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If you’ve ever needed to adjust your travel plans, you’re probably familiar with the dreaded phenomenon of airline change fees. The legacy carriers typically charge at least $200 when you need to modify your itinerary, and most others follow the same general approach. However, there is one airline in the US that stands about the others when it comes to these awful fees: Southwest. Today I want to go through the process of rebooking an already confirmed Southwest ticket to get a refund of either points or money.
Let’s start with a quick overview of the carrier’s policy, which it touts in virtually all of its advertisements with the “Transfarency” moniker. In short, the carrier never tacks on a fee when you change your flight. If you move to a later one or switch to a completely different date, the only thing you have to pay is the difference in fare if the new ticket is more expensive. If your new itinerary is priced the same as your old one, you don’t pay anything. But things get interesting when your new flights are cheaper in price.
There are two possibilities for how this plays out:
- Paid booking: You receive a credit back as a Southwest voucher to be used toward a new flight (valid for one year from the original purchase date).
- Award booking: You receive an immediate credit of the point differential to your Rapid Rewards account.
The first one in particular stands in sharp contrast to the legacy carriers. For example, let’s say that the price of your flight drops by $30. With Southwest, you can rebook the exact same itinerary and have $30 to spend later when you need another Southwest flight. However, with American, Delta or United, you’ll need to pay a $200 change fee before the $30 is credited, resulting in an additional out-of-pocket charge of $170.
The second possibility is probably most appealing to many readers, especially those (like me) who fly Southwest every once in a while and find it much easier to use points rather than a voucher. Since the Rapid Rewards program follows a revenue-based redemption scheme rather than a traditional award chart, when a flight drops by just $10 or $15, you should be able to get a corresponding number of points back in your account.
I was recently able to do this twice with a Southwest award flight, so let’s take a look at the exact process for utilizing this strategy.
Changing a Southwest Flight
This probably goes without saying, but the first thing you’ll need is a confirmed Southwest booking. It doesn’t matter if you paid cash out of pocket or redeemed points; this fee-free change process only applies to existing reservations. For my flight, I was scheduled to fly nonstop from Orlando (MCO) to Denver (DEN) in early October, and I redeemed just over 24,000 Rapid Rewards points for the flight:
Since Southwest is so generous with this policy, I recommend doing what I do: Regularly check your flights in the months and weeks leading up to departure. As soon as I saw that the price of my return flight had dropped, I was ready to go. Here’s how to do it:
1. Log in to your Southwest Rapid Rewards cccount.
2. Find your itinerary and click Change at the top.
3. Select the flight(s) you’d like to change, then click Continue.
4. Change your search criteria (if needed), then click Select New Flights.
5. Find your new (or cheaper) flight, then click Continue.
6. Review the fare difference, then click Continue.
7. Review the itinerary one more time, then click I Want To Make These Changes.
The points should be immediately credited back to your account, though you may need to log out and then back in to see the balance reflected.
The whole process takes just a few minutes, and the best part is that you can repeat it an unlimited number of times. In fact, the day after making this first change I noticed that my outbound flight had dropped in price again. After a few minutes and a handful of clicks, I was able to rebook the exact same flights at an even cheaper redemption cost:
This was the end of the price drops on this particular itinerary, but I was able to save 3,674 Rapid Rewards points thanks to Southwest’s no-fee change policy and my diligence in checking the carrier’s website regularly. These points are worth $55.11 based on TPG’s most recent valuations, and they’ll come in handy for my next trip.
Now, there’s one important item to keep in mind when changing a flight in this way: Modifying a refundable ticket (including those booked with points) automatically changes it to a non-refundable ticket. Here’s the warning message I received after selecting my cheaper flight option:
This isn’t a problem if you fully intend on taking said flight at some point. However, had I made these two changes and then needed to cancel the ticket for any reason, I still would’ve received the points back, but the $11.20 I paid in taxes and fees would’ve been refunded as a voucher rather than a credit to my original payment method.
This is a bigger concern for anyone booking a refundable paid ticket, as changing it would convert it to a nonrefundable ticket. Losing out on $11.20 back to my credit card is a bit different than losing out on hundreds of dollars.
However, there’s an easy workaround. Instead of changing, simply cancel the flight and rebook the entire itinerary. There’s the slight risk that the price will jump between the moment you cancel and your rebooking, but if you want to ensure that your reservation remains refundable, it’s the way to go.
When are some good times to use this?
Keep in mind that this policy applies not only to rebooking flights to save points or money; you can also cancel a Southwest flight at any time and receive a full refund, either in the form of a voucher valid for 12 months from the initial purchase date (revenue flights) or points refunded to your Rapid Rewards account (award flights). Sure, it’s great to be able to rebook and save, but there are a handful of situations where this policy can really come in handy:
- Family emergencies: If you’ve ever had a family emergency come up right before a trip, you could wind up forking over hundreds of dollars to adjust your plans. With Southwest, you’ll never need to worry about this, as you can freely change your flights and only be responsible for any difference in fare.
- Last-minute work trips: For our road warriors out there, you’ve probably had your fair share of last-minute business trips pop up. If these happen to fall during a previously scheduled personal trip, you can easily change (or cancel) a flight that you’re no longer able to take.
- When your plans aren’t 100% certain: We post a lot of deals here at TPG, and sometimes you have a limited window of time to take advantage of them (literally minutes in some instances!). If you see a great deal on Southwest, you can jump on it immediately, knowing that you can cancel later on or potentially rebook for another time if the original dates of the deal don’t, in fact, work for your schedule.
- Switching from round-trip to one-way: Many airlines do not price round-trip tickets as the sum of two one-way tickets (Southwest and JetBlue are two notable exceptions). As a result, if you tried to drop the return leg from a ticket with a legacy carrier to change it to a one-way itinerary, you’d pay a change fee plus an exorbitant fare difference. With Southwest, if you drop one leg of a round-trip flight, you’ll get back the points or money you spent on that leg. Period.
Southwest has some rabidly loyal fans, many of whom were undoubtedly disappointed by the carrier’s lackluster performance in both our best airline and best airline elite status analyses earlier this year. However, Southwest does offer a solid value proposition for many travelers, and I love the fact that you can change or cancel your flights without the exorbitant fees that other airlines charge. If you haven’t utilized this strategy before and have upcoming flights on Southwest, I strongly encourage you to check the flight price regularly as your departure date approaches.
Know before you go.
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With the Southwest Premier credit card you'll earn 6,000 points each year after your cardmember anniversary. Southwest also offers one of the most lucrative airline perks - the Companion Pass.
- Earn 60,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- 6,000 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary.
- 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
- 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
- Earn unlimited points that don't expire as long as your card account is open.
- No foreign transaction fees.
- No blackout dates or seat restrictions.
- Redeem your points for flights, hotel stays, gift cards, access to events, and more.