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Southwest Airlines’ Companion Pass is undoubtedly one of the best frequent flier perks around. It allows an additional person (your “companion”) to fly with you for FREE on all Southwest flights for the life of the pass (one to two years, depending on how/when it is earned). It does, however, take some effort to get the pass. I am looking back at the past year to answer the question, “was the Companion Pass worth it?” Read on to find out!
(If you aren’t interested in the Companion Pass but would still like to have the occasional free flight on Southwest, we have some tips at the end of the post just for you).
Southwest Companion Pass
Regular readers will know that I love using frequent flier miles and hotel points. If you generally can’t be bothered with miles and points and think they aren’t worth the effort, this post may just change your mind.
On the blog, I have shared tips on how to determine whether you should try earning the Companion Pass and discussed how to go about getting a Companion Pass of your very own. Be sure to check out those articles for a refresher.
Because of the strategy we employed, we earned our pass in early December, and it was valid until the end of the following year (13 months). In the process, we accumulated over 110,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards miles –cha ching! (The threshold was changed in 2020 to 125,000, making it a bit harder to reach.) I was able to use those miles for free flights. So, in many cases, both my companion and I flew for free.
Changing your companion
As a reminder, you are allowed to change your designated companion up to three times a year. One caveat is that any pending reservations with your current companion need to be completed or cancelled before changing to a new companion. Making the change is very simple—you just call Southwest, and they handle everything. Their website advises you to allow up to 21 days for the change to take effect, but I found it to be reflected almost immediately.
Because my sweetheart, Jim, was not going on all of our family trips in the first quarter of the year, I made my eldest son my companion for that period, then in May made Jim my companion for the rest of the year.
Where we flew for free
Using a combination of award tickets and Companion Pass flights, various combinations of the five of us flew for free, round-trip, from Washington, D.C. or Baltimore to:
Turks and Caicos
Albuquerque, New Mexico (twice)
St. Louis, Missouri
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Manchester, New Hampshire
New Orleans, Louisiana
(There’s an exact breakdown at the end of the post, if you’re interested in getting into the weeds.)
Value from our Companion Pass
Many of these trips were at peak times (winter holiday in the Caribbean, spring break in the American Southwest; fall foliage in New England), so cash prices for these flights would have been quite high. Even knowing that, my jaw dropped when I calculated the final tally. The value of our free flights on Southwest alone in that year was a jaw-dropping:
Honestly, I checked my math several times, because I almost couldn’t believe it!
Obviously, we made an effort to extract maximum value from the pass, planning several trips we might not otherwise have taken. For example, there were only five U.S. states Jim had not visited, one of them being Oklahoma. Since we could both fly for next to nothing (you do have to pay the $5.60 in taxes and fees for each flight), we made a plan to spend a weekend exploring Oklahoma City (which, I’d like to report, has a surprisingly strong restaurant scene and fascinating history, which you really should check out in BoomTown even if you have no intention of ever visiting).
Was earning the Companion Pass worth the effort?
For us, yes it absolutely was! That being said, there is an opportunity cost. Concentrating our mile-earning on Southwest meant that we were accumulating fewer points in other programs that often have higher value redemptions (e.g. the opportunity to fly business or first class to Europe or Asia).
Also, since I am a complete travel nerd, I love trying out different programs and figuring out how to get the most value from them. I really enjoyed getting to know all the ins and outs of the Southwest program and having firsthand knowledge of how the Companion Pass and other perks work.
Will we get the Companion Pass again?
It’s a no-brainer, right? Given that we got such incredible value out of our Companion Pass, we are going to earn it again this year, right?
Yes, I see that puzzled look on your face. Let me explain. We will definitely get the pass again in the future, when our plans include a lot of domestic travel (especially now that Southwest serves Hawaii). Lately, our family has been doing far more international trips, and Southwest’s international network is limited (Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean) and will remain so.
The airline saves on maintenance and training costs by only flying 737s, which limits their range. As a result, I don’t see their route map expanding significantly in the near term.
For the time being, my plan is to continue to focus on points currencies and mileage programs better suited to international travel.
Also, as I mentioned above, the rules for 2020 have changed. Rapid Rewards members must now earn 125,000 Companion Pass qualifying points (up from 110,000) or fly 100 qualifying one-way flights in a calendar year. You can check out the full rules here.
In the year before my early retirement, I will earn the pass again, so that we can travel extensively for free without our current time constraints. Earning the Companion Pass will definitely be worth the effort in that situation.
That is not to say that YOU shouldn’t consider earning the pass. Ask yourself the questions under, “Is the Southwest Companion Pass right for you?” If the answer is “yes,” it’s time to get started!
For all you patient souls who just wanted to know about how to get the occasional free flight, thanks for sticking with me. Here you go:
Other ways to fly Southwest for free
A. Southwest Airlines credit cards
Southwest offers a variety of credit cards with sign-up bonuses ranging from 40,000 Rapid Rewards miles for personal cards to 70,000 Rapid Rewards miles for business cards. These offers are typically generous enough for at least two round-trip tickets.
B. Chase credit card(s)
If you are not worried about having Companion Pass qualifying miles, you can earn points through several Chase cards (at a faster rate, because of their category bonuses) and simply transfer them to Southwest. The 1:1 transfer is almost immediate, and since you earn points at a faster rate on Chase cards (for example, you earn 1 point per dollar spent on travel with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, but 2 points on the Chase Sapphire Preferred and 3 points on the Chase Sapphire Reserve). The Chase cards also have a sign-up bonus, so you’ll be on your way to free flights faster. The folks at Travel Freely can help you find an offer that is right for you.
By the way, this is true of most airlines. Often, you can earn far more points through a Chase, American Express, Citibank, or Capital One card than you can through an airline’s official co-branded card. Each of these companies has numerous national and international transfer partners, giving you lots of options for redeeming free travel.
Looking at just U.S. carriers, Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer to United and Southwest; American Express Membership Rewards transfer to Delta and Jet Blue; Citi Thank You Points transfer to Jet Blue; and Capital One Venture and Spark Miles transfer to Jet Blue. The transfer options to international carriers are far more extensive and also offer great value.
As always, pay your monthly balance in full. Never pay interest simply to earn miles and points—that’s not getting you ahead! And don’t spend money you weren’t already planning to spend just to earn miles or points.
Speaking of money you are already planning to spend, you can make your online purchases through the Southwest portal and earn Rapid Rewards miles for doing so. We explain how here.
You can also earn Southwest Rapid Rewards miles by enrolling in their dining program. Here’s how.
E. Rental car or hotel
Need to book a rental car or hotel? Log into your Southwest Rapid Rewards account and make your reservation from there to earn additional Southwest miles.
As you can see, the options are many, and Southwest Rapid Rewards miles are very easy to redeem. Southwest does not have any blackout dates. If there are seats available on a flight, you can book them with miles.
Did we convince you there is value in using miles and points? Do you have any questions about how all of this works? Drop us a note in the comments.
Breakdown of our free flights on Southwest
And lastly, as promised, here are the details of our Southwest flights during the 13 months we held the Companion Pass.
1 free round-trip (rt) Companion
Pass ticket, D.C.<>Turks and Caicos
1 free rt ticket with Rapid Rewards miles, D.C. <>Albuquerque
1 free rt Companion Pass ticket, D.C.<>Tampa
1 free rt ticket with Rapid Rewards miles, D.C.<>St. Louis
2 free tickets with Rapid Rewards
1 free Companion Pass ticket, D.C.> Phoenix
2 free tickets with Rapid Rewards miles, Albuquerque>D.C.
1 free Companion Pass ticket, Albuquerque>D.C.
1 free rt ticket with Rapid Rewards miles, D.C.<>Oklahoma City
2 free tickets with Rapid Rewards miles, Baltimore> Sacramento
1 free Companion Pass ticket, Baltimore> Sacramento
2 free tickets with Rapid Rewards miles, Oakland> Baltimore
1 free Companion Pass ticket, Oakland>Baltimore
1 free rt Companion Pass ticket, Baltimore>Manchester
1 free rt Companion Pass ticket, D.C. <>New Orleans