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Alaska Air, Delta, American -- not all airline loyalty schemes are created equal

  • Author: Scott McMurren
  • Updated: June 22, 2016
  • Published June 9, 2016

Lately, booking an plane ticket can feel like game night for travelers. On one side of the table are consumers — working the loyalty schemes and bargains to get the most for their travel dollar. Then there are the airlines, credit card companies and their partners, switching things up to get more money from each transaction.

Call it poker, Monopoly or "Let's Make a Deal," everybody gets excited about the gamification of travel. So let's take a look at what's hot and what's not-so-hot.

It seems like most travelers in the state have the Alaska Airlines credit card, issued by Bank of America. Many folks have more than one (I have two of the cards).

Alaska recently upped the bonus for getting a new card from 25,000 to 30,000 miles. But they also added a $1,000 minimum spend during the first 90 days before the bonus kicks in. You also have to spend $1,000 before you get the popular coach companion ticket.

There are two other bonuses for cardholders: Alaska has dropped the foreign transaction fee of 3 percent. That was good news for me last week in Europe, after I lost my other credit card and had to revert to the Alaska Air card.

The other bonus is that on June 20, Costco will start accepting Visa cards instead of American Express. Those Mileage Plan points add up faster when you're buying big screen TVs and peanut butter by the case!

Delta Air Lines is dropping its fees for in-flight entertainment. This move means travelers can use the "Delta Studio" seat-back entertainment system to watch movies, TV shows and live TV for free. Previously, Delta charged as much as $6 for new release movies or $1 per episode of HBO shows. Delta offers the seat-back screens on all of its 737s and 757s that fly from Alaska to Seattle, Portland, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and Atlanta.

Back in April, Delta also dropped fees for direct-ticketing. Previously, the airline had charged $35 to buy a ticket at the airport or a city ticket office — or $25 for a phone reservation.

American Airlines finally made good on its threat to further devalue its "AAdvantage" mileage scheme starting in August. At that time, American will mimic United and Delta by awarding bonus miles based on the amount you spend on a ticket rather than the number of miles flown. Now, all three major airlines (Delta, United and American) have the same scheme to make it harder to gain elite status if you're flying on cheap tickets.

That makes Alaska Airlines' Mileage Plan look better in comparison. Travelers still earn bonus miles based on the number of miles they fly. Additionally, there is no spending requirement to achieve elite status (MVP or MVP Gold), as there is with American, Delta and United.

Just as the big airlines have alliances where you can earn-and-burn miles, Alaska also has its own group of partner airlines. This is where it gets tricky to calculate how many miles you can earn.

To be sure, you'll earn the most miles if you're traveling on Alaska Airlines planes. These days, those planes are going to more places than ever before including Costa Rica, Hawaii, Florida and the East Coast.

Just because you'll earn miles on Alaska's partner airlines does not mean you will earn the total number of miles flown. For example, Delta Air Lines still is a partner with Alaska Air, but you'll only earn 50 percent of the actual miles flown on most tickets. The same is true for most tickets on Emirates, Icelandair and Cathay Pacific: Unless you're traveling on an expensive ticket, you'll probably earn just 50 percent of the miles flown. With British Airways, Air France or KLM, the cheapest tickets will net you 25 percent of the actual miles flown.

Some of Alaska partners, though, still offer 100 percent of the miles flown and they count toward elite qualifying miles. That includes flying on LAN to South America. Also, American Airlines is currently offering 100 percent mileage credit on all flights. However, given the changes American has announced, you can expect those levels to be decreased in the coming months. That's what happened when Delta shifted away from mileage-based awards to dollars-spent.

Even if you're getting 100 percent of the miles flown, partner miles don't count as much as miles flown on Alaska's own aircraft. For example, if you fly only on Alaska Air, you can reach the "MVP" level after just 20,000 miles. But if you fly a combination of Alaska and their partner airlines, you'll have to fly 25,000 miles to reach MVP status.

One of the "wild cards" in the frequent flyer mileage game is the credit card companies. Issuing banks (like Bank of America with Alaska Airlines) still are handing out lots of bonus miles to coax you into getting their credit card. Here are a couple of nice offers:

1. Ink Plus Business (Visa) Credit Card from Chase: I have this card. Currently, you can get 60,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months. That's effectively a $750 airline travel credit when you use Chase's Ultimate Rewards travel service. I paired this with the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card, which now offers a 50,000-point bonus when you spend $4,000 within three months. Both of these cards cost $95 per year. I like them because I can transfer the points to other programs, including Hyatt, IHG (Intercontinental and Holiday Inn) or Marriott for hotel stays. I recently used 75,000 miles for a hotel stay at the Hyatt Regency in Hong Kong. Last week, I traded 15,000 miles to stay at an airport hotel in Prague. If you drill down in the fine print, you can find all sorts of bonuses, including double points for gasoline purchases and 5 points per dollar spent on cable, internet and office supply purchases.

2. IHG Rewards Club Select (Mastercard): Right now there is a 70,000 bonus point offer when you spend $2,000 in the first three months. As part of the package, you get a free night's stay each year you have the card. Also, you receive "Platinum Elite" status whenever you book a paid stay at an IHG property. IHG, or Intercontinental Hotel Group, includes the Intercontinental Hotels, Holiday Inn, Crown Plaza and Candlewood Suites. Kimpton Hotels is part of IHG, but not part of this offer. The card is free for the first year, then costs $49 per year after that.

Even though fares are creeping up during the summertime, there still are good airfares available — but not on every day. Here are some of my favorites (sourced from JetBlue.com and Google's ITA Software).

1. Anchorage-Minneapolis: Sun Country Airlines is offering nonstop flights for $350 roundtrip starting on Aug. 11. Delta is offering nonstops on June 27 and June 30 for $383 roundtrip.

2. Anchorage-Los Angeles/LAX: Fly on American's nonstop for as little as $270 roundtrip starting July 6.

3. Anchorage-Seattle: JetBlue is the low-price leader, with seats for as little as $203 roundtrip starting July 4.

4. Anchorage-Portland: Fly JetBlue for as little as $203 roundtrip, starting July 1. But if you need to leave earlier, JetBlue has flights from June 23 for as little as $243 roundtrip.

5. Fairbanks-Seattle: Fly on Delta for $286 roundtrip, starting June 23.

6. Fairbanks-Los Angeles/LAX: Fly Delta for $301 roundtrip, starting June 24.

Remember: Airfares are subject to change without notice. The lowest fares typically are on red-eye flights and are not available every day.

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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