The Pros and Cons of Southwest’s Companion Pass

Rachel Morgan CauteroNovember 28, 2019
On a similar note...
On a similar note...

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If you’re a rewards travel expert, you’re probably familiar with the coveted Southwest’s Companion Pass. It's Southwest's version of a BOGO deal. You buy a flight, and one lucky buddy gets to fly for free, aside from taxes and fees.

For the bad news: As of 2020, that famed benefit got a bit harder to earn.

Now for the good news: If you can earn it, it can save you hundreds of dollars depending on how often you fly — and particularly how often you fly with a friend. So is the Southwest Companion Pass really all it's cracked up to be? Here are the pros and cons of this perk, tips on how to earn it — and when you may want to skip it.

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Southwest Companion Pass basics

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the most sought-after benefits in the rewards travel space. The companion pass allows fliers to choose a companion to fly with them free of charge (just pay taxes and fees) each time you purchase or use points to book a flight.

To earn the Companion Pass, you either need to take 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying points in a calendar year (that's up from the old requirement of just 110,000 qualifying points).

After earning the Companion Pass, you can use it for the remainder of the year in which it was earned, plus the following calendar year.

You can earn the Companion Pass by using a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card, shopping and dining at participating restaurants and retailers and, of course, racking up miles as you travel with Southwest.

Weighing the pros and cons

Obviously, the biggest pro of the Companion Pass is being able to essentially get a two-for-one deal on flights for at least a year. This can amount to huge savings, especially if you and your designated companion are big travelers. And while you do have to pay taxes and fees for each companion flight, these are usually nominal on Southwest (generally $5 to $10).

Another major perk of the Companion Pass is that once you earn it, you can use it in conjunction with points as well as paid travel. For example, you can use your points to book a Southwest flight for yourself, then use your pass to book your travel partner’s flight — essentially getting two flights for the price of none (aside from dipping into your points pool).

Earning the pass with flights

But this perk isn’t without its drawbacks. While the Companion Pass has always been a stretch for some travelers to earn, it got a bit more difficult as of Jan. 1, 2020 — especially for the occasional traveler. Racking up 100 qualifying one-way flights means you’ll need to fly at least 50 round-trip flights in a single calendar year — almost one flight a week.

If you’re a frequent traveler, the Companion Pass might be a realistic perk to pursue in this manner. But if you’re more of a leisure traveller, earning it this way may be a bit out of reach.

Earning the pass with points

You could also earn the pass by accumulating 125,000 qualifying points next year, which can be another tricky feat since purchased points and reward travel don’t count toward this figure.

Points earned from Southwest credit cards do count (including their sign-up bonuses). But even a bonus alone won’t get you there by itself; you’ll need to put a good amount of spending on your card if you’re going to earn a Companion Pass this way.

And there’s always the risk you could end up spending more than you should for the sake of earning miles, so it’s a good idea to weigh what you’ll spend to earn the pass versus how much the pass could save you.

Think about these questions: Do you always fly Southwest? If so, could you bring a guest with you on some (or all) of the flights you’d take in the next year? Then it might be worth the extra spend to earn this pass. But you should also consider whether that spending may be more rewarding if you put it on a different card.

Let’s walk through an example. We already know that earning a Companion Pass will cost you either 100 qualifying one-way flights or 125,000 points. Signing up for a Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card could net you the following welcome bonus: Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

You’d still need to collect 85,000 additional points to earn the Companion Pass. This card awards 2x points for every dollar you spend on purchases with Southwest or Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners, as well as 1 point for every $1 spent elsewhere.

For comparison’s sake, let’s say you don’t have Southwest status, are mostly buying their cheapest “Wanna Get Away” fares, and take a few trips a year for a total of $2,000 spent on airfare. With Southwest, you’d earn 12,000 points from those flights under their revenue-based earning model (6 points per dollar spent on flights).

That leaves you with an annual requirement of over $70,000 worth of spending at 1x earnings to qualify for the pass.

But that amount of cash may be better spent on another rewards card. For example, with the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, you’ll earn this bonus: Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.

This card offers 2x points on travel and dining at restaurants and 1x per $1 on all other purchases, so you may be able to earn points more quickly for all your travel spending — and transfer your points to Chase partners if you travel with carriers other than Southwest.

We should also note that it’s important to compare the value of any points you’ll earn on these cards. Currently, NerdWallet values Southwest at about 1.6 cents per point and Chase Ultimate Rewards® points at about 1.25 cents each.

Specifics of earning the Companion Pass

You know the requirements to earn Southwest’s companion pass — take 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn over 125,000 qualifying miles within a calendar year. But what does qualifying mean, anyway?

Here’s what counts toward a Companion Pass:

  • Revenue flights (i.e., a flight purchased with cash or credit, not using rewards points or other bonuses).

  • Partner hotel stays.

  • Partner car rentals.

  • Points earned via a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card (including sign-up bonuses).

But there’s a laundry list of what doesn’t count toward earning a Companion Pass too, including purchased points, reward travel and (ironically) travel using the Companion Pass itself. To be clear: You can use the pass in conjunction with points to book a flight, but you won’t earn any qualifying points from Companion Pass travel.

The bottom line

The Southwest Companion Pass is one of those benefits that rewards travelers dream about. After all, it essentially cuts the airfare cost for your next couples-only getaway in half. But it’s not easy to earn, and travelers can easily fall into the trap of spending more than they should just to earn it. Remember to weigh the cost of the pass against how much you’ll spend to earn it. And if you’re not a dedicated Southwest flyer, it’s OK if you want to skip it altogether.

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