Travel

Whether you play airlines’ frequent flyer game or not, there’s plenty to consider

FAA Outage

“Are you a player?”

That’s a question you’re likely to get at a casino, before you get a seat at a high-stakes table. That’s because for loyal players, there are free drinks, the best show tickets, even free hotel rooms.

Everyone’s in on the loyalty game these days. The grocery store, the gas station and your coffee shop all have a scheme to reward customers. Of course, travel companies are knee-deep in the loyalty games: airlines, hotels, rental car companies and credit card companies.

Serious players in airline loyalty schemes often wince at their statements in January. After all the mileage-collecting for the year to earn “status,” the counter goes back to zero on Jan. 1.

Is it still worth it to play the frequent-flyer game?

Regardless of your answer, chances are you’ll still be in the game. It’s baked into each transaction. But there are changes each year, mostly to devalue your points or to extract more fees — or both.

One of the most popular credit cards for Alaska travelers just got more expensive. The Alaska Airlines Visa card, issued by Bank of America, is increasing its annual fee from $75 to $95 each year.

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The Alaska Airlines card is still a great mileage-builder. I have two of the cards myself, primarily for the annual companion fare. Remember when that first started? It was $49 for a companion ticket, even for first class. Then first class was eliminated. Then the cost went to $99 in addition to taxes and fees. That meant that the companion fare will cost at least $122, depending on those pesky taxes and fees.

Another change for the Alaska Airlines Visa card is the elimination of day passes at the airline’s network of airport lounges in Anchorage, Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York (JFK). Instead, cardholders will be offered a $100 discount on the annual membership fee ($400-$500). Previously, cardholders received a 50% discount on day passes. Now, day passes only are available in San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, at the full rate of $60.

There are some other changes regarding the one-free-bag provision for cardholders, but they’re not as important. That’s because the Club 49 benefits for Alaska travelers includes two free checked bags.

Are there other credit cards that provide the same benefits as the Alaska Airlines Visa card? I haven’t found any that match up perfectly. But there are some other great cards, particularly if you’re a frequent traveler.

American Express has a collection of personal and business cards. At the top of the heap is the Platinum card, with an annual fee of $695, with a minimum spend of $6,000 in six months. That sounds crazy, until you peek under the hood at the extras, including:

• 125,000 Membership Rewards points, which can be redeemed at American Express Travel.

• Transfer points to 17 airline programs, including Delta, Air France, British, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic.

• Transfer to three hotel programs, including Marriott, Hilton and Choice Hotels.

• Access to more than 1,400 airport lounges, including Delta’s Sky Clubs and American Express’s Centurion Lounges.

• $200 airline fee credit on one qualifying airline (like Delta).

• $240 in digital entertainment credit.

There are a few other benefits, but the lounge access is one of the most valuable. American Express is closely aligned with Delta. You have to be flying on Delta or one of the other participating airlines to get into the lounge.

I carry Delta’s American Express Gold card for business. The annual fee of $99 is waived for the first year. Right now if you sign up there’s a $400 statement credit, plus 30,000 SkyMiles. You have to charge at least $2,000 within the first six months. With the card, I can check one bag free.

You’ll find a promotion for the American Express Gold card whenever you shop at Delta.com. When I got my card, the offer was 70,000 SkyMiles and a $200 statement credit. The offers change all the time. When I looked today, there was an additional 40,000 SkyMiles bonus if I upgraded to the “Platinum” card.

Right now, you can fly Anchorage-Seattle round trip on Delta for 13,000 SkyMiles.

Chase also has a broad selection of cards for accumulating travel points. I carry the Chase Sapphire Reserve ($550 per year), as well as the Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95 per year).

The short story as to why I carry both of the cards is that the sign-up bonuses were generous. Right now, there’s a 60,000-point bonus on each of the cards, for a total of 120,000 points. Using Chase’s tools, that works out to about $1,650 in travel expenditures. Each of the cards has a $4,000 minimum spend in the first three months. I use the Chase cards primarily for lounge access and hotel stays.

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The Chase Sapphire Reserve card has key benefits for me, including:

• $300 annual travel credit (air, ferry, taxi … anything travel-related).

• Access to more than 1,300 airport lounges (including two in Seattle).

• Fee reimbursement for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check (also available with the American Express cards).

• Transfer to 11 airline partners, including Singapore, Emirates and United, or to three hotel groups: Marriott, IHG or Hyatt.

Credit cards are an important component in the loyalty program, but there are others.

Your tier level or “status” can make a big difference in your travel experience. Just ask any of your friends who’ve achieved the exalted MVP Gold 100K level. They almost always get upgraded, even when traveling on miles.

Alaska Airlines still determines your status based on the number of elite qualifying miles you fly. Other airlines, including American, Delta and United, require that you also spend a minimum amount of money to attain a higher tier. This is to combat what airlines call “cheap elites.” That is, travelers who rack up lots of miles on cheap tickets. Right now, Alaska Airlines is the favorite of cheap elites, particularly because travelers can earn status on Alaska, which transfers to all oneworld partners, including British, Qantas, Japan Airlines and American Airlines.

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Your status is a key component in determining when and if you get an upgrade. Other considerations include how much you paid for your ticket. The magic formula for determining who gets the upgrade is complex. But, on balance, the traveler who pays more has a better chance of being upgraded.

Even though you earn miles upon miles upon miles, it’s important to burn them as well. That’s because nothing depreciates faster than airline miles.

The next time you go shopping with your miles, you may be surprised by the redemption levels. I was shopping for a one-way ticket to Seattle. There were some flights available for 12,500 Alaska Air miles (one-way). But the flights I needed were 30,000 miles each.

Another issue for Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members: it’s tough to find a first- or business-class seat to Europe in the summer. It’s not a secret that these partner airline seats go quickly. If you want to snag a seat in the front of the cabin, it’s best to plan way ahead.

Is your travel loyalty plan measuring up to your expectations? Maybe it’s worth taking a look at all of your options. You’re a “player” after all. And it’s a competitive market.

Scott McMurren

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 zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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