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Checking In On Alaska Airlines (Not Literally)

It has been a very long time since I wrote about Alaska, and that’s a shame. After all, the airline has been doing a lot of good things lately. But it has also done some things that some of you won’t like. I figured it was time to do a little round-up of all-things Alaska.

Me and an Alaska 737 Model

Change Fee Goes Up, With a Twist
Back in April I wrote over at Conde Nast about how Alaska would install new slimline seats with power outlets. I won’t write more about that here, but the point was that every time Alaska made a change that might negatively impact the traveler, it made sure to include a positive as well. That’s exactly what Alaska did with change fees.

First, it is giving plenty of advance notice. The current change fee of $75 ($100 if you call in to reservations) will be good on all tickets purchased before October 30. After that, however, any tickets purchased will come with a two-tier change fee. If you need to make a change and you’re still 60 days before departure, there is no change fee. Within 60 days of departure, it’s a $125 fee.

In this case, Alaska saw the legacy airlines raise their change fees to $200 and it knew it had to room to increase. So it will pull in millions by going to a $125 fee. At the same time, however, those who need to change further in advance will gain. Naturally the number of people who need to change that far in advance is small, but it’s still a nice gesture. Like JetBlue, Alaska is trying to create policies that make some sense to the traveler.

Bag Fees Go Up, But So Does Compensation If There are Problems
For the longest time, Alaska held its bag fees at $20 to check the first bag when others had standardized around $25. In fact, Alaska charged $20 for each of the first three bags. Now it’s getting closer to what the others do by having $25 for each of the first two bags and $75 for the third and beyond. Unless you check three bags a lot, this won’t mean a huge change, but it probably makes sense to standardize especially with partners American and Delta. (You used to be able to buy a codeshare ticket under the Alaska code and save money on the fees.)

But when the fee goes up, so does the compensation. Alaska is the only airline to really push a Baggage Service Guarantee. The idea is that if your bag gets to the carousel more than 20 minutes after your airplane parks, you get a $20 discount code for future travel or 2,000 bonus miles. That will increase to $25 or 2,500 miles. So, you pay more and you get more if they don’t live up to their end of the bargain.

Award Travel Gets Better
I’m not a miles and points guy, as most readers of the blog know. But that doesn’t mean I have some weird moral objection to earning and using them. Every time I buy a flight, I always make sure to earn miles. I’ve always liked Alaska’s program but the airline has really stepped it up this year.

The beauty of the program is the ability to earn miles on multiple, useful carriers (including elite qualifying miles on both Delta and American) as well as being able to use those miles on a bunch of partners for travel around the world. In addition, the credit card is pretty good as well, so you can build up miles pretty quickly to use. You probably just don’t hear about it very often, because I don’t believe Bank of America (the issuer) participates in those lucrative affiliate programs that you’ll often see pitched on other blogs.

The earning side of things hasn’t changed much, but the redemption side is where things have changed a lot. It used to be that if you weren’t using miles to fly on Alaska, you had to redeem your miles only on a roundtrip itinerary and you couldn’t mix and match partners. That was a pain, because Alaska has a lot of excellent partners and combining carriers was sometimes the only way to find the availability you needed.

But now, Alaska has changed things and you can now redeem miles for one way awards or you can mix and match partners on pretty much every airline in the program. And nearly all of these airlines are finally bookable on AlaskaAir.com so it’s much less painful than it used to be. Since Alaska has a lot of partners that are aligned with oneworld and SkyTeam, the selection of carriers is pretty great. In Europe, it’s Air France/KLM and British Airways. Beyond Europe, Alaska is the only US airline that partners with Emirates. You can do Qantas to Australia or Fiji Airways to the Pacific.

Cathay Pacific in Asia is part of the program but that has to be booked over the phone. Meanwhile Korean Air in Asia and LAN in Latin America should be up and running “by the end of the summer.” And Alaska just added Aeromexico as a partner as well. In the US, of course American is a part of this and Delta, well, it’s sort of participating. You can mix and match Delta with another airline, but you can’t do one way awards. I’m assuming this is because Delta’s backwards program won’t even let its own members have one way awards.

So there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on with the Eskimo. I just haven’t had a chance to write about it.

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