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Credit Card Companion Tickets: Ins, Outs & Current Offers

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 I often travel solo, but I also like sharing the road (and the skies) with friends from time to time. Today, TPG Contributor Jason Steele discusses the companion pass benefits available with current credit card offers, and explains the features that set them apart from one another.

The credit card industry learned long ago that there are few offers as appealing as “free” travel. More than a few card applications have been motivated by the alluring prospect of a free flight, and more still by the promise of travel for two. For those who prefer to explore the world together, in this post I’ll talk about credit cards that offer companion tickets that can help you lower the cost of your shared journeys.

What is a companion ticket?

In its most basic form, a companion ticket offers cardholders a single additional ticket at a reduced price with the purchase of a paid ticket in certain fare classes. The companion fare and restrictions on use vary from one ticket to another, but these tickets generally offer an overall discount of about 25-50% on airfare for two.

On the advanced end of the spectrum is the Southwest Companion Pass, which offers unlimited free travel (after government taxes and fees) for a designated companion on both paid and award tickets until the end of the next calendar year. While you can fly your way to the Southwest Companion Pass solely through paid travel, you can earn it much more easily with the help of sign-up bonuses and spending on one or more of the Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards from Chase. Every other airline companion pass is available solely as a credit card benefit.

Read on to find out which credit cards offer companion tickets, and the terms and other considerations for each.

Travel companion
Companion tickets make traveling together more affordable (image courtesy of Shutterstock)

Alaska Airlines credit cards from Bank of America
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Card, the Platinum Plus MasterCard, and the Visa Business Card all offer a discount code that lets cardholders buy a companion ticket in economy class on Alaska Airlines for $99 (plus taxes and fees starting at $22). The pass is only valid on paid fares for flights operated by Alaska Airlines, but both travelers earn miles. The annual fee is $75 for Visa Signature accounts,  $50 for Platinum Plus accounts, and $35 for Preferred accounts.

American Express Platinum Card
The Amex Platinum offers companion tickets with the purchase of a full-fare business or first class ticket. The ticket must be purchased through American Express travel on an eligible carrier. Nevertheless, American Express still adds taxes, government fees, fuel surcharges, and its own $39 service fee. Between the full fare requirement and all the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges, this offer has little value to most people who are paying for their own tickets, but can be useful to those who travel on full-fare tickets paid for by a client or employer. For more info, check out TPG’s post on how to best use the Amex Platinum Companion Ticket Benefit. The Amex Platinum has an annual fee of $450.

 

American Express's companion pass is of little (if any) value since you must pay for a full fare ticket and pay fuel surcharges on the companion ticket as well.
The Amex Platinum companion pass is of little (if any) value, since you must pay for a full-fare ticket, as well as fuel surcharges on the companion ticket.

British Airways Visa card from Chase
This card offers a Travel Together certificate to cardholders each time they spend $30,000 on their card within a calendar year. Once earned, cardholders can redeem the certificate online for a companion ticket on award flights operated by British Airways in any class of service. The second seat must be available as an award, and the companion must pay all taxes and government fees, as well as the significant fuel surcharges imposed by British Airways. Because of those extra charges, the Travel Together certificate offers little value for coach fares, but can provide a considerable discount for a companion in business or first class. The annual fee for this British Airways Visa is $95.

Think of BA's Travel Together ticket as the ability to purchase a companion award ticket in business or first class for about the price of a coach ticket.
The British Airways Travel Together ticket is best thought of as a companion award ticket in business or first class for about the price of a coach ticket.

Delta SkyMiles Platinum card from American Express
This card offers a companion pass each year upon the account anniversary that is valid for a single companion in economy class on a paid ticket within the 48 contiguous United States. The offer is valid on most economy fare classes (other than some negotiated bulk fares), and it covers the entire companion fare apart from taxes and government fees. The Delta SkyMiles Platinum card has a $150 annual fee.

Delta SkyMiles Reserve card from American Express
Like the Delta SkyMiles Platinum, this card also offers a single companion pass each year upon account renewal, but it is valid on both economy and first-class flights (again, within the 48 contiguous United States). There is a $450 annual fee for this card, which also includes SkyClub membership.

Lufthansa Miles and More standard and Premier World Mastercard from Barclaycard
These cards offer an economy class companion ticket after the first use, and on each account anniversary. They are only valid on paid economy class tickets in H class or higher, which will often cost more than the lowest fare. There is a $59 annual fee for the standard card, and $79 for the Premier version.

US Airways Premier World MasterCard from Barclaycard
This card presently offers a companion certificate valid for up to two additional guests on paid tickets with a minimum fare of $250. Each companion costs $99 plus taxes and government fees, and can only be used for economy fares within the 48 contiguous United States and Canada, and only on flights operated by US Airways.

This offer is only available through the end of 2014, as the benefits will be changing when this card is rebranded as the American Airlines AAdvantage MasterCard from Barclaycard in 2015. There is an $89 annual fee for this card. Furthermore, there are advance fare requirements and blackout dates that only appear on the certificate, but they are reproduced in a Wiki on this Flyertalk thread.

The US Airways Pass looks good, just be sure to check out their blackout dates a restrictions.
The US Airways Companion Pass can be valuable, but be sure to check blackout dates and restrictions.

Virgin America Visa Signature and Premium Visa Signature
Both the standard Virgin America Visa Signature and Premium Visa Signature cards offer a $150 companion ticket discount each year, which is really just a fixed-value coupon rather than a true companion ticket. Furthermore, it is only valid on full-fare, round-trip tickets booked at least 14 days in advance. These cards have annual fees of $49 and $149 respectively.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus (personal and business) and Premier (personal and business)
The Southwest Companion Pass isn’t really a benefit of the Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards, but I’ve included them on this list anyway because of how lucrative this pass is, and because the credit cards make earning it much easier.

With the Southwest Companion Pass, you can designate an individual who can travel with you on any paid or award ticket for just the price of any taxes or government fees. Your companion must travel on your same itinerary, but doesn’t have to be included on every leg. The pass is good for the remainder of the calendar year in which you earn it, plus the entirety of the next year. That means if you time it right, you can effectively earn half price travel for you and your designated companion for almost two years to anywhere Southwest flies (and that list of destinations continues to improve).

Chase offers four Rapid Rewards credit cards: a Plus and Premier card in both business and personal versions. Points earned from the sign-up bonuses and spending on these cards count toward the 110,000 points that need to be earned in a calendar year in order to earn Companion Pass status (which is so cool that it gets to be a proper noun).

Currently, the Plus and Premier versions offer just a 25,000 point sign-up bonus, but 50,000 point bonuses tend to appear every few months. Furthermore, I recently discovered that the Southwest Premier personal card is still offered with the 50,000 mile sign-up at airports, on board aircraft using WiFi, and even using the same link on the ground. That said, the best advice is to earn the bonus points and qualify for the Companion Pass in early 2015, so it will be valid through 2016.

The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is so valuable, that it is in a class by itself.
The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is so valuable, it’s in a class by itself.

Conclusions

I find there to be three classes of companion pass offers:

I am a huge fan of the Southwest Companion Pass, especially for family travel, and it allows me to consistently realize 2.8 cents per Rapid Rewards point (and by extension, every point I earn in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program). Since it offers real value with few restrictions, and can be used an unlimited number of times, it is clearly in a class by itself.

Next are the more useful offers that provide significant value without any crippling restrictions. The companion ticket offers included with the two Delta SkyMiles cards are easy to use, and are valid on most publicly available discount fares. Alaska’s offer is similar, except that it imposes about $100 more in costs on the companion ticket. The US Airways offer is still valid for the rest of this year, but I wouldn’t plan on taking advantage of it unless you have scrutinized the reported blackout dates to ensure that it can be used when you want it.

I also consider the British Airways Travel Together ticket useful for business and first class awards. Yes, the taxes, fees, and fuel surcharges may add up to nearly the cost of an economy class ticket, but there are still many times that travelers are willing to pay that price and enjoy business or first class instead.

The third class of companion passes are those that offer little value except in extreme or unusual circumstances. For example, the American Express Platinum and Virgin America offers require the purchase of a full fare ticket, which often costs more than two discounted fare tickets. The Virgin America offer is especially poor, since you must purchase a full fare ticket 14 days in advance; that virtually guarantees that a discount fare would have been available, and negates the $150 savings. Finally, the Lufthansa offer is dismal since it requires a higher fare class, is only available for economy class tickets, and still requires payment of fuel surcharges.

There is value to be had in companion passes offered by credit cards, but do your homework to make sure the math works out for your particular travel plans.

Have you used any of these companion passes, and if so, was it worthwhile? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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