Last Friday evening I was on a Southwest flight bound for Chicago Midway fiddling with the painfully slow Southwest inflight internet when I made a weekend altering observation.
Weather.com told me that Denver was supposed to be cold tomorrow….Like really cold….Like “There is no way you are taking our children to sit outside in freezing temperatures to watch a silly football game” cold.
I hopped on Stubhub to check ticket prices for the AFC Divisional Game between the Baltimore Ravens and Denver Broncos at Mile High Stadium and my hypothesis was confirmed. Tickets that were previously out of reach financially (I had checked a few times before), were suddenly being posted in bunches right before my eyes. The prices were plummeting as fast as the temperature forecast. With Minnesota skin and an amazing experience at Mile High last year, I was a buyer. The only problem was that I was about to land in Chicago and would need to be in Denver in less than 24 hours for kickoff.
Where do you look for last minute U.S. domestic flight awards?
If your first thought was using British Airways on American Airlines metal then we think alike. I actually found available flights using BA.com but I was flying into Midway Friday evening and AA only operates out of Chicago O’Hare. A airport transfer is possible but is both costly and time-consuming. I looked next at airlines operating out of Midway to Denver including Frontier and Southwest Airlines. I have no Frontier points so that was quickly eliminated. That just left Southwest.
Southwest Rapid Rewards 2.0 bases the points price of the award on the dollar cost of the ticket. A cheap flight equals a cheap award. Unfortunately in this case, each one way flight, even at the cheapest Wanna Get Away fare, was pricing at around 400 USD with a total award cost approaching 50,000 points! Not worth it.
It didn’t immediately dawn on me but shortly before quitting on this spontaneous weekend plan, I remembered Southwest is in a transition period with AirTran’s rewards program. The ‘old’ system where 16 Southwest credits = 1 standard round trip award still lives though is rarely advertised or discussed. One can transfer 1200 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points into 1 AirTran Credit (or 19200 into 16 credits) and then turn around and transfer those AirTran Credits into Southwest credits to obtain an old Southwest standard award for 19200 points or about 320 USD in value.
Southwest uses capacity controls on the ‘old’ standard awards and I have no idea how they work
The ‘old’ standard awards are capacity controlled but I continue struggle with the logic. If I want to fly from Chicago to Minneapolis, an inexpensive route, anytime over the next seven days on a Wanna Get Away fare, I simply can’t. The full day is blocked out with a message that reads “More Advance Purchase Required”. The full fare Business Select ticket only runs 228.
Contrast that to the Chicago to Denver route where Southwest will almost never block out a day and ask for an advanced purchase despite the route being far more expensive. The Wanna Get Away fare is available almost all the way up to the very last seat sold. The lowest Wanna Get Away fare prices at 276, far exceeding even the highest fare on the Chicago to Minneapolis route.
In essence, I can get an award on short notice from Chicago to Denver today or tomorrow (on a holiday weekend no less) yet a Wednesday 630AM flight from Chicago to Minneapolis requires “more advance purchase”.
To confuse things a bit further, the Wanna Get Away Fare is not the same inventory as the capacity controlled old standard awards, but you definitely won’t find a standard award available if there is no Wanna Get Away fare price available for purchase. In unscientific terms, I have noticed recently that Southwest has become far more generous with the capacity controlled awards than they used to be and most Wanna Get Away fares have been showing available for standard award.
Friday was an excellent example of this recent capacity loosening. Southwest sold me an 800+ USD roundtrip ticket on two flights that left completely full. In fact, I had the honor of holding the very last boarding pass on the flight I had booked shortly before departure.
Cold but worth every point!
While I am still de-thawing slowly from a game that hit 15 below wind chill, everything worked out beautifully with third row seats to a heck of an NFL playoff game.
The bottom line
While previously tight, the capacity controls on Southwest ‘old’ standard awards seem to have loosened in recent months. I can’t give too many specifics because I continue to struggle with identifying the trends in how they are released. Nonetheless, if you have Southwest points (and you should), you have another excellent tool in your arsenal for last minute US domestic flights worthy of a check. When converting Southwest points into old standard awards, you are effectively pricing your last minute award at 320 USD in points value no matter the cost of the actual ticket, which is pretty good when time is running out.