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Is it still worth it to collect air miles? Yes - and here’s why

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: February 23
  • Published February 23

A couple of years ago, Sage Cohen wanted to go to South America. So, she called Alaska Airlines to use her miles. “I didn’t quite have enough miles, so I bought some miles and topped off my account. The net result was I got a first class ticket from Anchorage to Buenos Aires for $450,” she said.

There was a long layover in Lima, so she bought a one-time lounge pass for $75. "I was able to shower and stretch out on a big recliner while waiting for my connecting flight. It was marvelous,” she said.

So when it came time to travel once again, she called up the partner desk again. “The folks on the phone were really nice,” she said. “But we couldn’t book these LATAM Airlines tickets on the website. The partner desk had to check each individual day for two months. In the end, there were no seats available in first class, business class or even coach,” she said.

I think Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is the best airline loyalty scheme in the market, particularly since other carriers like Delta, United and American have worked hard to devalue their offers. Alaska’s competitors now have minimum dollar amounts you have to spend in order to qualify as an elite traveler for upgrades and perks. Alaska does not have that requirement. Delta, United and American all calculate your frequent flier miles based on the dollars you spend. Alaska still offers one mile for each mile that you fly.

So, to get the most for your Alaska Airline miles, I recommend that you earn and burn your miles on Alaska Airlines flights. It starts to get tricky when you want to earn or redeem miles on Alaska’s many partner airlines. Each one, it seems, has its own special formula.

For example, if you’re flying nonstop from Anchorage to Frankfurt on Condor, you’ll earn between 50 and 75 percent of the actual miles flown, depending on the “class of service.” Typically, the more expensive tickets will result in more miles. If you elect Condor’s “Premium Economy” you’ll earn 125 percent of the actual miles flown. If you want to redeem miles on the nonstop, it costs about 40,000 miles. If you don’t mind taking two or three flights via the Lower 48 to get there, you can get a one-way ticket for as little as 25,000 miles. Further, you can book your Condor award tickets online at Alaskaair.com .

If you want to fly Icelandair’s nonstop to Reykjavik this summer, one-way tickets in coach are available for as little as 22,500 miles. But I couldn’t find a single seat all month in June or July in first class. If you want to earn miles on Icelandair, you’ll receive between 25 and 100 percent of the miles flown, depending on your class of service.

Alaska Airlines and other carriers have been tweaking the frequent flyer game for more than 30 years now. Frequent flyer points are an alternative currency the airlines use to build brand loyalty and fill up their planes. Most Alaskans are vested in the Alaska Airlines plan. Many travelers play the game with one or two other airlines, a hotel chain or a credit card.

Because American, Delta and United have devalued their programs, Alaska’s plan has become more valuable during the past couple of years. It’s relatively easy to gain “MVP” status by flying 20,000 miles with no “qualifying dollars.” Then there are the extra benefits affiliated with the Alaska Air Visa card, issued by Bank of America. Right now, you can get a 30,000-mile bonus for signing up for the card. Two months ago, I got an offer for 40,000 bonus miles, which I accepted. Now I have three Alaska Air Visa cards, for which I received 100,000 bonus miles.

Travelers can earn miles while they shop, while they’re dining in restaurants and when they’re buying anything with credit cards.

With all of these extra opportunities to earn massive amounts of frequent flyer miles, there’s more pressure on Alaska when it comes time to cash them in.

The “pressure” results in higher redemption rates on Alaska flights—and more sold out flights on partner airlines. Three years ago, you could get a first class ticket on Emirates for as little as 90,000 miles. Then, overnight, Alaska Airlines doubled the amount of miles required. When I checked on first class tickets from Anchorage to Johannesburg in July, it was 200,000 miles in each direction.

Alaska Air has an impressive list of partner airlines, including Qantas, Cathay Pacific and British Airways. The airlines always are re-jiggering their relationship. For example, American Airlines has backed off of their partnership with Alaska, in part because of Alaska’s acquisition of Virgin America. So, unless you are booking an Alaska Airlines flight that is operated by American, you won’t earn miles within the U.S.

If you want to use your Alaska Airlines miles on Alaska flights, there are some great deals. You can fly to Juneau, Kodiak, Fairbanks or Nome for 5,000 miles each way. A ticket to Adak is available for just 7,500 miles. The trick is you have to book the tickets 21 days in advance.

Do you want to go to Hawaii? It’s a little more, but I found tickets for 17,500 miles starting on Mar. 14.

Are you headed from Anchorage to Seattle? I found seats for 10,000 miles each way starting Mar. 13. The bad news is that the cheapest seats require a stop in Juneau. The best flights cost 20,000 miles each way.

Is it still worth it to collect the miles? I think so. But just like the tickets you buy with real money, mileage tickets are priced to react to the demands of more mileage junkies with more miles to spend. That means redemption levels for the best flights are going up.

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