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These Airlines Have the Best Reward Programs of 2018

IdeaWorks is out with its annual reward seat availability survey, which ranks airlines’ reward programs based on how easy it is to redeem frequent flyer points or miles for reward travel. As any frequent flyer knows (and as common sense dictates), this metric is essential to determining the value of an airline reward program. It’s sort of  the whole point, right?

The survey examined over 7,000 bookings and fare queries at 25 airlines to see how often a minimum of two reward seats was available on a round-trip itinerary.

The Airlines with the Best Reward Programs

The winner? Southwest, which returned 100 percent availability.  In a release about the survey, IdeaWorks said “every flight [on Southwest] queried provided reward seats below the one-way domestic saver-style level of 12,500 points/miles.” Southwest took the top spot last year, as well.

Rounding out the next four of the top five were Air Canada (96.4 percent), Turkish Airways (95 percent), JetBlue (94.3 percent), and Lufthansa/Swiss/Austrian (91.4 percent).

Low Cost, High Value Reward Programs

In general, low-cost carriers tend to return better results overall than their legacy counterparts. According to IdeaWorks, “As in previous years, survey findings indicate frequent flyers are better served by the reward programs at low cost carriers (LCCs). The average among the six LCCs (AirAsia, GOL, JetBlue, Norwegian, Southwest, and WestJet) was 77.9%, while the more traditional carriers in the survey registered 72.3%.”

That said, American Airlines showed marked improvement (as did Turkish), with a 27.3 point increase over the previous year.

IdeaWorks attributes much of this improvement to the way airlines structure their frequent flyer programs: “Global network airlines are realizing the old binary method of using reward tables based on distance creates unreliable reward value. Members increasingly believe low fares should correspond to lower reward prices.”

Rather than giving program members a “free seat” on any flight and then limiting availability to minimize profit loss, many airlines now treat points like cash. This limits the financial exposure for the airline, which appears to open up more options for the traveler.

Some people may long for the airline reward programs of the old days, and that’s fine, but these newer systems seem to deliver decent value. “Member expectations and satisfaction are important for airlines seeking success,” says IdeaWorks. “Happy members buy more tickets and use their co-branded credit cards more often. Perhaps this is why 11 airlines improved their reward availability for 2018, while seven airlines had declines.”

In It for the Long Haul (Flights)

IdeaWorks analyzes long-haul availability separately. Long-haul reward program travel has always been holy-grail-slash-thorn-in-the-side of frequent flyers. Travelers historically had to bend over backwards to find available award seats on flights to Europe, Hawaii, and other far-flung, high-fare destinations.

Turkish Airways won this category with a remarkable 98.6 percent availability, a 31.4 point increase from last year. Other high performers included Air Canada and Norwegian, with 94.3 percent each; and China Eastern and Lufthansa/Swiss/Austrian with 84.3 percent each.

Overall, long-haul availability rose from 60.3 percent to 64 percent industrywide.

Readers, have you noticed improved reward travel availability from your frequent flyer program?

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