Not all companion fares work the same, which is why I summarized the most popular companion fares with their pros and cons. Among the better options is the $99 companion fare (plus taxes and fees) provided each year to those who carry the Alaska Airlines credit card from Bank of America. It used to be possible to use this fare for first class tickets, and some were disappointed when it was restricted to economy class, but it is still possible to use it for some significant savings.
Here’s a predicament I find myself in for a summer trip to Hawaii: Megan and I are going to Kauai and Maui, there is saver-level award space for only the outbound portion of our journey, we’re both trying to get status with Alaska’s Mileage Plan, and the tickets are ridiculously expensive (Scenario 1).
I thought about redeeming some Avios points for the outbound journey to Kauai, which is a great deal at 12,500 points per person since Avios is a distance-based award chart. That would cut the cost of the tickets by about half (Scenario 2). I also thought about using all points and miles for this trip, redeeming 40,000 Alaska miles per person on the return (Scenario 3). On the surface either of these look like good ideas.
- Scenario 1: $1,874.80 for two round-trip tickets
- Scenario 2: $952.40 for the return portion, plus taxes and fees on the outbound
- Scenario 3: $10 for taxes and fees
The problem with each of these choices is that I value my miles too highly even for a situation like this. Alaska recently upped their Fly & Buy price to 2 cents per mile, so I’ll use that, while I think Avios are worth closer to 1.5 cents each. Never forget that your miles have value, and when you use them it is almost like paying cash. Value is subjective and should be balanced by how much effort you invested to earn them and the restrictions placed on using them, but there’s value in them nonetheless. Working this into the above scenarios I found a different story.
- Scenario 1: $1,874.80 for two round-trip tickets
- Scenario 2: $1,327.40 for the return portion, plus 25,000 Avios on the outbound (incl. taxes and fees)
- Scenario 3: $1,985 for 25,000 Avios and 80,000 Alaska miles (incl. taxes and fees)
So, just because my out of pocket expenses were a good deal in Scenario 3 doesn’t mean its a smart move. I could do a lot with all those miles and points. It might make sense to pay cash for the tickets now and save them for some other purpose, like a first class flight to London or the Maldives. Scenario 2 still looks attractive. It’s gone up in price but is still less than either alternative.
And because Scenario 2 looked so reasonable, I figured I’d save my companion fare for something else. The discount isn’t huge after adding up the cost of a single ticket plus the a companion fare.
- Scenario 4: $1,105.40 for one round-trip ticket and a companion fare (incl. taxes and fees)
Indeed, I should stick with Scenario 2 if I want to make my life easy. One critical rule for the companion fare is that it can only be used on a simple round-trip itinerary, while we have an open jaw. To use this companion fare we would have to book a round-trip to Kauai and a separate one-way ticket at the end of our trip from Maui to Kauai to catch our flight home. (Update: A reader pointed out that I mis-interpreted “no multiple stopovers” as “no multi-city search” for some reason. It’s certainly good news for me, and I’ve significantly edited the second half. I think this post is still a useful exercise.)
But a slightly lower price isn’t the only reason to use a companion fare. In the original version of this post my numbers came out about the same, and the companion fare was actually higher due to some confusion on my part. The deal can be even better after making one more allowance.
Another major benefit of the Alaska Airlines companion fare is that it is treated much like any other fare. You can upgrade it. It earns miles. And if miles have a value when they’re redeemed, then I should use that same value when I earn them to offset the cost of a paid ticket. (I didn’t account for any elite bonus multipliers in the numbers below.)
- Scenario 2: $1,221.80 after subtracting $105.60 worth of miles earned
- Scenario 4: $891.80 after subtracting $213.60 worth of miles earned
My wife and I earn more miles when we use the companion fare. Enough that the difference is $330 less vs. using points one way and cash on the return. Had I ignored the value of my miles, I might have thought I was getting a better deal by redeeming miles and points, and in fact that makes sense for some people who are miles rich and cash poor. But I have the luxury of choice. And I would much rather continue earning miles for other, more exotic award travel and take this opportunity to redeem my companion fare.
These results still doesn’t account for the value of the companion fare itself, but I think it’s coming in useful given that we’re also earning elite qualifying miles toward our Mileage Plan status. Whatever value you choose to assign to the companion fare in your own calculations you would add to the total price, just as I added the cost of the miles redeemed in the initial scenarios.