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Ah, ’tis the season. The first snow is beginning to fall in parts of the country, people are locking down their holiday travel plans — and the perfect window has opened for earning the elusive Southwest Companion Pass. This is considered by many to be the single most valuable elite status perk offered by any hotel or airline. But just because it’s valuable doesn’t mean you should automatically pursue it. The Companion Pass is a great reward for some but may not work for others, so today we’ll take a look at who should (and who shouldn’t) pursue this perk.

Let’s start with a quick review of the basics. As the name suggests, when you earn a Companion Pass, your designated companion will fly for “free” with you on Southwest (you’ll only need to pay his/her taxes and fees, which start at $5.60 each way). The best part is that this can be used on both revenue and award tickets. Once you earn the pass, it’ll be valid for the rest of the year in which it posts to your account and the entire following year. In other words, if you time it right and meet the qualification criteria in January or early February, you could enjoy the perks for nearly two years.

Change your companion up to three times per calendar year.
It may take a lot to earn a Companion Pass, but the payoff can be worth it.

Speaking of qualification, the Companion Pass has some pretty hefty requirements. You can check out this guide for a full walk-through of how to earn it, but you’ll need to either accrue 110,000 qualifying points or take 100 qualifying flights in a calendar year. Obviously unless you frequently fly with Southwest, qualifying on points is the much easier route. But it’s important to note that not all Rapid Rewards points count towards the Companion Pass. Southwest defines qualifying points as:

“Companion Pass Qualifying Points are earned from your revenue flights booked through Southwest Airlines, your points earned by making purchases with a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card, and your base points earned from Rapid Rewards partners.”

Despite the somewhat vague language above, the sign-up bonuses on Southwest’s cobranded credit cards have typically counted towards qualifying for the Companion Pass. However, these cards recently changed their eligibility rules for initial bonus offers, now offering a policy that’s similar to (though not quite as long as) the Sapphire “family” rules. These adjustments were twofold. First, you can only have one personal Southwest credit card at a time. Second, you can only earn a sign-up bonus on one of these personal Southwest cards every 24 months.

As a result, almost everyone who is going for the Companion Pass will do it by combining the sign-up bonuses on one personal and one business Southwest card. There are currently three consumer versions of the card and one for small businesses. The current sign-up bonuses on them are as follows:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of account opening
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months of account opening.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card: Earn 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months of account opening.

If you open one of the personal cards and the business card and then carefully time the sign-up bonuses to hit in early 2019, you’re roughly 95% of the way to the 110,000-point qualification threshold, easily within striking distance. Just make sure to time things carefully. Chase typically won’t award your sign-up bonus until the statement period in which you reached the spending threshold closes. As a result, you’ll want to make sure to hit them late enough in the year (or even in early January, just to be sure) so that they’ll hit your account in 2019, not 2018.

For additional details on the Companion Pass, be sure to check out our video Your Questions Answered About Southwest’s Companion Pass.

Free flights for a companion for a year is an incredibly valuable perk, and since there’s no limit to how often you can use it, the potential value here is enormous. But many of the same things that make the Companion Pass so valuable for some travelers also make it the wrong play for others. Let’s take a closer look at some of the types of people who should and shouldn’t try to earn the Companion Pass.

Who Should Get The Companion Pass?

Houston Hobby // (Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Keller / Southwest)
If you’re regularly seen on a plane like this, the Companion Pass is probably a terrific option. Photo courtesy of Stephen M. Keller / Southwest.

1. Frequent Southwest Flyers, Especially if You Can Qualify on Flight Segments

One of the biggest arguments against going after the Companion Pass is that it requires casual Southwest travelers to devote two of their 5/24 slots with Chase to applying for Southwest credit cards. Even if you’re a semi-regular Southwest flyer, it may be tough to get the card without at least one sign-up bonus. If that card becomes your fifth new card in two years, Chase’s 5/24 rule kicks in. This would potentially force you to pass on more valuable welcome bonuses like the 80,000-point sign-up bonus (after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months of account opening) on the Ink Business Preferred Credit Card, which TPG values at a cool $1,600.

On the other hand, if you’re a frequent Southwest flier and can qualify with 100 flight segments (or 110,000 points from flying) in a year, the Companion Pass becomes a much better value proposition. Even if it looks like you’ll come up just short, say around ~90 flight segments near the end of the year, it might be worth looking for a cheap mileage run to push you over the finish line. As an added bonus, anyone who flies that frequently with Southwest will likely have a large stash of Rapid Rewards points, and remember that you can redeem points for your flight and still use the Companion Pass.

In essence, your Southwest points double in value with with this perk; instead of redeeming them for one passenger at a rate of ~1.5 cents per point, you can book the exact same flight for two travelers without spending any additional points, boosting the value to ~3 cents per point. For regular Southwest customers, that’s an outstanding value.

2. Families

Family travel brings with it a whole host of new challenges, from keeping kids entertained on long flights to keeping costs down when booking multiple tickets. The Southwest Companion Pass goes a long way toward defraying some of those expenses. You can designate any ticketed traveler as your companion, so whether you want your spouse or three-year-old child, you’d have one (almost) free ticket whenever you and your designated companion take to the skies on Southwest.

Keep in mind too that you can even change your companion designation up to three times in each calendar year that the member has a valid pass. This could be great if you do some trips with just your spouse and then do other trips individually with one (or more) of your children. And depending on the size of your family, you could even consider having your spouse try to earn the Companion Pass as well to get two of your kids free flights for your next trip.

3. Domestic Travelers

While Southwest has grown immensely in recent years, they are still primarily a domestic US airline. Outside of a handful of destinations in the Caribbean and Mexico, you aren’t going to see many international flights (and will almost certainly never see long-haul ones). You certainly can’t use the Companion Pass to fly to Europe, but if your travel keeps you mostly in North America and Southwest serves both your home airport and your favorite destinations, the Companion Pass might be a great addition to your wallet.

Think carefully before you apply for one (or two) Southwest credit cards. There are too many other terrific cards out there to blindly jump above Chase’s 5/24 rule.

4. Travelers Under 5/24

As I mentioned above, most people will be earning the Companion Pass by pairing a personal and business Southwest credit card. These cards are restricted by Chase’s 5/24 rule, meaning that if you’ve opened five or more cards in the last 24 months you will be automatically rejected for most Chase cards, including the Southwest ones. Note that this applies to virtually all cards across all issuers, not just Chase, so if you recently jumped on a new card like The Platinum Card® from American Express or the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, those cards will count towards this rule.

That being said, just because you’re under 5/24 doesn’t mean you should automatically jump on the Companion Pass. Those first five card applications are some of the most important ones you will ever make, and they deserve a good amount of thought and planning. At the very least, if you have two 5/24 slots left to spare, you should think very hard about whether you’d be able to get good value from the Companion Pass.

5. Spontaneous Travelers

Southwest’s incredibly generous policies (no change or cancellation fees) make it an ideal airline for last-minute, spontaneous travelers. If you’re the kind of person who likes to come home on a Friday after a long week of work and plan a weekend adventure on the other side of the country, Southwest has you covered! You can even book two or three different options and sit down with your companion to pick the one that you both want. Just note that if you cancel a reservation, any money you paid (both for the fare and taxes) will be refunded as a travel voucher valid for one year after issuance, but the points you redeemed for an award ticket will be fully refunded.

In addition, since Southwest has a revenue-based program, you may find that last-minute fares require a hefty number of points. However, if you’ve accumulated the 110,000 points to earn the Companion Pass in the first place, that may not be a concern!

Who Shouldn’t Get The Companion Pass?

1. Travelers Over 5/24

This isn’t a “shouldn’t” as much as it’s a “probably can’t.” If you’re not eligible to apply for Southwest credit cards and you don’t already fly enough to earn the Companion Pass, it’s going to be nearly impossible for you to get it. Sure, you could charge $110,000 to an exiting Southwest credit card, if you’re able to pay those bills in full, but there’s an opportunity cost to doing so. At 1 Rapid Rewards point per dollar spent, you’re getting a return of just 1.5% based on TPG’s most recent valuations, and you’re also giving up some valuable earnings on other cards, especially those with transferable points. Two quick examples:

  • Dining purchases: The American Express® Gold Card would give you 4x Membership Rewards points on US restaurant purchases (a return of 7.6%), while the Chase Sapphire Reserve would give you 3x Ultimate Rewards points on all dining purchases (a return of 6%)
  • Airfare purchases: The Amex Platinum would give you 5x Membership Rewards points on airline tickets purchased directly with the airline (a return of 9.5%)

As you can see, you’d be leaving a lot of valuable, flexible points on the table. There are plenty of good cards to consider after you fill up your five Chase slots, so don’t get hung up on what you can’t have and check out the top sign-up bonuses available now.

Traveling together is much sweeter when your companion is free. (Photo by undrey/Getty Images)
If you don’t have a good travel companion, I’d encourage you to pursue other rewards. Photo by undrey/Getty Images.

2. Readers Who Don’t Have a Good Traveling Companion

The Companion Pass isn’t worth anything if you don’t have a companion to repeatedly use it with. As noted above, you are allowed to change your companion up to three times a year, but if you have to stop and actually think about who would enjoy traveling with you (or with whom you would enjoy traveling), the Companion Pass probably isn’t right for you.

Remember too that if you plan on traveling with someone outside your immediate family, make sure they’re on board to travel as much as you are before you start the process. Also remember that they have to actually fly with you, so if you have a good friend on the other side of the country that you like traveling with, the Companion Pass won’t help until you are physically in the same city and can board a Southwest flight together.

3. Expats & People Who Primarily Travel Internationally

As important as it is to actually have a companion before you go after the Companion Pass, it’s equally important to make sure you’re able to fly Southwest frequently. As a current expat, even if you gave me a free Companion Pass I wouldn’t be able to use it. Even while I was living in the US, much of my travel was international and not to places that Southwest flies.

There’s another sub-category here worth addressing: people who prefer to pay cash for domestic travel and redeem miles for international flight, especially ones in the premium cabin. Depending on the typical routes you fly, you may be able to pick up affordable, paid tickets on those routes. Even if Southwest offers flights between your home base and the destinations you frequent, that’s not going to help one iota when you go to redeem your points for long-haul international flights.

This was the approach I took when I lived in the US. I didn’t earn enough points and miles to cover every single ticket for free, so I had to be choosy. I typically got much more value redeeming my points for international premium cabin awards, and cash fares between the Washington, DC area and Chicago (which amounted to ~80% of my flying) were always reasonable. That’s why I preferred to earn transferable currencies like Ultimate Rewards points and Membership Rewards points instead of trying to go after the Companion Pass.

You can fly all over the US, the Caribbean and Central America out of Baltimore-Washington (BWI), but if your DC-area digs are in Northern Virginia, that could make for an inconvenient travel.

4. People Who Don’t Live in a Southwest Hub, or Don’t Like Their Southwest “Fortress Hub”

Simply living in a city to which Southwest flies might not be enough. Before going full-bore after the Companion Pass, I’d strongly encourage you to check Southwest’s flight schedules so you don’t end up with long, uncomfortable connections every time you travel. Flexibility is the most valuable thing in travel rewards, and you’ll want to really take a look at how many nonstop flights Southwest operates from your home airport.

Even if you live in a city with one of Southwest’s fortress hubs, like Chicago-Midway (MDW) or Houston-Hobby (HOU), that airport might be an inconvenient option. Traffic to and from Chicago-O’Hare (ORD) can be among the worst of any major airport in the country, but if you live in a northern suburb of the city, getting to Midway might be even worse. If the goal here is to get both free and easy travel, you shouldn’t put yourself in a situation where the drive to and from the airport is bad enough to ruin the whole trip.

5. Upper Level Elites with Another Airline

Although it might not sound like it, the Companion Pass is actually a form of Southwest elite status. But if you already have mid-tier or higher elite status with another major US airline (American, Delta or United, for example), you might not want to switch to Southwest. If you’re enjoying waived or reduced fees, free checked bags and additional perks that Southwest doesn’t offer (like lounge access and occasional first class upgrades), there isn’t much of an incentive for you to switch. Loyalty is a two-way street, and you don’t get to the upper echelons of airline elite status without spending a lot of money (and miles) with the same company. If you jump ship to go for the Companion Pass, you might end up giving up more than you get in return.

Bottom Line

Whatever way you choose to qualify for the Companion Pass, it’s a lot of work and carries a serious opportunity cost. However, it can be an incredibly lucrative perk under the right scenario. Southwest is famous for its customer-friendly policies, and there aren’t any true “catches” or restrictions on this pass. You simply get free flights for a companion for a year; all you need to pay are the taxes and fees on his/her ticket.

Of course, there is a trade off: you’re giving up the flexibility of other programs and restricting your free travel to Southwest’s mostly domestic route network. This may not fit with what everyone ways, so before you start applying for a one-two combination of credit cards or begin shifting your travel to Southwest from another airline, you should seriously consider whether this is the bet way to meet your travel goals.

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  • Terms Apply.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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