The 8 cheapest ways to get the private jet experience

Sep 21, 2021

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Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.

Once upon a time, extremely wealthy people bought their own planes. Later, other rich people realized they could buy shares in a jet instead of owning one since rare was the person who needed to use it on a daily basis. Today, alternatives to commercial air travel are entering the “Uber age,” making airplane travel an on-demand perk as accessible as ordering up a car.

In the space pioneered by venerable players such as NetJets and XO, nimble newcomers are redefining what we’ll call “affordable private jet luxury.” You no longer necessarily have to pay thousands of dollars per flight; all you need is an app, as little as a few hundred bucks and, often, a tolerance for tiny aircraft.

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The latest wave of growth is just the beginning. “The private jet industry is currently booming,” says Andres Morales, executive vice president of global operations for the aviation consultation company Skyline Group MC. “With more companies and individuals buying private aircraft, more jets are flying under capacity, so they look for different ways to offset their cost of ownership. That has resulted in an increase in the accessibility to flying private through different digital platforms that connect the consumer to a private aircraft.”

The newer players are capitalizing on three trends.

First, cautious travelers are seeking ways to avoid crowded airport terminals and packed aircraft cabins during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Second, airlines are pulling back from less-profitable routes to smaller airports, complicating commercial travel to second-tier destinations.

And third, elite flyers who typically travel business class are getting fed up with some hassles of flying commercial. Security lines have grown significantly, legroom is shrinking and personal device holders are replacing inflight entertainment screens on some airlines.

Related: How travelers are using private jets to avoid coronavirus exposure

Private jet operators are seeing a dramatic rise in demand as a result of the pandemic.

“Unsurprisingly, we have witnessed a substantial increase in the demand for private aviation — both from new members of XO and current members — during this sensitive time triggered by the coronavirus,” Ron Silverman, chief commercial officer of California-based on-demand private jet charter company XO, told us. “We expect demand to continue to grow as the situation remains unsettled and we are committed to meeting these requests.”

With that in mind, let’s look at some of the emerging players in the “affordable private jet luxury” space. While some services on this list are not entirely private, they all offer the convenience of flying out of smaller airports and private terminals where you can usually arrive just minutes before your scheduled departure time and avoid long security lines.

 

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JSX

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

JSX calls itself an “industry disruptor” aiming to “revolutionize the flying experience” with “celeb-worthy flying at an accessible price.” Behind the hype is a straightforward proposition: You’re buying a seat on a “private” jet rather than chartering the whole plane.

JSX’s fleet of Embraer E135 and E145 regional jets operates scheduled service seven days a week between cities throughout the West Coast and Texas, including Burbank, California (BUR); Las Vegas (LAS); Oakland, California (OAK); Santa Ana, California (SNA); Phoenix (PHX); Reno-Tahoe (RNO); Dallas (DAL); Houston (HOU); and more.

JSX also operates various seasonal and pop-up flights, such as to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico (SJD). The planes have 30 seats onboard, so they’re not truly private, but they’re much more spacious than most regional jets and have some other advantages over traditional commercial flights.

Related: Touring JSX’s ultra-spacious 1-1-configured jet

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

A huge part of JSX’s selling proposition is being able to arrive just 20 minutes before your flight. The jets operate from private hangars and terminals so there are no long check-in lines, traditional Transportation Security Administration screenings or baggage checks. The Points Guy has experienced JSX multiple times, noting that the experience was remarkably hassle-free.

Flights clock in as low as $129 each way and you can even earn JetBlue TrueBlue points for your flights. Among the believers is JetBlue founder David Neeleman, who invested; JetBlue and Qatar Airways also took a stake.

Related: As close to private as it gets: Flying JSX’s new route to LAX

Blade

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Although perhaps best known for its continuous helicopter service to airports in New York, Miami and Los Angeles, Blade offers on-demand charters for helicopters, turboprops and any class of private jet to practically anywhere in the world. As you’d expect, chartering an entire plane isn’t cheap, but much like JSX, Blade also lets you book by the seat on regularly scheduled flights to popular vacation spots such as Aspen, Colorado; Miami; and Nassau, Bahamas.

Blade also offers a feature called “FlightTilt” that allows you to propose a shared charter on your schedule. The flight is confirmed once four other seats are sold. Alternatively, if you’re looking to fly between New York and Florida and want to guarantee your shared charter at the time of booking, you can reserve a minimum of two seats for $3,750 each and allow Blade to sell the remaining seats on your flight.

Blade’s scheduled New York-to-Miami service, dubbed BladeOne, is operated using uniquely configured Bombardier CRJ200s that fly between Westchester, New York (HPN), and Miami’s Opa Locka Airport (OPF). This type of aircraft is typically used as a regional commercial passenger jet and can hold up to 50 people, but Blade’s have been converted into luxury jets for 16.

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)
Every flyer has ample space and direct aisle access on Blade’s CRJ200s. (Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

Onboard, passengers enjoy an array of amenities, such as gourmet food provided by BLT restaurants, iPads preloaded with entertainment, cashmere blankets and specially designed amenity kits with personal care products from boutique brands.

One-way tickets start at $2,850 each (or $3,345, including 15-minute helicopter transfers) between Manhattan and Westchester. What ups the value is that if you purchase a set of two round-trip tickets on BladeOne, you’ll also get a room for the weekend at the opulent Faena Hotel Miami Beach. I recently got to experience this service and it was truly A-list from beginning to end.

Related: What it’s like to fly BladeOne from NYC to Miami

(Photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy)

BladeOne flights to Aspen are operated by a Gulfstream G400 Large Jet and start at $3,500 per seat. Regardless of whether it’s a BladeOne or FlightTilt flight, Blade is now requiring all passengers to be fully vaccinated.

If you’re new to Blade, you can receive $50 off your first flight when you sign up with the code BRIANF&F. Those under 28 can get discounts on flights between Manhattan and the Hamptons in New York; Nantucket, Massachusetts; and Miami with a Blade-GX membership.

Aero

Aero cabin
(Photo courtesy of aero.com)

Much like BladeOne, Aero sells seats on shared private jet flights. It offers routes to popular vacation destinations, such as Los Angeles to Aspen; Napa Valley, California; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; and Sun Valley, Idaho. On Oct. 14, it will also be launching flights between Los Angeles and Las Vegas.

Flights depart and arrive in private terminals. They’re operated by Embraer ERJ135LR jets, with 16 first-class seats arranged in a 1-1 configuration. Expect generous legroom, ample headroom and complimentary snacks and drinks. Even better, you can change or cancel your trip up to 48 hours before departure.

Surf Air

What if you could fly as often as you want, whenever you want, for a monthly membership fee? That’s the concept behind Los Angeles-based Surf Air, which pioneered “all you can fly” in 2013. You can arrive up to 15 minutes before your flight on one of Surf Air’s Swiss-built Pilatus PC-12 single-engine turboprops; New York fashion house Bespoken designed the clubby interiors.

Since its U.S. debut, more than 215,000 guests have flown Surf Air between about a dozen West Coast destinations, including Los Angeles, Oakland and Santa Barbara, California. Moving forward, the company plans to improve its operation by honing in on a few key routes, such as the Bay Area to Los Angeles and Dallas to Houston.

A Surfair Pilatus PC-12 landing at Burbank (Photo by Surfair)
A Surf Air Pilatus PC-12 landing at Burbank. (Photo courtesy of Surf Air)

The company offers four membership options, ranging from $199 per month to $2,999 per month:

  • Access ($199 per month): Gain access to all flights on a per-seat basis.
  • Advanced ($999 per month): Unlimited off-peak flights for free and access to buy everything else.
  • Freedom ($2,499 per month): Access the majority of flight inventory, including peak flights, for free.
  • Unlimited ($2,999 per month): Fly where and when you want across the entire network with no limits.

The per-seat price for scheduled flights usually starts at $99 for off-peak, $199 for peak and $349 for premium. You can unlock preferred pricing and flight credits with a FoundersCard membership.

Surf Air recently added nationwide on-demand charters to its offerings, with charters starting at $400 per hour. You can choose from thousands of aircraft and book directly online without needing to speak with a broker. Like Blade,  Surf Air does not own or operate any aircraft but rather acts as an agent for its members.

Related: The best cards for booking private jet travel

Surf Air on-demand website
Book on-demand private charters with Surf Air online. (Screenshot courtesy of Surf Air)

Set Jet

If you frequently travel between California, Arizona and Nevada, you might want to consider a Set Jet membership. For $99.95 per month (plus a one-time $99.95 security-check fee) you can book seats on private jet flights along the West Coast for just $450 to $490 each way — basically the cost of a commercial first-class ticket.

SetJet booking
(Screenshot courtesy of setjet.com)

Set Jet currently offers flights between Scottsdale, Arizona; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Orange County, California; San Diego; and San Francisco, as well seasonal flights to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and Aspen ($1,000 to $1,700 each way).

Rather than have a fixed schedule, flight times are determined by the first person to request the flight. Flights are operated exclusively by Bombardier Challenger 850 aircraft with 13-16 seats. Onboard, you can expect complimentary top-shelf alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages, premium snacks and free in-flight Wi-Fi. Set Jet also doesn’t charge extra for bags or if you elect to bring a pet along.

(Photo courtesy of Set Jet)

In the next 12 months, Set Jet plans to acquire two Embraer Lineage 1000s and launch a $1,000-per-month “elite membership.” With this membership, you’ll be able to book cross-country flights between Los Angeles and New York for just $3,799 each way.

Related: The golden age of travel isn’t over — it’s evolving

Wheels Up

Wheels Up is one of the biggest players in the industry and has been growing rapidly through the acquisition of companies including Delta Private Jets, Gama Aviation Signature and Mountain Aviation.

It launched in 2013 with a membership-only model focused on an exclusive fleet of Beechcraft King Air 350i aircraft but has since transitioned to a diversified services provider with one of the industry’s largest fleets of owned, managed and third-party partner aircraft. Members can choose from more than 1,500 planes, including the King Air 350i, Cessna Citation Excel/XLS, Cessna Citation X and many others in the light jet, midsize jet, super-midsize jet and large-cabin jet categories.

Citation Mountains 1
(Photo courtesy of Wheels Up)

It offers three membership tiers — Connect, Core and Business. Initiation fees range from $2,995 in year one for a Connect membership to upward of $29,500 in year one for the Business membership. Annual dues drop to $2,495 and $14,500, respectively, in year two. However, thanks to a new partnership with American Express, you can now get up to 40% off your membership and other perks if you have The Platinum Card® from American Express.

Connect members get access to some of the most popular Wheels Up features, including Hot Flights, which allows you to book discounted empty leg flights — when an aircraft is scheduled to fly without any passengers — for as low as $320 for an entire plane.

Related: Everything you need to know about Wheels Up private jet memberships

Like JSX and Blade, you can also “fly by the seat” on scheduled shuttle or charter flights to popular events. Core and Business members can take advantage of 24- and 48-hour aircraft-type guarantees, plus dynamic pricing with rates capped at $4,695 per hour for a King Air 350i. A midsized partner jet will set you back $7,695 per hour.

Members also have the opportunity to fast-track Delta Medallion status, earn Delta SkyMiles, get discounts on select Delta fares and more. Non-travel “Wheels Down” benefits include access to events such as private parties at Art Basel Miami, the Super Bowl and a hospitality house at the Masters Tournament.

Citation Excel XLS
(Photo courtesy of Wheels Up)

In early 2021, Wheels Up quietly opened its mobile app to non-members. Now, anyone can book charter flights, but the rates will be higher. Non-members also don’t have the same aircraft-availability guarantees as members or access to features such as shared flights or empty leg Hot Flights.

Related: Yes, you can fly private — here’s the secret that will help you do it

XO

While XO made a name for itself through its on-demand charter services, it also offers the ability to purchase individual seats on a growing number of regularly scheduled flights, as well as crowdsourced flights. XO-initiated “shuttle” flights, such as between New York and South Florida, start around $995 for members and $1,390 for non-members. These shuttle flights include a cabin attendant and complimentary food and drinks.

XO also frequently offers empty leg specials which can feature savings of about 50%-75%. While most empty leg specials are for the entire aircraft, XO sometimes even lets you book empty legs by the seat. Just be aware that XO is known for canceling empty legs quite frequently so it’s a good idea to have a backup option if your flight is canceled.

XO flights are available to non-members for an additional $395 fee. However, considering entry-level Rise memberships cost just $595 per year, it would make more sense to get one of those if you plan on booking more than two seats per year.

XO empty leg
(Screenshot courtesy of flyxo.com)

Linear Air

Founder William Herp calls Linear Air an air taxi for regional trips of 700-800 miles, when you don’t want to drive and there’s no good airline option. On sites like Kayak, he said, “We come up as the only nonstop option between places like New York City and Ithaca or Harrisburg and Bar Harbor, Maine.”

The company was founded in 2004 and has grown by more than 1,600% since then. It doesn’t own a single plane; like ride-hailing apps, the company partners with operators across the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean. A straightforward interface lets you request departure and arrival airports by inputting a street address or ZIP code. Herp told TPG that the average transaction comes to about $2,000 for a passenger configuration of three to eight seats. “When you fill up the seats and maximize the opportunity, you’re talking about $500-$800 per person,” or less than many commercial flights.

Bottom line

There are a number of companies offering charter subscriptions and private jet-like experiences for less than you might think. Since there aren’t any reasonable ways to book private jet flights with points and miles, be sure to use a credit card that maximizes the return on private jet travel because there are some serious points-earning opportunities here.

The Platinum Card from American Express is generally an excellent option for booking flights. It earns 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar for airfare booked directly with the airline or American Express Travel (on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), offers numerous travel protections and now even comes with discounts on Wheels Up. However, private flights often don’t code as airfare or even travel at all, so you’ll probably be better off using a card with a high return on everyday spending, such as the Chase Freedom Unlimited.

For more on private jet travel and exclusive travel experiences, see:

 

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Featured photo by Benji Stawski/The Points Guy.

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