There's not many bona fide frequent flyer programs in which Canadians can easily earn and redeem points. Aeroplan is of course the primary example, as the chief frequent flyer program of Air Canada (though not for long). WestJet Rewards also figures in the conversation, but its lack of airline partners make it tough to extract great value from the program.
There's one frequent flyer program that most Canadians aren't aware of, and yet from which many could stand to benefit. I'm talking, of course, about Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. With easy ways to earn points and truly outstanding redemption opportunities – some of the best around – Mileage Plan is a program every Canadian traveller should have on their radar.
Alaska Airlines is one of the few American airlines that issues a Canadian credit card, which is intriguing since they fly to fewer Canadian airports than any of United, American, or Delta.
The MBNA Alaska Airlines World Elite MasterCard offers 25,000 Mileage Plan miles upon spending $1,000 in the first three months. The annual fee is $75, but this is partially offset by signing up for the card through Great Canadian Rebates, which gives you $60 back. Therefore, the net cost is $15, and for 25,000 miles that's unbeatable value.
You used to be able to get multiple MBNA Alaska cards at once, though that's no longer possible. You can, however, cancel your card and reapply to attain the signup bonus again, and this can help you rack up lots of Alaska miles.
Another way to earn miles is through Starwood Preferred Guest: Mileage Plan is one of SPG's airline transfer partners, which means that 20,000 Starpoints can be transferred into 25,000 miles (keeping in mind the 5,000 mile per 20,000 Starpoints transferred bonus).
Even more, since Starpoints transfer to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, you can potentially leverage the more favourable transfer ratio of Marriott Rewards's Nights and Flights redemption opportunity, which allows you to turn your points into airline miles and hotel certificates. My friend PointsNerd has done far more justice to this topic than I ever could, so click here to read his take on it.
Lastly, you can of course earn miles by flying on Alaska Airlines or their partner airlines. Despite their name, the airline's primary hub is in Seattle, from which they fly to Vancouver and Calgary. Click here to see the earnings charts.
Here's where things get fun: Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is just such a unique program when it comes to redeeming points.
Because its partnerships with other airlines are based on individual partner agreements, rather than being a part of an alliance (like Star Alliance or OneWorld), Mileage Plan offers a lot more versatility than your average frequent flyer program.
However, the downside of this is twofold: awards with different partner airlines are priced differently, and you can't mix and match partners on the same award ticket.
That means that if you wanted to redeem Alaska miles for travel on Cathay Pacific, you can't include segments on American Airlines on the same ticket. You can only mix partner flights with segments on Alaska Airlines itself.
The other killer perk of Mileage Plan is that stopovers on one-way awards are allowed, which supercharges the versatility of the program by a huge margin.
Since there's no universal award chart, bookmark this page to see the mileage requirements for your intended trip, sorted by geographic regions and airline. And with the basics out of the way, let's run through some of the best sweet spots in Alaska's partner award charts.
Naturally, the best value will be derived from the highest echelons of award travel: premium cabin flights on outstanding airlines. The prime examples of these are Cathay Pacific, Japan Airlines, and Emirates.
A one-way trip from North America to Asia on Cathay Pacific goes for 50,000 miles in Business Class and 70,000 miles in First Class. This includes a free stopover in Hong Kong.
The funny thing is that a one-way trip from the US to Africa is also 70,000 miles in First Class. While Cathay Pacific no longer operates First Class on the Hong Kong–Johannesburg segment, an extra 12-hour flight in business class for no additional mileage cost isn't bad at all.
On Japan Airlines (JAL), a one-way trip from North America to Asia also begins at only 70,000 miles in First Class. The regions are defined as follows:
- Asia: Japan, India, South Korea
- Southeast Asia: China, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam
Funnily enough, India is grouped with Japan and Korea in the cheaper "Asia" region despite being more far-flung than somewhere like China or Hong Kong. Needless to say, there's no better way to get to India than JAL First for just 70,000 miles and a stopover in Tokyo.
From a Canadian perspective, it's unfortunate that most of Cathay and JAL's North American routes are to the United States. Indeed, Cathay Pacific's Hong Kong–Vancouver is the only flight configured with First Class (as is the Vancouver–New York fifth freedom flight, which also offers fantastic value).
If you live in Vancouver or Calgary, you can combine your long-haul flight with segments on Alaska Airlines to the US gateway airport of your choice. Otherwise, you'll have to book positioning flights separately in order to experience premium class travel on Cathay Pacific or JAL.
Intra-Asia travel on these airlines is also tremendously valuable, at just 22,500 miles and 25,000 miles respectively for business class, one-way. "One-way" is also very loosely defined. For example, Singapore–Tokyo–Jakarta is considered a "one-way". And keep in mind that you can stop in Tokyo for as long as you want... lots of good value there!
Prior to March 2016, redeeming awards on Emirates First Class was also an amazing use of Mileage Plan miles. Unfortunately that was brutally devalued overnight without any warning, and the mileage requirements now are pretty steep. Still, it's a way to experience the famously ritzy "shower in the sky" product if you have enough miles.
There's a few other partner airlines worth mentioning. Korean Air can be redeemed via Mileage Plan, but only in business class, not first class, and with blackout dates specified.
Air France business class is also attainable in theory, though from what I've seen availability is extremely sparse.
Fiji Airlines is an intriguing partner: they fly to some islands in the Pacific Ocean that can't otherwise be reached on miles, and you can also have a free stopover in Fiji to round out your trip. This can also be an interesting way to get to Australia or New Zealand.
Lastly, Hainan Airlines is a nifty partner to have and can open up many routes to Asia, especially in light of their new business class product on their 787s.
In economy class, sweet spots are everywhere as well. Flying American Airlines to South America starts at just 17,500 miles one-way! For travel to countries other than Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela (i.e., "Deep South America"), the price is 30,000 miles one-way, which is still incredible value.
Lastly, the award charts for Alaska's own flights is distance-based, which can offer incredible value. For example, flights from Vancouver or Calgary to Seattle are just 5,000 miles one-way, which is perfect for cheap weekend trips. I really wish there were similarly cheap award prices for those of us on the east coast!
When you're ready to book Alaska awards, look no further than PointsNerd's top-notch step-by-step guides, which will tell you everything you need to know about booking awards with Cathay Pacific, JAL, Hainan, and more.
Before I end this guide, I just wanted to share something I learned while researching Alaska: between 1991 and 1998, they used to fly to multiple airports in the Russian Far East from Anchorage. Unlikely though it may be, it'd be pretty cool if they resumed those flights, since that's a part of the world I'd love to visit someday.
Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is just so easy to get excited about. WIth a co-branded Canadian credit card offering easy earning opportunities, endless award pricing sweet spots, and the ability to add a stopover on a one-way journey, the program should absolutely be considered world-class. While it's a little more favourable for Canadians living in the West than the East, any Canadian traveller making use of both Alaska Mileage Plan and Aeroplan will have the world at their fingertips.