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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.
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!