Southwest, jetBlue offer best value for reward seats – study

Low-cost carriers Southwest Airlines and jetBlue continue to offer U.S. passengers the lowest average prices when purchasing reward seats with accrued miles, according to analysis of a report issued Aug. 22.

The findings, derived from the IdeaWorksCompany annual Switchfly Reward Seat Availability Survey, show that the average price of a round-trip ticket purchased with reward points on Southwest Airlines (NYSE:LUV) is 10,182 points, while the average awards round-trip ticket on jetBlue (NASDAQ:JBLU) is 16,611 points.

Delta Air Lines (NYSE:DAL) was the best of the three U.S. legacy carriers with an average price of 26,000 miles. United Airlines (NYSE:UAL) was second of the big three and fourth overall, with a price of 27,643 miles and American Airlines (NASDAQ:AAL) was fifth at 31,143 miles.

The report also showed that members of Southwest and jetBlue’s mileage programs accrued six points per dollar spent while members of the legacy carriers’ programs accrued five miles per dollar spent based upon the lowest economy fare for non-elite members. Airlines offer higher rates of accrual for elite members.

Almost all U.S. airlines have switched to a revenue basis for mileage accrual and away from awarding mileage credit for mileage flown. The most recent to switch was American. Seattle-based Alaska Airlines (NYSE:ALK) is the only U.S. carrier of any size whose passengers still accrue mileage credit based on mileage flown and an airline spokesperson told TheTravelPro in June that it has no plans to change that at this time.

Although the results are not strictly comparable because of those different accrual methods, the co-branded credit cards of Alaska and Air Canada, which generate a significant quantity of miles for members, generally offer the same accrual of one mile per dollar charged, suggesting some approximate likeness among all seven programs, the report’s authors said in a statement.

The average reward price was 22,301 miles for Air Canada’s mileage program, and Alaska's mileage program average was 25,429 miles, which would place the carriers third and fourth, respectively.

The survey from which the findings derive also detailed how easy or difficult it is to actually book a “saver style” seat using reward points. That survey, released in May, showed that Southwest had reward seats available on 100 percent of its flights while jetBlue had seats available on 92.9 percent of its flights.

Securing a reward seat on any of the U.S. legacy carriers was considerably more difficult according to the report: United had availability on 72.1 percent of its flights, Delta had seats on 68.6 percent of its planes and American had reward space available on 56.4 percent, or slightly more than half, of its flights.

More details on the reward seat availability survey is available here.

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