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You might have hundreds of dollars in free Southwest credits that are about to expire! If you have any old Rapid Rewards credits sitting around, you might be able to exploit them to save $158 like I just did.

This is the first post in a new series called Anatomy of an Award. Anatomy of an Award posts will talk about every aspect of the process of booking awards. Eventually I should have multiple posts on each frequent flier program. Today’s post is about an award I booked today on Southwest Airlines.

I just booked an award on Southwest Airlines using points and my orphaned Rapid Rewards credits. Last year, Southwest transitioned from their old frequent flier program where each segment flown earned one credit to a new one based on how much you spend. The old credits were orphaned, but Southwest will allow you to convert the new points in your account to the old credits one time to make one more award booking under the old system.

How do you know if you have any of the old orphaned credits? When you sign into southwest.com, look at the part of the screen where you just signed in and click on the button that says “Where are my old Awards?” If you flew any flights in 2010 or before, the credits are safe until they expire two years after your last flight. If you have 16 credits, you can book two oneways or one roundtrip for free plus $2.50 per segment in taxes.

If you have fewer than 16 credits, you can convert points to credits to reach 16 credits. The conversion rate is 1,200 points to 1 credit. Southwest has a fixed-value point program now with each point worth 1.69 cents. So each credit costs $20.28 worth of Rapid Rewards points.

While award space using Rapid Rewards points is available on every single Southwest flight, credit award space is not available on every flight. You have to call 800-I-FLY-SWA to figure out if your preferred flights have credit award space. Award space was excellent during my call. If space is available, the agent converts your points into credits at the 1,200 to 1 rate, and tickets your flight. There are no phone booking fees for this type of award.

Let’s talk about the basic strategy for maximizing any orphaned credits you may have.

1. With your 16 credits, you want to book the two most expensive oneways you can. Any pair of oneways costs the same amount, 16 credits, so you should maximize how much you value the oneways.

2. Unused credits expire worthless, so the only calculation involved in whether you should book an award with your points or whether you should convert points to credits and book with credits is which method uses fewer points.

Example 1: You have one credit. You need 15 more to book two one ways. To convert points to 15 credits will take 18,000 points. The two oneways you want cost 15,000 points under the points system. Book with 15,000 points instead of converting 18,000 points to credits.

Example 2: You have five credits. You need 11 more to book two one ways. To convert points to 11 credits will take 13,200 points. The two oneways you want cost 22,560 points under the points system. Convert to credits. Book with credits and save 9,360 points ($158.18).

Example two was my situation. I had five of the old credits and enough points to convert for the 11 more I needed. I needed to get to Pittsburgh for a wedding over Labor Day weekend and thought I would stop for a few days in Tampa on the way.

The first thing I did was research flights from LA to Tampa and Tampa to Pittsburgh. Delta flies the only direct flight between LA and Tampa, but Southwest has the next best thing, a one stop flight with a 30 minute layover and no plane change. (More on why this is so great later.)

From Tampa to Pittsburgh, Southwest has the only direct flight. Airfare is sky high right now. I couldn’t find anything below $400 to get me from LAX-TPA-PIT. Of course, the legacy carriers would all charge at least 25,000 miles for the itinerary, so I knew a Southwest award was my best option because of its direct flights and lower award cost.

When I searched on southwest.com, the itinerary I wanted cost 22,560 points and $5. That’s OK, but I knew I could do better by exploiting my orphaned Rapid Rewards credits. I called Southwest and explained that I wanted to book an award with my credits and gave the flights I wanted.

The agent said that first she had to make sure there was award space on my desired flights. There was space on a “direct” onestop flight from BUR-TPA on the date I wanted. This is an awesome flight, almost as good as a real direct flight. This flight flies Burbank to Las Vegas. Passengers getting off in Vegas deplane, while those continuing to Tampa stay on the plane and can move to a better seat because of Southwest’s open seating. Then after only 30 minutes on the ground (Southwest is the king of the quick turnaround), we continue to Tampa.

The whole BUR-TPA itinerary is only six hours, which is only a tad longer than Delta’s LAX-TPA direct. Plus I’ll get a great seat for 4/5 of the trip after I get to move in LAS. And I get to fly out of BUR, which is much easier to handle than LAX. Also the Delta flight is a redeye, which means one day of being miserable for me after landing.

Next the agent found space on my desired date for a direct TPA-PIT flight without a hitch.

All that was left was to convert 13,200 points to credits, give my credit card information, and book the itinerary for $5.

Here’s some info about the booking.

BUR-TPA cost: $239

TPA-PIT cost: $163

Total cost: $402

BUR-TPA points needed: 13,440

TPA-PIT points needed: 9,120

Total points needed: 22,560

Points needed to convert to 11 credits to book itinerary: 13,200

Points saved by converting and using orphaned credits: 9,360

Value of points saved: $158.18

Cents per point as booked: 2.57! according to the milevalue calculator. (I plugged 402; 5; 13,200; 2,256 into the calculator. Do you see why?)

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