Alaska Airlines has launched its new unified partner award chart. Unfortunately, they have set it up to easily institute dynamic pricing, which leads me to expect frequent stealth devaluations. That’s almost worse than if they had just launched a single devalued chart with predictable values. I’m not enthusiastic at all about this change, but for now some awards remain good values — some even better than the award chart suggests.
The new Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan Award Chart
Alaska long had separate award charts for each partner that varied by the regions you were connecting. They have now unified pricing for all partners and two award charts. One chart is for awards within North America:
The second award chart is for pricing between North America and other regions:
These unified partner award charts should represent pricing across partners and I believe that it will be possible to combine partners on a single award, though I don’t think that capability exists yet.
Initial (negative) impressions of the new charts
Several things stand out to me about the new charts that make me really disappointed with Alaska Mileage Plan. I should note that I’m not surprised, but I am nonetheless disappointed.
The first and most obviously problematic part of these charts is that they reflect pricing “starting from” the numbers in the chart. That’s a bummer because it means we could literally see awards price at any amount in the future. This type of chart eliminates transparency and makes it impossible to set expectations as to how much an award should cost. Some partners can not be booked online. Under this award chart, I guess that the only way to know the cost of an award that cannot be booked online is to call and ask an agent? Will it be necessary to have them price one day after another to see which day is a better value? I expect that we won’t yet see day-to-day price variance, but it will be hard to know without a more clearly defined chart.
I imagine that many partner awards will likely stay around previous rates for now, with partners like Qatar still having exorbitantly expensive awards and partners like Cathay Pacific offering great value for the time being, but over the long haul I imagine that Alaska will flex the flexibility of an award chart with little transparency and chip away at the standout value awards.
Speaking of Cathay Pacific, one specific devaluation that stood out to me on the new chart is flying Cathay Pacific beyond Asia. Previously, awards on Cathay Pacific to Africa, India, South Asia, and the Middle East were 62,500 miles in business class or 70K miles in first class (full stop: there was no variable pricing). Now, according to the award chart, an award to Africa will start from 70K in business or 85K in first, an increase of 12-21% at minimum according to the new award chart. The Indian subcontinent also sees a devaluation there according to the chart.
I am further disappointed by the line at the bottom of the international award chart. It says:
For award levels to and from points outside of the US and Canada, search for your desired destination and dates to view pricing.
Wow. They aren’t even going to try to publish what awards between other regions should cost — you just get what you get when you search. While that may be standard operating procedure for those using Delta SkyMiles to book award tickets, I find that very disappointing from Alaska. I am sure that the vast majority of members are booking flights to and from the United States, but now that they have joined a worldwide alliance, I’d certainly want to entertain the possibility of connecting foreign regions on award tickets. It is unfortunate that they won’t publish an award chart to do that. Also keep in mind that “Award flights with both an origin and destination outside of the US and Canada must be booked at least 72 hours before the departure time.” — so if you’re stranded overseas with a cancelled flight, don’t expect to use Alaska Mileage Plan to save your trip unless you’re willing to hang around for an extra 3 days.
Finally, lap infant tickets continue to be problematic with Alaska. You have always been on your own to figure out lap infant travel if you use Alaska miles for partner awards, with Alaska saying that you’d have to contact the operating carrier (and many operating carriers saying that you’d need to contact Alaska). If you thought they would change that now that they belong to a major international alliance where (I think?) all other members of the alliance have a policy for ticketing lap infant tickets, you’d be wrong. Here’s what the new award chart has to say about lap infant award tickets:
We are no longer able to guarantee that lap infants will be accepted with your international partner award ticket. Until further notice, Mileage Plan members will need to book seats for infants at the standard mileage rate on international partner award bookings. For travel wholly within the US, or wholly on Alaska Airlines, standard lap infant policies apply.
I know that at many people would rather have their infant in his or her own seat for safety reasons, but you can’t strap a car seat into most international business class seats and some airlines won’t even allow an infant to sit in a full-sized seat alone, but Alaska will put you on the hook to pay for a seat even if you ultimately won’t be able to use it. In reality, I imagine that some partners will agree to ticket an infant as a lap infant even if you booked your adult seats via Alaska, but I’m nonetheless unpleasantly surprised that Alaska still hasn’t created a single policy to book lap infant tickets.
Positive(ish?) notes about the new Alaska Mileage Plan award chart
If I’m reaching for positives here, I guess the first one is that they didn’t publish a clearly awful devaluation with much higher prices than before. We could have seen a new award chart that obliterated all hope of hanging on to some of the best values of years past (like 50K business class between Asia and the US on Cathay Pacific or 55K one-way in business class to Australia with a stopover in Fiji on the way). They still left a glimmer of hope that we’ll be able to find deals like those. But that glimmer is dulled by the fact that they may add five or ten or fifteen or twenty thousand miles on top of those awards without notice (and without being noticed).
The other sort of positive thing is that the award chart is still kind of meaningless. Alaska says so right in the partner award terms and conditions with this line (bold is mine for emphasis):
The ‘starting at’ amount represents the estimated minimum award prices on one or more of our partner airlines. We cannot guarantee available inventory at these award levels for your desired dates or itinerary.
So the award chart is just a set of estimates – those “starting from” prices aren’t really where awards start. For instance, awards between North America and South America are estimated to start at 25K in economy class and 45K in business class. That might be true on some flights like the LATAM one in the screen shot below (taken this morning), but see the American Airlines flight below it that prices at 20K in economy and 30K in business class for confirmation that estimates are, well, estimated.
I hate to be annoyed that awards price below what the award chart suggests — that would ordinarily be a welcome find (and truthfully, I don’t want to see American Airlines awards between North America and norther South America to increase in price by 50% as the award chart suggests). But in this case, it just reinforces that Alaska will charge whatever they want and it’ll be hard to know what the best price ought to be. The flip side though is that, for now, there are likely other sweet spots that remain despite the award chart suggesting otherwise. Hopefully we will see these sweet spots remain as long as possible, though if I had to choose between a system where we have no idea how much awards will cost and one where awards are a bit more expensive but we can know what we’ll get with the 60K mile bonus on their credit card, I’d rather know what I’m going to get for the miles I’m collecting.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan had been promising to release a unified award chart by the end of 2022. They finally have released that unified award chart, but in my opinion it is largely meaningless since it only shows the estimated minimum price of an award — which means that it does not actually represent the minimum award price and it does not at all establish a maximum award price for any of its partners. That makes it really hard to predict what you’re going to be able to do with your miles and makes collecting Alaska miles a questionable proposition in 2023 and beyond. In the short term, I expect that we’ll likely still see some very good values for Alaska miles, but in the long term it will likely only become more difficult to know what you’ll be able to book and for how much if they maintain this “estimated” pricing structure on partner award tickets for the long haul.