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Everyone uses miles and points differently. Often, folks dream of cashing in huge point balances earned from the best travel credit cards for First Class tickets to Europe or Asia, or luxury hotel stays in exotic locations.
But I want to share with you my secret: About 2 years ago I discovered how I can use miles on smaller trips which have far greater value per mile than those dream vacations we often gravitate to in this hobby.
Just in 2018 alone, I have redeemed 57,500 miles for 11 flights worth a total retail value of at least $1,717. Yes, you read that right – 11 flights for only 57,500 miles total! Nine of these flights were in First Class, 2 of them in premium economy, and 1 of them in coach (which I got a $75 voucher for).
I’ll show you the tricks so that you can do it too. It’s easier than you think, and it just might change your perspective on how to use your miles and points next year!
This Is My Favorite Way to Use Miles
Because I travel so often, my friends all imagine I have a huge stockpile of airline miles. But in reality, I have far fewer than most people think. I just use them frugally and enjoy redeeming them for smaller trips, which has allowed me to travel more frequently.
Miles and points gave me the freedom this year to:
- Fly to Portland to attend a friend’s wedding
- Fly to San Francisco for a weekend event
- Fly to Las Vegas for a conference
- Fly to Seattle to visit family for Thanksgiving
- Fly to Vancouver, Canada to embark on an Alaskan glacier cruise
- Fly to San Diego just for fun on the beach
Each of these flights cost me less than what I would pay for lunch at Chipotle on a normal day (~$6 in taxes each way).
Here Are the 11 Flights I Took This Year for 57,500 Miles
While ~60,000 miles could have probably flown me to Europe and back, I instead chose to use these miles for shorter flights to visit friends and family or to get places I needed to be. Those memories are priceless.
Here is how I spent my miles this year. Note that the retail values are averages based on a coach ticket. Because I got upgraded to First Class most of the time, I could argue that these values should be higher, but I will use coach prices to keep it simple. Prices with an asterisk are fares I got on a fare sale using points (which have crazy returns).
|Flight #||Origin||Destination||Miles||Retail Value||Value per Mile||Notes|
|TOTAL||57,500||$1,717||~3 cents / mile|
|1||Salt Lake City||Portland||5,000||$139||~2.8 cents / mile||Flew up for a friend's wedding|
|2||Portland||Salt Lake City||5,000||$139||~2.8 cents / mile||Return trip from Portland|
|3||Salt Lake City||San Francisco||5,000||$156||~3.1 cents / mile||Weekend trip for half marathon race|
|4||San Francisco||Salt Lake City||5,000||$148||~3 cents / mile||Return trip from San Francisco event|
|5||Salt Lake City||Las Vegas||5,000||$119||~2.4 cents / mile||Trip for business convention|
|6||Las Vegas||Salt Lake City||5,000||$119||~2.4 cents / mile||Return trip from business convention|
|7||Salt Lake City||San Diego||5,000||$239*||~4.8 cents / mile||I wanted to get away to the beach during peak summer season and Alaska was having a fare sale, so I used points on a ticket that normally runs $239. The return flight was only $69 and I paid with cash (leaving San Diego is cheaper than flying into San Diego)|
|8||Salt Lake City||Vancouver, Canada||7,500||$181||~2.4 cents / mile||Alaskan cruise left from Vancouver|
|9||Seattle||Salt Lake City||5,000||$159||~3.2 cents / mile||Return trip after cruise (the ship dropped us off in Seattle)|
|10||Salt Lake City||Seattle||5,000||$159||~3.2 cents / mile||Visiting family for Thanksgiving|
|11||Seattle||Salt Lake City||5,000||$159||~3.2 cents / mile||Return trip from Thanksgiving|
For me, the satisfaction of being able to fly 11 times with 57,500 miles instead of just 1 flight has spread the fun of free travel around throughout the year. And it’s allowed me to enjoy the points hobby even more.
Here’s How You Can Fly Like I Do
Now I’ll show you how I managed to make this all happen. Remember as you read this that my efforts were spread across an entire year. So like trading in the stock market, these values seem low at first but add up to huge returns over the course of the year.
5,000-Mile Award Flights Are Easy to Find on Alaska Airlines
The truth is, Alaska Airlines has some of the best award flight prices I have seen. They also have really good routes on the West Coast, where I live, and are competitively priced on paid tickets. I also believe they have the best frequent flyer program out there, because it is easy to earn miles, cheap to redeem them, and elite status is easier to achieve than other airline award programs.
Alaska Airlines offers 5,000-mile award flights on short-haul routes between tons of destinations, all the time. Unlike other airlines that occasionally run award sales for cheap travel like this, like Delta’s recent award sales, Alaska Airlines offers these 5,000-mile award flights consistently.
Apart from peak travel dates or very popular route times, these 5,000-mile award flights aren’t like finding a needle in a haystack. They’re very normal rates that you can find as long as you book ~6+ weeks in advance.
Shop the Alaska Airlines Fare Sales
Another reason that I have been able to travel so much for so few miles is that I frequently shop the fare sales. Alaska Airlines runs sales nearly every week and they are very generous with their dates that apply for the sale.
What they don’t advertise is that these sale prices will often reduce the award fare for these flights. So I have been able to pick up flights that normally run $239 (or 7,500 to 10,000 miles) and are on sale for $139 or only 5,000 Alaska miles. That makes it effectively a $239 fare for just 5,000 miles (an average of ~4.7 cents per mile of value).
These great fare deals extend across the country as well. I have seen flights from Salt Lake City to Fort Lauderdale for just 7,500 Alaska Airlines miles during fare sales.
Always Check the Value
Alaska Airlines will never reduce an award fare below 5,000 miles. So if you are shopping for a flight, always check the comparative value before you book. On Alaska Airlines I rarely book a flight with miles unless I get at least 2 cents per mile. As you saw above, I have averaged ~3 cents per mile this year and gotten as high as ~4.7 cents per mile.
I’ll just pay cash for a ticket and EARN miles when I can’t get more than 2 cents per mile. If the value is really good (like 3 or 4 cents per mile) then I book it with miles to get the most return for my hard-earned rewards.
For example, I have flown to Boise several times for $49 each way, and to San Francisco for $59 each way with Alaska Airlines fare sales. In these cases, you are better off to purchase the ticket with cash, because 5,000 miles on a $49 fare is a pretty bad deal for your miles (~1 cent per mile), but an amazing deal for the cash price.
Here’s How I Get Upgraded to First Class
So far, all of these prices are for coach tickets. You might have been wondering how I was able to fly 9 out of my 11 award flights in First Class. It’s thanks to Alaska Airlines’ amazing frequent flyer program.
You Gotta Become MVP
Alaska Airlines’ elite status program is called “MVP”. As long as you can earn MVP status, you will usually have no problem getting upgraded unless the flight is very full.
There are 3 tiers of MVP status:
- MVP: 20,000 miles flown in a calendar year or 30 segments flown
- MVP Gold: 40,000 miles flown in a calendar year or 60 segments flown
- MVP Gold 75K: 75,000 miles flown in a calendar year or 90 segments flown
You can qualify with either miles or segments. I often end up qualifying based on the number of segments I fly since many of my flights are short distances.
Reaching MVP Status Is Easy
What’s amazing about Alaska Airlines compared to other airline frequent flyer programs is that they calculate miles earned based on actual miles flown, not dollars spent. This makes it easy to book discount fares to earn extra miles for cheap!
Million Mile Secrets team member Keith recently used a fare sale to get a discount ticket to Hawaii on Alaska Airlines. He flew to Hawaii and back for less than $200, and didn’t even leave the airport in Hawaii. He did this just to earn cheap Alaska Airlines miles to re-qualify for elite status before the end of the year.
I frequently do the same thing with flights to Boise when they go on sale for $49. Near the end of the year, I will fly to Boise and back (~30 minutes flight time) just to earn flight segments to complete my MVP Gold status. The whole trip takes less than 3 hours – quick enough to keep my car in short-term parking at the airport.
Getting First Class Upgrades With MVP Status
With MVP status, you get automatic First Class upgrades for most tickets when they are available. MVP members can select upgrades 48 hours in advance, while MVP Gold members can select upgrades 72 hours in advance. If a First Class upgrade is not available, then Premium Economy is almost always available.
But there is a catch! These 5,000-mile award tickets don’t qualify for automatic First Class upgrades unless you are an MVP Gold 75k member (the highest tier). But the good news is that you can get upgraded at the gate if there are seats still available at the time.
Many MVP members are business travelers, so I am very careful about the tickets I buy when booking award travel on Alaska Airlines. I will usually select flights that take off mid-day when fewer business travelers are likely to be traveling and competing for those First Class upgrades. This strategy has treated me well, because I have an 82% success rate at getting First Class upgrades on my 5,000-mile award flights this year.
All the other flights that had a full First Class cabin were able to upgrade me to premium economy, which honestly is also pretty great. They offer plenty of legroom, plus you get premium snacks and complimentary beer or wine.
There was only one flight that I didn’t get an upgrade on (my return flight from Portland) and that was simply because the plane only had one class of service. Originally I was hopeful for an upgrade, but our Boeing 737 aircraft wasn’t available due to winter storms, and Alaska Airlines used a turboprop Q400 from their partner Horizon Air to get us out of the airport.
However, I was offered a $75 voucher for the inconvenience of the flight delay so I really had nothing to complain about.
What’s the Best Way to Earn Alaska Airlines Miles?
While it’s easy to get cheap award flights on Alaska Airlines, you might be wondering how I keep stocked up on all of these miles.
Flying With MVP Status Gives You Bonus Miles
First of all I earn quite a few miles from actually flying. This is because as an MVP Gold member, I earn 100% bonus miles.
So, for example, a flight from Salt Lake City to Seattle will earn me 700 to 1,200 miles depending on the route. MVP members earn 50% bonus miles, while MVP Gold 75K members earn 125% bonus miles.
So as an MVP Gold member, a 1,200-mile trip (what I usually earn for the Salt Lake City – Portland – Seattle route) earns me 2,400 Alaska Airlines miles. This is almost halfway to a free flight on that exact same route! Crazy, huh?
Download the Mileage Plan Shopping Button
I earn a fair amount of miles from normal online shopping thanks to the Alaska Airlines shopping button. This makes it so easy to earn bonus miles online for purchases I am already making anyway.
The button will pop up whenever you are on a site that supports Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan shopping. You simply press the button to activate it and then checkout as you normally would.
Last month I needed new pedals on my bike, so I looked on REI for what I needed. Alaska Airlines’ shopping button popped up to remind me that I can’t earn miles at REI, but I could earn them at Backcountry.com. I got 4 Alaska Airlines miles per $1 spent on Backcountry.com and the same item was even on sale at Backcountry!
On top of that, Alaska Airlines had a shopping special where you could earn another 500 bonus miles for spending $150 or more on the site. I added some clearance shoes I found to my cart and the total came to $168, which was enough to qualify for the bonus.
I earned 1,172 Alaska Airlines miles for my $168 purchase ($168 x 4 miles per $1 + 500 mile bonus). That is 23% of my way to a free flight!
Use a Card That Earns Miles
Of course, the absolute easiest way to earn miles towards free flights is with welcome bonuses and spending from travel credit cards!
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Card earns Alaska Airlines miles directly. You’ll get:
- 3 Alaska Airlines miles per $1 spent with Alaska Airlines
- 1 Alaska Airlines miles per $1 spent on everything else
- 1 free checked bag while traveling with Alaska Airlines (for you and up to 6 passengers on the same reservation)
- Alaska Airlines Companion Fare each year for $121+ ($99 plus fees from $22)
- Annual fee of $75 (not waived the first year)
You also earn a welcome bonus of 30,000 Alaska Airlines miles after spending $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening. You also get your first companion fare for free (just pay taxes) when you meet the same minimum spending requirement.
Another way to earn miles is by transferring Marriott points earned with cards like the Marriott Rewards® Premier Plus Credit Card to Alaska Airlines. Transfers are at a 3:1 ratio, but if you transfer 60,000 Marriott points (equal to 20,000 Alaska Airlines miles), they’ll add a bonus 15,000 Marriott points (worth 5,000 Alaska Airlines miles) during the transfer. So for every 60,000 Marriott points you can earn 25,000 Alaska Airlines miles.
I tend to spread most of my spending between the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature card and my Chase Sapphire Reserve card. I really like using my Chase Ultimate Rewards points to transfer to Hyatt for hotel stays, or to have flexible points that I can transfer other airlines when Alaska Airlines flights simply don’t make sense. For example, I’ve had great luck getting good deals on international flights by redeeming points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal at 1.5 cents per point or transferring them to United Airlines at a 1:1 ratio.
While the Alaska Airlines card doesn’t offer much in terms of perks, I do get a lot of value from the miles I earn with it. While 1 mile per $1 spent doesn’t sound like a lot, that has given me a 3% (3 cents per $1) return this year, which is pretty good. I still do prefer the bonus categories offered by my other cards and rotate my spending on them as I need more points in various reward programs.
I have used 57,500 Alaska Airlines miles to earn $1,717 worth of free flights this year. And I will do it again next year!
My favorite way to use miles is for everyday flights where I earn higher per-mile value. I was able to average ~3 cents per mile of value this year by carefully selecting which flights I wanted to pay for with miles, versus which I was willing to pay cash for. With MVP Gold status, I also enjoyed free First Class upgrades on most of my flights, making them even better.
By using miles in this way, I was able to spread the joy of earning free flights throughout the entire year and appreciate the miles and points hobby more than ever before.
Does anyone else prefer to use miles and points for smaller trips? I’d love to hear about your successes in the comments!