For some travelers, the luster of airline frequent flyer plans has worn off. Three of the biggest airlines, American, United and Delta, devalued their plans from miles flown to dollars spent. The new schemes all include spending levels that travelers must achieve in addition to miles flown to achieve elite status.
Alaska Airlines, though, has stuck to its miles-flown strategy for its frequent flyer plan. However, since it works with many partner airlines, the math can get a little tricky. For example, if you're flying on American Airlines and you want to get Alaska Air credit, you could end up with as little as 25 percent of actual miles flown.
American is not the stingiest partner airline — there are several others that only award a fraction of the actual miles flown to economy class travelers. Icelandair, British Airways and Hainan Air also are members of the 25 Percent Club.
Things are different if you're flying in the front of the bus. Business or first-class travelers almost always receive 100 percent of miles flown, plus a "class of service bonus" of 50 to 100 percent. While the "base miles" that you earn — whether it's 25 or 100 percent — count toward your MVP status for next year, the bonus miles do not. Still, you can use the bonus miles toward your next free ticket.
If it sounds confusing, it is. Dedicated mileage hounds spend time dissecting the right class of service to get the maximum number of elite-qualifying miles. It's a game — and the payoff is elite status and extra miles for free trips.
Lately, the balance has shifted away from air miles to spent miles with co-branded credit cards. Most Alaska Airlines frequent flyers have at least one Alaska Air credit card from Bank of America (I've got two of them). The banks realize that travelers go nuts over bonus miles and they are happy to roll those miles in as an incentive to get the credit card. In fact, Bank of America has a plan right now for travelers to get a free companion ticket (not including taxes) if they apply for a card in June. There's also a 30,000-mile bonus, which is enough for a round-trip ticket from Alaska to the Lower 48. Cardholders have to pay the annual fee of $75 and spend at least $1,000 within 90 days.
Double miles for Alaska partners
But Alaska is getting more competitive pressure from big airlines. Delta is still warring with Alaska in Seattle. But now United is adding flights to combat Alaska Air in San Francisco and Los Angeles, especially after Alaska's purchase of Virgin America. So last week Alaska rolled out a "double miles" program for select partner airlines.
Alaska works with 18 partner airlines — 19 if you include Virgin America, which still operates on a separate FAA certificate. So it picked 10 of the airlines — and a few of the routes for this promotion.
Travelers have to register for the promotion in advance. Even if you have not yet made plans, it's worth it to register just in case. The promotion lasts until Sept. 30, 2017.
Surprisingly, neither Icelandair or Condor are included in the list. Icelandair's flights from Portland or Seattle to Reykjavik qualify for double miles, though. But remember, it's not "actual miles flown." If your ticket only qualifies for 25 percent of actual miles, you'll receive an additional 25 percent. Further, if you're headed beyond Iceland, it's only the flight to Reykjavik that counts for your double miles.
If you're flying on Korean Air between Seattle and Seoul, that flight qualifies. The least-expensive tickets on Korean will earn 50 percent of miles flown on Alaska. With the bonus of another 100 percent of awarded miles, you'll earn 10,420 miles round-trip. Half of those will count as "elite qualifying miles." But you'll still be able to use the bonus miles for your next award ticket.
Emirates operates a daily flight from Seattle to Dubai. Be sure to check your ticket class carefully. "G" class only earns 25 percent, while other classes earn 50 percent. Remember, too, that there's a laptop ban on the return flight from Dubai to Seattle. That's one reason Emirates dropped its second daily flight between Dubai and Seattle.
If you're flying on Qantas from San Francisco or Los Angeles to Sydney — you really do get double miles. Qantas awards 100 percent of actual miles flown for Alaska Airlines travelers.
There are other clever ways to pad your Alaska Air account without actually flying. Last year I broke my long-standing fast against American Express for, you guessed it, some bonus points.
The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card has some nice perks. Right now, you get 30,000 "Starpoints" when you spend at least $3,000 within 90 days of receiving the card. With the card, you get a jump-start on elite status with Starwood Hotels. The fee is $95 per year — but it's waived for the first year.
With the SPG card, you can transfer your points to many different airlines, including Alaska. Further, when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to your Alaska account, there's a 5,000-mile bonus.
Be careful, though. The points are especially helpful at the Starwood Hotels, which include luxury brands like "W." I stayed at the W in Seattle for 12,000 points — and that's a much better deal than the cash price of $425 per night. Down in Portland, "The Nines" is an SPG Luxury Hotel that's built on top of a Macy's store right downtown. It's a beautiful hotel with a stunning rooftop bar. I opted to spend 15,000 points instead of coughing up $417 per night.
Still, if you want to transfer the miles to Alaska Airlines, you can do so. If you want even more miles, you can apply for the SPG Business Card from American Express. If you spend $5,000 in the first three months, you'll net 25,000 Starpoints (the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year). You can add these to the first 30,000 points from the personal card for a total of 55,000 points.
I ended up getting both of the cards, knowing that I could always transfer the miles to my Alaska account if I didn't like the SPG plan. Instead, I've held on to one of the cards and paid the fee. I've never had a bad experience at a Starwood property and there are 11 different brands from which to choose.
If the frequent flyer mileage plans seem like one big game, that's because it is! Banks are in on it. So are the hotels. And the airlines, even though it seems they're trying their best to get out of the loyalty game, are knee-deep in the hoopla.
Just understand that the banks want you to borrow money on their credit cards. The hotels want you to sample their rooms. Sometimes it seems like the airlines are more than a little upset at travelers who work hard to beat them at their own game for perks, upgrades and free travel. But since the rules, the offers, the specials and the bonuses keep changing, these loyalty plans are here to stay.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.