Is Status Worth It? The Case for Alaska Airlines

Alaska Airlines, like much of the Pacific Northwest, sometimes seems to me like it lacks the attention it deserves in this country. But for the most part it works better that way. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of forest with only a few large cities, we do things without interference from the rest of you. A local insurance company even has creative ads celebrating Seattle stereotypes.

The biggest problem with Alaska is that they aren’t all that useful if you want to leave our protected enclave. There are lots of flights within the Pacific Northwest and to other states on the West Coast (including Alaska and Hawaii) — but not much beyond the Rockies. Connections are less common, making mileage runs impractical. On the other hand, they fly to just about every little airport in this region, and it’s also where American Airlines has its weakest presence, so many of their customers may find themselves on an Alaska Airlines codeshare.

Alaska Route Map

This route map (only slightly outdated) doesn’t even bother to show the entire United States.

Perhaps in response to more direct and shorter flights, members can earn status with fewer flown miles. You can, for example, earn MVP status with only 20,000 miles instead of the 25,000 most carriers require, and MVP Gold status requires only 40,000 miles instead of 50,000. But these discounted qualification terms only apply if you fly solely on Alaska Airlines; those who credit partner flights must meet the usual standard.

Partnerships like the one with American are important because Alaska’s international network is almost non-existent. But again, Alaska turns this to its advantage. Like Southwest, it can focus on providing excellent service in the domestic market. It also partners with a very diverse group of other airlines. Instead of joining a regular alliance, it works with a mix of mostly SkyTeam and Oneworld carriers like American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, British Airways, and AirFrance. You can earn and redeem miles on all of them through Alaska’s Mileage Plan program.

Alaska Partners

Earn miles, yes, but there are few reciprocal status benefits. Only American and Delta offer recognition to Alaska Airlines’ elite members, and only Delta provides these members a shot at an upgrade (a very slim one, naturally, coming after Delta’s own customers).

To make up for the lack of such things as international upgrades and a large alliance, Alaska provides generous benefits to its elite members. MVP Gold members — who, remember, can qualify with only 40,000 miles — can cancel their tickets at any time before departure and receive a full credit for a future flight. This is a benefit no other major U.S. carrier provides with the exception of Southwest Airlines. Even ordinary customers will soon be able to cancel tickets 60 days in advance. (I’ve discussed before why most travelers –the vast number of infrequent ones — should consider Mileage Plan.)

AS Mileage Plan qualificationUpgrades are not always easy on popular routes, but I’ve had pretty good success as an MVP Gold and even got upgraded with Megan on a flight to Hawaii over a holiday weekend. Other times I’ve been upgraded on award tickets. There just aren’t as many elites as you would find among one of their giant competitors.

Service in first class is nothing too special, but I wouldn’t say it’s worse than any other domestic first class cabin. I actually like that there are no seat-back IFEs. The buzzing televisions on United drive me crazy and distract from my reading. Customers are given the option to use a portable digEplayer instead. The service is consistently friendly, which means more to me than any hard product. And the meals are a little different, too. My observation is that flight attendants often receive and cook the food in one large container before spooning it out onto individual plates. That means no baked-on cheese or sauce that detracts from the appearance, and the plates are neither too hot nor too cold. On that flight to Hawaii we got a special printed menu and meal choices.

If Alaska could do one thing, I’d appreciate some in-seat power. (Update: Today it announced plans to add this.) And it’s unfortunate that the bulkhead (Row 6) is the only row in economy class with extra legroom. At least there is no solid barrier at your feet.

Customers who fly 75,000 miles on Alaska only or 90,000 miles on Alaska and its partners can obtain MVP Gold 75K status, but the perks aren’t that much greater than MVP Gold. You’ll get an extra 50,000 bonus miles, the chance to nominate a family member to MVP, and four passes to their Board Room airport lounge. You can already get lounge access with the American Express Platinum Card, though I guess you could use the passes for a family member to save the $25 companion fee. And the MVP nomination will be of most use to someone who doesn’t fly with you very often and share in your benefits.

Suggested Goal: “Settle” for MVP Gold

My recommendation is that most people seek MVP Gold status. It’s more obtainable than most people think, and it offers a level of recognition similar to the top tiers at some other carriers once you strip away the benefits that don’t match up. Compare it to mid-tier status at other airlines (which might be a more fair comparison, since none of those offer international upgrades) and I think it blows them away in what’s promised and in the ability of Alaska to deliver.

If you are a fan of mileage running, be wary. I pointed out in the beginning that crediting flights from partner airlines raises the qualification requirement from 40,000 miles to 50,000 miles. I know that Alaska doesn’t have good mileage runs and its partners may offer better ones. But consider the cost of doing so. The first 10,000 miles you earn effectively count toward nothing if, instead, you think you had a chance to earn status by flying on Alaska alone. If you already knew you’d have to include some “regular” travel on parter airlines, then you’ve bitten the bullet and may as well do a mileage run or two.

I’ll end with a compliment: Alaska is one of the few airlines that has made meaningful enhancements to its loyalty program in the past year. Despite a few devaluations to their award chart, they have added benefits, improved the onboard product, and offered a number of decent sales and promotions. They’re also still expanding their route network out east, trying to play better offense in an increasingly competitive industry. Unlike some airlines, I would not be worried about what the future holds if I decided to switch my loyalty to Alaska.

About 

Scott created Hack My Trip while traveling on a budget during graduate school and continues to share his thoughts on better travel. He maintains elite status with American Airlines, Alaska Airlines, Hyatt, and Starwood.
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  • Joey

    You make very good points, Scott. I used to be a Continental Platinum (their highest published tier at the time) and always got upgrades in 90% of my flights before the UA merger. After that merger, I’d say I got an upgrade 40% of the time until I qualified for 1K the year after.
    Do you think Alaska might merge with Southwest or be acquired by one of the big 3 someday? Unfortunately I do not live in Seattle (BTW, I’ll admit that I always thought Alaska’s main hub was in Alaska, not Seattle) but if I did, I’d make Alaska Airlines my main airline.

    • Scottrick

      From a logistics perspective, I would like it if they merged with American rather than do all this codeshare nonsense. On the other hand, I pointed out that I think Alaska’s regional focus is one reason it does better than some of the majors.

      I do not see Alaska merging with Southwest. I’ve read reports suggesting that management wants to keep the first class cabin — even if they don’t sell many first class tickets — because the upgrades are a valuable elite perk. Other reports suggest that Alaska doesn’t really want to merge with anyone, though I don’t know how long that can last.

      • http://www.thesterlingtraveler.com/ TheSterlingTraveler

        I agree. 6 months ago I would have thought that Delta would be the airline to merge with Alaska, but with those tensions I wouldn’t take that bet anymore. I also think that a merger with AA is a long time coming (3-4 years).

  • bmvaughn

    This morning AS announced 110V and USB power in a new cabin refresh. Good timing.

  • Ryan

    I am currently Delta, and live in Seattle and due to my travel for work changing I will be switching to Alaska. The only thing that has kept me with Delta thru the years is the way you can use your miles (I’ve paid for whole vacations with my miles, car, airfare, hotel etc). I think that Alaska is a sleeping giant in the airline industry, and I want to be around with them when they do big things!

  • Blake

    Thanks for the info. I just moved to Seattle so I’m thinking of switching to Alaska for my travels but had some questions and was hoping to get your input.

    1) How would the lower tier status compare to Delta and American? I’m not sure how much traveling I’ll be doing for a while so I’m not likely to make the higher tier without some millage runs (maybe) but I have to make some trips back home to a small city on the east coast, the airport there is serviced by Delta and American (as well as US Airways and United). I like that I could bank the miles to Alaska but don’t know if it’d be better to just go with someone else though. Open to ideas, I just appreciated you noted advantages not in the 100K mile tiers that I’d never hit.

    2) I currently have summit status with Frontier (I was traveling a lot between DC and Seattle so it made sense) through Jan 2015. Do you know if in November 2014 I could get status match with Alaska even if I wasn’t going to requalify with Frontier through Jan 2016, provided I had *some* trips with Frontier? Essentially thinking of using Frontier a few times (I have some credit with them), e.g. going to Denver, and then doing the rest of my business with another airline while asking Alaska for status match at the end of 2014 (since they’re Nov=>Oct). Just wasn’t sure if I needed to have earned status for the next year for them to have matched. If not I’ll match with them now, just means lost miles for the Frontier trips.

    Thanks and sorry for being so long winded.

    • Matt C.

      I’m in your exact situation on #1 (new to Seattle, family lives in Syracuse, NY). I use Alaska for most west coast trips, hit MVP pretty quickly, and upgrades are surprisingly frequent. I use Delta for longer trips, and generally credit the miles to Alaska. My reasoning: a) Alaska’s mile redemptions are more valuable than SkyPesos, b) Amex Platinum gets me in to Delta Sky Club (and no longer into AA lounges), and c) however slim, when I use my Alaska FF number on Delta flights, I have that chance to get automatic complimentary upgrades without certificates.

      • Blake

        Thanks for that feedback. I was going to pick up an Amex platinum soon, if I did take American it’d be through DFW and they have a Centurion lounge there. Never got one before because it did me no good with Frontier.

        Good to hear about upgrades. I’ve only flown Alaska a few times (their DCA=>SEA route was generally way too pricey) but it seemed like 25% of the people were elite with them the times I did. Not like Delta at least.

        Now to figure out #2 to see if I need to run with them this year or not. Too many vouchers on Frontier and so so many miles to use up. Thanks again!

    • Scottrick

      I agree with Matt’s comments. If you want to see more comparison between lower tiers, check out this post:

      http://hackmytrip.com/2012/11/side-by-side-comparisons-of-airline-elite-status/

      As for a status match, typically these only require existing status with another carrier, not evidence that you’ll be able to requalify for that tier. I don’t know if Alaska will match status on Frontier, but it’s a possibility. But if you are already planning on shifting some of your business in 2014, it might make more sense to ask for the match now.

  • UAPhil

    Note there are significant differences between Southwest’s non-refundable revenue ticket “no change fee” policy and Alaska MVP Gold’s policy.

    -When non-refundable “ticketless travel” funds are used on Southwest, all travel must be completed within one year of original ticket issue date, and funds may be used only by the original traveler.
    -With AS MVP Gold, a knowledgeable traveler can use “my wallet” and related features to use funds for travel more than one year in the future, and to buy tickets for other travelers (such as family members). Specifics are well documented on Flyertalk.

  • Mike

    Hi Scott, I’m late to this thread, but maybe you’d be willing to help anyway. I’m a Delta Platinum Medallion, last year was my first year with any status, Silver. My airport is Denver and I’m really bummed that my first tastes of elite status come as Delta guts their program. I’m thinking of switching to Alaska to pool miles, but I have a couple of questions. You know these programs better than anyone, so I don’t need to go into too much detail (e.g., I’ll deal with MQDs through CC spend), but (a) would my 100% bonus skymiles on Delta pertain if I used an Alaska ff number and (b) would I earn Alaska EQMs or Delta MQMs? I’m guessing the answer to (b) is AS not DL EQMs. I’ll fly 70,000 miles or so this year, mostly international, but with maybe 15,000 domestic, so international club access is important and domestic upgrades are important, too. Trying to read between the lines on your post makes me think you’d recommend status on a big 3 if one flies enough to get it, and Alaska only if that’s not possible?

    Sorry for the long post!