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Fewer rewards in the cheap seats

Southwest revamps its frequent flier program to reward travelers who buy more expensive tickets. Business travelers may benefit.

By Teresa Mears Jan 10, 2011 6:18PM

For years, Southwest Airlines has operated the simplest of frequent flier programs: Fly 16 segments in two years and you get a free flight.

No more. Southwest is revamping its Rapid Rewards program, switching to a points system similar to that used by other airlines. More expensive flights will yield more points.


Who wins? Business travelers.


Who loses? Travelers who buy cheaper flights.


Michelle Deal-Zimmerman of The Baltimore Sun's Consuming Interests blog did the math:

  • Under the old program, if you bought eight $98 Wanna Get Away (the cheapest fare category) round-trips from Baltimore to Boston, you earned enough credits to get a free flight anywhere Southwest flies. She used Los Angeles as an example. Spending just under $800 on eight short trips yields a free $300 ticket.
  • Under the new program, those cheap trips get less credit. Every dollar spent in the Wanna Get Away category yields six points. Eight $98 round-trips are worth 4,704 points. But a $300 Wanna Get Away round-trip ticket requires 18,000 points -- or the equivalent of just over 30 $98 round-trips.

However, if you took Business Select flights to Boston, at a cost of $350 round-trip, you would earn 12 points for every dollar spent, or 4,200 for each round-trip. Eight of those trips would yield 33,600 points -- almost enough for two $300 Wanna Get Away trips. (A Business Select flight to Los Angeles, which costs about $800, would cost 96,000 points.)


Southwest hopes you like math.


The new program may appeal to business travelers. That's Southwest's goal, Tim Winship of SmarterTravel told USA Today:

They want to increase their share of the business travel market. This is all about that. The current program is woefully inadequate. It's never stacked up well against legacy carriers. This is very much an improvement in the loyalty program area for anyone who's a Southwest partisan.

The new program also creates several tiers of elite travelers, who get additional perks such as priority boarding and check-in and earn more points for each dollar they spend. Customers will earn one point for every $1 spent using Southwest's Rapid Rewards credit card, which has a $59 annual fee.


Other changes include removing blackout dates on award flights and offering international flights by other carriers as rewards.


Credits, which used to expire after two years, will not expire as long as a customer takes a flight or does some other "earning activity" every two years. This, too, is similar to other major airlines' rules.

The new program will begin March 1. Current members of the Rapid Rewards program will receive 1,200 points for each credit in their accounts. AirTran, which is being acquired by Southwest, will join the new program once that deal is final.


You can read about the changes in detail at Flyertalk, a bulletin board where fliers trade tips on how to maximize the value of their frequent flier miles.


"The new program is much less exploitable than the old one," Southwest forum moderator "NSW" concludes. "This also is intentional. It provides value that is much more closely linked to the value that you, the customer, provide to Southwest. Like it or not, you must agree that this is more fair."


Your bags will still fly free. 


What do you think? Is the change an improvement or a deterioration in the Southwest program? Will it affect your choice of which airline to fly?



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