What is Southwest Airlines elite status worth in 2021?

3d ago

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Airline elite status benefits can make your travel experience more seamless and enjoyable. But if you’re new to the points and miles hobby, you may be wondering just how valuable these perks can be. Is it worth devoting yourself to earning status with a specific airline?

Today, I’ll continue to answer this question by quantifying the value you can get from the major U.S. airlines’ elite status programs. This analysis will go through the Southwest Rapid Rewards program in depth to try and answer a simple question: Is it worth pursuing Southwest elite status in 2021?

Be sure to check out other airlines for a full breakdown of their elite benefits:

In This Post

How I developed these valuations?

Before diving into the Rapid Rewards program, I want to remind you that my valuations below represent a singular way to identify what elite status is worth to a potential traveler. You should adjust any of the assumptions I make to fit with your individual travel situation. For example, if you rarely fly with a companion, you’ll value the Southwest Companion Pass less than a family traveler.

It’s also important to note that my analysis is based on earning status in 2021 and traveling a comparable amount in 2022. 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 for the first time during the year. This should help you figure your personal valuation.

Southwest Boeing 737 on Runway
(Photo by Angel DiBilio/Shutterstock)

This brings me to the third part of this analysis: the underlying assumptions I’m making. To really hit a value for benefits, I have to assume a certain amount of flying and a corresponding amount of spending. Southwest awards elite status a bit differently than most other airlines — instead of earning status by miles flown, you’ll earn Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs). Here’s how:

  • Wanna Get Away fares: 6 TQPs per dollar spent on base fares (excluding taxes and fees)
  • Anytime fares: 10 TQPs per dollar spent
  • Business Select fares: 12 TQPs per dollar spent

This analysis assumes that you earn 20% more TQPs than the minimum required for the given level. I’ll then assume that you spend an average of 7 cents per TQP, which is what you’d average across the year if 10% of your purchases are Business Select tickets, 10% are Anytime fares and the remaining 80% are Wanna Get Away.

As always, you should modify these details based on how much you’re planning to travel in 2021 and what types of Southwest tickets you most frequently purchase.

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 Companion Pass value: 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.

Things to consider before chasing SOuthwest elite status

(Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

There are a few things to consider when deciding to chase elite status in 2021 — let’s take a look:

How much are you traveling during the coronavirus pandemic?

It’s hard to talk about travel without discussing the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic has changed travel as we know it, and many of us are traveling less. Many U.S. airlines have responded to the pandemic by extending elite status and making it easier to earn status in 2021.

Southwest did both. It extended 2020 elite status and Companion Passes early on in the pandemic and gave members a headstart toward 2021 qualification. In short, the airline deposited Tier Qualifying Points and qualifying segments into each Southwest account earlier this year. This effectively lowered qualification requirements to the following:

Status Normal requirements 2021 Boost Net effective 2021 requirements
A-List 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights 15,000 TQPs and 10 flights 20,000 TQPs or 15 flights
A-List Preferred 70,000 TQPs or 50 flights 15,000 TQPs and 10 flights 55,000 TQPs or 40 flights
Companion Pass 125,000 CPQPs or 100 flights 25,000 CPQPs and 25 flights 100,000 CPQPs or 75 flights

 

That said, I am not reflecting these status qualifying changes in this article. Likewise, I am not taking the coronavirus’s impact on travel into account with my valuations.

Why? As the author, I can’t be sure of how much you travel. Make sure to go through your travel plans and see if it makes sense for you to chase elite status during the pandemic. Likewise, look toward the future and think about how much you’ll travel in future years.

Remember, you can edit the provided Excel sheet and make changes to my assumed valuations for a more accurate look at the value of elite status.

Further, elite status requirements will eventually return to normal once the pandemic is behind us. With the vaccine rollout starting worldwide, the future is bright for travel. This means we could see the industry make a return to some resemblance of normalcy in 2022, so I’d expect us to return to standard requirements next year.

Related: When will international travel return? A country-by-country guide to coronavirus recovery

Does Southwest have a large presence at your home airport?

Unlike some of the other large U.S. airlines, Southwest doesn’t have a traditional hub-and-spoke route network. Instead, it focuses on point-to-point, nonstop routes. The airline has a large presence at secondary airports in large cities like Chicago-Midway (MDW), Dallas-Love (DAL) and Houston-Hobby (HOU), but is expanding into new airports too.

So, make sure to check your home airport and see if Southwest flies to your desired destinations. You can do this using a tool like FlightConnections or by looking up your home airport on Wikipedia. It’s probably worth skipping Southwest elite status if the airline doesn’t serve the destinations you fly to the most.

FlightConnections Showing Southwest Route Map From MDW
(Screenshot courtesy of FlightConnections)

The airline’s route map is centered around domestic flights. It only serves a small handful of international destinations in Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. With that in mind, those who frequently travel to more far-flung destinations may want to skip Southwest and earn status with a more traditional carrier.

Related: Southwest Airlines adds 4 new routes; Hawaii and Florida are winners

Southwest doesn’t have a business or first-class cabin

All of Southwest’s planes are all-economy and don’t have assigned seating. This means there are no free upgrades to business class for elite status members, which can be a disappointment for those seeking luxury in the sky. Elites do, however, get priority boarding that gives them first dibs at their preferred seat.

So if your main elite status goal is a more luxurious travel experience, you’ll want to pass on Southwest.

Related: Southwest vs. Allegiant: What it’s like to fly a low-cost airline during a pandemic

You can fast-track to Southwest elite status with a credit card

You can earn up to 10,000 TQPs through certain Southwest credit cards like the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card. The current Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card welcome offer is a Companion Pass®  through 2/28/2022 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening — a pretty excellent deal for frequent Southwest travelers.

On these cards, you’ll earn 1,500 TQPs for every $10,000 you spend on the card — up to a maximum of 15,000 TQPs for $100,000 in total annual spending. Likewise, all redeemable Rapid Rewards earned from credit card spend count toward Companion Pass qualification. This can be a good way to fast-track yourself to Companion Pass qualification.

That said, there is an opportunity cost involved when you work to earn elite status and Companion Pass with your cobranded credit card. You may earn more points by putting your expenses on a transferable points card that earns bonus points on dining, travel and other popular categories. Points like American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards are generally more valuable than Southwest points, too, given their expansive list of transfer partners.

Related: Credit cards that can help you earn airline elite status

How much do you value Southwest Rapid Rewards?

You’re going to walk away with a solid stash of Southwest Rapid Rewards points when chasing status, so make sure you value them highly.

Southwest prices award tickets based on paid fares; the more expensive a ticket is, the more points you’ll pay. One nice thing about this is that you can stretch your points when booking low-cost award tickets. Likewise, the airline has no blackout dates or traditional award space. You can redeem your Rapid Rewards points on any ticket you’d like.

On the contrary, you can’t maximize your points for high-end business class award tickets or expensive last-minute tickets.

Again, TPG’s latest valuation of Rapid Rewards points is 1.5 cents per point. Some flights may get slightly more or less value than this, but you’ll generally stay around this value when redeeming for economy tickets.

Keep all of this in mind before aiming for elite status with Southwest. If you want to redeem your points for international first class, you’ll want to go with a different loyalty program. That said, Southwest Rapid Rewards can be great for domestic travelers who want easy-to-redeem points.

With that out of the way, how much value can you get out of the Southwest elite status in 2021?

A-List ($685)

Southwest check-in area at LGA
A-List status will make your airport experience smoother. (Photo by Andrew Kunesh/The Points Guy)

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 7 cents per TQP (so a total spend of $2,940).

Priority Boarding ($250)

The first perk offered to A-List members is priority boarding. However, given Southwest’s boarding process, this is not as straightforward as the similar benefit offered to elites on other airlines.

The program’s terms and conditions state that “Southwest Airlines will automatically reserve a boarding position for the member 36 hours before each…flight.” You’ll fall behind higher-tier elites and those who purchase Business Select tickets, but this will hopefully get you a spot in the A boarding group (and prevent the frantic check-in exactly 24 hours before the flight).

This benefit also means you avoid paying the Early Bird Check-in fee, which starts at $15 each way per passenger. Given these details, I value this much higher than the priority boarding offered to low-tier 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, a perk added in 2016. However, the terms and conditions state that this is only available for flights between the same cities before your originally scheduled departure time and on the same date of travel (free standby is also provided for Anytime and Business Select fares, so this perk only offers tangible value on Wanna Get Away tickets).

For flights outside this window, you’re still given priority over non-elites but must pay a fare difference if a seat opens up. This perk also doesn’t extend to non-elite travelers on the same reservation, nor will it apply to a companion utilizing the Companion Pass benefit. 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 for all passengers 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.

Related: Battle of the airlines: Why I think Southwest Airlines is the best

A-List Preferred ($2,835)

Southwest's IFE provided several channels of live TV as well as other info pertaining to the flight.
As an A-List Preferred Member, you’ll enjoy complimentary Wi-Fi onboard, now available on all of Southwest’s planes. (Photo by Nick Ellis/The Points Guy.)

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 7 cents per TQP (so a total spend of $5,880).

Priority Boarding ($600)

A-List Preferred members will automatically be assigned a boarding position 36 hours before 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. However, 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 ($400)

The final perk for A-List Preferred members is free internet access on board. This usually costs $8 per day and is available on 100% of Southwest’s planes. The value of this benefit depends on how frequently you need the internet in the sky, but I’ll assume a value of $400, which is equivalent to paying $8 per day for 50 days.

Related: How to get the best seats on Southwest Airlines

Companion Pass with flying and partner activity ($4,020)

The Companion Pass is one of the world’s most valuable travel perks. (Photo by John Gress Media Inc/Shutterstock)

The next tier in the Southwest program isn’t actually an elite status tier but 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 paid and award tickets. You’ll earn it by taking 100 qualifying one-way flights or earning 125,000 Companion Pass-qualifying points in a calendar year — the latter of these two thresholds was increased for 2020.

These are slightly different from 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 Premier Credit Card), including sign-up bonuses. The current sign-up bonus for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card is a Companion Pass®  through 2/28/2022 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of account opening.

The latter three 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 surpass the point threshold by earning 130,000 points. However, for this first part, I’ll assume that your points originate from flying and partners equally, earning 65,000 points from each (so a total spend of $4,550). Note that this will give you A-List Preferred status (and the benefits it confers) plus the Companion Pass perk.

Priority Boarding ($375)

Your A-List status will grant you priority boarding (as I outline above), though, with 65,000 base points, you’ll be able to utilize it roughly 50% more frequently.

100% point bonus ($245)

By earning 65,000 points on flights during the year, you’ll take home 16,250 bonus points as an A-List member, worth $243.75.

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. Keep in mind that the pass is valid for the year 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 twelve round-trip flights at a value of $250 apiece — though you should adjust it if you plan to utilize it more (or less) frequently.

Related: Why now is one of the best times to apply for Southwest Airlines credit cards

Companion Pass through flying alone ($8,250)

Use your Companion Pass to bring a friend on your next Southwest trip. (Photo by JordiRamisa/Getty Images)

For this final part of the analysis, I’ll assume that you earn the Companion Pass solely through flying and surpass the qualification threshold by the same amount as the prior scenario, spending the same 7 cents per point.

This means that you would’ve earned 130,000 base points by spending $9,100 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)

Same benefit, more frequent utilization.

100% point bonus ($1,950)

You’ll take home 130,000 bonus points with the assumed flying above, worth $1,950.

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)

Same benefit, more frequent utilization.

Free in-flight Wi-Fi ($600)

Same benefit as previous A-List Preferred valuation, more frequent utilization.

Companion Pass ($4,000)

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 $4,000 based on taking 16 round-trip flights that would’ve normally cost $250 apiece — but again, please adjust if your utilization differs.

Related: Guide to airline companion tickets

What if I’m starting from scratch?

You may have many flights at the back of the plane until you reach the qualification threshold for A-List status. (Photo by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.)

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’re 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: $2,835 / 84,000 TQPs = 3.38 cents per TQP
  • Companion Pass (solely travel): $8,250 / 130,000 TQPs = 6.35 cents per TQP

I then created an Excel spreadsheet that uses these numbers to calculate how much value you’d get from the different Southwest elite status levels 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 2021, 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 3.38 cents per TQP). This means that if you’re starting from scratch and estimate that you’ll earn 80,000 TQPs in 2019, you’d be able to get $908.33 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?

Given these values, is it worth pursuing elite status (or the next tier of elite status) with Southwest? Like 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 2020, it’s valid through Dec. 31, 2021, and if you qualify in 2021, your status will last until Dec. 31, 2022. As discussed earlier, 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 regularly. 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 many different factors 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!

Related: 13 lessons from having a Southwest Companion Pass for 13 years

Bottom line

Southwest is an interesting case study in loyalty, as some travelers won’t even consider flying on another airline, whereas others would rather take Greyhound than set foot on a Southwest plane (that’s only a mild exaggeration). Even though the Rapid Rewards program is revenue-based, the overall value proposition of flying Southwest, especially its “fun” atmosphere, is appealing to many.

But when you add valuable perks like the Companion Pass and the carrier’s no-fee change policy, it’s easy to see why Southwest has such loyal fans. If you’re considering pursuing elite status with Southwest this year, I hope this analysis has helped you come to a decision.


This is The Points Guy’s permanent page about Southwest Airlines elite status, so you can bookmark it and check back regularly for the latest information. Keep in mind you may see some reader comments referring to outdated information below.


Related video:

Featured photo by Katie Genter / The Points Guy

Additional reporting by Andrew Kunesh

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

2 points on all other Southwest purchases and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases. This card also comes with an annual $75 travel credit.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn Companion Pass® through 2/28/2022 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months.
  • With Companion Pass®, every time you fly, your friend can too.
  • 7,500 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary each year.
  • $75 Southwest® travel credit each year.
  • 4 Upgraded Boardings per year when available.
  • 20% back on in-flight drinks and WiFi.
  • Earn 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases.
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
Regular APR
15.99% - 22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$149
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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