Secrets to finding great value in award miles

Anyone who flies should open an account with their airline’s loyalty program; it’s free, and even infrequent travelers might someday accumulate enough credit for an award flight, especially if they take advantage of the many ways to earn miles besides flying, such as staying at hotels, renting cars, using a credit card, or even sending flowers. But how do you go from earning the miles to booking that award? I’ve made this my life’s mission and want to share how to find good value from your frequent flier miles and get the most out of your membership.

Kauai visa signature card companion fare
My wife Megan and I on a trip to Kauai, Hawaii, booked using a companion fare from our Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card.

Fly multiple airlines, but credit to one program

It’s easy to earn award miles when you fly, and some airlines make it easier to rack up the miles than others. Whatever you do, pick one program and build your account balance through that program’s airline partners.

One benefit of Alaska Airlines’ Mileage Plan is that even if you can’t fly somewhere on Alaska Airlines, you can earn and burn miles on 14 of their partners. Alaska has agreements with several domestic U.S. carriers, including American Airlines and Delta Air Lines, and many leading international carriers, including British Airways, Emirates and Cathay Pacific. Just include your Mileage Plan number in your reservation.

Carefully study the award chart

There are lots of hidden values in airline award charts. Flights between an origin and destination are priced in dollars according to demand. But the cost of an award seat is often based on some other factor, like distance or region. That means an expensive flight could be a relative bargain if using miles. (Of course, some flights popular and will sell out, while others are so cheap it makes sense to pay cash.)

Routing rules for award flights are often far more flexible than for paid fares. Alaska will let you book a one-way flight for half the price of a round-trip itinerary, letting you book the outbound and return segments separately as you find the award space you need. You can also add one free stopover in each direction (stop in a connecting city for more than a day) to explore multiple destinations during a longer trip. Most paid fares require a surcharge for stopovers.

Searching for award space is key

Actually booking an award can be the most challenging part of using your frequent flyer miles. If you come up empty on the first try, take a moment to plot your route on paper and then search for each segment individually. Online search engines aren’t always good at piecing together every possible combination, so it really helps to know in advance which segments have award space, whether you ultimately book online or by phone.

Alaska’s award search engine is easy to use, allowing you to select an origin and destination and then see an entire month’s worth of availability at a time across most of their airline partners (Cathay Pacific and LAN award space are not available online but can be booked by phone). This makes is easier to find the best value for your miles. Keep in mind that Alaska will let you combine multiple segments operated by Alaska and one other partner, but you cannot combine multiple partners on a single one-way award itinerary. If you travel round-trip, you can travel outbound on one partner airline, then return home on a different airline partner.

Top redemption opportunities

Alaska Airlines and its partners offer several great award opportunities. Here are some that I’m looking forward to (all award levels are one-way):

Booking award travel to Fiji with the Alaska Airlines app

70,000 Mileage Plan miles: First Class on Cathay Pacific from Seattle to Johannesburg

Cathay Pacific has one of the best first class cabins in the air, and I slept so well on the way there that I forced myself to stay awake on the return trip to enjoy the other in-flight amenities. Using Mileage Plan miles to book another first class award on Cathay Pacific to Hong Kong is a good deal in itself, and after my free stopover I can continue onward to Africa, India, or the Middle East at the same price.

62,500 Mileage Plan miles: Business Class on Air France/KLM from Seattle to Paris

One of the first “adventures” I took with my wife was a weekend trip to Paris. What woman would refuse another trip the City of Lights (and amazing cuisine)? Air France and KLM have several nonstop flights from the West Coast that make travel to Europe more convenient.

55,000 Mileage Plan miles: Business Class on Fiji Airways from Seattle to Fiji

Another of our aspirations is to visit Fiji, hopefully before we settle down and have kids! The problem with visiting most of these small Pacific islands is that few airlines serve them, and they often don’t partner with the major airline alliances. But Fiji Airways does partner with Alaska Airlines, flying non-stop from Los Angeles and Honolulu to Nadi.

12,500 Mileage Plan miles: Economy Class on Alaska Airlines from Anchorage to Dallas

Befitting its name, Alaska Airlines has the best award chart for travel to the State of Alaska, charging the same 12,500 miles each-way that it does for travel within the Lower 48 states. Most other airlines charge an extra 5,000 miles or more each way to visit Alaska. My in-laws really want to go on an Alaskan cruise and will probably choose a longer, one-way itinerary departing Seattle and flying back from Anchorage.

With a good plan, some insight into hidden value, and these tricks for finding the award availability you need, you could be taking your next vacation sooner than you think!


  1. We live in Canada and have an Alaska Airlines credit card. We have allot of points 60,000 plus. Because we have to fly to Seattle first then on to our destination, we cannot get a good flight to Europe. Only can use reward miles to book as Alaska DOES NOT fly direct. We I looked the flights up it would cost us each $1400 Plus 70 thousand points. That is highway robbery!
    We do use Alaska to fly to Hawaii and also to southern California & Las Vegas, usually using companion fare as we fly at peak times which cost more pints.

  2. Would love for them to partner with Chase Sapphire. I need a card that offers no foreign transaction fees. BOA does not offer that. Chase will let you transfer your accrued points into your airline programs…British, United, Southwest. If Alaska partnered with them…I’d never fly anyone else!

    1. yes they do…I have one

      1. BofA does have cards without foreign transaction fee BUT not on the Alaska Airlines card which is what is being referred to above.

      2. Karen, does it link to your Alaska Mileage Plan?
        I know they have one that gathers it’s own points. But i really need to “link” the accounts.

    2. You can transfer points from Starwood Preferred Guest (which you can earn with a SPG credit card). Unfortunately those also have foreign transaction fees. More and more cards are adding this feature — not everyone yet. I remain convinced the best value of the Alaska credit card is the $99 annual companion fare that can be upgraded and still earns miles. It’s better than what any other airline credit card offers.

      1. So, are you saying I can use my annual companion fare and upgrade to business or first class for a much cheaper fare than if I was flying a normal business or first class fare??

      2. @Michele. He’s referring to the ability to use all elite benefits when flying on a companion fare including earning miles and complementary upgrades and upgrades using the MVPG gold upgrade certificates. Some (most?) of the other airlines do not let you earn miles when traveling on a companion certificate. The other carriers also limit for use on specific Fares. On Alaska it can be use don any coach fare. Although it was much better when you could use the certificate when paying for first class.

    3. Usbank and korean air alaskaair are partners with sky pass and chase. Lots of miles and no foriegn transaction fees

    4. Actually, they have the Bank of America Travel Card which has no foreign transaction fee…used it in March when we flew to New Zealand on miles. Business Class on Quantas!

      1. But can you transfer your points to your Alaska Mileage Plan? Fly Alaska ALOT for business.

  3. I use my BAC Akaska Air CC to rack miles. Pay off in full each month and no problem. Why not work it?

    1. Tom E. is on the ball. Use the card and pay it off every month!!!! and enjoy accruing those miles.

    2. Tom E. G. Is on the ball. Use the card and pay it off every month!!!! and enjoy accruing those miles.

    3. The interest rate is not too bad. My US Airways card through Barclay has over 20% interest rate

  4. Please note Cathay Pacific no longer has first class service from Hong Kong to Africa as the 747s are being retured. It will be business class serice

    1. Yup. I was on one of the last 747 flights to/from the U.S. in July (other routes may last longer). It was a great product while it lasted. Fortunately you can still fly first class from 9 North American gateways to Hong Kong, and the business class product is one of the best in the world.

  5. Wow. Why? Because they are money grabbers? High interest rates? What?


  6. Agree completely. I have nothing but scorn for Bank of America. I hope the airline reads these comments!

  7. I fly Alaska Airlines whenever I travel to any of their destinations. I have been a Mileage Plan member since the program was started. I even still have the little gold piece that was given out commemorating your new business. But I cannot get one of your Visa cards. Please partner with someone other than Bank of America, I will not do business with them. Credit Union 1 (Alaska-based) would be a great choice, but really, anyone other than B of A.

    1. I would absolutely agree with Mr Hersman above regarding a credit union for the source of the Alaska Airlines card as I will also never sign up for one through B of A.

      1. Unfortunately most rewards cards are funded by taking a slice of the transaction fee to pay for the miles. My guess is most credit unions are more concerned about keeping fees low than offering a rewards card. Both models have merits. A rewards card can work well for the consumer if you always pay off your balance in full.

      2. I doubt any of the credit unions are interested in becoming bulk buyers of airline miles. That’s why you will mainly see a few big banks that specialize in these type of cards.

    2. I agree totally with the Non- B of A users. The same exists for Chase, Merryl Lynch, Citi and others. i refuse to do business with banks that are too big to fail!, This is also a reason I fly Alaska. I will do everything I can to avoid flying United/Conti, american/USAir, etc. I cant believe the current administration allowed the merger of these airlines (already financially unstable and in bankruptcy) because the US economy could never allow them to now fail when they would in fact be collapsing our air transportation infrastructure by 30+%. It would cripple our economy! Most airlines, and the way they are run, is a joke. And Obama is their puppet…always for a vote.

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