Family Travel Tips for the Southwest Companion Pass

by on May 23, 2014 · 28 comments

in Barclays, Capital One, JetBlue, Southwest, Virgin America

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As families grow, trips together get more expensive. With summer vacations approaching, I asked father and TPG contributor Jason Steele to write about how he uses the Southwest Companion Pass to keep costs down on his family travel.

The United States may be the hardest place to find multiple award seats at the lowest mileage levels. That ‘s why families often turn to frequent flier programs that offer awards for any available seat, like Southwest Rapid Rewards. Such programs, which include JetBlue’s TrueBlue and Virgin America’s Elevate, offer points that are worth a fixed value toward all seats being sold in a particular fare class.

Since points in these programs have fixed values, the number of points required for redemption varies with the cash price of the ticket. The table below compares the values offered by points on Southwest, JetBlue, and Virgin America. Point for point, the greatest value comes from redemptions with the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass.

Program Value in Cents Per Point/Mile
Jetblue True Blue 1 – 1.3
Virgin America Elevate 1.5-2.3
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards (without Companion Pass) 1.4
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards (with Companion Pass) 2.8

Competing fixed value reward cards include the Capital One Venture and Barclaycard Arrival, which both offer double miles on all purchases, where each mile is worth one cent as statement credits towards eligible travel expenses. This works out to two cents in value per dollar spent on those cards (or slightly more with the Barclaycard Arrival’s 10% rebate).

How to leverage the Companion Pass for families

With our youngest child turning two years old later this year, we will soon need four award seats for family travel. Our solution was to acquire separate Southwest Companion Passes for both my wife and me. I achieved Companion Pass status in early 2013, so my pass is good until December 31, 2014. My wife earned the Companion Pass earlier this year, so hers will expire at the end of 2015. Our plan is to earn a new Companion Pass early next year, and to continue to alternate earning passes every year so long as this offer lasts.

The advantage of this strategy is that we only need to redeem points for two tickets in order to receive four seats. The downside is that takes some time each year to earn a new pass, so its possible that we’ll only have one pass at the beginning of each year.

The Southwest Companion Pass: a staple in the diet of points and miles enthusiasts.

The Southwest Companion Pass: a staple in the diet of points and miles enthusiasts.

Earning multiple passes

The easiest way to earn these passes is sign up for two of the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards credit cards from Chase. Approximately every three months, Chase offers a bonus of 50,000 Rapid Rewards points for each card after new applicants spend $2,000 within three months of opening the account. This signup bonus is currently available for both the Plus and Premier versions of the Chase Rapid Rewards personal and business cards (4 cards in total), but only valid for a limited time. By meeting the spending requirement on both a personal and business card, we end up with 104,000  of the 110,000 points necessary for a Companion Pass.

Other ways to earn the pass include transfers from hotel points, and of course, flying paid Southwest tickets. A popular trick is to transfer 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points to the Hyatt Gold Passport program, and then to transfer those points to Southwest Rapid Rewards, resulting in 30,000 Rapid Rewards points that are Companion Pass eligible.

Timing your points accrual

More than one person I know has failed to earn their Companion Pass by mistakenly earning points in the wrong calendar year. Here are some key facts you need to know when trying to earn your Companion Pass:

1. The Companion Pass is valid until the end of the following calendar year. If you earned the pass in January of 2014, it’s valid until the end of 2015. If you earn it in November of 2014, it’s still only good until the end of 2015, so earning the pass earlier in the year means it will be valid for longer.

2. The Companion Pass requires 110,000 points to be posted in the same calendar year. If you earn 60,000 points in December and 60,000 points in January, you will not receive a Companion Pass.

3. Bonus points from the Southwest Rapid Rewards cards post once you reach the minimum spend and the next statement closes. Call Chase to find out your statement closing date (it will vary by a few days depending on the length of the month). In many cases, cardholders should wait until the next statement period before meeting the minimum spending requirement, in order to assure that their points will post early in the next calendar year. For example, if you meet the spending requirement in December, but your statement doesn’t close until January, then the bonus points will count toward earning the Companion Pass in the new year.

4. The three month period to meet the minimum spending requirement starts the day your account is approved. Your approval date is the when your account is considered to be “opened,” not the day your card is mailed, received, activated, or first used. If you’re unsure, contact Chase to verify the account opening date and the day the three month period ends.

Double the companion passes equals double the fun!

Double the companion passes equals double the family fun!

Other tips on using the Companion Passes for families

Once you have the Companion Pass, you need to maximize its benefits:

1. Make the kids your companions. Ideally I would make my wife my companion so we could get away together for half price, but once she received her Companion Pass, we realized that we would have to each make the kids our companions, since we travel more with them than without.

2. Conserve your companion changes. You can change your designated companion up to three times before the pass expires. For example, if you designate a child, you can change it to your spouse, back to your child, and then back to your spouse one last time.

This comes in handy if you want to take a trip together, but it has some downsides. When you change a companion, you must first cancel all future companion bookings. Keep track of the old confirmation numbers, as they will become credits for the taxes paid, but they can only be used for future reservations in the same name. If you changed companions just to take one trip, be sure to change companions back when you return, and re-add the previous companion to all of your future bookings. It can be tedious work, but it’s usually worth the points saved.

3. Book speculatively. Other airlines and their huge change fees have taught us never to book a flight until we are absolutely  sure that we need to travel at that precise time. However, like a retailer with a generous return policy, Southwest’s award tickets are fully refundable at any time before the flight! Considering that their fares tend to increase (and can even sell out) as the departure date approaches, it makes sense to book an award trip and add your companion whenever you think you might want to go somewhere. I know many families that booked Thanksgiving and Christmas travel earlier this week when Southwest opened up their schedule.

4. Rebook during sales. One of the cool features of Southwest’s fully refundable awards is that you can actually get points back when there is a fare sale, although it is more complicated when booking with a companion.

First, you have to cancel the companion ticket online (and again, save the old confirmation number, which contains a credit for the taxes paid). Wait a few minutes until your reservation is updated in their system, and then change your existing reservation and select the same flights as before. You will receive points back (or credit for cash) equal to the difference and not have to pay taxes again. Finally, re-add your companion using the old confirmation number as a travel credit toward the taxes. It takes a few minutes, but I often get thousands of Rapid Rewards points credited back to me during a good sale.

5. Wait for a promo code before you use dollars. If you don’t have enough points for all the award travel you need, you may have to purchase some revenue tickets. Occasionally, Southwest offers promotional codes that can only be used for cash bookings, not awards. If you have to pay for tickets, this is the time. You could even cancel award bookings, get the points back, and earn points for your discounted revenue fare.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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  • jesse

    will the companion pass be good for the whole entire trips which includes either round trip and multiple segments? or just one way and one segment?

  • Edgar Perez

    Entire trip. Companion gets exactly what you have purchased

  • Edgar Perez

    Nice tips here. This is a keeper

  • Jason Steele

    Thanks Edgar!

  • Jason Plaster

    #4 is the best tip of all. I book our family’s award seats many months in advance, and constantly recheck them for the amount of points required, and often rebook them multiple times when the “price” (amount of points required) drops. Free points back in your account – they add up in a hurry, esp. for a family of 5.

  • LMP

    Thanks for the great tips. We are close to Companion Pass qualification, but not there yet. Can we go ahead and book one rewards flight now, while the particular flight is at a low rewards level, and then add the companion to the existing booking once we qualify for the Pass? thanks!

  • Kathy

    Hi–I don’t understand this statement. Would you explain what this means? “Keep track of the old confirmation numbers, as they will become credits for the taxes paid,” Thanks!!

  • mpkomo

    Yes, you can and should. First, that should work without a problem. Second, per his advice to book speculatively, even if you have to book it again the money/points and taxes can be used to rebook after the pass is earned if necessary (it won’t be).

  • mpkomo

    For the record this works when you book with $ too – but the $ stays on Southwest and is good for a year from original purchase.

  • mpkomo

    Southwest doesn’t charge cancelationor change fees, but money from canceled flights stays associated with the original confirmation number, so you need that to redeem the cash later.

    In his example, you’d get $5 credit for canceling the flight. Then when you rebook it, you can apply those funds to the new booking – but to do so, it requires you to enter the confirmation number the funds are attached to – the original, canceled booking in this case.

  • angie

    do I need to cancel my first credit card before applying for the other one or should i leave it open? They told me cancelling might cancel my rewards that I’d just received

  • Jason Steele

    I generally keep our cards open until the annual fee comes up, as a general rule. Once your points have been received by your airline account, you have nothing to worry about.

  • Jason Steele

    Well said.

    I keep a spreadsheet with my conf #s and the names of the family members they were originally associated with. I know it is just $5 here and $2.50 there but it’s still something. Besides, if we ever book internationally, those taxes and fees can be much more.

  • Jason Steele

    I agree. I like to sign up of their email notifications of sales (they sometimes offer bonus points for doing so). As soon as I get a notice, I double check the price of all my future bookings to check to see if I would get points back.

  • Jason Steele

    You can add companions by segment I believe. Just don’t try to have the companion fly and miss the flight yourself. Major no-no.

  • UAPhil

    When you cancel a companion pass booking, the default is to keep the tax as a credit for future use. But I believe there is also an option to refund the taxes. Avoids the hassle of keeping track of small credits. (I’ve probably only cancelled companion bookings where my booking was made with points, which are refundable. It may be that if I made a Wanna Get Away revenue booking, the companion taxes would be non-refundable.)

  • vah48

    That $5 is fully refundable and when you want to cancel you can choose to be refunded on your credit card which you have used. So, no need to write any confirmation number.

  • Sandy

    Really appreciate this detailed info on Southwest and companion pass! Thanks!

  • Jason Steele

    That will work too.

  • Smiles

    There is one more pointer worth keeping in mind when using a companion pass. There can be a huge value to accepting a voluntary bump. Recently when using a companion pass my flight was overbooked by six passengers. By agreeing to get bumped to the next flight three house later, my wife and I were both issued flight credit of $ 300 each for being bumped plus the purchase value of the flight we were bumped from – another $100 each. In total we received over $800 in vouchers that can be used on future bookings with the companion pass (within 1 year). In all the three hour wait will result in $1,600 in free flights! :)

  • Lyssa

    I had the CP for 2012/13 and it was amazing. I just don’t understand how you and your wife are getting it again and again. Is Chase giving you the bonus points for signing up for the same credit cards? I didn’t think that would work once you’ve gotten a bonus once.

  • Denver Ken

    Yup. Book away! I did the same thing. Booked tickets to Orlando for Disney and once I got my pass I added my kid to the trip. No problem.

  • Dennis

    Wondering about that also. If you’re canceling the cards before the annual fee, how much time must pass before you can re-apply for those cards again?

  • DanielleRN

    I would like to know this as well. I have a personal card and a business card, and my husband has a personal card and a business card. We have 2 companion passes between us. (We travel with 4 kids.)) My passes are up at the end of this year. How do I re-earn them besides just doing the spending? I do not foresee spending enough to earn them on my own! I thought that I could cancel the ones we have, and apply for the opposite. (Plus instead of premium), but how do I do that so I still qualify for points? Also, that logic states that we will not ever be able to do it again after this second set, so how do others keep this going? TIA!!

  • jefarl

    why is southwest telling me that the 50,000 bonus points I earned on a new card enrollment was not part of the companion pass calculation?

  • Sarah

    I currently have 90k points. I didn’t even know about companion pass until just a few months ago. I was just approved for the business card so I will get another 25k after spending $1000 on it. Putting me over the 110k points needed for companion pass. My question is….should I wait to hit the points until statement ends in January? Will that give me all of 2015 and 2016? Or is that risky? Should I just hot the points ASAP?

  • thepointsguy

    You need to accrue 110k companion pass qualifying points in a single calendar year so if you wait until January 1 the balance will reset and you’ll have to start from scratch

  • ExtremeNewbie

    I was approved for the personal card on 9/26 and only just found out about the companion pass. I have yet to spend the $2000 in 3 months -12/26. I’m assuming my statement will close just days before then. Would these points then post in january or december? Should I try open the business card and aim to get in all the points before dec 31st?? I’m very new to this -advice will be greatly appreciated.

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