I vastly overestimated the value of a Southwest Companion Pass
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Considering I’ve been collecting miles and points for over a decade, it’s almost embarrassing to admit that I only earned my first Southwest Companion Pass in 2021. For years, I lived near an airport with extremely limited Southwest service, rendering the pass inconsequential. But then I moved, and Southwest began occupying a more prominent spot on the airport departures board.
It didn’t take long for visions of free trips to dance through my head. I dreamed of BOGO flights, and more importantly, everything that came with them. In my head, we’d jaunt away every month for a weekend getaway — city breaks in Chicago, sunshine in Mexico and finally making good on a promise to visit family more often in Denver.
But as it turns out, my Companion Pass is getting a lot less use than I anticipated. I’ve still saved a fair amount of money, but not nearly a much as I imagined.
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What is the Southwest Companion Pass?
There’s a pretty good chance you already know all about the Companion Pass: It’s one of the best deals in the travel world. If you earn one, you can designate a companion who can fly free on any flight you book with Southwest, even if you book with points. You’ll have to pay taxes (in the U.S., this amounts to a mere $5.60) but otherwise, the second ticket is truly free.
It sounds too good to be true, especially considering there’s almost no fine print on how to use it, but it’s absolutely real and it’s surprisingly straightforward to earn.
Earning the Companion Pass
To earn a Southwest Companion Pass, you need to either fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying Rapid Rewards points within a calendar year. Once you earn the pass, it will be valid for the remainder of the calendar year and the entire next year (so, if you earn the pass in Jan. 2022, your pass will be valid for nearly all of 2022 plus all of 2023).
At first glance, earning 125,000 Rapid Rewards points looks like a high hurdle to clear. After all, “Wanna Get Away” fares earn 6 points per dollar spent, which means you’d have to spend almost $21,000 on Southwest flights. However, there are a lot of ways to earn points even without flying and you can (and should) mix and match methods to meet your total 125,000 points.
Most travelers — including me — kickstart their earnings with a sign-up bonus from a Southwest credit card. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card currently offers 80,000 points to new cardholders after they spend $5,000 within the first three months of account opening. After that, you can earn the remaining points through qualifying flights, online shopping portals, additional card spending or additional partner offers.
Here’s a look at the current lineup of Southwest credit cards and their respective welcome bonuses:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card: Earn a Companion Pass® through 2/28/23 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card: Earn a Companion Pass® through 2/28/23 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Earn a Companion Pass® through 2/28/23 plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card: Earn 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card: Earn 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening.
My grand plans for the Southwest Companion Pass
As any obsessed traveler would do, I mapped out all the flights I wanted to take for free using a Companion Pass before it was even in my hot little hands. In fact, I made two lists.
My first list was a conservative look at things: trips I was confident I’d be taking throughout the pass validity. The second was a more optimistic look at things and included several potential trips that I wanted to take but couldn’t guarantee I’d have the time and money (or points) for.
The conservative list was short but still represented a phenomenal value. I figured that I’d be able to use my Southwest Companion Pass for three trips in the first year of validity, and another three trips in the second year. That was a total savings of about $2,000, which meant it was indisputably worth my effort to earn. Obviously, if I used it for a fourth or fifth trip, that would be even greater savings.
Expectations versus reality
As it turns out, even my conservative calculations were on the high side. I’m happy to report that adding a free companion to my reservation is every bit as easy as I hoped, but there were still several obstacles that meant I couldn’t use the pass as much as I wanted.
COVID has lingered longer than I thought
The first obstacle is no one’s fault. As we all know, coronavirus travel restrictions have stuck around for a long time. While I’m grateful for all the travel I’ve been able to do over the past year, the pandemic has limited my Companion Pass usage — especially during the first few months of 2021 before vaccines were widely available.
Even post-vaccine, we skipped a few weekend getaways I had considered. A combination of testing requirements, restrictions at local attractions and my general risk assessments meant we didn’t fly as much as I wanted to, regardless of the pass.
If you’re considering earning a Companion Pass this year, you also may want to factor this into your own analysis.
Southwest cut a lot of service
Route announcements from Southwest have sounded very positive over the past year, but that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The airline has added brand new service to places like Bozeman, Montana, and Montrose, Colorado, and increased frequencies on several other routes. For some flyers, these are very good things.
However, those new routes don’t mean the airline is growing at record speed. In many cases, that new service is at the expense of routes or frequencies it formerly operated. A number of trips I booked were eventually canceled because new, limited schedules made connections impossible or impractical. There are a few cases where I might suck up a 7-hour layover — but I guarantee my companion won’t, Priority Pass lounge or not.
Unless you live at an airport with a heavy Southwest presence, be aware that operations may continue to be limited throughout the first half of 2022 until travel (hopefully) stabilizes.
Life still comes with responsibilities
As it turns out, life doesn’t stand still. Jetting away on a monthly basis might work for some folks, but it hasn’t been realistic for us.
Before you know it, weekends fill up with household projects or local commitments. And, ironically, there have been a lot of times when my own weekend is free but my husband (my designated companion) is busy, or vice versa. Finding time to use the Companion Pass together has been harder than I thought.
Southwest allows you to change your companion up to three times per calendar year, which means I could have switched the name on my Companion Pass from my husband to a different friend or family member (and even switched back to my husband later that year). Most of my local friends have young children who aren’t yet vaccinated, however, so they understandably didn’t want to take a trip and put themselves at high risk of exposure. (Your own circumstances may be more favorable, though.)
My math was wrong but I still saved a lot of money
In the end, I was only able to use my Companion Pass on three one-way flights in 2021: a flight home from Boise and a round-trip flight over Christmas to Albuquerque. This was only half as much as my conservative valuation, and an obvious failure in my own calculations. Since Boise was an expensive airport to fly out of and Christmas is an expensive time to fly anywhere, my companion pass saved us about $650.
For 2022, I’ve re-run my numbers and think I’ll likely end up in the $700 range again rather than the full $1,000 I originally calculated. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but with so many sky-high offers on the table lately, the Companion Pass didn’t end up as the crazy outlier I thought it would be.
Earning the Southwest Companion Pass comes at an opportunity cost, primarily signing up for new credit cards and loyally charging expenses to an existing credit card. Before I chase the Companion Pass again, I’ll have to decide whether it’s worth it compared to other available miles and points opportunities.
To be clear, 2021 was probably not the greatest time to earn a Companion Pass — but that’s behind us now. I still managed to save hundreds of dollars compared to paying for my companion’s tickets separately. A traveler who lives at an airport with more Southwest service would likely do even better instead of having to supplement their flights with other airlines.
Regardless of how little I used my pass in 2021, there’s still a piece of me hoping that 2022 will be a different story. Wish me luck as I go off to check flight schedules and start planning all over again. After all, it’s hard for me to give up a BOGO fantasy.
Feature photo by Amil Krzaczynski/AFP/Getty Images
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