Reader Asks: How Can I Redeem 238K Southwest Rapid Rewards Points?

by Sam Roecker

📝

Hi Sam,

I live in Denver and LUV to fly Southwest. I’ve accumulated 238,000 Rapid Rewards points from traveling over the years. I also have the Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase to boost my earnings throughout the year. I’ve heard it’s bad to “hoard” points (they lose value or expire, right?) but I also don’t want to waste my points on bad redemptions. I have lots of time to travel this year, but I’d also consider donating points or giving them to friends. What’s your take?

 


Southwest Rapid Rewards: The Basics

Like all things Southwest, Rapid Rewards is notably simple: the program allows you to book any available seat on days ending in “y”  (very cute, Southwest). Points don’t expire, provided your account is active at least once every 24 months by flying Southwest or earning through a partner (e.g. credit card). In other words, if you have a bunch of Rapid Rewards points and you haven’t flown Southwest in awhile, take a look at your account to make sure you don’t lose your points.

Rapid Rewards offers significantly more member benefits to cardholders of Southwest-branded credit cards. All Rapid Rewards members can redeem points for (✅) while cardholders (💳) enjoy extra benefits:

✅ Southwest flights  ✅ Gift cards  ✅ Merchandise  💳 50+ airlines  💳 70K hotels   💳 Rental cars   💳 Experiences

All Rapid Rewards members can also donate points to pre-selected charities, buy points, and transfer/gift points. As a general rule, transacting points without directly redeeming something (e.g. gifting points to friends) is not a good value.

Southwest Rapid Rewards: Value

Rapid Rewards follows the industry trend of revenue-based earning and cash value-based redeeming. Translation:

  • Earnings are based on the price of your ticket and type of fare (an expensive Business Select fare earns more)
  • Redemptions are pegged to the cash value (paid fare) of the ticket (an expensive Business Select fare costs more)

You can think of Rapid Rewards as essentially a cash-based system, meaning there aren’t any “hidden value” redemptions in the program (that’s intentional, obviously). Southwest recently changed the value of its points, reducing the points per dollar for Business Select and Anytime fares and increasing the points per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares (cheapest fare available). New values align all three fares (minus taxes) to a standardized rate of ~78 points per dollar:

  • Business Select fares =  78 points per dollar (previously 120)
  • Anytime fares = 78 points per dollar (previously 100)
  • Wanna Get Away fares = 76-78 points per dollar (previously 74)

So, if a fare prices around $300, you can expect to pay around 20,000 points. Remember to remove taxes and fees when calculating dollars to point. Here’s an example:

The base fare (no taxes) on the Wanna Get Away fare = ~$256

~$250 x 78 (points/dollar) = ~20,000 points 

 

To find the value of each point, reverse the math and divide the paid fare by the number of points:

$290 / 20,000 points = ~1.5 cents/point

Here’s the good news for non-math folk (I’m right there with you): because the values are fixed, you don’t need to compare the paid fare to the points fare to see if you’re getting a good deal. The cheapest paid flight aligns to the cheapest points flight and vice versa. I’m simplifying a bit, but essentially:

1 Rapid Rewards point = ~ 1.5 cents   


 

Best Rapid Rewards Redemptions: Flights on Southwest

Bottom line, the best-value redemption is award flights on Southwest. Rapid Rewards is remarkably simple; use that to your advantage to book hassle-free flights. While you can’t use points to Asia or Europe, you might be surprised to see how much Southwest has grown! Starting next year, Southwest will also fly to Hawaii.

Southwest Airlines International Route Map and Destinations Rapid Rewards Redemptions

Southwest International Route Map, 2018 | Image: Southwest

Southwest has a growing international footprint, serving the following destinations (note: some routes are seasonal):

Aruba (AUA)  ・  Belize City (BZE) ・ Cabo San Lucas/Los Cabos (SJD) ・ Cancun (CUN)  ・  Grand Cayman (GCM)  Havana (HAV) ・  Liberia, Costa Rica (LIR)  ・ Mexico City (MEX)  ・  Montego Bay (MBJ)  ・  Nassau, Bahamas (NAS)  Puerto Vallarta (PVR)  ・  Punta Cana (PUJ)  ・  San Jose, Costa Rica (SJO)  ・  Providenciales, Turks & Caicos (PLS)

 

Southwest Hawaii Service from Sacramento, Oakland, San Jose, San Diego to Hawaii

Southwest also intends to serve Hawaii sometime in the near future from Oakland (OAK), Sacramento (SMF), San Diego (SAN), and San Jose (SJC). CEO Gary Kelly admitted recent incidents (i.e. Southwest Flight 1380) put the carrier behind schedule in launching service to four Hawaiian islands. Although schedules and details have not been released, Southwest confirmed its initial destinations: Honolulu (HNL), Maui Kahului (OGG), Lihue (LIH), and Kona (KOA). The carrier also intends to launch inter-island service, taking on Hawaiian Airlines.

Rapid Rewards Redemptions 


Redeeming Rapid Rewards Points for Gift Cards

⚠ Not all gift cards are created equal. I logged into my Rapid Rewards account and as a non-cardholder, my gift card rates were higher than our reader’s. Pay attention to redemption values, as the “cheaper” gift cards are often the most expensive. For example:

[$100 Hotels.com = 10K points] > [$25 Apple gift card = 3K points]

{ 1 cent/point }                           { .8 cents/point }

If you decide to redeem points for gift cards, only redeem for the 1 cent/point cards, like the Hotels.com card on the left. Assuming you have a Southwest credit card, the one option I might entertain is a $100 Hotels.com gift card for 10,000 points (the rate for non-cardholders is 13,500 points). No, it’s not a great deal, but if you want to book a hotel using Rapid Rewards points, it’s better than most of the rates offered through the hotel booking portal.

Redeeming Rapid Rewards Points for Merchandise

⚠ Shiny Apple products may look enticing, but merchandise awards are among the worst offenders for bad redemptions. A few examples, using rounded numbers for simplicity:

Nest Wi-Fi Thermostat E [$150 value] = 28.5K points   { .5 cents/point }
Amazon Echo Dot [$50 value] = 8.6K points { .5 cents/point }
Bose Headphones [$350 value] = 52K points { .7 cents/point }
Apple AirPods [$160 value] = 29K points { .5 cents/point } 

Would you rather buy headphones or fly to Cabo? 

Transferring or Gifting Rapid Rewards Points

⚠ Gifting points to a family friend, relative, or newlywed sounds like a nice option, but always comes with expensive fees. For example, gifting 10,000 points comes costs $275 fee and transferring points costs $10 per increment of 1,000 points (1 cent/point). Unless a friend or loved one needs a few thousand points for an award, don’t transfer or gift your points. Instead, book a flight for them using your points and their name as the traveler.

Donating Rapid Rewards Points to Charity

⚠ Another sounds nice-but-isn’t option: donating points to charities selected by Southwest.  If you donate 10,000 points to Charity X, they don’t necessarily receive those points directly. Don’t do it. Using your points to help others is a wonderful gesture, so consider alternatives like booking a ticket for someone (with your points from your account). Reach out to your favorite nonprofit and ask if they have any upcoming travel.

💳 Benefit*: Book Non-Southwest Flight or Hotels

*must have a Southwest-branded credit card  

Southwest touts the benefit of being able to book flights on 50+ airlines. Sounds great, right? Most of the prices are laughable (172,000 points for a roundtrip economy flight to Asia), although some were slightly more reasonable, like 58,000 points for Denver to London. Still, for a flight that’s ~$600, not a great redemption.

To give you an idea of how bad hotel redemptions can be, take a look at these hotels in October:

Four Seasons Mexico City: 125,000 points/night ($290 per night) = .2 cents/mile
W Mexico City: 65,000 points/night ($200 per night) = .3 cents/mile

If you are determined to use points for a hotel stay, first redeem for a Hotels.com gift card. 30,000 points for $300 at least gets you 1 cent/mile. Before booking a hotel through Southwest’s redemption portal, check the value of your redemption. If it’s less 1 cent/point, A) don’t book it and B) buy a gift card and redeem using that method instead.

💳 Benefit*: Redeem Rapid Rewards Points for Experiences

*must have a Southwest-branded credit card 

I was curious to see what types of “exclusive experiences” Southwest offers, so I checked my favorite city, New Orleans. The portal offers 192 (!) touristy experiences for anywhere from 1,250 points up to 78,000 points. Note the listed value in the initial search is just an estimate; you’ll need to enter your travel dates and search for availability before seeing the final price. Most options also had a five-day advanced booking requirement.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Redemption Option for Tours Experiences and Excursions

Southwest Rapid Rewards Excursion

The experiences certainly look enticing, but the ones I found were terrible redemption options. For example, the platform offers a Steamboat Natchez Harbor Cruise for just under 4,000 Rapid Rewards points. The cruise was $34 when booked directly, meaning you’d be redeeming at .8 cents/point. For 2,200 points you can purchase a ticket to the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico City. At $10 a ticket, this is an even worse use of miles (.4 cents/point).

 

Recommendations: How to Redeem 238K Rapid Rewards Points


Using 1.5 cents/point as the approximate value for each Rapid Rewards point, here’s a rough estimate of how much you can redeem in travel, assuming you redeem points for Southwest flights:

238,000 points x 1.5 cents/points = ~$3,500

That’s a lot of flights on Southwest! Using sample roundtrip prices from Denver, options include:

{ 19 Trips to New Orleans }  { 18 Trips to Chicago }  { 15 Trips to Mexico City }  { 8 Trips to Costa Rica }  { 8 Trips to Cabo }

 

Mexico City
New Orleans
San Jose, CR
Cabo

 

Recommendations:

✅ Always use Rapid Rewards points for flights on Southwest. Assuming you have some flexibility, use the low fare calendar to search for the cheapest flight(s).

✅ Since the redemption value is pegged to the cash value of the ticket, there’s no need to search around for hidden deals. You get exactly what you “pay” for, so book the flight that fits your travel needs.

✅ While the experiences, gift cards, and hotels are not the best redemption values, they may be worth considering if you want a truly “free” trip with no out-of-pocket costs.

 

Enjoy!

Readers: have a points or miles question? Email me at sam@pointmetotheplane.com 

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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