Free First Class 2014: Basics of Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points

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This is the nineteenth post in a monthlong series that started here. Each post will take about two minutes to read and may include an action item that takes the reader another two minutes to complete. I am writing this for an audience of people who know nothing about frequent flyer miles, and my goal is that by the end, you know enough to fly for free anywhere you want to go.

I’ve covered how to earn miles and the redemption options for miles. Now I’m giving the basics on several major airline programs where you can quickly collect miles for amazing trips. Today: the Southwest Rapid Rewards, JetBlue TrueBlue, and Virgin America Elevate programs. I’m taking all three together because they are similar programs.

Why Collect Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Points?

All three types of airline points can save you big on your next domestic trip or near international trip.

All three types of points can access every flight on their respective airlines with no blackouts.

  • What airlines can you fly with Rapid Rewards, TrueBlue points, and Elevate points?
  • What are the special features of each program?
  • How can you book Rapid Rewards, TrueBlue, and Elevate awards?

Points Price of Awards

Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America have fixed value award programs. You can book any flight on the respective airlines with your points and you pay a number of points based on the cash price of the ticket you want.

Southwest charges 70 points for every dollar of the base fare of the ticket you want. That means Rapid Rewards are worth about 1.4 cents each.

JetBlue points are worth about 1.5 cents each toward a ticket.

Virgin America points are worth 1.7 to 2.2 cents each toward a ticket.

This type of fixed value or quasi-fixed value contrasts sharply with all the other miles I’ve talked about so far where the miles required for a ticket had to do with where you were flying and not the price of an equivalent cash ticket.

Partners

Southwest points can only be used on Southwest and AirTran flights.

JetBlue points can be used on JetBlue and Hawaiian flights.

Virgin America points can be used on Virgin America, Virgin Atlantic, Virgin Australia, Singapore, Emirates, and Hawaiian flights.

Special Features

Southwest’s program has a workaround to cap awards at 19,200 points roundtrip.

JetBlue’s program has really good redemption opportunities for Mint Class, the best business class inside the continental United States with a fully enclosed suite.

Virgin America has award charts for its partners, and the Hawaiian Airlines chart in particular has some gems like 20,000 miles roundtrip between the continental United States and Hawaii.

Taxes

All awards require the payment of government taxes associated with your trip. Taxes start at $5.60 one way within the United States and range up to $100 or more for international awards.

How to Book Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America Awards

To book these airlines with their points, head to their respective websites. To book their partners, you need to call the airline whose points you are using.

Bottom Line

Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America (other than for its partners) all have fixed value award programs that let you fly an flight with no blackouts.

The advantages of these programs are the ease with which you can turn points into flights and the fact that I think all three offer a better domestic flying experience than legacy carriers.

The disadvantage is that a lack of an award chart makes it impossible to get outsized value from the points by booking flights that are cheap on a chart but expensive with cash.

These programs should be a complementary part of your points strategy if the airlines fly where you live and want to go.

Any questions? What did I leave out?


Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Scott:
    Thanks for including these often overlooked airlines. When I’m flying domestically out of Philadelphia, and the legacies are too cheap to use/waste points on, and therefore I’m ready to spend cash, I always check Southwest to see if I can use their points. As you pointed out, it’s tough (if not impossible) to get outsized value out of the points, so I find that these points are best used for flights that I’d be using cash for. Plus, I find Southwest’s “bags fly free” policy to be extra nice when going on ski trips to Denver or Salt Lake City. Free TV on most flights and happy flight attendants are also a bonus.

    • Great points. I definitely use the points to save cash instead of to take luxury trips. And they are more valuable when you need to check bags. Note that JetBlue allows one free checked bag and Virgin America allows zero.

    • Not at the moment. Southwest 50k offers pop up every few months, but right now the offer is 25k. The others never have big bonuses.

  2. Scott-
    I’ve heard plenty about the SW miles devaluation (70mi/$ of fare). Whenever I do searches on SW, though, I still see plenty of flights out of my home airport at closer to 60mi/$ of fare for ‘Wanna Get Away’. What gives?

    • 70 points/$ of BASE fare. You get some taxes that are part of the cash fee for FREE on awards. That means that it often looks like you’re doing quite a bit better than 70 points/$.

  3. Yes Dave your right wait for a 50K points card and sometimes no fee first year too .. I have an INK card (transfer points) which I use to pay house bill and I get like 4K points a month SOoo anywhere here I come plus 2 lounge passes a year too.
    I’m a INKer

  4. You transfer points when you need them NOT before to keep your options open ..I have 42K united for the EU so maybe for 9/2015 I’ll transfer some to go or maybe to other places with my INK .. Check the latest links for the SW card..

  5. In which cases are Virgin America Elevate points worth 1.7 cents, and in which cases are they worth 2.2 cents?

    • Divide the cost of the underlying ticket by the miles required. The range is just because that ratio is not 100% fixed like Southwest’s.

  6. A big plus with Southwest points bookings is that they are fully refundable, with no fees. (It is true that there are no change fees on Southwest “Wanna Get Away” revenue bookings, but they are non-refundable, with significant restrictions on re-use of funds, so I much prefer to book with points if my plans are likely to change.)

    Another big plus for both Southwest revenue and points bookings is the ability to bring a companion along for free if you earn a “companion pass”. This is the best perk available anywhere for frequent domestic flyers who are willing to travel in coach.

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