Alaska Airlines: The Switzerland of Frequent Flier Programs
Alaska Airlines and its sister airline Horizon Air have been a standout in a world dominated by Airline Alliances. Alaska Airlines has ‘gone it alone’ (or with its one sibling) and built up a formidable network of airline partners. This network of domestic and international partners has given Alaska the international connections and access to international routes that typical domestic carriers lack. Other airlines with a primarily domestic network or a small international footprint, have to join an Alliance to get this kind of presence. US Airways is a prime example. Kingfisher of India is doing the same by joining the OneWorld Alliance.
Alaska has an extremely strong presence all along the North American West coast, spanning destinations from Alaska (of course), thru Canada, the Western United States and Mexico. It also has a very decent presence in the US Mid-West and East Coast. Outside of North America, they have no international destinations of their own.
Alaska’s airlines program is called Mileage Plan. It is unique from most other US based airlines’ mileage program. They have not only built a list of Partner Airlines that cross traditional alliance boundaries but they also allow the earning of status miles (called MVP qualifying miles) on several of these partners, both domestic and international. Very few other airlines allow the earning of status miles on non-alliance partner airlines. Alaska also has a very good, broad list of Car Rental, Hotel and other typical partners.
Status Miles and Airline Partners:
Mileage Plan almost positions itself as an independent mileage plan that has 15 Airline Partners it allows you to earn miles on. In fact, it lists Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air as two of the 15 partners. This approach seems to reinforce its image as a non-aligned independent airlines miles program that treats all or at least most of its partners equally. In its approach, what you get in terms or earning or rewards when flying Alaska should be no different that what you get when flying say Delta.
It’s list of airline partners is impressive. They include major players like Delta, Air France/KLM, American Airline, British Airways, Cathay Pacific, Korean Air and Qantas. Players from both SkyTeam and OneWorld. No Star Alliance, mind you. This Switzerland that neutral, I guess… They also have regional players like Era of Alaska, Canada’s Kenmore Air and Hawaii’s Air Pacific. Now, its Airlines Partners do fall under two broad categories, those that earn MVP qualifying (status) miles and those do not. Please check their website for a complete list of which airlines do or do not.
Alaska awards MVP (equivalent to Silver status) at 20,000 status miles exclusively on Alaska or 25,000 miles spread between Alaska and its status miles earning partners. MVP Gold status is at 40,000 and 50,000 miles respectively.
Elite Status Benefits:
The benefits for Elites are really not much – unlimited First Class upgrades for MVP Golds on most fares, for you and your companion and 4 guest upgrade coupons. Unlimited upgrades for MVPs is only on Y (full) fares. They are promising complimentary upgrades for Elites on Delta soon. Don’t know for what fares yet. The only other benefit is bonus mileage accrual – 50% at MVP and 100% at MVP Gold.
On other partner airlines, there is really no benefit other than bonus mileage accrual on some of the partners.
Earn and Burn rates:
Mileage Plan has decent Earn rates. On its own (Alaska and Horizon) flights it is a 500 mile minimum, a 100% miles earned for all economy tickets and a 50% bonus for first class tickets. For other partner airlines, it varies. Some airlines, like British Airways give only 25% miles for certain fares and a 25% bonus for Business class 50% bonus for First Class. Others like KLM actually has fares that accrue no miles at all. Delta and American seem to have the same earn rates as Alaska itself.
Alaska allows award travel on all its partner airlines using Mileage Plan miles. Burn rates on partners seem to be pretty much in line with burn rates the airlines have with their Alliance Partners. On Alaska itself they are great. They start at Super saver awards at 7,500 miles one way, to flex awards at 17,500 miles one way. The existence of one way awards itself makes award redemptions on Alaska pretty attractive. Redemptions on the two domestic partners – Delta and American are available at 25,000 for domestic round-trip tickets.
All in all, I would rate the earn and burn rates as not bad.
Alaska has a fairly typical Credit Card offered by Bank of America. There is 25,000 miles and a $99 discount companion coupon new account offer. But it does have an annual fee. Nothing about the card is worth writing home about.
In a nutshell, Alaska’s Mileage Plan program is great for someone who is unable to align themselves exclusively to the SkyTeam or OneWorld alliance. With partners in both, especially with the ability to earn Status Miles with partners, it makes a great ‘bridge’ option. You can spread your travels across multiple airlines, across both alliances and still do well. For Elites, there are not much benefits, except when flying Alaska or Horizon.
Alaska Airlines is not the only airline with such a neutral, non-alliance approach. Virgin Atlantic, Jet Airways and pretty much all the Middle-Eastern airlines like Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, etc. fall into this category. They have all stayed away from alliances and built a network of ‘best-suited’ partners. I am sure I will write about some of them in the near future.