Don’t Over-Optimize Yourself Out Of An Award

I book a lot of award travel – not just for myself, but for a lot of other people. It’s at least 10 tickets per month, and usually more than that, so I have gotten a pretty good sense for what is a good award and what isn’t. I have also gotten a good sense for when people get themselves into trouble. One of the biggest problems I see is that people try to over-optimize their award booking to the point of losing the opportunity to fly with points altogether. If you see a good deal, you need to book it right away. Just get the ticket and figure out the details later. This applies to all airline tickets, not just award tickets. Book first and ask questions later.

don't over optimize jpg

Sometimes I just want to…

What is over-optimizing? It’s going into an award booking knowing the fundamental bargain (or having been advised of it): airlines give away the seats they don’t think they’ll sell. Those seats aren’t the good seats on nonstop flights with perfect schedules. Instead, you’re flying cross country on a regional jet connecting to another regional jet in Columbus, or traveling on Ethiopian from Los Angeles to Dublin. In Seat 31B, and you’re lucky if it is anything other than that. And yet, even though you know this, and I briefed you, and you agreed to it, you just dither and dally and tweak and fiddle and try to get a perfect itinerary in Cathay Pacific first class instead of a perfectly good (and entirely reasonable) itinerary in Air China business class. When I say “If you want to go, you really need to book this right now before it’s gone,” you say “I need to ask my wife” and disappear for a day or three while you try to search for something better on your own.

Even though you hired me to help you. Trust me, although I’m not much of an expert at anything, I’m genuinely an expert at this.

Here’s how it ends, all too often. All of the available options evaporate in front of your very eyes because–against my advice (which you have actually paid for)–you don’t immediately book the one highly reasonable option that is available for your travel dates when it becomes available and when I urge you to book it. Traveling around Christmas and New Year? That’s why there was only one option and that is why that option wasn’t a nonstop (which you can almost never get anyway). It was a good option. An option you totally blew. And that is also why there isn’t likely to be another one. At all.

I think this is because people read too many blog articles and develop unrealistic expectations. You’ll never hear hype from me on Seat 31B, unless it’s about an unusually good economy class seat. However, other travel blogs so over-hype certain airlines and their business and first class products that literally everyone tries to book them and it means award availability is very limited. Here’s some tough love: You’re not likely to secure those “aspirational” awards at all, and you’re especially not likely to secure them over holidays, and extra especially when you show up 6 months after the booking calendar opened. Full-time bloggers have schedule flexibility where they can literally book and fly the same day, giving them access to last-minute inventory you can’t reasonably use. They all have relationships with the airlines and often fly on complimentary “industry” tickets. You don’t have any of that. Instead, you signed up for a few Chase cards and have a few hundred thousand points just like everyone else did this year, and they’re all chasing the exact same seats on the exact same dates.

What’s the reality? If you’re flying in a long-haul business class, it’s far nicer than economy class on pretty much every airline in the world. The baseline is so much of a step up from economy class that the differences between airlines are only incremental. For example, the difference between Air China and Cathay Pacific is pretty marginal. Slightly different catering, better English skill level with a Hong Kong vs. mainland Chinese crew, a different selection of alcoholic beverages and teas, and better lounges in Hong Kong vs. Beijing. That’s it. They will both get you to your destination safely in a modern lie flat seat, giving you a comfortable ride and a nice meal.

There are marked differences in economy class. You feel these much more. Premium economy is a major step up from regular economy class. And since there is more economy class award inventory, it is well worth favoring one airline over another (all else being equal). This is particularly true when you’re looking at 9-across vs 10-across economy class seating on a 777. This just isn’t the case with business class. If you’re getting a lie flat seat, worrying about one airline versus another is mostly worrying about which wine is catered. Does it really matter so much that you’d risk losing an opportunity to fly in business class for free?

Apparently, it was. You decided to push your luck. Not content with finding an itinerary that met all of your requirements and was really very good, you held out for something better. Except it wasn’t actually there, because airlines barely give away any seats during Christmas and New Year at all, and especially not premium airlines on premium nonstop routes. Instead, someone else snapped up the award you didn’t book. They were happy to have what you were trying to over-optimize. Your opportunity disappeared right in front of your nose. And I know exactly what’s going to happen next.

You’re going to be upset with me.

 

Separation Soap Opera – American’s Love Lost For Alaska

You know that stage of a relationship where there isn’t any love left, you’re sleeping in separate bedrooms, but you have kids so you put on a strong public face and stay married for the sake of the children? That’s my view of the relationship between Alaska and American Airlines. It has been steadily deteriorating over time, and while many frequent fliers had a lot of (I think false) hope after Alaska split up with Delta earlier this year, the writing has been on the wall for some time.

If you follow airlines closely, you knew something was seriously awry when American began flying from Seattle to Los Angeles earlier this year. This was the only American hub where American didn’t have service on its own aircraft from Seattle, instead relying on Alaska to provide connecting flights to its domestic and international services. And Alaska is fully capable of doing this. They operate 14 nonstop flights a day between Seattle and Los Angeles, not counting an additional 4 Virgin America flights per day. Absent any rift in the partnership, there was absolutely no need for additional lift in this market–a market so competitive (in between Delta, Alaska, Spirit, United and now American) that fares are often as low as $59 each way. Also, consumer preference almost definitely isn’t in play; American service is inferior to Alaska in just about every way so it’s hard to imagine many consumers going out of their way to fly American over Alaska.

Meanwhile, though, Alaska fliers are the “kids” in the relationship. Despite struggles in the marriage, it has been very good for us with reciprocal frequent flier benefits. Elite frequent flier members have benefited from free bags and priority check-in, boarding and seating. For those of us in Seat 31B, however, the best part of this has been some very cheap mileage fares in economy class when booking with Alaska miles.

map sjo-dfw-pdx-sea-las

This American Airlines partner flight–with a long stopover in Seattle–cost only 15,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

There are some particularly good sweet spots on the Alaska Airlines award chart with American Airlines, especially their off-peak flights. I flew to Barcelona on May 14th this year for just 20,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles in American economy class, because Alaska follows the “old” AAdvantage peak/off-peak rules. I also flew from Costa Rica to Seattle, enjoyed a long stopover, and will be continuing on my journey to Las Vegas later this month. This cost only 15,000 miles–also an off-peak award. These are some of the best deals on the Alaska Airlines award chart–and more importantly, these awards are achievable for ordinary people who aren’t flying every week or doing crazy stuff to get miles.

There will likely be howls of protest from the blogosphere, but I don’t think they’re really justified. American massively devalued its own award program more than a year ago. It was untenable for Alaska Mileage Plan members to continue getting a better deal on American awards than AAdvantage members, particularly given that American flyers could easily credit their miles to Alaska. I knew this couldn’t last, and put my money where my mouth is: I have been burning my own miles on the best awards.

What’s next? Well, divorce probably isn’t in the cards, not yet anyway. At the end of the day, American and Alaska need each other–Alaska has very strong service throughout the West that American doesn’t have, and American serves Midwestern cities Alaska doesn’t. So this is the stage of the relationship where Alaska and American are no longer sleeping under the same roof; they are formally separated. But they’ll still put on a brave face and show up at the middle school parent-teacher nights as a couple. All of the changes go into effect on 1/1/18, so you will have until then to earn and redeem at current levels.

Act Fast: More ANA Award Tickets To Asia

Booking good economy class tickets to Asia is always difficult. One of the biggest reasons for this is that many flights arrive poorly timed for onward connections to other destinations in Asia, meaning that you get stuck with long connections and forced overnights. When you’re flying in Seat 31B, you just want to get there as quickly as possible.

It’s always good to see a new Asia route with both good award availability and good timings for onward flights, and ANA is starting one on October 29th. They’ll be adding a third daily flight from LAX to Tokyo (Narita), which leaves LAX at 10:20am and arrives in Tokyo at 3:20PM. This is early enough in the day to allow for same-day onward connections from Tokyo to many destinations in China, southeast Asia, and even India. The timings aren’t really great for origination and departure traffic in Tokyo so this flight really seems geared toward carrying connecting passengers.

ANA promotional route map with connecting destinations

ANA offers a solid economy class product including a pillow, blanket and even a pen to fill out your Customs forms. The food is edible and ANA flies newer aircraft. I’d gladly choose them in economy class over most other airlines with service to Asia (Asiana does, however, remain a cut above).

You can book award tickets on this new ANA flight using StarAlliance miles (the most popular are United, Aeroplan, Singapore and ANA’s own program). It’s likely that cash pricing will be very competitive, since this opens up a whole lot of Asian cities to additional competition from LAX, so always compare the price of paid flights to award tickets. If you want to use miles, act fast – this new flight has opened up a lot of award availability to Asia, and it will not last.

Asiana Club Mileage Expiration Extended

Asiana Club isn’t my favorite mileage program, but it offers middle-of-the-road value for StarAlliance flights and does offer credit on some Asiana fares that are hard to credit to other airlines. However, like its fellow StarAlliance partner Singapore, miles do expire on a rolling basis after earning.

Unlike Singapore, whose miles expire 3 years after they are earned (meaning that Singapore defiitely isn’t an airline in which to accrue large mileage balances), Asiana miles expire 10 years after they were earned (or 12 years after being earned for elite members). And although Asiana’s mileage chart isn’t the best, they haven’t devalued as much (or as often) as other airlines. So it’s a reasonable program to consider if you fly Asiana a lot.

I received an email today notifying of “enhancements” to the Asiana Club mileage expiration policy. I usually hate seeing these, because it means yet another devaluation. However, this time, Asiana has actually improved mileage expiration policies in a way that simplifies the program.

The new expiration policy is still more complicated than it needs to be, and is as follows:

Asiana mileage expiration policy chart The bottom line? You might get up to 11 additional months before your Asiana Club miles expire. However, you really shouldn’t wait that long–it’s likely that if you do, your miles will be worth far less at the time you redeem them.

How To Boycott United While Still Flying Them

It was all over the news yesterday. At the behest of United Airlines, Chicago police forcibly removed a man from a plane yesterday. They treated him the way that you might expect police to treat anyone who is a violent terrorist threat to aviation security, beating him unconscious and dragging him down the aisle. I’m not going to embed the video here because it’s simply too disturbing to watch.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t a terrorist. There was no threat of violence. It was a 69 year old Asian-American doctor who had patients to see the following day, had paid for his seat, had already boarded the plane, and United decided to kick off to make room for commuting employees instead.

Make no mistake: United summoned state violence–with all the weight of anti-terrorism laws behind them–for commercial reasons. First and foremost, the flight wasn’t overbooked. United just wanted the seats for commuting employees instead of paying passengers. Nobody wanted the crappy restricted $800 vouchers that the airline was offering, so in order to save money, United then decided to invoke the denied boarding clause of the Contract of Carriage. This, by law, limits the airline to paying $1,350 per passenger in compensation for denied boarding, and it was clear that this was going to be United’s cheapest option. However, it’s questionable whether it was even legal under both the Contract of Carriage and denied boarding regulations for them to do this in the first place given that the passengers involved had already been boarded, so boarding wasn’t actually being denied. Undoubtedly, this will play out in the courts going forward. In the meantime, it hasn’t been good for United stock: the company lost more than $500 million in market capitalization today.

United stock drop chart

This is what happens to your stock after you really screw up

Even before this, United wasn’t making any friends after devaluing their frequent flier program and introducing a new, worse “basic economy” experience. They’re my second least preferred airline, behind Spirit. Fortunately I have a choice not to fly them–Seattle is a highly competitive airport with Alaska and Delta duking it out for dominance and plenty of other options as well. I usually fly Alaska or Southwest, both of whom have friendly crews and passenger-friendly policies. When I fly one of the three majors, I lean toward Delta; their planes are just a little cleaner, the crews are just a little nicer, and the service is just a little more punctual than the other major US airlines. I’ll still fly United occasionally–for instance, if I need a nonstop to Dulles or Houston at times Alaska doesn’t fly–but I’m usually also glad when the flight is over.

However, if you’re a hub captive, you don’t have any real choice. You’re stuck on United, an airline that will literally have you beaten up and thrown off a plane to make room for their employees if it saves them money (unapologetically so, I might add). However, you can still boycott United even while flying the airline. You just need to realize where United makes its money. For the most part, it’s not actually selling tickets: it’s their Mileage Plus loyalty program.

The most valuable part of any airline is its frequent flier program. Loyalty programs drive a ton of revenue, from credit card mileage sales to shopping portals to data mining. Air Canada received a 20x multiple on earnings when it spun off part of Aeroplan in 2005. In fact, when most major US airlines went bankrupt after the financial crisis, a major part of recapitalization plans was mileage sales to banks. I don’t normally link to The Points Guy, but he recently interviewed analysts who reported that up to 50% of airline revenues come from mileage sales to banks. So, ironically, your commercial value to United Airlines lies far less in whether you buy tickets and fly on their airline, and far more in whether you use their loyalty program.

Want to really punish United Airlines, and discourage them from literally beating you bloody on your next flight? Call up Chase and cancel your Mileage Plus Visa. Clean out your Mileage Plus account and take an international trip on a United partner (it’s always nice to visit Japan on ANA, or southeast Asia on Thai and Singapore). It makes sense to do this anyway–miles only devalue over time. Many people who fly United are better off opening a Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer account and crediting their flights to KrisFlyer anyway, because Singapore gives 100% flown miles credit for most United fare classes. If you must use Mileage Plus to book an award, bank your points in a transferable rewards currency like Chase Ultimate Rewards, and only transfer in your points to immediately redeem an award.

United won’t change its behavior or even apologize until people start voting with their feet. But they’ll laugh all the way to the bank if you keep using their loyalty program while no longer flying United. Burn all your Mileage Plus miles. Spend them to zero. And credit your next United flight to another StarAlliance partner. This will ultimately cost them nearly as much as if you didn’t fly United at all.

How I Just Hacked My Trip To Defcon

Although it is fairly well known that Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles are the most valuable airline points in the industry, they are usually considered to be so valuable because of Alaska’s large number of partners. Alaska’s partners include premium airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Emirates as well as niche carriers like Fiji. This allows Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan members access to a very large number of destinations. This year, Alaska further improved the value of Mileage Plan miles for redemption on their own flights by moving to a variable award chart; this allows travelers who plan ahead to redeem for as few as 5,000 bonus miles on many popular routes (such as between Seattle and the Bay Area).

Alaska’s routing rules, however, are simultaneously some of the most restrictive and the most generous in the industry and this is how I just (legally, following all the rules, please don’t hurt me!) hacked my trip to Defcon. Most of the time, I find the rules frustrating. For each direction of travel, you can’t combine partners on an award. You can only combine one partner with an Alaska flight, and the Alaska connecting flight you use needs to have “saver” level availability (which can be very hard to find on some routes, particularly in places like Adak or Barrow). What does this mean in practice? You can’t, for example, fly Alaska from Seattle to JFK, connect to an American Airlines flight to London, and then continue from there to Amsterdam on KLM. A partner award means one partner only (with one exception: you can combine Air France and KLM flights because they are owned by the same company). Making the rules even more frustrating, Virgin America is considered a “partner” for routing purposes so your itinerary can’t include any Virgin America flights if it involves a partner airline. And if all of that wasn’t enough, just to make things more complicated, award tickets involving Korean Airlines or Delta Air Lines (note the Delta partnership ends 5/1/17) must be on a round-trip itinerary. Technically you can book one way, but you still pay the roundtrip price!

However, although the routing rules can make it very difficult to find an award that will work in the first place, Alaska does have one unusually generous rule that makes it at least possible most of the time: stopovers are allowed. And not just one stopover is allowed, but one stopover in each direction. You don’t even need to be traveling on an international itinerary! This legitimately makes up for the considerably more restrictive rules on carrier routing versus other mileage programs by allowing you to wait longer in between flights, so you can create itineraries that connect up. Here’s an example of an award you can book with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan that you couldn’t book with American AAdvantage:

SEA-ORD-CLT itinerary

Stopping overnight is allowed on a US domestic itinerary with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan.

American, with very few exceptions, will not allow more than a 4 hour layover on a US domestic itinerary. However, Alaska will allow a stopover on a domestic itinerary, so you’re free to book this. It’s not ideal, but it’s also very hard to find saver level award availability between Seattle and Charlotte (and remember that if you’re booking a partner award ticket, you have to find saver level award space the whole way). Alaska’s generous stopover rules make it possible to book awards that would otherwise be impossible.

Alaska allowing stopovers especially makes sense when you consider the far-flung route network they operate, and the accompanying limited service. For example, there are only two flights a week to Adak. Many places off the beaten path receive air service at inconvenient hours as well. Without the ability to stop over, it would be virtually impossible for people living in Adak to book awards to anywhere other than Anchorage. So given the very unique operating environment in the State of Alaska (but not just there, Hawaii and many rural Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana communities face the same challenge), Alaska’s stopover rules are a practical necessity for many of their members.

There are, however, some pretty creative ways to use stopovers in order to wring maximum value out of an award ticket. I just squeezed 3 trips out of one ticket. How did I do that? By taking full advantage of the stopover rules Alaska Airlines allows. Generally speaking, Alaska allows you to book a stopover in a hub or connecting city. When you consider the West Coast, this allows opportunities to stop over in every major city.

In the month of April, I am starting in Seattle. I need to be in Las Vegas for a conference. Then I’m heading to Costa Rica for 10 days and returning to Seattle. This summer, I need to be in Las Vegas for another conference. Here’s the itinerary I just booked, and I’ll walk you through why it works:

Itinerary description

8,112 miles flown for 32,500 points.

You may recall that I’m actually going to Las Vegas. So why am I flying to Ontario first? On this itinerary, I couldn’t actually use Las Vegas as a stopover point en route to Costa Rica, because there aren’t any onward flights directly from there. However, I was able to use Los Angeles, because there is an onward flight leaving from there. I’m flying to Ontario instead, which is allowed because it is a co-terminal of LAX, and Ontario is closer to Las Vegas. It’s an easy drive or 3,818 Southwest Rapid Rewards points for the flight.

From there, I’m continuing on to San Jose on Delta. It’s possible to use Delta for this segment because Delta is still an Alaska Airlines partner for another 6 weeks, and because I booked a roundtrip ticket so it priced correctly. From San Jose, it’s a pretty conventional return itinerary back to Seattle – I have to double connect through Dallas and Portland because that was the only award availability. You’ll note that I’m returning from San Jose to Dallas on American Airlines – but that’s OK. With Alaska awards, you can only use one partner (plus Alaska flights) per direction, but I’m not using more than one here. Also, while the ticket has to be a round-trip ticket for Delta or Korean segments to price correctly, you don’t actually have to use these airlines in both directions.

“All right, TProphet,” you might say, “you’re back in Seattle. That’s round-trip. How did you get Las Vegas to work?” Well, this is because my ticket isn’t actually a round-trip ticket. It’s an open jaw ticket, meaning that I’m returning to a different destination than my starting point. This is allowed under the rules, and so are two stopovers. The three months I’m spending in Seattle before continuing my journey onward to Las Vegas is my second stopover. And naturally, my Vegas trip in July is to Defcon. 😉

Flight map SEA-SJO return with LAS ending

A busy April!

Was this easy to book? Not even close! It’s actually really hard to book stuff like this in practice, which is why more people don’t do it (and probably why Alaska still allows it). Also, considerable flexibility on my part was required. I had to fly into a city that is different than the one I need to end up in, spend 3 days longer in Costa Rica than I was planning, take flights that leave both at midnight and at 6:something in the morning, and it required a phone call to straighten everything out after the Web site choked. Still, I get to fly 8,112 actual butt-in-seat miles for only 32,500 points. The cheapest way to do this with paid tickets would have been $998, meaning that I achieved 2.2 cents per mile in value (net of taxes, which I paid in cash, and miles that would otherwise have been earned). This is 10% above what The Points Guy says Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan points are worth–and more importantly, it’s a practical value. A lot of theoretical points valuations thrown around on the Web are based on prices for premium cabin seats that most people would never pay. This is based on economy class tickets I’d otherwise have bought and paid for.

Do you have Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles? Don’t forget that stopovers are an option that can both add flexibility and value to your award redemptions!

Adjusting Times On Award Flights

A couple of months ago, I booked a trip to Phoenix during Thanksgiving. Although I was able to do it using my points, the flight times weren’t ideal and I was stuck with long connections in Las Vegas and Los Angeles. I went ahead and booked the flights anyway, because when it comes to award tickets, the perfect should not be the enemy of the good. After all, when you’re flying for free, you’re getting the itineraries that nobody wants to pay for and this is particularly true during holiday periods.

However, even though I originally booked a less than perfect itinerary, I’m now flying a much better one. How? By taking advantage of schedule change rules and award policies. I successfully did this on both legs of my flight, and here’s how I did it.

Delta Schedule Change Slam Dunk

I received an email from Delta indicating that my schedule changed. When Delta changes your flight with a departure or arrival time that is more than one hour from the original itinerary, they will allow you to change it online. Unfortunately, this itinerary didn’t qualify; it was only a 29 minute change. However, I figured there might be an opportunity to change my flight if I called in.

Schedule change

Could this be an opportunity?

When I called in, the representative was at first unwilling to make any changes. However, I explained that the new schedule would interrupt our holiday dinner plans, and asked whether it’d be possible to choose a later flight. Of course, I had an exact flight number and time to suggest, which happened to be a more convenient nonstop flight.

When the agent came back on, she was willing to make a schedule change. However, she refused to put me on the nonstop flight I requested, because–as she put it–I was required to take a connecting flight since I had originally booked one. My plans foiled, I still ended up with a better itinerary. My new flight left at 7:40PM, connected in Salt Lake City, and arrived at 11:32PM. I was happy to take it. The new itinerary was operated entirely on Delta mainline aircraft (versus Delta Connection and Alaska Airlines), and arrived a full hour earlier in Seattle than my originally scheduled itinerary. So, while this wasn’t quite a slam dunk, it’s an entirely reasonable itinerary.

American Award Change Alley-Oop

One little-known perk of American award tickets is that you are free to change the times and routings of award tickets as long as the origin and destination remain the same. Date changes are also free as long as they are outside of 21 days in advance (if you change to a date inside of 21 days, however, a $75 fee applies). What does this mean in practice? When you’re booking an award on American, grab whatever you can. If a better itinerary opens up later, you can call in and switch to it.

My original itinerary had me leaving at 8:30am (not my favorite time of day to fly, because it means a 5:30am start), flying Alaska Airlines to Las Vegas, changing terminals, and connecting to an American flight two hours later . I wouldn’t arrive in Phoenix until three in the afternoon. Now, don’t get me wrong. The ticket was free and I was happy to have it. However, I kept checking for a better itinerary, hoping that one opened up.

sea-LAS-phx

If anyone wants it, here’s the itinerary I ditched. The seats I gave up were returned to award inventory!

Today, that happened. Alaska typically returns award seats to inventory if they are cancelled, and–likely due to a cancellation–a single award seat opened up on a nonstop flight leaving at 2:55pm on Wednesday afternoon. I immediately called American Airlines and grabbed the seat. The change was free. It’s likely that I will end up in a middle seat in the back (the only seat currently showing available on the map), but that’s just fine with me. Taking advantage of the free award change will allow me to sleep in, spend a productive half-day at work, and save 3 hours of travel time.

Wrap-Up

If you book an award ticket, don’t stop looking for better options. Most airlines will allow you to rebook award tickets if a schedule change disrupts your itinerary. American Airlines allows you to change award tickets for free as long as the origin and destination don’t change, and as long as the dates don’t change within 21 days. Alaska Airlines also allows free changes or cancellation as long as it is done outside of 60 days. British Airways allows you to entirely cancel an itinerary (with a return of your points) if you forfeit the taxes paid. And Southwest Airlines allows award changes and cancellations with no fee at all, right up until 10 minutes before your flight leaves.

Award tickets often offer flexibility that paid itineraries don’t, so take advantage!

 

How To Get Full Mileage Credit On Cheap Tickets

Over the past year, across the board, airline mileage programs have gotten a lot less generous. And this makes a lot of sense–there were just too many people gaming the system and the programs were no longer good at doing what the airlines actually want them to do, which is attracting and retaining high-value flyers. These are typically “road warrior” business travelers who spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on airfares.

High value flyers don’t buy the kinds of deep discount, bargain basement tickets that you and I buy (like the $59 fare I recently bought from Phoenix to Seattle on Southwest, which even included two free checked bags). Actually, airlines lose money on those. Airlines make their money on last-minute tickets to and from business destinations. Want to fly from Washington DC to Cincinnati tomorrow, returning Thursday? It’s only 388 miles, but it’ll cost you a cool $709 in coach.

Delta was the first US program to go revenue-based, and the other two “Big Three” airlines United and American have more or less copied their program so I’ll use it as an example. Before the program went revenue-based, you’d earn credit based on a combination of your elite status and the number of miles flown. If you were an elite member of the SkyMiles program, you’d also earn a bonus. And for any flight, there was a 500 mile minimum. So here’s what your earnings would look like:

  • 1000 miles roundtrip (500 miles each way)
  • Mileage bonus (100% for Gold Medallion)
  • Total: 2000 miles

 

A frequent business traveler (to get Gold Medallion status, you must fly 50,000 miles with Delta and you need to spend a minimum of $5,000) would get 2,000 miles of mileage credit. Someone like me (without elite status) would get 1,000 miles.

These days, with the big 3 major carriers, I’ll net just 5 miles for every dollar I spend. Gold Medallion members get 8 miles for every dollar they spend. So, for our frequent business traveler, here’s what the mileage earning looks like on the above flight:

  • $709 x 8 equals…
  • 5,672 miles

 

Our hypothetical business traveler is pretty happy. She’s getting almost 3 times the number of miles that she would have earned before. It almost makes visiting Cincinnati tolerable.

businesswoman photo

The trip may not be fun, but at least she earned a lot of miles!

However, you and I aren’t buying a $709 last minute walk-up fare. We’re probably flying farther away than Cincinnati. And we don’t have Gold Medallion status. So we get only 5 miles for every dollar that we spend, and we’re buying cheap fares. Here’s what our earnings would look like for the same itinerary on a discount fare:

  • $138 x 5 equals…
  • 690 miles

 

See what happened? The number of miles people earn without frequent flyer status, and who didn’t buy an expensive fare, just got cut back. This may not seem so bad, but it gets a lot worse for longer flights.

For a $59 fare from Seattle to Los Angeles, where I previously earned 954 miles, I now walk away with only 295 miles! Bargain hunters get hit really hard on long international routes. Here’s an example. There was a $457 roundtrip flight yesterday on United from Seattle to Brussels. Routing via Newark, the mileage is 12,154 miles roundtrip. This is nearly enough miles for a free one-way ticket within North America. However, you’d now get just 1,750 miles instead of the full mileage credit. It’s a truly massive hit, so if you’re buying cheap fares, you need to look beyond the Big 3 frequent flier programs.

If you don’t have status and you buy cheap fares, you’re generally much better off with mileage earning programs versus revenue earning programs. Fortunately, there are still a few of these, and there are loopholes where you can still earn full mileage credit.

alaska_airlines_2016_logo

 

 

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is still mileage earning rather than revenue based, and Alaska has a very large number of partners. You can also transfer Starwood Preferred Guest points to Alaska. That’s the good news. The bad news is that if you’re flying on cheap fares, you usually won’t earn 100% mileage credit unless you’re flying Alaska. In fact, you can end up with as little as 25% mileage credit.

Still, it’s not necessarily optimal to earn 100% mileage credit if your miles get stranded in a program you seldom use and will have trouble earning enough miles in to redeem a free ticket before they expire. This is particularly true with international partners like Hainan, Emirates and Icelandair. Alaska should be viewed as a program that covers a very large number of partner airlines with middle-of-the-road value.

Let’s go back to our Washington to Cincinnati flight on Delta, and see how it looks if you’re using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Because the program is mileage based, the amount of money spent on the flight doesn’t strictly matter–however, it does matter in practice, because earning is based on fare class. Airlines sort fares into buckets and the cheaper buckets are sold as a different “class” than more expensive ones. You can view Delta’s fare classes in this chart.

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It’s hard to know or control which fare you are buying. Only the first class fare (P) gives 100% mileage credit.

If you sort the chart by “pecking order,” you’ll see that the fare classes more or less exactly follow the mileage earning chart that Alaska Airlines publishes for Delta flights. Note that most of the time, people shopping for flights just choose the lowest fare and it can be hard to know exactly what fare class you’ve booked into until after you have purchased a ticket . It doesn’t actually matter for this short flight, though. Alaska has a 500 mile minimum per flight! So, you’ll get 1000 points for the roundtrip no matter what fare you book. If you have Alaska Airlines MVP Gold status, you’ll get a 100% bonus for a total of 2,000 points. Obviously, frequent business travelers traveling on high fares won’t be better off doing this, but leisure travelers flying on low fares come out ahead.

The upside is that Alaska generally has competitive fares and serves a surprisingly large number of destinations from the West Coast. They are also in the process of merging with Virgin America (the deal is expected to close by the end of 2016), and the number of destinations will only grow.

This program is an absolute no-brainer for crediting Emirates, Icelandair and Hainan flights, because these airlines have very limited partnerships. If you’re flying American or Delta, also consider crediting your flights to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. You won’t get 100% credit on most fares, but it may be worth giving up to pool your credit in one program.

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If you’re flying United, you have very limited options with StarAlliance airlines to accrue 100% mileage credit on discount fares. However, Singapore Airlines Krisflyer has a very competitive award chart and 100% accrual on United. The accrual rates on other StarAlliance programs are competitive with other programs as well.

There are some big sweet spots in the program:

  • You can transfer points to Krisflyer from all of the major bank programs, including American Express, Chase and Citibank. This helps to top up your balance when you want to redeem an award.
  • You can also transfer points to Krisflyer from the Starwood Preferred Guest hotel program (although, generally speaking, Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is a more valuable transfer partner).
  • The Krisflyer program doesn’t have a surcharge for last-minute award bookings, unlike United who charges $75.

 

Generally speaking, you should be careful when you accrue miles to a foreign frequent flier program; these typically charge fuel surcharges while most US-based programs don’t. Krisflyer is no exception. However, if you redeem your Singapore Airlines miles for flights on United Airlines, you won’t pay fuel surcharges within North America. Also, be sure to use your miles. They expire after 36 months!

Using Krisflyer miles is a little more complicated than using United miles because you have to book most awards over the phone. However, it’s a small inconvenience in exchange for the incredible value that Krisflyer offers.

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Czech Airlines OK Plus is the only program that offers 100% mileage credit for the majority of Delta fares. The program also has some interesting rules, such as placing Iceland and North America in the same zone. And you get 2,000 bonus points after crediting your first flight to the OK Plus program. You can redeem OK Plus points on any SkyTeam flight, and the award chart is here.

The upsides:

  • When you fly Delta, you get a minimum of 100% mileage credit on most fares. Some fares even give 200% mileage credit. This is more than you’ll get with other SkyTeam programs.
  • You can travel all the way to Iceland roundtrip for just 35,000 miles! You can also travel to Central America or the Caribbean for the same price.
  • If the Air France “island hopper” to from Miami to Cayenne is on your bucket list, this is an available option and is only 30,000 miles roundtrip.
  • There are other “sweet spots” with the program, particularly when flying with Chinese airlines that are relatively stingy in other programs, and when redeeming award tickets from cities in central America.
  • You’re allowed both a stopover and an open jaw. What’s more, you’re allowed to connect up to 8 times on an itinerary and connections can be up to 23 hours each. This is virtually unheard of in airline mileage programs.

 

There are some key downsides to the OK Plus program:

  • You don’t get any miles at all on Delta “E” fares. These are encountered rarely, but should be credited to Alaska.
  • Miles expire after 36 months, versus no expiration with Delta SkyMiles.
  • All SkyTeam awards must be booked round trip. There are no one way awards.
  • There is a 36 euro booking fee, plus an additional 50 euro fee if you use a transatlantic Delta flight, plus all applicable fuel surcharges. Given that a Delta flight is the highest value award (Delta’s seasonal flight from JFK to Reykjavik), it stings a little.

 

Like Singapore Airlines, you have to book your flights over the phone. This is a minor inconvenience, but isn’t a showstopper for most people.

Wrapping Up

Look beyond the mileage programs of the airlines you are flying. If you’re comfortable using the mileage programs of foreign airlines (and calling overseas to book award flights), you can still earn full mileage credit when flying with Delta and United, even on cheap fares. And if you credit cheap American Airlines fares to Alaska, you’ll generally do better than you would using the American Aadvantage program.

Good luck, and see you in the sky!