Confession: After our guests left on Thanksgiving, I started shopping for discounted airfares. First it was Black Friday, followed by Cyber Monday!
When I found a great fare to Los Angeles for $146 one-way, I quickly clicked through to the Alaska Airlines website to find the details.
That’s when the “Saver” fare came up. Saver fares are Alaska’s answer to Delta’s “basic economy” fares, which have been offered for more than a year. United also has a basic economy fare that’s more onerous than Delta’s.
The scheme is pretty simple. The airline publishes a stripped-down fare to boost its standing in comparative search engines like Google and Kayak. Low-fare airlines like Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant have been doing this for awhile.
Price-sensitive travelers (like me) click on the cheapest fares and work backward from there. Sometimes the schedule doesn’t work. Sometimes I’m willing to pay more for a seat with extra legroom. Sometimes I’m not.
Last year, when Delta and United introduced their basic economy fares, Alaska did not follow suit — and many travelers were happy about it. But last April, Alaska Air’s marketing executives stated that the airline would roll out their own version of basic economy.
For some travelers, the Saver fares will work just fine. You still can get an assigned seat — but those seats are back by the potty. Only the last five rows of the aircraft are available. If no pre-assigned seats are available, then you’ll get one at check-in. In the middle, probably.
Many Alaskans have mined the Alaska Airlines honey pot for years, building up their miles and earning elite status like MVP and MVP Gold. If you want to get an upgrade — even to Premium Class — the new Saver fares are not for you. There’s also no guarantee that you will sit next to your traveling companion. You’ll get no credit if you miss your flight — or if you want to change or cancel. This includes same-day standby or confirmed changes.
Alaska Airlines, like Delta and United, is working hard to offer a ticket that you do not want to buy. The goal is to get you to upgrade to the “main cabin” or maybe even Premium Class.
Depending on the demand for your flight, your “regular” coach ticket may get you a seat in the last row anyway. It’s happened to me. But at least you have a little flexibility to change. If you’re an elite-level traveler, those change-or-cancel benefits are valuable.
Saver fare travelers will be the last ones to board the aircraft and use the overhead bins. However, if you are an elite-level traveler, you still will be able to board earlier.
Travelers who get a Saver fare still will earn Mileage Plan credit for the miles they fly.
No checked bags are included in the Saver fare tickets. However, if you’re a member of Alaska’s “Club 49,” you can check two bags free of charge on flights to or from Alaska. For flights within Alaska, all travelers can check up to three bags at no charge.
Saver travelers can bring a regular-sized carry-on suitcase on the plane with them. That’s the same policy Delta has. But United will not allow this with their basic economy tickets. In fact, if you don’t purchase the carry-on fee of $25 or pay for a checked bag with United, you cannot use the carrier’s online check-in. Instead, you have to stand at the airport so the customer service agent can confirm you’re not taking a bag on board!
The “upgrade” to the main cabin can be expensive. For the ticket to L.A., the cost is $30 each way. According to Tim Thompson, a spokesman for Alaska Air, there’s no set amount for an upgrade to a regular coach ticket. In fact, for a ticket from Anchorage to New York’s JFK Airport, the upcharge was just $12 each way. But the $30 one-way upcharge is consistent with what Delta and United charge.
With Delta’s basic economy fare, there’s no way you can get an assigned seat before check-in. The same is true with United. So in this case, Alaska’s scheme is marginally better.
Alaska’s effort to ease into the bottom-end basic economy market is a difficult process. Travelers will not be happy about the changes, since it means more analysis before purchasing to see exactly what the cost will be for a ticket. However, in the year since Delta announced its basic economy tickets, its cheaper rates gave them higher rankings in the comparative search engines. That’s not such a big issue in Anchorage, where Alaska Air enjoys a loyal following. But in the many new markets the airline serves, like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Raleigh, pricing is paramount.
For the 100 destinations Alaska Airlines serves outside the state, the Saver fare may be the key for new travelers to try the airline. For loyal travelers in Alaska, the new scheme represents one more hurdle before you qualify for your elite-level benefits like upgrades, change fee waivers and preferred seating.