This is a difficult time for ardent frequent fliers. At the beginning of each year, travelers look at the status bar in their frequent-flier account. There's a big zero next to the qualifying miles bar. That's the number of elite qualifying miles travelers need to be one of the lucky passengers who get special treatment.
This is all part of the "gamification" of travel. Just as gamers get excited about their online contests, frequent fliers get caught up in the game of getting upgrades and free tickets.
I'm not sure "loyalty plan" is the right phrase for today's frequent-flier plans. "Amazing Race" might be more appropriate.
Most Alaskans are members of the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. I also have an account with Delta's SkyMiles plan — as do many other travelers, although you still can earn Alaska mileage on Delta and American flights. Further down the list is United's Mileage Plus plan.
So, Alaska's plan is the No. 1 game in town. There are several key elements.
1. Accrued miles: There are many ways to earn miles, including credit card charges (Alaska Airlines Visa), actual flight miles, hotel stays (Best Western, Westmark, Hilton, Marriott and others), rental cars (Alamo, Avis, Hertz, National and others), grocery stores (Carrs) and phone bills (GCI). When it comes to online shopping, you can earn miles through the Mileage Plan Shopping portal. There's even a program to earn miles by dining out called Mileage Plan Dining. While Alaska Airlines flights and credit card charges are simple to compute (one mile for every mile flown or dollar spent), every other company has its own policies on how to dole out the miles. For example, you get one mile for every $3 spent at Carrs and 250 miles per stay at Best Western.
It's always a good idea to have a gob of miles in your account, particularly for last-minute travel. These miles do not expire at the end of the year. However, you have to either use or earn miles once during a two-year period or the miles will go away.
2. Partner miles: In addition to accruing miles on Alaska Airlines, you can get miles on other air carriers, including Icelandair, Delta, American, Aeromexico, Qantas, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Emirates. But you have to read the fine print. On cheaper tickets, most partner airlines only offer 50 percent of the actual miles flown. Redeeming the miles is an entirely different game.
3. Bonus miles: This is an interesting part of the game — and it's great for padding your account for last-minute or emergency travel. One of my favorite bonuses is the 25,000-mile bump when you get an Alaska Airlines Visa card. There are other benefits that come with the card, which costs $79 per year. Chief among those extras is the $99 companion ticket (total cost is between $119 and $141 with taxes). It's also important to note that when your companion flies with you using this discounted ticket, they receive full mileage credit.
Alaska often runs double-mileage promotions, especially to new routes. Right now, when you fly between Portland and either Kansas City or Minneapolis through March 18, you qualify for double miles. You have to register in advance online.
4. Elite qualifying miles: These are the most valuable miles, since they help you "level up" to elite status. Travelers need to earn at least 20,000 miles each year to get MVP status, or 40,000 miles for MVP Gold. If you really love to fly, set your sights on MVP Gold 75K, which you may attain after flying 75,000 miles in one year.
All of your flights on Alaska Airlines count toward your elite status at 100 percent of actual miles flown. Each partner airline has its own formula for awarding elite qualifying miles. For most airlines, if you're flying on the cheapest possible ticket, you'll get 50 percent of the actual miles flown. If you're flying business or first class, you'll get the actual miles, plus bonus miles (varies by carrier). If you're flying internationally on one of Alaska's partner airlines, you'll earn elite qualifying miles, but the amount you earn will vary by carrier.
Alaska's in-state partners, Ravn Alaska and PenAir, do not offer elite qualifying miles.
So, if you fly around the world a couple of times and attain elite status, is it worth it? That depends. Here are some of the benefits you'll earn:
1. Access to better seats: Once you get to the MVP level, you can select better seats on the plane, including the exit rows. I'm a tall traveler, so access to exit-row seating is important to me.
2. First-class upgrades. MVP travelers can get upgrades, but that's after all of the top-tier elites have been seated. The awarding of the upgrades is a complex formula that sorts out what elite level you have and when you made your reservations. Some upgrades are instant, based on the cost of your ticket. Other upgrades are awarded between 48 and 72 hours prior to departure. MVP travelers also are eligible for upgrades on Delta on most routes in the U.S.
3. Dedicated customer service line: Once you hit MVP, you can call the special 800 number and skip to the front of the phone queue. That's handy, especially when there's a long line to get rebooked in case of a flight delay or cancellation.
4. Bonus miles. MVPs get a 50 percent mileage bonus. MVP Golds get a 100 percent bonus (double miles), while MVP Gold 75K travelers get a 125 percent bonus for all miles flown. Additionally, once travelers reach the MVP Gold 75K level, Alaska Airlines awards them a one-time 50,000-mile bonus. The bonus miles do not count as elite qualifying miles.
5. Fee waivers: You have to get to MVP Gold for the fee waivers to kick in. This includes changing your ticket or re-depositing miles into your frequent-flier account.
6. Priority check-in: MVPs can use the priority check-in counters at select airports. But you have to be MVP Gold to take advantage of the express security line. That said, if you have Global Entry, you can go through TSA's pre-check line, which typically is the fastest-moving line at security.
If you travel frequently, the extra perks for elite-level travelers make the trip much more pleasant. And there's the satisfaction that you're winning at the air travel game. Is getting to the next level worth taking an extra trip? Well, I've done it. I guess that's what the airlines are counting on, in the competitive fight to woo the frequent flier.
Note: Last week, I wrote about Delta's program to offer two free checked bags for Alaska residents. That program, which included a 10 percent savings certificate for a future Delta flight, expired on Dec. 31. However, a new program for the free checked bags is going into effect this year, according to Delta representatives. You don't have to register, but you do have to use your SkyMiles number and accrue Delta miles for your flight. The offer on two free bags is available only on round-trip tickets originating in Alaska.
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 email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.