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Sizing up the loyalty programs of smaller airlines

Don?t discount the notion of flying your next trip on a low-fare carrier like JetBlue or AirTran, especially when you consider the benefits they offer to frequent flyers. Currently, six low-cost airlines?AirTran, America West, Frontier, JetBlue, Midwest, and Southwest?have dedicated loyalty programs, all of which can earn you a quick free ticket.

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The six low-cost carriers have two different categories of frequent-flyer programs, so we?ve compared them separately. America West, Frontier, and Midwest have mileage-based programs that are similar to what the large airlines offer. By contrast, AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest have credits or points-based programs.

(Of the two other significant low-cost carriers, Spirit does not have a loyalty program, and ATA has a limited-time promotion called Anniversary Travel Awards, which offers a free companion ticket after three round-trips, or an award seat after six round-trips.)

Each of the six programs is designed to reward the true frequent flyer?a traveler who flies one carrier all the time?but the mileage-based programs generally make it easier to earn rewards than the credits-based programs.

The following table offers a comparison of what?s required for a free, round-trip coach-class ticket on a domestic flight:

Airline Credits or miles Cost of domestic award
AirTran Credits 16 credits
JetBlue Points 100 points
Southwest Credits 16 credits
America West Miles 20,000 miles (restricted) or 40,000 (unrestricted)
Frontier Miles 15,000 miles (restricted) or 30,000 (unrestricted)
Midwest Miles 25,000 miles (restricted) or 50,000 (unrestricted)

Points- or credits-based programs

Which airline will earn you an award seat the fastest? The credits-based programs will get you a free ticket with the fewest number of flights, but our research shows that you still need to fly a lot to make those points add up.

Best and worst features

Best: 1.5 credits for business-class flights
Worst: Miles expire after 12 months

Best: Planes offer satellite TV
Worst: No partners, no elite program, no upgrades

Best: Double credits promotion earns award travel in four round-trips
Worst: Award coupon expires after 12 months

With AirTran and Southwest, you earn one credit for each one-way flight; AirTran also offers one-and-a-half credits for business-class flights. With these programs, a long flight counts for the same number of credits as a short one. JetBlue also uses a points-based system, but it differentiates between short, medium, and long hauls, which earn two, four, and six points respectively.

Southwest and AirTran provide the quickest and cheapest way to earn rewards: no more than eight round-trip flights get you a free flight. With Southwest?s ongoing double credits promotion, which it offers for all tickets booked online, you can earn free travel with just four short round-trip flights. You can think of it as a fifth trip for free, or what?s effectively a 20 percent discount on every flight you pay for.

By comparison, JetBlue requires nine long or 25 short round-trip flights before you reach an award level. Even with its ongoing promotion that offers double points for booking online, it still takes more than four long-haul trips, or more than 12 short trips, before you?d have enough points for a free ticket.

Here’s the catch

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Unlike the miles-based programs of the big airlines, the points you earn on AirTran, JetBlue, and Southwest all expire 12 months after they are deposited in your account. And if you take enough flights in one year to redeem an award coupon, you only have one year to use it. If you?re not a true frequent flyer, your earnings are essentially worthless.

The good news is that at least on some airlines, you can also earn credits by using airline partners. Here, Southwest far outdistances its competition. While AirTran partners only with Visa, and JetBlue has no partners at all, Southwest is affiliated with dozens of companies, including credit cards, hotels, and car rental agencies. Its Rapid Rewards members can earn credits toward a free ticket without flying, making Southwest’s points more useful to the infrequent flyer.

If you fly several trips in a year, the points-based programs have the potential to earn you a free ticket. If not, or if you’re interested in upgrades or elite status, which these airlines don’t offer, another low-cost carrier may suit you better.

Mileage-based programs

Just by flying, you won’t be able to earn an award as quickly with the mileage-based programs as with the credits-based ones. But when you consider their partners, they stack up quite well against the frequent-flyer programs of the larger airlines.

Best and worst features

America West
Best: Upgrades to business-class seats
Worst: Capacity limits on award seats

Best: Only 15,000 miles needed for round-trip award ticket
Worst: Limited partners

Best: Award travel available on American, the world?s biggest carrier
Worst: No elite program

For example, Frontier and America West only require 15,000 and 20,000 miles respectively for a restricted coach ticket, much less than the 25,000 miles required for a domestic award on the major airlines.

An additional benefit of these programs is that your miles on America West, Frontier, and Midwest expire only after three to five years of account inactivity. And all three programs have several mileage-earning partners. So your chances of saving the miles you need for a free trip, before they expire, are quite high.

Earning and burning

Do these small airlines provide enough award choices to compete with the bigger players that have global alliance networks? Though low-cost carriers may have fewer reward options than their competitors, they have enough perks to satisfy most travelers.

All three airlines fly only within the U.S., but each enables you to redeem award tickets on their partner airlines. America West partners with British Airways, Northwest, and Virgin Atlantic; Frontier with Midwest and Virgin Atlantic; and Midwest with American, Air Jamaica, and Frontier.

For domestic trips on a partner airline, you’ll have to spend at least 25,000 miles, but you’ll have access to the many destinations that these larger airlines serve. And with the international partners, you can reward yourself with a trip to Europe, Asia, or the Caribbean.

As for perks, America West and Frontier offer elite programs as an additional benefit to their frequent travelers. You can reach Frontier?s lowest elite tier after flying just 15,000 miles, 10,000 fewer than the usual requirements for minimal elite status. America West is the only carrier of the three to offer business-class seating, and its travelers can use miles for upgrades instead of simply for free flights.

Because of their low mileage requirements for free tickets and array of perks, America West and Frontier stand out as excellent programs, particularly useful for frequent travelers who fly the routes they serve. Though Midwest is often lauded for its excellent service, the perks of its program pale next to its competitors.

Our advice

If you fly one of these small airlines with any regularity, it’s certainly worth joining its loyalty program. Frequent-flyer benefits may not be the top factor in your choice of which airline to travel on, but when you’re deciding between carriers, they’re certainly worth considering.

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