Southwest is a unique airline that has a non-traditional frequent flier program.  Unlike the big three legacy carriers, Southwest has a single points currency that earns you both elite status and award flights.  You reach elite status after acquiring a certain number of points in a calendar year.  You can then use those same points to redeem free flights on Southwest.

Non-elite perks:  my friends who primarily fly Southwest love its straightforward approach to flying.  Even with no elite status, you receive two free checked bags, a free carry-on, and no fee for changing a flight (just the difference in fare).

Elite status

  • Costs: you need to acquire 35,000 points in one calendar year to reach the Southwest’s lowest elite status.
  • Benefits: aside from the Companion Pass which can have tremendous value, the A-List status comes with less impressive benefits: priority check-in, boarding, and standby benefits.
  • A Companion Pass requires 110,000 points and allows a companion to travel with you for free (well for $11.20).  You should note that you do not need to redeem these points to reach the elite status, simply earning the requisite amount in a calendar year will automatically qualify you for elite status.

Southwest elite

Earn points

  • Buy Southwest airline tickets.  You earn 6 points per dollar spent.
  • Southwest Visa signup bonuses.  You can receive around 25,000 points depending on the current sign-up promotion.
  • Southwest online shopping portal. The shopping portal allows you to earn additional points when you shop online.  Simply log into the shopping portal and select the store that you want to shop.  The shopping portal will then take you to that store and will credit your points a few weeks after the purchase is made.  In addition, the shopping portal will offer bonus points promotions for Back to School, pre-Black Friday, and other seasonal shopping.
  • Southwest dining program.  After linking your credit card to your dining profile, you’ll receive an additional 3 to 5 points per dollar spent at a participating restaurant.  Restaurant participation is hit or miss, so definitely check out the list of participating restaurants.  I’ve had good luck in DC since one of my favorite coffee shops participates.
  • Other promotions.

Redeem points for award flights

The number of points required for a free award ticket largely varies by the price of the ticket (as opposed to American that publishes a flat-rate award redemption chart).  The cheapest round-trip tickets run around 10,000 points and they can become considerably more expensive depending on the desired dates of travel.  Two other variances between redeeming award flights on Southwest and other airlines: 1) Southwest does not belong to an alliance so points are only redeemable on Southwest flights; and 2) Southwest charges relatively significant fees.  For example, the February 2, 2016 one-way flight from Dallas to Montego Bay costs $155.  The fee for redeeming an award flight on this route costs $49.50 plus 5,460 points.  The fee represents about 1/3 of the listed ticket prices and you’ll receive 1.92 cents per point redeemed.