Alaska Airlines has the least-complicated mileage program of the major U.S. airlines. That means it’s only slightly confusing and not an absolute clusterfuck like the others.
Alaska also has the best mileage program, which has become even better thanks to the merger with Virgin America. Virgin’s mileage program still exists but is getting phased out, so you should credit any trips you take on either Virgin or Alaska to your Alaska account.
Nerd Note: If you don’t have a Mileage Plan account you can sign up here.
You can get a lot of value from the Alaska mileage plan with an understanding of the basics, which I’ll cover here in three parts: Earning Miles, Redeeming Miles, and Earning Status.
Alaska is the only major U.S. airline which still awards miles based on actual miles flown rather than amount spent. So if you fly 1,000 miles on Alaska or Virgin, you earn 1,000 miles in your account.
You can also earn miles on flights with Alaska’s many partners, though this is where things get complicated. For most partners, including American Airlines, British Airways, and Air France, you’ll only earn 25% of miles for the cheapest economy tickets. So if you fly 1,000 miles on British Airways, you’ll (usually) earn 250 miles.
The tables that break this down can be found on this page. They might seem a bit daunting at first glance but you can handle it, I promise. “Fare codes” are a letter associated with your ticket that basically show how much you paid for it. If you got a cheap fare, you can assume it’s the lowest fare code, which will be found at the bottom of each table.
As you’ll see, flying on some of Alaska’s partners will earn you more than 25% of miles. Icelandair and Fiji Airways flights earn 50% of miles flown, and Qantas flights earn 100% of miles flown. So if you take the 15,000-mile roundtrip flight from Los Angeles to Sydney on Qantas you’ll earn 15,000 miles.
You can also earn miles by using the Alaska Visa Signature card, which will get you 30,000 miles off the bat and 3x miles for each dollar spent on Alaska and Virgin.
Nerd Note: Alaska’s partnership with American Airlines is changing in 2018. Domestic AA flights will no longer earn Alaska miles, though international ones will.
Alaska Miles can be very valuable. The Points Guy values Alaska Miles at 1.9 cents per mile (more than other U.S. airlines — are you sensing a theme?)
Getting the absolute greatest value from miles is a travel nerd obsession, so there are plenty of rabbit holes you can go down. To keep things simple I’ll make a few recommendations for what to do and what to avoid with Alaska award tickets.
- Use your miles for flights that would be cheap if paid with cash. This is sorta obvious but bears emphasizing.
- Use your miles for British Airways awards tickets. These generally carry huge surcharges on top of the miles used.
- Fly internationally. Alaska has some terrific partners, including Emirates, Japan Airlines, Cathay Pacific, etc. You can get a lot of value flying first or business class on these partners (if you have a ton of miles and enjoy the finer things).
- Include free “stopovers” in your award itinerary. For example, you could fly from Seattle to Portland, “stop over” for a few days, continue on to San Francisco, then fly back to Seattle for only 10,000 miles total.
- Take short flights to nearby, expensive destinations. The Alaska award chart is based on distance, so short flights to expensive destinations like Sun Valley, Bozeman, Mammoth Lakes, etc., can be a bargain with miles.
Earning Elite Status
If you live on the West Coast and fly a lot, you should try to get Alaska status. You’ll get upgraded on flights, earn extra miles, board early, and feel superior to everyone else.
Status is achieved by getting a certain number of “Elite-Qualifying Miles” in a calendar year. All the miles you earn are considered Elite Qualifying Miles except those earned through credit card purchases or other promotions. You gotta fly to earn Elite Qualifying Miles.
The lowest level of status, Alaska MVP, is achieved by flying 20,000 Alaska/Virgin miles or 25,000 combined Alaska/Virgin/partner miles. You can also earn status by flying a certain number of segments (individual flights).
You can check out all the benefits of MVP and the other tiers here.
That’s it! You’ve graduated from Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan 101. If your nerdy appetite isn’t satiated, check out these fine weblogs: