When I’m talking with people who aren’t very familiar with higher flying, they usually ask me, “what kind of miles should I be collecting to maximize my dollar?” I get a lot of surprised looks when I say “Alaska Airlines.” I’m not naïve; the regional carrier, which primarily operates out of the Pacific Northwest, probably isn’t the first company that jumps to your mind when you think of international first class travel. Despite that, the management has formed strategic partnerships with major airlines in oneworld and SkyTeam, and maximizes those to extend its global presence. This, in turn, creates a rewarding and practical loyalty program. Not only is Alaska strong in this sense, it’s industry leading. It’s easy to accrue points, even easier to redeem them, and the perks that come with elite status are quite valuable. For these reasons, Alaska Airlines should play an essential role in every higher flyer’s portfolio.
- Name: Alaska Airlines
- Code: AS
- Website: www.alaskaair.com
- Hubs: Seattle-Tacoma (SEA), Ted Stevens Anchorage (ANC), Portland International (PDX), Los Angeles International (LAX), San Francisco International (SFO).
- Destinations: 104
- Alliance: None, but partners with Aeromexico, Air France, American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Condor, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Finnair, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines, Iceland Air, KLM, Korean Air, LATAM Airlines, Pen Air, Qantas, and Ravn Alaska
- Loyalty Program: Mileage Plan
- Loyalty Tiers: (1) MVP Gold 75k, (2) MVP Gold, (3) MVP
Three Notable Features
- Mileage Plan is the best in the business: With competitive award prices, fantastic partners, and boatloads of availability, Alaska Airlines has the best loyalty program in the world. It is so versatile, and it rewards its returning customers unlike any other carrier. Other legacy carriers, like Delta for instance, appear to take their customers for granted, especially as they cut perks, devalue their currencies, and reduce the number of saver level awards per flight. Conversely, Alaska uses Mileage Plan as a key part of its business model to attract and incentivize travelers to keep flying. Some examples of this include lowering the costs for ticket redemptions, maintaining distance-based, not revenue-based, earning rates (so you earn more!), and treating frequent flyers to instant, guaranteed upgrades and substantial points bonuses. Those who reach the highest tier, MVP Gold 75k, are practically given the keys to the kingdom! Even if you’re not that dedicated of a flyer, you can never go wrong with the Alaskan Mileage Plan.
- Elite roster of partners makes alliance loyalty obsolete: Alaska Airlines isn’t part of an alliance, but it instead partners with individual carriers in both oneworld and SkyTeam. While it isn’t traditionally affiliated with anyone, Alaska Air has, in effect, created its own alliance network that reaches far beyond its Pacific Northwest home. Alaskan travelers can fly to every region of the world on a number of highly regarded carriers, like American on domestic routes, Cathay Pacific and Korean Air and Japan Airlines in Asia, Aeromexico and LATAM in Latin America, and Air France/KLM and British Airways in Europe. There are a number of other non-affiliated partner airlines too. This means that higher flyers can not only earn valuable Alaskan miles, but they can redeem them for premium international travel everywhere while enjoying reciprocated benefits. They also don’t have to worry about second-tier airlines; the management has the opportunity to choose exactly who they associate with.
- Hello, Virgin America!: Alaska Airlines has been working to expand its presence domestically too, and in addition to adding flights to more East Coast destinations, it purchased Virgin America in April 2016 for more than $2.5 billion. Such an acquisition catapulted the carrier into the fifth largest (behind Southwest, United, Delta, and American) in the United States and cemented its place as a dominant force in the lucrative West Coast market. The merger is also inspiring a corporate rebrand, which includes new dining options, better in flight entertainment choices, and retrofitted aircraft with new features and touches. In the coming years, Alaska will offer a much improved on board product and expanded route map to complement its already strong loyalty program.
Three Notable Drawbacks
- Good riddance if you live on the East Coast: Alaska Airlines is great if you live on the West Coast. Its frequent flights are generally pretty cheap and serve all major (and not so major) airports in the region. The same cannot be said for the East Coast though, where the carrier has a much smaller presence. If you happen to live there, then your options are mostly once daily or twice daily flights to hubs on the other side of the United States. Not only is that inconvenient, but unless you have to go out west frequently, you’ll have a hard time accruing miles/status. Thankfully you can credit flights on American Airlines to Alaska Air; it’s a nice consolation prize, I suppose.
- A step above riding the bus: In its current state, flying Alaska Airlines is not a particularly glamorous experience. The flight attendants are nice and the food is good (provided that you’re willing to pay for it) and operations are well managed. Beyond that though, the airline is about as no-frills as it gets. You won’t get a particularly comfortable seat, there probably won’t be in flight entertainment, nor will there be available power ports. Only a small subsection of the fleet has Wi-Fi, although Alaska is working to improve that. For a transcontinental flight in premium class, you can expect to sit in a seat like this…
…or one like this if you’re in Economy Class…
These seats have definitely seen better days; they’re worn, tired, and not all that comfortable. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it weren’t for the fact that competitors have much better offerings at comparable, if not cheaper, prices.
The purpose of Alaska Airlines is to get you from Point A to Point B. Nothing more, nothing less, so take that as you will.
- Award redemptions can be tricky: Because Alaska negotiates its partnerships independently of alliances, each airline dictates the nature of its respective relationship with Alaska. There’s no standard operating procedure as a result, and companies set their own ticket prices (and possible fuel surcharges) and implement their own booking procedures. To get on Cathay Pacific, you have to call Alaska, whereas on Japan Airlines, you can book via alaskaair.com. It doesn’t matter that both are oneworld carriers based in Asia; the rules vary. While this is by no means a deal breaker, it is an added hassle for higher flyers. They have to know more about each program to get the redemption they really want. On top of that, Alaska has no major bank transfer partners, and there aren’t any significant cobranded credit cards, so earning the miles in the first place can be challenging. At least you can transfer Starpoints and credit partner flights…
Three Special Opportunities
- Fly on Virgin America: Virgin America is fun to fly, and it’s a fabulous value for getting around the country. You can redeem 7,500 Mileage Plan miles for an Economy Class ticket, and 15,000 miles for a First Class seat. With that, you get access to one of the best domestic First Class products, and/or one of the better Economy Class seats too. Seeing that Alaska redemptions start at the same prices, you should look to Virgin for your award travel — you’ll have a much more memorable flight. Be sure to take advantage of this soon though! Because of the merger, the corporate management is consolidating the two brands and ultimately doing away with the “Virgin Experience” sometime in the next year or so.
- 70,000 miles to South Africa in Cathay Pacific First Class: This is probably my favorite redemption, and I allude to it in the Beginner’s Guide. If you’re willing to route via Hong Kong, you can fly in Cathay Pacific’s award winning First Class from the United States to Johannesburg for only 70,000 miles one way. Seeing that the same ticket normally sells for around $24,000, this represents an incredible value. You have to call to book, which can be a hassle at times, but still it’s an amazing opportunity to experience some of the best travel the world has to offer; this is the pinnacle of higher flying! You can add a stopover in Hong Kong for free as an added bonus too.
- Access Emirates First Class: Alaska isn’t the best way to redeem for Emirates First Class anymore (that crown goes to Japan Airlines), but it’s still worth considering. You can indulge in all of the amenities Emirates First has to offer, like a blinged-out suite complete with room service, a full service bar, and an on board shower (!!!) for as few as 150,000 miles. While that sticker price might sting a bit at first, know that you’ll be redeeming points for a ticket that routinely costs well above $20,000. It’s a terrific value for what is sure to be an unforgettable trip. Awards are relatively easy to book and availability is decent, just go to alaskaair.com and choose where you want to go!
As is the case with the other airlines, Alaska Airlines has its share of strengths and weaknesses. While it’s one of my favorites, that doesn’t mean that its competitors are definitely inferior. You probably have different experiences, perspectives, and values than I do; what matters to me may not matter to you and vice versa. The point of this guide is merely to highlight the features that makes Alaska unique, and help you better understand how it fits in to higher flying collectively.