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Southwest Rewards Program Takes A Hit

Wing of a Southwest Airlines planeSouthwest Airlines is making its Rapid Rewards Program less rewarding.

Beginning March 31, 2014, reward flight bookings for Wanna Get Away fares, Southwest’s least expensive fare category, will cost 70 points per $1 of fare instead of 60 points per $1.

This change means that for a $400 round-trip reward ticket, frequent flyers will need 28,000 Rapid Rewards points instead of 24,000.

In other words, points will be worth 14% less than they are today.

Point redemption values will decline, but the number of points travelers earn while flying will not change. So no help there.

The earn rate will remain at 6 points per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares, 10 points per dollar for Anytime fares and 12 points per dollar for Business Select fares.

Unlike Wanna Get Away fares, anytime fares are fully refundable; Business Select fares are fully refundable and come with priority boarding, priority access to ticket counters and security checkpoints at select locations, and a premium drink during the flight.

Southwest’s Anytime and Business Select reward flight redemption rates will not change, but these tickets are significantly more expensive than Wanna Get Away tickets.

Here’s a chart that shows how many points you’ll need per $100 in airfare before and after the change.

TICKET TYPE Through March 30 After March 30
Business Select 12,000 12,000
Anytime 10,000 10,000
Wanna Get Away 6,000 7,000

Consumers can do several things to combat the devaluation.

To get the most from your points, book as many reward trips as possible before March 31, 2014. If you have a graduation to attend or if your mom’s birthday is coming up, reserve your reward seat now.

Under the new system, it will become more important to book reward tickets during sales to make your miles go further. Subscribe to Rapid Rewards emails to be notified of every sale, and install the Ding! app on your computer or iPhone to be notified of exclusive, limited-time deals.

You might also consider applying for Chase’s Rapid Rewards Visa credit card, which is currently offering a 50,000 mile sign-up bonus and awards points for every purchase.

Southwest used to have perhaps the most user-friendly frequent-flyer program of any airline. All you had to do was make 8 round-trip flights and you’d earn a free ticket. It didn’t matter how much those flights cost or how many miles they covered.

In 2011, Southwest converted to one of the most confusing frequent-flyer programs out there. After March 30, it will be less valuable, too.

To be fair, Southwest’s frequent-flyer program does offer some benefits that other airlines’ programs don’t.

Southwest awards frequent-flyer points based on how much you pay for your ticket; most airlines award frequent-flyer miles based on the number of miles you fly. Though less straightforward, Southwest’s system is arguably more fair, since a longer distance flown doesn’t necessarily equate to a more expensive ticket.

Southwest offers unlimited reward seats. As its website explains, “If a seat is available for sale in a given class, it can be redeemed with points.”

There are also no blackout dates on reward redemptions, so you can use your points at Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Plus, you can still check two bags for free, and you don’t have to pay a fee if you need to change your flight. Some airlines charge travelers to change an award ticket.

A drawback is that you cannot combine points with cash to pay for a reward flight. You must have enough reward points for the flight you want to take.

Also, reward points will expire if your account has no activity for 24 months. Competing airlines have similar provisions.

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