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Monday, September 14, 2009

Southwest's ill-timed generosity

Updating my transatlantic booking: Northwest has changed all its flight numbers starting in late October. I got an itinerary update e-mail with new flight numbers, but the flight times are the same.

I view this blog as mainly about international travel, but here's an occasion to report on my domestic travel with Southwest Airlines. SWA has much in its favor: from Kansas City, they have the only non-stops to many places, all flights are the same aircraft type (no jungle jets), and they've given me enough drink coupons that I can have alcohol on all flights, even the early-morning ones. With no change fees, I can often rebook at a lower fare and have the difference as a credit for future travel. If I need to change plans, there's a potentially higher fare and I need to pay the difference, but no change fee on top of that. I can work with their open seating system so it's usually preferable to assigned seating on other airlines; they've added a new wrinkle where I need to see if I should spend $10 for EarlyBird check-in and a pre-assigned early place in line.

I endeavor to earn one award ticket per year with them, to use for the year-end holidays. Since they expire a year after being issued, I've been trying to get them issued early in the year so they're available for that use or any emergencies before that. It's a bit much even for me to take eight round trips a year to reach award level with them; in addition to car rentals, a conversion from the Choice Privileges hotel program helps to top off an award. Ideally I would convert what I needed early in the year. However, Choice has a history of devaluing their conversion rate without notice. This summer, word got out that there was a discreet notice on their Web site that they were about to do a new devaluation. I made the conversion at the old rate, noting that I would need to limit what SWA credits I would get for the rest of the year, so an award wasn't issued too early.

A trip to Baltimore (really Washington) in mid-June had not posted. Enough time passed that I figured that it would not post until I made the request online, and they allow two years to do that. I had my booking to the SlowTrav get-together in St. Louis for $30 each way, less than the price of gas, and a car rental with a coupon for next to nothing, also using a code that would get me double Southwest credit. I would be right there at two credits short of an award, and I would put in for the missing Baltimore credits in January and get the award issued.

On the curious date of September 11, nearly three months after the flight, I got an e-mail that an award had posted with those credits. So next 9/11 is the expiration date of that award, which I was aiming to use in December 2010, and I need to decide whether to use it by the expiration date or extend it for $50. I've thought of the one-year expiration and that fee as unfair, but I've learned to consider it reasonable. My previous plan was also holding me back from taking any more trips this fall, but now I'm open to doing that. I'm kicking myself for not doing the St. Louis car rental without the bonus code, so I would still be a half-credit short. It's mysterious why the SWA credit posted at this late date, but I can't say I have a grievance with them. Their program's been devalued since they offered unrestricted award trips to members who took four cheap round trips. They have a genius at keeping the program attractive, or at least one that can be worked with, as they devalue it. They're delaying the start of Rapid Rewards 2.0, which reportedly will give points based on fare paid, and I'm thinking it will be difficult for me to benefit from that.

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