Southwest Airlines new Rapid Rewards program: what it means for travelers

Today Southwest Airlines announced changes to its popular rewards program, Rapid Rewards. the all-new program, which promises to eliminate blackout dates and allow redemption for international flights for the first time, will launch March 1 and will will allow members to redeem points for any seat on any flight, with no blackout dates or seat restrictions.

AOL Travel has covered the basic information about the Rapid Rewards program restructuring, but we’re offering a bit more insight into what the program will mean for travelers.

A Brief History of the Rapid Rewards Program

Southwest’s frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards, previously allowed customers to earn a free roundtrip ticket to any of their domestic destinations after the accumulation of 16 credits per 24-month period. The program also allowed a half-credit for using a Southwest partner to book car and/or hotel stays. Members also earned one credit per $1,200 spent on Chase’s Rapid Rewards-branded credit cards. Select merchants can earn double reward points.

In February of 2006, Southwest issued capacity control limits on its Rapid Rewards redemptions. This potential travel blackout will be removed with the new program. Details of how the Rapid Rewards program will integrate the A+ Rewards program of recently-acquired AirTran Airways have not yet been released.

According to member NSK:

Rapid Rewards 2.0 is a perfect fit with Southwest’s brand as a no-gimmicks airline. The program may not be the most generous, but it is simple and completely free of any hidden catches. Unlike mysterious capacity controls, price-based redemption provides us an excellent ability to predict ability to redeem for free travel.

How Is Rapid Rewards 2.0 Different?

Southwest has assured its customers that existing credits and travel awards will remain available for use after the new system takes effect on March 1. Instead of a one-for-one system, travelers will now accrue points based on the fare and type of fare purchased, and redemptions will work the same way.

Wanna Get Away fares, the cheapest available, will accrue 6 points per dollar; Anytime fares 10 points per dollar, and Business Select fares 12 points per dollar. Travelers can also earn miles from shopping and dining partners.

Members’ accounts will automatically be transferred to the new program on March 1, 2011; no re-enrollment is needed. Points will not expire unless members have no earning activity in a 24-month period.

Truly frequent fliers will benefit from enhanged A-List and Companion pass award availablity. A new status, A-List Preferred, will accure 100% earning bonsuses. A-List Preferred can be achieved by flying 50 one-way trips or accruing 70,000 tier points. The highlight of this elite status is the 100% earning bonus as well as priority standby, sercurity and early boarding status, free Wi-Fi and a dedicated phone line.

Similar to other airline reward programs, members can also purchase points through the new program in 1,000 point groupings. The minimum purchase is 2,000 points.

A major program change is the ability redeem award points any of the more than 800 destinations in the Chase travel program, including internationally. More information about the Chase integration is expected to be released early next week.

Will the New Rapid Rewards Program Mean to Consumers?

Initial consumer feedback indicates that Rapid Rewards 2.0 makes earning and achieving reward travel slightly more complex, but more in line with other major carriers like American Airlines, United and Continental. A positive outcome suggests that because award redemption is now based on length of flight, travelers wishing to redeem awards for short-haul travel won’t feel as if their certificates are used in vain.

The basic component of the program – one free trip for every eight – is still in place.

Frequent flier Mark V. suggests that for long-haul and travelers frequently purchasing Business Select seats, the new program will actually enhance overall customer experience, allowing for faster rewards.

NSK says that “Elimination of extraordinary effective rebate ratios makes [Rapid Rewards] 2.0 much less interesting to FlyerTalkers than programs that still offer such opportunities,” but acknowledges that the program’s greater ease of redemption may be appealing to travelers who “decide that they prefer a program that delivers what it promises without any drama.”

Mark V. champions Southwest Airlines’ transparency in rolling over old credits in to the new program, stating that the shift is “nothing like what other airlines have done in the past. Earning opportunities are still there, and current points are not being devalued like mainline carriers have done in the past.”

NSK admits that “although the new program is significantly less rewarding than Rapid Rewards 1.0 for short-haul discount fare customers, it is financially sustainable and it is customer-friendly enough that we will learn to love it.”

Travelers hoping to use short-haul travel to accrue longer rewards tickets will suffer most, Mark V. notes. “The sport of flying cheap to get free awards is pretty much over.”

Naturally, we at Gadling will keep you updated on new developments as they arise. Feel free to weigh in with your opinion in the comments section below.

[Image via Flickr user ColumbusCameraOp]