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. Here are some examples of the bonuses available. See a complete list at alaskaair.com.
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.