Three People Who Should Buy Alaska Miles (And One Who Shouldn’t)

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Last week Alaska launched a Mystery Bonus for purchases of Alaska Mileage Plan miles. The bonuses are specific to individual accounts. You earn between 35% and 50% bonus miles when you buy Alaska miles.

Ben went over the details of the promotion last week, so I won’t rehash whether or not this is a good deal in general. I did, however, want to draw attention to the types of people who should consider buying miles — and those who shouldn’t.

Those who can pay for flights, but would like to save money

Let’s say you’re looking at taking a honeymoon or anniversary trip to the Maldives, for instance. Checking random dates in April, business class fares from New York are at least $4,500 per person:

JFK-MLE

Flights on Emirates, which has a great business class product on their A380, start at ~$5,000, but you’re looking at ~$6,000 for the one-stop routings through Dubai:

JFK-MLE-EK

If you wanted to use Alaska miles to the Maldives, you’d pay the following amounts for business class flights on Alaska partners:

  • Cathay Pacific // 100,000 miles round-trip
  • Emirates // 165,000 miles round-trip
  • Korean Air // 120,000 miles round-trip

Worst case, if you’re buying miles with a 40% bonus for a round-trip flight on Emirates business class, you’d be paying ~$3,500. With a 50% bonus for flights on Cathay Pacific, you’d be paying less than ~$2,000.

Emirates-business-bar
Enjoy the Emirates business class bar

Either way, that’s a significant savings over retail.

Those who can’t avail themselves of credit card bonuses

While the best way to accumulate miles right now is still through leveraging credit card bonuses, that’s not an option for everyone.

By strategically purchasing miles, you get access to the award charts of the more generous mileage programs. It’s not as lucrative as the miles that can be earned with a credit card, but it can still be better than cash.

You’ll get the best bang for your buck with international premium cabin travel, but there are definitely some domestic economy routes where redeeming purchased miles can be a better value proposition than buying tickets outright.

I’ve used 7,500 Alaska miles to buy tickets for my nieces between their smallish city and the nearest major airport that would otherwise cost upwards of $200, for example. Buying miles during this promo makes that flight ~$150, and a $50 savings per ticket definitely adds up for family travel!

There are tons of similar examples, so I’d suggest looking at your travel goals, determining what you’re prepared to pay, and seeing how some discounted miles could change the equation.

Australians, Australians, Australians

Speaking of Qantas, Australians get one of the worst deals when it comes to frequent flyer programs (New Zealanders aren’t far behind). You also pay more for long-haul airfare in general, and I really do empathize.

Buying Alaska miles can be a phenomenal deal in comparison due to their partnership with Cathay Pacific.

Cathay-Pacific-Business-Class-A330 - 3
Cathay Pacific business class is one of our favorites, with great availability

This is one of the rare partnerships where you can redeem for award flights that don’t “touch” North America. Look at the one-way redemption costs for flights on Cathay Pacific:

  • Australia/New Zealand to Hong Kong // 30,000 miles in business class
  • Australia/New Zealand to continental U.S. via Hong Kong // 60,000 miles in business class
  • Australia/New Zealand to India via Hong Kong // 60,000 miles in business class
  • Australia/New Zealand to Europe via Hong Kong // 72,500 miles in business class
  • Australia/New Zealand to Africa via Hong Kong // 72,500 miles in business class

Let’s say you wanted to go to London from Sydney. You will generally pay at least $1,000 in economy, and upwards of $3,500 for business class (and that’s only if you luck out). A quick glance at fares for next year shows Cathay Pacific business class flights starting at $16,000!

CX-SYD-LON

In comparison, the 145,000 Alaska miles required are a phenomenal value. If you were targeted for the 50% bonus, you’d spend ~$2,900 to purchase the needed miles. With a 40% bonus, you’d spend ~$3,045.

Make sure you check availability ahead of time though. School holidays and Chinese New Year tend to have extremely limited award space, but other times of year can have 5+ business class seats per flight. Particularly if you can plan in advance.

Don’t buy miles if you don’t know what you’re doing

If you aren’t sure if this is a good deal for you, if you don’t know what your travel plans are, if you haven’t considered the flexibility required for leveraging award tickets, if you have a history of letting miles expire, if you don’t know what award space looks like for your dates — stop.

This deal might not be for you, at least not right now.

There will be other deals. You have time to learn. Ask questions until you feel confident.

By all means sign up for an account so you’re eligible for the next promotion, but you can sit this one out without feeling guilty.

Bottom line

Of course there’s some calculus involved in accounting for the miles you’re not earning, and you of course want to make sure there’s actually award availability around your dates. But for many people, this can be a fantastic way to splurge on a more comfortable flight while saving quite a bit over the retail cost.

Keep in mind, Alaska mileage purchases are processed by points.com, and don’t count as airfare for your credit card.

If you buy miles you’ll want to first use a card where you’re meeting minimum spend, and then use a card which maximizes your return on everyday, non-bonused spend.

Have you purchased Alaska miles? How did you use them?

Comments

  1. The Emirates prices are such a joke now. I wonder if anyone still redeems on them. Those redemption rates must have fallen off a cliff.

  2. 1) Finding longhaul availability on EK or CX in the premium cabins is do-able, but the to-MLE leg can be very difficult. CX only has 3-4 flights a week. EK for some reason is really stingy on Dubai-Maldives leg, in my experience.
    2) Cathay to Maldives is 125k points as it is in the India region.
    3) I thought Alaska mileage purchases were only available to people in US and Canada…not Australia.

  3. @Varun Susarla First Class is also worth it but CX releases F space very early, early enough so that AS cant access it, and when they can, the space is probably gone. They also release F awards at the last minute, meaning AS will charge a $125 change fee, plus your connecting leg also has to have new award space when making the change.

    @Michael C In my experience, yes they post immediately and can be used immediately.

    @grandgourmand 1 – AS allows free stopovers and changes of more than 60 days before departure so it helps when flights arent available. 3) The program is best for people in the US/Can since most award travel has to begin or end in North America. However, there isnt anything that restricts foreigners from joining the AS program or purchasing miles. It just doesnt usually make sense because of the restrictions but because of the unique partnership between AS and CX in terms of awards, it’s very useful for Australians as well as anyone who doesnt mind traveling thru HK on CX

  4. @ Varun Susarla — First is possible, but requires more advanced skill when redeeming Alaska miles:
    • Cathay Pacific only releases one seat in advance on North American routes
    • Emirates rates are hilarious, and not worthwhile
    So it’s possible, but probably isn’t something someone buying miles for the first time should be aiming for.

  5. @ Tom — Agreed for first, but business isn’t horrifying, particularly on routes where EK has great availability. Stopovers on one-ways are huge too.

  6. @ grandgourmand — Did Alaska change where they consider the Maldives to be? They totally could have (and have been making lots of tweaks, so this is a genuine question). It’s always been in “Asia” when I’ve made redemptions.

    The geographical restriction seems to have been lifted, at least in practice.

  7. @ Tiffany…my bad, I am confusing CX and EK then. EK has it in India region. I only tried booking MLE on CX over the phone once and the agent told me it was India region. I didn’t go further than that, and he wasn’t really sure so you’re probably right. How successful have you been in getting multiple J seats? I’ve looked on a few occasions and didn’t find many ex-HKG.

  8. Hi, I’m traveling from JFK to Hkg in Nov with 4 adults and 1 baby, we want to take Cathay pacific business class, I was targeted 40% bonus. I think I should buy the points and redeem for Cathay business, but i checked they don’t have any business award space yet. Should I still buy it book it and change when they are available? Or any advice to book 4 business seats around 11/15/16??
    Thanks.

  9. @ Tak — Hmmm, that’s tricky. The challenge there is likely not that Cathay hasn’t released space “yet”. More realistically, the space they had offered has been booked already.

    They’ll almost certainly open up additional space prior to departure, but it might be within a week or two. It’s going to be tricky to bank on 4 seats + baby at the last-minute, as that doesn’t sound like you’ll have much flexibility. If you’re okay with booking premium economy for now and paying the change fees to upgrade, then I think it would still be worthwhile.

  10. Does anyone have a phone number for BoA reconsideration where I can talk to a live person? The number I have simply says to wait to hear back via mail.

    I tried applying for another Alaska Card after 90+ days and was denied. I have two cards already, each with a $5k limit. Last year, I was approved with a $24k limit with BoA.

  11. My goal is to fly first or business on Cathay Pacific and I accumulate miles with American. Would I want to accumulate miles with Alaska also or just stick with American ? Can I merge my American and Alaska miles at some point before purchasing an award ?

  12. Tiffany, where are you seeing the Cathay reward option? I searched Alaska and the option to redeem on Cathy or Korean Air does not even come up.

  13. @ jediwho — You have to call for Cathay. I like to search for space using the British Airways tool beforehand (instructions under “tips & tutorials” under “start here” in the upper left of the blog.

  14. @ jediwho — Korean Air typically only releases one business class seat to partners these days, and have some weird blackout dates. They can also only be booked as a roundtrip. But, if available, it will show up on the website.

  15. Redeeming on Cathay is a challenge and there are some rules that are not obvious. Managed to score 1 F seat and 1 J seat HKG-LAX. Alaska stated that there is no charge to upgrade the class of seat on the flight when a seat becomes available. HOWEVER – there was an unstated snag. A seat did become available in F 24 hours in advance but I was unable to upgrade because my flight had started in Cape Town and was only a J seat. Since the itinerary had opened they could not change the seat without cancelling the ticket and re-ticketing in F. They did, however, state that had I bought the F seat in the initial booking but seated in J there would have been no problem whatsoever. Have not tested this but am considering it for this year’s CPT-LAX routing on Cathay. At the time the J price CPT-YLW was 64,500 points and the F seat was only 70,000 which in itself is a great price and probably worth the risk even if not upgraded in the end. (There were actually 3 F seats available at 24 hours had I had the right class of ticket)

  16. One of the problem for Australians tho, is that when AS finally has access to those CX seats, most of the flights between AUS to HKG is already taken, thanks to Qantas FFP members, who has access to those seats as soon as CX’s calendar opens.

    You know how hard it is trying to get awards to and from Australia.

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