This post might get long and boring, so I’ll save you some time and give you the information you need to know first:
Book your Southwest points travel early and often. If you plan to travel around holidays, book as soon as the schedule opens (the next schedule extension, for travel through January 4, 2016, is May 14). But then do us all a favor by waiting a couple of weeks to add your companions traveling on companion passes. You can read on if you like for the full explanation. Cover photo credit to Brian Lockett.
In the past, all Wanna Get Away Southwest points travel was priced at 70 points per dollar, calculated from the base fare before all taxes. So a typical $200 one-way domestic ticket cost around 12,500 points plus the $5.60 security fee. As seats sold, the lowest fare classes would sell out, the price increased and the points price increased more or less to match, until the last Wanna Get Away seat sold. So that $200 fare sold out, the fare jumped to $220, and the points price increased to 14,000 and so on through the 11 Wanna Get Away fare classes.
In February, Southwest told us that the number of points required for travel booked April 17 and after would vary based on destination, time, day of travel, demand, fare class, and other factors. What they didn’t tell us was exactly how it would work. I made a guess of award ticket price floors that was, as expected, wrong. Thanks to Expert Flyer and lots of searches, we can now see how they are pricing award tickets:
- For fare classes N, O, and T, the cost is 70 points per base fare dollar.
- For fare classes M, R, S, and W, the cost is 74 points per base fare dollar.
- For fare class H, the cost is 76 points per base fare dollar.
- For fare classes Q and B, the cost is 78 points per base fare dollar.
- For fare class L, the cost is 80 points per base fare dollar.
* Fare classes are taken from Expert Flyer, not from actual tickets. Studying actual WN fare classes from tickets may give slightly different results but either way points values are consistent based on the fare class.
For the Anytime and Business Select fares, the cost remains 100 and 120 points per base fare dollar, respectively. As always, it makes little sense to book these with points as you could book with about the same number of Arrival points and earn Southwest points in the process.
Putting this into practice:
So what does this knowledge do for you when it’s time to book? Not much, really. Other than using multi-city searches to improve routings or force overnight layovers, there really aren’t any tricks to use. The price shows up in a simple search as always.
However, understanding how it works allows those of us who can plan ahead to make sure the devaluation rarely or never affects us. Here’s why:
Other than the Sunday after Thanksgiving, there should be some seats available in the N, O, and T fare buckets for every flight. So if we grab those seats as soon as they are available, we will pay exactly the same as we have since 2013!
Cancellations and changes are still totally free. Haven’t decided yet whether to go to Jamaica or California during the Christmas holidays? Book both, then work out the details and cancel later!
Some dates, of course, will have seats available at 70 points per dollar for much longer. So if you don’t have enough Southwest points to speculatively book all the travel you might want, prioritize and book in this order:
- Thanksgiving week and Christmas / New Years weeks.
- Travel around other holiday weekends.
- Sunday travel, then Friday travel.
- Everything else.
As long as there are seats in the N, O, and/or T fare buckets, we should see little or no difference with this devaluation. With the companion pass and free award changes untouched,
are already working just like price increases. When seats in the lower points cost fare buckets open up (due to cancellations or revenue management changes) the points cost automatically adjusts from, say, 74 points/$ to 70.
Tip of the iceberg?
Some people have worried that this is just the start, and that Southwest will raise prices of Wanna Get Away awards further since they are now variable. It’s possible, but I don’t think they will be changing anytime soon. They have set this up so that the system automatically adjusts the points value and requires more points per dollar at peak travel times. In any case we’ll be watching and know what to look for!
Booking companion tickets
Tickets booked with the Companion Pass take seats away from the lowest fare buckets. Since you can book your companion tickets right up to the last seat, please do your fellow travelers a favor and wait a few weeks to book companion pass tickets. Leave those 70-point seats open! Unless you are traveling on the Sunday after Thanksgiving. That day only, it’s every man for himself.
Southwest points will remain, for most cities they serve:
- an exceptional value for most peak dates that have no saver availability on other carriers, ever.
- by far the best deal for most domestic travel on routes not served nonstop by AA, AS or US.
- the perfect flexible currency for travelers without elite status who change plans.
BUT, if you don’t go ahead and book early, you’ll be looking at substantially higher points prices. I’ll be ready to book our devaluation free Southwest points travel at 8:00 AM on Thursday! Will you?