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Unlike some of the legacy airlines, Southwest doesn’t have a schedule that is constantly open for roughly 11 months out. Instead, they open it up in phases for 8-9 months out at a time. Just yesterday they opened their schedule through January 5, 2014. This means you can now use points, credits, or cash to book holiday flights on Southwest. This is great news for families that want to make plans to be together for the holidays…but there is a catch.
The catch is that the “Wanna Get Away” availability for high travel dates is either barely there, or isn’t there at all. Southwest has a reputation for “no blackout dates”, and being able to use your points on any flight that there are tickets for sale, so what’s the problem? Well, technically you can use your Rapid Rewards points on any of these flights where seats are for sale. However, the number of points required can be quite high on expensive flights, and even higher when there are no Wanna Get Away fares available (which is happening on some routes on peak holiday travel days). Since the number of Rapid Reward points required is tied directly to the fare, some Southwest flyers like to circumvent that issue on more expensive tickets by using the Rapid Rewards Credits to book more expensive tickets since they are not tied to the price of the fare. This was the system Southwest used exclusively until a year or two ago.
The process to get these credits is easy enough if you have Southwest points (which can also be transferred in from Ultimate Rewards via cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Ink Plus® Business Card) by transferring those fixed value Southwest points to AirTran credits, and then AirTran credits back to Southwest Credits using the following conversions.
1,200 Rapid Rewards Points = 1 A+ Rewards Credit
1 Rapid Rewards Credit = 1 A+ Rewards Credit
1 Standard Award = 16 A+ Rewards Credits
1 Freedom Award = 32 A+ Rewards Credits
It costs 16 credits for a round trip standard award. This is the equivalent of 19,200 Southwest points that have a fixed value of about $319 (1.66 cents each toward Wanna Get Away Fares). So, if the ticket you want to book costs more than that, it can pay to go through this process to book via an award based on credits, not points. There is a very good Southwest site devoted to walking you through this process. The trick is even though you can book any Southwest ticket for sale using the fixed value points, you play by different rules using credits.
With credits, there has to be standard award availability to book with just 16 credits – and this is capacity controlled. There is no way to check this for a given flight yourself if you don’t already have 16 credits in your account. You can call Southwest, or beg a Flyertalker to help you, but if there is no Wanna Get Away tickets for sale, I highly doubt there would be any standard awards available. Though the presence of Wanna Get Away fares doesn’t necessarily ensure there is standard award availability either.
What does this all mean if you want to fly Southwest for the holidays? It means do your homework. Check the routes/dates you want to fly and see the going price in dollars or points then compare those rates to other airlines. If you like the price, book. You can always get a credit or points refund if the price drops later. If the price is more than $319 round trip you can consider converting Southwest points to AirTran credits and then to Southwest credits to book a standard award, but check availability first since it is far from guaranteed around the holidays.
Do your holiday travel plans involve Southwest? If, so where are you in the booking process?
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