How to Cash in Southwest Airlines’ Credit Card Points to Book an Arizona National Park Trip

How to Cash in Southwest Airlines' Credit Card Points to Book an Arizona National Park Trip


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Since resuming travel nearly two years ago after a COVID-19-induced hiatus, my trips have mainly revolved around spending time with loved ones across the country and making up for time together that was lost during pandemic lockdowns. 

But over that stretch of time, another one of my loves has fallen by the wayside: landscape photography. Prior to 2020, I visited the southwestern US frequently, traveling to national parks whenever I could with my camera in hand. But for the last few years, with little occasion to use it, my gear has sat in a cabinet untouched.

So when the opportunity arose to take a trip with Southwest Airlines focused solely on pursuing my passion, I jumped at it, heading out on an adventure through Arizona that reminded me how special traveling purely for your hobbies and interests can be. Over four days, I stared down my biggest goal (learning astrophotography) and came face-to-face with my greatest fear (a tarantula named Honey), stopping to take in every awe-inspiring sunrise and sunset in between.

Here’s how you can replicate the trip—or plan a trip around your own passion—using benefits that come with the Southwest Rapid Rewards® credit cards from Chase.

Planning the trip and maximizing points

The first thing I did when trip-planning (after convincing my sister, a fellow photography and national parks enthusiast, to join me) was look for non-stop flights between my home of Portland, Oregon, and Phoenix. I used cash to buy round-trip flights, and if you also go that route, using a Southwest credit card can help you rack up extra bonus points on the purchase: The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card each earn three Rapid Rewards points per dollar spent on Southwest purchases, and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card earns two points per dollar.

But if you’re looking to save money for dining out and activities, there’s plenty of availability to use Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points to book flights, as the airline has no blackout dates when redeeming them. And the best part: Right now, it’s possible to cover this trip for two people with a single sign-up bonus on any of the personal credit cards in Chase’s Southwest lineup.

Between now and March 13, you can earn 30,000 points—plus a Companion Pass valid through the end of February 2024—after spending $4,000 in purchases in the first three months of account opening, whether you’re eyeing the Priority, the Premier, or the Plus. The 30,000 points are more than enough to cover a round-trip flight for one person to Phoenix on many dates—including prime dates in March, one of the nicest months in Arizona weather-wise—and the Companion Pass allows you to bring another designated person along on every trip for just the price of the taxes and fees on your ticket, from $5.60 one way.

On the day of travel, I opted for an Uber to the airport, which is another purchase that earns bonus points with all three cards: Each nets two points per dollar on local transit and commuting, a category that includes rideshares.

The in-flight experience

Once at the airport, I checked my rolling suitcase since my camera bag and purse ate up my carry-on allowance. Southwest allows each passenger to check up to two bags for free, pending weight and size limits—but skis, golf bags, and in some cases, even surfboards fly free, making it a great airline option for a hobby-based trip with a gear consideration.

I then headed to my gate, and for the first time ever, I had priority boarding, which is another perk you can access through the Southwest credit cards. Because I was within the first few people to board the flight, I was able to snag the bulkhead aisle seat, meaning I was also among the first people to exit the aircraft when we landed. 

While anyone can purchase Upgraded Boarding where available for $30 per segment, the Priority credit card comes with four Upgraded Boardings per year—a benefit worth $120, nearly the card’s entire $149 annual fee, if put to good use. While the Premier and Plus cards don’t carry that same perk, they do come with two EarlyBird Check-Ins per year, allowing you to secure an earlier boarding position than most fellow fliers.

While en route from Portland to Phoenix, I purchased Wi-Fi onboard to make a few restaurant reservations (The Mission in Old Town Scottsdale was a hit) and put the finishing touches on our itinerary. Holders of any of the three Southwest personal cards receive 25 percent back on in-flight purchases, making it easy to do the same.

Where I stayed

After deplaning, I headed straight to the rental car center to pick up a vehicle, which was critical for getting to the locale we planned the trip around: Saguaro National Park. 

All three cards in the Southwest personal card trio earn two points per dollar on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, and luckily for cardholders, the partner lists are extensive. I chose Hertz for my rental and after a smooth pickup process was on my way.

To maximize photography opportunities and minimize drive time, I planned to spend the first and fourth days of the trip in Scottsdale and the middle two days in the Tucson area, booking one night at The Phoenician, a member of Marriott’s Luxury Collection, and two at The Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain, also part of Marriott’s portfolio. 

Marriott is another one of Southwest’s partners, meaning if you book these hotels using the Priority, Premier, or Plus card, you’ll earn two Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points per dollar, on top of any Marriott points you’ll earn on your stay if you’re part of the Marriott Bonvoy loyalty program.

An unforgettable four days

Aside from meeting that tarantula—whom a tour guide introduced us to before our screams convinced him to put her away—the trip couldn’t have gone better. Both the Phoenix and Tucson areas are chock full of stunning landscapes and incredible photo opportunities, not to mention additional chances for Southwest cardholders to rack up points. The three cards earn one point per dollar spent on everyday purchases, an umbrella that covered most of our remaining trip expenses.

In the Phoenix area, those included entrance to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West estate and studio and Desert Botanical Garden. Around Tucson, we rode horses through the desert, saw succulents up close on a Jeep tour, and watched the sun peek over the mountains from a hot air balloon.

The highlight of the trip? A private astrophotography workshop with Sean Parker Photography near Saguaro National Park. While the clouds scuttled the chance to shoot the stars, they also provided the perfect backdrop to the cacti for some epic nighttime landscape shots—and gave me a reason to start immediately planning my next trip back to this corner of the country.

After a packed four days, it was time once again to check my bag for free, board my Southwest flight early, and grab an Uber back to my apartment, capping off an unbelievable trip I won’t soon forget.

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