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Airline elite status can be a great way to make your travel experience less stressful and more rewarding thanks to the variety of benefits offered. However, if you’re new to the points and miles hobby, you may be wondering just how valuable these perks can be. Today I’ll continue my revision to last year’s series that analyzes this very thing.
I started with the three major legacy carriers (American AAdvantage, Delta SkyMiles and United MileagePlus) and then tackled the Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan and JetBlue TrueBlue programs. Today’s entry is the last most notable carrier in the US: Southwest Airlines and its Rapid Rewards program.
Before diving into the analysis, just a reminder that my calculations below represent a singular way to identify what elite status is worth to a potential traveler. Be sure to adjust any of the assumptions I make to fit with your individual travel situation. Also, it’s important to note that my analysis is based on having earned the status in 2016 and continuing to travel a comparable amount in 2017. However, I do include a link to an Excel spreadsheet toward the end of the post for those of you starting from scratch and planning to earn Southwest elite status during the year.
In addition, I’m following some similar assumptions in arriving at the numbers below:
- You earn 20% more Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs) than the minimum required for the given level.
- You spend 15 cents per TQP.
As always, you should modify these details based on how much you’re planning to travel in 2017.
Three final pieces of information. First, since you’ll earn bonus points as an elite member with Southwest, I’m using TPG’s most recent valuations to calculate their value (1.5 cents apiece). Second, I’m rounding all numbers to the nearest $5 to make the calculations a bit easier. Finally, I’m including two different approaches for calculating the value of the Companion Pass: one earned entirely through Southwest flights and one earned with an even split between flights and partner activity. Feel free to choose whichever most closely matches your own situation.
With that out of the way, how much value can you get out of the Southwest Rapid Rewards program in 2017? Here’s my analysis.
The lowest tier in Southwest’s program is A-List, which normally requires 25 qualifying one-way flights or 35,000 TQPs in a calendar year. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 42,000 TQPs at a cost of 15 cents per TQP (so a total spend of $6,300).
- Priority Boarding ($250): The first perk offered to A-List members is priority boarding. However, this is not as straightforward as the similar benefit offered to elites on other airlines given Southwest’s boarding process. The program’s terns and conditions state that “Southwest Airlines will automatically reserve a boarding position for the member 36 hours prior to each…flight.” You’ll fall behind higher-tier elites and those who purchase Business Select tickets, but this should guarantee a spot in the A boarding group (and prevent the frantic check-in exactly 24 hours prior to the flight). It also avoids paying the Early Bird Check-in fee, which is $15 each way. Given these details, I am valuing this much higher than the priority boarding offered to elites on other airlines.
- 25% point bonus ($160): A-List members will earn 25% more points than non-status flyers. With 42,000 base points, that equates to an extra 10,500 points over the year, worth $157.50.
- Free same-day standby ($75): You can also standby on an earlier flight at no charge as an A-List member, one of the newest perks offered to elite travelers on Southwest. However, the terms and conditions state that this is only available for flights between the same cities up to two hours earlier than your original flight (and note that free standby is also provided for Anytime and Business Select fares, so this perk only applies to Wanna Get Away tickets). For flights outside this two-hour window, you’re still given priority over non-elites but must pay a fare difference if a seat opens up. Given this limited utility, I’m valuing this a bit lower than comparable benefits on other carriers.
- Priority check-in and security ($150): You’ll also get priority check-in and security benefits as an A-List member, which can be especially beneficial if you’re checking bags (Southwest’s policy of free checked bags tends to create longer check-in lines than other airlines).
- Priority phone line ($50): Like all other carriers, Southwest offers a priority phone line to elite members, which can be a nice perk when major weather events hit.
A-List Preferred ($2,935)
The second tier in Southwest’s program is A-List Preferred, which normally requires 50 qualifying one-way flights or 70,000 TQPs in a calendar year. For this analysis, I’ll base my numbers on earning 84,000 TQPs at a cost of 15 cents per TQP (so a total spend of $12,600).
- Priority Boarding ($600): A-List Preferred members will automatically be assigned a boarding position 36 hours prior to departure, and they’ll be prioritized over regular A-List members (though behind Business Select travelers). I’ll double the value I used for A-List due to twice the utilization and add an additional $100 thanks to the higher priority.
- 100% point bonus ($1,260): As an A-List Preferred traveler, you’ll earn 100% more points than flyers without status. With the assumed flying above, you’ll take home an extra 84,000 points, worth $1,260.
- Free same-day standby ($175): You’ll also enjoy complimentary same-day standby on all Southwest flights when you earn A-List Preferred status, and you’ll be prioritized above A-List members, though the same restrictions outlined above still apply.
- Priority check-in and security ($300): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($100): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Free in-flight Wi-Fi ($500): The final perk for A-List Preferred members is free internet access on board. This usually costs $8 per day and is available on the majority of Southwest’s planes. The value of this benefit is dependent upon how frequently you need the internet in the sky, but I’ll assume a conservative value of $500.
Companion Pass With Flying and Partner Activity ($4,025)
The next tier in the Southwest program isn’t actually an elite status tier but is still worth valuing: the Companion Pass, one of the most lucrative and rewarding benefits in the travel industry. It essentially gives you a buy 1, get 1 free on all Southwest flights, including both paid and award tickets. You’ll earn it by taking 100 qualifying one-way flights or by earning 110,000 Companion Pass qualifying points. Note that these are slightly different than the Tier Qualifying Points identified above, which are generally earned only through flying. However, you can earn points toward the Companion Pass in a variety of additional ways:
- Flying on Southwest
- Doing business with travel partners like hotels and car rental agencies
- Dining through the Rapid Rewards Dining program
- Opening and/or using a Southwest credit card (like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card), including bonus points
- Transferring points from hotel programs (though this only applies through March 31, 2017)
The latter four will not count toward A-List or A-List Preferred Status but will count toward earning the Companion Pass each year.
For this analysis, I’ll assume that you still go over the minimum threshold by 20% and earn 132,000 points. However, for this first part, I’ll assume that your points originate from flying and partners equally, earning 66,000 points from each (so a total spend of $9,900). Note that this will give you A-List Status (and the benefits it confers) plus the perk of the Companion Pass.
- Priority Boarding ($375): Your A-List status will grant you priority boarding (as I outline above), though with 66,000 base points you’ll be able to utilize it roughly 50% more frequently.
- 25% point bonus ($250): By earning 66,000 points during the year, you’ll take home 16,500 bonus points as an A-List member, worth $247.50)
- Free same-day standby ($100): Same benefit, slightly more frequent utilization.
- Priority check-in and security ($225): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($75): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Companion Pass ($3,000): Trying to land on an exact value for the Companion Pass is incredibly difficult, as it depends entirely on how frequently you can bring your designated companion on a flight. Remember too that the pass is valid for the year in which you earned it and the entire following year, so you could get nearly two years of use from the perk. This number is based on bringing your companion along on ten round-trip flights at a value of $300 apiece.
Companion Pass Through Flying Alone ($8,930)
For this final part of the analysis, I’ll assume that you earn the Companion Pass solely through flying and go beyond the qualification threshold by 20%, spending 15 cents per point. This means that you earned 132,000 base points by spending $19,800 in the year, granting you both the Companion Pass and the perks of A-List Preferred Status. You’re thus traveling roughly 50% more than a “regular” A-List Preferred member outlined above, and the following values reflect that.
- Priority Boarding ($900)
- 100% point bonus ($1,980): You’ll take home 132,000 bonus points with the assumed flying above, worth $1,980.
- Free same-day standby ($250): Same benefit, more frequent utilization
- Priority check-in and security ($450): Same benefit, more frequent utilization.
- Priority phone line ($100)
- Free in-flight Wi-Fi ($750)
- Companion Pass ($4,500): Under this final scenario, you’re traveling twice as much as the first Companion Pass example above. However, with this extensive travel during the year, I’d venture a guess that you wouldn’t be able to use the Companion Pass twice as frequently. As a result, I’ll peg this at $4,500 based on taking 15 round-trip flights that would’ve normally cost $300 apiece.
What if I’m starting from scratch?
As I mentioned at the outset, these numbers are based on the benefits you’d enjoy by spending a full year with the given status. However, if you are starting from scratch, the calculations become a bit more complicated, since you won’t start to enjoy any benefits until you hit the 35,000-point mark and earn A-List status. To help modify the analysis for those individuals, I’ve taken the above valuations and converted them to a value per tier-qualifying point, excluding the combination Companion Pass category:
- A-List: $685 / 42,000 TQPs = 1.63 cents per TQP
- A-List Preferred: $2,935 / 84,000 TQPs = 3.5 cents per TQP
- Companion Pass (solely travel): $8,930 / 132,000 TQPs = 6.77 cents per TQP
I then created an Excel spreadsheet that uses these numbers to calculate how much value you’d get from the different levels of Southwest elite status given a certain amount of flying. All you need to do is change the number in cell A2 to represent the number of TQPs you expect to earn in 2017, and the spreadsheet will update with the corresponding value.
For example, you’ll see that I have pre-loaded 80,000 TQPs. At this rate, you’d get no benefits from the first 35,000 points, then enjoy A-List benefits for the next 35,000 points (at a rate of 1.63 cents per TQP) and then enjoy A-List Preferred benefits for the final 10,000 points (at a rate of 3.5 cents per TQP). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 80,000 TQPs in 2017, you’d be able to get $920.24 worth of perks from the Rapid Rewards program.
As always, feel free to adjust the numbers above for each tier (loaded into the “Base Data” tab of the spreadsheet) based on your own personal valuation.
Is it worth it?
So given these values, is it worth pursuing elite status (or the next tier of elite status) with Southwest? Just like with any analysis we undertake here at TPG, there isn’t an easy answer to this, as it depends entirely on your individual situation. However, here are a few over-arching questions that can help you arrive at a decision:
- How much will you travel in the future? If you earned Southwest elite status in 2016, it’s valid through December 31, 2017, and if you qualify in 2017, your status will last until December 31, 2018. It’s critical to think about how much you’ll be traveling in the future. If you push hard to earn A-List Preferred, for example, the valuable perks outlined above only apply when you actually travel.
- What’s the incremental value of one tier over another? Many of you may wind up within striking distance of the next tier, so be sure to consider whether the benefits are worth pushing for it. There’s no sense in going out of your way for perks that don’t matter to you.
- How well does Southwest’s route map match your typical travel patterns? There’s really no point in pursuing elite status with an airline if you can’t feasibly fly it on a regular basis. Be sure to consider Southwest’s service from your home airport(s) and how easy it is to get to your desired destination(s).
- How sensitive are you to price and convenience? There are many tradeoffs in this hobby, and one of the most common is deciding whether to use your preferred airline or hotel chain when it’s not the most convenient or cheapest. Would you book a one-stop Southwest flight if Delta had a cheaper nonstop option? If the answer is no, it may not be worth going out of your way to earn status with Southwest (or elite status with any airline, for that matter).
These questions are also not easy to answer, as there are many different factors that come into play with each of them. Nevertheless, it’s a worthwhile exercise to evaluate your own situation as you decide to determine if Southwest elite status is for you!
Southwest has always had an interesting dichotomy in the frequent flyer world, as some travelers are rabidly loyal while others would rather walk than fly Southwest (that’s only a mild exaggeration). Even though the Rapid Rewards program is revenue-based, there are some great ways to maximize the program, especially when it comes to the Companion Pass and the carrier’s no-fee change policy. If you’re considering whether to go for elite status with Southwest this year, I hope this analysis has helped you come to a decision!
How much do you value Southwest elite status?
Featured image courtesy of 700 Pale Blue via Wikimedia Commons.
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