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Southwest and JetBlue Loyalty Plans Are Best for Free Domestic Tickets Says Study

Skift Take

Southwest and JetBlue might have the cheapest redemptions, but savvy frequent flyers generally still find more value in programs offered by American, Delta, and United.

— Brian Sumers

Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways still offer more value for occasional flyers seeking to redeem points and miles for domestic coach itineraries, according to new analysis from IdeaWorks and SwitchFly.

Historically, it has been difficult to compare programs, as carriers had different policies for awarding miles and points. But since all larger U.S. carriers except for Alaska Airlines have switched to a revenue-based model, in which miles and points are awarded based on how much passengers spend, IdeaWorks and SwitchFly argue it is now roughly possible to determine which airlines reward passengers most. The two firms also note that most airlines now have credit card partnership that reward consumers with one point or mile for each dollar they spend, further making it possible to compare programs.

IdeaWorks and SwitchFly found Southwest passengers spend an average of 10,182 points for a domestic roundtrip award, while JetBlue customers redeem 16,611 points. At both airlines, costs for award travel fluctuates based on the cash fare for the same ticket. Also, in each case, most flyers earn six points for each dollar they spend. 

“For everyday consumers buying the lowest fares, the pay-with-points method embraced by JetBlue and Southwest delivers the best reward deals for economy class travel in the U.S.,” the analysis found. The study examined routes between 251 to 2,500 miles for travel from June-October 2016.

While American, Delta and United have changed how they allot miles, they have not altered their redemption policies, so the costs of their award tickets are not directly tied to airfare. IdeaWorks and SwitchFly reported Delta flyers spent an average of 26,000 miles for domestic redemptions, while United’s spent 27,643 miles and American’s spent 31,143 miles.

IdeaWorks and SwitchFly acknowledged that the American, United and Delta programs likely are more lucrative for elite-level frequent flier members, who earn more miles on the same fares than casual travelers. Casual travelers on all three airlines earn five miles per dollar spent, but road warriors can earn as much as 11 miles per dollar.

“These members may enjoy more than double the usual points accrual, which greatly affects the ability to compare average reward prices among the five airlines,” the study noted. “Ultra-frequent travelers may realize better reward value from these airlines.”

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