Southwest's and jetBlue's reward programs offer simple ways to quickly earn free travel

I recently wrote a post on Demystifying reward travel for "Traditional Miles" American, Delta, United, and Alaska Airlines. Today we're going to tackle what I call the "Points for Dollars" frequent flier reward programs offered by Southwest and jetBlue.

For the lost... Back in May the Wall Street Journal ran an article, The Best and Worst Frequent-Flier Rewards Programs for 2016 (warning, you will need a paid WSJ account to read it). The article alluded to, but did not address in depth, the notion that frequent-flier rewards programs generally fall into one of two categories, each suited to a different type of traveler. We'll call them "Traditional Miles (+Perks)" schemes common among the big legacy carriers (i.e. American, Delta, United), and "Points for Dollars" schemes common with carriers such as Southwest and jetBlue. Knowing which to favor based on the type of traveler you are will help you get the most from your airline rewards, and actually use them faster!

The whole point here is to help you to be a smarter traveler, the kind that chooses tickets on airlines so as to maximize your enjoyment of the journey and the rewards you get back from it. You might read How (and why) to choose your preferred airline, and Best one for you: Breaking down the strengths and weaknesses of America's largest airlines for a quick little primer on this.

Points for Dollars

OK, so back to earning "Points for Dollars" on jetBlue and Southwest. Bottom line up front here is that both Southwest Rapid Rewards and jetBlue TrueBlue rewards programs are going to give you chances to earn free travel and to earn some perks, but that they are both structured around making it a straightforward experience to earn free travel. Because Southwest doesn't offer first class seating at all, and jetBlue offers it only on select more popular long haul routes (e.g. New York to Los Angeles), their frequent flier programs by definition tend to focus on things other than first class style perks.

Who is it good for?

Membership in both programs is free. Points for Dollars programs are particularly good for travelers who value a simply straight-forward way to earn free travel more so than they value perks like first class upgrades offered to extremely frequent travelers in the "Traditional Miles" type programs. In practice this means that jetBlue's and Southwest's reward programs are great for travelers who like to keep things simple, who want to earn free tickets quickly, or who don't travel frequently enough to ever get upgraded to first class. Worth noting, also, that we've found that one tends to earn free travel more quickly in Southwest's and jetBlue's programs than the Traditional Miles setups (though we have no quantitative evidence to prove this).

How does it (generally) work?

This is where the simple and straight-forward concepts come in. You earn points when you buy tickets, and then you redeem those points for free tickets later. Every time you book a ticket on these airlines, their website or app will tell you how many points you will earn. The number of points you earn is directly proportional to the price of the ticket at the time you book. 

How do you redeem points for free travel?

When book a ticket on the airlines' websites or apps, you will be told how much the ticket costs in dollars, and how much the ticket costs in points. You can then buy that ticket with your credit card, or by redeeming the points you've earned in the past (the airline keeps track of these for you). The number of points required is directly proportional the dollar price of the ticket. The ticket "purchased" by redeeming points is the same as any other ticket you might have purchased with actual dollars. There are no strange blackout dates where the airline won't let you redeem points for a ticket, and there are no restrictions on what kinds of seats are available for those redeeming points. All that is to say... you buy tickets, you earn points; later you redeem the points you have for the free ticket you want. Simple.

But wait, are there any perks for the more frequent travelers?

In fact, there are!

With jetBlue, members earn TrueBlue Mosaic status (they keep it simple with only one level) when they either travels 30 segments (individual flights) and earns 12,000 points in a single year, or they simply earn 15,000 points in a single year. Mosaic status waives change and cancellation fees (by far the best benefit, in our opinion), and gives you two free checked bags on every flight, access to an expedited security line at checkin, early boarding, at least 9 points earned per dollar spent when booking on, a dedicated customer service phone line, and complimentary alcoholic beverages on board. Members also score 15,000 bonus points when they first qualify for Mosaic.

Southwest Rapid Rewards members earn A-List status when they fly either 25 one way flights or earn 35,000 qualifying points in a single year (don't try to equate jetBlue and Southwest points, as they value them differently). A-Listers get to board first, earn 25% more points on each flight, get priority when they are flying standby (i.e. waiting without a ticket for an empty seat to free up), access a priority checkin and security line, and enjoy a dedicated A-List customer service phone line. Members earn A-List Preferred status when they fly either 50 one way flights or earn 70,000 qualifying points in a single year. These folks get what ordinary A-Listers get, plus 100% more points on each flight and free in-flight WiFi. Finally, members earn Companion Pass status when they fly either 100 one way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a single year. Not only do the Companion Passers get all the benefits of A-List Preferred, they unlock what I think is the most crazy valuable thing in the whole airline frequent flier kingdom: a free Companion Pass that lets you designate one person of your choice to fly with you, anytime for an entire year. Yes, that means that (as Southwest puts it) "Your spouse, your best friend, or maybe your mother" can fly for free with you anytime.

What about when I fly on other airlines?

Sadly, Southwest doesn't allow you to earn and redeem points on other airlines. jetBlue, however, will let you earn and redeem your TrueBlue points for travel on both Hawaiian Airlines and Emirates. This is particularly useful because jetBlue does not overlap with either of these other airlines on many routes, so it effectively expands your "in-network" frequent flying to be far more global.

Bottom Line

We'll finish where we began. The "Traditional Miles" models of American, Delta, United, and Alaska Airlines are great for travelers seeking lots of perks, and who are going to fly often enough to earn them. Southwest's and jetBlue's "Points for Dollars" models are great for travelers who like to keep things simple, who want to earn free tickets quickly, or who don't travel frequently enough to ever get upgraded to first class. I always recommend that you carry at least the free base tier of membership in any program where you can't pool with another program, e.g. I recommend concentrating your jetBlue and Hawaiian earning in the program of whichever of the two airlines you fly the most, rather than maintaining both a HawaiianMiles and a jetBlue TrueBlue membership.