Points, Miles & Life

Travel adventures on this earthly pilgrimage

Category: Loyalty Programs (page 1 of 2)

West Coast Magic with Alaska Miles: A Primer

One of my favorite things in this hobby is figuring out how to maximize my miles. Earning miles via credit cards is easy enough, but they are only as valuable as you make them.

Alaska MileagePlan is one of my favorite award programs. Back in late 2016, they rolled out new distance-based awards, both reducing the price on many awards and raising the “cap” on others in high demand. The new awards are called a hop, skip, jump, and leap, based on the distance traveled. Here’s the chart:

Overall, I think consumers came out slightly ahead. Especially if they know how to maximize Alaska’s award routing rules. Here are some great options to explore with your Alaska miles:

Scenario 1: The one-way “round-trip”

One of the most unique things about Alaska Airlines award tickets is that they offer a stopover on a one-way award. Granted, the stopover has to be in one of their hubs, or a hub of a partner. I’ve found a few awards that break this rule, but it generally holds true.

However, if you’re interested in traveling to one of their hubs (think Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, and Anchorage), you can often use this to your advantage.

Consider for a second that you want to visit Seattle from the Silicon Valley. At a distance of 696 miles from San Jose, a one-way flight *barely* qualifies for the lowest level Alaska award of 5,000 miles. But you can actually book a “round-trip” on a one-way ticket, if you’re willing to get creative.

Instead of booking a round-trip award to and from San Jose for a total of 10,000 miles, use the multi-search tool to add a different, but (sorta) close return airport, say Reno, Nevada. Looks like you even get to fly through Boise, for a total flight distance of 1,696 flown miles.

You’d expect this ticket to price out at 10,000 miles, given the flight distance. But it turns out Alaska prices award tickets on their own metal simply by distance between origin and destination! Because Reno and SJC are much less than 700 miles apart, this award will price out a 5,000 miles at the lowest level!

Now you just have to get yourself home to San Jose from Reno.  You could easily catch a cheap flight back, or maybe take Amtrak.

Sure, this may not be a desirable trip for many people, but what if you wanted to see Tahoe for a bit before heading back to the Bay? It could be just the ticket for you. You’re only looking at 5,000 miles and $70 for a two-stop vacation!

I’m mainly using this example as an illustration, although my wife and I did fly a “one-way” award from Arcata to the Bay Area, with a convenient stop in Portland to meet up with our in-laws (SEE: The Pacific Northwest Stopover Trick).

Scenario 2: The two-stop hop (aka the “in-laws”)

I’ve definitely had my in-laws in mind when considering some of the potential in the Alaska program. My mother-in-law often visits family in San Diego, typically flying out of the tiny Sonoma County (STS) airport. Since the route is under 700 miles, it prices out at 5,000 Alaska MileagePlan miles one-way.

But what if she and my father-in-law want to visit, say, Seattle for a few days, before heading to sunny southern California?

Utilizing Alaska’s amazing stopover on one-way tickets, you can actually book STS-SEA-SAN as a one-way ticket for the same 5,000 miles!

This is especially crazy given that the SEA-SAN flight distance is 1,050 miles and rings in at 7,500 award miles when booked by itself. Again, Alaska actually prices it based on the STS-SAN distance.

Tack on a cheap one-way, or another 5,000 mile award flight back to STS from San Diego, and you have a two destination vacation for a mere 10,000 miles. Not sure you can beat that.

Like the San Jose to Reno example, all you need to find is a cheap ticket back to Santa Rosa. Or you can burn another 5,000 miles, which will probably be worth it in this case. It’s still 10,000 miles for a two-destination vacation!

Scenario 3: The home “stopover”

Things get even more creative if you live in one of Alaska Airlines’ main hubs. Especially Seattle or Portland. The award routing rules are extremely advantageous.

Consider the scenario where you are taking two vacations in the western U.S. in the next several months. Say, one to San Francisco and the other to Las Vegas.

Instead of booking two round-trip awards, book a one-way for your first leg. Cash tickets for this route are competitive, so they may be the way to go instead.

Next, book your return, but combine it with your outbound to Las Vegas on the same one-way award (use the multi-city search tool). Bingo. Your “stopover” is now your several weeks at home between trips. And it is a crazy cheap 5,000 miles!

Now all you have to do is book your final leg and you’ve saved yourself up to 7,500 Alaska miles, the normal price of a SEA-LAS flight! Maybe later in the year you have a trip to Denver and another to Salt Lake City. You can pull this stunt again!

Scenario 4: Hawaii and a transcon on the same one-way

Let’s take the home stopover one step further. While useful before, this trick becomes even more lucrative if you combine a Hawaii trip with a transcontinental flight. For this example I still have to assume you live in an Alaska hub.

Imagine for a moment that you’re booking an award to Hawaii. If you’re located on the West Coast (I’m assuming you live in Seattle), hopefully you’re considering using British Airways Avios. They are generally the best currency for flying West Coast to Hawaii.

But what if you have a trip planned to the Big Apple a month after your Hawaii trip? Hold those Avios for a moment. Alaska miles will get you further, again with their amazing stopover.

If you plan this right, you can essentially get *both* one-way tickets on the same award, spanning two different trips.

Plan your outbound as a one-way with Avios (12,500 per ticket), and then plan your inbound as a one-way Alaska award for 17,500 MileagePlan miles. Add in a stopover in Seattle that spans your time at home.

Voila. You now have a one-way ticket back home from Hawaii, and then a one-way ticket to NYC, all for the less than a single flight to Hawaii would cost with many other mileage currencies.

Is it an awful red-eye? Yes. But for 17,500 miles, you can’t really complain (I’m sure you can find better flights if you book far in advance). Here’s another:

Honolulu back home to San Jose, before taking off for Alaska on another adventure.

Scenario 5: Rural Alaska

Flying to rural Alaska doesn’t really require any interesting “hacks” per se, but I find it is a fantastic use of Alaska miles. You can head to Barrow to experience 24-hour daylight, or maybe go hiking in Nome.

I mention rural Alaska since cash tickets are often super expensive. Consider this round trip between the Bay Area and Dutch Harbor. You’ll almost certainly spend over $1,000 on a cash ticket, if not closer to $1,500. You can fly the same trip for a mere 25,000 MileagePlan miles round-trip. Consider hanging out in Anchorage for a few days as well with your free stopover.

Frustratingly, there is far less award space available at the lowest level than there was last year. Because Alaska offers variable award pricing, you’ll probably end up paying more like 20,000 miles for the ticket. Still, this can make sense for destinations in rural Alaska that cost a ridiculous amount in cash.

A few issues

Annoyingly, Alaska Airlines still doesn’t recognize Bay Area airports as a “hub” for award routing stopover purposes under most circumstances. Given that the airline has bought Virgin America, I wish they would change this.

The system also knows some airports are co-located. You can’t book a “one-way” ticket from SFO to Oakland with a stop in Portland. Nor can you even return to Sacramento or Santa Rosa from the Bay. MileagePlan would be a gold mine if their system allowed these tickets.

Conclusion

I hope this has been useful in showing you how to unlock the potential of Alaska miles. Overall, the award price changes to the Alaska program have been good, but there are some quirks. Personally, I wish they would price awards on PenAir out of Arcata airport better.

If you’re not interested in domestic travel, there are a number of possibilities for using Alaska miles for some great premium products, like JAL and Cathay Pacific to Asia, and AirFrance and KLM to Europe. Business class awards to India on Emirates are also a decent deal.

Header image courtesy of Frank Kovalcheck under CC 2.0 license

IHG’s Winter 2017 Promotion: Accelerate (Yes, Again)

In what may become the most reused promotion name in hotel industry history, IHG has yet again released another Accelerate promotion. I am beginning to think that the name “Accelerate” may be here to stay. The current Fall 2016 promotion is just winding down, and the new one picks up January 1, 2017. The couple weeks around the holidays are unfortunately left out in the cold.

Like all the other Accelerate promotions, the offers are “customized” (the best I can tell, it is randomized, or influenced by status) for each member. Shawn over at Miles to Memories reported that his were okay at best.

I was fortunate to get a good one. Mine has the potential to earn 30-31k points from a single night stay and a purchase of 1,000 points. This should cost a total of $100 at most. If I am fortunate enough to have a work stay during the promotion, it could easily cost me as little as $13.50 out of pocket for the points purchase. Pretty sweet. It’s even better than the last couple I have had.

What other offers are out there? Let me know what yours are in the comments.

 

How To Transfer Marriott Points to United (and other airlines)

In the points and miles game diversity is usually a good thing. Having points with several airlines and hotel groups increases your options and flexibility. But sometimes you don’t quite have enough of the one currency you need.

Such was the case when I was looking at booking two business class tickets to Europe this winter on either Lufthansa or Turkish Airlines. The total outlay would be 140,000 United miles. Even after transferring all the UR points we have to United, my wife and I would still be 8,000 points short.

So I decided to transfer Marriott points to United miles. I don’t normally do this since transfer rates are not that great. But the alternative was purchasing 8,000 United miles for $301, or 15,000 for $376 (with a current +50% promotion). No thanks. We spent some cash already on our summer trip this year and just bought a new(er) van, and I wanted to keep the cost very minimal on this trip.

I have my eye on the Southwest Companion Pass (which TPG is currently giving away this week), so burning some Marriott points take me backward a bit. But I figured it would be worth it.

Here’s how you transfer Marriott points to United miles

transfer marriott points to united

To transfer the points, I logged into marriott.com, and then navigated to ‘Use Points’ via the ‘My Account’ menu in the top right corner. Then I scrolled down and found the ‘convert points to airline miles’ link. From here you can transfer Marriott points to United.

marriot_united-transfer_link

There is actually an extensive list of airlines for which you can convert Marriott points into miles. Personally, I only see any real value in transfers to United. American and Alaska may seem tempting, but you are nearly always better off transferring to SPG points first and then converting into miles. All the rest seem pretty worthless unless you are topping off an account for a specific award.

United is the special case because of the RewardsPlus program. Most of the perks are reciprocal benefits between United and Marriott elites, but any member can receive the 20% discount on the transfer rate when converting Marriott points into United miles. This turns out to be much better than a Starwood-United transfer. The rate is an undesirable 2:1.

I chose to transfer 24,000 Marriott points to United for a total of 10,000 miles. I peg Marriott points at 0.7 cents each and United miles at 1.6 cents each. Doing the math, I don’t see any real loss of value on the transfer. What I am losing, however, are Marriott points I can use toward a Southwest Companion Pass (more on this some other time).

transfer marriott points to united

 

 

Entering my United MileagePlus number and other info, I clicked through to the order confirmation page which informed me that an email confirmation would be sent as well. I am sure the process for transferring to other airlines is pretty much the same.

The terms stated that it may take 6-8 weeks to transfer the points. I figured that this would probably be more on the order of a week in practice, but I wasn’t counting on it. Not knowing what availability may be like, I wanted to get it rolling now so that the points would be available when I needed them.

After talking with my wife about the trip, however, we ended up deciding that we should probably not go after all. No worries. The email confirmation stated that I could call to modify or cancel the order before it was processed. It was Saturday, and I figured I would call in Monday morning and cancel.

marriott_united-transfer_terms

So I was completely caught off guard when the points showed up in my United account the very next day! Once the transfer is processed, the points cannot be transferred back! Now I am stuck with the extra United miles.

Lesson learned: Confirm your plans and/or availability before transferring points. If I had simply waited 2 days, I could have saved my 24,000 Marriott points toward the Southwest Companion pass. Unless I have a *really* good reason in the future, I don’t think I’ll transfer Marriott points to United miles again.

A Beginner’s Rundown On Southwest RapidRewards

Southwest Airlines is one of my favorite airlines. Actually, I previously wrote about how they are my favorite airline, but I may need to qualify that now. They are my favorite domestic airline. Alaska is also giving them a run for their money. But Southwest sill reigns supreme due to their fantastic checked luggage allowance, great service, cheerful personnel, and tendency to arrive at destinations ahead of schedule. Honestly, I cannot remember the last time a was on a delayed Southwest flight.

While I could continue my unabashed monologue on the merits of Southwest, I want to instead focus on solely their loyalty program: RapidRewards.

Rapid Rewards Basics

Unlike the majority of airline loyalty programs, RapidRewards neither uses a currency of “miles” nor prices awards based on zone or distance. Instead, you earn RapidRewards points, and award prices are revenue-based (i.e. correlated with the price of cash fares). Zones don’t exist. If a cash fare is cheap, the price in points will be cheap. For example, a one-way flight from Oakland, California to San Diego, California costs either $69 or only 3,676 points.

southwest-cash_price

Flights next month from OAK-SAN start at $69.

This award price is incredible. Other domestic carriers generally charge 7,500 to 12,500 miles for the same one-way ticket. This is because all are priced by zone and/or distance, and since the entire United States is one zone, it doesn’t matter if you are flying OAK-SAN or OAK-MIA. Same price. Some other carriers offer “short hop” prices for routes like OAK-SAN, but you should still expect to pay at least twice the points that Southwest requires for the Oakland-San Diego ticket. Nothing beats this value.

southwest-point_price

Or they start at 3,676 RapidRewards points plus $5.60 in government fees.

Revenue-based award pricing may seem like a boon, but it is a double-edged sword. During peak travel times, the price of paid fares usually goes through the roof, and so do award flight prices. This example of an Oakland-Baltimore flight the Sunday of Thanksgiving weekend is a perfect illustration. The cash fare is $405 one-way! Or you could instead pay 29,089 RapidRewards points. Any other carrier would charge you 12,500 miles if they had saver award space. But good luck finding availability!

southwest-oak_bwi

OAK-BWI fare on 11/27/16. Or 29,089 RapidRewards points. Might be worth it in a pinch.

If you are dead set on a Thanksgiving visit with family, Southwest could still be your go-to in a pinch. As long as a seat is available, you can purchase it with points rather than cash. Even if the price is astronomical.

What Are Points Worth?

Which brings us to an important question: how much is a RapidRewards point worth? Well…it depends. Southwest’s award ticket prices are correlated to cash fares, but there isn’t a fixed value per point. You should expect to get about 1.5 cents per RapidRewards point, but it varies. Price, demand, route, and potentially other factors come into play. At least that is my deduction. The actual award pricing algorithm is a black box.

So we just have to roll with it. As I mentioned before, 1.5 cents per point is a decent baseline. In the OAK-SAN example above, the exact cash fare was $68.98. Subtracting the security fees and dividing by the award price of 3,676 points, we are left with a value of 1.72 cents per RapidRewards point. Not bad. This is on the high end. Conversely, the OAK-BWI Thanksgiving example is only a return of 1.37 cents per point.

From this we can surmise that high price and/or demand results in a worse return for your points. I have read complaints about Southwest not being forthright about their award pricing structure, or that the “black box” system allows them to change it incrementally without people noticing, but I don’t really buy this argument. Southwest is known for their great customer service, and a subtle devaluation would go completely against the grain of their organization. So it really doesn’t bug me that awards cost more during peak periods. I just accept it.

Earning Rapid Rewards Points

So now we know how awards are priced. But how do we earn RapidRewards points?

Well, there is the obvious: by flying Southwest. Depending on the fare class, you earn either 6x, 10x, or 12x the base fare. Business select fares earn the most while the “Wanna Get Away” fares earn the least.

southwest-fare_details

Fare rules and RapidReward earning rates for Southwest’s 3 fare classes.

You may think that this means I would earn 414 points for the $69 OAK-SAN “Wanna Get Away” fare in the first example. In reality, I would only 306 points. This is because “base fare” is the price of the fare without any taxes or fees. It turns out that the base fare for that flight is only $51.05, so that’s where the total of 306 (51 x 6) RapidRewards points comes from. You can see the fare breakdown once you have selected a flight on southwest.com and moved to the Price/Summary page.

southwest-fare_breakdown

Sample fare breakdown for the OAK-SAN flight.

The “Wanna Get Away” fares are nearly always significantly cheaper than either the Business Select or Anytime fares, so there is no reason to pick the more expensive ones just for the points multiplier.

There are a number of ways you can earn RapidRewards points other than flying. Southwest has partnerships with a number of hotel chains and rental car companies, some of which offer a significant number of RapidRewards points. Hotel partners include Best Western, Choice Hotels, La Quinta, Marriott, Hyatt, and more. I do not advocate foregoing hotel points in order to earn RapidRewards points, unless you are staying with a chain that you rarely utilize. You can also transfer Marriott points to RapidRewards points.

southwest-partner_earning

Earn extra points with Southwest’s several car rental partners.

Car rental is another option. I only collect rental points with two providers (Hertz and Enterprise), so earning RapidRewards points for rentals with other companies can be a great deal. There is a “Frequent Flyer Surcharge” on most car rentals when you earn points, but it is on the order of $1 per day. Generally, it’s totally worth it.

Other means of accruing points include the RapidRewards shopping portal, the dining program, and various opinion and survey panels. I often use the dining program when I am traveling for work. It is a nice extra bonus. Figure out what works for you. The surveys can easily require more time than they are worth.

Finally, there are the co-branded Southwest Visa cards issued by Chase. They offer okay value. Try to apply when they are offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points. The cards both earn 2 points per dollar on Southwest flights and purchases made with Southwest’s hotel and rental car partners. For all other purchases you earn 1 point per dollar.

On the surface this seems like a pretty good deal. However, Southwest is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so the Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers the same (or better) earning potential, with added benefits like better purchase protection and trip insurance. Plus, your points aren’t locked into Southwest.

The disadvantage is that earning Chase points and transferring them to Southwest doesn’t help you earn the Companion Pass (more on this some other time). This is the primary advantage of the co-branded credit cards. Any points earned via credit card spending do count toward Companion Pass qualification. You can also earn Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) with a large amount of spending (1,500 TQPs per $10,000 in spending, up to a total of $100,000) which helps toward A-List qualification. The credit cards also offer anniversary points that help offset the annual fee.

Using Rapid Rewards Points

This is the easy (and fun) part. Booking flights using RapidRewards points at southwest.com is really straightforward. When you search for flights, you can toggle between dollars and points. Simply choose the price(s) in points, and click continue. You’ll then see the total points required and the fees you’ll still have to pay. When you complete checkout, the points will be immediately deducted from your total balance.

southwest_price

Total cost in cash and points for the OAK-SAN award fare.

What if you need to change or cancel the award flight you just booked? This is where Southwest really shines. Unlike most carriers that charge ridiculous fees for award ticket changes or cancellations, Southwest allows you to cancel award flights free of charge up until 10 minutes before your flight! The fees will be refunded, and your points will be redeposited. That’s awesome.

You can also use this fantastic cancellation/change policy to save points. Say I booked the OAK-SAN flight for 3,676 points yesterday, but the price dropped to 3,056 points today. Rather than keep the ticket I booked yesterday, I could simply cancel it and re-book the same flight at a lower cost. Voila, I saved 620 points! This “trick” has come in handy on several occasions.

Some Final Thoughts

So there you have it. I hope you have enjoyed this rundown on Southwest RapidRewards. It is a fantastic program and offers great value for domestic (and a few international) flights. If you haven’t already, enroll for a free RapidRewards account and start earning points. Consider getting a Chase Sapphire Preferred card to boost your balance. Above all, LUV Southwest.

Header image courtesy of BriYYZ.

Doubled Bonus On SPG Card Referrals

double_spg_referral

For a limited time the referral bonus on the Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) Amex cards has been doubled from the typical 5,000 Starpoints to a whopping 10,000 Starpoints! This is a fantastic opportunity for referring your friends. I value 10,000 Starpoints at roughly $250, which is a huge bonus to be offered for any credit card referral.

Unfortunately, the 35,000 sign-up bonus is no longer being offered on the card; the offer is down to the standard 25,000 Starpoints. Still, with the future of both the SPG Amex card and the SPG program itself in question, it may be time to jump on a product that may no longer be offered in the future.

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