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Low-cost carriers: Can their loyalty programs compete?

By now, you’ve probably heard it all: the buzz over low fares and in-flight entertainment, criticisms of credits that expire after a year, and concerns over choosing between spending less money or earning more miles. But are the frequent flyer programs of airlines such as AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest really that bad? We’ve taken a closer look at these airlines to see if their loyalty programs really are a drawback.

The bad news

We can’t deny it—there are definitely drawbacks to the low-cost carriers’ frequent flyer programs. The biggest complaint that we’ve heard is that points expire after one year, as do award certificates. Southwest lets you pay $50 to extend the life of your award certificate for an extra year, but then your free ticket is no longer free.

Compounding this problem is the airlines’ lack of partners. JetBlue has no partners; you can earn TrueBlue points solely through flying. AirTran is only slightly better, with an affiliated Visa card and a partnership with Hertz. Southwest is the best with a lineup of hotel, car rental, telecommunications, and credit card partners, though its partner roster pales in comparison to that of the Big Six. Partners are key to earning miles quickly and beating the 12-month deadline. While you could get away with earning the 16 credits you need to earn an award ticket on Southwest without flying eight round-trips, you’ll have more difficulty racking up the necessary TrueBlue points or A-Plus Rewards credits if you don’t fly approximately every other month.

These three airlines are also lacking in business-class and elite-level perks. Again, JetBlue places last with no elite program or business seating, though some would argue that its roomy leather seats and in-flight entertainment system are just as desirable as business class on a major airline. Southwest also has no business class and rewards very frequent flyers only with a free companion pass upon earning 100 credits (the equivalent of 34 flights if you always book online). AirTran has the best elite program of these low-cost carriers with extra mileage earning for business-class tickets, upgrade and business-class awards, and a full elite program for travelers who earn 20 credits in 90 days or 50 credits in a year.

If you’re looking for special treatment to set yourself apart from your fellow travelers, Southwest and JetBlue can’t help you. However, leisure travelers who rarely take advantage of business-class seating or fly enough to attain elite status most likely won’t notice the difference.

The last major drawback is the breadth of award redemption. While major airlines offer awards for flights throughout the world, JetBlue and Southwest only offer free flights on their domestic and limited Caribbean routes. AirTran used to be that way, too, until it came out with an innovative award structure that offers free flights anywhere in the world. Though AirTran only flies domestically, the airline will purchase a ticket for you on another airline once you reach 32, 50, or 100 credits. And what makes this award really stand out is that unlike any other airline, major or low-cost, you’ll be able to earn frequent flyer miles on your award ticket in the program of the carrier you end up flying. Getting something for nothing is an extremely attractive offer.

The good news

Beyond the low fares and perhaps friendlier customer service that many flyers talk about, the loyalty programs of AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest do have an upside, with welcome elements that put the major carriers to shame. The biggest gripe of frequent flyers on the legacy airlines is that they can’t get the award seat they want. But Southwest has no capacity controls on its awards, so if there’s a seat available, you can have it for free. Southwest does impose blackout dates, but is very clear about on which 10 to 15 days you cannot book an award flight.

Read more about award availability:

The vexing problem of limited award seats

JetBlue and AirTran both have capacity controls on their awards, but we haven’t heard as many complaints from travelers unable to book awards. A spokesperson for JetBlue told us that seats available for award bookings are the same seats offered at discounted sale prices. Given all of JetBlue’s recent sales, travelers should have little trouble booking their desired award.

The other good news is the potential for quick award redemption. To earn a free flight, all you need are 16 AirTran A-Plus Rewards credits (eight round-trips), 100 JetBlue TrueBlue credits (nine to 25 round-trips), or 16 Southwest Rapid Rewards credits (eight round-trips). JetBlue’s and Southwest’s online booking bonuses slash the number of round-trips needed to a minimum of five long-haul flights on JetBlue and six round-trips on Southwest.

You can argue that a few flights from the U.S. to Asia on a major airline could get you a free flight a lot faster, but the flip side is that travelers who routinely fly short-haul flights can earn award tickets with far fewer flights on the low-cost carriers. Plus, if you take advantage of Southwest’s and AirTran’s partner offers—such as four credits for your first purchase with your Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa or AirTran Airways A-Plus Visa Signature—as well as fly, you’ll earn credits so quickly that it won’t matter to you that your points will expire in a year because you’ll have earned an award certificate by then.

The verdict

JetBlue’s program is by far the weakest; however, you could easily take five long-haul flights in one year with a total pricetag of only $1,000, earn a free flight, and have an upper-class in-flight experience without paying a business-class premium. Southwest has enough partners to negate its mileage expiration policy in many cases, and its transparent award redemption policy is the best in the business. AirTran’s worldwide awards and elite and business-class perks rival that of its larger competitors, making it appealing to travelers who mostly fly domestically but want an overseas getaway now and then.

While it may be true that major airlines have a lot more to offer in terms of award destinations, perks, and partner promotions, domestic travelers could very well earn free flights faster, cheaper, and with far fewer hassles with the low-cost carriers. Plus, with the big carriers struggling and the low-cost airlines expanding, these new models for loyalty programs may be the wave of the future.

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