Mileage Plan 101: The basics of booking award travel

Earning Mileage Plan miles is as easy as addi­­ng your member number to your ticket or when booking with Mileage Plan partners. Redeeming miles is just as easy, but if you’ve never done it before, you might not know where to start. Fortunately Alaska’s easy online search tool can find and book almost any Mileage Plan award ticket, including partner awards, and these tips will help you improve on the results.

(Look out for a future post that discusses international partner awards in more detail.)

Award Charts and Availability

Even during holiday periods and for popular destinations, you will be able to find award space. Mileage Plan has several different award levels, including “refundable” awards with access to the last seat on the plane.

Hawaii
Don’t miss that famous Hawaiian sunset! Alaska Airlines provides over 160 nonstop flights every week between the West Coast and the Hawaiian Islands – among the most popular award redemptions.

For destinations served by Alaska Airlines, one-way awards start between 5,000 and 12,500 miles depending on length of trip. Refundable awards cost more, but as long as one seat is available for cash, you can still book it and even change or cancel your ticket without penalty.

Sample award levels on Alaska Airlines for travel within the lower 48 states, Alaska, and Canada. You can also redeem miles to receive a discount off a regular ticket.

Award Type One Way Round Trip
Money and Miles – 50% Discount up to $100 10,000 10,000
Money and Miles – 50% Discount up to $200 20,000 20,000
Coach 5,000-20,000 25,000-40,000
Refundable Coach 30,000 60,000
First 25,000 50,000
Refundable First 60,000 120,000

You can mix and match awards to find the best price and availability. For example, you might book a discounted award at 12,500 miles in one direction and a refundable award at 30,000 miles in the reverse direction if you want the flexibility to lengthen or change your departure date or city.

Partner Airlines

20151117_101459
You can visit China with one of Alaska’s newest Mileage Plan partners, Hainan Airlines.

Alaska’s Mileage Plan offers award travel on more than 15 different partner airlines, which can help you reach more destinations in the U.S. as well as international markets that aren’t served by Alaska Airlines – for a total of 900 destinations worldwide.

Each partner has its own award chart. For example, flying to Europe on Icelandair might cost more or fewer miles than if you were to fly with British Airways or American Airlines. You can’t mix and match different partners on the same award, but you do have the option of booking a different partner in each direction. Connecting flights on Alaska is also permitted.

Fees and Taxes

All travel comes with some government taxes and mandatory fees. These start at $11.20 for a round-trip domestic ticket but can be higher, particularly for international travel. Alaska Airlines will collect these fees in addition to the miles you redeem.

Some additional fees apply to partner awards. Each traveler must pay $12.50 in each direction or $25 for round-trip travel. There may also be carrier surcharges if you fly on British Airways or Icelandair. Finally, booking an award by phone requires an additional $15, but most travel can be booked online to avoid this fee.

Alaska doesn’t collect any fees if you change or cancel an award 60 days or more before departure. The cost is $125 per person within 60 days, but this is waived if you booked a refundable award or if you have MVP Gold or 75K elite status.

When to Book

An airline might release some seats early on when it publishes its schedule, typically 330 days before departure. A more likely scenario is that a few seats appear between two and six months before a flight. Availability changes constantly, so check back frequently!

My sister and I flew to Hong Kong last year in Cathay Pacific’s first class using miles. Although originally booked in business class, we later changed the award.
My sister and I flew to Hong Kong last year in Cathay Pacific’s first class using miles. Although originally booked in business class, we later changed the award.

Book separate one-way awards if you can’t immediately find the space you need in both directions. However, you might have to pay two fees to change or cancel each award if something better appears.

Gutsy travelers could wait until the last minute. During the last week or two many airlines have a good estimate of how many seats will be sold and how many will be empty, releasing additional award space. Fortunately, the tips provided here should help you book the right award with less effort.