Friday, July 25, 2008

A mile isn't as far as it used to be...

For many of us air travellers in Seattle, Alaska Airlines is our local airline of choice and where we choose to bank all of our frequent flyer miles. Not surprisingly, in the current economic downturn and sky-high (pun intended) gas prices, all airlines seem to be making changes. Alaska has bucked the trend of charging passengers for their first piece of checked luggage, but has instead decided to take a more reasonable approach and changed their frequent flyer plan.

Yesterday they announced Upcoming Mileage Plan Changes on their website, effective November 1st. I've always thought Alaska had some of the few really outstanding deals for frequent fliers, and that doesn't seem to be changing, but it does appear they will be somewhat less outstanding. I'll review some of the more notable changes below.

  • 25,000 miles for a free round-trip flight in the continental U.S. Previously for a mere 20,000 miles, and suitable planning, you could fly anywhere in the U.S. (except Hawaii) for free. Virtually no other airline had such low mileage redemption levels, most in the 25,000-30,000 mile range, but not Alaska will join the pack. Still a good deal if you're flexible and have good planning.
  • 3 award levels instead of 2. It used to be there was "Peak" and "Saver" awards, now we add a third class in the middle called "Choice" and rename the others "Full Flex" and "Super Saver". What does that mean? Nobody really knows, other than there'll be three buckets of availability to work with, and you can hope the flight you want has some "Super Saver" awards still available, or your 25k round-trip becomes 40k miles in Choice or up to 55k miles in "Full Flex" with no restrictions.
  • New Intra-State Awards. Fly round-trip to any airport in the same state for just 15,000 miles in "Super Saver". This is probably a great deal for states like California, where you could fly from the Bay Area to San Diego cheap, but for those of us in Seattle, we're limited to Spokane and/or any podunk towns in eastern WA. I guess those who frequently fly to Yakima or Tri-Cities on Horizon could cash in on this, but it might be nice if they decided to include Portland in our WA Intra-state awards.
  • No miles on the 50% award. A unique award in the Alaska lineup, any fare Alaska offers can be slashed in half (up to a $250 discount) for just 15,000 miles. The one difference from conventional awards was that in this case, you still received the actual miles flown for the trip. As a frequent user of this award, I've always been somewhat surprised by how I can save $250, but then get miles anyway, effectively making the mileage cost of the 5,354-mile Seattle-Honolulu round-trip just 9,646 miles for $250/off, a value of about 2.5-cents per mile. The new changes eliminate this loophole of sorts, which caps the value at 1.6-cents per mile, which still seems reasonable to me if you can take advantage of it, especially given the new award levels.
  • $25 fee for redeeming partner awards. Using your miles for flights on non-Alaska flights? Expect to pay a $25 surcharge. Seems a small price to pay for the flexibility and advantage of cashing in your miles for some big-ticket flights on other airlines. Again, a reasonable change.

An important note that none of these changes take effect for flights booked before November 1st, so if you have your travel plans for the next year already lined up, book those tickets before then and save over the higher rates. Of course it's disappointing Alaska has had to raise rates, nobody likes that, but thanks to them for resisting the urge to take the nickle-and-dime approach like other airlines are doing.

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