Redemption of the Week: Using Alaska's Awesome Stopover Policy
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To kick off our new Award Redemption of the Week series, I want to share a story from TPG reader Aaron about how a favorable routing rule helped him book his dream vacation:
Japan has been my top bucket list destination for years. Living on the West Coast (in Portland, Oregon), I've been tempted by flights in the $500 range every few months, but my girlfriend and I recently ended up booking a trip above and beyond anything we could have dreamed up.
I had been hoarding Alaska miles for years. I had saved about 195,000 miles, including 50,000 or so from years of trips on Alaska and (former) partners like Delta, and about 30,000 miles I transferred from Virgin America after the merger. I also earned a 30,000-mile sign-up bonus from the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, which was my first and only travel credit card until I very recently got a Sapphire card after reading TPG. The rest of the miles I earned over several years through the Mileage Plan dining program and shopping portal, and from other bonus offers like wine subscriptions.
My cousin is getting married in South Carolina in late August, and my girlfriend and I planned to spend a few days in Charleston on either side of the wedding. I started looking for airfare back in early March, but it was pretty expensive (roughly $600 round-trip each with no nonstop flights). I thought about looking at mileage redemptions just to gauge availability, though I wasn't excited about blowing 25,000 miles or more per person.
Then I remembered reading on TPG that Alaska allows multi-day stopovers on award tickets. Just for fun I started checking for a way to fly from South Carolina to Japan with a long layover in PDX. I tried various combinations of dates and airports in Japan, and sure enough I was able to find a handful of awards for 35,000 Alaska miles, mostly in economy on American Airlines to either HND or NRT. I was very excited when I saw this, because as I started digging around for the best itineraries, I knew we were going to make something happen!
As I played with the Alaska website more, I saw that there was partner award availability in business class. Most of the itineraries had only one or two legs in business or domestic first, but there was one that had nearly all domestic first and international business class for 60,000 Alaska miles. I've flown first class a few times domestically, but normally I just fly economy and I've never been up front internationally. Naturally, this was incredibly appealing to us, and looked like the trip of a lifetime!
Using the Alaska website, I booked one-way economy tickets from PDX to CHS (with a layover in SEA) for $201 each. We'll both earn 2,909 miles for the miles flown, and I earned an additional 1,206 miles on my Alaska credit card for the two tickets. Next, I booked the itinerary from CHS to HND with a nine-day layover in PDX. We'll fly CHS-CLT in economy on American, followed by CLT-PDX in first class (again on American). Then, on the same itinerary we'll fly PDX-LAX in first class on Alaska, followed by a jaunt across the Pacific in business class on American from LAX to HND. The total cost for the CHS-PDX-HND legs was 60,000 miles and $16.80 in fees per person!
For our return trip, I again used the Alaska website to redeem miles. Having heard great things about Japan Airlines' economy product from TPG and from friends, I had always wanted to try flying with them. I was able to find availability from KIX to LAX on JAL, followed by an Alaska Airlines flight back to PDX. These seats cost us 35,000 miles and about $50 in fees per person. We booked it and then pinched ourselves: we're going to Japan!
The last bit of this story happened just a few weeks ago, after we spent months researching places to go and things to see. We originally planned to split our time between Tokyo and Kyoto, but we soon realized we wanted to visit Osaka as well. We booked before Alaska Airlines announced its new change policy, so because we were over 60 days out from the return travel date, we were still able to adjust our itinerary without incurring any fees. It took nearly 90 minutes on the phone, but the agent at Alaska's call center was very friendly and helpful, and eventually we were able to extend our trip by three days.
In total we spent 95,000 miles and a little under $270 each for our flights to Charleston and Japan. I consider myself a relative newbie with points; this is my first big and complex award redemption, and I'm super excited to fly in the front of the plane internationally. I'm also really looking forward to checking out the 787 for the first time (on an American 787-9 to Japan and a JAL 787-8 on the way home). Best of all, I still have a few miles left over!
Alaska's stopover policy is one of the most useful award routing rules out there, and is part of why Mileage Plan miles are so valuable. You can not only add a stopover onto one-way awards, but also include partner flights in your itinerary, That creates easy opportunities to visit multiple destinations on one award ticket. For example, flying JFK-SEA-SFO with a lengthy stopover in Seattle costs the same 12,500 miles as a normal one-way:
Another great use of Alaska's stopover policy is to conserve miles by dovetailing the end of one trip with the start of another on a single itinerary, as Aaron and his girlfriend did with their trips to Charleston and Japan. Their tickets to Tokyo would have cost 60,000 miles even if they were just booked from Portland; by using PDX as a stopover, they effectively got a free flight home from Charleston, including a bump up to domestic first class (from Charlotte). This approach becomes even more potent when you pair it with Alaska's distance-based chart, since awards may price out according to the mileage between the origin and final destination (without factoring in the stopover city).
Aaron put this strategy to good use, but he may have missed an opportunity to do the same on his return trip. He paid 35,000 miles per person for his flight from Osaka to Portland, but by tweaking his itinerary a bit, he could have again added a stopover in PDX and another flight elsewhere for the same mileage cost (plus a marginal increase in fees). For example, here's an itinerary from Tokyo to Portland (via Los Angeles) with a flight to Honolulu tacked on four months later:
This would have required Aaron to fly home from Tokyo instead of Osaka, and would have meant foregoing his Japan Airlines experience (since itineraries that involve a partner are mostly limited to stopovers in that partner's hub cities). Still, it shows how powerful this method can be — a one-way flight to Hawaii is a pretty sweet add-on to an already good deal. I encourage you to play around with Alaska's award search to get a sense of what's possible, and if you're not already doing so, start looking for a way to boost your Mileage Plan balance.
In appreciation for sharing his story, we're sending Aaron a $200 airline gift card to enjoy on future travels, and we’d like to do the same for you. Please email your own award redemption stories to firstname.lastname@example.org; be sure to include details about the booking process and what you learned from it, and put “Award Redemption Story” in the subject line. As always, we'd also love to hear your success and mistake stories. If your submission gets published, we’ll send you a gift to spark your next adventure.
Safe and happy travels to all, and I look forward to hearing from you!