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Why I'm still booking Southwest despite striving for American elite status

Sept. 20, 2022
7 min read
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Even though it's only September, I've already booked my flights home for the holidays.

2020 marked the first year in my 32 years of life that I ever missed Christmas in St. Louis with my parents, which meant I was beyond excited to see them last Thanksgiving after being separated for 12 months.

Being able to travel home more easily and often is a big reason why I moved to Chicago in June. It helps that, unlike most carriers, Southwest Airlines has maintained a consistent presence at St. Louis Lambert International Airport (STL).

In fact, Southwest has doubled its presence at STL in the past decade, accounting for 55% of the airport's market share.

With 45 nonstop, weekly flights between STL and Chicago's Midway International Airport (MDW), I can always count on being able to find a Southwest flight home.

I also feel confident booking a Southwest fare knowing that I can always cancel or change my flight if needed thanks to the carrier's flexible fares, which allow you to modify your flight for free up to 10 minutes before boarding.

If you use Southwest Rapid Rewards points to book your flight, you'll simply be credited those points back; if you use cash, you'll receive a flight credit for use on a future flight.

Related: How to redeem points with the Southwest Rapid Rewards program

Not only do I appreciate this flexibility and volume of daily flights, but I also love that the airline's fare types are often much more affordable than competitors, so I often spend less to fly with Southwest for routes like this one.

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However, working at a place like TPG means there are times when I need to fly other carriers. So, even though I've built up a lot of love for Southwest since I first started flying the airline as a young girl, I've found myself flying American Airlines regularly this year.

Despite my preference for Southwest, American is the carrier I've used for every domestic flight I've taken so far in 2022.

The reason for this loyalty change is simple — I was gifted 30,000 American Airlines AAdvantage Loyalty Points via a raffle at a TPG function in early 2021. Those Loyalty Points meant automatic AAdvantage Gold status, American's entry-level tier.

While this low-level status may seem insignificant to some, it was a big deal to me, as I'd never held airline status before. So, I shifted my flying strategy to maximize my time spent in the air with American in an effort to reach AAdvantage Platinum — the next elite tier — by March of 2023.

Related: Chasing American Airlines elite status? Here are 14 ways to earn Loyalty Points

When it came time to book flights home for the holidays, I found myself feeling conflicted. Should I fly home with Southwest, as I have done for every holiday season thus far, or should I consider American for the sake of Loyalty Points and status?

In the end, I decided to keep with tradition and book Southwest. Here's why the carrier swayed me to stick with my usual itinerary instead of flying with American.

Price of the flights in cash and points

To determine which airline I should use this holiday season, I turned to both carriers' websites to compare prices for Thanksgiving and Christmas flights. I started with my preferred Thanksgiving travel dates of Nov.18 and 30.

When I looked at American flights, the cheapest nonstop option I found in the main cabin cost $300 round-trip or 13,000 miles plus $11.20 in taxes and fees.

Alternatively, I could pay $240 in cash or 16,274 Rapid Rewards points plus $11.20 in taxes and fees for a nonstop Wanna Get Away fare on Southwest.

For Christmas, flight prices were similar. On my travel dates of Dec. 17 and Jan. 3, flying in American's main cabin would cost me $340 or 15,000 miles plus $11.20 in taxes and fees.

Meanwhile, the cheapest Wanna Get Away fare for a nonstop route would set me back $240 in cash or 16,274 Rapid Rewards points plus $11.20 in taxes and fees.

Since I would save a total of $160 for both trips by opting to fly Southwest, the carrier appeared to be my best option. Still, I wanted to factor in the value of flying American for my status quest, too.

Related: Finally reunited: How 100,000 Southwest points are taking me home for the holidays

Value of flying American for achieving status

Beyond the fare price itself, I calculated the effect of a missed earning opportunity with American.

To earn AAdvantage Loyalty Points, you'll need to fly with American or one of its many partners or use a cobranded credit card.

When on American flights, you’ll always earn the same amount of Loyalty Points as you do redeemable miles, so 1 base mile earned equals 1 Loyalty Point. The distance of a flight flown is only relevant on Oneworld partner flights.

Calculating my earnings for these Thanksgiving and Christmas flights was a cinch. I simply multiplied the fare price of both American itineraries before taxes and fees (which were $251 and $288, respectively) by seven — this accounts for the 40% elite mileage bonus I receive as a Gold member — to get to a final total of 3,773 Loyalty Points.

I did the same for the two round-trip Southwest options, multiplying both itineraries (sans taxes and fees) by six — the earning rate for Wanna Get Away fares — to get a combined total of 2,356 Rapid Rewards points.

Then, I used TPG's current valuations for AAdvantage Loyalty Points (1.77 cents per point) and Rapid Rewards points (1.5 cents per point) to determine the value of all the flights. My Loyalty Points earnings would be worth $66.78, while my Rapid Rewards points would net me $35.34 in value.

Although the Loyalty Points would be of greater value, this extra $31.44 in value wouldn't fully offset the $160 in savings Southwest was offering with its lower fares. Since saving money is my top priority, Southwest ended up being the best way to go.

Bottom line

Ultimately, I could not ignore the low cost of the Southwest flights I found for the holidays. Despite the missed opportunity to earn more Loyalty Points, the value of those potential earnings was not enough to justify paying extra to fly American — if I had decided to use cash.

As luck would have it, I had more than 32,000 Rapid Rewards points in my loyalty account, so I could cover both flights with points. This was an added bonus to my decision to fly Southwest, as I only had a little more than 14,000 American miles, which would've covered the Thanksgiving itinerary but not my Christmas flights.

If my Gold status with American was on the line, I likely would've considered paying more for the American flights.

However, I plan to fly a Oneworld partner to Asia before the qualification period ends, so I'm confident I'll still achieve Platinum status by March. Stay tuned for more about that flight and how it helped me reach my American elite status goals later this fall.

Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.