One of the most frequent questions I get about flying for free is,
“I’m going to ______, which miles should I use?”
Over the next few weeks, I am going to write posts covering the pros and cons of some of the most commonly used airline award programs so you know which miles will work best for your next trip!
I’ll go over which airlines you can book with each program (hint: sometimes it is better to use miles from one airline to book an award on a different airline!), the best places to go with each program, any fees associated with redeeming miles, and other quirks that each program might have. I will also list which credit card bonus offers you can sign up for to earn miles in each program and fly for free. This week I am starting with Alaska Airlines, my hometown airline.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is hands down one of the best award programs in the industry, and my personal favorite. Alaska has a wide variety of airline partners from different alliances, most of which are bookable on its user friendly website. In addition to flights on Alaska itself, you can use Alaska Airlines miles to book flights on American Airlines, Air France, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Hainan Airlines, Japan Airlines, Icelandair, KLM, Korean Air, LATAM Airlines (formerly LAN and TAM but they merged), PenAir, Qantas, and Ravn Alaska. Booking LATAM and Cathay Pacific awards requires a call, but the representatives are helpful and friendly.
Best Routes to Redeem
The award chart for Alaska shows lots of opportunities for good redemptions. One unique thing about Alaska is that they charge different amounts for each destination depending on which airline you are using.
One of the best uses of Alaska miles is on short hops within the United States. For instance, traveling from Seattle to San Francisco on Alaska itself will only cost you 5000 miles each way. Many other programs would charge 12,500 miles for the same flight. Another good use of Alaska miles is going to Delhi, India on Japan Airlines. This will cost 35,000 miles each way from the continental US or Canada.
Because Alaska Airlines has a very competitive award program, other good redemptions are plentiful: Cathay Pacific to anywhere in east or southeast Asia for 30,000 miles each way, American Airlines off-peak to Europe for 20,000 miles each way (Oct 15 to May 15), American Airlines off-peak to Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, or Venezuela for 15,000 miles each way (Jan 16 to Jun 14), American Airlines to southern South America for 20,000 miles each way (Mar to May or Aug 16 to Nov 30), and Fiji Airways from Hawaii to New Zealand for 27,500 miles each way.
For adventure travelers, redeeming Alaska miles for flights to the remotest corners of Alaska is also a possibility, and only costs 12,500 each way from Canada or the Lower 48. On the other hand, if you want to treat yourself to a luxurious experience, flying Cathay Pacific to South Africa only costs 70,000 miles each way in their first class suite, which includes lie-flat seats! This is by far the best deal for first class travel in the industry.
With plentiful good options for award travel, it is hard to go wrong by accumulating Alaska miles.
There are plenty of fees associated with redeeming Alaska miles, but most can be avoided.
- Fuel Surcharges (usually $100+) – A “fuel surcharge” is added when you book awards with British Airways, Hainan, or Icelandair. Since Alaska has plenty of other partners you can book for free, avoid using these partners.
- Partner booking fee ($12.50 each way) – This fee will be charged whenever you book an award ticket which includes travel on an airline other than Alaska. There is no way of getting around it, but the fee is small.
- Phone booking fee ($15) – Phone agents will try to charge this fee when booking awards for you. If you were unable to book the award on the website, kindly ask if they will waive the fee, and usually they will.
- Change/cancellation fee ($125) – This fee is charged when you change or cancel your flight within 60 days of departure. By changing or cancelling your flight at least 60 days in advance (or not at all), you can avoid this fee!
Stopovers and Open Jaws
Although Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan has some great redemption deals, the reason why they are my favorite program is entirely different. You can book stopovers on most one way awards. And I’ll tell you why that is better than it sounds.
More precisely, you can book stopovers on domestic one way awards if travel is only on Alaska, and you can book stopovers on any international one way award. This means you can book two stopovers on a round-trip award, allowing you to visit three destinations for the price of one. The possibilities are nearly endless. You could fly around the world and visit Mount Fuji, the Taj Mahal, and the Eiffel Tower in one trip by taking Japan Airlines to Delhi with a stopover in Tokyo, and returning via Air France with a stopover in Paris, for only 75,000 Alaska miles!
Open jaws are also allowed at the origin and destination. So you could leave from Vancouver, fly to Santiago, Chile with a stopover in Dallas, travel overland to Buenos Aires, fly back to New York with a stopover in Miami, and then make your way back across the US or Canada for a true pan-American adventure for 40,000 miles in the off-season.
One of the downsides to using Alaska miles is that you can only book one partner per direction on an award- in addition to Alaska. For a one way award, you can only book Alaska plus one partner. However, for a round-trip award, you can book Alaska plus one partner on the way there, and Alaska plus a different partner on the way back if you want, like I mentioned in the previous example.
Another big drawback to using Alaska miles is that you can only travel between regions that are defined on Alaska’s award chart. For instance, there is no way to book an award from Europe to the Middle East or from Australia to New Zealand. Generally this is not a problem for US and Canada-based flyers because every region is bookable from North America. On the other hand, long-term world travelers or flyers based in other areas of the world may not find as many uses for Alaska miles.
Earning Alaska Miles
As with all mileage programs, the best way to quickly accumulate Alaska miles is by getting credit card sign up bonuses. You can read how to do this responsibly on my credit cards page. The following credit cards will give you Alaska miles:
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card from Bank of America will net you 31,000 miles and a $100 statement credit after spending $1000 in 3 months and paying a $75 annual fee. I have never seen a sign up bonus on this card higher than the current one. Apply through the link above to get the statement credit.
A word of caution: Unless you have very good credit (730-740+ with a few years of credit history) and a sufficient income from a full time job, you will likely be approved for the Alaska Airlines Platinum Plus or Alaska Airlines Classic card instead. Neither of these cards have significant bonuses. They are not worth having. Do not risk applying for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature unless you are sure you will be able to get it!
In addition to the bonus miles, the card offers a discounted companion ticket for $121 when you pay for a ticket (it shows up as a discount code in your Mileage Plus account and expires after a year). Not the best deal, but could be worthwhile in some situations.
Alaska Airlines Visa Business
In addition to offering a personal card, Alaska airlines also offers the Alaska Airlines Visa Business card through Bank of America.
For the purposes of applying for credit cards, any side hobby which generates extra income for you can be considered a business. Just enter your full name as the business name on the application, the business structure as “sole proprietor,” the business tax ID as your Social Security Number, the billing option as “individual level earning,” and fill everything else out honestly and completely. Do not worry if your business income is very low, because your personal income will also be factored into your approval for the credit card. The great thing about business credit cards from Bank of America is that they do not appear on your personal credit report, assuming you make your payments on time! So that means that you do not have to worry about reallocating credit when you cancel since it will not affect your score.
The business card is similar to the personal card, except that it does not come with the $100 statement credit. So you will earn 31,000 Alaska miles after spending $1000 in 3 months and paying the $75 annual fee. Another nice thing about the business card is that you do not have to worry about being approved for the worthless Alaska Platinum Plus or Classic cards instead… it is either the business card or nothing!
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card
The Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card gains you 28,000 Starpoints after spending $3000 in three months, with no annual fee the first year. 28,000 Starpoints can be converted to 33,000 Alaska miles. I have seen the bonus on this card as high as 38,000 Starpoints before so it could jump up even higher at a later time.
As this spending requirement is decently high and the card is an American Express, which is less widely accepted, make sure you can meet the spending before you apply for the card!
American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card
Confusingly enough, this card has two different sign up bonus offers. One is here and the other is here. The first offer only gives you 21,500 Starpoints (26,500 Alaska miles) after spending $1500 and has an annual fee of $150. The second offer gives you 30,000 Starpoints (35,000 Alaska miles) after spending a shockingly high $5000 in 3 months, with the annual fee waived the first year. In my opinion, both of these options are not very good, the first one has too high of an annual fee to justify the bonus, and the second one has too high of a spend requirement for an American Express. But if they suit your fancy, feel free to apply.
Special Note – Flying to Earn Miles
If you are using paid flights, Alaska is usually the best airline to credit airline miles to if you have the option, since they are the only airline in the US that still offers miles based on distance flown rather than the cost of the ticket.
Alaska Airlines has a very strong award program, with arguably some of the most valuable miles. Credit card spending requirements are reasonably low on the Alaska Airlines credit cards from Bank of America, so it is a great program for those who may not be able to cover higher spending requirements. Unfortunately, it is hard to accumulate large amounts of Alaska miles quickly as credit card sign up bonuses top out in the 30,000 to 35,000 mile range, which is lower than most bonuses for other airlines and rewards currencies. Even so, Alaska airlines makes my cut for favorite rewards programs!
If you have any more questions on Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan that are not addressed here, feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll try my best to answer it!