Is a JetSmarter Membership Worth It?
For three months this summer I had something I absolutely never thought possible, a private jet membership. Thanks to an awesome (and short-lived) JetSmarter promotion, those who could demonstrate they had certain airline elite status or a million miles and points could have a free JetSmarter Simple membership for three months. While I didn't take a flight at all for the first half of this trial as life with two small children doesn't align well with jetting off at a moment's notice, I did become a bit more addicted to the allure of the JetSmarter app in the second half of the trial. Now that it is over and I have returned back to my regularly scheduled far less glamorous life, I want to share my overall experience and break down if a paid JetSmarter Membership is worth it, or rather, in which cases it might be worth it.
What a JetSmarter Membership Gets You
There are two tiers of JetSmarter membership, Simple or Smart. As of today, a JetSmarter Simple membership costs $5,000 per year and the Smart membership costs $15,000 per year. I don't think those prices are 100% set in stone, but they should give you a ballpark idea of what this all costs. I know many of us don't spend that much per year on airfare total, so immediately a majority of the population is priced out of this game. But, for the heck of it, let's keep digging into what that money gets you.
With the JetSmarter Simple Membership (that is reportedly going away beginning October 1, 2017), you get two free seats on the empty leg flights they call "Deals". These flights typically appear in the JetSmarter app within 24 hours of takeoff and they are impossible to predict as they only appear when a jet operator needs to reposition aircraft for a paying customer. For example, if a plane is sitting in Houston and someone has chartered it for tomorrow to go from Pensacola - Teterboro, then an empty leg from Houston to Pensacola may appear available to hop on for free if you have a JetSmarter Simple or Smart membership.
In fact, this is the exact scenario that happened over the summer and resulted in my husband, my toddler, and I going to Florida for the night. Since our trial was at the Simple level we only had two included seats and had to purchase the third. Had we been "Smart" members, three complimentary seats would have been included. When you purchase an additional seat on a deal flight the price seems to range from about $150 to $850, depending largely on the length of the flight. A short flight - Houston to Austin, will probably run around $150 for an extra seat while something like Houston to California would probably ring in at the high end of that range. Thankfully, our extra seat to Florida was toward the lower end of the price scale, otherwise, we wouldn't have been able to do it.
In addition to the impossible to predict Deals flights (and we'll talk more about them later), your JetSmarter membership also gets you tokens you can use to reserve seats on scheduled shuttles. The shuttle flights are largely concentrated on the two coasts, as well as in Europe. There are some shuttle flights from the middle of the country such as Dallas - White Plains, but most scheduled routes are in/out of the New York area, California, and Florida. Many of the routes are just once or twice a week, while some operate more frequently, and some (like Houston - Dallas), virtually never happen.
You have to use a token to reserve a seat on a scheduled shuttle flight and those that are over three hours in length, or some of the New York - Florida routes are not available on a complimentary basis to Simple members and even Smart members seem to have to pay a fee plus their token for the longer shuttle flights. As an example, if a Simple member wanted to hop on the Dallas - White Plains weekly Gulfstream shuttle it would cost a few thousand dollars per seat, but if you were a Smart member, it would cost a shuttle token plus a couple hundred dollars.
In addition to the actual flights, being a JetSmarter member gets you into some fancy members-only events and access to a few other clubs and perks.
How Useful are the JetSmarter Deals Flights
I never took a JetSmarter shuttle flight during my trial, but I did take three free deals flights and I watched the app like an obsessed hawk for a number of weeks to see what types of free flights would appear. Unless you regularly fly one of the shorter shuttle routes, the real value of the Simple membership is in the Deals flights. However, there is a narrow segment of people that will be able to drop everything and fly within 24 hours, arrange hotels and return flights at the last minute, and obsessively watch the app for new free flights. That segment of people does exist, but it isn't for everyone.
However, for those it works for, it is awesome. I loved watching the app and seeing flights like Houston to Aspen, Jackson, Vail, Hailey, Kansas City, St. Louis, Hyannis, Columbus, Las Vegas, Dallas, Austin, Pensacola, Panama City, and more appear. Those were all actual flights I saw as bookable over the summer, with even more than that coming out of Austin and Dallas. While I missed it, I know some folks who even hopped on a free Friday evening flight this summer from Houston to Nassau, Bahamas, which would have been a blast.
The free empty leg flights are generally to places where the rich and famous play, or in the case of the eclipse this summer, to places where big events are going on. You will see patterns of lots of empty leg flights to cities that are hosting large golf tournaments, important meetings, big events, etc. as the planes return to pick-up paying customers and take them back to their home cities.
The downside for me is that I only had two free seats with the Simple membership trial, so with a family of four it wasn't frequently practical to leave two people behind while two of us jetted off. You also have to factor in that it is unlikely a free empty leg flight will appear for the return, so you are likely on the hook for last-minute airfare for everyone to get back home. Having airline miles came in very handy for that purpose, but that could get expensive after a while. The other option, if you are really a free-ranging spirit, is to just go where the free flights take you.
My favorite use of an empty leg was when I flew with my oldest daughter to Jackson, Wyoming, on a gorgeous half-empty Challenger 300 with one day's notice. We flew home the next morning using miles on a United flight to get back to the rest of our family and responsibilities, but if we were more adventurous and without responsibilities we could have gone from Jackson on another empty leg flight the next day to California, then on the day after that on one to Aspen, then the day after that on one to Minnesota, and then just gone on wherever the empty legs take you. Eventually, you would get 'stuck' somewhere and have to get yourself to a more major city where the empty legs occur more frequently, but it would be a lot of fun to just roam the country on free private planes for a while. I know some folks who did do some of that city hopping over the summer.
As for the planes themselves, they ranged from amazing to cramped. I mean, the experience of flying private and not going through security, or hassling with large airports, was absolutely fantastic, but the seat itself ranged from amazing to more cramped than Spirit, depending on the aircraft and whether or not it was a full flight.
Thankfully every other person we met on each of my three free JetSmarter flights (all operated by XOJets) was very nice and fun to talk to, but if you are adverse to basically being forced to socialize with strangers then you may not like the arrangement. Some take flights solely to network, and I would say that is a decent portion of the attraction for those on the up and coming circuit.
While the free empty-leg flights are outstanding if they work for your schedule, do be aware they can and do cancel even if they were previously confirmed. Theoretically, once you are confirmed on the flight you will get help getting to your intended destination if the empty leg flight is canceled by the operator, but I have heard stories where that didn't happen. Until you're wheels up, you really can't be sure you are going to make it to where you think you are going.
Flying a Scheduled Private Shuttle Flight
As I mentioned, I never used this feature of JetSmarter, but let's pretend you live somewhere that had regular shuttle flights, like Dallas. If you used the Dallas - New York (White Plains) flight most weeks to go to New York instead of purchasing a commercial airline ticket you would end up paying $400 - $500 per round trip + tokens if you had a JetSmarter Smart membership. That is about the same price as a Monday - Thursday round-trip economy ticket on major airlines except instead of sitting in economy, dealing with security, crowded terminals, etc. you are sitting on a private Gulfstream plane.
That is awesome at face value, but also remember you then don't control your own schedule as there is only one round trip per week on that route, you aren't earning miles and elite status you can then redeem for first class flights to Europe, and you are paying $15,000 per year on top of the weekly co-pay for that 3+ hour flight. Not only that, but you aren't flying close into Manhattan to LaGuardia or JFK, but instead of you are landing all the way out in White Plains. Now if you can then take a helicopter from there into the city that fact doesn't really matter, but all of those costs add up, obviously.
On the flip side, a route like New York - South Florida has shuttle flights sometimes 4x times per day to and from a variety of airports, so depending on where you live and where you want to go, the shuttle flights can range from virtually useless to absolutely amazing. If you ever travel to Europe, also remember that there are a variety of shuttles between cities throughout Europe as well.
So, is JetSmarter Worth It?
At the $1 price I paid for my trial membership, absolutely, but of course, if you have to pay for your membership then you have to be a lot more discerning about the value. Assuming you have from $5,000 - $15,000 per year to spend on a membership in the first place (and I know most people don't), it can be worth it if you either can keep a close eye on the app and hop on empty leg flights at a moment's notice, or you will regularly use a scheduled shuttle flight.
If you are using the deals or shuttle flights, then the most valuable aspects of flying private via JetSmarter are not having to deal with the hassles of a large airport and crowded airplanes and getting to meet some pretty awesome people in the air. if you charter your own plane, as you can via JetSmarter either for your own crew or via a shared charter where you get credit to use in the future for each "stranger" who books a seat on your selected itinerary, then you also get the added benefit of choosing exactly when and where to fly, but now you are in a whole other stratosphere of cost.
If I didn't have children, or if they were older and could manage fine without me, I could see a JetSmarter Simple membership with the free jet deals being a great fit for me, though maybe not with a $5,000 price tag. However, it is not that the $5,000 price tag isn't worth it, it is just that it is out of my price range at this time. If you took a couple of free jet deals flights each month with a friend then, it could easily be "worth" the averaged out $416 per month cost, assuming you had that amount to spend.
For the $15,000 Smart membership to be worth it, I think you need to be regularly using the shuttle flights. Flying private, even with a plane full of strangers, is a whole lot of fun and I very much hope we get to do it again at some point.
If you are seriously considering joining JetSmarter, do be aware that I have heard many people describe JetSmarter along the lines of "When it works like it is supposed to, it is great. When you have a problem, it is terrible." My experience was all good, but my experience is also limited to three deals flights on a free trial membership. If you do decide to spend real money to join be aware that it isn't all roses and champagne and you have to be okay with some hiccups and changes along the way.
As the terms and day to day opportunities stand right now, I do think JetSmarter can be worth it for an adventurous frequent traveler who has the cash to spend. For a regular family with traditional responsibilities and a relatively tight budget, a JetSmarter membership is a really fun idea, but sadly not something that will probably fit well into daily life and budgets. And it is with that that I say goodbye for now to my months of flying in the sky on a private plane. I still check the JetSmarter app more frequently than I should in order to see the various empty-leg opportunities, but until $5,000 bonus dollars appear out of thin air, I'll be waving to the fancy flights from the ground.
If you were on the trial, have a membership, or seriously considered a JetSmarter membership I'd love to hear your thoughts!