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The Frontiers of Loyalty: Learning to Love the Discounters

I recently found myself torn between two conflicting pieces of advice, both of them mine.

On the one hand, I have been a longtime advocate of consolidating mileage earning in a single program. That’s the antidote to one of the most widespread problems affecting frequent travelers—mileage dispersion. The classic victim of such tactics finds herself with 8,000 miles in this account, 7,000 miles in that account, 4,000 here, 6,000 there. While our hypothetical traveler has earned 25,000 miles—enough for a free domestic ticket in most programs—she’s a long way from an actual award because the miles were earned in different programs and are not combinable.

On the other hand, there’s the equally enduring truism of frequent flyer program participation: Ye shall not overpay to earn miles.

For most of my traveling life, these admonitions coexisted in relative harmony, coming into conflict only when comparing the virtues of flying Southwest (low price, minimal comfort and service, dysfunctional frequent flyer program) versus a full-service carrier (higher price, adequate comfort and service, robust mileage program).

As I sometimes thought of it, the choice was akin to deciding whether to have steak at an upscale eatery or swinging by the golden arches for a quick, cheap burger. Depending on the time, circumstances, and budget, each has its place. And while choosing may sometimes be agonizing, the choices themselves are easily identified and starkly different. Aged, prime grade A sirloin versus ground round. Cadillac versus Hyundai. United versus Southwest.

As the travel industry stands today, the traditional study in contrasts between the discounters and the “full-service” carriers has dissolved into a muddy blur of overlapping identities and value disconnects.

For starters, low-fare carriers have upped the comfort and service ante considerably. JetBlue is a prime example, with its new airplanes and seatback TVs. Not to mention free Wi-Fi Internet access in its main airport terminals. More legroom than most major carriers. Upbeat employees. Simple fare rules. Low ticket prices.

In fact, if JetBlue’s TrueBlue mileage program were upgraded in just two critical respects—the addition of earning and award partners, plus a consumer-friendly points-expiration policy—the airline would have a real shot at the “Best of All Possible Worlds” title.

Even hobbled by a lackluster loyalty program, JetBlue manages to deliver a compelling value proposition, oftentimes surpassing the majors’ service while remaining price-competitive with the low-fare carriers.

Kansas City, here I come

When I began making arrangements for a June family reunion in Kansas City, MO, I knew that JetBlue wouldn’t be an option. They simply don’t fly from Long Beach, my closest JetBlue gateway, to Kansas City.

So as I logged simultaneously onto Orbitz and Travelocity to check flights and prices, I expected the choice to be between Southwest and US Airways, both of which previously offered Los Angeles to Kansas City nonstops. In coach, US Airways’ service isn’t appreciably better than Southwest’s. And since I’m not vested in US Airways’ mileage program, Southwest initially looked to be the likely candidate.

As a point of comparison, I also checked flights on my primary mileage-earning airline, American, anticipating at best a direct flight (one stop, but no change of plane), or, worst case, a connection in Dallas or Chicago.

As it turned out, US Airways no longer flew the route. And Southwest’s nonstops were inconveniently timed. So American’s offering became the baseline: $367 round-trip, including taxes; connecting in either Dallas or Chicago; 5.5 to 6.5 hours travel time each way, including stopovers; and 3,843 frequent flyer miles earned for the trip.

The alternative came as something of a surprise: Frontier Airlines. Frontier, in its current incarnation, has been operating as a low-cost carrier since 1994, based in Denver. In recent months, they have increased their flights to and from LAX and aggressively advertised their services. But I had no idea they flew nonstops to Kansas City.

In fact, they fly twice daily. And the price, everything included, was $197.

The price of loyalty

Viewed strictly from the mileage perspective, flying American to earn 3,843 AAdvantage miles would cost me an extra $170. That translates into 4.4 cents per mile, more than twice what the miles would probably be worth when redeemed.

There was also the question of the value of my time. With stopovers, the American flights would eat up 12 hours, whereas the Frontier nonstops would total less than six hours.

Comparing the comfort quotients of the two carriers, American edged out Frontier with 34 to 35 inches of legroom, versus 33 inches for Frontier. (On the other hand, Frontier offers more legroom than most other carriers.)

As strong as my mileage-earning instincts were, I ultimately decided to forego the 3,843 AAdvantage flight miles and fly Frontier. From a value standpoint, it was a slam dunk.

The rewards of travel

It was, I can now report, a rewarding trip in every respect.

I earned AAdvantage miles for renting a car from Alamo, for staying at the Hampton Inn ($79 a night, including complimentary breakfast and free broadband Wi-Fi access), and for charging the Frontier tickets to an affinity credit card.

For the Frontier flights, I earned miles in the EarlyReturns program, although they are likely to become orphan miles in the end. Because of Frontier’s limited service from LAX, their EarlyReturns program is mostly irrelevant to my mileage-earning activities. Nevertheless, the program deserves kudos for breaking ranks with the discounter mainstream on the issue of points expiration. Where AirTran, ATA, JetBlue, and Southwest expire points after just 12 months, EarlyReturns miles don’t expire until the end of the fifth calendar year after the date of the last earning or redemption activity.

Over and above the mechanics of travel, I had the incomparable pleasure of relaxing on the banks of sleepy Lake Lotawana (southeast of Kansas City). We swam and sunbathed and watched the summer storms roll across the plains. We drove into Kansas City to feast on urban barbecue and tour my cousins’ lumber yards. (If you live in the area, you’ve seen my cousin Wally on local TV, touting Cash Bargain Lumber with the classic tagline: “Good stuff, cheap.” Apparently the huckster gene runs in the family.)

And perhaps most memorable of all, I was on hand to see 10-year-old Jesse, daughter of a cousin from the San Francisco branch of the family, catch her first fish, becoming in the process a fisherwoman for life.

In all, I wouldn’t change a thing.

The cost of the trip? Reasonable, thanks in large part to Frontier’s pricing.

The miles? Not bad, although I’ve had more lucrative trips.

The memories? Priceless.

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