Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan: Your Complete Guide

Claire TsosieJune 30, 2020

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For people who fly from the West Coast, Alaska Airlines checks all the boxes: It serves complimentary in-flight Starbucks, has an insanely valuable co-branded credit card, and gets you where you need to go. This Seattle-based airline also has hubs in Anchorage, Alaska, and Portland, Oregon. After acquiring Virgin America, it now flies to more than 100 foreign and domestic locations.

If you often fly on Alaska, the airline's broad network of airline partners and lucrative credit card offers make it worth participating in Mileage Plan, the airline's frequent flyer program. It's also an excellent program for those looking to book ambitious international flights with miles.

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In This Review

How much Alaska Airlines Miles are worth

Based on our most recent analysis, NerdWallet values Alaska Airlines miles at 0.9 cent apiece. To determine the value of reward miles, we compared cash prices and reward redemptions for economy roundtrip routes across several destinations and dates. We divided the cost of the cash ticket by the cost of the reward ticket to determine a “cent per mile” value for each flight, then averaged this value across several flights and dates. Read more about how we arrived at these figures.

This is therefore a baseline value for Alaska miles, based on real-world data collected from hundreds of economy routes, not a maximized value. In other words, you should aim for award redemptions that offer 0.9 cent or more in value from your Alaska miles.

To determine the value of your miles for specific flights, divide the cash value of the ticket (less any applicable taxes/fees if you redeem miles) by the number of miles required for the flight. So if the ticket would cost either $100, or 15,000 miles + $10 in taxes/fees, the math would be as follows:

($100 – $10) / 15,000 = 0.006, or 0.6 cent per mile.

How to earn Alaska Airlines Miles

Alaska Airlines' loyalty program pays out in miles, which can be redeemed for flights on Alaska or its partner airlines. NerdWallet values Alaska Airlines miles at 0.9 cent

each, on average, but with strategic redemptions, you can easily get more out of these rewards.

Signing up for the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is free. From there, you can qualify for elite status after flying enough in a calendar year. Elite status comes with free upgrades and other benefits.

If you go two years without any activity in your awards account, your account may be closed, and you can lose your miles. If this happens, you can reclaim the rewards within up to one year for a fee.

EARNING ALASKA AIRLINES MILES WHEN YOU FLY

Eligible flights on Alaska Airlines or other qualifying partner airlines earn 1 base Mileage Plan mile per actual mile flown. For example, flying 1,000 miles would earn 1,000 base miles. Eligible flights shorter than 500 miles will earn 500 miles. To get these miles, you must provide your Mileage Plan number when booking flights.

This distance-based earning system is rare among U.S. airlines today, most of which award frequent flyer miles based on dollars spent. Generally, Alaska's rules make it far easier to rack up miles and reach elite status faster — especially if you frequently take long-haul flights.

You can also earn bonus miles depending on the class of service purchased and your loyalty status. Class-of-service bonuses count toward elite status; loyalty status bonuses don't. To find out how many miles you'd earn on a given flight, use our calculator below. For more information about elite status, skip ahead.

EARNING ALASKA AIRLINES MILES WITH A CREDIT CARD

Alaska Airlines has a great co-branded credit card in the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card. For starters, it offers an incredibly generous Companion Fare every anniversary year. That means you can cover a travel partner's ticket starting at $121 ($99 plus taxes and fees from $22). The card, which has an annual fee of $75, also comes with solid ongoing rewards for those who frequently fly on Alaska Airlines:

  • Earn 3 miles per dollar spent directly on Alaska Airlines purchases

  • Earn 1 mile per dollar spent on all other purchases

Note: If you apply for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card but qualify for a credit limit of less than $5,000, you'll receive the Alaska Airlines Platinum Plus® credit card instead. This comes with fewer benefits and rewards, but also carries a lower annual fee.

Miles earned with a co-branded credit card don't count toward elite status, Alaska Airlines confirmed in an email.

EARNING ALASKA AIRLINES MILES IN OTHER WAYS

If you're looking to earn even more miles, Alaska Airlines offers:

  • Referral bonuses: 5,000 bonus miles for each friend or family member approved for an Alaska Airlines consumer credit card (not the business credit card)

  • A bonus mall: Earn extra miles through select merchants when you shop through the Mileage Plan bonus mall

  • Seasonal promotions: These limited-time offers help you earn more miles after meeting the spending requirements

BUYING ALASKA AIRLINES MILES

Alaska sells miles, but they cost upward of 2 cents apiece. That often means that they’re not worth the cost, unless you’re getting a truly extraordinary redemption value. With the exception of some targeted offers, purchased miles don’t count toward elite status.

How to redeem Alaska Airlines Miles

The secret to getting amazing value out of Alaska miles? Think international. Although Alaska Airlines isn't a member of any of the three major airline alliances (Oneworld, Star Alliance, SkyTeam), its powerful network of international airline partners makes it easy to get outstanding value out of each mile. Many of its partner airlines also offer posh first-class accommodations for a relative bargain when paying in miles, compared with what it would cost in cash.

Alaska Airlines sets award ticket fares according to class of service and the length of your trip in miles. Refundable tickets are more costly than nonrefundable tickets. For flights within the contiguous U.S. and Alaska, award tickets start at 5,000 miles each way. You can see how much your award ticket might cost for your particular trip by using Alaska Airlines' award chart tool.

GOOD REDEMPTION OPTIONS

Because the award price of a flight depends on the region you're flying to and from, you get more for each mile when using rewards on otherwise expensive trips. That often means booking international travel with an Alaska Airlines partner. Finding available award seats isn't always easy, but if you can snag one, it can be well worth the effort. Some of the especially valuable possibilities include:

This Hong Kong-based airline offers a super-luxurious first-class experience, complete with menus developed by Michelin-star chefs and spacious seats. Booking a first-class round-trip flight from Boston to Beijing in May, as of this writing, would cost a heart-stopping $19,800 in cash if you did it through Cathay Pacific’s website. But if you booked it with Alaska Airlines miles, you’d only pay a mere 140,000 miles for a nonrefundable roundtrip. Essentially you’d be getting roughly 14 cents per mile while traveling in style, before taxes and fees. That’s an insanely good deal! Keep in mind that you can’t book Cathay Pacific travel through the Alaska Airlines website, as you can with other airline partners. Instead, you have to book over the phone.

This airline flies all over the world and typically offers relatively reasonable award rates — especially for folks traveling in business and first class. Say, for example, you snagged a first-class round-trip nonrefundable flight from contiguous U.S. and Alaska to Europe for 125,000 miles. If you would have otherwise paid $7,000 for a cash ticket in first class to, say, London — which wouldn’t be unusual — you could get about 5.3 cents per mile on that redemption, even with taxes and fees. That’s an excellent value.

If you’re heading to Australia or New Zealand, redeeming your Alaska Airlines miles with Qantas could be smart. Consider Qantas’s international business class service, for example, which comes with top-notch dining options, lounge access and comfy seats that recline into beds. With Alaska Airlines miles, you can fly from the contiguous U.S. or Alaska to New Zealand in business class on Qantas for just 110,000 miles round trip. To put that in perspective, traveling from San Francisco to Auckland, New Zealand, in June on Qantas with a business saver fare would put you back about $10,310 in cash, as of this writing. If you paid for it in miles instead, you’d get about 9.3 cents per mile, after including taxes and fees. That’s an outstanding value.

BAD REDEMPTION OPTIONS

On certain routes, redeeming Alaska Airlines miles just isn't the best option. In particular, here are some redemption options that aren't all that great.

As a general rule of thumb, if a flight costs less than $50 each way, you’re better off paying for it with cash or credit, not rewards. It’s unlikely that you’d get more than a 1 cent per mile in value from a transaction like this. To avoid wasting points, divide the dollar cost of the flight (less the amount of taxes and fees you would pay if you booked with miles) by the mile cost. If it’s less than 0.01 — that is, 1 cent — it’s probably a better idea to save your rewards for a different trip.

While the Money and Miles payment option, which lets you pay partially with miles, partially with money, promises convenience, it also offers relatively poor value. For flights in the contiguous U.S. and Alaska, for instance, you can get 50% off up to a $100 discount for 10,000 miles, or 50% off up to a $200 discount for 20,000, effectively getting you a maximum of 1 cent per mile. The flexibility is nice, but you can do better.

British Airways has reasonably priced award travel fares in most cases, but it tends to tack on large fuel surcharges for certain routes. These can effectively tank the value of your miles. If you're planning to redeem with British Airways, be sure to watch out for this. If the fees are excessive, it might make sense to book the trip with another partner.

What to know about Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan elite status

If you frequently fly with Alaska Airlines and its partners, you may qualify for elite status. This gets you access to a cornucopia of goodies, whether you fly with Alaska Airlines or other eligible partners. Elite status comes in three levels:

  • MVP

  • MVP Gold

  • MVP Gold 75K

The higher your status, the more benefits you unlock.

Overall, Alaska's elite status is quite generous and relatively easy to attain because of the airline's distance-based earning system. It also offers "elite leave" for new parents, who often have to put traveling on hold as they care for a newborn. To avoid seeing their elite status go to waste, new parents who show proof of pregnancy or parental leave can receive an extra year of elite status. If you're an elite member welcoming a new baby, this valuable benefit is definitely worth applying for.

The loyalty program's biggest drawback: Elite members don't get free lounge access, as they would in many other programs. However, they can purchase discounted lounge access.

ALASKA AIRLINES ELITE STATUS LEVELS AND BENEFITS

Loyal flyers on Alaska Airlines and its affiliates and partners can snag free upgrades and other perks:

Benefits*

MVP

MVP Gold

MVP Gold 75K

Mileage bonus

50%

100%

125%, plus 50,000 bonus miles when you attain status

Discounted cost of annual Alaska Airlines lounge membership (normally $450)

$400

$350

$300

Other flight perks

• Priority check-in and boarding. • Dedicated phone lines for reservations and customer service.

MVP benefits plus: • Express security line at select airports. • Complimentary same-day standby when a confirmed flight change isn't available. • Complimentary same-day flight changes. • No fee for booking flights by phone (usually $15). • Waivers for ticket change fees for flights changed less than 60 days before departure (usually $125).

MVP Gold benefits, plus: • Four complimentary Alaska Lounge day passes. • Ability to nominate someone for MVP status (so they get the benefits without having to earn the status).

Upgrade eligibility

• Free upgrades to seats with more legroom (usually $15). • First-class upgrades. • Premium-class upgrades.

• Complimentary premium beverage in main cabin (beer, wine or cocktail, usually $6 or $7). • Four first class guest upgrades per year.

For you and a companion: • Unlimited first class upgrades when available • Unlimited free upgrades to seats with more legroom (usually $15) when available

Free checked bags

2 per flight for you and your companions on the same reservation.

*Benefits listed apply to flights on Alaska Airlines flights. You can get similar benefits on partner airlines, but the details vary. Check Alaska Airlines' website for more information.

HOW TO EARN ELITE STATUS WITH ALASKA AIRLINES

You can earn Alaska Airlines elite status by collecting a certain amount of elite-qualifying miles or flying a certain number of segments within a calendar year. On its website, Alaska defines segments as travel on “flights with the same flight number between an origin and final destination, regardless of intermediate stops.”

Elite-qualifying miles include:

  • Miles earned by flying on Alaska Airlines and partner airlines, when you book with your Mileage Plan number

  • Bonuses earned from class of service

Elite-qualifying miles do not include:

  • Bonuses earned from loyalty status

  • Miles earned on co-branded credit cards

The requirements are listed in the table below. You can log in to your Alaska Airlines online portal to see how close you are to earning these statuses.

You earn elite status with your activity in a calendar year; your status becomes active about one to two weeks after you earn it and is good through the end of the next calendar year.

Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan airline partners

Because of Alaska Airlines’ extensive network of partners, you can book award travel all over the world through Alaska Airlines, both online through alaskaair.com or by phone.

Redeeming your miles this way can be a brilliant move. Typically, the cash prices of certain international tickets can be quite high compared with the award prices. On such redemptions, you’ll get more value out of your miles.

You can also earn more Alaska Airlines miles when you use your Mileage Plan number to book travel on partner airlines when paying for tickets in cash, though in some cases, you won't earn bonuses for class of service when you do this. Alaska Airlines' partners are listed in the table below, with information about which benefits are available and how you can book award travel.

When you're booking with cash through alaskaair.com, you'll only see domestic routes and a handful of international routes online. But when you're paying with miles, you'll be able to book trips to several other regions, as well. Use the form below to see which airlines will take you to your destination of choice when you're redeeming Alaska Airlines miles.

Credit cards that earn Alaska Airlines miles

Alaska Airlines' credit cards are issued by Bank of America®. The cards offered include:

  • 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Alaska

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

  • Annual fee: $75

Alaska Airlines Platinum Plus® credit card

You'll get this card if you apply for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, but qualify for a limit below $5,000

  • 2 miles per $1 spent directly on Alaska

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

  • Annual fee: $50

Alaska Airlines Visa® Business credit card

  • 3 miles per $1 spent directly on Alaska

  • 1 mile per $1 spent on all other purchases

  • Annual fee: $0 and $75 per card, or $50 and $25 per card, depending on billing type selected

Photo courtesy of Alaska Airlines.

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