How to Earn Southwest Status and the Companion Pass With Chase Points
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I travel several times a month, and I always use my points or miles, never cash. In the past, I've resigned myself to traveling without elite status, and even celebrated my non-status. But this year, I've found a way to earn elite status with Southwest, without ever paying for my tickets with cash. And as I'll show you, the net cost in points will be even lower than my previous way of booking award travel.
The Easy Option for Using Chase Points to Book Southwest Flights
Southwest Rapid Rewards is one of nine airline transfer partners in the Chase Ultimate Rewards program, and it doesn't participate in any of the other major flexible rewards transfer programs. In the past, I've earned Southwest points, and the Companion Pass, through the Rapid Rewards credit cards offered by Chase and their generous sign-up bonuses.
When I used up these points, I would simply transfer some of my Ultimate Rewards points to Rapid Rewards points, which are generally worth 1.4 to 1.6 cents each toward any available ticket in the lowest fare class, called "Wanna Get Away." These transfers offer me a decent, although not exceptional, value, while ensuring that all of my bookings are fully changeable and refundable, with no fees. In fact, I regularly get some of my points refunded by rebooking my flights when Southwest has one of its frequent sales. But as with all award flights booked with airline points or miles, I won't earn any credit toward elite status.
Use Ultimate Rewards Points for Southwest Flights, AND Work Toward Status
When you redeem your Ultimate Rewards points through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, your flights will earn points and credit toward elite status on all airlines. However, there are a couple complications with doing this for flights on Southwest. First, Southwest flights don't ever appear in the results on the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center. Yet after you perform a search, you'll see this note buried in the disclaimers: "Some airlines don't offer advance seat selection. Southwest and Allegiant tickets can only be purchased by calling us at 1-855-234-2542."
So you can book Southwest flights directly using your Ultimate Rewards points, so long as you're willing to endure the call center (more on that later). And when you use your points to book airfare through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, you can supply your frequent flyer number and earn points or miles for your travel, as well as credit toward elite status.
Most Chase cards only offer you 1.25 cents in value per point redeemed, which is usually lower than the value of Rapid Rewards points. Fortunately, the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers you 1.5 cents per point for travel booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, which means that you have to re-evaluate when it makes sense to transfer points versus book travel reservations through Chase. Since the 1.5 cents offered by the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center is about on par with the value of Rapid Rewards points, it might seem like there's no good reason to book with Chase instead of transferring your Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest. However, there are several advantages...
Advantages of Booking Southwest Flights Through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
1. Earn elite status. First and foremost, booking your Southwest flights (or those on any other airline) through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal means that you'll earn credit toward elite status, plus the Companion Pass. Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel is effectively just another online travel agency (OTA), and any booking made there will be treated just like one made through another online travel agency such as Expedia or Priceline.
With Southwest's Rapid Rewards program, entry-level A-List status requires taking 25 one-way flights or earning 35,000 tier-qualifying points in a calendar year, and connecting flights only count as a single one-way. A-List Preferred status requires 50 one-way flights or 70,000 qualifying points. Finally, the Southwest Companion Pass can be earned by accumulating 110,000 qualifying points, which are different than tier-qualifying points and include most points you can earn, other than those transferred from hotel programs.
2. Spend fewer net points. Assuming you have the Sapphire Reserve card, you'll eventually spend fewer net Ultimate Rewards and Rapid Rewards points by booking your flights directly through Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel, especially when you earn status on Southwest. This is because you'll earn Rapid Rewards points from your award flights booked through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, and A-List members earn 25% more points than those with no status.
For example, you'll earn 6 points per dollar spent when you purchase a ticket in the lowest "Wanna Get Away" fare class, even when you use your Ultimate Rewards points to book a ticket through Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel. If you booked a $300 ticket with your Sapphire Reserve card, you'd spend 20,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but you'd also earn 1,800 Southwest Rapid Rewards points as a member with no status. Once you reach A-List, you'd earn a total of 2,250 Rapid Rewards points. Should you reach the airline's highest A-List Preferred status, you'll get a whopping 100% bonus, allowing you to earn 3,600 Rapid Rewards points on your $300 Wanna Get Away ticket.
As I earn additional Rapid Rewards points, I use them to by tickets for my family (who don't fly often enough to earn status), while continuing to book my own flights as revenue tickets using the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center.
3. Avoid paying cash for taxes and fees. Since I generally have enough points and miles to book all the travel I need, I try to spend as little cash as possible, including taxes and fees. One of the great things about booking flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal is that your points are used to pay for all additional taxes and fees. The $5.60 TSA tax per flight doesn't sound like much, but it would have added up to $140 over the course of the 25 one-way flights I'll take by the time I earn A-List status this year. And should you take an international flight on Southwest, you can use your Ultimate Rewards points to avoid spending the additional $50-$100 per ticket in taxes and fees imposed by foreign countries.
4. Continue to use your Companion Pass. Just like with any other revenue or award booking, you can easily use your Companion Pass with a ticket purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel portal. You can simply add your companion online, just as you would with any other ticket.
5. Enjoy much better pricing on Anytime and Business Select fares. Every now and then, you'll find that the flight you need no longer has any seats left in the Wanna Get Away fare class. When this happens, you may have to book a ticket in one of Southwest's higher fare classes, Anytime and Business Select. This usually occurs when you're flying without much advance notice, or when you're traveling during an especially peak travel period.
Sadly, Rapid Rewards points offer terrible value when booking award tickets in Anytime and Business Select fare classes. You'll only receive about 1.1 cents per point for Anytime fares purchased with Rapid Rewards points, and just about 0.95 cents per point in Business Select. But when you use points in your Sapphire Reserve account to book Southwest flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, you'll always receive a value of 1.5 cents per point, regardless of the fare class you book in. This will allow you to save thousands of points per flight when Wanna Get Away fares are unavailable.
Drawbacks of Booking Southwest Flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
Despite all of these advantages of booking Southwest flights through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, there are still two significant drawbacks to be aware of:
1. Time-consuming calls to the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center. Since you can't book Southwest flights online through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, you must call in. But it's not so quick and easy. First, you have to listen to a long recording reminding you to have everyone's name, birth date and gender before booking, along with instructions on how to change and cancel your flights online, the latter of which is irrelevant when you're trying to book a Southwest flight. (Worse, you also have to listen to all of this boilerplate related to airline tickets, even when you're just calling to book hotels, cars or activities.) Then you have to enter your Chase Sapphire Reserve account number before you can speak to a representative.
The representatives I've spoken with were friendly and competent, but they're hamstrung by requirements that they recite every possible rule and regulation. As they drone on dictating all of the aspects of Southwest's policies, it can easily take 15-20 minutes to book a single ticket, even when you have all the flight times and numbers available before you call.
2. Wanna Get Away tickets aren't fully refundable. When you use your Rapid Rewards points book any ticket on Southwest, you can always cancel and have your points refunded to you. But when you book a ticket with cash, or through the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center, a cancellation will result in a credit, called Travel Funds, that's only good for one year from the date of purchase, and can only be used in the name of the traveler. Furthermore, you can only combine two Travel Funds to book a new ticket, despite this outdated and inaccurate page on Southwest's website that says you can combine up to four. This limits what you can do with the travel funds that you'll receive when you re-book a flight when the price drops, or when you need to cancel a flight.
Tips and Tricks for Using the Chase Ultimate Rewards Travel Center
1. Try to speed up the call. To move the phone calls along a bit faster, I try to politely inform the representatives that I'm very familiar with all of Southwest's policies, and to please just say only what they're absolutely required to. This can speed things up, but I still have to plan on about 10 minutes on the phone just to book a simple ticket.
2. Consider buying an unneeded ticket, just so you can convert your Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest Travel Funds. When you have a lot of travel to book, it may be faster and easier to just buy a single expensive ticket from the Ultimate Rewards Travel Center, then immediately cancel it and use the funds to quickly book all of the other tickets that you need online at Southwest's website.
3. Request a status-match challenge. Speed up your quest for elite status by requesting a status match challenge from Southwest. Its challenges typically give you 90 days to take 3 round-trip or 6 one-way revenue flights, or earn 8,000 tier points. After completing the challenge you will have A-List status for six months. For more information, see Richard Kerr's post on status match challenges.
Until Chase's Ultimate Rewards Travel Center finds a way to let customers book Southwest flights online (or makes their telephone booking process less onerous), it will always be a little more difficult to book your award travel this way than it is to just transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Rapid Rewards. However, I feel that the benefit of earning elite status, and consuming fewer net reward points outweighs these drawbacks. By the end of 2018, I plan on rejoining the ranks of those who hold airline elite status, without having to pay a penny to earn it.
Feature photo by John Gress/Corbis via Getty Images