When a mile flown is a mile earned, flyers can earn their next awards more quickly

This is a photo of an elite Alaska Mileage Plan card

It used to be that a mile flown was a mile earned — and it still is with Alaska Mileage Plan. However, many other loyalty programs have switched to new models that issue miles based on the price of your ticket. Which is more rewarding to frequent travelers? I (and the powers that be at Alaska) believe it is the former, but to fully answer this question, I need to start by clarifying a few terms:

  • Miles flown are straightforward. Most airlines will list the distance next to the ticket you’re looking to purchase.
  • Elite qualifying miles are used to determine your elite status. You will typically earn EQM based on the miles flown, plus a bonus for certain fare classes.
  • Award miles can be redeemed for a future flight. You will typically earn elite qualifying miles based on the miles flown, plus a bonus for certain fare classes and another for your elite status.

This post will focus on award miles because nearly all loyalty programs still base their elite status on the actual distance flown, even if the program bases mileage earning on dollars spent. Additionally, elite status can still affect how many award miles you’ll earn. At Alaska Airlines, that means earning a bigger bonus, multiplied by the distance you fly. Other big U.S. carriers issue more miles per dollar. The chart below compares these two measures.

Elite Qualifying Miles* N/A 20,000 – 25,000 40,000 – 50,000 75,000 – 90,000 100,000 – 125,000
Mileage Plan Elite status level General Member MVP MVP Gold MVP Gold 75K MVP Gold 75K
Bonus Award Miles 0% 50% 100% 125% 125%
Total Award Miles 1 mile per mile flown 1.5 miles per mile flown 2 miles per mile flown 2.25 miles per mile flown 2.25 miles per mile flown
Other Programs Bonus Award Miles 0% 40% 60% 80% 120%
Total Award Miles 5 miles per dollar 7 miles per dollar 8 miles per dollar 9 miles per dollar 11 miles per dollar

*Qualification criteria for elite status vary by loyalty program and may not match exactly the criteria used by Alaska Mileage Plan.

Once we direct our attention to award miles, a significant difference becomes obvious: while Alaska Airlines still issues a minimum of one award mile for every mile flown on its fleet, many other programs are looking at the amount spent, starting at just 5 miles per dollar. What’s worse, not every carrier includes mandatory taxes and fees when they calculate that amount.

As everyone knows, some expensive flights travel only short distances. Some cheap flights travel very long distances. And if you ask the passenger seated next to you on a plane, you probably paid something different. Is it your fault the airline had a sale and you booked a cheap fare?

To compare some real-world examples, I picked three routes at random and looked one month in advance, choosing flights where Alaska was competing against another carrier with a very similar fare (no more than $5 difference).

Portland to Salt Lake City ($87.44 base fare + $20.76 taxes and fees)

  • With Alaska Mileage Plan: 678 miles*
  • With the other guy: 437 miles

Seattle to Maui ($310.10 base fare + $24.10 taxes and fees)

  • With Alaska Mileage Plan: 2,638 miles*
  • With the other guy: 1,551 miles

Los Angeles to Washington-Reagan ($314.41 base fare + $37.79 taxes and fees)

  • With Alaska Mileage Plan: 2,304 miles*
  • With the other guy: 1,572 miles

These three examples weren’t hard to find, and on average you would have earned 57 percent more award miles by flying Alaska and crediting your flights to Mileage Plan.

It certainly looks like some customers will earn more miles with Mileage Plan, with or without elite status. Other programs could still earn more if you purchase a very expensive fare, but who wants to do that?!

Some business travelers don’t have a choice. Plans take time to finalize, and tickets get booked at the last minute. Mileage Plan still rewards these big spenders. Remember there are bonuses for certain fare classes that might mean 25, 50, or even 100 percent additional miles. Expensive tickets do earn more miles; that bonus just isn’t directly tied to the price.

This is a table of mileage bonuses

This is a good time for me to remind you to consider both sides of the equation. Look at both how many miles you’ll earn and also how many miles you’ll need to redeem for an award. Earning more (or fewer) miles is irrelevant if the size of your redemption changes by the same amount.

Fortunately, the Alaska Mileage Plan award chart is no more expensive than that of other domestic carriers in most cases. It might even be cheaper. Domestic awards in the main cabin are still available for 25,000 miles round-trip or 50,000 miles in first class. Some of them start as low as 5,000 miles one-way if you’re traveling a short distance. Most loyalty programs have similar prices for domestic tickets, so earning more miles really does put you on the fast track toward booking your next award.

International awards are also relatively inexpensive when booked through Mileage Plan. First class to most of Southeast Asia starts at 70,000 miles one-way. Compare this to 110,000 miles through at least one other program; Mileage Plan is 36 percent cheaper. Business class to Europe starts at 50,000 miles one-way. Other programs start at 57,500 miles to Europe. Again, Mileage Plan is cheaper.

I’ll end with a peek at one long-time hobby of the frequent flyer community. A mileage run is a very long flight for a very low price that lets you quickly earn a lot of miles to use for either status or an award redemption. While the switch to revenue-based programs was the end of mileage runs at other airlines, it lives on at Alaska Airlines. You may already take mileage runs without realizing it, at the end of the year when you’re close to earning elite status. Or you could take advantage of a cheap fare to some distance place and turn it into a short vacation (a mileage “jog”).

However you choose to take advantage, you can be sure that Alaska’s policy to issue miles based on distance continues to deliver a great value, helping your earn elite status and book your next award flight faster than the competition.

* Award availability and pricing may vary. The purchaser of an award ticket is responsible for all applicable taxes, fees, and check baggage charges imposed by the transporting carrier(s) or U.S. or international authorities. A $12.50 (USD) nonrefundable fee will be collected per person, each way, for awards booked on a partner airline.

5 Comments on “When a mile flown is a mile earned, flyers can earn their next awards more quickly

  1. This all makes sense; however, it is unfortunate that those of us that have been with you for so long can’t reach elite status without traveling 20,000 plus miles per year. If your job does not require you to travel you might have a cumulative 80,000 miles but because it wasn’t in one year it means nothing for elite status.

    Tina

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Scott, as versant as you are in the industry, I think that you are short changing Alaska here. On some FC to Asia on other airline awards, the ff amount could be as high as 180,000 miles + fuel surcharges. And the award levels on Air France (+ fuel charges) thoughout the world on their Flying Blue program are ridiculous on some routes compared to partner awards on Alaska. Same for British Air. Bottom line is that Alaska has the best ff program out there for FC/BC redemption on foreign carriers.

  3. Mileage awards (and seat preference) based on cost reward the the wealthier and the for-profit sector. I have flown 1.5 M miles in my career as an NFP economy flyer as my seat gets narrower and pitch distance shrinks. I am grateful to have earned miles and enjoyed an occasional upgrade. Now as I begin to travel less I have given up on my usual air carrier and choose Alaska when my destination is available and enjoy great service, comfortable seats and fair pricing.

    • Same here. I am a million miler on AA but due to the fact that they added two more elite levels I find it hard to use miles for anything. Switched to Alaska, service is great!

      R. A Brose

  4. My personal experience flying with Alaska Airlines has always been good; up north for salmon, cod or halibut fishing or south to Cabo for tuna & marlin. Now that I’m older, I’ve included my daughter’s as members. I travel with a support animal and Alaska Airlines has Always been fair, accommodating, and very kind. I’ve yet to utilize my miles program, i will soon, but expect nothing less than what I have already experienced.

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