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Southwest's new frequent-flier program: In a nutshell, it's mostly good

January 06, 2011|By Mary Forgione | Los Angeles Times Daily Travel & Deal blogger
(Matt York / Associated Press )

Hear that enormous sigh of relief? That’s the sound of some consumers and travel industry watchers reacting to news that Southwest Airlines is redesigning its frequent-flier program -- big-time.

I'm finding much to like about the refurbished Rapid Rewards program, which kicks in March 1, starting with this: Your credits won't automatically die after two years if you don't fly enough to earn a free ticket.

Of course, there are downsides. Unlike the current program, which puts everyone on equal footing regardless of fare paid, this one rewards bigger spenders, and it is more complicated. So by no means is everyone happy.

Here's a look at the main changes:

*Frequent-flier points won't expire as long as your account shows earning activity every 24 months. Under the current system, fliers have to take 16 one-way flights in 24 months to score a free ticket -- or flights don't accrue any rewards.

*Points are calculated using a formula that rewards fliers based on the amount and the category of airfare, such as Business Select, Anytime and Wanna Getaway. The old system awarded one point for every flight, whether it was a short hop or coast to coast. And now you can accrue points on the airline's partners too.

*Members can purchase points.

*There are no blackout dates, so you can fly when you want provided that there are available seats.

*Points can be redeemed for international flights, cruises, hotel stays, car rentals and other items.

There's a lot more to learn about the new program (such as point-earning bonuses for Southwest's A-List and Companion Pass members) and how old points work with new points. Check the details at this Southwest web page.

Southwest spokesman Chris Mainz said the revamped program offers fliers more flexibility and control over their account.

"We had a great program but it had its limitations," he said Thursday.

Tim Winship, editor-at-large for SmarterTravel.com, couldn't agree more. The longtime critic of Southwest's "consumer unfriendly" reward system said he sees the new changes as "very much a plus."

Under the new rules, Winship calculated it would take 10 one-way flights in any fare category to score a free flight. But, he noted, you could leverage your points and, for instance, fly four times at the higher Business Select fare to get a free, cheaper  Wanna Getaway ticket.

So was there anything good about the old system?

"Possibly the single biggest positive of the old program was its simplicity," Winship said.

True, but not enough to make me want to go back.

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