|by Sean O'Neill||Airlines, Frequent Flier Miles||59|
On March 1, Southwest Airlines will change the rules for its Rapid Rewards program (newrapidrewards.com).
What's the upshot?
The new rules are more complicated. They make points dependent on the price of the tickets you buy and the types of tickets you buy (such as refundable or non-refundable).
Up until now, travelers earned a free ticket simply after buying eight round-trips. Under the new rules, if you always buy tickets with the same class of service, Southwest is giving you $1 back for every $100 you spend. In other words, you'll earn a free ticket after buying ten round-trips, assuming each ticket costs the same.
What's changing: Earning points
Fliers will earn points for every dollar spent. You'll earn 6 points per dollar for cheap, nonrefundable "Wanna Get Away" tickets, 10 points per dollar for fully refundable "Anytime" tickets, and 12 points per dollar for expensive Business Select tickets, which comes with perks like free WiFi and drinks. You'll also earn bonus points for buying tickets in the nicest classes of service, which means that business class tickets are much more rewarding than before.
What's changing: Redeeming points
There is a different calculation for each class of service.
For a free "Wanna Get Away" ticket, you need to earn 60 points per dollar of fare to have enough for a free ticket. Case in point: If the fare for a specific flight is $100, you need to earn 6,000 points for a free ticket (60 times 100).
For a free "Anytime" ticket, you need to earn 100 points per dollar of fare. For a free "Business Select" ticket, you need to earn 120 points per dollar of fare.
What about expiration dates and blackout dates?
You can keep all of your points alive if you have some "account activity" every two years. "Account activity" can mean opening a Southwest Chase credit card, redeeming miles, or buying a ticket. Under the old system, each flight is worth one "credit," and credits expired after two years.
The airline says there are getting rid of blackout dates and dropping limits on how many reward seats are set aside on any given flight.
What if you don't have enough points?
You can buy points. It costs $50 for 2,000 points, and then $25 for every additional set of 1,000 points.
How does you do under the new rules as a budget-conscious traveler?
Not as well under the old system on average, though it depends on the type of flights you take and how often you fly Southwest. In general, the change favors high-spending travelers. If you are someone who mostly flies short-haul flights at the dirt cheapest prices, you're going to have to work harder now—spending about 20 percent more, roughly speaking -- to earn the valuable long-distance or last-minute flight.
What's the best deal under the new rules?
Buy lots of "Anytime" tickets and then redeem for a cheap "Wanna Get Away" ticket.
What about the credits you've already earned but haven't used yet?
Each old credit is worth 1,200 new points each. For a short time, if you have a bunch of credits and just need a little more to get a free round trip you can convert points from the new system to earn the last gasp of credits for one last award.
What do you think about the new Rapid Rewards program?
Sound off in the comments!
MORE FROM BUDGET TRAVEL
Are you less likely to fly in 2011? (90+ comments)