Travel expert, Holly Johnson, offers tips and tricks to getting the most value out of Rapid Rewards flights.
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When you’re craving simplicity in a rewards program, Southwest Rapid Rewards can’t be beat. Unlike other airlines, Southwest doesn’t offer an award chart that dictates the number of points you’ll need for a flight. Instead, they base the required points on the cash price of airfare and other factors.
While the lack of fixed redemption rates may make the program seem tricky to use, it’s actually fairly cut and dry. You can search for the flights you want on the Southwest website and see how many points they will cost at any time. Points may go up and down as the real price of airfare fluctuates, but you can easily expand your search dates to find the flight you want at a price you can afford.
We’ve created this guide to explain how to book free airfare with the Southwest Rapid Rewards program. If you’re angling for free or discounted domestic travel or a low-cost tropical getaway, keep reading to learn more.
The best card for Southwest flyers
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card|
Why should you get it?
The Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card is by far the best value for a frequent Southwest flyer, thanks to its $75 travel credit and 7,500-point annual bonus.
|More things to know:|
Southwest Rapid Rewards fees and restrictions
- Hold and waitlist options – No hold or waitlist options (but Southwest’s cancellation policy is so liberal, it’s almost unnecessary).
- Booking restrictions – No blackout dates or limits on award seats – you can book any available fare with points.
- Fuel surcharges – No fuel surcharges. Southwest does charge a government-mandated fee of $5.60 per leg on domestic tickets and around $150 or less per person on international tickets.
- Booking fees – No booking fees.
- Ticket changes – You can make any changes to your ticket at any time with no fees – you only have to pay the difference in the fares.
- Cancellation policy – You can cancel up to 10 minutes before the flight and have your miles redeposited into your account, with no fee.
- Routing rules – One-way and open-jaw tickets allowed. Stopovers not allowed.
Booking Rapid Rewards flights
Booking airfare with Southwest points is easy thanks to the superior functionality of the Southwest Airlines website. Once you know where Southwest flies, you can plug in your home airport, desired destination and dates to see how much flights would cost in either points or cash.
When you select “points” instead of cash, you’ll be directed to a landing page with your flight options and the cost in points.
One interesting detail here is that all flights are only sold as one-way tickets. However, you can create a round-trip flight to any destination by choosing any two one-way flights you prefer. You can also create open-jaw tickets by booking a one-way flight into one destination and a return flight from another airport.
As you can see from the example above, Southwest flights can be very inexpensive. One-way flights from Chicago to Fort Lauderdale run as low as 6,313 miles one-way on random dates in December. If you change your search to look for cash fares, you’ll see that the price of this same fare is $102. The value works out to around 1.6 cents per mile, which is better than you may get with other frequent flyer programs such as the Delta SkyMiles program.
As you explore the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, here are some additional details you should be aware of:
Hold and waitlist options
While some frequent flyer programs and airlines, including American Airlines and the American AAdvantage program, allow you to put your flight on hold for a few days before your purchase, Southwest Airlines doesn’t offer this option. Your fare isn’t guaranteed until it’s paid for, so it’s smart to save up your points before you’re ready to make plans.
One of the biggest benefits of the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is that it doesn’t have as many rules and restrictions as other frequent flyer programs. There’s no limit on the number of award seats on any flight, for example. There are also no blackout dates, which means you can always book a flight with points if there is an available seat on the plane.
Since it is often difficult to find more than a few award seats on a specific flight with other frequent flyer programs, the lack of restrictions with the Southwest Rapid Rewards program is a major plus for families.
Fuel surcharges and fees
Just like other airlines, Southwest is legally required to charge government-mandated taxes and fees on their award flights. For domestic flights, fees are limited to $5.60 per leg. Taxes and fees on international flights to Caribbean destinations such as Aruba, Jamaica and Grand Cayman vary widely, but are usually $150 or less per person.
As an example, flight details listed below show that a round-trip flight from Chicago to Montego Bay, Jamaica would cost $141.35 in taxes and fees:
Booking and change fees
There are no fees for booking, canceling or even changing award reservations with Southwest, which is almost unheard of among frequent flyer programs.
“If you need to change an upcoming flight itinerary, you’ll only pay the cost in fare difference and will never incur a separate change fee,” notes Southwest on their website. “We don’t charge you for changing your mind, your plans or otherwise.”
Make sure to read Southwest’s refund policy to understand how your miles or cash will be refunded or credited for use on a future flight.
Since Southwest charges for all of their flights as one-ways (even if you book a round-trip itinerary), many of the rules used in other frequent flyer programs don’t apply here. You can create an open-jaw ticket by booking two one-way flights. One notable restriction: Southwest doesn’t allow stopovers, so you can’t book a visit to two separate cities on the same fare.
For the examples in this post so far, we’ve opted to choose Southwest’s Wanna Get Away fares, but the airline actually offers three types of fares:
- Wanna Get Away: Wanna Get Away fares are nonrefundable, but you’ll receive a credit toward a future flight if you cancel your flight. These fares do not qualify for same-day standby.
- Anytime: These fares are refundable and changeable and are available for same-day standby travel.
- Business Select: Business Select Fares qualify you for priority boarding in the A1-A15 group, a premium drink and extra Rapid Rewards points. These fares are refundable and exchangeable and qualify for same-day standby.
Southwest’s boarding process
One major point of contention with Southwest customers is their boarding process. Southwest Airlines does not assign seats. Instead, they opt to assign passengers boarding groups based on when they check in for their flight. While passengers who check in early may get a spot in the A or B group, those who check in last are destined to fall into the C group. The C group designation almost always means you’ll have to sit at the back of the plane, and it could mean you have to sit apart from your family and friends – or even in a dreaded “middle seat” next to strangers.
If you want to board the plane as early as possible, you do have a few options if you plan ahead. You can:
- Choose family boarding. If you have any children ages 6 or younger, you can board during family boarding between the A and B groups.
- Pay for Early Bird boarding. For $15 per leg, you can set up automatic early boarding that will get you a spot in the A group or the B group depending on availability.
- You can check in 24 hours early. If you check in for your flight exactly 24 hours before you depart, you have a good shot at getting an early boarding group without having to pay extra.
How to get the most out of Southwest Rapid Rewards
While the fares on Southwest are already pretty reasonable, there are plenty of ways to get more value out of your Southwest points:
- Shop sales. Since the cost of Southwest flights is tied to the cost of airfare, shopping during one of Southwest’s many sales can help you save points on your flight. Make sure to wait for a Southwest sale before you book if you want to score the lowest price possible.
- Change your fare if the cost of your flight drops. Because Southwest doesn’t charge change or cancellation fees, you can book the airfare you want then exchange it later if the price goes down. Depending on the type of fare and whether you paid cash or points, you’ll receive a full refund in cash or points or a travel credit good for a future flight.
- Check in 24 hours early to avoid the Early Bird upcharge. You can pay $15 per leg for early boarding, but you certainly don’t have to. If you want to save the expense, checking in for your flight exactly 24 hours ahead of time is usually enough to get you an early boarding spot in the A or B group.
- Avoid Business Select fares to conserve points. Wanna GetAway fares offer the best value for your points, so be sure to choose this fare when you can. There’s not a lot of value in the Business Select fares unless you are determined to get an A1-A15 boarding spot or need to earn extra miles.
- Book hidden city fares. Sometimes Southwest prices its longer flights at a lower rate than its shorter flights. In some cases, you can book a “hidden city” ticket with your preferred destination as your layover. Make sure to book one-way flights only on these particular trips so your return ride home isn’t canceled due to a “no show.”
It’s easy to see why Southwest Rapid Rewards is such a popular program for individuals, couples and families. With no blackout dates or capacity controls, no fees for cancellations or exchanges and flights that are often on the cheap side, what’s not to love?
See Related: What are Southwest points worth?, Southwest credit cards, Best ways to earn Southwest points, Best ways to redeem Southwest points, Southwest Airlines partners, Southwest A-List status, How to earn the Southwest Companion Pass, Rapid Rewards Shopping guide