When it comes to airline loyalty programs, the rules of the game are always changing

It’s hard to overstate the importance of an airline’s loyalty program.

So, when an airline changes a plan, frequent travelers bring their seatbacks to the upright, locked position to carefully examine the new terms.

Alaska Airlines made two announcements recently regarding its Mileage Plan, affecting two very different groups: million-miler travelers and those who buy the cheapest Saver tickets.

Alaska Airlines isn’t the only carrier making changes, though.

Almost three years ago, the airline industry was in the grip of the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic. Flights were canceled and planes were parked. Airlines, including Alaska, Delta, American and United, had to figure out how to keep their travelers engaged. Most companies extended elite benefits travelers had earned pre-COVID. They waived change and cancellation fees. The companies got creative.

Gradually, the restrictions came back and the rules returned. That includes changes to loyalty plans like United’s MileagePlus program, Delta’s SkyMiles plan and the oh-so-popular Mileage Plan with Alaska Airlines.

Last October, Delta made it more expensive to attain its elite-level benefits in SkyMiles. As part of its loyalty plan, Delta travelers have to spend a certain amount of money with the carrier each year. For example, to attain the “Silver Medallion” status, travelers have to spend at least $3,000. Although that level didn’t change going forward, travelers will have to spend between $8,000 and $20,000 to enjoy the top-tier benefits.


Just last week, Sam Chui, a Singapore-based travel journalist, noticed that United Airlines upped the cost of its award travel to Europe.

“United’s MileagePlus program just pulled off one of the worst devaluations of all time on awards between the US and Europe. Not only did the program increase the miles required by 33 percent on its own metal, but it also increase partner awards by up to 47 percent,” he writes.

Chris Guillebeau is one of my frequent flyer gurus. I attended a weeklong seminar on specific strategies for miles and points. One of his takeaway one-liners sticks with me: “You have to earn-and-burn. It’s not enough to get the miles — you have to use them, too,” he said. That’s especially true when redemption levels are going up quickly — with little or no notice.

Alaska Airlines’ changes for their million-miler travelers are generous. But the biggest change is that million-milers will receive a 20,000-mile “status accelerator” bonus each year. These bonus miles are elite qualifying miles.

Million-milers already get MVP Gold status for life. But the extra bump gives them a head-start toward MVP Gold 75. Travelers who have accrued 2 million miles will receive 40,000 status accelerator miles each year, in addition to lifetime MVP Gold 75K status.

Later this year, Alaska Airlines will allow million-milers to share their earned status with a family member.

[As summer airfares spike, it might be time to cash in on miles or companion fares]

If you’re an Alaska Airlines frequent flyer who buys the cheapest Saver tickets, the price of poker just went up.

For tickets purchased after July 19, Saver tickets on Alaska Airlines will earn just 30% of the actual miles flown. That means instead of earning 1,443 miles for an Anchorage-Seattle ticket, Saver ticketholders will earn only 432 miles.

This is the first time Alaska Airlines has offered less than the full mileage amount for tickets. Other carriers in Alaska’s oneworld alliance, including British Airways, Singapore Air, American Airlines and others, all offer reduced mileage accrual for the cheapest tickets. But it’s a new direction for Alaska Airlines.

The airline announced other changes for Saver ticketholders, including:

1. Refunds. Previously, Saver tickets were 100% nonrefundable. Going forward, if travelers cancel at least 14 days in advance, Alaska Airlines will refund 50% of the fare.

2. Upgrades. Previously, Saver ticketholders were not eligible for upgrades. For tickets purchased after July 19, elite travelers (MVP and above) will be eligible for upgrades within two hours of departure.

Alaska Airlines also reminds travelers that they’re free to bring aboard a carry-on bag. That seems silly, but United Airlines, Sun Country and a number of other carriers now are charging more for this feature.

Those who purchase Saver tickets are more budget-conscious than the average miles-and-points hoarder. That’s what Delta Air Lines determined when the airline announced that no miles (zero) would be awarded to travelers who purchase its “Basic Economy” tickets.

This summer, Saver seats are in short supply. In July, fully half of the southbound dates between Anchorage and Seattle had no Saver seats at all. On the northbound Seattle-Anchorage flights, there are Saver seats available only on eight days of the month: July 3, 4, 15, 26, 27, 29, 30 and 31.

Last month, Alaska made changes to its popular Visa card, which is issued by Bank of America. It upped the charge to $95 per year from $75. Travelers who sign up for the card can get a 50,000-mile bonus right now, as well as a $100 statement credit.


Cardholders must spend at least $2,000 within the first 90 days to get the bonus miles, the statement credit and the $122 companion pass ($99 plus taxes and fees).

Here’s the big change, though: To get a new companion pass each year, cardholders must charge at least $6,000 during the year.

Tweak, tweak, tweak. Most of the changes, it appears, make it more expensive to use your frequent flyer benefits.

It’s been more than 11 years since Alaska Air introduced its popular Club 49 plan, where Alaska residents can check two bags for free. In fact, last year Delta matched that benefit for its SkyMiles members.

The “loyalty” label goes far beyond earning miles on flights or getting an upgrade at the last minute. Both mileage accrual and upgrades fall under the loyalty umbrella. Eventually, there’s a loyalty component in almost every transaction. An airline’s plan touches almost every traveler.

Behind this loyalty-based machine is one truth: People love to play games. That’s true, even if the rules change frequently.

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 Subscribe to his e-newsletter at For more information, visit