Out There

Using your frequent flier miles in bush Alaska

Posted in Uncategorized by Pete on September 2, 2012

More than you ever wanted to know about it!  I’m writing this as a help for people new to the Alaska bush, as a reference for how to get the most bang out of your frequent flier mile bucks.  You need to figure out how much your miles are worth.  The general rule of thumb is that they are worth about 1 cent per mile, very roughly.  People have done a lot of research about this, like this chart that concludes that the average Alaska Air award is worth .79 cents per mile.  An article with similar findings is here.  When you fly in bush Alaska you can get a lot more out of your miles than that.  If you don’t want to take the time to read this giant post, skip to the last paragraph as it’s maybe the most important part.

Everyone knows that almost everything is more expensive in the bush.  This is true for flights as well.  The lowest scheduled seat fare price from my village to Bethel (25 miles) costs $204 round trip as of August 2012.  Crazy!  To get to Anchorage you will pay north of $400 RT from Bethel unless you find an unusually low fare.  So this means you can easily pay close to $700 RT just to get to Anchorage from my village.  (On a related note, you can currently fly RT from ANC to Frankfurt Germany nonstop on Condor Air for $600, or less than it costs for me to fly home in-state)  If we happened to live in a village further from Bethel everything would just cost even more.  The price from Bethel to ScammonBay, HooperBay, or Chevak is about $500 RT, so those folks pay close to $1,000 for an advance-fare ticket to Anchorage.  If you want to fly on to Seattle, you can generally tack on $400 to $600 more for a RT flight (ANC-SEA).

One of the first things to find out is what sort of mileage plan your local bush carriers offer.  For example, in the YK Delta, Yute Air has no mileage plan but you get a $5 coupon for every flight, and you can apply it toward any future flight.  Grant Aviation offers one free one-way flight for every 4 segments you pay for.  Era Aviation has something similar, offering one free one-way flight for every 5 segments you pay for.  This can work out to a huge savings.  In my case, I can pay for the Kasigluk (KUK) to Bethel (BET) Era segments 5 times for a total of $510.  Then I can use those miles to get a free ticket on an Era KUK to ANC one way flight (passing through BET on the way) that usually costs at least $325 or so.  So the 5 paid flights each represent a savings of about $65 ($325 free flight divided by 5 paid flights = $65), meaning each paid flight’s actual cost to me is about $37 ($102 – $65 = $37).  If the mileage ticket is bought at the last minute then the savings is substantially more as last minute tickets cost a lot more $$.  None of these flight examples are contrived trips taken just to get the best deal with miles, they are all flights I make for personal or work reasons on a regular basis.

What about Alaska Air?  If you live in one of the hub communities in the bush that is served by Alaska Air, you don’t have to worry about flights to the outlying villages on bush carriers.  But remember that Alaska isn’t the only option, as airlines like Era Aviation and Pen Air and others offer flights from several hub cities in to Anchorage and Fairbanks.  I will stick with the Bethel examples as that is what I know.  The dollar amount for BET-ERA on Era and Alaska is usually about the same as they match one another for the most part.  However, the mileage plans work very differently.  I’ve already described Era Aviation’s mileage plan.  ANC-BET is 399 miles, but Alaska Air gives you a minimum credit of 500 miles.  An in-state award flight on Alaska Air is 7,500 miles for one-way, and 15,000 for RT.  Given that a one-way flight from BET-ANC is about $225 and RT is $450, that equals a value of about 3 cents per mile.  Another way of thinking about it is that for every 15 one-way Alaska Air flights between ANC and BET, you will earn a free one (15 * 500 = 7,500).  Remember that on ERA you get a free flight for every 5 segments.  Of course you can also use Alaska Air to fly far beyond Anchorage.  It costs 25,000 miles at minimum for a flight from Alaska to the lower 48.  This can be a good use of your miles if you want an expensive ticket like BET/Nome/Kotzebue/Barrow/Dutch Harbor (especially Adak!) etc to some place like Orlando, New York, Dallas, or Chicago.   Just for kicks I checked Kotzebue to Orlando in June 2013 and the RT price on Alaska Air is between $1,100 and $1,500.  Getting a “saver” award seat on these flights (25,000 miles) can be very tricky depending on the dates, but if you can do it they would be worth up to 6 cents per mile.  Adding in possible destinations Hawaii and Mexico gives another array of possibilities that I won’t get into.

Another option is to call Alaska Air and use 10,000 Alaska Air miles to buy a RT flight on Era as they are an Alaska Air mileage plan partner airline.  For example, 10,000 Alaska miles can get you a RT Era ticket from ANC-BET-KUK.  If you used Alaska Air they don’t fly to KUK so you could only get ANC-BET and you would have to pay the $204 for BET-KUK, and you would have to pay 15,000 for the Alaska Air in-state award travel.  In other words, an extra $204 and an extra 5,000 miles.  Note that Alaska Air charges something like $25 per ticket as a “partner airline ticketing fee.”  Even so, this is one of the best ways to use your Alaska Air miles.  10,000 miles and $25 for a RT ticket from ANC-BET-KUK that normally costs about $650 means you’re getting over 6 cents per Alaska air mile.  Remember if we lived in a coastal village the flights to ANC RT would come close to $1,000, meaning you would be getting close to 10 cents per Alaska air mile.  My family and I once used our Alaska Air miles to buy tickets from KUK-BET-ANC-UNK (Unalakleet, to visit friends) RT on Era.  The tickets cost 15,000 miles each plus $25 partner airline ticketing fee.  However, this itinerary would normally cost well over $1,000 each so we were thrilled.

Yute and Grant only fly here in the Bethel region, but Era covers most of the state.  Era gives its passengers a choice between earning Alaska Air miles (actual miles flown) or Era miles.  For example, when I fly from KUK to BET I can take 25 Alaska Air miles or take the segment as credit which as described above (5 segments = a free flight) is worth about $65.  If you figure the 25 Alaska Air miles are worth 1 cent per mile, this is obviously a huge no-brainer (25 cents value vs 65 dollars).  But I still frequently encounter people who live and/or work out here who fly ERA all the time and take the Alaska miles instead of the Era miles!  Which is partly why I wrote this inordinately long post.

This also helps give context to the idea of “mileage runs” people make just to pile up miles.  Tickets like Anchorage to Brazil (12,780 miles on partner airline American) for $564 RT means you’re paying about 4.4 cents per mile.  If you lived in a village outside of Bethel, you could buy that ticket and earn those miles, then turn around and use 10,000 of them to buy a ticket worth more than the $564 you just paid.  In other words, you essentially get a free RT flight to Brazil.  Or Anchorage to Puerto Rico for $567, same idea.  Of course, this makes a lot more sense if you actually want to go to Brazil or Puerto Rico.  But the point is that for those of us in the bush, air miles are worth many multiples more than 1 cent each.

The last thing I’ll present here is that you can buy Alaska Air mileage plan miles for about 2 cents each, as they are giving a 40% bonus until Sept 28, 2012.  Normally the miles cost about 3 cents each.  So the 10,000 miles needed for a RT partner award ticket on ERA will set you back about $200, and you can turn around and use it to buy a ticket worth $400 (ANC-BET RT), $600 (ANC-BET-KUK RT), $1,000 (ANC-BET-Chevak/Scammon/Hooper), or perhaps even more?  To me this is an amazing deal and I’m surprised I haven’t heard more about it.  Phew!  There is so much more I could get into on this subject, but for now tuai, this is too long already.

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