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Elite Status Series: Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List

by on December 20, 2013 · 7 comments

in Elite Status, Southwest

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Update: This offer is no longer available. View the current offer for the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card here.

Recently, our Elite Status Series has taken us through the basics of Delta Medallion status: how you can qualify for it and maximize the benefits once you earn it in each tier. We’ve also run through American’s AAdvantage program and their three-tier elite status. Today, TPG contributor Nick Ewen guides us through the ins and outs of Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Program and their two levels of elite status.

Southwest offers the Rapid Rewards Program.

Southwest offers the Rapid Rewards Program.

There’s no doubt that our points and miles hobby can result in incredible business and first class redemption opportunities to far-flung destinations on the Big Four (Delta, United, US Air, and American – but soon to be Big Three) airlines. However, some of the other carriers here in the US can still offer terrific earning and redemption opportunities, and just about all now offer some type of elite status for their most frequent travelers. In this post, I will take you through the ins and outs of Southwest Rapid Rewards, including their two levels of elite status, the Companion Pass, co-branded credit cards, and other aspects of their program to help you maximize your redemption power.

A-List and A-List Preferred

The two levels of Southwest Airlines Elite Status: A-List and A-List Preferred.

Elite Status

For starters, Southwest Rapid Rewards offers two different levels of elite status: A-List and A-List Preferred. Like many other carriers, you have two different ways to earn these levels: one-way flights or tier-qualifying points (Southwest’s equivalent of elite-qualifying miles). Here are the required thresholds for each one:

  • A-List: 25 one-way flights or 35,000 tier-qualifying points
  • A-List Preferred: 50 one-way flights or 70,000 tier-qualifying points

Once you have earned the status, it is valid for the rest of that year plus the entire following year.

PHL-STL one-way

Segments work slightly differently on Southwest than some other airlines.

Essentially any paid flight on Southwest will count as a one-way flight towards one of these levels of elite status. However, keep in mind that these are different than segments on legacy airlines. According to the Rapid Rewards conditions, “A flight segment is defined as a one-way trip booked through Southwest Airlines from an origin city to a destination city, including any intermediate stops and/or connections on Southwest Airlines. ”

So taking a connecting flight or one with a stop en route to your destination will not accelerate your progress towards A-List. For example, if you purchase a one-way flight from Philadelphia to St. Louis, any of the options pictured above will count as a single one-way flight towards the 25 or 50 needed for status, regardless of whether you take the 8:05 am nonstop or the 6:45 am that connects through Chicago-Midway.

Tier-qualifying points are also earned on any paid flight; the earning ratio depends on the type of ticket purchased. Southwest offers three “fare classes” of revenue tickets: Wanna Get Away (cheapest and most restrictive), Anytime (more expensive but more flexible), and Business Select (most expensive but with added perks like early boarding and a free drink). Each one offers different earning rates:

Southwest fare earnings.

Southwest fare earnings.

Wanna Get Away: 6X points per $1
Anytime: 10X points per $1
Business Select: 12X points per $1

This earning structure is essentially rewarding those high-value customers that purchase Business Select tickets, and (not surprisingly) ruffled quite a few feathers of the low-fare flyers when it was first introduced back in 2011. On all three ticket types, however, you will earn tier-qualifying points that will move you down the road towards preferred status. Here’s how the three options differ on the aforementioned Philadelphia to St. Louis one-way ticket:

Southwest fare options.

Southwest fare options.

As you can see, purchasing a Business Select ticket on this route costs twice as much as the Wanna Get Away option, but it offers more than four times the Rapid Rewards Points and gets you more than 10% of the required points needed for A-List status in one flight.

If you are purchasing a last-minute flight (or if Wanna Get Away options are already gone for your desired date/flight), grabbing an Anytime or Business Select seat can get you to A-List or A-List Preferred much faster.

Unfortunately, any points earned from hotels, car rentals, retail purchases, or transfers (such as Ultimate Rewards) do not count as tier-qualifying points. However, there is one other way to earn these points without flying: through the Rapid Rewards Premier Personal and Business Visa cards. For every $10,000 you spend on the card in a calendar year, you will earn 1,500 tier qualifying points to push you closer to A-List and/or A-List Preferred status. This maxes out at 15,000 tier qualifying points (so $100,000 of yearly spend). It’s important to note that these points will not increase your actual account balance (and thus be usable towards reward flights); they will just increase your tier-qualifying point balance (much in the same way that purchased MQM’s on Delta will just pad your MQM numbers and not your overall SkyMiles balance). I will cover all of Southwest’s credit cards later on in this post.

One you have earned status, you can immediately begin taking advantage of several key benefits on Southwest-operated flights:

A-List

A-List Status.

A-List Status:

  • Priority Boarding
  • 25% earning bonus on paid flights
  • Standby Priority
  • Priority check-in and security lines
A-List Preferred Status

A-List Preferred Status

 A-List Preferred Status:

  • Priority boarding
  • 100% earning bonus on paid flights
  • Standby priority
  • Priority check-in and security lines
  • Free in-flight WiFi

Unfortunately, priority boarding is only available to the A-List/A-List Preferred member (and not any traveling companions). However, in my experience, the free in-flight WiFi doesn’t require the A-List Preferred member to be on board, and I’ve also found that it can be used on more than one flight at the same time. Back in April, after a business meeting in Chicago, one of my A-List Preferred colleagues was flying back to San Antonio at the same time that I was flying to Albuquerque. He was gracious enough to give me his login information (Rapid Rewards number and password), and we were both able to access the internet at the same time on different flights.

SW companion pass

Southwest Companion Pass

Companion Pass

While not officially an “elite status” tier, the Companion Pass is often revered as one of the most generous frequent flyer benefits out there. TPG covered this perk in great depth back in August, but it essentially allows you to designate a companion who can then accompany you on any Southwest flight that you take. The incredible thing about this pass is that it is valid on both paid tickets and award tickets!

You are just responsible for the taxes and fees on your companion’s ticket. In addition, you can even change your companion three times during the validity period of the pass, adding even greater flexibility to an already terrific benefit. Once you earn it, the Companion Pass is good for the rest of the calendar year and the following calendar year, so if you earned it now, it would be good until December 31, 2014, but if you earned it in January 2014, it would be good until December 31, 2015.

In order to earn a companion pass, you must either fly 100 one-way flights on Southwest or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year. However, Companion Pass qualifying points are different than tier qualifying points that help you earn status. Here’s a quick breakdown of what does (and doesn’t) count towards both types of qualification:

Type of Activity

Tier Qualifying Points?

Companion Pass Qualifying Points?

Flights on Southwest

Yes

Yes

Credit Card points

Yes (but only 1,500 points for every $10,000 in spend)

Yes (all points earned, including sign-up bonuses)

Partner points (car rentals, retail, etc.)

No

Yes

Transferred points from hotel programs

No

Yes

Transferred points from Ultimate Rewards

No

No

Purchased points

No

No

As you can see, the Companion Pass has many more transactions that count towards earning one; in fact, I earned one back in 2010 having flown only four one-way flights. The rest of the activity came from partners. For more information on how to push your account towards the 110,000 points needed to earn a Companion Pass, check out this post.

Like A-List and A-List Preferred status, the Companion Pass is valid for the rest of the year in which you earn it as well as the entire following year, so to truly maximize the benefits offered by the pass, try to earn it as early as possible. Also, it’s important to note that even though your companion is traveling on the same flight as you, they are on a separate reservation, meaning that they need to check-in separately and will not be able to take advantage of any A-List or A-List Preferred boarding priority.

Unique Features of Southwest

While many seasoned frequent flyers tend to ignore Southwest, they do have a number of appealing things that set them apart from the larger legacy carriers in the US. In no particular order:

SW baggage

Check bags for free on Southwest.

1. No Checked Bag Fees: All travelers on Southwest are able to bring two checked bags (up to 50 pounds each) at no charge, which is the most generous policy of US-based carriers. JetBlue allows one free checked bag, while Delta, American, US Airways, United, Virgin America, and Alaska all charge for checked bags for non-elite flyers (with some exceptions for co-branded credit card holders).

2. No Change/Cancellation Fees: All of the legacy carriers charge exorbitant fees to cancel or change a ticket, but Southwest doesn’t charge anything. If your plans change, you can change your ticket and only be subject to any applicable fare difference. This applies for both paid and award tickets. If you cancel a ticket, the full amount you paid becomes a voucher that can be put towards future flights. However, they did just recently announce a relatively minor change to this policy: less flexible Wanna Get Away and DING fares must be cancelled at least 10 minutes prior to departure. If not, the entire value of the ticket will be lost. Even with this small devaluation, this is still far and away the most lenient change/cancellation policy of any airline in the US.

SW and AirTran

Southwest and AirTran have merged.

3. Merger with AirTran: Another unique aspect of Southwest is their ongoing merger with AirTran. As of now, the two carriers still have several separate operations, but they have succeeded in connecting their route networks. This means that you can now book a Southwest-only, AirTran-only, or combination Southwest/AirTran flight on Southwest.com. Any of these three options will earn you Rapid Rewards points, and you can even use your Companion Pass on all itineraries booked through Southwest.com. Unfortunately, all international flights must be booked through AirTran.com, which doesn’t allow you to earn Rapid Reward points, nor does it allow Companion Pass privileges.

If you do want to redeem your Southwest points for international flights on AirTran, be sure to visit the Rewards Conversion page that allows you to transfer Rapid Rewards points to A+ credits (and vice versa). However, transferring A+ Credits to Rapid Rewards points will not count as tier-qualifying points, nor will they count towards earning a Companion Pass.

Southwest credit card options.

Southwest credit card options.

Credit Cards

Just like many other carriers, Southwest offers a variety of credit cards that can help you pad your Rapid Rewards account balance, and a couple even help with earning and retaining your status. Here are the different options and their current benefits:

Rapid Rewards Premier Card (Personal and Business versions available):

  • 25,000 points with $1000 of spend in the first three months
  • 2 points/$ spent with Southwest, AirTran, and Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partners
  • 1 point/$ spent everywhere else
  • Ability to redeem points for international flights, cruises, hotel stays, car rentals, and gift cards
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • 6,000 points on your yearly cardmember anniversary
  • 1,500 tier qualifying points for every $10,000 in spend (up to 15,000 points/year)
  • $99 annual fee

Rapid Rewards Plus Card (Personal and Business versions available):

  • 25,000 points with $1000 of spend in the first three months
  • 2 points/$ spent with Southwest, AirTran, and Rapid Rewards Hotel and Car Rental Partners
  • 1 point/$ spent everywhere else
  • Ability to redeem points for international flights, cruises, hotel stays, car rentals, and gift cards
  • 3,000 points on your yearly cardmember anniversary
  • $69 annual fee

Upcoming Devaluation

There’s never been a better time to spend your hard-earned Rapid Rewards points than right now, as earlier this fall, Southwest announced a devaluation of its Wanna Get Away redemptions. In the past, these redemptions would set you back 60 points for every $1 in airfare, but starting March 31, 2014, it will cost you 70 points per dollar (Anytime and Business Select redemptions will remain the same). Remember that Southwest allows you to change your award reservations at any time without any penalty (only any applicable fare difference), so if you have travel plans for next spring or summer that involve Southwest, try to lock in your flights sooner rather than later.

Despite the lack of luxurious long-haul business class and the relative bore of a true revenue-based frequent flyer program, Southwest Rapid Rewards still offers some great ways to be rewarded for your loyalty and some terrific perks to maximize the points you do earn for travel across the country.

Please feel free to share your own personal experiences below!

For more information on Southwest Airlines, read these previous posts:

Southwest Devalues Rapid Rewards Redemptions On Wanna Get Away Fares

Southwest Launches Its New No Show Policy Today

Maximize Monday: Southwest Companion Pass FAQ And Strategies

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • Jasmine

    Only bad issue I have with southwest is the lack of being able to select a particular seat when booking a ticket and they currently do not fly into some major airports also worth noting that southwest will not rebook you on another airline if a plane is delayed on there part. Also you can always pay 12.50 per flight for priority boarding in there A zone without being an elite. And if your bringing a lap child you better have proof of age they request it for any child.

  • FindAWay

    A minor error above is the following: “For every $10,000 you spend on the card in a calendar year, you will earn 1,500 tier qualifying points to push you closer to A-List and/or A-List Preferred status. This maxes out at 15,000 tier qualifying points (so $100,000 of yearly spend).” You need to move “calendar year” from the first sentence to the second sentence – that is the limit…the $10k spend can cross calendar years; but the 15k points limit is per calendar year (and per card if you want to be more accurate).

  • matthew

    if i have the southwest plus card can i recieve a bonus if i get the southwest premier card?

  • UAPhil

    Clarification on “no change fees” and same day changes:

    -Award tickets are de facto fully refundable (if you cancel, the points are immediately re-deposited in your RR account at no charge).
    -There are significant restrictions on how the value of cancelled revenue tickets can be used. (They can be used only by the original traveler, and all travel must be completed within one year of original ticket issue date. And, if you use these “ticketless travel funds” as part payment for a new ticket, the ENTIRE ticket value expires on the date the “ticketless travel funds” expire. For example, if you purchased a $50 ticket on January 1, then cancelled the trip, and used the funds as part payment for a $400 WGA ticket on December 1, the ENTIRE $400 expires on December 31. (Some other carriers allow funds to be used for other travelers, or to be “rolled over” to keep them alive for more than one year.)
    -”Same day standby” requires upgrading to the Anytime fare (which can cost $300 or more), regardless of elite status. (For that reason, I often fly United when I want same day flexibility, since they allow same day changes at no cost for Premier Gold and above.)

  • Jon Kim

    do you think in the future you will be able to use the companion pass for international flights on airtran.com?

  • Edgar Perez

    Do Dining points count towards Companion Pass? If so can you update the table? Thanks.

  • Dan

    TPG, I just wanted to see if you could clarify a point real quick. Does the flight have to be paid for, or could any of the 25 one-way flights been originated via the use of rapid rewards points. If I book a reward ticket, does that count as a flight towards keeping the status? Thanks!

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