In On Points, Brian Kelly, founder of The Points Guy, shares his strategies for getting the most out of your points and miles.
Southwest Airlines is...different. It's the only U.S. airline that still gives passengers two free checked bags on all fares, and doesn't charge fees for flight changes or cancellations. But the biggest difference may be its loyalty program, Rapid Rewards. It's typical in a lot of ways--as with JetBlue and Virgin America, you can redeem points for any flight. Like United and Delta, Southwest gives you points depending on how much you spend.
But Southwest also offers one of the most powerful perks in existence, if you know how to get it and use it: the Companion Pass.
Why the Companion Pass is Special
This isn't your typical companion pass, which can be redeemed once for a "free" ticket (usually with additional fees and scant seat availability). It is much, much more valuable. Southwest's Companion Pass is a semi-elite status. When you fly 100 flights OR accrue 110,000 Companion Pass Qualifying Points (more on that in a minute) in a calendar year, you achieve Companion Pass Status. You don't have to trade in the miles for status--you get it in addition to those points.
That means you can take a designated companion with you whenever you buy or use points for a Southwest ticket, paying only nominal government fees. And get this--the status is good for the whole year that you qualify and the following year. So the earlier you get your Companion Pass in a calendar year, the more time you have to maximize it. For example, if you qualify on February 15, 2016, it will be valid until December 31, 2017.
You Can Get It Without Even Flying
Amazingly, you don't need to set foot on a plane to earn those 110,000 Companion Pass Qualifying Points: you can do it by signing up for a Southwest credit card from Chase.
The sign-up bonus (which is currently 50,000 points) counts towards pass status. And if you have a small business, you can also get the business version of the card; after you spend $2,000 on each card to get your bonus, you end up at 104,000 points. You need to charge $6,000 more to get the Companion Pass, since every dollar spent on the credit card earns 1 qualifying point.
Earn Southwest Qualifying Points with Hotel Rewards
You can also reach companion pass status by transferring hotel points to Southwest. You usually don't get a great exchange rate when transferring hotel points to airlines, but in this case there is an amazing option. With Marriott's Hotel + Air packages, you can redeem hotel points for seven nights at a hotel, bundled with airline miles from carriers that include Southwest. The Southwest packages start at just 270,000 Marriott points for a week at a category 1-5 hotel and 120,000 Southwest points, which is more than enough for Companion Pass status! Once you complete this redemption by calling Marriott and the points hit your Southwest account, you'll get Companion Pass status. It is that easy. I did it several years ago when I stayed at the JW Marriott in Cannes during the annual film festival, which was one of my best redemptions ever.
More Ways to Earn Your Companion Pass
There are other ways to earn those qualifying points:
• Shop though Southwest's online portal--and you don't need the credit card to do so.
• Rent cars from companies including Hertz, Dollar, Alamo.
• Enroll in Rapid Rewards Dining and go out to eat.
What Else You Should Know
• You can add your companion on to any ticket, even if your company purchases it.
• Companions can be added on to all Southwest-operated flights, including their new international routes to places like Aruba and Costa Rica.
• Companions don't have to fly with you on every part of your journey--if you're flying roundtrip and need to leave on a business trip, your companion doesn't have to return with you. However, they do have to fly with you to get the flight for free. You can't book a flight for you and a companion and then cancel your ticket.
• You can change your companion up to three times during the validity of your Companion Pass. But no double-dipping! Each time you add a new companion, all existing reservations with your old companion will be invalidated.
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--By Brian Kelly