There’s been some drama with Alaska Mileage Plan over the past week or so, and it seems that the folks running the loyalty program have finally woken up to the loose routing rules that have been hidden in plain sight for many years. As a result, Alaska has implemented an overnight devaluation to remove the ability to have a stopover on an intra-Asia award on any of their partner airlines.
If you search for Asia to Asia redemptions on Alaska’s zonal award chart, you’ll see that a 10th footnote has been sneakily added, which speaks to this negative change.
You’ll also notice that the Singapore Airlines award charts, which were only introduced around a week ago, have now changed from their original version…
…to a new version which redefines Mainland China as part of the “North Asia” geographic zone.
It does seem that this sequence of events is inextricably linked to the introduction of Singapore Airlines awards onto the Alaska search engine, so let’s have a brief recap of what happened…
Last Week: Singapore Airlines Awards Become Bookable
While the mileage requirements were generally quite high across the board, the fact that Alaska had access to wide-open Singapore Airlines premium award space, which isn’t true for any other partner airline, meant that there were still quite a few deals to be found.
In particular, China had been included as part of the “South East Asia” geographic zone, which meant that a routing like Beijing–Singapore–Bali would price at 25,000 miles one-way in business class or 35,000 miles in First Class.
You could even add a stopover in Singapore for free, which meant that routings like Guangzhou–Singapore–Hong Kong, which looks decidedly like a round-trip flight even though it prices as a one-way, would be bookable at that price point as well.
The above made for some sweet spots which felt extremely generous but not too out of the ordinary – after all, Alaska’s award chart with Japan Airlines also had similarly quirky geographic delineations, such as putting India in the same region as Korea and Japan.
Monday: Alaska Cuts Intra-Asia Stopovers on Singapore Airlines
As a reminder, Alaska operates differently from many other frequent flyer programs and negotiates individual partnerships with all their partner airlines.
For example, in the past, it was never possible to book stopovers on Cathay Pacific intra-Asia awards, but you were able to book stopovers on Japan Airlines intra-Asia awards. Similarly, it was possible to book Cathay Pacific awards from North America to Australia and Africa, whereas Japan Airlines awards were restricted to North America to Asia only, and so on.
When Singapore Airlines redemptions came online, many Alaska members were interested to see where how Singapore’s particular puzzle pieces would fall. And as I described above, intra-Asia stopovers on Singapore Airlines were indeed very much on the table at first.
That all changed sometime earlier this week, when Alaska presumably was inundated by people taking advantage of the intra-Asia stopover possibilities, and thus they tweaked a few lines of code in the background to disable the ability to have stops in Singapore for longer than 24 hours.
Problem solved. Or so they thought…
A Short-Lived Opportunity for Crazy Routings
In making that tweak, Alaska sure eliminated the ability to have Singapore stopovers, but they inadvertently created a situation where you could book unbelievably roundabout routings on Singapore Airlines as long as your connections weren’t more than 24 hours long!
Absolutely ludicrous trips like Beijing–Singapore–London–Singapore were possible for 25,000 miles in business class, because the two endpoints of the journey were both in the “South East Asia” zone.
So too was something like Bangkok–Singapore–Auckland–Singapore, or Shanghai–Singapore–Johannesburg–Singapore, or even Beijing–Singapore–Manchester (open-jaw) Zurich–Singapore.
If you wanted to sample First Class on the intra-Asia leg of the journey, or indeed if you were lucky enough to find some First or Suites space on the long legs, then you could book the whole thing for 35,000 Alaska miles, again at the intra-Asia rate.
These awards were very similar in theory to the “Emirates First Class Extravaganza” award that I had booked earlier this year, except the Singapore Airlines ones could be obtained for an incredibly cheap 25,000 to 35,000 miles, instead of the 150,000 miles it’d take to fly a roundabout routing on Emirates First Class.
Now, since you weren’t able to have a stopover anywhere along the way, these awards didn’t really make sense for anyone except people who only wanted to fly around for fun in Singapore Airlines premium cabins…
…except for the fact that you could always skip the last leg of the journey!
Indeed, at these stunningly low prices, it made sense for people based in Asia to book these awards as one-way trips to Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, or Africa and throw away the final segment. I mean, imagine paying 25,000 Alaska miles to fly Beijing–Singapore–London in business class – that’s a killer deal any day of the week!
This little trick seemed to be making the rounds on Asia-based frequent flyer forums on Monday evening, and I had a feeling that it would be dead very, very soon.
Tuesday: Alaska Fixes the Loophole…
Alas, my prediction was correct: it only took Alaska one day to notice what was presumably a flood of bookings of roundabout nonsensical routings, which could clock in at up to 16,399 flown miles if you flew one of Singapore Airlines’s premium cabins from Beijing all the way to Manchester and then back to Singapore, for only 25,000 to 35,000 miles.
Okay, so they fixed this glaring error, which was way too good to last. Fair play to Alaska. But then they went a few steps further…
…Redraws the Map…
Remember how China had been considered a part of the “South East Asia” zone at the start? Well, it seems Alaska had had enough of that as well, and decided to redefine their award charts less than a week after introducing them to put Mainland China (i.e., excluding Hong Kong and Taipei) in the same “North Asia” category as Japan and South Korea.
Arguably this is how things should’ve been from the start, but one has to wonder why on Earth the old award chart was ever used in the first place?
…and Also Cuts Intra-Asia Stopovers on Japan Airlines!
Up until now, intra-Asia stopovers on Japan Airlines made for one of the most compelling uses of Alaska miles. You could book something like Singapore–Tokyo–Kuala Lumpur for only 25,000 Alaska miles, and you could have a stopover in Tokyo as well, so that made it essentially a pseudo-round-trip with up to 14 hours of flying time in JAL’s award-winning business class.
Well, after realizing that they were getting fleeced on intra-Asia stopovers on Singapore Airlines (and after botching the repair job, creating an even larger loophole in the process, and having to clean up that mess as well), Alaska decided to take out their anger on poor Japan Airlines, removing the ability to have intra-Asia stopovers on all partner airlines entirely!
Why Did This Happen?
A well-known fact of the Miles & Points landscape is that people based in Asia are playing the game at a much, much higher level than those of us in North America. What they lack in the lucrative credit card signup bonuses we enjoy, they make up for with a keen eye for deals that bubble beneath the surface and a daring sense of initiative and willingness to try new things.
In this case, Alaska simply made it far too easy for those based in Asia to exploit the program in unintended ways. Don’t forget that the airline is currently offering a bonus on buying miles of up to 40%, meaning that you could effectively purchase Alaska miles for 2.11 US cents per mile.
When Singapore Airlines awards came online, business class and even First Class availability was wide-open on many routes.
Put yourself in the shoes, then, of a Shanghai-based business traveller: wouldn’t you be willing to effectively pay US$738.50 for 35,000 Alaska miles and fly Shanghai–Singapore–Hong Kong in Singapore Suites on your next business trip to Singapore? You’d then simply catch the high-speed train or a cheap Avios ticket to get home.
If we look at the bigger picture, I imagine that less-than-scrupulous travel agencies based out of Beijing, Shanghai, Singapore, and indeed all over Asia were salivating at the opportunities last week, since they could effectively create a bunch of dummy Alaska accounts, buy miles at a 40% bonus, and then redeem those miles for cheap Singapore premium awards which they’d then sell to their clients at a steep discount.
And when Alaska tried to plug the gap and inadvertently introduced even wilder routings into the mix, these actors would’ve been laughing all the way to South Africa.
With the 40% bonus on purchased miles, they could effectively buy a one-way business class tickets from almost anywhere in Asia to Europe, Oceania, the Middle East, and Johannesburg for US$527.50 – it was akin to an extremely generous “mistake fare” that was valid throughout the entire schedule and towards dozens of destinations around the world!
As for the intra-Asia stopover on Japan Airlines, my guess is that the folks at Alaska have tolerated this well-known sweet spot for the past few years, but have simply decided to take the opportunity to eliminate it as well in one fell swoop.
It’s a shame, but the nature of the game is that every sweet spot will meet its fate at some point, and as it turned out, the JAL intra-Asia stopover’s time elapsed this week thanks to its naughty newborn Singaporean little brother.
At the end of the day, the intra-Asia stopover was very much a niche redemption within Alaska Mileage Plan, and there remains huge value in leveraging a stopover on a one-way journey from North America to Asia and beyond, like Vancouver–Hong Kong–Johannesburg on Cathay Pacific, Seattle–Tokyo–Delhi on Japan Airlines, and Los Angeles–Singapore–Tokyo on Singapore Airlines.
Nevertheless, I find this week’s sequence of events with Alaska Mileage Plan to be a fascinating look into the inner workings of loyalty programs and redemption partnerships. Within the span of five days, a new partner airline brought about new sweet spots, then some of those sweet spots vanished, then an epic new sweet spot rose out of its ashes, then it too vanished, then a previous sweet spot that had been around for years ended up vanishing as well.
Never a dull moment in Miles & Points, is there? 😉