Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards

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Although it lacks airline partners and flies to a limited number of destinations, Southwest Airlines' point-based Rapid Rewards program easily allows members to earn and redeem points for travel. The top status level, Companion Pass, also offers a hard-to-beat perk: free travel for a companion of choice for a year.

Our Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards review judges this frequent flyer program's earning and redemption policies relatively straightforward but somewhat limiting due to the lack of partner airlines.

As a points-based system, Rapid Rewards revolves around how much money passengers spend on tickets rather than on distance flown. Travelers earn six, 10, or 12 points for each dollar spent on the base fare, depending on the class of ticket purchased. Conversely, the amount of redemption points needed for a free award ticket depends on the cost of that ticket. As Southwest is quick to point out, this means Rapid Rewards members never have to worry about blackout dates or no open award seats on a desired flight.

On the other hand, our Southwest Rapid Rewards review determined that the number of points required for popular flights may be too high to justify the transaction. Southwest doesn't exactly specify how the cost of a flight correlates to the number of redemption points required, but a "destination finder" on the company's site lets travelers see the approximate number of points needed for a flight between two airports. Southwest flies to more than 90 destinations and maintains nine hubs around the country.

Unlike other airlines' frequent flyer programs, Rapid Rewards sets no minimum number of points required to trade in for a flight. Award tickets start at 70 points per dollar for a "Wanna Get Away" fare and rise to 120 points per dollar for a "Business Select" ticket. In another departure from the industry frequent-flyer norm, Rapid Rewards members cannot redeem points for flights on partner airlines -- Southwest doesn't have any.

Still, points can be earned in several ways: by doing business with partner hotels and rental car companies, using one of Southwest's co-branded Visa or Diners Club credit cards, taking advantage of special promotions, shopping through an online portal, and more. These options make it easy to generate account activity to keep the points from expiring, which happens after 24 months of dormancy.

Southwest's Rapid Rewards program includes three elite status levels: A-List, A-List Preferred, and Companion Pass, all of which offer benefits such as priority boarding, check-in, and security line access. A-List requires the accrual of 25 one-way flights or 35,000 Tier Qualifying Points in a year. A-List Preferred doubles the requirements and rewards achievers with free in-flight Wi-Fi. Additionally, A-List flyers earn 25 percent more points on flights and A-List Preferred flyers double their flight points. Companion Pass status includes all the benefits of A-List Preferred and lets flyers designate a companion who flies for free on every flight. Companion Pass status requires 100 one-way flights or 110,000 qualifying points in a year. Only one person can be designated as a companion, but the name can be changed three times during the year. The companion does not earn points or receive all the benefits granted the program member, but this is a unique perk that makes an otherwise lackluster elite program stand out.

Frequent flyers looking for a program with low-cost redemption options and guaranteed award availability -- at a price (in points), and as long as there is an open seat -- will gravitate to Southwest Airlines' Rapid Rewards program. The elite status tiers don't offer lots of perks and there are no trade-in options outside of the Southwest route system, but this is a budget airline that strives to keep fares low from the get-go and keep its policies simple.

Louis DeNicola

Louis DeNicola is a freelance personal finance writer who specializes in credit, debt, and practical money-saving tips. He loves stacking savings opportunities to get amazing deals, traveling for free using credit card rewards, and teaching others how to do the same. Connect with Louis by visiting louisdenicola.com.

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