Fliers' Dilemma: Save Now or Later?

Tickets on discount airlines cost less, but their frequent-flier programs make it tough to earn a freebie

Jetblue airways (JBLU ) gives travelers plenty of reasons to choose it over its giant rivals: new planes, comfy leather seats, 24 channels of live tv, bargain fares. Its frequent-flier program, however, isn't one of them. Unless you take 13 medium-length or five long-distance round-trips within a year, you'll never qualify for a free ticket. Even if you do, you can forget about cashing in your points for a foreign getaway, since JetBlue doesn't fly outside the U.S.

The frequent-flier plans at other low-fare carriers aren't much better. Indeed, this is one area where the major airlines beat the discounters hands down. While their programs require more flights for free travel, thanks to their long list of partners, you can rack up miles much quicker and use them to fly almost anywhere. You also don't have to worry about your points expiring. "I don't see any low-cost carrier program that is competitive," says Randy Peterson, editor of Inside Flyer.

POPULAR PERK. The frequent-flier concept dates to 1981, when American Airlines (AMR ) launched the first program. United Airlines (UAL ) and the other big carriers soon followed with almost identical plans, awarding travelers points for every mile they fly. But except for Southwest Airlines, the discounters stayed out of the game. Over the last few years, though, as more business travelers have turned to low-fare carriers, they, too, have added frequent-flier programs. Today, except for Spirit Airlines and Sun Country Airlines, all the discounters have one.

Most of the low-fare programs are modeled on Southwest's, with airlines handing out points based on the number of trips flown (table). Log four or six round-trips in a year, and you get a free ticket within the 48 contiguous states. For some people, that's a real perk. John Moerman takes ata Airlines every three weeks or so from his home in Bradenton, Fla., to Chicago for business or to see family. At that rate, he's earning a free back-and-forth almost every four months. "This seems like the quickest way to redeemable points," he says.

But flier beware: On Southwest, JetBlue, and AirTran Airways (AAI ) points expire a year after every flight. That means that many travelers never get a chance to accumulate enough points to go anywhere for free. Contrast that with the programs at the major airlines, which permit you to keep all of your miles as long as you earn at least one point within three years. Moreover, in the off-price segment, only AirTran offers business-class service, so you can't generally use your points for upgrades, either.

That's not all. At JetBlue and ata, the only way to build up points is by buying airline tickets. By comparison, American boasts 1,300 partners that award points for its frequent-flier program, including other airlines, hotels, car-rental outfits, credit-card companies, mortgage banks, and even Kellogg, which prints 100-point coupons on its cereal boxes.

SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE. The lack of point partners at the discount carriers diminishes the value of their programs in another way. Except at Frontier Airlines, which has a tie-in with Virgin Atlantic Airways, frequent-flier members cannot readily use points to fly on other airlines. "I don't think people are flying JetBlue for the points," concedes Timothy Claydon, JetBlue's senior vice-president for sales and distribution.

Of course, the drawbacks haven't stopped discount carriers from gaining market share or making money. So will the major airlines copy them by paring back their plans? No way. They know their frequent-flier programs still attract a lot of traffic. "[Customers] prefer our model," says Gloria Berndl, United's director of marketing programs. "Frequent fliers say: 'I've had my butt in a seat for a long time, and I want to be rewarded,"' she adds. So travelers, take your pick: cheap fares or free tickets. You can have either, but you can't have both.

Corrections and Clarifications In "Fliers' dilemma: Save now or later" (Personal Business, Oct. 13), the number of round trips needed for a free flight on JetBlue Airways should have said 13 short-hops within a year, not 13 medium-distance trips.

By Michael Arndt

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