Southwest Overhauls Frequent Flyer Mile Program

Southwest today announced a major revamp of its frequent flyer mile program. Under the new system, travelers will get points based on their airfare amount. There will also be no blackout dates or seat restrictions (existing members will get grandfathered in). The airline also introduced three new fare buckets, “wanna get away,” “anytime,” and “business select” with increasing points per dollar to redeem and total points required for a free flight. So not only are you getting from point A to point B, you’re also polishing valuable math skills. Southwest came out with 3 videos to explain it all:

Of the change, Consumerist reader Erica said, “Hey look! Southwest has replaced their decent frequent flier program (fly 8 round trips in 2 years, get a free flight) with a newer, worse version! Looks like I won’t be doing all of my flying with them anymore, why bother?”

What do you think? Is the new system easier or harder? Are certain types of travelers benefiting while others get screwed? Sound off in the comments.



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  1. Loias supports harsher punishments against corporations says:

    3 explanation videos required = too complicated. Try again.

    • partofme says:

      The only one that was actually an explanation of the program was the second video. That’s all you need to understand the program. The first is pure marketing drivel. The third is focused on the special case of what happens to your old account (usually, this wouldn’t require a video, just fine print somewhere). So, 1 explanation video required = not that complicated.

      • MMD says:

        So why make three? I understand how it works, but my gut reaction upon seeing multiple videos was that the system must be complicated if 3 videos were made about it.

        • partofme says:

          Because that’s what marketers do. They put out their message in multiple forms. They hit the basics (the second video), take care of the special case (the third video), and work their talking points to death without giving any information (the first video). None of this gets you from “3 videos” to “the system is too complicated”. Is old spice too complicated because they made 100 videos? Marketers make marketing materials. And they make lots of it.

    • Cosmo_Kramer says:

      3 explanation videos required = people are uneducated and stupid. It was completely clear to me after reading a short article in my USA Today app while I was falling asleep last night. I can summarize it in 2 sentences –

      The exchange rate for points to dollars is 12:1, 10:1 or 6:1 depending on the fare class of the purchased tickets. The same exchange rate applies to free tickets purchased with points, again depending on fare class.

      The only way they could have made it simpler is by having only one fare class. Sure, they could have done that – at the expense of giving a bonus to people to buy more profitable tickets. They’re trying to attract business travelers, and giving them a bonus for the expensive tickets that their employers are paying for is a good way to do that.

      Did I type slowly enough for you?

      • Cosmo_Kramer says:

        Sorry, made a mistake – the exchange rate to redeem is 10 times the exchange rate when you collect the points. Essentially it equates to 10 paid flights per free flight within the same fare class, but you have the flexibility to use points earned in one fare class to buy tickets in another class. That’s the point of the different exchange rates.

      • MMD says:

        So why don’t they explain it the way you just did rather than produce 3 separate videos? They’re making it *seem* more complicated than it actually is.

  2. Beeker26 says:

    Pretty much agree with Erica. Now there’s one less reason to fly with them. Their prices haven’t been all the competitive lately either, so there doesn’t seem much point anymore.

    • Cosmo_Kramer says:

      Do other airlines have a better frequent flyer program?

      • Beeker26 says:

        It depends. Other airlines give you points based upon the number of miles you travel, and redeeming them is based upon your destination.

        From my POV, using points for a cheap flight is silly — you save the points to use for the expensive flights. But with this new program it’s harder to do that, as the points you both get and spend are based upon the cost of the fare, not the destination or the distance. It actually works out the opposite — they want you to pay for expensive flights to get more points, but then redeem them for cheaper flights. Seems ass backwards to me.

      • tiffany says:

        from my experience, yes, other airlines do have better frequent flyer programs, at least in regards to ease in using actual points for purchasing flights. for example, jetblue has no blackout flights when using points and the flights cost fewer points than other airlines. AA and United both have blackout flights/dates and require 25K for a one way flight from the east coast to the west coast, whereas Jetblue requires usually around half that (give or take a couple thousand points). i don’t know how many points Southwest requires for their flights so i can’t comment on them.

  3. Cheap Sniveler: Sponsored by JustAnswer.comâ„¢ says:

    Still, they have the best prices and no baggage fees. Most people don’t fly enough to collect miles anyway.

    • stevied says:

      Most people don’t fly enough to collect miles anyway.

      Yep. Damn straight. And those of us who fly that frequent can’t use the miles because

      A) Miles are the property of the employer (who paid for the tickets)

      B) after flying 51 weeks out of the year for business, who wants to fly during the 1 week of off time?

      • stevejust says:

        I’ve never had an employer take my miles. After all, even when I pay for my girlfriend’s ticket, she gets the miles because her miles are linked to her account, not mine.

        How do they reach in and take your miles?

        • yasth says:

          If they buy through a special program then yes pretty much. Southwest doesn’t seem to have one (yet) but if a company has the right sort of contract the flights don’t earn for the flyer. This is mostly a legacy of the old policy for government employees. Still there are a few odd ducks that value the few percent discount they can earn over their employees not hating them.

    • Oranges w/ Cheese says:

      While your second statement is correct, their prices have never been the lowest or anywhere near competitive on routes I’ve flown recently.

  4. Cosmo_Kramer says:

    I’m not familiar with their old plan, but if Eric is correct in saying that 8 flights in 2 years = 1 free flight then this does indeed look worse. This plan equates to 1 free flight for every 10 paid flights. But it’s actually a bit (or a lot) better than that if your paid flights are more expensive (i.e. the ones that a company would buy for a business traveler) and your free flight is a regular coach ticket.

    I also don’t know about blackout dates or restrictions on the old plan, so perhaps this is more flexible?

    If nothing else, it looks like it’s better than what other airlines are offering. And it certainly sounds more straightforward and less confusing.

    • azsumrg1rl says:

      Under the old plan, you got a credit for each one-way trip. So a round-trip flight wearned you two credits regardless of where you traveled or how much you paid. This is where some critics complained about the old program. However, you only needed 16 credits (or 8 round-trip flights) to get a free flight and two drink coupons. You could use your free flight for anywhere that Southwest flies, but of course there are only X number of reward seats available on each flight.

      Still, I booked my reward flight two days before I traveled–and flew out of town for NYE weekend–without any problem. Most of the flights I used to earn the 16 credits cost me $120-200, but the free flight would’ve cost me $315 because I booked last minute. All flights were round-trip AZ/CA.

      Keeping that in mind, I have to agree with the OP. This new program doesn’t do a lot for people who fly to specific destinations, that only fly for vacations/weekend getaways or don’t travel for business. Sure, your points don’t expire (credits did), but I’m guessing I’ll have a lot tougher time getting my free flight this next time around.

  5. oblivious87 says:

    From their website, their conversion factor is 1200points for 1credit… You need 19,200points for a free round trip ticket.

    The ticket I booked today, I’ll end up getting 500 points less. I much rather would have just done miles and gotten a free ticket at 20000miles which would still make it a better program then everyone else, but not as good as the current program.

  6. The Brad says:

    From my basic math skills they’ve more or less changed it to where if you fly 10 round trips, you get a free flight. The big benifit I see here is that the points won’t ever expire and it’s a simple way to get people to either upgrade their ticket type or to still be able to use thier points.

    The downside I see is that if you take advantage of their wanna get away deals and buy your tickets for $59 you don’t get very many points, and thus it will take longer to redeem your free trip.

    Still overall it’s a confusing thing to do.

  7. theblackdog says:

    ARGH! Come on Southwest, the old system worked fine. I liked that I would earn a credit whether I was flying from BWI to BDL or BWI to LAS. Since I tend to go for “Wanna get away?” fares, this means it will now take more flights for me to earn a free flight. In the example, you earn 600 points (I am assuming this is a round trip) for a “Wanna get away?” fare, and it would cost 6000 points to redeem. That’s10 round trips to earn the free flight, whereas in the past it was 8 round trips.

    I do like that as long as you’ve earned at least a few points in the past two years your current points don’t expire. As long as they don’t change that rule I should be okay.

    I wonder what will happen for those of us signed up for Rapid Rewards Dining, I liked earning some credit every time I spent $100 on food at participating restaurants, which in DC is pretty easy to rack up within a month.

    • theblackdog says:

      Whoops, and then I find the info about the dining. You earn 3 points for every $1 spent. Based on the cost of the old credits being worth 1200 points it still works out to a 1/4 credit per $100, but if the flight multiplier is true under the new system for Wanna Get Away fares, then it works out to a 1/2 credit, therefore becoming just a bit better under this system.

    • jamar0303 says:

      Problem is that they want to do quite a bit more now that they’ve got AirTran. Supposedly plans to start flights to Hawaii are in the works, starting with certifying some 737-800s for long-range overwater flying. That and the international flights. Given those I can see why they’d do this eventually (fly a bunch of short hops and redeem for a Hawaii flight- that’ll make the whole thing go down real quick), though why they’re doing it BEFORE the AirTran merger makes no sense unless Hawaii flights are starting really soon.

  8. cmp179 says:

    The advantage to this over their old program (if I understand correctly) is that the points don’t expire, whlie the credits expired after two years. The disadvantage, of course, is that it will take more flights to get a free flight.

    And yes, it is too complicated. It apparently takes a different number of points to go to different places. The old program was actually pretty simple. Get enough credits, go anywhere free.

  9. Tim says:

    Ehh. I never flew with them because of their frequent flyer program; I just don’t fly enough for anything to be worth it.

    They have low fares and are generally make it a pleasure to fly, compared to other airlines. They’ve still got my business.

  10. thewildboo says:

    I wasn’t familiar with their old program, but this new one sounds like the updated True Blue program at Jet Blue that they switched to a year or so ago. Instead of x flights = free flight with your credits expiring before most people could accumulate enough to use, it’s now x dollars = “store credit” that doesn’t expire (if I’m understanding correctly). I think that version makes more sense and is beneficial to most people – but it would be worse for true “frequent fliers” like business travelers.

    • trentblase says:

      It’s actually a really good deal for business travelers who will use points for personal travel:

      Lets say 1 business flight from SFO->LAX costs $300, netting 3600 points.
      On the other hand, 1 gotta get away flight from SFO->LAX costs $100, requiring 6000 points.

      So in this case, two business flights gets you enough points for one equivalent Gotta Get Away fare (my example numbers are hazily remembered from real flights I’ve taken). You’ve spent $600 for a free $100 flight, which is a much better ratio than the old program in which you’d have spent $2400 for a $100-$300 flight.

  11. kpom says:

    The new program is less generous than the old one (in general, it takes 10 flights on the same route to earn a comparable reward vs 8), but it is more flexible. I used to need to convert to Freedom Awards in order to find decent seats near holidays, but now it looks like there are no more blackout dates or seat restrictions. Under the “no free lunch” philosophy, this looks like a change that will win some customers, and lose some others. Southwest claims that their cost of operating the new program will be about the same as the old program. They are banking on more revenue, perhaps from upselling more business select, as well as partner deals.

    • mythago says:

      I am a business flyer, and they just lost my business. The simplicity of their awards program was always a big selling point.

      • jamar0303 says:

        Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite going to work out, not with the rumored Hawaii flights (come on, no blackouts, and they’re all the same- of course people would be all over the Hawaii ones given the chance) and the international routes they pick up from AirTran.

  12. infinitevalence says:

    O thank god its not that bad if your already A-list you get a 25% bonus that might makes up for the lost flights.

    Dear SWA I am not happy, but I will give this a try. If your goal was to make more money you have now encouraged me to shop around before flying when before I would have flown to a city 2 hours away from my destination and driven because of your awesome rewards program.

  13. carlogesualdo says:

    Southwest is moving even further away from its core of simplicity.

  14. Minneapolis says:

    Check out their facebook page:!/Southwest

    People are ANGRY about this.

  15. Quake 'n' Shake says:

    Even with the soon to be discontinued program, I seldom fly enough in a 2 year span to obtain enough points for a free flight.
    The one time I had a free flight, I wound up giving it away because I would be unable to use it before it expired.

  16. mythago says:

    What Consumerist Reader Erica said. Maybe it’s time I take my business to VA after all.

  17. riguitargod says:

    It works out better for me, because I fly them a fair amount, but not enough in a year to ever get a free flight. The fact that these points never expire works well for me.

  18. Dhornet7 says:

    So do I still get credit even though I don’t pay for my flights? The company I work for flies me a couple of times a month, but uses their credit card. Last year alone I earned two free flights. Hey SW, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it!

  19. Santas Little Helper says:

    Not so rapid rewards if you ask me. Their old system in the 90’s was the best in the industry and they have slowly phased that out.

    • Ophelia says:

      Except not so low fares anymore. I used to be able to get an occasional $39 (off peak, weekday) 1 way fare from MDW to ISP, I haven’t seen anything below $89 in years.

  20. DaveBoy says:

    I could not care less about their plan. Low fares and no baggage fee.

  21. guido64 says:

    Time to carpet bomb, this is just a stupid idea.

    CEO of Southwest. Forget the marketing department, they want to justify their “good idea”.

  22. gman863 says:

    Frequent flyer miles are the airlines’ version of the S&H Green Stamps grocery stores gave out decades ago. For those who don’t remember Green Stamps, you had to save up 5 or 6 books just to get a toaster or clock radio.

    Unless you fly for business or charge a shitload on a miles reward credit every month, it would take years to earn a single round-trip flight.

    Grocery stores killed off Green Stamps because consumers eventually figured out they were paying for them in the form of higher food prices. If it kept fares down or got rid of extra fees, I would just assume the airline industry killed off frequent flyer programs as well.

    • Blueskylaw says:

      If they get rid of the frequent flyer miles then they will just keep the extra profit that they make and blame their action on higher fuel prices.

  23. Blueskylaw says:

    When you overhaul your program and need a tutorial video to explain it you know your customers are getting screwed.

  24. Bonnie says:

    I spent some time looking into this, and I don’t think it’ll significantly affect how hard it’ll be for me to get a free flight, which I guess is the most important thing.

    The best thing about this change is that credits don’t expire any more. Nice now that I’m not as much of a frequent flier as I used to be.

    Overall, I’m disappointed, though. I loved the old system because it was so transparent. 1 credit per flight (or 2 with the old layover loophole that they closed at some point). 16 credits = free flight anywhere. Easy to understand, easy to earn. I loved it. Now there’s all this futzing around with really high numbers of points and multiplication and your free flights not necessarily going everywhere unless you get even more points… Suddenly this system is tremendously less user-friendly and comprehensible than it used to be.

  25. NeverLetMeDown says:

    I like the change, since it does more to take into account the value of higher-priced tickets, which most airlines don’t do, or at least don’t do enough of.

    On Delta, for example, if you fly JFK-SFO round-trip in mid-April, you can pay as little as $279 in coach, and get about 3200 miles. A customer who flies that same itinerary in coach on a fully-refundable ticket, though, pays $1450, but only gets a 50% mileage premium. The second passenger is HUGELY more profitable than the $279 coach passenger, but the mileage premium doesn’t match that.

    As someone who flies mostly for work, and mostly on full-fare refundable coach or first-class tickets, I’d love to see some of the other carriers actually orient their mileage programs to value my business more appropriately.