How does the Southwest Rapid Rewards card stack up?

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Question for the expert Dear Cashing In,
When it comes to frequent flier miles, it seems like the focus is always on American, United and the other big airlines. But I'm a Southwest fan and they're my first choice when it comes to flying. I'm thinking I should be taking advantage of that. How does their credit card stack up against the big guys? -- James

Answer for the expert Dear James,
One reason there's so much focus on the big airlines is that a lot of miles collectors see international flights as the big payoff when it comes to redeeming miles. Southwest is a domestic carrier. Generally, you do get more bang for your miles on overseas flights, but if your primary interest is flying within the U.S., that's not as relevant to you.

If you're putting most of your miles on Southwest, I assume you're already a Rapid Rewards member.  A Rapid Rewards card is a great way to build on that. It was the top choice in the 2013 Freddie Awards  for "best affinity credit card," beating not only the major airlines but all the hotel credit cards as well. What's all the fuss about? First of all, some perks the major airlines offer cardholders, such as free checked bags, come standard on Southwest. So this credit card has to try a little harder. 

For that reason, you can usually find attractive incentives. Right now, Rapid Rewards credit cards are offering a 50,000-point sign-up bonus -- worth two round-trip flights -- if you spend $2,000 in three months. All Rapid Rewards cards are Visa Signature. The Rapid Rewards Plus card comes with a $69 annual fee and an annual 3,000-point bonus and the Premier card charges a $99 annual fee but offers a 6,000-point annual bonus -- meaning both cards pay their annual fee back in free travel. (You can buy a Southwest Wanna Get Away fare for 60 points per dollar.)

The Premier card makes it easier to achieve A-list elite status by granting you 1,500 tier-qualifying points for every $10,000 in purchases -- up to 15,000 tier-qualifying points annually. If you do use this card overseas, it charges no foreign transaction fees. Both Premier and Plus cards offer 2 points for every $1 spent on Southwest and AirTran (charged directly with the airlines), 2 points for every $1 on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases. 

With the ongoing merger between Southwest and AirTran, you may also be able to score an overseas flight -- to Mexico or the Caribbean at least -- on AirTran. Once the merger is complete, you'll be able to book all AirTran flights directly through Southwest. In the meantime, you can do it by transferring your Rapid Rewards points to AirTran's A+ Rewards program.

See related: AirTran, Hilton HHonors cards change; how it affects you

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Updated: 12-18-2018