Review of Mileage Plan, the frequent flyer program of Alaska Airlines (pros & cons)

Friday newsletters always feature luxury travel contests, tips, series, or news.

Today (March 16, 2018): Review of Mileage Plan, the frequent flyer program of Alaska Airlines (pros & cons).

I have previously published (and continuously update) my reviews of the most important hotel loyalty programs (including Starwood Preferred Guest, World of Hyatt and Marriott Rewards to name a few). This year, I publish a series of reviews of the world’s best frequent flyer programs, which are mostly (but not always) managed by the world’s largest airlines. I have previously published my reviews of AAdvantage and Flying Blue, the frequent flyer programs of American Airlines and Air France-KLM respectively. Today, I publish an in-depth review of Mileage Plan, the frequent flyer program of Alaska Airlines (with pros and cons), widely considered to be one of the world’s best frequent flyer programs (especially for USA based travelers).

Mileage Plan is the frequent-flyer program of Seattle based airline Alaska Airlines (which recently merged with Virgin America). Members earn flight miles according to the distance flown, rather than according to the price of their tickets (which is now the new standard in the USA, Europe and Asia). For the average traveler, this means more free flights and faster elite status. Mileage Plan miles can be redeemed for award flights on Alaska Airlines and its partner carriers and provide eligibility for frequent flyer elite status. Alaska Airlines isn’t a member of one of the three global airline alliances, but the carrier has established an impressive collaboration with a dozen airlines, serving more than 900 destinations worldwide.

Mileage Plan features in my top 10 list of the best frequent flyer programs to join in 2018.

What is your opinion about Mileage Plan? Leave a comment below.

In this overview, I explain the Mileage Plan program and how to benefit from it:

  1. Mileage Plan elite levels
  2. How to earn Mileage Plan miles in the air
  3. How the earn Mileage Plan miles on the ground
  4. How to spend Mileage Plan miles (and travel for free)
  5. Best and worst Mileage Plan redemptions
  6. Pros & things I like about Mileage Plan
  7. Cons & things I don’t like about Mileage Plan
  8. Poll: what’s the world’s best frequent flyer program?


1. MILEAGE PLAN ELITE LEVELS

There are three elite levels that you can work your way up to in the Mileage Plus loyalty program. MVP is the entry-level; MVP Gold the second level; and MVP Gold 75K is the top-level. Each level has benefits and as you move from MVP to MVP Gold and finally MVP Gold 75K, these benefits become more valuable. Membership level are determined by either the number of miles you earn or the number of flights you take during a calendar year.

  • MVP is reached after earning 20,000 miles on Alaska Airlines; or 30,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners; or 30 segments flown on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners. The annual qualification period is January 1 – December 31. MVP members enjoy the following benefits:
    • A 50% bonus on base miles earned
    • Two free checked bags when flying with Alaska
    • Preferred seating when flying with Alaska and select global airline partners
    • Access to a dedicated phone line for Alaska Airlines reservations and customer service
    • A 50% off Alaska Lounge membership initiation fee
    • Y, S, B, or Z fares are eligible for upgrades to Premium and First Class
    • Upgrades are confirmed 48 hours before departure
  • MVP Gold status is reached after earning 40,000 miles on Alaska Airlines; or 50,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners; or 60 segments flown on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners. The annual qualification period is January 1 – December 31. MVP Gold members enjoy the following benefits:
    • A 100% bonus on base miles earned
    • Two free checked bags when flying with Alaska
    • Access to express security line at select airports
    • Preferred seating when flying with Alaska and select global airline partners
    • Access to a dedicated phone line for Alaska Airlines reservations and customer service
    • Access to Alaska’s airport lounges
    • Y, S, B, M, H, Q, L, V, N, K, or Z fares are eligible for upgrades to Premium Class
    • Y, S, B, M, or Z fares are eligible for upgrades to First Class
    • Upgrades are confirmed 72 hours before departure
    • Companion upgrades to Premium and First Class
    • Four one-way First Class guest upgrades per calendar year
    • Complimentary premium beverages in the main cabin
    • Standby and wait list for full flights
    • Complimentary same-day flight changes
    • Waived ticket change fees
  • MVP Gold 75K status is reached after earning 75,000 miles on Alaska Airlines; or 90,000 miles on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners; or 90 segments flown on Alaska Airlines and elite-qualifying partners. The annual qualification period is January 1 – December 31. MVP Gold 75K members enjoy the following benefits:
    • A 100% bonus on base miles earned
    • 50,000 bonus miles upon qualification
    • Two free checked bags when flying with Alaska
    • Access to express security line at select airports
    • Preferred seating when flying with Alaska and select global airline partners
    • Access to a dedicated phone line for Alaska Airlines reservations and customer service
    • Access to Alaska’s airport lounges
    • Four Alaska Lounge day passes per calendar year
    • All fares are eligible for upgrades to Premium Class
    • Y, S, B, M, H, or Z fares are eligible for upgrades to First Class
    • Upgrades are confirmed 120 hours before departure
    • Companion upgrades to Premium and First Class
    • Four one-way First Class guest upgrades per calendar year
    • Complimentary premium beverages in the main cabin
    • Complimentary inflight entertainment player
    • Standby and wait list for full flights
    • Complimentary same-day flight changes
    • Waived ticket change fees
    • Opportunity to nominate someone for MVP status

2. HOW TO EARN MILEAGE PLAN MILES IN THE AIR

Miles can be earned on flights operated by Alaska Airlines. These earned flight miles and premium cabin bonuses count towards elite status (cf supra) and can be exchanged for valuable rewards (cf below). You’ll earn the following number of miles:

One of the great things about Alaska Airlines is that although it isn’t a member of one of the three global airline alliances, it has established an impressive collaboration with a dozen airlines, allowing you to reach elite status and award tickets faster. For the following carriers, the base miles and cabin bonuses you earn while flying on them count towards Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan elite status:

  • American Airlines
  • British Airways
  • Cathay Pacific
  • Condor
  • Emirates
  • Fiji Airways
  • Finnair
  • Hainan Airlines
  • Icelandair
  • Japan Airlines
  • Korean Air
  • LATAM
  • Qantas
  • Singapore Airlines

The number of miles and bonuses you earn differs from airline to airline and can be checked here (click on the airline logo). Unfortunately, the parnership of Alaska Airlines with AeroMexico ended last year and the partnership with KLM and Air France is ending on April 30th, 2018.


3. HOW TO EARN MILEAGE PLAN MILES ON THE GROUND

Alaska Airlines allows to earn non-flying miles when staying at hotels, shopping online, renting a car, or using an Alaska Airlines branded credit card.

  • Each time you stay in a hotel which partners with Mileage Plan, you will earn miles. This will mostly be around 500 to 10,000 miles per hotel stay. All you need to do is present your Mileage Plan membership number at check-in. Alaska Airlines partners with Best Western, Choice Hotels, Coast Hotels, Fairmont, InterContinental, La Quinta, Marriott, Starwood,  Westmark Hotels and Rocketmiles. The latter is not a hotel group, but rather an online hotel booking engine that allows you to earn thousands of miles each night.
  • Several hotel loyalty programs allow you to convert your hotel points into Mileage Plus miles. These programs include Best Western Rewards, IHG Rewards Club, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guests (you can read my reviews with pros and cons of most of these hotel loyalty programs here). Starwood Preferred Guest – the loyalty program of Starwood Hotels – has the best conversion program as it allows you to convert Starpoints to Mileage Plus frequent-flyer miles on a 1:1 basis, including a 5000 conversion bonus when you convert 20,000 Starpoints.
  • Mileage Plus members earn miles every time they rent a car with one of the major car rental companies, including Herz, Avis, Alamo, Budget, Dollar, National, and Thrifty. The exact number of miles you earn for a car rental depends on the company and ranges from 50 to 500 miles per day.
  • Mileage Plus members earn miles by shopping online in the Alaska Airlines eShopping mall, a collection of 800+ stores that offers deals exclusively for members. Occasionally, there are promotions that give you more miles for your money.
  • Mileage Plus members earn miles every time they dine at thousands of participating restaurants in the USA. You earn up to five miles for every dollar you spend on the entire bill, including food, drinks, tax and tip.
  • Alaska Airlines also offer the possibility to directly purchase tens of thousands of miles without flying, which can be an interesting option to explore if your mileage account is just short off an award ticket. Promotions are regularly launched, offering you plenty of bonus miles in addition to the purchased miles.
  • Mileage Plus members also earn miles when shopping with one of Mileage Plan’s many partners: 1-800-Flowers.com, Carrs-Safeway, Diners Club International, GCI, The Opinion Terminal, Teleflora, and Vinesse Wine clubs.
  • You can dramatically increase your Mileage Plus earnings with credit card spendings: 
    • You can transfer program points from the American Express or Diner’s Club Rewards Programs into your Mileage Plus account to boost your mileage account.
    • One of the fastest ways to earn Mileage Plus miles is by using an Alaska Airlines co-branded credit card (only available in the USA and Canada). These credit cards also offer considerable bonus miles upon your first purchase (often enough for a reward ticket).

4. HOW TO SPEND MILEAGE PLAN MILES (AND TRAVEL FOR FREE)
  • The best way to spend your Mileage Plan miles is to redeem your miles for free flights on Alaska Airlines or one of its partner airlines to over 900 destinations worldwide. The number of miles you need will depend on the route, the cabin, and the airline. You can use this award chart to estimate the number of miles you need for a one-way award on Alaska Airlines or one of its partner airlines:
    • Alaska Airlines
    • American Airlines
    • British Airways
    • Cathay Pacific
    • Condor
    • Emirates
    • Fiji Airways
    • Finnair
    • Hainan Airlines
    • Icelandair
    • Japan Airlines
    • Korean Air
    • LATAM
    • Qantas
    • Singapore Airlines
  • Alaska Airlines also offers Money & Miles awards, which can save you up to a 50% discount on most coach and First Class fares on an Alaska Airlines operated flight. The maximum discount is $100 USD off the base fare for 10,000 miles, or $200 USD off the base fare for 20,000 miles. You earn 100% of the miles flown when traveling on this award.
  • You can use Mileage Plan miles to subscribe for free to your favorite magazines.
  • You can donate your miles to make the world a better place and help people in need. The Mileage Plan program partners with several nonprofit charity organisations, including Make-A-Wish, Hero Miles, The Nature Conservancy and disaster relief organizations.
  • Mileage Plan members can also transfer miles to friends and family, as long as they are Mileage Plus members as well. Transfer miles from your account to another member’s account for $10 USD per 1,000 miles. You can transfer miles using this webpage.

5. BEST & WORST MILEAGE PLAN REDEMPTIONS

These are the most valuable redemptions for your Alaska miles:

  • One of the most popular uses of Mileage Plan miles is for First Class flights on Cathay Pacific. From North America to Asia will cost you 70,000 miles, but you can continue your journey with Cathay Pacific for the same number of miles to Africa or the Middle East.
  • Another bargain are the Europe to Hawaii First Class flights on British Airways. A ticket from the UK to Hawaii will set you back only 70,000 miles for a journey in British Airway’s First Class cabin (although the West Coast to Hawaii flight will be operated by Alaska Airlines or American Airlines).
  • When traveling in the winter season (from October 15 to May 15) from the USA to Europe in Business Class on American Airlines, this will only cost you 22,500 Mileage Plan miles for a one way ticket.
  • One of the best Mileage Plan award redemptions are Business and First Class flights on Qantas from the USA to Australia. A one-way ticket in First Class will cost you 70,000 miles, while the same itinerary costs 55,000 miles in Business class.
  • Intra-Alaska flights tend to be quite expensive, but you can reduce the costs by paying them with your miles (7,500 miles per ticket).

One of the worst ways to redeem Mileage Plan miles is to spend them on a First Class ticket with Emirates. One-way itineraries from North America to the Middle East or India on Emirates A380 aircraft used to only cost you 90,000 miles, but after a massive devaluation, the number of miles rose to a whopping 150,000 (one way).


6. PROS & THINGS I LIKE ABOUT MILEAGE PLANE
  • Although the carrier isn’t a member of one of the 3 big alliances (Star Alliance, One Word and SkyTeam), Alaska Airlines partners with many large airlines (including some of my favorite) that allow you to earn and redeem miles. As mentioned above, these partners are American Airlines, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Condor, Emirates, Fiji Airways, Finnair, Hainan Airlines, Icelandair, Japan Airlines, Korean Air, LATAM, Qantas and Singapore Airlines.
  • Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan allows you to earn miles based according to the distance flown, rather than according to the price of their tickets (which is now the new standard in the USA, Europe and Asia). For the average traveler, this means more free flights and faster elite status.
  • Mileage Plan is a simple and easy to understand loyalty program, which is a sharp contrast with the often complex loyalty programs of the USA’s 3 legacy carriers (American Airlines, United Airlines, and Delta). You earn miles based on the distance flown, although the number of miles earned differs from carrier to carrier. And there are only three levels of elite status; how you reach them depends on whether you fly Alaska or a combination of Alaska and partner airlines.
  • Alaska Airlines allows one stopover on oneway awards (and two on roundtrip awards). This is a super generous benefit since it gives you the ability to see two destinations for the price of one. You can only complete the free stopovers in a partner airline’s hub city. For example, when flying from the USA to Africa with Cathay Pacific, you could stop-over for a few days in Hong Kong, or when flying from the USA to India with Emirates, you could stop-over in Dubai for a few days.
  • Similar to American Airlines’ AAdvantage program, Alaska Airlines has one of the best all around award charts. For example, flying round-trip Business Class from the USA to Europe (in winter season) for 50,000 miles on American Airlines, or flying round-trip Business Class from the USA to Asia for 100,000 miles on Hainan Airlines are real bargains.
  • Mileage Plan offers unlimited complimentary upgrades to First Class on Alaska Airlines flights to its elite members. However, since these upgrades are booked into the special class of service, they may not be available on all flights.
  • Club 49 is a free program within Mileage Plan that offers additional benefits for Alaska residents. It’s the carrier’s way of showing gratitude to the state that gave it its name and the people who’ve kept flying them for more than 80 years. Members enjoy exclusive benefits when traveling to, from or within the great state of Alaska on Alaska Airlines. This includes:
    • Two free bags when traveling to/from Alaska.
    • Two ‘Travel Now’ discounts per year, good for 30% off one-way travel in a refundable coach (YAS) fare to, from or within Alaska on Alaska Airlines, booked within four days of departure.
    • Ship up to 100 lbs. of freight within Alaska for only $10 USD when you fly, and $40 USD any time.
  • The Alaska Airlines’ branded credit card, issued by Bank of America, comes with high sign up bonuses. Though it fluctuates, the typical sign-on bonus is 30,000 miles after you make $1,000 USD or more in purchases within the first 90 days. The sign-on bonus occasionally goes as high as 50,000 points.

7. CON & THINGS I DON’T LIKE ABOUT MILEAGE PLAN
  • You cannot combine multiple partners on a one-way award ticket, although you can combine an Alaska-operated flight with one partner.
  • Accounts and miles expire after two years of inactivity.
  • You cannot hold an award ticket before booking it, although tickets can be canceled within 24 hours after confirming the booking.
  • Over the past years, Alaska Airlines has ended its partnerships with Delta Airlines, AeroMexico, Air France and KLM, making the program a tad less interesting, although it has added Singapore Airlines recently as a parter airline.
  • One-way awards cost the same amount of miles as round-trip tickets on Korean Air; so I advise to never book a one-way awards with Korean Air.
  • Just because a partner airline flies a route doesn’t mean you can book it with Alaska miles. Only the flights listed between designated regions as outlined in the interactive award chart tool on the homepage of Alaska Airlines can be booked with miles. For example, Emirates flight from Europe to the Middle East or Qantas flights from Australia to Asia cannot be booked. The program is mainly geared towards USA customers with the USA as departure or end point of your journey.

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