7 Hours of Travel, 2 Hours on the Ground: Worth It for the Rewards Points


Personal Journeys

7 Hours of Travel, 2 Hours on the Ground: Worth It for the Rewards Points

She was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless: Get enough points to qualify for the ‘A’ List.

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CreditCreditAriel Davis

By Laura Lippman

  • Oct. 9, 2018

On the shortest day of 2017, a day with less than eight hours of daylight available in my corner of the Northern Hemisphere, I squandered any opportunity I had to soak up some vitamin D, choosing instead to sit in planes and airports. I was a woman on a mission. An inane, pathetic mission, but a mission nonetheless.

Three weeks earlier, I had decided to fly from Baltimore to Providence, R.I., have lunch with a friend, then return home in time for dinner. Projected time on planes: two hours, 30 minutes. Projected time in airports: three hours. Projected time in cabs to and from airports: 70 minutes. Estimated time in Providence, not counting airport or taxi: two hours, 20 minutes. And that was if nothing went wrong — a big “if” four days before Christmas.

No, I was not delivering an organ for transplant, although that should have been my cover story. I was on a quest to earn 297 TQPs — tier qualifying points — in the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards program. Since 2009, I have effortlessly qualified for the airline’s A List program, in part because I was on book tour every year except 2013. In the heady days of 2014, I made it to the next level, A List Preferred, minutes before the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve.

Last year, however, I once again didn’t publish a book. As the year wound down, the graphs showing my progress toward the A List remained stubbornly fixed at 34,703 TQPs and 20 flights.

To qualify for 2018, I needed either 35,000 TQPs or 25 flights by Dec. 31. There was no weekend in which I could travel, no weeknight available for me to be away from my chaotic household. My one business trip in December was to New York, where it made no sense to fly Southwest, as the only nonstop flights are to Islip on Long Island. The almost-three-hour regional Amtrak was the far better bargain in terms of time.

You might have inferred by now that I am a bit of a travel nerd, someone who knows that Dulles Airport is abbreviated IAD, that one should never use the ladies’ room closest to the gate of your just-arrived plane and that TSA personnel at New Orleans’s Louis Armstrong International Airport excel at finding forgotten corkscrews in carry-ons. During my daughter’s toddler years, I could break down her stroller faster than most travelers can remove their shoes. I sincerely loved the 2004-05 reality show “Airline,” which showcased Southwest staff.

I’m also a grade-grubber and the very name of Southwest’s loyalty program, A List, brings out the worst in me. Obviously.

So I found the two easiest day trips out of Baltimore: Providence and Raleigh, N.C. No contest: While Raleigh is closer, Providence is both cheaper and home to my friend, the novelist Ann Hood, who is always up for lunch. And as a former flight attendant who has more airline miles than any civilian I know, Ann understands insane loyalty to a loyalty program. She evinced no shock at my idea, just booked a table at Camille’s, an Italian restaurant in Providence’s Federal Hill neighborhood.

You may wonder what was at stake in all of this, what benefits one reaps from Southwest’s A List. There are four: priority boarding, free same-day standby, priority check-in and security lane access, and a 25 percent earning bonus on every ticket purchased.

Because I’m a Global Entry Program member and therefore usually a TSA PreCheck flier, Southwest’s “Fly By” priority lane doesn’t matter to me. But given Southwest’s open-seating policy, priority boarding is important. If you’re A List, the airline automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight, all but guaranteeing a spot in A, the first boarding group. Otherwise, the ticket-holder needs to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight to get the best boarding position available — or pay an extra $15 for Early Bird check-in.

I know, I know: I’m playing for peanuts, a teeny, tiny bag of honey-roasted peanuts, but I care about priority boarding. There is only one cabin class on Southwest, so one can’t aspire to an upgrade. If I didn’t qualify for A List in 2018, I would have to pay for Early Bird or resign myself to a year in the B or C groups. If I flew 20 flights on Southwest, as I had in 2017, Early Bird fees would add up to $300. A round-trip ticket to Providence, booked three weeks in advance, cost $230.96. That represents a saving of almost $70. The Points Guy blog values Southwest A List benefits at $685, with priority boarding accounting for $250 of that total.

But those are all facts gathered after the fact. I got on that plane to Providence — which left 20 minutes late, cutting into my on-ground, out-of-airport time in Rhode Island — sure of only two things: I would have the 297 points I needed even if the plane had to turn around after takeoff, and I was probably going to have veal Parmesan for lunch.

Why does A list status matter to me? First, modern plane travel is dehumanizing and demoralizing. I am loyal to Southwest because the employees tend to be cheerful, instead of giving off the prison-guard vibe I’ve encountered on some other airlines. It’s also the busiest carrier at the airport 20 minutes from my house, with the most flights in and out.

Finally, I am conflict-averse. I don’t want to scramble for bin space or aisle seats. Boarding early limits testy encounters.

Yet I feel squirmy admitting this. The rigid delineations among tiers in loyalty programs are uncomfortably vivid metaphors for the way we live now, no matter how euphemistic the terms. (I’m “Ruby” on OneWorld flights, which sounds impressive. It’s not.) In the spring of 2015, I flew to New Orleans with my mother, a once avid traveler who had been homebound in the last years of my father’s life. I accompanied her in the regular security line; in the time it took us to clear it, my husband and daughter sailed through the PreCheck line and ate a sit-down lunch. This irked me. No one enjoys a perceived drop in status, no matter how small the stakes. Once you stop taking off your shoes in airports, you want to keep them on.

The morning after my flight to Providence, my Rapid Rewards account showed me back on the A List. I needed only 34,813 more TQPs or 28 flights to get onto A List Preferred; the catch was that I had only nine days left to achieve this. The only way to do that would have been to fly Business Select round-trip to Los Angeles at least three times, which would have cost more than $3,000. I passed.

But now the game is afoot again. This year, I have angled to take Southwest flights whenever possible on my book tour. (Email to publicist: “What if, instead of flying from Gainesville to Baltimore via Charlotte, I drive 90 minutes to Jacksonville and take a nonstop Southwest flight home?”) By April 9, I qualified for the A List. Now, A List preferred — valued by the Points Guy at $2,935 — is 13,685 points (or 14 flights) away.

So maybe this December I’ll return to Providence for another veal parm and a glass or two of nebbiolo. Although I was careful with the wine at lunch: I know from watching “Airline” that inebriated passengers will be denied boarding. Not even A List status can save you from that. Although I do have four drink coupons for qualifying again.


Laura Lippman is the author of 23 books, most recently “Sunburn.”

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page TR3 of the New York edition with the headline: A Scramble, but Worth It for the Rewards Points. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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