The November 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine says some reward points programs soar and some leave you grounded. Staff of Consumer Reports who are members of frequent flyer programs of nine airlines looked at flight awards with Alaska, American, Delta, Frontier, JetBlue, Southwest, Spirit, United and US Airways and wrote about their findings. All of the researchers searched for frequent flyer award seats on the same day for the five most popular U.S. routes: Chicago to New York City, Los Angeles to San Francisco, Los Angeles to New York, Chicago to Los Angeles and Atlanta to New York City. They searched for award flights that left on a Friday and returned on a Sunday, two of the busiest days for air travel, and searched for flights that departed in three days, in one month and three months. They noted how many flights they could book, the number of miles needed to book and how long each leg of the trip would take. They also noted necessary stops, the fees to book and how easy it was to book via the website.
The results of the research:
Airlines that charge the most: Spirit required the most miles for all routes checked, followed by US Airways and these two carriers also charged the highest booking fees with both requiring $111 to fly on a few days’ notice.
Those that charged much less: Alaska Airlines came in number one with the researchers noting the flights were less than half the miles needed to fly on Spirit. JetBlue, American and Delta followed Alaska.
Most available seats: Delta had the most available seats, followed by Southwest and US Airways but the researchers found that some of the airlines with the best mileage deals were also harder to book–for example, they were unable to book a seat on returning flights on three Alaska routes, four out of five American and one on United. Frontier and Sprint had no seats available Chicago to Los Angeles and Los Angeles to San Francisco, respectively.
Best for booking far ahead: JetBlue, Southwest and US Airways significantly increase the number of points needed to book last-minute awards.
Best for last-minute travel: United was the only airline that showed a decrease when booking last minute during the research–50,000 miles needed between Chicago to New York City dropped to 25,000 miles for a flight leaving in three days.
Most consistent: Delta had little fluctuation for each route. The number of miles needed for award flights on Alaska, American, Frontier and Spirit were also relatively flat with some exceptions.
Another aspect the researchers looked at is the time it takes to fly between the five chosen routes. The time between Los Angeles and New York City ranged from 5:08 hours to 11:27 hours (with connections) while surprisingly, the time between Los Angeles and San Francisco ranged from 1:10 hours to a whopping 7 hours (you could drive between the two cities in that amount of time). To read more about the report, visit http://www.insideflyer.com/link/?11761
Bottom line: It’s good that Consumer Reports mentions, “Of course, our results are a snapshot …” Because that is certainly what it was because all of the research was done online only (no phone calls were made to facilitate booking the flights), no flights were for international travel, no consideration was made between revenue-based programs like Southwest vs. mileage-based programs like American AAdvantage and another popular frequent flyer program, Virgin America Elevate, wasn’t featured at all. Consumer Reports also mentioned that Alaska, Frontier and JetBlue don’t fly all of the routes they looked at, “which was taken into account when we crunched the numbers.”