September is one of my favorite months to travel. The kids are back in school and many (not all) of the tourists have gone back home. As fall sets in, airline mileage junkies start to fret about their elite status for the following year.
Just ask any Alaska Airlines frequent flier if they've made MVP. Either they'll stand a little taller and say "gold!" or they will smile through their gritted teeth and mutter something like, "Still working on it" before changing the subject.
Earning miles has never been easier. You can get miles every time you use your credit card. But it's the "elite qualifying miles" that count. These miles are also known as "BIS" or "butt-in-seat" miles. The next time you see a very frequent flier limping through the airport, it's probably because they've endured more than 75,000 actual flight miles. It hurts me to think about it.
Still, it's worth it to reach the "MVP" or "MVP Gold" level on Alaska Airlines. The other airlines that fly here, including Delta and United, have reconfigured their mileage plans based on how much money you spend, so you will not attain elite status on miles alone. That's a feature that sets Alaska Air's mileage plan apart from the others.
Even at MVP (for travelers who fly 20,000 miles in a year), you can select the exit row for your seat and get the priority phone reservations line. You also get 1 1/2 miles for every mile flown (but only the actual flight miles are "elite qualifying miles"). At the MVP Gold level (40,000 miles in a year), the airline will waive your change fees and the fee to redeposit your miles back into your account if you change your plans. Plus, you're farther up on the first class upgrade list.
That said, most of the upgrades between Anchorage and Seattle go to the exalted "MVP Gold 75K" travelers. These are people who know the flight attendants by name and basically live on planes. But Alaska Airlines rewards them with — you guessed it — more miles. When you reach that 75,000-mile marker, you receive a 50,000-mile one-time bonus. There are other special perks, of course.
So look up your balance on Alaska Airlines. If you're several thousand miles short, you can still make it! I've picked out a few city pairs where Alaska is offering some great deals. Head there and take a city tour. Go to the amusement park. Eat some dinner while you calculate how many miles you've earned. It pays to plan ahead, though. If you wait until after Thanksgiving, you can still find a few good deals, but they're likely to be more limited and more expensive.
Anchorage-Phoenix: Fly between Oct. 10 and Dec. 25 for $298 round trip on Alaska. You'll earn about 5,100 miles, depending on your actual routing. You won't find the fare around the peak travel days at Thanksgiving, but there are plenty of dates available.
Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX: Fly between Oct. 8 and Dec. 21 for just $246 round trip on Alaska. That's cheaper than a ticket to Seattle! On the nonstop, you'll earn 4,060 elite qualifying miles. If you stop in Seattle or Portland on the way, you'll earn a few more.
Anchorage-Boston: Fly between Oct. 17 and Dec. 14 for $416 round trip on Alaska. You'll earn a whopping 7,860 elite qualifying miles.
Anchorage-Orlando: Travel between Oct. 9 and Dec. 12 for $446 round trip on Alaska. There are just a few dates available at this price, so you really have to hunt and peck using the "Low Fare Calendar" feature on Alaska's website. Also, you may end up being routed through San Diego on Alaska's new San Diego-Orlando flight. Hey — what will you do for 8,620 miles? Well, I guess we're going to find out!
Anchorage-Sacramento: Fly between Oct. 8 and Dec. 25 for $288 round trip on Alaska. Again, this is cheaper than a ticket from Anchorage to Seattle. You'll earn 4,060 elite qualifying miles if you fly through Seattle. It's a little different if you fly through Portland, but not much.
Fairbanks-Boston: This is an awesome deal. Travel between Oct. 16 and Dec. 14 on Alaska for $390 round trip. You'll earn about 8,040 miles. That's a nice-sized mileage bump!
Fairbanks-Orlando: Travel between Oct. 9 and Dec. 9 for $444 round trip for 8,160 miles. Again, seats are limited at these prices, but you can find them if you really want those miles.
Fairbanks-Austin, Texas: Fly between Oct. 9 and Dec. 14 for $406 round trip on Alaska. You'll earn about 6,580 miles.
Fairbanks-Seattle: Fly between Oct. 5 and Dec. 25 for $250 round trip, nonstop. This is a great deal and a great way to earn 3,060 miles.
Remember, though: Miles are not just for earning. They're also for burning. That's because the value of miles is diminishing quickly. Just ask folks who were saving up their miles to fly on Emirates in the first-class cabin. Earlier this year, you could book a round-trip ticket to Africa in first class for 200,000 miles. Then, overnight, it increased to 400,000 miles. That's an extreme example, but the point is you shouldn't bank your miles for a rainy day. That rainy day is here. The three magic words for the astute mileage traveler are these: earn and burn.
My friends who fly a lot encourage me to buy my tickets for travel in the states to get my elite-level frequent flier status. Then, I'm supposed to use my accrued miles for the high-dollar premium-class ticket overseas.
When you're cashing in your miles for these premium seats, all of those bonus miles come in handy. If you've earned "MVP Gold," for example, you earn double miles on all of your flights.
If you want to fly to Europe, book it in business with Air France, KLM or Delta for 125,000 miles round trip. You can book many of your award tickets online at AlaskaAir.com, but sometimes it helps to call if you cannot find the right dates. You may find that British Airways offers business class at a lower mileage threshold. Beware, though! If you fly to or through London, you'll have to cough up hundreds of dollars for the dreaded "Heathrow Tax" which applies to frequent-flier mileage tickets.
When flying to Asia, consider cashing in your miles to fly on Cathay Pacific. You'll fly Alaska Airlines to Cathay's gateway in either San Francisco or Vancouver, B.C. Then, take their nonstop flight to Hong Kong, where you can connect to points throughout Asia. It's 140,000 miles to fly in first class. But you also get access to the airline's exclusive first-class lounge. There's a bathtub, fancy food and a champagne bar. I haven't been there, but my friends get misty-eyed when they talk about it. You also can choose to fly business class on Cathay Pacific for 100,000 Alaska Air miles. That includes first-class connecting flights on Alaska.
Head south for the winter to South America on LAN airlines. This Alaska Air partner offers flights from Los Angeles to Lima, Peru, and on to Santiago, Chile. From there, you can connect to other southern cities in Argentina and Brazil. Just make sure you get your Brazilian visa before you secure your flight plans. I checked on flights; they're available from 90,000 miles for a round-trip ticket in business class (with first-class connecting flights on Alaska). These flights used to be available for as little as 60,000 miles — but mileage inflation happens.
There are more strategies for actually booking your award ticket, or for topping off your account to get the miles. But the big thing is to be flexible with your dates — and you can be flying in style to foreign lands!
Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.