Consuming Interests: Crunching numbers on Southwests' new Rapid Rewards

January 06, 2011|By Michelle Deal-Zimmerman | Baltimore Sun reporter

(From the Consuming Interests blog)

Southwest today announced that it will launch a totally revamped Rapid Rewards program on March 1. The airline will now award points based on how much you spend for your ticket. You can find the details at the airline's new website, You also can find a bit of a critique over at

I don't know that I'm in a position to be very critical. I pay little attention to our Rapid Rewards account and will confess to letting more points expire than I use. I just don't fly enough. But I do think there are several advantages to the Southwest's new program: no blackout dates, points don't expire, you can purchase points to "top up" your account to qualify for a reward and you can get any seat that's available. Plus the points can be used for international flights. All of that is awesome for a frequent flier program.

Slightly less awesome are the new tiers that award more points for more money. Now, I didn't say it's not fair. It is. Totally fair. Shouldn't travelers who pay more get a little something extra? It's innovative, too, because most programs reward based on miles, not dollars spent. And say you're a business traveler stuck on a Baltimore-Boston route with few miles to earn and paying $400 bucks for the privilege. This may help you. Cheers!

But let's say you're a weekend traveler on Southwest who frequently flies to Boston or Long Island or even Norfolk. You're used to earning a free Rapid Rewards flight for every 8 roundtrips you take. And you're a frugal planner so you buy the $49 one-way Wanna Get Away flights, the lowest-priced category from Southwest. After paying only $800 or so in airfare, you earn a flight. You splurge since it's free. You're going to Los Angeles (about a $300 airfare).

Better do it now, because in a few months, this opportunity will disappear. Here's why:

With the new Rapid Rewards program, you won't earn that many points when paying low fares for short-haul flights. For those cheapo $49 flights to Boston, you'll earn 6 points per dollar spent in the Wanna Get Away category. That's 294 points one-way or 588 roundtrip. You purchase the same 8 roundtrips and you've earned yourself 4,704 points.

So now if you wanted to redeem the points for a little vacay to L.A. - maybe see Zac and Vanessa or baby-sit for Brad and Angelina - you would need to redeem 60 points for every dollar of the cost of that airfare in the lowest-priced Wanna Get Away category.

The cheapest flight to Los Angeles is same price it always is, around $300. To earn that reward flight you would need 60 x 300 = 18,000 points.

Yeah, so little Shiloh will need to be home alone because you're not going anywhere. You'll need to earn an additional 13,296 points or spend approximately another $2,216 (6 points per dollar on Wanna Get Away fares to earn a trip to L.A.

Now, let's say you paid the Business Select price of $350 for those flights to Boston. You earn 12 points for every dollar spent = 4,200 for a roundtrip. For 8 business trips you'll reel in 33,600 points. Wowee! You can take almost two free roundtrips to Los Angeles - in the Wanna Get Away category, not Business Select. To take a Business Select flight to L.A., about $800 a ticket, you would need to redeem 120 points per dollar = 96,000 points.

Oh, oh. Better keep flying, because you've got a long way to go, baby.

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