Update: The current offer for the Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards personal and business cards is 25,000 points after $1,000 spent in the first 3 months.
For this week’s Maximize Monday post, TPG contributor Jason Steele takes us on a tour of one of the most unique airline benefits out there, the Southwest Companion Pass. We’ve written a lot about how to get it, but since I don’t personally have one I wanted someone who has personally used and maximized it to write a post on their experiences. Remember, August 6 is the last day to get the limited-time 50,000-point sign-up bonus offers on the Southwest credit cards from Chase, which will get you almost halfway to the 110,000 points you need to accrue to qualify for the Companion Pass for each card you get, so read carefully and see if you think this could be a good deal for you.
The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is one of the best airline benefits out there, and a key way I am able to save money while traveling domestically with my family. Since it is such a unique benefit, travelers have all sorts of questions about it, so I wanted to answer some of the most commonly asked ones as well as some ways in which you can pull the most value from it if you earn it.
How do you get it? Rapid Rewards members must accumulate 110,000 Companion Pass eligible points or 100 one-way flights within a single calendar year. TPG recently featured a great roundup of the Top 11 Ways To Top Up Your Account For The Southwest Companion Pass. But to sum it up, just about all Southwest Points are companion pass eligible – including those you earn with hotel, rental car and even energy company and bank partners. However, transferring points into your Southwest account from your Chase Ultimate Rewards account if you have the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus does not count.
Can I earn more than one Companion Pass in a calendar year? No, you’re limited to earning a single Companion Pass per calendar year no matter how much you fly or how many points you rack up.
How long is it good for? The Companion Pass is valid from the day you earn it until December 31 of the following year. So if you earn the pass this month, it will be valid until the last day of 2014.
When is the best time to earn a Companion Pass? Because of the validity period, the earlier in the year you earn it, the more months you will have it. So if you qualified in December of this year, you would only get just over 12 months of use. If you qualified in January of next year, you would get nearly 24 months out of it. Unfortunately, your Companion Pass eligible points total doesn’t roll over; the tally resets to 0 on January 1, so you can’t just wait until next year to qualify using points you earned this year. You have to start from scratch each year.
How do you designate a companion? Once you reach Companion Pass status, it will be indicated online at this page. There, you can designate a companion online, or you can call and do so over the phone.
Do you need the Companion Pass card for anything? Southwest will send you a very nice looking Companion Pass card in the mail. Feel free to frame it and hang it on your wall as it has no practical use. Southwest’s system will always show that you have a companion pass, and agents will easily be able to add your companion to bookings made online, over the phone, or at the airport without displaying your card.
How do you change your designated companion? Call Southwest customer service at 800-435-9792.
How many times can you change companions? You can choose a new companion three times before your companion pass expires.
Does the companion earn Rapid Rewards points when flying with me? No – if you use the Companion Pass on a reservation, the companion does not earn points.
What happens to my existing companion’s reservations when I change companions? They are lost. You can book a backup reservation with points if you intend to switch back to the first companion at a later date. Then, contact reservations to re-add your companion to your lost bookings and have the points refunded.
Does the Companion Pass work with award bookings? Yes, that is one of the beauties of Companion Pass status. Once you have a confirmed booking with cash, points, or even the old Rapid Rewards standard awards you can add your companion, providing there is an unsold or available award seat on each flight.
Can you add a companion to a stand-by booking? No, I was told by Southwest that standby travel is the one time you cannot add a companion; it has to be a confirmed booking.
Can you use the Companion Pass when booking with your companion’s points or even someone else’s? Yes. For example, if your spouse has points, but you have the companion pass, your spouse can issue an award booking in your name, and then you can add your spouse as your companion. The same is true of revenue bookings as well if someone else pays for your ticket and then you add them (or someone else) as a companion.
Can you use your Companion Pass on Airtran flights? Yes, but you must book your ticket from Southwest, not Airtran. Once the codeshare flight is booked, a companion can be added just like any Southwest-operated flights. As always, you will receive two reservation numbers, and you will have to check in each person separately.
Can my companion fly without me? No. This is a major no-no as there are reports of companions being deboarded when the original ticket holder is a no-show. If you book a companion ticket, you must travel with your companion.
Do my A-List benefits extend to my companion? Unfortunately, also a no. For A-List and A-List Preferred Members who are also Companion Pass Holders, reserved boarding privileges will not be provided for the Member’s designated Companion unless he/she is also an A-List or A-List Preferred Member.
My spouse and I both have Companion Passes, can my spouse be my companion and add a third person to the reservation? No, this status is not stackable. Those traveling as companions cannot add a companion of their own.
What is a Companion Pass worth? The value of your pass is equal to the total of the value of dollars and points that you will spend on Southwest flights during the validity of your pass. So if you are only planning one or two trips through the end of next year, you will get limited value from your pass. On the other hand, if you and your companion travel extensively or commute between cities, the value of this pass could be thousands of dollars.
For example, it would take $18,333 worth of flights in the “Wanna Get Away” fare class to earn the 110,000 points necessary for the companion pass. If one were to pay for those tickets with cash, it would cost an additional $18,333 to add a companion (or more if there is not always another seat available at the same fare class). Therefore, the traveler would save at least $18,333 by starting off with a Companion Pass beforehand. If one were to earn the 110,000 points needed for the Companion Pass, and use all of those points to fly with a companion on Wanna Get Away fares – where your points are worth about 1.8 cents each – then the pass would be worth about $1,800 in free travel.
What happens if you book your ticket and a companion and the companion doesn’t fly? At the moment, you are able to use the taxes paid on your companion’s ticket as a credit towards a future purchase. However, Southwest requires that travelers cancel their reservations in advance for reservations made or changed after May 10 for travel on or after September 13, 2013.
How do you get the most out of your Companion Pass? This is the big question. First, these passes are great when traveling on reimbursed company expenses, such as last-minute business trips. Southwest is considered a low fare airline, but last-minute tickets can still cost $500 or more. The more expensive your ticket, the more value you receive from adding a companion for free (after taxes). So you can take a colleague along for free or bring your companion along on a work trip if your company is okay with it.
Also – and this may go without saying – you want to utilize the Companion Pass as often as possible since it equates to half-price tickets whether you’re using cash or points to pay for it. One great way to do this is to use Southwest for positioning flights to gateway cities in the US if you have international awards booked on other airlines but can’t rope in a leg from your point of origin or if you want to go on a mileage run from a city other than yours. Thanks to Southwest’s extensive domestic route network, you can fly it to pretty much any major gateway, and if you have the Companion Pass, you can do so for half price.
In terms of comparison to other airlines, two domestic roundtrip award tickets in economy class on United would require 50,000 miles. Before you transfer enough Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United miles for two tickets, however, you could probably find a ticket on Southwest, another Ultimate Rewards transfer partner, for far fewer points.
The break-even point would be Wanna Get Away fares that cost under $450 – the cost of a ticket that would require 25,000 Rapid Rewards points. However, if you have the Companion Pass and use 25,000 points to book one $450 ticket, you can book another $450 ticket for free – giving you $900 in value. If you were to get the same per-point value from United, your tickets would have to cost $900 each since you’d still need 25,000 points to book each United award ticket.
The other big thing to keep in mind is that in terms of using the Companion Pass when redeeming Rapid Rewards points, its value really comes with booking Wanna Get Away fares, Southwest’s lowest fare class, where you are getting two cheap tickets for the price of one.
The airline’s other fare classes, Anytime, and Business Select, provide far less value in cents per point than the Wanna Get Away fares, which are usually widely available in advance, but scarce at the last moment. If you must book a flight in Anytime or Business Select, you might as well use cash instead of points and use your Companion Pass for the second ticket that way rather than going the points route.
Furthermore, Southwest occasionally offers discount codes that are only usable with cash, not points. In these situations, those with limited points balances are better off paying cash to take advantage of the discounts, which are often 20% off of select fares, and then using the Companion Pass to book the second ticket since you can do so even on promo and discount fares.
Because of its tremendous potential value and the versatility of being able to use it on either cash or points reservations, the Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most unique and valuable airline benefits out there – and thanks to the current 50,000-point Southwest credit card sign-up bonuses, it’s within easy reach right now.
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