Travel

The end of the year means a scramble for Alaska’s frequent flyers trying to earn elite status

The holidays are upon us. The snow is falling, lights are blinking and cookies are baking.

So what’s on the mind of some Alaska Airlines frequent flyers?

“Can I make MVP 75K status before the end of the year?”

Prudent travelers have been tracking their accounts all year, taking advantage of super-cheap fares to earn some extra miles. But it’s been another wild COVID-19 year for flyers. Some of us are a little rusty at playing the travel game after having our wings clipped by the pandemic.

On a couple of quick trips down south, it was clear that the travel landscape still is a little rough. There are pitfalls to trip you up if you’re not careful — and I’m not even talking about the new omicron COVID-19 variant.

The most obvious road hazard for travelers right now is the continuing shortage of rental cars. On a recent trip to California, rental cars ranged from $70 to $100 per day. That’s much less than this summer’s sky-high rates. But it was the fuel that caused me to check with Turo, a paid car-sharing service that’s like Airbnb for vehicles. We ended up renting a 2015 Prius (with 175,000 miles) from a fellow named Andrew. He met us in the parking lot outside of the Sonoma County Airport in Santa Rosa. He has eight cars that he rents out through Turo, and renting from Andrew saved us about $100 off the cheapest airport car rental.

On a recent trip to Honolulu, we didn’t bother renting a car. If you’re staying in Waikiki, it doesn’t matter what the car costs to rent. Rather, it’s the overnight parking that will get you. Our hotel charged between $42 and $50 per night, which is typical for the resort hotels. We used Uber for rides to and from the airport.

When it comes to hotels, check the fine print when you’re booking. For much of this year and last year, many hotels had suspended the dreaded “resort fees” since most amenities like the pool were closed during the pandemic. But the fees are coming back.

In Waikiki, we stayed at the Hyatt Centric Hotel, where the resort fee is more than $37 per night. In the old days, things like a phone, a TV, a pool and towels would be included in the room rate, which is more than $200 per night. But now there’s a fee for that.

We avoided the resort fee by using Hyatt Hotel points to pay for the room. Hotel points are how I redeem most of my credit card mileage points. I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card, but there are others that allow you to move your points between hotel and airline programs, including American Express and Citibank.

Although I have a couple of Chase cards to earn those “flexible spend” points for Hyatt, Marriott Bonvoy and IHG (Intercontinental Hotel Group) points, I also have a couple of Alaska Airlines cards. And although I haven’t been flying as much for the last two years, the miles continue to add up after every trip to Costco.

During the last part of every year, frequent travelers scramble to grab extra elite qualifying miles to reach their MVP status for the following year.

But it’s important to burn the miles as well. That’s because nothing depreciates faster than unused airline miles. Next year at this time, it will cost you more miles to fly where you want to go. So use them now.

For example, on our trip to California, the first choice was to fly to Oakland. When Alaska Airlines ran a two-for-one special last month, I got a good deal — about $300 round-trip for two tickets. But our flights got in late and we would have skipped dinner with our friends. So the next day I turned those tickets in and burned 70,000 Alaska Airlines miles for two of us to fly straight into Santa Rosa. The cash price would have been about $1,100.

When you redeem Alaska miles, you’re automatically in the main cabin. so we could pre-reserve our seats. We can check our bags because we’re members of their Club 49 program for Alaska residents. We flew on the smaller E-175 regional jet between Seattle and Santa Rosa. I like those jets better than 737s. That’s because they are two-by-two without any middle seats.

If you still need some miles to make your elite goal, be prepared for some sticker shock. You can fly between Anchorage and Seattle from Dec. 23-25 for about $350 round trip. You’ll earn almost 2,900 miles. And right now, Alaska Airlines is offering a 50% bonus toward elite status. That adds up to 4,344 elite qualifying miles. You can’t use the bonus miles toward free tickets — they’re only for reaching elite status.

If you need more miles, you can fly from Anchorage to San Jose, Costa Rica. I found some tickets for $1,000 round trip leaving right around Christmas Day. Flying round trip will net you 10,228 miles, plus a 5,114-mile bonus.

The 50% bonus is only available through Dec. 31.

Alaska Airlines really wants to keep you on the elite-traveler treadmill, though. If you miss your target and fail to requalify as an MVP, Gold or 75K member, Alaska will extend your status through April 30. If you want to retain that status through the end of 2022, you have to fly some miles between January and April 2022:

• MVP: 5,000 miles

• MVP Gold: 10,000 miles

• MVP Gold 75K: 20,000 miles

Usually, when you hit the Gold 75K threshold, Alaska awards you a one-time bonus of 50,000 miles. But if you’re on this particular fast track and you fly the 20,000 extra miles, you won’t get the bonus. You still have to fly all 75,000 miles.

Delta also is offering a 50% bonus toward elite status through the end of the month. And the airline also is extending travelers’ SkyMiles status for a full year, through Jan. 31, 2023. Further, all “Medallion Qualifying Miles” for 2021 will roll over into 2022 for a jumpstart on 2023 status.

Two other big changes for Delta: SkyMiles members who live in Alaska can check two free bags to the Lower 48 through April 30. Also, you won’t earn SkyMiles if you buy a basic economy ticket.

Whether you’re flying this month or keeping your fingers crossed for a journey in the new year, I wish you fair winds. One of my travel gurus, Randy Petersen, always shares this holiday blessing with me: “May all of your upgrades be free and may your miles never expire.”

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