As you know, I visit my wife who is pursuing her career in Nashville twice a month. So when I myself chased a career opportunity out of state, I was faced with an overwhelming amount of useless pre-booked flights. Luckily, I was able to take advantage of my MVP Gold status with Alaska Airlines to solve that problem.
Regardless of your Elite status, Alaska allows you to cancel and change flights online without speaking to a representative. However, some of my itineraries were complicated in nature (I had used companion fares and needed partial rather than full changes), so I opted to call the MVP Gold line for assistance. The team was great to work with, and in no time, my 16 flights were cancelled or changed accordingly with the refunds deposited as a credit to my Alaska account.
Using those credits, I was able to rebook my flights as needed and when all was said and done, I was able to complete all of my changes and cancellations within an hour.
Besides the MVP Gold line for customer service, the major benefit I received as an Elite flyer with Alaska was the waived change fees. With 16 reservations to modify, I would have been charged $2,000 in change fees! Instead, I paid nothing – and even saved money since my new flights were cheaper than my old ones; allowing me to book a few extra trips for the same price!
I always say I’m not a loyalist, but I am a planner. If you find yourself in a situation where you’re flying a lot, or staying in a lot of hotels, do yourself the favor of sticking to one brand when possible. Not only will you earn miles or points that are cohesive and accumulate, you may even earn Elite status! You never know what life will throw at you, and having elite status with a brand will make life’s curve balls that much easier to manage.
If you have taken a flight with Alaska Airlines recently, you have heard about the Alaska Airlines Signature Visa card from Bank of America. Flight attendants, who receive a commission if you apply on-board, will tell you about the exclusive and remarkable benefits available to cardholders, and their inflight entertainment systems even now include commercials advertising the card too.
What is the Card?
The card itself is one of the most basic on the market. The annual fee is $75.00/year, it earns 3x Alaska Miles on money spent with Alaska and one mile for everything else. Notably however, the card offers a Companion Fare benefit that permits you to add a second ticket to your Alaska reservation for just $121 (taxes and fees) once a year.
Should I Use It Everywhere?
No!! It causes me physical discomfort to see so many people using this card as their everyday spending card; especially when dining out. The earn rate on this card is abysmal at less than 2% per transaction. Compare that with the no-fee Uber Visa Card (4% back on dining) or the AMEX Gold Card (8% back on dining AND supermarkets), and you’ll see money being left at the table each trip. Though purchases directly with Alaska Airlines would net you 6% back, this is still not competitive compared to the American Express Platinum card that offers 10% back on airfare purchases (for all airlines)! If you are most interested in simplicity, then this card is fine for you to use as an everyday card. But if you’re looking to maximize rewards on typical spend, this isn’t the one to keep in your wallet.
I encourage folks to have one Alaska Card for each companion fare they need each year. Bank of America is not very restrictive when it comes approving cards; allowing folks to have 4+ accounts open simultaneously. If you will use the Companion Fare, the $75 card more than pays for itself each year. In addition to that, you will receive a sign up bonus worth between 30,000-40,000 miles after meeting spend requirements which makes each card especially valuable in its first year.
The Companion Fare
The Companion Fare is relatively straight forward to redeem, as long as you are booking a flight that is fully operated by Alaska Airlines (and not its partners). It even allows for stopovers. For instance, when we traveled from Seattle to Nashville with a companion fare, we connected through San Francisco on the return trip for 36 hours; the companion fare allowed us to book this creative trip at no additional cost.
In order to use the companion fare, the person who earned it must either be flying, or paying for the two tickets. That means if you have a family of four, two Alaska cards may make sense since you can use them to buy two tickets, and receive two for just the taxes and fees.
If Alaska Airlines flies out of your airport, and you like to travel to one of their destinations each year, you need this card; or multiple. Save your bonus miles (they won’t expire as long as you have the card) for your next big trip, and don’t use the cards for everyday spend unless you can’t beat the 2% earn with another card in your wallet.
Ever since I added the Hilton Aspire card to my wallet, I knew I’d be using it to go to Las Vegas. Vegas, and all that comes with it, is undoubtedly my favorite vacation spot. As ridiculous as that sounds, it is an adult playground and I will never get enough of it. To celebrate a milestone birthday later this year, I took advantage of some perks in my arsenal to develop a quick weekend with flair.
Because I have MVP Gold status with Alaska Airlines, I have the ability to complete same day flight changes for free. I also am awarded some first-class advance-award tickets on select flights each year. For my departure, I found a great mile redemption of just 7,500 miles for the one-way ticket. I booked it, and even though the flight departs at an ungodly evening time (arriving after midnight), I have no intention of taking the flight. Instead, I will fly space-available on one of the earlier flights that day for free. What’s a trip to Vegas if it doesn’t start with a gamble, am I right?
On the return trip, I elected to book the first flight out on Monday morning. Though it is very early, it happens to be eligible for one of my free advanced-confirmation first class upgrades. This not only allows me to reduce my time out of the office and make the most of my weekend, it allows me to count on a luxurious return trip and free breakfast in-flight; even if I lose my shirt the day before.
Out the door, I confirmed round-trip airfare (including a guaranteed segment in first class) for just $147 and 7,500 miles. Because of my elite status, I am placed on a wait-list for a free first class upgrade for the first segment as well.
Because I have the Hilton Aspire card from American Express, I not only receive one free weekend night a year, I also receive $250 in resort credits (good for room charges) each year. In Las Vegas, these credits can be used at one of six properties including the Elara, Tropicana and Flamingo. For my two night stay, I took full advantage of each of these perks:
After a quick set of queries, I determined that my first night in Vegas was going to be more expensive than the second. Accordingly, I aimed to redeem my free night for night one. I booked a room at the Waldorf Astoria Las Vegas. The standard room cost for this evening was over $600 including resort fees and taxes. Instead, I booked it for free.
For my second night in Vegas, I was intent on booking a stay at one of Hilton’s six resorts to take advantage of the $250 credit. I found a King City View room in the Paradise Tower (preferred) of the Tropicana overlooking the Strip for a total of $245.45 including taxes and fees. After my $250 credit is applied towards the room charges, my stay will be free!
Because of my status with Alaska Airlines, and my credit card with Hilton, I will enjoy a weekend trip in Las Vegas, flying first class (at least on the way home), and spending the night in two premium rooms on the Strip for a total of $147. If I wanted to book the trip without using status, the same trip would have cost $1,069.51 (86% off). In addition, I was able to use some American Express Platinum membership reward points to have my wife join me from Nashville (a redemption worth $400).
As you may be aware, I travel every two weeks while my wife and I maintain our lives in two states over the next few years. The journey officially began two months ago, and despite the abrupt halt to our “normal lives,” the upcoming travel presented an interesting opportunity: Earning elite status with an airline.
While it is very easy to “buy” status with hotels by having the right credit card in your wallet, the same is not true for airlines. The only way you can achieve elite status with an airline is to complete their flight-based requirements each year in order to earn and maintain the status. So naturally, I was very excited at the prospect of playing this through. Here is how I approached planning for this process:
Be Intentional from Day 1
There’s nothing worse than coming up a few hundred miles short on earning elite status; especially when you could have earned it had you done something differently! For that reason, all of your planning must be completed in advance of booking your first trip. After you know when and where you’re going, you must outline how you’ll do it and ensure you’re pleased with the end result.
Identify Where You’ll Be Flying
For me, this was easy. But for you, you may have multiple destinations you’re frequenting. Draft a spreadsheet with your origin cities and final destinations. Then research and document which airlines fly nonstop or with connecting flights between those destinations. You can use a service such as Expedia to research this rather quickly.
Compare the Contenders
In my case, Alaska Airlines and Delta Airlines were the two options I had to fly nonstop between the two states. This was a nice list from the start given that Alaska’s mileage program is one of the true mileage-based programs left. Others, such as Delta, require that you not only fly a certain number of miles, but that you also spend a specific amount of dollars with the airline in order to earn elite status. This devalues flash-sales and other bargain fares which could cause you to spend more than you needed to in the first place.
In my case, I am traveling between Seattle and Nashville most frequently, with some outlier destinations scattered throughout, that fortunately, are served by both Alaska and Delta. My starting line couldn’t have been cleaner! I mapped out all of my planned itineraries both for the end of 2018, and through 2019 and pulled in data from both Alaska and Delta’s programs including dollars spent, elite miles earned, reward miles earned and flight times.
For simplicity’s sake, there are three tiers of elite status comparable to one another between the two airlines both in terms of earning requirements and associated perks:
MVP (Alaska) / Silver Medallion (Delta)
MVP Gold (Alaska) / Gold Medallion (Delta)
Gold 75K (Alaska) / Platinum Medallion (Delta)
Interestingly enough, after mapping out how my intended bookings would do for me, the same flights earned me higher status with Alaska Airlines than they did with Delta. The reason for this goes back to Alaska’s mileage-based program. When I traveled 3,944 miles round-trip between Seattle and Nashville, I earned that many elite miles with Alaska. When I flew that many miles with Delta, I only earned 2,270 elite miles (an arbitrary number). This resulted in a lower elite status with Delta due to “miles” flown. Additionally, even if I earned enough qualifying miles, if I hadn’t spent the required amount of dollars on those trips, I would not achieve that elite status. Alaska on the other hand, provides a mathematical and straightforward approach to their program and your ability to earn elite status.
For what it’s worth, I also considered splitting the difference. The main driver for this was that the ONLY airport lounge I have access to in Nashville is a Delta Sky Club, which only admits me when I’m flying Delta (using my AMEX Platinum card). So I considered an approach where I earned a lesser Elite Status with Alaska by only departing with them, and then booking all of my return flights with Delta to take advantage of the lounge. However, what ultimately dissuaded me was the terrible flight time for their nonstop departure (5:00 AM Seattle time) which would have all but prevented me from enjoying the lounge anyway. Just to be sure, I tested this out on a recent itinerary and confirmed it was undesirable. For reference, Alaska’s departure flight that day is an afternoon flight.
Perks of Loyalty
So I’m flying Alaska! By committing to the single airline, I will achieve MVP Gold in 2018 and Gold 75K (their highest elite status) in 2019. In addition to early boarding and seat upgrades, I will earn a 100% bonus on reward miles in 2018, and 125% bonus on flights in 2019. These miles will serve us well with free flights throughout the year and even allow us to redeem two round-trip tickets to Auckland, New Zealand for a future vacation!
While I’m no loyalist, I do value commitment in all phases of my life including credit cards. That’s because a percentage of your credit score is the average length of your accounts. If you have two cards, one you’ve had for ten years and the other brand new, your average length of your accounts is five years. If you cancel the card you’ve had for ten years, you now have a nonexistent average. On the flip side, if you retain the card(s) you’ve had longest (assuming they have no annual fees or you’re still claiming the value from the fees), your score can afford to adopt some new plastic or metal friends into your wallet.
Know Yourself and Spot the Fakes
Where do you spend your money? For me, it’s dining and travel. Nearly 100% of my discretionary income goes to one of those two categories. Find out what your category is and find a card that will bring you the most value. Whether you spend most of your money on groceries, gas, business expenses, tuition or rent, there is a card for you. I recommend a simple spreadsheet that takes your annual spending, and calculates the value in rewards provided by each card you’re considering to identify a clear choice and help you spot the fakes!
For instance, you may think you’re doing yourself a favor by charging all of your Alaska Airline purchases to the branded credit card. But let’s say for a moment your goal is to travel from Seattle to New York (JFK) RT nonstop. That itinerary in April is 32,500 miles or $426. To achieve that with your Alaska card, you’ll need to spend $32,500 dollars generally or $10,833 on Alaska Airlines flights alone. Alternatively, you would achieve the required points with just $8,520 in airfare spending with the AMEX Platinum card OR $9,467 in dining and travel with the Chase Sapphire Reserve. So while the Alaska card is great for the companion fare, don’t confuse the branding as value. In our example, using a non-Alaska Airlines credit card to pay for meals earned triple the rewards on Alaska Airlines flights when compared with its own credit card! Definitely not what you’d expect.
Using a non-Alaska Airlines credit card to pay for meals earned triple the rewards on Alaska Airlines flights when compared with its own credit card!
As you are working through the numbers on your spreadsheet, you may elect to add a powerhouse metal card in your wallet for perks or top categories, as well as an everyday spending card which helps you net the best return for all of your miscellaneous spending. This allows you to maximize your earning potential on all purchases. But the important piece is that you do the math before you start spending. So ensure that the cards you pull out for each purchase are the right ones for the job and most effectively helping you achieve your objectives. Happy traveling!
Alaska Airlines discontinued this service in 2018. If you have MVP Gold status, you can still use this strategy since change/cancellation fees are waived.
Alaska Airlines is my preferred airline for many reasons, and one reason I love booking with them is their Price Guarantee. Using Google Flights, which monitors airfare pricing and alerts you of changes within the parameters you set, I ensure that by the time I travel, I’ve paid the lowest fare available.
Just like any good plan, you need a spreadsheet. So I have one that lists (one per row) all of the airfare I’ve purchased. After I purchase a ticket, I add a row to my workbook and round-up the total I paid.
I then add the itinerary I booked, using the same parameters (i.e. Airline, nonstop/1-stop) into Google Flights so I’m essentially querying the exact itinerary I’ve already booked. Google will then notify you via email when the price is higher than that price. You can also visit your Google Flights dashboard at anytime to see your full list of current prices.
When I received a notification today that a flight I had purchased was now cheaper, I accessed my Google Flights dashboard and saw that the flight for which I paid $494 was now listed at $468.
To confirm this, I visited the Alaska Airlines website and verified that the same flight was now available for $467.60 ($26 less than I paid).
Next, I simply visited Alaska Air’s Price Guarantee webpage, entered my confirmation code, and was immediately offered the difference between the fares as a gift certificate.
Tip: If you have previously confirmed an upgrade on your itinerary, or are on an upgrade wait list, you will want to caution yourself against redeeming a credit as described in their final disclaimer below.
While it would be ideal to always receive the lowest price when booking, it is the next best thing to have the price honored without hassle if it drops later on. Alaska does a great job of this, and I’d encourage you to maintain your records against services like Google Flights to take advantage of that service as well.
Earlier this year, we enjoyed a trip to Tokyo, Japan for nine days and eight nights. My wife, mother and I flew round-trip with just one connection, and stayed in the heart of Tokyo’s business district at a 4.5 star hotel in Shinjuku. We stayed on the executive floor and enjoyed access to the Executive Lounge offering breakfast, snacks and cocktails; and we did it all for less than $237/person.
Hotel – 8 nights w/ Exec Lounge
Round-trip Airfare for 3
$710 (92% off!) $236.67 / person
The $710 paid was a result of taxes incurred, and annual fees associated with credit cards we acquired solely for this trip.
It pays to use points for airfare and hotel expenses because not only are the exchange rates favorable, you typically aren’t charged the same high taxes and fees. In the screenshot below, you can see Hilton charges nearly $900 USD for what it calls “Taxes” and a “Service Charge” on this eight-night stay.
Airfare $4,129.08 USD
Hotel $4861.11 USD
Using 50,000 Alaska Airlines miles each, we redeemed our mileage through the Airline Partners program. This is the lowest round-trip redemption available so you’ll need to be flexible with your travel dates to ensure you’re redeeming the best value. The fees on this redemption are listed, and are your only costs incurred on the transaction. They vary by itinerary, but for the example below, would run you $82/person.
Again, flexibility is the name of the game. In fact, despite booking this same hotel for 50,000 points / night for these dates a year ago, the asking value is currently triple what we paid. For that reason, you must be fluid with your planning in order to find the best value for your points. We selected the Hilton Tokyo at the time because of its value offered, but also because Hilton offers a 5th night free promotion for point redemption; effectively allowing you to take 20% off a 5 or 10 night stay.
Automatically earned when you’re carrying American Express’ Hilton Surpass card or Platinum card, Gold status is what prioritizes you for a room on the Executive Floors. This is valuable, especially at this property, because you’re granted access to the Executive Lounge which happens to be a light-fares restaurant on the top of the high-rise hotel. Complete with a full breakfast in the morning, hors d’oeuvres throughout the day and a full bar at night, this complimentary service will not only enhance your trip, but save you money.
Collecting Your Points
When you’re planning a massive point redemption like we did, it’s never too early to start accumulating the right points and miles. As you do this, be mindful of terms and conditions associated with earning and using your rewards. For instance, American Express strictly enforces its “once per lifetime” rule that stipulates you can only earn each of their promotions once in your lifetime. However, Hilton recently offered the ability to pool points with friends and family at no-charge so this can be an effective way to combine signup bonuses.
Cards to Consider
I am never compensated for my recommendations. But for your reference, here are some of the cards we found helpful to collect when planning this trip:
We were also able to take advantage of two Hilton cards offered by Citi bank, but due to a new exclusivity deal between Hilton and American Express, those cards are no longer available.
When planning a trip this large, you’ll only be successful if you can stay adaptable and book with the properties/airlines offering the best deal on the dates they stipulate. It can be a daunting treasure hunt, but the rewards are plentiful. Happy travels!
Next week, we depart for a week-long stay in Cancun, Mexico! In late 2014, Alaska Airlines added nonstop flights to Cancun from Seattle; making it one of the more luxurious itineraries available. We also couldn’t pass up the opportunity to stay at one of Hyatt’s newer properties in the area which opened around the same time.
This trip took some planning, but we were each able to secure our airfare for just the cost of the fees ($75.00) after redeeming 60,000 miles in exchange for roundtrip, nonstop, First Class tickets! These same pair of tickets would have cost us nearly $2,500 otherwise.
As for the miles, they’re easily attainable through Alaska’s 25,000 mile bonus upon approval. For the bold: We had some luck explaining to the bank our desire to separate transactions. This resulted in us being approved, and receiving the bonus miles, for multiple cards.
Hyatt is one of our favorite hotel groups, so we couldn’t pass up the chance to stay at Zilara which opened in late 2014. Surrounded by beach, Zilara requires its guests to be 18+ as well as to partake in the all-inclusive package which includes all the food, beer and premium liquor your heart could desire. And thanks to our Hyatt credit card (which carries Platinum Member status), we expect to receive a room upgrade upon arriving.
It doesn’t get better than Cancun, until you enhance it with plastic.
When my wife Brianna married me, she knew about my obsession with points and miles acquisition. My plan to fund the honeymoon trip to Maui became clear when she saw we only had $175 budgeted for the trip’s hotel and airfare. Despite her knowing about the wild world of points, she still asked: How will we stay 6 nights in Maui for only $175??
Generally speaking, I had this strategy: Brianna and I would each acquire two airline credit cards (each with a bonus equivalent to a one-way ticket); and 1-2 hotel cards incentivizing new cardholders with free nights. When deciding which cards to pursue, we considered which airlines best met our needs, and whether there were specific hotels in Maui that we particularly wished to stay at. For us, we were traveling from Seattle and it was important to us to stay at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa, Kaanapali for at least part of the trip.
With this in mind, we each obtained:
Card: Alaska Airlines Visa Reward: 25,000 miles (good for a one-way ticket from Seattle to Maui) Cost: $75.00 (annual fee) Spend Requirements: NONE
Card: United MileagePlus Explorer Visa Reward: 30,000 miles (good for a one-way return ticket from Maui to Seattle) Cost: FREE (annual fee waived first year) Spend Requirements: $1000 in the first 3 months
Card: The Hyatt Visa Reward: 2 Free Nights at Hyatt Properties Worldwide Cost: FREE (annual fee waived first year) Spend Requirements: $1000 in the first 3 months
Card: The Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) AMEX Reward: 25,000 points Cost: FREE (annual fee waived first year) Spend Requirements: $1000 in the first 3 months
Because we each obtained these four cards, we were responsible for two $75 annual fees (Alaska VISA) and a total of $6,000 spending requirements within three months. However, when you’re planning for a wedding, placing deposits, buying a dress, the rings, etc.; this is a more manageable requirement and responsible in that you’re only spending money you planned on spending anyway from savings (if you haven’t saved a budget for your wedding, you’ll need to factor APR into cost/benefit analysis in the event you’re unable to make the payments in full).
Our rewards netted us two one-way departure tickets from Seattle to Maui on Alaska Airlines; two one-way return tickets from Maui to Seattle on United Airlines; two nights at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa, Kaanapali; and four nights at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, Kaanapali Beach all for $172.40 in fees (we paid a total of $22.40 in taxes on the airfare in addition to the two $75 annual fees). If we had opted to pay for this same trip without rewards, it would have cost us $3,430.00; a savings of 95% that let us use that money on dining out and other activities during the trip instead.
If we had opted to pay for this same trip without rewards, it would have cost us $3,430.00.
One note: Hyatt does not typically allow you to book your two free reward nights consecutively. But because we each had two nights, we booked them one at a time in an alternating fashion (i.e. Brian’s 1st night; Brianna’s 1st night; Brian’s 2nd night; Brianna’s 2nd night). Afterward, we called Hyatt with the four confirmation numbers and they were great about grouping them into a single reservation. We were a little worried they wouldn’t be happy with us when we arrived, but instead, the front desk staff welcomed us as Platinum members (a perk of being a cardmember for Hyatt), and upgraded us to the Honeymoon Suite for all four nights at no charge!
Some final tips: Prepare for this moment by having great credit, and a good payment history with your existing cards/banks. When it’s time to start applying, submit all of your applications in a single day. Banks will not often see new applications within a 24-hour period and you’ll have an easier time being approved for all four. Staggering your applications could risk you being declined towards the end of the process. After receiving each of your credit cards, make a date in your calendar to cancel them 8-11 months after you receive them to avoid future annual fees while also not getting flagged for scamming the award system with the card-issuer. However, if you’re like us you’ll keep the Hyatt VISA. With a free annual night awarded each anniversary, the $75.00 annual fee is more than reasonable. Additionally, you’ll carry Platinum status for any of your stays with them.
As others in the collecting-world have mentioned in their posts, this trip is just the beginning thanks to the opportunities presented by mile and point collecting. For instance, Brianna is enjoying a free business class flight to Germany, and we’ll be visiting Cancun, Orange County and Orlando this year; all at a significantly reduced cost thanks to some recent promotions. This crazy hobby has transformed our lives and allowed us the luxury of travel without breaking the bank each year.