Many Southwest frequent fliers are wondering what the changes to the airline's Rapid Rewards program mean to them. For some perspective on the new plan, we asked Brett Snyder to break down the pros and cons for Woman Road Warriors. He is the president/writer of crankyflier.com, an award-winning consumer travel blog.
WRW: Up until now, how has SW’s rewards program been perceived by business travelers – is it beneficial? What have they liked/disliked about it?
Brett Snyder: Southwest's traditional short-haul business traveler has generally liked the program. It's simple; they can fly a bunch of $39 one way short flights and rack up the freebies pretty quickly. But there are definitely drawbacks. You could only redeem for flights on Southwest and that meant no exotic beach vacation in the Maldives or even a beach in Hawaii (since the airline only flies within the contiguous United States). The more traditional business traveler also doesn't like the lack of elite benefits. Southwest did create “A-List” a couple years ago but it didn't have much to it. (The A-List offers frequent fliers access to the best boarding pass number available and priority lanes at select check-in and security checkpoints).
WRW: What's Southwest’s main motive for changing the rewards program? We've read it’s to attract more business travelers who tend to spend more.
Brett Snyder: This is all about attracting business travelers. It's true that business travelers tend to pay more because they either book at the last minute or they need flexibility. Those are the travelers willing to pay more for convenience, but Southwest wasn't really creating an incentive for them.
WRW: What’s the best part of the new program for business travelers? Is determining awards by price/points instead of # of flights going to make it more attractive?
Brett Snyder: It depends who's answering the question. The beefed up elite program is certainly going to be attractive to frequent fliers. And it does help build incentives for people who pay more for their tickets since they can now earn more. Using the dollar-based program will be more attractive to those who spend more, but it's likely to be less attractive to those who buy cheap tickets and those who fly primarily shorter flights. That's really how it should be, but not everyone is happy about that.
WRW: What will they be unhappy with?
Brett Snyder: Again, it depends who's talking. It takes a lot longer to earn a free ticket if you fly on low fares or short flights (where fares are lower). So that will turn the traditional Southwest flier off. It's also going to be a lot more difficult to redeem for last minute flights (when prices are higher), so people have been complaining about that. Southwest's continued move away from an egalitarian program where everyone is treated equally will also anger people. Lastly for me, it's that requirement that you have a Southwest credit card to unlock all the benefits that rubs me the wrong way. (The new “More Rewards” program which allows you to use points for international flights, hotel stays, rental cars and event tickets is only available to Southwest Airlines Rapids Rewards Chase cardmembers. If you want access to the program, you have to apply for the credit card).
WRW: If you’re already a SW frequent flier, any tips for taking advantage of the new program or things to watch out for?
Brett Snyder: Well, pay more for your tickets and you can earn more! I personally find the program pretty straightforward, but I know that others think it's too complex. The key is to pay more and then you'll earn more. It looks like there is fairly good earning potential at hotel and car rental partners, (You can earn 2 points per $1 spent on purchases at participating Southwest hotel and rental car partners), so that's a good tip for building up your points. Other than that, we'll see how long it takes for people to figure out the best way to maximize their value.
Thanks to Brett for sharing his insights. Let us know what you think about the changes.
See you on the road!
Road Reporter Vicki Zwart