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One such reader, Rich, got in touch with me to ask my opinion on the following:
One recurring piece of information I read/hear is how great Alaska miles are, however, does it not make more sense for a UK mile collector such as myself to stick to collecting miles on programs which provide arbitrage opportunities for discounted flights in premium cabins? Examples of what I am referring to are as follows:
- Avios using the BA 2-4-1 in F (the obvious choice) or J
- Avios using the Lloyds upgrade voucher
- Miles & More Mileage Bargains offering ~50% off a range of J fares
- Flying Blue Promo Rewards offering 20-50% off J fares
I fail to see how I could be better off collecting miles on Alaska when compared to the above.
That’s a great question, and of course there’s never a “right answer” for everybody. So my reply unfortunately takes the form of several questions.
How Easy Do You Find It to Accumulate Avios / Miles?
For the vast majority of UK / Europe residents, Alaska shouldn’t be your primary or only frequent flyer programme. It’s simply too hard to accumulate Alaska miles from day-to-day spend and the reward options are limited for itineraries departing Europe / UK. If you already struggle to scrape together enough Avios to take the family on holidays, then by all means continue to focus on earning Avios rather than divide your efforts across too many different programmes.
But if you already have a substantial balance of Avios, why keep adding to it? I have maybe 250,000+ Avios, and can honestly say that I have no real idea how I got there, but between E-Rewards, Avis car rentals, Iberia Plus share Avios promotions, and of course the discounted Iberia Plus rewards, the Avios simply come in faster than I can spend them… Perhaps I take Avios too much for granted, but that allows me to consider secondary airline programmes where I can find better sweetspots and travel hacking opportunities.
How Often Do You Fly on Company Business with Alaska partners Emirates / Air France / Korean Air etc.? How Often Do You Stay with Starwood Preferred Guest?
If the answer is “never”, then you don’t have to worry about crediting those flights to a valuable mileage currency, or converting a tidy balance of Starpoints to airline miles (directly or via a Marriott Rewards Travel Package).
We recommend using www.wheretocredit.com to help you decide how to maximise the miles earned for any given paid flight…
How Much Do You Mind Paying Taxes and Surcharges?
Many of Rich’s examples involve ways to pay fewer miles than the usual reward chart price. But they all require flying on an airline that adds hefty surcharges. (and in the case of Air France / Lufthansa, completely non-refundable rewards to whatever destination the airline chooses, not you…)
If you book a return reward in First Class on British Airways using a 2-for-1 voucher, you will be paying at least £500 per person. Many people simply consider this to be a highly-discounted ticket in F and worth the effort. Other people consider it to be a form of robbery to charge members “carrier-imposed surcharges” for rewards that ought to be close to free.
Of course, some Alaska partners also have surcharges, but between American Airlines, Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, etc. you have many partners who don’t. I flew last year from Los Angeles to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class for 70,000 miles and £40 (one way), with a subsequent onward connection to Bangkok. Although many Europeans might find it difficult to take advantage, I was much more excited and pampered before, during and after that flight than I have ever been on an equivalent BA flight in First Class.
Does a 2-for-1 Voucher or Discounted Reward Actually Save You That Many Miles?
This question is really rather specific to destinations that you can easily reach using Alaska miles.
But if you are going to Hong Kong, for example, you can book a return in Business Class on Cathay Pacific for 85,000 Alaska miles. If you prefer to fly on British Airways, you will pay 180,000 Avios on a peak date or 150,000 Avios off-peak. Even with a 2-for-1 voucher you are paying 90K / 75K per person, along with those nasty BA surcharges.
What about North America? Reward availability might come into play much more than the number of miles required, but assuming that you had the choice of an American Airlines flight to Los Angeles in Business Class (100,000 Alaska miles return, no surcharges) or British Airways on a peak date (150,000 Avios, or 75K per person with a 2-for-1 voucher, with £500+ p.p. in surcharges), which one would you choose?
As for Lufthansa, even the special discounted rewards in Business to Asia cost 70,000 miles + surcharges. Is that really much different from 85,000 Alaska miles and no surcharges, unless you really want to fly on a return basis to Qingdao or Seoul?
Do You Always Travel in Groups of Two?
A 2-for-1 voucher can unquestionably provide great value when used appropriately. But what happens when you travel alone, or travel with children in a party of 3 or 5? Oops… not quite so useful. You might end up using your 2-for-1 voucher because you have to, rather than because a BA reward makes most sense.
Do You Typically Take Advantage of Free Stopovers?
Is your preferred type of holiday “fly to destination, stay there, return”? Then Avios (or another European airline programme/promotion) works perfectly fine for you. You can also easily take advantage of any great Qatar Airways offers heading east.
Is you preferred type of holiday “fly to China, stay for a few days thanks to the free transit visa, book a JAL reward to stopover in Tokyo or Osaka for a few days before continuing on to Hong Kong, then flying home directly on Cathay Pacific” or “fly to New York, stay a few days then continue to Washington DC, and after a few days fly up to Chicago for another quick visit, before flying home from there”? Then Alaska Mileage Plan is the programme for you. Possibly not for the entire itinerary, but certainly to take advantage of certain sweet spots we aim to highlight…
Are Your Holiday Preferences Long-haul, or to Europe?
If you rarely leave Europe, because you prefer to holiday on the Med and take weekend breaks to Paris, Rome, etc. then Avios (or a low cost carrier) is all that you need, thanks to Reward Flight Saver.
If you prefer to visit more exotic destinations, then my series on reward charts showed how uncompetitive European airlines can be in terms of the number of miles charged for long-haul rewards. Promotions help reduce the difference, but usually with substantial strings attached.
How Convenient are Iberia / Aer Lingus for Your Holiday Preferences?
Here at InsideFlyer UK we write frequently about Iberia Plus. If you are interested in traveling to South America, or to one of Iberia’s North American destinations, then you unquestionably want to have enough Avios on hand, especially when Iberia rewards are discounted.
I recently wrote about Aer Lingus / Dublin as well. Again, you can manage to avoid some of the worst of BA / Avios by simply avoiding Heathrow.
In both cases, you should definitely collect and spend Avios. But not because of a 2-for-1 voucher, but because Iberia and Aer Lingus are so clearly preferable as reward options over British Airways… (did I mention those annoying surcharges!?!?!)
I managed to answer Rich’s question without even resorting to the comment “who actually wants to fly on British Airways, Air France or Lufthansa” (especially in 8-across Business Class). Of course Avios are valuable, but something just isn’t quite right when experienced travel hackers do whatever they can to avoid spending Avios on British Airways long-haul flights! (my last BA long-haul using Avios? back in early 2013 with a Premium Economy reward to Vancouver, including a European connection to reduce surcharges and avoid the ridiculous APD treatment of PE…)
Alaska Mileage Plan (or Singapore Krisflyer for that matter, since Joe has been showing off its sweet spots) cannot possibly compete with Avios in terms of the destinations offered by British Airways, its IAG partners and the rest of the Oneworld alliance. But what they lack in breadth, these “exotic miles” programmes make up for it with opportunities that might not be straightforward or easy, but will definitely make you prouder to be a travel hacker than booking a 2-for-1 reward, paying £1,000 for the privilege and hoping that BA don’t target you for a downgrade…