Update on July 16, 2016: Effective August 1, 2016, the specific example detailed in this article will no longer apply, though I believe the post as a cautionary tale remains valid. Starting August 1, Alaska class R fares credited to American Airlines will earn 25% of actual miles flown. It’s not really a victory for frequent fliers, since the change is part of an overall devaluation of partner flights by American; prior to August 1, ten Alaska “discount economy” fare classes earn 100% mileage when credited to American. August 1 and beyond, eligible Alaska discount economy fare classes will earn between 25% and 75% mileage when credited to American. Many travelers will simply find taking full credit on Alaska preferable to quarter credit on American.
The Short Story
Although this blog is not primarily concerned with airline points (there are plenty of sites focused on that), I wanted to share a recent setback we suffered. Hopefully, other travelers won’t fall victim to the same pitfall. The short story: my wife Rachel and I booked a roundtrip BWI to LAX flight on Alaska Airlines with the intention of banking the miles earned to Alaska’s partner American Airlines. When ticket prices dropped, we took advantage of a generous Alaska policy which refunds the fare difference as a voucher. What we didn’t realize is that taking advantage of this policy resulted in our outbound flight being changed from booking class T to booking class R, which is ineligible for credit with American. Here’s the longer, complex story:
Unintended Consequences of Using the Alaska Airlines Price Guarantee
Last month I published a post about taking a pleasant, scenic flight on Alaska Airlines from BWI to LAX. Although the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan is an excellent frequent flier program, Rachel and I credited the flights to AAdvantage, the frequent flyer program from Alaska’s partner, American Airlines. That’s because the flights would get us over the hump to our next travel goal, using our AAdvantage miles for a trip to Europe next spring when American has generous off-peak awards.
In the aforementioned post, I explained how we took advantage of a neat Alaska Airlines policy the month before our flight:
One great thing about Alaska is that if you buy a ticket on their website and you notice that the price of that same itinerary goes down, you can apply for the difference as a voucher (good for one year from the initial purchase). This is one case where if behooves you to keep checking after buying tickets to see if the fare drops (which can drive you crazy otherwise). I was able to quickly and easily receive two $10 vouchers when the price of our tickets dropped. It’s a smart policy, which encourages both good will and repeat business.
As it turned out, getting $20 worth of vouchers was going to cause us a bit of aggravation, because I didn’t notice that the refund changed our outbound flight’s fare class from T to R. After our trip, the miles from our return flight, LAX to BWI, posted in a matter of days. The outbound flight did not.
American Airlines requires travelers to wait 15 days after a flight to request mileage credit if it doesn’t show up automatically. In the middle of October I filled out and submitted the form. The American website warns that it can take 30 days for partner flights to credit, so I waited patiently. The miles hadn’t posted by early November, so I sent a follow-up message to AAdvantage Customer Service. The next day, a Wanza F. from American sent a form email. After thanking me for my loyalty, Wanza informed me:
Regrettably, your travel was ineligible for mileage credit based on the fare purchased, indicated by the booking class ‘R’ on your reservations.
I’m sorry to disappoint you.
She (he?) added a P.S. to the message cheerfully attempting to get me to sign up for an American Airlines credit card. Sigh. So what happened? The explanation requires an understanding of how airlines classify tickets.
Fare Booking Classes (“Buckets”)
Airline tickets are divided into various booking classes identified by letters, not simply “coach” or “first”. Although there are some overlaps, the letters don’t necessarily mean the same thing on every airline. In an article on airfarewatchdog, Deciphering Airline Fare Codes, George Hobica explains:
In order to stay profitable, years ago airlines began subdividing their seats, allocating a certain number of seats (or a “bucket”) at each fare level per flight. The number of these seats depends on complicated formulas that factor in the route, the time of year, the expected breakdown of leisure vs. business passengers, and the time of day, among other things. The inventory control department will release certain “buckets” at different times, tightening or loosening the spigot as needed to capture as many potential passengers paying as much as possible. And no, the airlines don’t make public how many buckets they’ve created in any subcategory.
Airlines set rules about which booking classes earn miles and if so, how many. Award tickets, of course, would be assigned a fare bucket that doesn’t earn any miles. Alaska Airlines is among a shrinking number of US airlines that award miles based on distance traveled rather than ticket price. In 2015, someone flying Alaska Airlines the 2,329 miles between BWI and LAX would earn 2,329 Mileage Plan points if he or she booked a flight in H, Q, L, V, K, G, T, R, or U credited to Alaska’s own program.
The Infamous Alaska “R” Fare Bucket
Travelers can choose to credit a flight on Alaska Airlines to its partner American Airlines instead (and visa-versa). Although they are partners, not every flight that would earn mileage credit on Alaska is honored for credit on American Airlines. Of the fare classes noted above, flights in Alaska fare buckets H, Q, L, V, K, G, T, and U earn miles when credited to AA but not flights in R. In fact, as best I can tell, R is the only Alaska coach fare bucket that is eligible to earn miles on Alaska but not American!
When booking my tickets in June 2015, I’d confirmed before crediting the flights to American that the tickets were in T, which is eligible for credit on American. When I requested the difference in fare between my original purchase and the new lower price in September, I don’t recall seeing any warning that the fare class was changing, but it’s possible I overlooked it. If there wasn’t a warning, perhaps the only way I could have known I was going to end up in an ineligible fare bucket was to start making a dummy booking at the new price. It’s also possible that if I’d done the request over the phone instead of online that I could have avoided the problem.
At any rate, I received a new confirmation email in addition to the vouchers, but overlooked the fact that our outbound flights were now in R. If I had caught the problem before the flight, I might have been able to get booked back into T, but it was certainly impossible afterward. When I called Alaska Airlines Customer Care in November, the representative told me I could at least get Alaska Airlines credit for the outbound flights. I had to email my Alaska ticket information, American’s email declining the request for mileage credit, and the AAdvantage mileage statement showing the flight hadn’t posted. It took nine days and a follow-up email, but the miles eventually posted to our Alaska accounts.
I suppose it could have been worse. Next year’s vacation schedules aren’t set yet, so we still have a little time before we’re ready to book our trip to Europe on American (assuming award tickets are still available by then). We earned some miles with the AAdvantage eShopping mall (which makes it possible to earn miles for online purchases we were going to make anyway and which recently offered bonus points for certain spending thresholds). We also earned miles with the AAdvantage Dining program, which awards miles for purchases at participating restaurants including our favorite local eatery. I also earned some miles on HolidayCheck.com by reviewing hotels I’ve stayed at recently (70 AAdvantage miles per review; some European frequent flyer programs are also available at somewhat higher rates).
Once If all the miles post, we should be in good shape.
Update on July 16, 2016: We were indeed successful raising enough points from shopping and dining to get off-peak award flights from Philadelphia to Nice via London as well as Madrid back to Philadelphia. HolidayCheck recently discontinued their English language site; since I don’t speak German or Polish I may be out of luck earning miles for reviews in the future.
Although I follow travel and points blogs avidly, I’d never heard of anyone getting burned on mileage earning because they’d taken advantage of the Alaska Airlines Price Guarantee. Researching after the fact, I found warnings too late in threads on FlyerTalk including Is there any downside to using the AS Price Guarantee? and AS R Fare Credit to AA Question. According to the posters in the latter thread, Alaska only added the R fare bucket around February 2014. Posters expected that American would add R for credit since it wasn’t a substantially cheaper fare bucket, but that hasn’t happened yet. Interestingly, at the time, Alaska Airlines wouldn’t honor American flights in the O bucket, but that loophole closed in February 2015.
- Taking advantage of the Alaska Airlines Price Guarantee may change the fare class from one that earns miles to one that does not.
- Alaska Airlines fare class “R” earns miles with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan but not American Airlines AAdvantage.
- If you request mileage credit for a partner flight that didn’t credit, American Airlines won’t notify you if the request is declined unless you make a follow-up inquiry.
- You have nothing to lose by making an inquiry rather than wasting time waiting for airlines to communicate with you. If I’d learned that American was going to decline my request for mileage credit without telling me it had done so, I would have credited an October Rocketmiles hotel stay to American instead of another frequent flyer program.