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Southwest Adds Belize and Other International Destinations

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I don’t fly Southwest often, partly because of their relatively limited route network. However, their list of destinations keeps growing, and today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele shares yet another addition, along with some tips for how to boost your Rapid Rewards balance.

Southwest is undergoing a major expansion, but rather than just filling in the gaps of its domestic route network, it’s reaching outside of the United States to destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Last week, the airline announced that it would begin new service from Houston-Hobby to Belize, in addition to existing plans for flights to other international destinations like Cancun, Los Cabos, Mexico City, Puerto Vallarta, and San Jose, Costa Rica. Southwest will also begin offering Saturday-only service from Houston-Hobby to Aruba starting in March—a flight that doesn’t need special gates because Aruba has a U.S. customs pre-clearance facility.

All of this new service is expected to begin in the fall of 2015, when construction on a new five-gate international concourse is expected to be complete. In addition, it’s likely that Southwest will rapidly expand international service from Houston-Hobby, since it tends to offer 8-10 flights daily from each gate that it operates, and it’s the only carrier offering international service at that airport.

Southwest Rapid Rewards
Southwest seems to be diversifying its portfolio of beach destinations.

What this means for Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program

Whereas Southwest has a strong domestic frequent flyer program, it previously offered no international service beyond a few routes it picked up with the AirTran merger. With that merger now nearly complete, Southwest has clearly turned its attention to international expansion, while retaining the popular features of its Rapid Rewards program. International award redemptions work the same as domestic ones, and these flights are eligible for use with the Southwest Companion Pass. International passengers still retain the ability to check two bags for free (up to 50 pounds each), and can make changes or cancellations before the scheduled departure with no fees or penalties.

In addition, Southwest CEO Gary Kelly announced at their investor conference earlier this year that Hawaii is a future destination, and that it “wouldn’t take years to start flights to the islands.” Future destinations could include Canada, Alaska, and even parts of northern South America.

The Southwest Companion Pass is extremely valuable.
You can use the Southwest Companion Pass on international flights.

Strategies for earning more Rapid Rewards points

All of these new and potential developments mean that Rapid Rewards points are becoming increasingly valuable. Thankfully, there are many ways to earn these points:

1. The Rapid Rewards credit cards from Chase. There are now three different Rapid Rewards credit cards offered by Chase, since it seems to have withdrawn applications for the Rapid Rewards Business Plus card. This leaves the personal version of the Rapid Rewards Plus card, and both the personal and business versions of the Rapid Rewards Premier card. The standard offer for these cards is a sign-up bonus of 25,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months. However, they periodically offer a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months. At present, only the personal Rapid Rewards Premier card has the higher bonus. I found a link for the higher offer that is advertised on their in-flight web page, but is also available on the ground, even when all other offers are only for 25,000 points.

2. Chase Ultimate Rewards. Southwest is one of the most valuable Ultimate Rewards transfer partners for Companion Pass holders, who can consistently get 2.8 cents per point in value. At this time, there are only two remaining Chase cards that offer Ultimate Rewards point transfers and are currently accepting new applicants from the general public: the Ink Plus and the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Chase Freedom cardholders earn Ultimate Rewards points that can be transferred to another eligible account that offers point transfers. Unfortunately, Rapid Rewards points earned via transfers from Ultimate Rewards do not count toward earning the Companion Pass.

JW Marriott Cusco
You can get great value (and Southwest points) out of Marriott hotel and air packages.

3. Hotel program transfers. There are several hotel programs that allow point transfers to Southwest, but at various conversion rates. Fortunately, these points do count toward earning the Companion Pass.

  • Hyatt lets you convert 2.5 Gold Passport points to 1 Rapid Rewards point. However, you get a 5,000 point bonus when transferring 50,000 points, which works out to a 2:1 transfer ratio.
  • Choice Hotels lets you transfer 6,000 Choice Privileges points to 1,800 Rapid Rewards points (roughly 3.3:1), and these points can be purchased directly from Choice at 1.1 cents each.
  • Marriott offers various transfer ratios depending on the quantity, with a maximum of 70,000 Marriott points to 25,000 Rapid Rewards points (2.8:1). Another option is to redeem for a travel package, which can offer an even better transfer ratio plus several nights of hotel. Points earned through hotel and air packages also count toward the Companion Pass.
  • Wyndham offers transfers at a poor 5:1 ratio.
  • Club Carlson offers a pathetic 10:1 transfer ratio.

4. Diners Club Rewards. Southwest is also a transfer partner of the Diners Club Rewards program. Points transfer at 5:4 to Rapid Rewards, and there are mixed reports as to whether those transfers count toward the Companion Pass.

5. Shopping, dining, and other partners. You can earn bonus points through the Rapid Rewards shopping portal, or through various partner offers:

6. Travel. Sometimes it’s easy for passionate award travel enthusiasts to forget that they actually give out points for paid travel. (Who knew?) These opportunities are especially relevant if your travel is reimbursed by your employer or client, or if you redeem miles from a card like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or Capital One Venture Rewards card.

Opportunities to earn Rapid Rewards points include stays at the following hotels:

  • Best Western
  • Club Carlson
  • Choice Hotels
  • Hyatt
  • La Quinta
  • Marriott
  • MLife
  • Starwood
  • Wyndham
  • Rocketmiles

You can also earn Rapid Rewards with the following car rental companies:

  • Alamo
  • Avis
  • Budget
  • Dollar
  • Hertz
  • National
  • Thrifty
  • Payless

Finally, SuperShuttle/ExecuCar offers 150 points each way for reservations. And of course, flying on paid (non-award) Southwest tickets will earn points as well!