Using Miles or Points to Fly to Alaska

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Last week I posted my excitement about the idea of booking tickets to Anchorage.  The deals from all over the country were very good (and may still be, but I’m writing this post in advance), the weather in Texas is sweltering right now, and there is no denying the beauty of Alaska.  I have never been to Alaska, and it is very much on the list of places I want to visit.  From Houston, round trip tickets on United to Anchorage were selling for around $400 each on various dates through the end of the schedule next July.  This is well below what tickets normally sell for, and some other cities around the country were even in the $250 – $350 range.  I need advance notice for such a big trip, so I threw a few tickets on hold for June 2014 and made a plan to chat with my husband about it when he got home that night.  In the meantime, I did a little research to see some of the activities we could do as a family while we are there.

Getting to Alaska on Miles:

Alaska can be a heck of a deal on airline miles since in many traditional programs it is the same price in miles to fly to Alaska as it is to say, Nebraska.  For example, with United it would only cost me 25,000 United miles for an economy round-trip ticket to Alaska, if I could find availability.  Availability on United from Houston to Anchorage next summer is pretty terrible so far, but availability for the next few months ranges from decent to good.  So, for many of you, I would recommend just using miles to their fullest and head far north.

Deciding to buy tickets:

However, in our specific situation the revenue tickets made more sense.  Even at $400 per ticket, the return per mile if we flew on award tickets would not be terrible at 1.6 cents per mile, but it is below the 2 cents per mile I like to get for my United miles.  I also like to earn some elite qualifying miles throughout the year as I leverage my elite status for the whole family when we travel.  This saves me real money, makes our travel more comfortable, and does factor into the equation for my family, though I know it does not for all families.

Even if you just consider the value of the redeemable miles earned, that will be about 13,000 redeemable miles earned on my ticket due to the 100% bonus from being 1K with United (which I should be by next year).  Those miles are worth close to $260 by themselves, so that makes buying the $400 ticket less painful.  Even if I didn’t have elite status, I would be earning about $130 worth of United miles on the ticket.

Finally, because of my elite status, I will have some regional upgrades I can apply to this ticket so that we can fly the 8-ish hours each way in first class.  It is just domestic first class, but at least it is a step above coach.  That is just about as long of a flight as it takes for me to get to Europe, so I would prefer to not do it in coach.

While we are on the topic I want to mention two other good ways to get to Alaska if Alaska Airlines happens to servesyour airport.  The first is using the $99 companion ticket that comes with the Alaska Airlines credit card (buy one ticket, get the second for $99 + tax/fees).  The second is to book on Alaska Airlines via Korean Airlines.  You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards to Korean and then take advantage of their award chart that charges just 20,000 RT for a domestic ticket on Alaska Airlines.  You can even get a free stopover with Korean.  I have not booked via Korean yet myself, but here is a little more info about the process.  I hope that my own parents use their Ultimate Reward points in that manner in the next couple of years.Korean Chart Mommy Points

Bringing $1200 in tickets down to $700:

Even though I made the decision that buying the tickets made the most sense for us, that didn’t mean I was happy about spending $1,200 for the three of us to go.  Good deal or not, that is a bunch of money.  To make it sting a bit less, we decided use 40,000 of the points my husband got with his Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®.  These points are worth $400 toward travel expenses like airfare in the form of a statement credit.  So, we just used the Barclay card to pay for his ticket and then we will redeem the sign-up bonus points he got to essentially make his ticket “free”.  Sure we had to spend $1,000 on the card to get the bonus points, but the annual fee was waived the first year and we would have spent that $1,000 anyway.  So, he gets a ticket to Alaska, and both elite qualifying and redeemable miles earned on the ticket.  Right there we dropped our out-of-pocket cost for the three tickets from $1200 to $800.

He also has an Amex Platinum Mercedes Benz card where United is his airline selection for the year.  This means that he has a $200 airline credit allowance for miscellaneous United charges for the calendar year.  This is supposed to be for things like bag fees, on-board snacks/drinks, etc. but some do report being surprised with reimbursments for gift certificate purchases, up to $200 annually.  No guarantees this will work for you, but it has in the past.  A potentially “free” $100 gift card from a credit card we already had brought us down to $700 out-of-pocket for the three tickets.  Though this card does have a hefty annual fee, so don’t get it just for the airline fee credits. 

Using points for hotels:

While we do plan to get out of Anchorage for a few days, we will also likely have a couple of nights of a hotel stay in Anchorage.  I’ve just started looking at options (so please share if you have suggestions), but I see there is a Sheraton in Anchorage that goes for 7,000 SPG points per night.  The current rates for our nights are about $250/night, so at about 3.5 cents in value per redeemed point, that would be a good use of SPG points that we mainly got from obtaining and using our SPG Amex.  I’m sure rates will fluctuate, but knowing we could lock in a points reservation now as a back-up is a good thing.  Our approach to travel these days is often a combination of points and cash, but being able to limit the damage to our wallet by having some hotel nights on points is a very good thing!

We certainly could have planned to get the three of us to Alaska in economy for 75k United miles or on Alaska for 60k Ultimate Reward points via Korean (pending availability), but in our case using some fixed-value points, leveraging elite status, and bringing the cost of the tickets down to a reasonable level was the right thing for our situation.  This will be my first trip to Alaska, but from what I hear it is worth the trip, however you get yourself there!

 

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Comments

  1. No expert here but it seems like you can get enough miles on Alaska via the BofA card with fee but no spend. I have it and have miles there but I’m only trying to get from STL to SEA so I haven’t researched ANC.
    Also my understanding is you can use Avios for Alaska flights.

  2. Summer, I can tell you all about hotels in the Anchorage area. For an Alaskan beginner, I suggest the Hilton hotel in downtown Anchorage for its views and easy access to a lot of activities, but let me know exactly what you are looking for.

    Glenn

  3. We have done Alaska several times. We chose to use our southwest companion pass to fly to Seattle and then Alaska air using British miles to several Alaska ports. It can be set up to get a stop over in Juneau Ketchikan, Sitka or glacier bay. We love Alaska!

  4. My husband and I have been twice (pre-kids) and rate Alaska as one of our favorite destinations. For something a little different, check out the musk ox farm a short drive out of Anchorage in Palmer.

  5. Within the Local Anchorage area:
    Rent a car
    Exit Glacier is easy to reach and interesting
    Chugach State Park is a true wilderness right next to the city – with trails and mountains and glaciers etc.
    Homer – if you like fishing

    Take the Alaska railroad to Denali and then on to Fairbanks

    Choices of overnight staying is limited in Denali can be expensive but you would not want to overlook this part of the trip because of room rates.
    If you are into overnight camping plan ahead as there are lots of rules in Denali – but it is worth it!
    If not, one day will be enough. Most of the summer the mountain is covered in clouds so go with the expectation that the day you are there it may not be visible.
    Rent a car in Fairbanks
    Visit U of Alaska center for the study of Northern Lights
    The U also has a farm on campus where there are musk ox to visit.
    Drive out to the Alaska Oil pipeline about 30 minutes away. Cruise the Yukon River.
    Fly home from Fairbanks, or reverse the order of the trip

    Panhandle Alaska: Seward is the best. Plan on a brief train into the Yukon and back.
    Haines is neat if you have time to ride the Alaska Marine Ferry system. Great Salmon food there and lots of eagles and maybe bears.
    Juneau for visiting the Mendenhall (sp) glacier.

  6. Delta Skymiles can also be redeemed on Alaska and also have a free stopover, although the rate is 25k miles, not 20k. Still I’d rather burn skymiles than UR points so I consider it a better option than using Korean.

  7. I’ll be flying from San Diego to Juneau early next month. I was able to use my BA Avios (transferred from my Amex card with the last transfer bonus) to book the SEA-JNU leg for 7500 miles. Flying to Juneau is more expensive than Anchorage all else being equal, but that saved me the majority of the ticket cost. 🙂

  8. I think DaninSTL is on to something. You can get 30,000 Alaska Miles just for being approved, miles show up in your account even before you receive the card in the mail. Then you do the buy 1 get one for $118 (price after tax). That should bring your cost way down.

  9. There’s nothing wrong with the Sheraton in Anchorage but do keep in mind that it’s a little bit out of the way. If you want to use points and be closest to downtown, choose the Hilton. If you’re renting a car – and really, you need to – the Sheraton won’t be so bad.

    Do make sure you make time for the Tony Knowles Coastal Trail. You can eat an amazing breakfast at Snow City Cafe, rent bikes, then go down the trail. I don’t remember if the bike rental places have an attachment for young kids, but I assume so. If you go a few miles down the trail to the southwest of where you’ll likely start, there is an outcropping where you can look over the bay and the incoming planes go just over your head – it seems like you can reach up and touch them. Very cool.

  10. I had trip to AK in June, LAX-SEA(stop for 2 days)-ANC(Stop for three days)-SLC-DTW-ROA, 32500 Delta points + 10 USD cash! Thought it was a good redemption. But my friend just used Priceline Name ur Own Price to go there last week, the total for a return ticket to ANC from WAS was only 400+. Is it that cheap? It’s so amazing!

  11. My favorite hotel in Anchorage for family travel is the Residence Inn, if you’ll have a rental car (which you should). The Sheraton location on the outskirts of downtown is not great, but it’s not terrible either; it would be fine for a night or two.

    But spend most of your time away from Anchorage. if you only have a few days, pick one direction: south, the Kenai peninsula, for Seward and Homer, for beautiful boat excursions; or north, to Denali, to see animals in Denali Natl. Park, which involves a day-long bus trip, in addition to the 5 hour drive to get there (so it requires at least 2 nights in the Denali area). Don’t underestimate the driving distances and plan too many destinations, or you’ll spend your whole trip in the car.

    Although I took my kids on the Denali park bus when they were very young, I’d recommend doing that trip when C is older. Instead, I’d drive South to Homer, take a boat trip across Kachemak bay to Seldovia or Halibut Cove; and then drive to Seward, where there’s a SeaLife Center and boat trips to the Kenai fjords, usually with whale sightings.

  12. Hotel Alyeska in Girdwood might be worth the cost for a few nights. Amazing Gondola, fabulous restaurant at the top. They can arrange anything. They took us rock climbing. In Seward, your daughter would love the sea life center with Puffins and octopus and lots of salmon. A fjord cruise is always fun with lots of sea life (we saw Humback whales, dolphins, puffins, eagles, jellyfish, otter, bear) and calving glaciers. Outside of Homer we did a 4×4 jeep that you drive yourself on a route with a guide in his own jeep up front. You drive the route of the kid from “Into the Wild”. We saw moose and had great reindeer stew (tell your daughter it’s caribou).

  13. When coming to Alaska, I always suggest renting a car. By far the best things to see in Alaska are outside of Anchorage. I always like to take visitors to Talkeetna, small town north of Anchorage where you can go flight seeing Mt. Mckinley. Or Seward, beautiful drive south of Anchorage.

  14. Outside of Anchorage and Fairbanks, there aren’t many places to use hotel points as the establishments in the smaller towns are locally owned. I wouldn’t spend more than one night in Anchorage….if that. I ran out of things of interest to me in a just a couple of hours. I second taking C south to the Seward area to cruise the Kenai, do the sea life center etc ….it’s about 2 hours south of Anchorage as I recall and a beautiful drive.

    FWIW I stayed at the Crown Plaza, on the south side of town as I recall. Perfectly adequate, nothing special….but then I didn’t need anything special either. One shouldn’t spend any time in a hotel when they’re in Alaska!

  15. Dan, yes to both. That would be a ton of Avios from Texas, but certainly can be done!
    Glenn, thanks for your suggestion and we certainly are Alaska beginners.
    Kevin, love the CP for positioning. Well done!
    Up and Away, an ox farm – how fun!
    Chuck, wow, that is a very impressive list. We will save your list for this trip and future trips. 😉
    choi, it would be the lower level with Alaska then you would call Korean.
    Jim, this will be our first time doing it, but my understanding is you don’t have to have enough to cover it, you can just do it in $25 increments toward the total charge.
    DBest, that can be a good use for sure!
    Chris, sounds like a great plan!
    Grant, that would be a very good plan indeed.
    Cindy, thanks for the suggestions. We will have a car and just plan to stay in Anchorage for a portion of the trip. 😉
    Ray, that does sound like a good price – lots of good deals recently to ANC!
    AAL, thanks for the suggestions!
    precia, that all sounds like a great time!
    Amanda, we will absolutely have a car. I can’t imagine anyone coming to Alaska and not renting a car! That would be super frustrating. 😉
    Darcy, we only plan to stay in ANC a night or two as well and hope to spend as much time outdoors as possible!

  16. I suggest seeing Denali and skipping Fairbanks (I went there; didn’t find much of interest). Also fully agree the Panhandle (Juneau, Haines, Skagway and points south) is fascinating (when the weather is good, it is one of the most beautiful areas in the world).

    Also note that fall comes early (one of my trips was in early August; leaves were already turning).

    June may be a little early (mosquitos – the Alaska state bird); suggest July for a more comfortable visit.

  17. As a 10 year Anchorage resident with a young child, I thought I might have something to add. First, there are two places everyone should see if you have a week. The first is Denali, the second is a day cruise in Seward (and not the lame short ones that stay in the bay). If you have to pick and you have a kid that means rent a car and go to Seward. The sea life center is pretty good, and Exit Glacier is in town. There is also a holiday inn express with a pool. The drive down is epic. If you like to fish the halibut charters are pretty good. The silver salmon later in the summer can be crazy too. Denali is also good but a bit more difficult with kids. The bus system actually works pretty well, but there aren’t any chain hotels at the entrance. We usually stay at the slums in Heally which is 10 miles north. There is absolutely no need to go further into the park than the Eielson Visitor center. All the good stuff is between Teklanika and Eielson. The view doesn’t change after Eielson to Wonder Lake but only slightly. Plus the chances of seeing anything but moose plummets. So that is good news for kids-half way in and back out. We usually ride in and scout the situation and then dropped off and hike somewhere on the way back (there are no trails, but the wide river valleys and tundra areas are still good). Then catch the next bus back when you are done. But at Denali that is about all there is- no pool, no glacier, no sea life center. And it’s a 4-5 hour drive. Seward is only 2.5 hours. I’ll try to wrap this up- rent a car and get out of Anchorage. The best hike on the road system is the crow pass trail from the girdwood side to raven glacier. Fairbanks is a complete waste of time. There is nothing in Southeast that can’t be more easily achieved in Seward. Do consider driving to the Matanuska glacier and hiking out on it. Epic and safe- we’ve gone every year since the kid was 3. Awesome and unforgettable – you can get a guide but you don’t really need one. 2 hour drive. If you want off the beaten path, Nome is fantastic. Rent a car and drive any of the 3 90 mile roads out of town. 9000 Avios. Way more “wildernessy” than anything in Southcentral. Ok, I’ll stop now.

  18. MP- We are leaving for Alaska on a cruise in a week and I just finished writing a post on why Alaska is a hot destination to save money and includes 12 money saving tips. We are doing a cruise from Vancouver to Anchorage. http://www.toptravelista.com/node/48

    If you are thinking about doing a Glacier tour in Whitter get the Alaska TourSavers book for a 2 for 1 coupon on the Major Marine Tour. Great way to save money.

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