Now that Alaska Airlines has gone full “Saver” mode for cheap airfares, some travelers are asking, “Did the Grinch steal my airline?”
The restrictive Saver tickets were not a surprise. Ever since competitors Delta, American and United increased restrictions on the cheapest of the cheap fares last year, Alaska has been under pressure to do the same.
Still, when travelers are searching alaskaair.com for a good deal, we’re accustomed to getting a nice little present. That could be free checked baggage (with Club 49) or a nice upgrade to the Premium seats because we have “elite” status.
Instead, with the new Saver fares, travel shoppers may instead find a lump of coal in their stocking.
It’s unsettling. I shop for airfares all day long using tools like Google Flights and Kayak in addition to the airlines’ own websites. With the new move to Saver fares, it’s more time-consuming to see side-by-side fare comparisons on anything but the cheapest rates. And the airlines are turning the screws to make the cheapest tickets even more undesirable.
For travelers outside Anchorage, this is less of an issue, since Alaska Airlines is the only airline. But in Anchorage, even with just two or three flights per day, Delta’s service keeps the fares lower to many destinations.
For example, the fares between Anchorage and Seattle are as low as $102 one way on Delta. That’s with the “basic economy” rate, where there are no advance seat assignments. It’s $30 more to get a seat assignment — and save some value of the ticket in case you need to change or cancel. It’s still extra on Delta to check a bag, unless you have one of their credit cards.
Flying to Seattle on Alaska Airlines still is cheap: $102-$141 one way. And there are 12 flights from which to choose (Delta only offers two flight daily to Seattle in January). There are just a few days available at $102 one way. On most days, the cheapest available is $141 one way. And that’s still the Saver fare. Add $30 to be able to use your “elite” benefits like same-day flight changes, free upgrades and waivers on changes and cancellations.
If you’re headed to the East Coast, there are some cheap fares. But the devil is in the details. And for some of these deals, I can see the Grinch’s hand at work.
Between Anchorage and Boston, Delta and United have offered fares around $400 round trip for most of the year. Both carriers offer the “basic economy” option. United’s is more onerous, since they don’t allow a regular-sized carry-on at that fare level. Alaska Airlines occasionally has offered competitive fares, but not always. Now, you can find more dates available on Alaska with the Saver fares of $400 round trip. But there’s a twist: The cheapest fares come with layovers of eight to 11 hours in both directions. Oh — there are more convenient flights. They just cost more. For tickets to Boston, it’s about an extra $30 each way. Then another $30 each way to get back to “regular” economy with a shot at an upgrade. It all adds up.
It’s a similar story for flights to Orlando. Delta and United have some great “basic economy” rates to Disney World: $195 each way. Alaska now has those great rates as well. But be prepared to cool your jets in Seattle for seven to 11 hours in each direction. Do you want more convenient connections? They’re available, of course. But it’ll cost you at least $30 more in each direction. Add on the extra $30 to get up to regular economy. Just leave your credit card out in case you want to pre-reserve one of the fruit-and-cheese platters.
Headed to Detroit? United and Delta have some great fares in “basic economy” for $200 one way. That’s a great deal. But I’d rather fly on Alaska Airlines — and so would a lot of Anchorage-based travelers. You can do it — for that price, too. But the layover is tough: four to 11 hours in either direction.
The pattern is pretty clear. There is a big demand for cheap fares. The airlines are responding to that, but they’re trying to get you to spend more money once you’re in the “sales funnel” to get your ticket. I mean, wouldn’t you rather have an assigned seat? How about some extra legroom? Would you like to check a bag? Have a free drink? A better connection?
Believe it or not, there are plenty of other pain points that airlines can use to goose some extra bucks from travelers. This includes early boarding, meal choices, changes or cancellations and access to customer service. Will all airlines ultimately join in the race to the bottom to serve cheapskate travelers? Maybe.
In Alaska’s case, they’ve still got a great loyalty plan with some nice perks for Alaskans. It’s just 5,000 miles each way to fly from Anchorage to Juneau or Fairbanks or to a bunch of other in-state destinations. You still get mileage credit for the miles you fly, as opposed to the dollars you spend. But, since all of Alaska’s partner airlines use a dollars-for-points formula, you get fewer miles when you fly them. There are some complex formulas for how miles are awarded and redeemed, but most partner airlines award between 25 and 50 percent of the actual miles flown on economy tickets.
Travelers are accustomed to airfares going up or down at a moment’s notice. Now, though, you’ll need to consider more than just the cheapest fare. At every turn, you’ll be presented with an opportunity to spend even more money for every single thing: an aisle seat, a checked bag, a better connection and a fair shot at a slot in the overhead bin.
Since planes started carrying passengers, travelers have pined for cheaper fares. Now that prices to many destinations are at historic lows, many passengers are refining their plea. What they really want are lower fares, with all the extras included. Mm hmm. And I want a pony for Christmas.