It is my firm belief that if we (and especially our children) are to become inspired to protect our public lands, visiting them is no better way to stoke the fire of advocacy. It’s one thing to see the colors of a slot canyon in Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument in a photograph, but witnessing the light seep in to illuminate the walls, revealing the mosaic of color layer by layer is when an intimate relationship is cultivated. I want my kids to experience the treasures we have with all five senses and come to their own conclusion if they’re worth fighting for, so we take them to these sacred places as often as we can.
But everyone has a budget, travel is expensive, and airline point systems can be confusing. Thankfully, Southwest Airlines takes the guesswork (and money) out of the equation for my family’s travel dreams 99% of the time. There are several easy ways to earn enough Rapid Reward Points to take you near and far, and we’ll cover those ways in this post.
But first, let’s take a peek at our favorite National Parks were Southwest points have taken my family:
1. Utah’s Arches, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, and Capitol Reef National Parks
With rising interest in preservation of public lands these days, Utah’s National Parks probably need no introduction. Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear’s Ears National Monuments are both located in the midst of these parks, by the way.
To easily reach any of these parks, Southwest flies into two different cities nearby: Las Vegas or Salt Lake City. As an added bonus, Southwest fares can be booked as one-way fares, without incurring an increased one-way fare fee. My family flew into Las Vegas, visited these parks over the course of 10 days, and then we flew out of Salt Lake City to avoid backtracking back to Las Vegas. Southwest for the win!
2. Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks
The Grandfather of them all: Yellowstone. Everyone needs to put Yellowstone on their bucket list for both historical and geological reasons. The park houses the world’s largest concentration of geothermal features which will undoubtedly fill you with awe and intrigue. And if you’re visiting Yellowstone, do yourself a huge favor and make time for Grand Teton National Park too. My family backpacked the Teton Crest Trail a couple of years ago and it was a visual feast every step of the way!
Southwest makes accessing both of these parks easy if you fly into Salt Lake City, Utah or Boise, Idaho. The drive from Salt Lake City is beautiful, with many places to stop and explore along the way. So despite Jackson Hole and West Yellowstone Airports being closer to the parks (and much more expensive), we were happy to fly in and out of Salt Lake City and make the journey part of our adventure.
Olympic National Park was an unexpected treasure for us. I didn’t expect to fall in love with it, but the diverse range of climate and scenery won my heart over quickly.
Southwest had long won my travel heart over though, and it didn’t disappoint with regular flights to Seattle. A quick drive to the Olympic Peninsula and we were in paradise. Seattle is also close to Mt. Rainier National Park, home of the famed Wonderland Trail.
Southwest also flies into Spokane which makes Glacier National Park a mere 4-1/2 hour (gorgeous) drive away. We’re heading there this summer, thanks to Southwest!
You can channel your inner John Muir while visiting Yosemite National Park. A climber and hiker’s paradise, Yosemite is home to the type of landscape that will take your breath away and leave you pining for return visits.
Southwest flies daily into San Francisco, San Jose, and Oakland; all cities which make a Yosemite adventure a short 3-hour drive from your reach.
Not all National Parks are wilderness based, and I’d be remiss to leave out some of the more urban centered ones….or perhaps island centered. Alcatraz is a quick boat ride from San Francisco which, from my comments about Yosemite, is an easy point to reach on Southwest!
Another bucket list destination, the magnificent chasm that weaves the story of time into its walls. The South Rim is easily accessed from Phoenix, Arizona, while the North Rim is easily accessed from Las Vegas, both about a half day’s drive.
Death Valley National Park was sure to be at the bottom of my “most enjoyable experiences in a National Park.” I should know better than to think anything that has the words “National” and “Park” in its name won’t win me over quickly. The dry, hot, seemingly barren landscape is filled with treasures and its own unique beauty. My only regret is that we didn’t have more time to explore it (it’s huge!).
The park can be accessed from either Las Vegas or Los Angeles. Southwest makes it especially easy on you if you choose to reach it from the California side, as they offer flights to LA’s Burbank Airport which is dreamy compared to LAX (much smaller and less congested). My family flew into Burbank, visited the park, and then flew home from Las Vegas. Easy peasy.
Joshua Tree National Park and Sequoia National park would also be easy drives from Los Angeles.
Need another reason to visit NYC besides Broadway shows and more iconic landmarks than one tiny island should be able to support? Visiting Lady Liberty and sticking their heads out of the vents in her crown will likely remain a vivid memory in my kids’ minds (just don’t forget to make reservations well in advance if you want the privilege of visiting her crown while you’re there!).
As an added bonus, there are nine other National Parks in NYC to enjoy while you’re visiting.
Southwest flies into Long Island, Newark, AND La Guardia, making a trip to the Big Apple a must do on any traveler’s list.
9. Rocky Mountain, Great Sand Dunes, and Mesa Verde National Parks
What a trip this was for our family! Great Sand Dunes National Park remains one of our most entertaining experiences in a national park–sand sledding, anyone?! Mesa Verde was a special treat for Paige, our daughter, who has an interest in archaeology, and you’re simply crazy if you don’t love Rocky Mountain National Park.
Colorado rocks in general, and Southwest makes it a breeze to enjoy all of its splendor with multiple daily flights to Denver.
Located in northern New Mexico, Chaco is a walk through time, learning what life was like to ancient Pueblo peoples. The integrity of the architecture and the stories the walls tell will mesmerize and amaze you. These people knew what they were doing with every brick they laid in place.
Southwest flies into Albuquerque, New Mexico, which makes any of the Land of Enchantment’s public lands easy to reach, including Carlsbad Caverns National Park and White Sands National Monuments.
Maine holds a special place in my heart, and any tension I’m carrying instantly dissolves when I’m there. A couple of years ago, I even booked a same day ticket to Portland on points for ~15,000 points (which, to give you a reference, would have started at 25,000 points for nearly any other airline, even with advanced booking). Southwest not only made this last minute booking a breeze, but the amount of points I used to book the tickets was unprecedented, especially when my daughter, Paige, traveled with me on my Companion Pass for no additional points!
Southwest flies into both Portland, Maine and Boston, both of which make Maine’s epic coastline and Acadia National Park easily within your reach to tranquility.
So if you’re now feeling inspired to hop on a plane and live out a long awaited adventure, how do you earn enough Rapid Reward Points to go? Credit card sign up bonuses are the big tickets, and everyday spending will boost your account even more (just make sure you always pay your balance in full each month).
If you want the most versatile card, Chase Sapphire Preferred is what I recommend. This card earns Ultimate Reward points which can be used in a myriad of valuable ways, but they can be converted into Southwest points with the click of a button.
The Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers the following perks:
- A generous sign up bonus with minimum spend. Currently, it offers 50,000 Ultimate Rewards if you spend $4000 within 3 months of opening the card
- The annual fee ($95) is waived the first year. In other words, you don’t necessarily ever have to pay an annual fee, if you cancel it before the first year ends. However, and this is really important, if you cancel the card and haven’t used or transferred your Ultimate Rewards points, they disappear like bad magic! Don’t ask me how I know that…rookie mistake back when I started doing all this.
- 2 Ultimate Reward points per dollar spent on travel and dining purchases.
- No foreign transaction fees (which is great if you’re traveling internationally)
- Auto Rental Collision Damage Waiver
- Trip Cancellation / Trip Interruption Insurance
- Travel and Emergency Assistance Service
- Extended Warranty Protection
- Purchase Protection
Now if you’re ready for the big leagues of earning Southwest Points, you should consider applying for both personal and business Southwest branded credit cards. Chase’s current offers on these cards will earn a Companion Pass as soon as you meet the minimum spending requirements (which is just insanely easy).
What is a Companion Pass, you might be asking? I wrote a whole post on it, because it’s that valuable! It’s a must have in my life and we strategize carefully to keep it up to date since it essentially earns us “buy one get one free” tickets every time we fly for nearly two years. Right now, Companion Pass status is as easy as its ever been to acquire, essentially requiring two different credit card sign up bonuses to earn 110,000 Rapid Reward Points. Click here to read that post.
And as an added bonus on Southwest, you receive many perks that save even more money beyond the cost of the ticket. They are:
- Two free checked bags per customer (plus one free carry one and personal item). This is a huge benefit since most other airlines charge for checked luggage. Check out this info from their website regarding other airline’s baggage fees in comparison.
- No fees to change your flight. Another huge perk since it varies wildly with other airlines, but it’s never cheap! If you need to change your travel times or dates, there are no fees associated with doing so.
- In addition to not charging to change your flight, if a lower priced flight is available, you may rebook it at the lower price (when I refer to “price,” it relates to either dollars or points, depending on what you booked your ticket with). Southwest points vary per flight, based on the current price in dollars, so it often pays to look at the price you paid in points (or dollars) before your trip. If they run a sale, which happens frequently, and the price of your fare decreases, you may rebook it at the new and reduced price. If you book with points, they are refunded back to your account. If you book with cash, it varies depending on the type of ticket you purchase, but at a minimum, you’ll get a full refund in the form of a travel voucher.
- If you book a flight with points, you may cancel it up to 10 minutes before the flight leaves, and the points are deposited back into your account! If you book with cash, you may still obtain a refund in the form of a travel voucher that can be used over the next year (assuming you purchased the ticket as a “Wanna Get Away” fare like I mention above–the more expensive tiered tickets can be refunded with the original payment method).
Finally, Southwest offers competitive fares and since the current price of the fare dictates the points you’ll spend, we always come out ahead with the points we use compared to the points we’d use for the same flight on competing airlines. For example, for a trip to California I’m taking next month, I’d pay 25,000 points on American or United and 28,000 on Delta. On Southwest, I’m only using 14,499 points (and if the fare decreases before my flight, I can rebook it at the lower point value, which I’ve already done once since initially booking it two weeks ago).
When I write posts like this, I often wonder if folks think it sounds gimmicky and too good to be true. I promise with all my heart, it’s not. It’s real and it’s insane how valuable Southwest points are (and how easy they are to obtain) if you enjoy traveling. There’s just no sense in dropping money for an airline ticket, and my family hasn’t done so for many, many years because of how easy Southwest has made free travel.
As always, feel free to reach out with questions either through the comments section or at firstname.lastname@example.org. I absolutely love “talking shop” about free travel and nothing makes me happier than to see other folks take advantage of these deals.