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TPG reader Michael sent me a message on Facebook to ask about booking awards on Southwest Airlines:
“I have a stash of Southwest points, but I’m not sure how best to use them. Can Rapid Rewards be transferred, or can I use them internationally?”
There’s plenty to like about the Rapid Rewards program: You can get solid value by redeeming points for Wanna Get Away fares, Southwest offers two free checked bags and no change fees even on award flights and members who earn 110,000 points in a calendar year can take advantage of the highly lucrative Companion Pass. However, one limitation is that the airline only serves around 100 destinations — far fewer than Delta, United or American — and most of those are within the US.
To its credit, Southwest has been adding more international destinations in recent years, including Belize, Costa Rica, Jamaica and expanded service to Mexico. Still, the airline has yet to fly beyond the Americas, and since it lacks interline agreements or partnerships with other carriers, it’s not easy for Rapid Rewards members to redeem points for travel overseas.
There is one option, but it’s not great. While you can’t transfer points to other airlines, Southwest does allow you to redeem directly for international flights to just about anywhere you want to go. Tucked away in the More Rewards section of the Rapid Rewards catalog, you’ll find a dropdown menu for Other Travel, and the first item listed is International Flights. There you can browse fares on a wide range of carriers (priced in Rapid Rewards points), but the redemption rates tend to be well below what you’ll get on Southwest flights.
For example, I priced an economy flight from Denver to Paris on United in mid-June at just more than 150,000 points for a $1,500 fare. That’s a redemption value of around 1 cent per point — you could certainly do worse, but other award charts will give you a better deal on flights to Europe, even in business class. On the other hand, a flight from Miami to Madrid on American (also in June) priced out at just more than 71,000 points for a nearly $1,600 ticket. While that fare is high to begin with, the redemption value is good on a per-point basis, especially considering there are no additional fees and you’ll be eligible to earn miles for your flight.
Loyalty programs come in a lot of different shapes and sizes, and each program has its strengths (and weaknesses). Rapid Rewards is a good option for domestic economy travel, especially when fares are low. However, using Southwest points for travel outside the airline’s route map is a bit like putting a round peg in a square hole — you can make it work, but it’s not a great fit.
It’s worth checking Southwest if you’re striking out searching for international awards elsewhere, but in general I’d avoid redeeming your points this way unless they’re really burning a hole in your pocket. If you want to travel internationally, I recommend diversifying your rewards portfolio into other frequent flyer programs or transferable points programs that will help you maximize your return.