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The coveted Southwest Companion Pass is an elite travel benefit that’s almost too good to be true. This pass allows another passenger to fly with you for free (plus taxes) an unlimited number of times for the rest of the year it’s earned, plus the entire following year. That means if you earn the pass now, you’ll have it until December 31, 2021.

But you want it longer, right? Well, with the recent launch of some pretty incredible Southwest credit card offers this month, there’s actually an easy way to have the pass all the way through the end of 2022. Yes, you read that correctly — someone can fly with you for almost free for up to two years.

Normally, earning the pass requires a massive amount of flying on Southwest, which you likely aren’t doing right now. But thanks to the way the airline counts credit card bonus points, a single Southwest credit card — or combining two credit card offers together — can help you earn the pass immediately without even stepping foot on a Southwest plane.

How does this work? And is it something you should do in the midst of the pandemic? Let’s dig into the details and find out if getting a Southwest Companion Pass makes sense for you.

The Southwest Companion Pass is truly a no-strings-attached perk, as it comes with very few restrictions. The pass allows you to bring a companion with you on any Southwest flight for free plus the cost of any taxes and fees, which are generally as low as $5.60 one way for a domestic flight.

The one main rule of the Companion Pass is there must be at least one seat available for sale in any fare class on a flight for which you’ve purchased your own ticket, either with cash or Southwest points.

You’re allowed to change your companion up to three times per year (not including the initial companion), meaning in theory you could have as many as seven people as your companion over two calendar years.

To get the pass, you must earn 125,000 qualifying points or fly 100 qualifying flights with Southwest in a calendar year. These points can be earned in three ways: paid flights booked through Southwest, base points earned from Rapid Rewards partners and points earned on Southwest credit cards.

That last method is the most important one, because bonus points earned from Southwest credit card sign-up bonuses qualify for the Companion Pass as well. This makes earning the pass that much easier due to the increased offers we’re seeing right now on Southwest credit cards.

Southwest has three personal cards and two business cards, all of which have sign-up bonus offers.

Southwest has three personal cards and two business cards, all of which have sign-up bonus offers.

There are currently a total of five Southwest credit cards — both personal and business — that have sign-up offers for new card holders that can help you earn the Companion Pass. Here’s an overview of each of them:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card: Earn up to 80,000 bonus points — 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months, plus an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first nine months.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card: Earn up to 80,000 bonus points — 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months, plus an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first nine months.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card: Earn up to 80,000 bonus points — 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months, plus an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first nine months.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card: Earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card: Earn up to 100,000 bonus points — 70,000 points after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months, plus an additional 30,000 points after spending a total of $25,000 in purchases within the first six months.

The first three cards on the list are the personal Southwest credit cards — the Southwest Plus card, the Southwest Premier card and the Southwest Priority card. All three of these cards currently have increased sign-up offers, which means you can earn up to 80,000 bonus points on any of them.

Those 80,000 bonus points break down into two tiers: You’ll earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months after you open the card, plus an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first nine months of being a card holder.

Related: Earn 80,000 bonus points with these Southwest credit card offers.

Now, getting one of these personal cards won’t earn you the pass all on its own. After earning the 80,000-point bonus (plus the 10,000 points you’ll get from completing the $10,000 minimum spending requirement), you’d still need 35,000 more qualifying points to earn the pass.

So, after earning the credit card bonus, you could get those remaining Companion Pass points by using your newly acquired Southwest credit card on everyday purchases, combined with flying Southwest and partner activity. Partner activities include shopping online through the Southwest shopping portal, purchasing flowers and car rentals.

With most of your shopping being done from home right now, you can actually rack up a decent amount of bonus points from the Southwest Rapid Rewards shopping portal. Going through the shopping site first just takes an extra minute, and ultimately takes you to the same merchant website you’d go to directly, but you’re earning extra points along the way.

But there is in fact another card on the list that allows you to earn the pass all on its own — if you have a business that qualifies for a business credit card. With the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, you can earn up to 100,000 bonus points — 70,000 points after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months, and another 30,000 points after spending a total of $25,000 in purchases within the first six months.

After meeting this entire (admittedly large) spending requirement, you’d end up with 125,000 qualifying points — 100,000 bonus points plus 25,000 points for spending $25,000 on the card. That’s the exact amount of points needed to get the Companion Pass.

And there’s also the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card, but this offer is somewhat inferior to the others, as you’ll only earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months of opening the account.

Since the Companion Pass is valid for the year it’s earned plus the entire following year, the best time to earn the pass is as early in the calendar year as possible. So now that we’re already into December, in order to have the pass for as long as possible, you’ll want to apply for the cards right now, but then wait to complete the minimum spending requirements after January 1, 2021.

The bonus points you earn on these credit cards count toward the Companion Pass in the year they’re awarded, not the year you applied for the card. If you get any of these Southwest credit cards now, your first statement probably won’t appear until January anyway, and bonus points are awarded on the statement at the end of a billing period.

But just to be completely safe, we recommend getting the card now but waiting until at least January 1, 2021, to hit the minimum spending requirement. You can certainly start using the card as soon as you get it — just be sure not to go over the minimum spend threshold for the bonus until the calendar flips to 2021.

Now, if you aren’t able to spend a lot of money on any of the Southwest credit cards and can only meet the first-tier bonus on any of the personal or business cards, there’s still a way to earn the Companion Pass by getting two Southwest credit cards and combining the bonus points from both.

The important caveat here is that you can’t apply for two personal cards — the second card must be a business credit card. That’s because Chase — the bank that issues Southwest credit cards — limits customers to having just one personal Southwest credit card open at a time. But Chase does allow you to apply for both a personal card and a business card.

Just keep in mind that the credit cards must be for the same applicant — you can’t combine points amongst members. Also, Chase has become somewhat more restrictive about issuing business credit cards during the pandemic, though you may have more luck now than some businesses did earlier in the year.

Use one — or even two — Southwest credit cards to earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass.

Use one — or even two — Southwest credit cards to earn the coveted Southwest Companion Pass.

PHOTO:
iStock

Let’s put it all together in an example. Imagine you apply for both the Southwest Plus card and the Southwest Performance Business card. (Yes, the Southwest Performance Business card can single-handedly earn you the pass, but as we mentioned, the $25,000 requirement within a six-month time frame might be quite a challenge for some. And you should never spend more on a credit card than you can afford.)

By just completing the first tier of spending on both cards, you can still earn the pass right away without any flying, extra spending or partner activity required. That’s because you’ll earn 50,000 bonus points from the Southwest Plus card after spending $2,000 on the card, and 70,000 bonus points from the Southwest Performance Business after spending $5,000 on the card.

With this $7,000 in combined purchases between the two cards, you’ll earn a total of 127,000 qualifying points — 120,000 from the sign-up offer bonuses and 7,000 points from the purchases you make in meeting the minimum spending requirements — enough to earn the Companion Pass.

So without even spending the extra amount on each respective card to earn the second-tier bonuses (which would be another $10,000 on the Southwest Plus to earn an additional 30,000 points, and another $25,000 on the Southwest Performance Business to earn an additional 30,000 points), you can still earn the pass from the comfort of your home.

Now, if you’d prefer to combine one of the Southwest personal cards with the less expensive annual fee and lower minimum spending threshold of the Southwest Premier Business card, you can do that too, though you’ll have to put in slightly more effort to secure the Companion Pass.

With the Southwest Premier Business card, if you spend $3,000 on the card within the first three months, you’ll earn 60,000 points. Add that to the $2,000 you’d need to spend on the personal card to earn the first-tier bonus of 50,000 points and you’ll have a total of 115,000 points — 110,000 from the sign-up bonus plus another 5,000 points from spending $5,000 between the two cards.

This puts you just 10,000 points shy of earning the pass, which you can earn either through flying, partner activity or by spending an additional $8,000 on the personal card in the first nine months after opening the account to earn the second tier of the sign-up bonus, giving you an extra 30,000 bonus points plus 8,000 points from your credit card spend for a total of 153,000 qualifying points.

Just remember that since these are all Chase credit cards, all applicants are subject to Chase’s “5/24” rule. Under this rule, if you’ve been approved for five or more credit cards across all banks in the past 24 months, Chase will automatically deny your application.

With three different personal Southwest credit cards, you might be wondering which card is best for you. All three Southwest credit cards earn the same number of points on your everyday purchases. You’ll earn 2 points for every dollar you spend on Southwest as well as on Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partner purchases, and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases.

Compared to other credit cards that earn rewards, that’s not the most lucrative earning rate. For instance, CNN Underscored’s benchmark credit card, the Citi® Double Cash Card, earns 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase, and another 1% when you pay it off.

Related: Read CNN Underscored’s review of the Citi Double Cash Card.

But while you probably won’t want to make your primary card a Southwest credit card, remember that with the current sign-up offers you’ll get about $1,200 in flights on Southwest with any of the three personal Southwest credit cards just from the bonus points alone. This is based on Southwest’s points being worth approximately 1.5 cents per point when booking Southwest’s lowest “Wanna Get Away” fare. The airline has what’s known as a fixed-redemption frequent flyer program, where the amount of points redeemed is directly tied to the cash price of the fare.

Also, even though the earning rate is the same, there are still significant differences between the cards, which include the annual fee, the anniversary bonus points received, travel credits earned and the option to buy up a better boarding position.

You’ll find the benefits of the Southwest Plus, the Southwest Premier and the Southwest Premier Business to be similar. The Plus costs $69 on an annual basis, while the Premier (both personal and business versions) costs $99 annually. The difference between them is the bonus points you receive every year after you pay the annual fee.

The Southwest Plus card comes with 3,000 bonus points (worth $45 at 1.5 cents per point) on every card anniversary (meaning every 365 days from when you were first approved for the card), while the Southwest Premier and the Southwest Premier Business come with 6,000 bonus points at each card anniversary, which are worth $90 at 1.5 cents per point.

Although the Southwest Plus card is the least expensive option for the first year, if this is a card you believe you’ll be keeping for years to come, you’ll find the Southwest Premier to be the better long-term value, thanks to the bonus points.

The Southwest Premier card is generally a better long-term value than the cheaper Southwest Plus card.

The Southwest Premier card is generally a better long-term value than the cheaper Southwest Plus card.

PHOTO:
iStock

The Southwest Priority personal card and the Southwest Performance Business card are where the big differences lie.

With the Southwest Priority, the annual fee is significantly higher at $149 per year, but the benefits are enormously better. Not only do you earn 7,500 bonus points (worth $113) at each card anniversary, you’ll also receive a $100 travel credit every year and four upgraded boarding certificates annually. The $100 travel credit can be used toward any Southwest flight purchase — just pay for your flight or taxes on your Southwest card and you’ll receive a statement credit up to $100.

The Southwest Performance Business has the highest annual fee at $199 per year, but with this card, you’ll earn 9,000 bonus points (worth $145) at each card anniversary year, four upgraded boarding certificates annually, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit and in-flight Wi-Fi credits.

You’ll notice that the two most expensive cards both come with upgraded boarding certificates, which are unique to Southwest since the airline boards its airplanes very differently than most other airlines. There’s no assigned seating — instead, you receive a boarding position based on your flight check-in time. Passengers are assigned into groups A, B and C, and can be anywhere between 1 and 60 within each group.

Upgraded boarding certificates normally allow you to purchase an A1 through A15 position at the gate (if available), giving you the option to be one of the first passengers to board and choose almost any seat you’d like, ensuring you’re not stuck in the back of the plane in a middle seat. Upgraded boardings typically cost $30 to $50 each, so if this is something you’d purchase anyway, you can put a $120 to $200 value on this benefit. You can even use these certificates for other passengers flying with you.

Taking into consideration all of the benefits, you’ll notice the value of the Southwest Priority and Southwest Performance Business cards far surpasses the value of the other three cards, both within the first year and every year thereafter.

I’ve personally been a Southwest Companion Pass holder for almost 13 years now, and it’s saved my family tens of thousands of dollars on travel. The pass allows my husband, my children, my parents and even friends to fly with me on every Southwest flight I take just for the cost of taxes. (Domestic taxes are $5.60 each way, while international taxes vary depending on the destination.)

The best part about the Companion Pass is that you can use all the Southwest points you earned from the sign-up bonus offers to book flights — you don’t lose them by getting the Companion Pass — and then still add your companion onto your ticket using the pass. This means both passengers are essentially flying for free except for taxes and fees, essentially doubling the value of the sign-up offers.

Best of all, the timing on these limited-time credit card bonus offers is perfect. Earning the Companion Pass any time in 2021 means you’ll have it through December 31, 2022. But getting a card now and earning the bonus points as early in 2021 as possible means you’ll get as much time with the pass as possible, up to two full years if you time it well.

So, if you want to have a Southwest Companion Pass in your hands ready to go once travel resumes, now’s the time to grab one or even two of these Southwest credit cards and get them working for you.

Learn more and apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card.
Learn more and apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card.
Learn more and apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card.
Learn more and apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business card.
Learn more and apply for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business card.

Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards of 2020.

Get all the latest personal finance deals, news and advice at CNN Underscored Money.



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