The Complete Guide to Southwest Rapid Rewards

Last Updated: 02/07/2020


Rating

GigaTake:

Southwest’s Rapid Rewards is one of the better airline loyalty programs. It offers generous rewards for flying, and many other ways to earn points. While Rapid Rewards points aren’t super flexible, you can always get solid value by using them to pay for flights. Plus, the Companion Pass is one of the best perks in the industry.

What Is Southwest Rapid Rewards?

Rapid Rewards is the frequent-flyer program for Southwest Airlines, the biggest low-cost airline in the world. Started as a regional airline, Southwest now operates more than 4,000 flights a day. Most are in the United States, but Southwest also flies to Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America.

Southwest is the rare airline that doesn’t charge for checked luggage—every passenger gets two free checked bags, plus free in-flight music, movies, and live television. Also unusual: no assigned seating, even for business-class travelers.

The Rapid Rewards loyalty program was designed to be (relatively) simple. You can pay for any Southwest seat with points. You’ll always get at least 1.2 cents of value for each point that way, and often as much as 1.5 cents a point. Unlike with other airline programs, you can also get decent value by using your points with Southwest partners.

How to Earn Southwest Rapid Rewards

You earn Rapid Rewards mainly by flying Southwest—and regular customers can really rack them up fast. The airline has three classes of tickets, which earn at different rates: Wanna Get Away tickets (6 points per dollar), Anytime tickets (10 points per dollar), and Business Select seats (12 points per dollar).

You can earn more points if you have elite status on Southwest. The program has just two tiers, and straightforward benefits.

  • A-List. The lower elite level requires 25 one-way flights in a calendar year or 35,000 qualifying Rapid Rewards points. Members get priority check-in and boarding, fee-free same-day standby flights, and 25% extra points for bookings.
  • A-List Preferred. Take 50 one-way flights or collect 70,000 qualifying Rapid Rewards points to get all the perks of A-List, plus free inflight Wi-Fi. And instead of a 25% point bonus, it’s a 100% point bonus. That means a Business Select ticket earns a whopping 24 points per dollar.

You can also earn Rapid Rewards by using a Southwest credit card. Regular purchases earn 1 point per dollar. Purchases on Southwest earn 2 points per dollar on personal cards and the Premier business card, 3 points per dollar with the Performance business card.

Then there are Southwest’s partners, which are wide-ranging and worth exploring.  You can collect points by reserving hotels through Booking.com or various hotel brands, choosing Nrg as your electricity supplier, shopping at retailers such as 1-800-Flowers and Harry & David, using the dining program, taking surveys, renting cars through the Southwest portal, and more. Watch out: In some cases, you will be earning Southwest points instead of other loyalty currencies—and you may be better off accumulating, say, Marriott points for your hotel stays.

The Southwest Companion Pass

You can’t talk about Southwest’s reward program without mentioning the Companion Pass. It’s not quite an elite level, but a valuable additional benefit the airline gives its top customers.

Fly 100 one-way segments or earn 125,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, and you can choose one person to fly free whenever you do, for the rest of that year and the next year. You can use the companion pass whether you use cash or points to pay for the original ticket. Either way, you have to pay the (usually nominal) taxes on the companion ticket.

Points you earn with Southwest credit cards count towards your Companion Pass, including sign-up bonuses that can be 40,000 points or more. That makes it much easier to reach the 125,000-point finish line. 

Which Credit Cards Earn Rapid Reward Points

How to Use Rapid Reward Points

Some loyalty programs offer more than a dozen ways to use points–most of them at paltry value. While Rapid Rewards points may not be as flexible, their value is more consistent. While you’ll never find an amazing deal on a Southwest flight with points, you can use them to buy any available seat. And even when buying merchandise and gift cards, often the worst ways to use points and miles, you can expect to squeeze up to 1 cent of value out of each point.

  • Southwest flights. Rapid Rewards are worth 1.2 to 1.5 cents each. 
  • Travel portal. Use Southwest points to pay for rental cars, hotel rooms, activities and flights (on non-Southwest routes) at good value, up to 1.2 cents per point. 
  • Merchandise. Purchase everything from golf balls to Sonos components through Southwest’s portal, for up to 1 cent per point—though often less. 
  • Gift Cards. Buy cards from a range of major retailers, for up to 0.7 cents a point. 
  • Transfer. Give points to friends, for a fee. 
  • Donate to charity

Southwest Flights

When it comes to buying flights with loyalty points, Southwest has one of the more straightforward programs. Just like with JetBlue, you can book any available seat with points, and prices are pegged to the dollar values. That means you won’t find amazing surprise deals, but you’ll always be guaranteed to get a certain value for your points.

Expect to get 1.2 to 1.5 cents per point this way. The value is consistent no matter what class of seat you buy on a particular flight. For example, a trip from Grand Rapids to Fort Myers might cost $516 for Business Select (36,395 points), $494 for an Anytime ticket (34,798 points) or $280 for a Wanna Get Away fare (19,229 points). That’s a value of 1.4 to 1.5 cents per point across the board.

You also have to pay fees for award flights, but within the U.S., they’re less than $6 a ticket. 

Travel Portal

You can use Southwest’s frequent flyer points to pay for hotel rooms, cruises, rental cars, and activities through its portal. But unlike with other programs, you can actually get good value for your rewards—up to 1.2 cents a point. You can also buy flights from more than 50 airlines on routes that Southwest doesn’t cover, which makes up for the fact that Southwest has limited international flights and no airline transfer partners.

The value you get for points can vary widely. For instance, when we last checked, two nights at the Hotel Louvre Piemont in Paris costs about $440 or 34,006 Rapid Rewards points, for a value of 0.6 cents a point. A one-way flight to Paris on American Airlines cost $1,011 or 102,108 points—about 1 cent per point.

Since the portal doesn’t show the cash value of bookings, it’s smart to do a separate search for whatever you’re considering buying. Divide the retail price by the points price to make sure you’re getting a decent deal.

Merchandise

Most loyalty programs offer merchandise in exchange for points, at skimpy rates. Southwest’s shopping portal offers slightly more value—up to 1.2 cents per point, we’ve found, though often less. For example, Sonos components sell for 0.5 cents to 0.8 cents per point. Again, it pays (literally) to compare retail prices with points prices.  

Gift Cards

Southwest lets you use points to pay for gift cards from dozens of national brands, including Amazon, Coach, Cracker Barrel. They offer a consistent value of up to 0.7 cents per point—the higher the value of the card, the more value you’ll get. This may not be the best use of points, but many other loyalty programs are worse.

Transfer to Friends and Family

You can transfer points to other Rapid Rewards members, with a minimum of 2,000 points, but it will cost you—$5 for every 500 points you want to move, or 1 cent per point. You’re better off just buying a ticket for your friend.  

Donate to Charity

Southwest partners with several charities, including the American Red Cross, Make-A-Wish, and the Student Conservation Society. The minimum donation is 2,000 miles, and there is no associated tax break. 

Summary

Southwest’s loyalty program is a lot like the airline itself: not fancy, but highly functional. There’s always a way for travelers to get solid value out of points. And regular customers who hold a Southwest credit card have a good shot at the Companion Pass, which can save thousands of dollars a year.