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Editors' Choice Awards 2011: Best New Frequent Flyer Development

by SmarterTravel Staff
Editors' Choice Badge: Frequent Flyer
Editor's Note: This story was originally published on May 16, 2011. To see the most recent SmarterTravel articles on related topics, please click on any of the following links: airfare, American, Continental, Delta, elite status, frequent flyer, Southwest, United, upgrade, US Airways.

Winner: Southwest Relaunches Rapid Rewards

The past 12 months have been eventful for frequent flyer programs, with more than the usual number of program enhancements vying for our Editors' Choice as Best New Frequent Flyer Development.

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Here are just a few of the past year's events meriting consideration:

Delta Scraps Mileage Expiration

In a perfect world, frequent flyer miles never expire.

Delta took a small step in the direction of making that world a reality with its new policy decreeing that, from January 1 of this year, miles in its SkyMiles program no longer expire.

So far, the hoped-for policy matches from other airlines haven't been forthcoming, but Delta can't be faulted for that.

United Retains Economy Plus

United's Economy Plus seating section, with up to five more inches of legroom in the first few rows of coach, is one of the key reasons to make earning elite status a priority in the Mileage Plus program. Even when United can't deliver on the hedged promise of "complimentary upgrades"—they're space-available, after all—elite members can look forward to a seat in Economy Plus.

It's a default option that elite members of other programs would be delighted to have.

In the wake of United's merger with Continental, the future of Economy Plus was anything but assured. Until February, that is, when it was announced that Economy Plus would be retained on all United aircraft, and gradually installed on Continental planes as well.

Miles Redeemable for PayPal Credit

The history of travel rewards programs can be seen as the evolution of miles and points as currencies that come ever closer to mimicking cash. They can be bought and sold. They can be combined with cash to purchase flights and hotel nights. They can, under some circumstances, be exchanged for other program currencies, as yen can be converted into dollars. They are routinely bequeathed to others in the wills of frequent travelers. They can be redeemed for gift cards that have a cash value.

In February, Points.com nudged loyalty currencies another step closer to traditional currencies by allowing members of the American Advantage, US Airways Dividend Miles, and Aeroplan programs to redeem their miles for PayPal credits, which in turn can be transferred to a linked bank account as cash.

Southwest Relaunches Rapid Rewards

We've saved the best for last. Our Editors' Choice pick for the best new frequent flyer development of the past 12 months is the relaunch of Southwest's Rapid Rewards program.

The debut of Southwest's entirely redesigned Rapid Rewards program in March was cause for both agonized hand-wringing and gleeful elation, depending on how the new earning and redemption scheme affected current and prospective program members.

There are, indeed, winners and losers. Southwest's historic user base, price-sensitive leisure flyers, found themselves paying more to earn less. But business travelers and others flying on more expensive tickets can earn freebies faster.

There's no pleasing everyone, and Southwest made a considered business decision to shift the value equation in favor of business travelers. But by directly linking both earning and redemption to the price of tickets—rather than to miles flown, or to flights—Southwest put fairness and transparency first. And for that, the airline's controversial move deserves kudos as our Editors' Choice.

Editors' Choice 2011 homepage

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