Frequent Flying: Alaska vs. United

I’m a devoted frequent flier, which means I generally fly one airline in particular, in order to gain the highest frequent flier status possible, not to mention to accumulate miles and, thus, free transport. But the recent upheavals in airlines — including the Delta/Northwest merger — mean less perks for us devoted travelers of the air.

I’ve been a faithful United Airlines customer for nearly a decade, often choosing United over cheaper flights just so I can earn the extra miles. Last summer, I had the good fortune of being bumped on both United and Alaska within a few weeks of each other, and earning a round-trip ticket for each airline.

Two weeks ago, I needed to get to the East Coast — and fast. Round-trip tickets skyrocketed from $250 to more than $400 in the course of less than 24 hours, right after the grounding of American Airlines and the announcement of the aforementioned mega-merger. I was at a loss. Without a full-time job, I couldn’t afford to pay such an exorbitant fee. Then I remembered my two free tickets.

I’d previously booked a trip with Alaska to Portland back in December, but had to cancel my trip when my Portland pal unexpectedly moved back to LA. The experience was painless: Alaska Air canceled my flight without a penalty, leaving me with my free ticket intact. I remembered the positive experience and so called Alaska first when I realized I couldn’t afford the last-minute cross-country fees.

Because Alaska’s hub is in Seattle, and it doesn’t offer direct flights to any of NYC’s three airports, my only option was a 12-hour excursion from LAX to Newark via Seattle — hardly what one would consider optimum.

Then I called United, the airline to which I’d been so faithful for what seemed like millennia. After dealing with an agent who was obviously not U.S. based and who could hardly understand me (“Ms. Robinson [sic], you speak so fast!”) and waiting for nearly 20 minutes to find a seat, I was finally told that to use my free ticket required 14 days’ notice. I had told the agent at the start of our conversation that I would be using a voucher, so I found it highly inconvenient to be told this after the fact. I then asked how many of my frequent flier miles would be needed for the same trip. Seems that 25,000 would do the trick — in addition to $75 for booking my ticket less than two weeks in advance. Screw that.

So, it was Alaska’s ticket I used. I dreaded the long flight in each direction, but I had little choice financially. What angered me most was that my experience with United, the airline to which I’d been so faithful, was so far below that which I had with Alaska, with which I’d flown only three times in the last five years or so. There were far fewer restrictions on my “free” ticket and, when I was finally on board, I found Alaska’s seats roomier and much more comfy. About the only negative with Alaska was that in order to view the in-flight movie, I would have to pay $10 for a portable DVD player, rather than watch the free flick on United. I passed.

I still have my free United ticket, which I have to use by August. I have no clue where I’ll fly with it, now that I’ll be on the East Coast for the next few months. But I have to say, after I cash in my United miles, I’m going to reconsider my airline allegiance.

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