Has Southwest’s Frequent Flyer Program Gotten Less Rewarding?

An email from Southwest airlines recently dropped into my inbox telling me all about the benefits of yet another change in their frequent flyer program.  My first instinct was that this probably wasn’t a change that would benefit me…partly because most companies aren’t basking their customers in new awards in this financial climate and partly because of the over-the-top sales pitch in the email.

Southwest Over the Sierras

Honestly, though, I had no idea how the plan would impact my rewards.  I probably owe Southwest some due diligence as well since they’ve sent me on quite a few freebies across the country during the past few years.  So today I sat down with a spreadsheet (unfortunately this was necessary), a few open internet tabs, and the intent to find out what my purse would have to say about the switch.

Before I launch into the results, let me just provide a disclaimer.  I am by no means an impartial analyst here.  I have a strong affinity for the love airline.  At least to date, they’ve had a fabulous rewards program, a great attitude in the face of an increasingly paranoid culture about flying, and an indifference to the social stratification of many other airlines.  That said, I’m a bit upset that I’ve never been able to make my way onto the Shamu plane or the Nevada plane.

Shamu Southwest Plane

While I’m not the most objective domestic flyer, I do have a healthy respect for math and more importantly, the bottom line.  So as much as it pains me to say it, the numbers say that Southwest has sliced its rewards program benefits by about 1/4 in my case.  Here’s a little more detail:

The new program is a frequent buyer program, not a frequent flyer program.  You get points for using the credit card, points for every dollar you spend on tickets, and points for buying from partners.  There are no more “legs” to earn, and dollar value, not distance, drives your point accumulation.

Shamu

Advantages of the New System

  • Points don’t expire
  • No blackout dates
  • Every seat is a reward seat
  • Reward points can be used on international tickets and a sundry of other items in addition to domestic flights

So if you’re one of those people who never quite got that free ticket or who only flys on Thanksgiving weekend, this is a big improvement.  Since I tend to be cheap and flexible about when I fly, I’m not helped much.

What does help me is that credit card spending gets me a little more value than it used to (based on the assumptions of tickets bought in advance and the standard $300 of a reward ticket).

Disadvantages of the New System

The downside is that I’d have to fly about twice as much to get the same value in free tickets from fare purchases.  All in all, I’ll probably lose about 25% of my normal reward value if my habits don’t drastically change.  The story may be very different for you though, and I have to give props to Southwest on transparency: after toiling over my spreadsheet for 45 minutes to come up with these results, I realized that they have a tool that imports your previous year of credit card usage, flight history and partner purchases and tells you exactly how many points you would have accumulated last year.  Luckily, my math checked out.

Southwest Planes

Needless to say, the numbers were disappointing, so I flipped over to the Virgin America and Jet Blue sites.  After wading through their similar policies, Southwest still came out on top by a pretty large margin in my case.  Maybe it was too good to be true until now, but it’s still the best domestic program I can find.  And, hey, I still fly for free from time to time, so I can’t complain…except about having to watch the Shamu plane depart from the adjacent gate.