I haven’t paid for a plane ticket in over 5 years, but I still got elite status on Southwest thanks to my AmEx Platinum

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  • Jason Steele flies regularly, but hasn’t paid for a flight in more than five years thanks to his credit card rewards.
  • His Business Platinum® Card from American Express offers a 35% rebate on points redeemed for airfare, with an airline chosen by the card user. He chose Southwest.
  • Since Southwest Airlines isn’t accessible through the AmEx travel portal, he books his flights directly through Southwest using his AmEx Business Platinum, then calls AmEx at the end of the month to have his 35% points rebate credited to his account.
  • Because Southwest considers his tickets to be regular revenue fares purchased by a customer and not through a card issuer, he also earns Southwest Rapid Rewards points on his tickets.

I like to refer to people like myself as award travel enthusiasts. We’re the ones that attempt to earn as much free travel as possible using loyalty programs that offer points and miles. In fact, I haven’t paid for a plane ticket in over five years, despite averaging more than one trip a month.

One of the slight disadvantages that most people face as award travellers is that they never earn elite status. That means that I don’t enjoy the priority service, fee waivers, and seat upgrades afforded to my fellow passengers who paid for their tickets.

However, I now hold elite status with Southwest Airlines, despite having never paid for a flight.

Here’s how I do it:

A key feature of the American Express Business Platinum

I have an AmEx Business Platinum card, which offers numerous cardholder benefits. But it has one particular feature that’s even lacking in the consumer version of this card. The Business Platinum card offers you a 35% rebate on your points redeemed for airfare booked through AmEx Travel.

When purchasing an economy class ticket, this rebate applies to all of your flights on a single airline that you have to designate each year. However, this rebate also applies to any business or first class flights, with a limit of up to 500,000 bonus points each calendar year.

I’ve selected Southwest as my designated airline for this benefit. And because Southwest flights aren’t offered through AmEx Travel, I can simply book these flights on Southwest.com using my Business Platinum Card. I then call American Express each month and ask them to use my Membership Rewards points to pay for all of my flights, and credit the account.

As far as Southwest is concerned, my tickets are revenue fares. Not only do I earn credit toward elite status, I also earn additional reward points for each flight I take. Had I used Southwest Rapid Rewards points to pay for my flights, I would have earned neither.

Is this a good use of my points?

The American Express Platinum card offers Membership Rewards points for each purchase, and these points can be very valuable. For example, you can transfer your points to miles with 17 different frequent flyer programs, and each one of these programs might allow you to redeem your miles on flights with many of their partner airlines.

When you transfer your points to miles, and redeem your miles for expensive flights in business and first class, then you can get extraordinary value from your rewards. In fact, it’s sometimes possible to receive several cents in value for each point redeemed.

But when you redeem your Membership Rewards points for statement credits towards airline flights, you typically receive just one cent in value per point redeemed. This is a terrible value, and it may appear that receiving a 35% rebate isn’t that significant. However, the 35% figure is deceptive, since you will again receive a 35% rebate on your original rebate, once you redeem those miles. If you do the maths, you realise that you’re actually getting about 1.5 cents per point when you factor in the rebate on the rebate on the rebate, and so on.

Then, there’s the Southwest Rapid Rewards points that I’m earning from each of the flights I take. Since the vast majority of my flights are in the “Wanna Get Away” fare class, I earn six points per dollar spent, plus a 25% bonus as an A-List member, for a total of 7.5 points per dollar spent. Since Southwest points are worth about 1.5 cents each, that’s a bonus worth about 11.25% of what I paid in dollars.

So if have a net cost of about 10,000 American Express points for a $US150 ticket on Southwest, I’ll also earn 1,125Southwest Rapid Rewards points worth about $US16.87 towards an award flight. My 10,000 Membership Rewards points returned a grand total of $US166.87 in value, or about 1.7 cents per point.

It’s not a spectacular use of my points, but it’s pretty darn good way to spend them and receive consistent value. That doesn’t even take into account the intangible value of making A-List status. This status offers me priority service, priority boarding, and free same-day standby privileges. And I never even have to pay anything, including the taxes and fees usually imposed on award reservations.

I used to think that the only thing better than taking a great vacation was doing so for free, but now I have a different perspective. I now know that the best trick of all is taking a great vacation for free, while earning additional rewards for doing so. Thanks to the American Express Business Platinum card, you can actually do this on Southwest, and plenty of other airlines.

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