Ask the great majority of frequent flyer program participants what keeps them engaged with the programs and you'll likely get a two-word reply: Free trips. Frequent flyer awards aren't truly free, of course. They cost miles. And, some programs offer the same awards for fewer miles than other programs. In theory at least, there are better and worse deals when it comes to awards.
In practice, however, great deals aren't easy to come by. Over their 26-year history, the programs have gravitated toward uniformity at their cores, especially in areas such as earning rates and award prices. With every passing year, award prices that deviate from the norm become fewer and farther between.
It's always worth a periodic check of the airlines' award charts to see whether any particular awards offer especially good value. This year, I looked at the programs of 15 U.S. carriers, ranging from tiny discounters (ATA) to the world's largest airline (American). In keeping with the needs of SmarterTravel.com's typical readers, I focused on coach awards offered at the restricted levels—the capacity-controlled awards generally priced at half the number of miles required for less restricted awards. Although most airlines toe the party line, award bargains can occasionally be found.
By far the most requested award in virtually all U.S. programs is the restricted coach award for travel within the continental U.S. In most programs, a round-trip domestic flight is priced at 25,000 miles. In years past, several airlines offered more aggressive prices for their hallmark award. Today, however, there remain only two exceptions to the rule: Frontier, which prices its domestic award at just 15,000 miles, and Alaska, which offers a 20,000-mile award.
In reviewing domestic awards, some consideration should also be given to the discount carriers because they primarily fly domestic routes and would seem to be logical candidates for value-priced domestic frequent flyer awards. Unfortunately, because those airlines base their earning and awards on credits or points rather than on miles, it's difficult to compare their programs' value propositions against those of the airlines with mileage-based programs.
As the industry's iconic discounter, whose loyalty program served as the model for other discount airlines, Southwest is a good example. In its Rapid Rewards program, members earn two credits for every round-trip and need 16 credits for a free round-trip. The ratio is one free trip after every eight paid trips.
How does that compare with the 25,000-mile domestic award available from most other airlines? There's no simple answer because those 25,000 miles might be earned for as few as five cross-country round-trip flights or as many as 25 short-haul round-trips at the minimum rate of 500 miles per flight. In the former case, 25,000 miles would be a better deal than Southwest's eight flights; in the latter case, the Southwest deal would be by far the better one.
Assessing the relative value of JetBlue's awards is even more convoluted. In the TrueBlue program, members earn four, eight, or 12 points for round-trips booked online, depending on whether the flights are categorized as short, medium, or long. With free flights priced at 100 points, that means that between nine and 25 paid flights are required to obtain an award. A free flight earned after four paid flights is a good deal; an award earned after 13 paid flights isn't.