Frugal Traveler: Breaking Down the Frequent Flier Mile Programs

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Upon looking at the details of its program, Mileage Plan, it’s easy to see why: Attaining status is exceedingly simpler and more streamlined. Unlike the three legacy carriers, Alaska confers miles and status by actual mileage flown and has not (yet) become revenue-based. That means if you fly 5,000 miles, you earn 5,000 miles (on other carriers you may earn a fraction of that number, depending on what you paid for the ticket).

Mileage Plan has just three tiers, instead of four: MVP, MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K. Earning MVP status requires 20,000 miles; MVP Gold 75K requires (you guessed it) 75,000 miles. Top status holders will receive a 125 percent bonus on the miles they fly, as well as 50,000 bonus miles for qualifying. Distributing award miles by actual mileage will allow most midlevel, nonbusiness-class fliers to rack up miles more quickly than with revenue-based airlines.

The downside? The network isn’t as comprehensive as the three legacy carriers. But if your travel is mostly confined to the western half of the United States, as well as coast-to-coast trips, Alaska could very well make sense for you.

Low-Cost Carriers

JetBlue and Southwest Airlines both deserve some attention, despite not having traditional tier-based elite status programs (and in Southwest’s case, only a single class). JetBlue has a fiercely loyal traveler base, which is attracted to perks like its generous seat pitch, free snacks and free Wi-Fi.

Its elite status program, Mosaic, only has one level — you either have it or you don’t. It’s attained by flying 30 segments and earning 12,000 flight points, or just earning 15,000 flight points. Calculating flight points is a bit complicated — it depends on what fare you purchase, but it can vary between three and eight points per dollar spent. Mosaic members will enjoy perks like waived fees, free booze on board and two free checked bags. They will not, however, receive free upgrades to Mint, JetBlue’s premium cabin.

Southwest Airlines is another crowd favorite, known for its focus on customer service and lettered boarding system. And while Southwest is a low-cost carrier, sometimes servicing the second- or third- largest airports in a region, it’s maintained certain perks while other airlines have slashed theirs: Southwest still allows two free checked bags and doesn’t charge fees to change your flight.

Its frequent flier program, Rapid Rewards, is simple enough: you earn six points per dollar for the cheapest fares, up to 12 points for its Business Select fares. Racking up 35,000 points or 25 flight segments confers A-list status, which provides a 25 percent points bonus and priority boarding (a considerable perk on Southwest — no more waiting to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight).