I’m a big fan of aspirational award tickets. Mmmmboy, I do love lie-flat seats on wide-body jets to exotic locales, seeing sites I once thought only existed on postcards. It’s a big treat for my fiancée and me to sink back into our flying barcaloungers, dine on grilled sea bass with truffle oil, and get a taste of how the one percent lives: you know, caviar fights, in-seat monocle polishers, retractable dancing poles like the one Tony Stark has in his jet. (I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.) The flight itself becomes part of the vacation; it’s a little bit of escapist indulgence.
But the rest of the time, there’s still plenty of unglamorous, utilitarian travel to be done. For that, we usually just book the cheapest possible tickets, resigning our non-status-wielding selves to a fate wedged between a lactose-intolerant fat guy and a spastic baby with an inner ear infection. Ah, well, it’s only for two or three hours. And the tickets are so cheap that it isn’t worth bothering with our precious cache of frequent flyer miles.
At least, that’s what I used to think. But domestic ticket prices have been steadily creeping upwards. Depending on the time of year we need to fly, clicking “Purchase” can be a semi-painful experience. Gone are the days when you could count on buying a $200 ticket to anywhere. Still … I really hate the idea of cashing in 50,000 miles for us to ride a flying bus to Ohio.
However, last October at the Chicago Conferences, I learned about the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass, and it immediately set the little gears in my head to spinning. It’s a technique that has been extensively explained elsewhere, but here’s the skinny: by applying for two Southwest Chase credit cards, and picking up another 10,000 points elsewhere (fairly easy), you can earn a Companion Pass that’s valid for up to two years. One designated companion can travel with you for free, whether you’ve bought your ticket, or acquired it with points – and if you’ve gotten the Pass, then you’ll have acquired at least 110,000 points to use.
My fiancée just received notice that she’s earned her Companion Pass, which is good through December 31, 2014. That’s a truly amazing benefit; we’ll be enjoying fly-one, get-one-free for the next 23 months. And consider the math: Southwest points, used on Wanna Get Away fares, are fixed in value at 1.67 cents apiece. Having the Companion Pass automatically doubles that. Suddenly, our Southwest Rapid Rewards are worth 3.34 cents apiece … second only to SPG Starpoints! Repeat: They’re more valuable than United or US Airways miles. And Southwest is an Ultimate Rewards transfer partner; if you have the Pass, your UR points are worth 3.34 cents each.
Another airline I’ve grown to love is Frontier, for a simple, specific reason: since Denver is their sole hub, we can fly non-stop to a whole mess of destinations (including Mexico and the Caribbean) that would otherwise require a connection and a few wasted hours in the Concourse F Applebee’s. Frontier’s prices are low, the service is good, and every seatback features a small television with DirecTV. And it’s a far more comfortable trip, since they only fly Airbus A319’s, instead of the tiny ERJ-135 winged cigar tubes of United Express and American Eagle (this applies to Southwest and their 737s as well). It’s nice to be able to stand up in a plane.
Now, thanks to a recent blog post on MileValue.com, I’m realizing just how valuable Frontier Early Returns can be for traveling couples. Frontier already has some of the lowest award redemption rates on the market: 20,000 for a domestic roundtrip, 30,000 for Mexico and the Caribbean. If you own a Frontier MasterCard – which I do – you can book an additional award for your wife/companion/buddy/amigo when they travel with you, at a 5,000 mile discount. That’s already pretty good, but here’s the gold, baby: it applies to one-way awards as well. You can book the awards as a pair of one-way trips, effectively doubling the companion discount to 10,000 miles. Two people could fly round-trip domestically for 30,000 miles, or to the Caribbean/Mexico for 50,000 miles. Compare that to United or American, which would set you back 50,000 and 70,000 miles, respectively.
This isn’t quite as automatically juicy: it depends on what day of the week you fly. If you’re redeeming miles to travel on a Tuesday – usually the cheapest day to fly – you’re only getting about 1.45 cents of value out of every mile. But for weekend travel, where the prices are plenty higher, you can get up to three to four cents of value out of every Frontier mile. For seats in economy! Now that’s what I’m talkin’ about. And remember, Frontier is one of American Express’ transfer partners, so this technique becomes a potentially lucrative way to use your Membership Rewards points.
So when traveling with your sweetie – or, y’know, your college buddy Phil – don’t write off the “discount” airlines. It might be some of the best valuation you get out of your miles.