Southwest Rapid Rewards Optimization for Beginners

Take advantage of cheap Wanna Get Away fares, the Companion Pass and the ability to re-book.

Rand ShoafJune 23, 2020
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Although Southwest is technically a low-cost carrier, there are plenty of reasons to love the airline beyond its cheap fares. These include free checked bags, no change fees and the famous Southwest Companion Pass.

One thing that sets Southwest Rapid Rewards apart from most other airline programs is that the cost of award flights are proportional to the cash fare of the flight. This means you can easily predict the type of value you can get from your points.

NerdWallet currently values Southwest points at 1.6 cents each. Even though Southwest ties its points prices to the cash price of a ticket, this value may vary slightly based on each award redemption, and there are certain ways you can optimize the way you use your points.

How to get started using your points

The first step to book an award flight using your Southwest points is to log in to your Rapid Rewards account. This can be done from the upper right-hand corner of Southwest’s homepage.

Once you've logged into your account, you can begin searching for award flights. To start, just input your departure and destination cities along with your travel dates. You’ll also need to check the “Points” button before submitting the search.

You will then see the results of your search, where you can filter through flights based on price, schedule and route connections.

You can also compare prices using Southwest’s low fare calendar, which is an excellent way to find the cheapest fares if you have flexibility in your travel dates.

What to consider when redeeming

As we mentioned, Southwest Rapid Rewards points prices are tied directly to the cost of cash fares. This makes it easy to predict what kind of value you can get from your points.

However, it’s important to note that based on the fare type and amount of taxes and fees, you will see slight variations in the value of your Southwest points. This is mainly due to the fact that taxes and fees are not included in Southwest’s fixed-price value of their points.

To calculate your Southwest redemption value, you can use this simple calculator:

For instance, say you have the option to book a flight from Denver to Seattle for 5,304 points or $83. That's a value of 1.56 cents per point ($83 flight price / 5,304 points = $0.0156). This figure is just below NerdWallet's value of 1.6 cents per point, which means it's a lower-value redemption.

Five ways to optimize your Rapid Rewards

Although the cost of award flights booked with Southwest Rapid Rewards points is directly related to the cash price of the ticket, there are still some deals that are better than others.

Here are some examples of a few great ways to optimize your Rapid Rewards points.

1. Book cheap Wanna Get Away fares

You often get the highest value when you book “Wanna Get Away” fares using your points. These fares are Southwest’s lowest priced flights, which means you'll not only get great value but also save points when booking them. This stretches your Rapid Rewards points even further, allowing you to book more award flights. Unless you are in a must-fly situation, it is rarely a good value to purchase Anytime or Business Select fares on Southwest — stick to Wanna Get Away.

2. Earn the Companion Pass, then use your points for award flights

Southwest offers an incredible deal with the Companion Pass, which essentially lets you double the value of your points when traveling with a partner. If you haven't heard of the Southwest Companion Pass, it lets you fly a designated companion on any Southwest flight with you for only the cost of taxes and fees (as low as $5.60 one-way on domestic flights). Yes, $5.60 is all you'd pay for your companion to fly with you.

Here’s the kicker: The Companion Pass works on flights paid with cash and flights booked with Rapid Rewards points. So you can use your points to book a cheap Wanna Get Away fare, then add your companion for just the cost of taxes and fees. Now both of you are flying for next to nothing.

The Companion Pass can be earned by either completing 100 Southwest flights or earning 125,000 Southwest points in a calendar year. It is often far easier to acquire the 125,000 points than to earn the pass by flying. With some smart use of credit card sign-up bonuses, a Companion Pass might be more achievable than you think.

3. Book early and rebook during sales

One reason to love Southwest Rapid Rewards is that you can cancel or change any flight booked with points or cash, without penalty. This means that you can book travel plans far in advance and always have the option to cancel them or rebook if you find a lower fare or your plans change. Depending on the fare type you book, you can get either a refund or Southwest Travel Funds back if you change or cancel. Without ticket change and cancellation fees, there's no reason not to book speculative trips in the future when they are at the lowest price.

4. Fly to Mexico, the Caribbean or Central America

Although Southwest primarily flies within the U.S., it also has a handful of destinations in Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean. Using your Rapid Rewards points to get to these tropical destinations can be an excellent value.

When you plan early enough, you can find extremely low-priced award fares to these destinations — sometimes costing only a fraction of what you would pay on other domestic airlines such as American, Delta or United. So combine your Rapid Rewards points stash with Southwest’s low fares to save on those tropical vacations.

5. Use points to book positioning flights

Using Southwest points to position yourself for a long-haul international flight is another great way to redeem them. When searching for award tickets using miles in international airline programs, it can often be difficult finding connections within the U.S.

This is when Southwest points can be extremely helpful: You can book cheap one-way flights within the U.S. to get to the appropriate airport for your international journey.

The bottom line

There is no shortage of ways to optimize your Southwest Rapid Rewards points. Whether you are looking for a tropical getaway, setting yourself up for an international trip or just grabbing low-cost domestic flights, remember to book early and recheck your flight prices later. And if you want to go big, make a plan to earn a Companion Pass and combine it with all the other optimization techniques to really squeeze the most out of your Rapid Rewards points.

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