There’s no good way to spin today’s awful news (which I fist saw on One Mile at a Time) about the Alaska Mileage Plan devaluation for travel on Emirates. As my stash of Alaska miles went from four business class tickets to Africa down to two, it just hurts. But I think it also points to a fundamental rule around all loyalty programs that I’ve been writing about and recommending for a long time:
Before you bother to earn a bunch of points in a given program, learn about what it’s going to take to redeem those points, as well as how to use the rules of that program to your advantage.
Here are some examples in posts of mine:
Why the conventional wisdom about Chase’s best credit card program is all wrong for many of us.
Learning by doing – there’s no substitute for practice!
Travel booking fire drill: Are you ready?
One of several posts on booking Southwest points travel at the lowest possible rates.
Making the most of the ‘excess’ AA miles that some of us have had.
Pitfalls to avoid, some of which only apply to families.
Unfortunately, in a space where the lines between advise and selling are often very blurry at best, we see far too many rah-rah-look-at-my-shower-in-the-plane-you-can-do-this-too-if-you-click-these-three-links-it’s-easy!!!! posts that pay little or no attention to the dangers and difficulties involved. Not to pick on Jesse, but an example of this on Loophole Travel gives these specific steps:
Step 1: Acquire 25,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles (per person) by applying for one or more of three credit cards.
Step 2: Create a Korean Air Skypass Account
Step 3: Find Award Seats on Delta
Step 4: Call Korean Airlines to Hold Your Itinerary
Step 5: Transfer Points to Korean Air Skypass Miles
Step 6: Submit the Award Application Form
Step 7: Complete the Open Jaw(optional)
It’s a very-well written post, nice and concise, and it spells out the steps of booking nicely. But, um, apply for credit card(s) assuming that Delta low-level space will be available on dates that work for you? In both directions? You’re kidding, right?! If we move step one down to step three or four, after having digested the whole process and learned about Korean’s policy on booking only for immediate family members, and applying for totally unnecessary passports, and navigating Delta award space, then I’d be totally on board with that post. But the ‘get miles first, figure them out later’ approach just sets people up for failure!
But there are too many wrinkles and rules in too many programs to learn them all!
Indeed there are. But know the common ones for any of these programs that you use. Please! And put them to use.
- Alaska Airlines offer free cancellations and changes up to 60 days before departure, with the exception of the $12 partner booking fee for cancelled travel on partner airlines. There’s little or no reason for families working around set school schedules to not book as the schedule opens. Oh, and today’s Emirates devaluation is highly unlikely to be the last of Alaska’s changes! If you just lost your planned trip to South Africa, Asia or Australia on Emirates with Alaska miles, stop reading, go search for Cathay Pacific space, and get on the phone to Alaska!
- American Airlines offers 5-day holds on awards. If you see a seat that you might, just maybe if all the stars align perfectly, want, put it on hold! Do not call anyone, do not ask anything, do not try to figure out which account you’re going to use, do not split your party up into two or more tickets by holding from multiple accounts, do not think about anything. Just log in (or call for partners that don’t show up at aa.com), and put all the seats you want on hold. You then have five days to sort out all of those details, split up as needed based on your mileage balances, etc. If you overthink it and try to get everything just right, you may miss out on the seats. Or you may run into partners who adjust award inventory on the fly, as I’ve written about here for Fiji Airways. Points With a Crew also ran into this problem with Qantas seats. Keep it simple, hold now and hold all in one reservation!
- American Airlines also offers free date changes on all-oneworld itineraries, as long as the origin and destination stay the same. Use AA miles if the trip is a sure thing but the dates may have to change!
- ANA allows you to pay their award cancellation fee with miles, at just 3,000 miles per ticket.
- British Airways charges a fee that is the lesser of either $55 or the taxes paid, if you cancel online at least 24 hours before departure. This means that cancelling award flights within the U.S. and other places where taxes are low costs only $6 or so per ticket, each way. If there’s a trip on AA or Alaska that isn’t a sure thing, consider using BA Avios if possible!
- Delta offers a 24-hour cancellation for trips that originate in the U.S., and I think they have extended that to all award bookings. Can someone who has cancelled a one-way award flight booked with Delta miles originating outside the U.S. confirm? If or when space opens up, book and sort out details within 24 hours!
- Korean offers a weeklong hold on partner awards, even longer for flights on Korean. They also offer free cancellations and changes, which is awesome. However, you do have to jump through all of their account setup hoops first, and deal with a very cumbersome booking process. There are a host of blog posts on booking flights with Korean miles, I’d recommend reading a bunch of them as well as the Loophole Travel post linked above before making any plans around Korean miles!
- Southwest offers free cancellations and changes on all flights booked with points. There is no reason not to add their next schedule extension date to your calendar, and book speculative trips as soon as the schedule opens, until you’re out of points! We routinely book trips that are very unlikely, just to lock in the price if it does work out. Southwest is by far the most real-life-unpredictale-crazy-family airline. We love them!
- United offers free cancellations and changes for 24 hours after booking on all award travel. This is often needed when united.com chokes on a complicated (like with two stops) itinerary. If you’re watching for space and it opens up, there’s a decent chance that someone else is too! Book what you can online, call to add flights as needed, and sort out details within 24 hours before the free cancellation window closes.
Most of these airlines have more generous policies for status holders, but I’m hopeful that anyone earning status spends enough time with their program to know those rules inside and out.
I feel very sorry for @borisremes who posted this on Twitter:but those of us with families and schedules, even more than others, need to leverage those schedules along with airline policies, to avoid this plight. As we’ve seen, assuming that Christmas falls on the 25th of December again this year, Boris could and certainly should have booked a month or more ago. At very worst, he’d have been out $12 per ticket if he had to change plans!
The fact that Alaska devalued these awards with no warning right after offering a sale on purchased miles, a sale often shared by bloggers who neglect to mention that they stand to gain from this sale if you click their link to points.com (no, it’s not just credit cards that offer affiliate dollars), is sickening. And totally allowed under the rules. Please do not ever under any circumstances at any time for any reason buy miles that you don’t have an immediate use for! The only times I bought points, they were transferred or spent within minutes of hitting my account.
There are policies for other airlines that I could have included, but I’ve tried to keep this post short enough to be useful. Please feel free to chime in, and I’ll add any details that you request or point out!
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UA and of course DL suck in this area and the cancellation fees are outrageous.
Yes, they do. While I don’t want regulators poking around frequent flyer programs, I would welcome some fee caps.
Great post, Kenny.
Yo Kenny! I’m glad that you think my post is well written and concise. However, I think my wording in Step 1 may be leading to confusion that I see in this post. I do say “Acquire 25,000 Korean Air Skypass Miles,” but in the post, I talk about earning Chase UR points or SPG points. Both of these are convertible point currencies. I don’t actually tell people to transfer these to Korean Air until Step 5. At that point, you will have a fully confirmed itinerary. If you cannot find dates that work, you will never transfer the points, and you will have a balance of Chase UR or SPG points. This would allow for full flexibility. I hope this clears up any confusion. Cheers.
Thanks for replying, Jesse. Fortunately no one would be left with Korean miles by strictly following your post, and hopefully they would take a stab at the booking steps before getting too far down the road. The problem comes when those points don’t work out to get them to Hawaii when that’s what they set out for.
I’ve also been guilty at times of advocating people collect points just because points do great things for us at minimal cost. But I think the ‘get the miles first, work out the details later’ approach sets up readers who aren’t familiar with award booking for failure, and we need to turn it around!
Great post! Thank you for the details.