status with Alaska through a combination of flights on the carrier’s own metal and those with partners. With the changes to the American and Delta partnerships (plus the merger with Virgin America and the new perks that confers), that’s likely no longer the case.
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 1.9 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 elite levels of the Mileage Plan program land? Here’s my analysis:
Alaska MVP ($905)
The lowest tier in Alaska’s program is MVP status, which normally requires 20,000 elite-qualifying miles on Alaska and Virgin America. You could also qualify by flying 25,000 miles or 30 elite-qualifying segments on a combination of Alaska, Virgin and partner carriers. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 24,000 elite-qualifying miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $3,600).
- 50% mileage bonus ($230): MVP members will earn a 50% bonus on Alaska flights and with the program’s elite-qualifying airline partners, including British Airways and Emirates. With 24,000 miles flown, that’ll give you an additional 12,000 Alaska miles, worth $228. While the carrier doesn’t have a revenue-based program yet, just be aware that not all fare classes will earn full miles, especially those in deeply discounted economy.
- Priority airport services ($75): As an MVP traveler, you’ll enjoy priority check-in and boarding when you fly on Alaska or Virgin America, and this even extends to priority security when traveling on Virgin America. This may not be the most valuable perk but can still save some valuable time during busy travel days.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($100): You and your travel companions are also able to check two bags for free when traveling on Alaska flights. This savings can really add up if you regularly check bags, but I’ll assume a conservative valuation of $100.
- Preferred seats ($75): MVP travelers can also select preferred seats on Alaska and Virgin America, which may be aisle seats or those located close to the front of the aircraft. Note that these do not include either of the two carriers’ premium seats, which are a bit different…
- Upgrades to Premium Class ($75): At the end of 2015, Alaska announced the creation of a new Premium Class section on its planes, and at the time of writing it is available on all 737-800s, all E175s and most 737-900s (installation should be finished by spring 2018). These seats provide 4 inches of additional legroom plus complimentary snacks and drinks, similar to Delta’s Comfort+. Unfortunately, Alaska also followed Delta’s lead by requiring a formal upgrade process to gain access to those seats. MVP members are eligible for immediate upgrades into Premium Class seats at the time of booking for expensive fare classes (Y, Z, S or B), but all other fare classes won’t be upgraded until 48 hours prior to departure. Given that this is still not fleet-wide, I’ll assume a relatively conservative valuation of $75.
- Upgrades to Main Cabin Select on Virgin America ($50): Like on Alaska-operated flights, MVP travelers can be upgraded into the Virgin’s Main Cabin Select, though you must opt in and will only clear up to 12 hours before the flight. I’ll peg this slightly below Alaska’s Premium Class since I’ll assume that you’re flying Alaska more frequently.
- Upgrades to first class ($250): MVP members are still eligible for space-available complimentary upgrades to first class on Alaska-operated flights, and these will start clearing 48 hours before departure (Y, S or Z fares are eligible to clear immediately). Unfortunately for MVP travelers, they will fall behind MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members, including those on award tickets. You also can’t upgrade companions. In addition, when traveling on Virgin America, you have the ability to purchase first-class upgrades beginning 12 hours before your flight. As a result, I’ll peg this perk at $250.
- Priority phone line ($50): The final MVP perk is a priority phone line, though this may only pay off when you run into weather issues or other problems.
Alaska MVP Gold ($3,135)
The middle tier in Alaska’s program is MVP Gold status, which normally requires 40,000 elite-qualifying miles on Alaska/Virgin America or 50,000 elite qualifying miles/60 elite-qualifying segments on Alaska, Virgin and partner airlines. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 48,000 elite-qualifying miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $7,200).
- 100% mileage bonus ($910): MVP Gold members will earn twice as many miles on Alaska flights and with the program’s elite-qualifying airline partners. By flying 48,000 miles in a year, that’ll give you an additional 48,000 Alaska miles, worth $912. Again though, be aware of those fares that won’t earn full miles, especially many deeply discounted economy ones.
- Priority airport services ($175): As an MVP Gold member, you’ll enjoy the same priority services at the airport as MVP travelers plus express security lines (where available) when flying either Alaska or Virgin America.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($200): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Preferred seats ($150): Same benefit, more frequent utilization
- Upgrades to Premium Class ($200): As an MVP Gold flyer, you’re eligible for upgrades to the new Premium Class as well, though you have three distinct legs up on regular MVP members. First, the majority of fares are eligible for immediate upgrades (Y, Z, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, N and K), and even if you book a lower fare class that can’t be immediately upgraded, you’ll start clearing into available seats 72 hours before departure. Finally, you can upgrade a companion traveling with you.
- Upgrades to Main Cabin Select on Virgin America ($125): MVP Gold members will also enjoy complimentary upgrades to Main Cabin Select when traveling on Virgin America, and these will start clearing 24 hours before departure, making them slightly more valuable than those offered to MVP travelers.
- Upgrades to first class ($550): First-class upgrades are also available for MVP Golds, though like upgrades to Premium Class, you’ll have additional fare classes eligible for immediate upgrades (B and M) and higher upgrade priority, clearing up to 72 hours ahead of your flight. You’ll also be able to upgrade a companion, though keep in mind that MVP Gold 75K travelers are now eligible for upgrades on award tickets, which may lower your upgrade chances slightly. Finally, you can also purchase first-class upgrades on Virgin America with a slightly longer window: 24 hours before your flight.
- Gold Guest Upgrades ($400): Every year, you’ll earn four Gold Guest Upgrades when you qualify for MVP Gold status. These certificates can be used to upgrade you or a friend or family member on Alaska-operated flights. They’re even valid on flights booked using the companion fare benefit from the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, though unfortunately you can’t use them on deeply discounted and/or award tickets (G, R and T classes). You also must have U inventory available at the time of request, as there’s no way to waitlist for an upgrade (a perfect example of why ExpertFlyer and the site’s alert feature can come in handy). Even though the difference between coach and first class can be hundreds of dollars, I’ll peg these at $100 apiece.
- Complimentary beverage in the main cabin ($25): If you aren’t able to land an upgrade, you can at least enjoy a complimentary beverage in economy. These normally cost $6-7, so depending on how frequently you’re able to ride up front, this could be much less (or much more) valuable.
- Partner lounge access ($50): Another perk for MVP Gold members is complimentary lounge access when traveling on certain partners, including the British Airways Galleries Lounge in London-Heathrow (LHR) and the Saga Lounge in Reykjavik when traveling on Icelandair. You can also bring at least one guest with you, though be sure to review the full details on Alaska’s partner elite benefits page.
- Fee waivers ($250): MVP Gold members will also avoid paying a few additional fees that can really add up, including phone ticketing fees ($15), same-day confirmed changes (normally $25) and ticket changes within 60 days of departure (normally $125). That last one can be incredibly valuable, as you can can essentially change or cancel any ticket on either Alaska or Virgin America without penalties. Sign me up!
- Priority phone line ($100): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
Alaska MVP Gold 75K ($7,190)
The top tier in Alaska’s program is MVP Gold 75K status, which normally requires 75,000 elite-qualifying miles on Alaska/Virgin America or 90,000 elite-qualifying miles/90 elite-qualifying segments if you use partner airlines. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 90,000 elite-qualifying miles at a cost of 15 cents per mile (so a total spend of $13,500).
- 125% mileage bonus ($2,140): MVP Gold 75K members enjoy the largest mileage bonus in the program, taking home 125% more miles than travelers with no status. With 90,000 miles of flying, that equates to 112,500 extra miles, worth $2,137.50.
- Priority airport services ($325): Same perks, more frequent utilization.
- Checked bag fee waiver ($350): Same perks, more frequent utilization.
- Preferred seats ($275): Same perks, more frequent utilization.
- Upgrades to Premium Class ($400): MVP Gold 75K members are eligible for immediate complimentary upgrades to Premium Class on all tickets, regardless of the fare class purchased. As a result, I’ll bump this perk to $400.
- Upgrades to Main Cabin Select on Virgin America ($225): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Upgrades to first class ($1,100): As an MVP Gold 75K, you’ll enjoy the highest upgrade priority on Alaska-operated flights. You have an additional fare class (H) eligible for immediate upgrades, but for all other tickets, you’ll start clearing into first class 120 hours before departure. This upgrade priority also applies to a companion.
- Gold Guest Upgrades ($400): You won’t enjoy any extra Gold Guest Upgrades for reaching 75K status, so I’ll keep this value at $100 apiece.
- Complimentary beverage in the Main Cabin ($25): This benefit is the same for both MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members, though I’m keeping the value the same, since you’ll hopefully spend most of your time in either first class or Premium Class as a 75K traveler.
- 50,000 bonus miles ($950): When you qualify for MVP Gold 75K status, you’ll receive 50,000 bonus miles (note that this doesn’t include memberships upgraded through a status match), worth $950.
- Gift MVP status to a friend ($300): Another perk you’ll unlock by qualifying for 75K status is the ability to gift MVP status to a friend or family member. As with just about any elite status, the true value depends on how frequently that person actually flies Alaska (or the carrier’s partner airlines), but I’ll assume a value of roughly one-third of my valuation of MVP status.
- Four Alaska Lounge day passes ($100): A third perk upon qualification is four day passes to Alaska Lounge locations, located in Seattle (3 lounges), Portland, Los Angeles and Anchorage. The retail price of these is $45, though I’ll peg them at $25 apiece. Keep in mind too that these lounges do participate in the Priority Pass program and are thus accessible to holders of several premium credit cards, including the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Platinum Card from American Express.
- Partner lounge access ($50): MVP Gold 75Ks can access the same lounges as MVP Golds, and given the relatively narrow footprint, I’ll keep the valuation the same.
- Fee waivers ($450): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($100)
What if I’m starting from scratch?
As I mentioned at the outset, these numbers are based on the benefits you’d enjoy by spending a full year with the given status. However, if you’re starting from scratch, the calculations become a bit more complicated, since you won’t start to enjoy any benefits until you hit the 20,000-mile mark and earn MVP status. To help modify the analysis for those individuals, I’ve taken the above valuations and converted them to a value per elite-qualifying mile, as follows:
- MVP: $905 / 24,000 elite-qualifying miles = 3.77 cents per elite-qualifying mile
- MVP Gold: $3,135 / 48,000 elite-qualifying miles = 6.53 cents per elite-qualifying mile
- MVP Gold 75K: $7,190 / 90,000 elite-qualifying miles = 7.99 cents per elite-qualifying mile
I then created an Excel spreadsheet that uses these numbers to calculate how much value you’d get from the different levels of Alaska elite status given a certain amount of flying. All you need to do is change the number in cell A2 to represent the number of elite-qualifying miles you expect to fly in 2018, and the spreadsheet will update with the corresponding value.
For example, you’ll see that I have pre-loaded 60,000 elite-qualifying miles. At this rate, you’d get no benefits from the first 20,000 miles, then enjoy MVP benefits for the next 20,000 miles (at a rate of 3.77 cents per mile) and then enjoy MVP Gold benefits for the final 20,000 miles (at a rate of 6.53 cents per mile). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 60,000 elite-qualifying miles in 2018, you’d be able to get $2,060.42 worth of perks from the Mileage Plan program.
As always, feel free to adjust the numbers above for each tier (loaded into the “Base Data” tab of the spreadsheet) based on your own personal valuation.
Is it worth it?
So given these values, is it worth pursuing elite status (or the next tier of elite status) with Alaska? Just like with any analysis we undertake here at TPG, there isn’t an easy answer to this, as it depends entirely on your individual situation. However, here are a few over-arching questions that can help you arrive at a decision:
- How much will you travel in the future? If you earned Alaska elite status in 2017, it’s valid through December 31, 2018, and if you qualify in 2018, your status will last until December 31, 2019. It’s critical to think about how much you’ll be traveling in the future. If you push hard to earn MVP Gold 75K, for example, the valuable perks outlined above only apply when you actually travel.
- What’s the incremental value of one tier over another? Many of you may wind up within striking distance of the next tier, so be sure to consider whether the benefits are worth pushing for it. There’s no sense in going out of your way for perks that don’t matter to you.
- How well does Alaska’s route map (and/or those of its partners) match your typical travel patterns? There’s really no point in pursuing elite status with an airline if you can’t feasibly fly them (or partners) on a regular basis. Be sure to consider Alaska’s service from your home airport(s) and how easy it is to get to your desired destination, and remember to pay careful attention to fare classes that don’t earn full elite-qualifying miles.
- How sensitive are you to price and convenience? There are many trade-offs in this hobby, and one of the most common is deciding whether to use your preferred airline or hotel chain when it’s not the most convenient or cheapest. Would you book a one-stop Alaska flight if United had a cheaper nonstop option? If the answer is no, it may not be worth going out of your way to earn status with Alaska (or elite status with any airline, for that matter).
These questions are also not easy to answer, as there are many different factors that come into play with each of them. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate your own situation as you decide to determine if Alaska elite status is for you!
Alaska Airlines has typically been very well-regarded in the frequent flyer community and came out on top in our 2017 airline elite status analysis, though the carrier has made some unwelcome changes (like the overnight devaluation of Emirates awards) and has lost and cut back on partnerships with Delta and American, respectively. As Alaska and Virgin America continue to integrate their operations and frequent flyer programs, they’ll hopefully identify additional ways to reward their loyal flyers. In the meantime, I hope this analysis has given you some food for thought as you decide whether to pursue MVP status with Alaska this year!