Using Southwest's No Change Fee Policy to Maximize Points
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Southwest has built its brand around providing low fares with no fees. Today, TPG Senior Points & Miles Contributor Peter Rothbart describes how you can use the airline's lack of change fees to stretch your points and save on award travel.
Recently, I wrote about how Rapid Rewards offers great value to domestic flyers. Thanks to the program's cost-based award pricing, you can maximize your points and miles by booking with Southwest when fares are low, and using other programs for more expensive long-haul and premium itineraries. That strategy helps boost the average value of your award redemptions, but there's another great feature of Southwest Airlines that can save you even more on flights, including ones you've already purchased.
In this post, I'll explain why Southwest's change and cancellation policies are a huge asset to loyalty travelers in the US, and show you how rebooking flights can help you lock in the best possible price for Southwest award flights.
No Fees = More Opportunities
Domestic airlines have turned record profits in recent years, partly due to the bonanza of fees being charged for checked bags, seat selection and more. Change and cancellation fees are among the most costly, with some carriers charging as much as $200 to alter a single itinerary. Unless you have elite status or pay a premium for refundable airfare, you might be forced to pay up when your plans shift. However, some airlines have taken a different approach.
Southwest has built a reputation for not charging fees, including a policy of no change fees and no cancellation fees (with the exception of no-shows). If you're not satisfied with your current itinerary and you want to reschedule, no problem! You can move to another flight and pay only the difference in fare, and this is where things get interesting. If the new fare is higher, then naturally you have to cover the extra cost. If the new fare is lower, however, then you can actually get a refund for the difference, even on award tickets.
Best of all, you don't actually have to change your itinerary in order to save. You can simply swap the ticket you already have for a cheaper one on the same flight, which makes it easy to snag the lowest fare regardless of what you pay for it initially.
This strategy allows me to consistently land Southwest awards at excellent prices. For example, my recent trip to Las Vegas initially cost me 16,264 points when I booked in mid-January; one month and four changes later, that price was down to 8,776 points. In total, I saved 7,488 points by simply taking a minute every few days to check whether fares had dropped.
Not every flight will be so inexpensive, but rebooking can help you purchase Southwest flights for less (sometimes much less) than the 25,000 points/miles other carriers charge for round-trip domestic travel. That makes it easier to stretch your Rapid Rewards points, including sign-up bonuses from co-branded cards. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card currently offers 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first three months. When you redeem those points efficiently, that bonus can get you much more than two round-trip flights.
How to Change Flights
One great aspect of changing flights is that Southwest makes it exceptionally easy; once you're familiar with the process, you can easily rebook a single ticket in less than two minutes. Here are the steps:
Step 1: Log in to your Rapid Rewards account and click Change Flight, then enter your name and confirmation number to proceed. If there's a companion itinerary attached to your reservation, you'll need to cancel it before you can modify your own, which can only be done by phone. You'll also need to call to make changes if your flight was originally booked by phone.
Step 2: Select which flight segments you want to change, including any number or combination of flights in your itinerary. For example, if you're happy with your departing flight but want to change your return date, then you can just select the second flight and leave the outbound portion alone. The same goes for multi-city itineraries.
Step 3: Select new flights. Search for flight options as you normally would, and pick whichever one suits your needs. Again, the critical point here is that there's no need to actually change your flight; you can "rebook" the same itinerary you already had, but at a lower price! In either case, your reservation number will stay the same.
Step 4: Review the changes. Southwest will show you the updated itinerary, and below that you'll be able to compare the new ticket price with the old one. This step is helpful because you can clearly see how many points you stand to gain or lose when you rebook. A negative difference (resulting in a refund) will be shown in parentheses. As you can see in the example below, I saved more than 2,000 points by rebooking an upcoming trip to Southern California. The security fees I paid for the original reservation are applied to the new one.
Step 5: Review the purchase and approve the changes. Once that's done, you'll receive an email notification that your account balance has been adjusted, followed by an updated flight reservation.
The process is similar for paid fares, but instead of a refund, you'll receive a travel voucher. Vouchers are good for airfare only (not taxes or fees), and are valid for one year from the date the flight was originally purchased. Note that you won't receive an actual voucher; Southwest just uses your reservation number for that purpose.
If your itinerary includes multiple passengers (excluding anyone traveling on the Companion Pass), you can rebook each person individually or all at once. However, the lowest fares might not be available for everyone in your party (since fares are based on availability), so make sure you don't accidentally rebook someone at a higher rate.
One last thing to keep in mind is that there's no limit to the number of changes you can make. If the price drops further after you rebook, then just rebook again, and again, and again.
More Advantages of Having No Change/Cancellation Fees
The obvious advantage of avoiding fees is that you save money when your travel plans change. However, there are other benefits to Southwest's change and cancellation policies:
1. You don't have to play the waiting game. If you fly regularly, then you've probably faced the quandary of whether to buy tickets right away or wait for prices to drop. You'll feel like a champ when fares go down, but you'll kick yourself when they go up and you're stuck paying the difference. Fortunately, there's no need to second-guess when you're booking a Southwest award: Once your plans are set, you can just put your money down and see what happens. If prices decline, you can always rebook. If they go up, then you got the best price available to you. The same goes for paid fares so long as you can use your refund voucher before it expires.
2. You can book a great fare even if your plans are uncertain. Another common dilemma is deciding whether to jump on a flight deal when you're not sure you can follow through. At the time of writing, for example, I see flights this fall between Austin and Fort Lauderdale for less than 8,000 points round-trip. You might be apprehensive about booking a flight if you're waiting for other pieces of your itinerary to come together, but Southwest gives you the flexibility to book now and worry about the details later. If your plans fall through, all you'll lose is the time it takes to cancel.
3. You can hedge your bets when award availability is limited. Southwest is a great option when fares are low, but it can also be helpful when fares are high and you can't find saver-level awards on other carriers. In that case, you can book a Southwest award and wait for space to open up elsewhere. If it does, you can cancel your Southwest award and get your Rapid Rewards points back. If it doesn't, then at least you'll avoid booking at inflated standard award prices.
In the points and miles game, learning how to rebook Southwest awards is truly low-hanging fruit. You might not always see huge price differences, but saving even 1,000 points here and there will add up. When you combine this strategy with Southwest's frequent fare sales and cost-based awards, you'll be able to score domestic awards at a fraction of the standard price.
For more ideas about how to maximize Rapid Rewards, check out these posts:
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