Southwest Credit Cards: What You Need to Know to Choose

Passengers in an airport
© Weerasak Saeky / Moment / Getty

If Southwest Airlines is your go-to choice of airlines, having a Southwest credit card in your wallet will allow you to earn credit card rewards on your flights and other travel expenses. The Southwest credit card comes in two versions: The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Plus Credit Card. The differences between the two credit cards are subtle. Beyond the annual fee —$99 vs. $69—it's hard to see why you'd choose one credit card over the other.

Let's take a closer look at both credit cards.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card pays 40,000 bonus points if you spend $1,000 in the first three months after opening your account. Ordinarily, you'd have to make at least $20,000 in purchases to earn that amount of rewards. Taking advantage of the signup bonus gives you a chance to earn a significant amount of rewards with only a fraction of the spending. In some cases, the points earned from the signup bonus are enough for a free flight.

Ongoing you'll earn two points for every dollar you spend on Southwest Airlines purchases made directly with the airline; two points per dollar on Rapid Rewards hotels and car rental partner purchases, and one point per dollar on everything else. Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners currently include (Marriott, Starwood, Hertz, Avis, and Budget).

As an additional perk, cardholders automatically earn 3,000 bonus points each year on their anniversary.

No spending minimums necessary.

With the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, you'll be charged a 3 percent foreign transaction fee charged on purchases made in other currencies.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card pays the same signup bonus as the Plus version of the credit card—40,000 points if you spend $1,000 in the first three months of opening your account.

You'll also earn the same amount of rewards on purchases.

The Premier version of the credit card also pays an anniversary bonus. This one is 6,000 each year on your card's anniversary—double that of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card.

The Premier version also rewards cardholders with Tier Qualifying points that count towards Southwest's A-List and A-List Preferred Status. A-List status is an elite benefit that gives you priority boarding and bonus rewards points. Earn 1,500 points for every $10,000 spent on the card annually, up to $100,000. That's an opportunity to earn 15,000 Tier Qualifying points. 

There's no foreign transaction fee on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card.

Is the Higher Annual Fee Worth It?

If you're choosing between the two Southwest credit cards, your choice comes down to whether the extra anniversary points and the Tier Qualifying points will be worth paying an additional $30 annual fee. And, if you plan to use your credit card on international travel, paying no foreign transaction fee will be an attractive option.

Here's what you should know if you're considering paying the additional annual fee for the Tier Qualifying points. Southwest currently has a 35,000-point minimum for the lowest elite level (what do you get at this level).

Even if you maxed out the spending threshold by spending $100,000, you still wouldn't have enough points to get to the lowest tier. The Tier Qualifying points are a nice boost to help you reach elite status, but you're going to have to actually book flights with your credit card to really move up the A-List.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card is less attractive if you're no going to spend at least $10,000 on your credit card each year.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Program

On both cards, you can redeem your Southwest Rapid Rewards points for international flights, cruises, hotel stays, car rentals, and gift cards. You'll get the most out of your rewards when you redeem them for Southwest flights. There are no blackout dates and rewards can be redeemed for any available seat on any Southwest flight.

You must keep your card active to keep your rewards. Points can expire after 24 months if there's no flight-earning or Southwest Airlines partner-earning activity on your account.

How It Stacks Up to Similar Airline Credit Cards

The United MileagePlus Explorer Card also pays 40,000 bonus miles, but the spending threshold is $2,000. The Southwest credit cards only require $1,000 to receive the spending bonus. The United MileagePlus Explorer Card also charges a $95 annual fee, which is waived in the first year, but automatically gives you elite benefits, like priority boarding and companion tickets. You'll earn 2 miles per dollar on tickets purchased from United and 1 mile per dollar on all other purchases.

The Delta Skymiles Gold American Express pays 30,000 bonus miles after you make $1,000 on your purchase within the first 3 months. You'll also get a $50 statement credit after you make a Delta purchase in the first 3 months. Amex charges a $95 annual fee that's waived in the first year. Delta purchases earn 2 miles per dollar and all other purchases earn 1 mile per dollar.

If the majority of your flights are on Southwest Airlines, one of the Southwest credit cards is a better choice of airline rewards credit cards. However, if you're flexible on the airlines and you're willing to pay a higher annual fee, the United  MileagePlus Explorer card may be better option, considering you automatically get companion tickets just by having the credit card.