How to book a Southwest Rapid Rewards flight
Southwest makes finding and booking flights with points incredibly simple
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.
Furthermore, the airline itself offers numerous perks that benefit travelers and help them save money, along with an attitude they’ve dubbed as “transfarency.” This policy is used to describe the airline’s lack of hidden fees, and it’s a breath of fresh air when you consider the sneaky and sometimes unfair fees levied by most airlines.
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.
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?
If you are someone who loves to travel – especially to domestic locales – but doesn’t want to have to put a lot of sweat into figuring out how to redeem airline miles, Southwest Rapid Rewards points may be the happy medium you’ve been searching for.
Rapid Rewards points are easy to redeem as they are to earn – you get a consistently good return on your points without having to worry about hidden fees or wading through a lot of complex rules to use them.
Southwest points value
Rapid Rewards points – while more valuable than the average credit card point, fall in the middle of the pack for airline rewards programs. While Southwest offers more value than some competitors, including JetBlue and United MileagePlus, it’s also far outmatched by a few airlines, including British Airways and American Airlines. We value Southwest points at approximately 1.6 cents per point:
See Related: Best ways to redeem Southwest points, Which Southwest credit card is best for you?, Best ways to earn Southwest points, Southwest Airlines partners, Southwest A-List status, Booking a rewards flight with Southwest, How to get the Southwest Companion Pass
Why we value Southwest points less than some airline currencies
While programs such as British Airways and AAdvantage use a chart to price their flight awards, the Southwest Rapid Rewards program ties the number of required miles closely to the price of the fare. In other words, the number of points required for a flight rises and falls with the price of the fare and remains fairly consistent across fare types. Since there are few opportunities to maximize the value of the points, Rapid Rewards points tend to have a lower value on average than rewards programs with fixed charts.
Southwest offers some advantages over these programs, however, in terms of flexibility and simplicity – you don’t have to navigate a complicated rewards chart to figure out how to redeem your points and you don’t have to deal with limited awards seats. As long as there are seats are available, you can use your points to pay for a seat.
Not to mention, Rapid Rewards points are still very valuable, especially if you redeem them for Wanna Get Away fares.
Since Wanna Get Away fares are by far the best deal on Southwest, we’ve used them to set the value of Southwest points at 1.6 cents per point. As you can see from our chart below, the other fare options on Southwest (Anytime and Business Select) don’t offer as much as value:
|Fare type||Value per point (cents)|
|Wanna Get Away||1.6|
How to value your Rapid Rewards points
We’ve told you how we calculate the value of Rapid Rewards points, but, truly, the value of points is subjective – depending on your goals for your points and how you ultimately end up using them. Here are some questions you should ask yourself in valuing your Rapid Rewards points:
- How do you prefer to redeem your points? Do you intend to redeem your points for anything besides Southwest flights? If so, you’ll probably have to shave some cents off your rewards value, since the value of redemption options outside of Southwest flights tends to be low.
- What class do you prefer to fly in? Class is almost a moot point on Southwest flights – you get a few additional perks and priority seating in Business Select class, but otherwise, everyone sits in the same seats. Still, you should decide ahead of time if you prefer a Business Select fare, since the points will have a lower value.
- Where do you want to fly? The more popular your destination, the higher the price of the flights and the more likely lower-priced fares will get snatched up quickly.
- Where are you flying from? If you live in a major city, you may find yourself with more flight options (and more options for Wanna Get Away fares) than if you live in a smaller city.
- How flexible are you on flying? If you are flexible on your dates and destinations, you are more likely to find Wanna Get Away fares (as well as great deals on discount fares).
- How far in advance can you book your flight? Wanna Get Away fares tend to disappear quickly from the list of available flights, especially for popular times and destinations. If you don’t tend to book your flights months in advance, you may find yourself having to pony up extra points to purchase an Anytime fare.
How to calculate the value of Rapid Rewards points
There are varying philosophies on calculating the value of points, but, for simplicity’s sake, we offer the following calculation:
Rapid Rewards Value = Reward Value (in dollars)/Number of Points
In other words, to determine the value of your points, you take the amount that you would pay for your intended redemption option in cash and divide it by the number of points.
Of course, there is an endless number of factors that can affect the value of your points, such as the opportunity cost for the Rapid Rewards points that you would earn by paying for your flight with cash or a rewards card, varying prices of airfare over time, the lowest possible price that you could get by flying with any airline to your desired destination, and so on.
But, for a basic comparison of points across rewards programs, simply dividing the price of your redemption by the number of points should give you enough information.
How flexible are Rapid Rewards points?
Rapid Rewards points are extremely flexible for an airline rewards currency -- flexibility is, in fact, one of the greatest benefits of flying with Southwest. Here's a rundown of the pros and cons of Rapid Rewards:
- Rapid Rewards points never expire.
- There are no blackout dates or restrictions on awards seats on Southwest Airlines – if a seat is available on a flight, you can book it with points.
- The Southwest Airline network offers great domestic coverage (including flights to Hawaii soon).
- Point valuation is very straightforward – Southwest only has three types of fares (Wanna Get Away, Anytime and Business Select fares) and the pricing and value of points is very consistent across these three options, so it’s easy to determine what type of fare you need to book and what strategy you need to take to get the best value.
- Southwest is extremely flexible about making changes to award tickets – you can cancel up to 10 minutes before your flight and have your points refunded, and there’s no fee for changes.
- You don’t have to worry about hidden costs or fees with Southwest. For most flights, you will only owe $5.60 in government-mandated taxes and fees.
- Routing rules are very flexible. Since all flights are booked as one-way tickets, you can create open-jaw tickets by booking two one-way flights. Layovers aren’t allowed, but, since Southwest doesn’t fly to many international destinations, there’s not much need for complex routing.
- Southwest partners with many companies – including hotel, car rental and other types of partners – giving you a plethora of opportunities for earning points, including some great deals that can earn you a lot of points all at once.
- You have few options for international travel with Southwest Airlines – outside the U.S., Southwest only travels to Mexico, Costa Rica and the Caribbean – and it doesn’t partner with any other airlines to give you more flight options. (You can book international flights with other airlines through the More Rewards portal, but the value is terrible.)
- Wanna Get Away fares tend to disappear quickly, so you need to book far in advance if you want a good value on your points.
- Since the value of Rapid Rewards points is fairly flat, there aren’t many opportunities to “hack” your way to a higher point value (but the program offers many other kinds of hacks, as you’ll see in other pages of this guide).
Are Rapid Rewards points worth it?
If you want a simple airline rewards program with a lot of value, Southwest Rapid Rewards points are a great way to go. Not only can you get a lot of mileage with your points, but – since Southwest makes it simple to redeem points – you’re almost certainly guaranteed to fly great places with your points.
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:
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
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