PHOTO: iStock

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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.

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.

What is the Southwest Companion Pass?

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. However, for just this year, Southwest gave all its frequent flyer members a jump start of 25,000 qualifying points and 25 qualifying flights. (Note that those bonus qualifying points and flights were only given to members who had a Southwest Rapid Rewards account open as of April 1.)

This means you only need 100,000 additional qualifying points to earn the pass this year, assuming you aren’t earning the pass solely based on flying. 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. With this year’s lower qualifying points requirement, this makes earning the pass that much easier, potentially from the comfort of your home.

Companion Pass points with Southwest credit cards

Southwest has a total of five credit cards — three personal cards and two business cards.
Southwest has a total of five credit cards — three personal cards and two business cards.

There are three different personal Southwest credit cards — the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. All three of these cards just increased their sign-up offers, which means you can earn 65,000 bonus points on any of them after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months after you open the card.

Related: Earn 65,000 bonus points with these limited-time Southwest credit card offers.

Now, getting one of these personal cards won’t earn you the pass all on its own. After earning the 65,000-point bonus (plus the 2,000 points you’ll get from completing the $2,000 minimum spend), you’d still need 33,000 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.

Southwest personal plus business credit cards

However, if you’re eligible for both a personal and business card, there’s a quicker way to the promised land. You can get two Southwest credit cards and combine the bonus points from both to get the Companion Pass.

The important caveat here is that 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. Also, Chase has become more restrictive about issuing business credit cards during the pandemic, even to people who have fully fledged businesses.

But if you have a business that qualifies for a business credit card, you’re allowed to apply for both a personal card and a business card. Keep in mind that the credit cards must be for the same applicant — you can’t combine points amongst members.

In addition to the three personal Southwest credit cards, there are also two Southwest business credit cards. The Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card, which carries a $99 annual fee, currently comes with 60,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first three months.

And then there’s the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, which right now is offering a sign-up bonus that could allow you to earn the Southwest Companion Pass all by itself. With this offer, 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 well more than the 100,000 points you need to get the Companion Pass (or it’s the exact amount you need if you weren’t a Southwest frequent flyer program member on April 1 and didn’t get the 25,000-point boost).

The Performance Business card carries a $199 annual fee, but the card’s benefits include four upgraded boardings per year, in-flight Wi-Fi credits, a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit worth up to $100, and 9,000 bonus points on your card holder anniversary (meaning each time you renew the card for another year).

Use the perks of the Southwest Performance Business card to save money when flying Southwest.
Use the perks of the Southwest Performance Business card to save money when flying Southwest.
PHOTO: iStock

Let’s put it all together in an example. Imagine you apply for both the Southwest Plus card and the Southwest Premier Business card. With the Southwest Plus card, you’ll need to spend $2,000 in the first three months to earn the full 65,000 points, while on the Southwest Premier Business card, you’ll need to spend $3,000 in the first three months to earn 60,000 points.

That means you’ll spend $5,000 between both cards and earn a combined 125,000 bonus points, plus at least another 5,000 points from spending $5,000. This gives you a total of 130,000 points, allowing you to earn the pass right away without any flying, extra spending or partner activity required.

Or, even though the Performance Business card can single-handedly earn you the pass, if you’re not able to spend $25,000 in six months (and you should never spend more on a credit card than you can afford), you can instead just complete the first $5,000 in minimum spending within the first three months of getting the card and earn 70,000 bonus points instead of 125,000 points.

Then, combining the 65,000 bonus points from one of the personal Southwest credit cards with 70,000 points from the Southwest Performance Business card will earn you a total of 142,000 bonus points when you include 7,000 points from completing the combined $7,000 in spending — again, getting you over the Companion Pass threshold whether you got the April 1 points boost or not.

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.

Which Southwest credit card should you get?

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 complete 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 $975 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.

Tip: Book any Southwest flight today, and as long as you cancel it between now and September 7, the Travel Funds created from canceling the flight won’t expire until September 7, 2022. This is one way to use up your $100 statement credit if you prefer to use points for flight reservations this year. Southwest is even allowing you to convert Travel Funds into Southwest Rapid Rewards points at a very generous conversion rate.

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.

Is a Southwest credit card right for you?

I’ve personally been a Southwest Companion Pass holder for 12 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.

However, 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. Now that we’re into the second half of 2020, you might want to hold off on earning the pass until early 2021, especially if travel isn’t on your radar for the rest of this year.

But we’re quickly coming up on the sweet spot, because October is typically the best time to apply for Southwest credit cards to earn the Companion Pass. That’s because you have three months to meet the minimum spending requirement on a new Southwest personal credit card, so you can time it so that you reach that threshold early in January 2021 instead of in 2020.

By earning the bulk of the points as early next year as possible — or even potentially the full amount based on which Southwest credit cards you get — you’ll then have the Companion Pass for almost all of 2021 and all of 2020.

However, there are two factors to take into consideration with this strategy. First, the current 65,000-point sign-up offers on the personal cards may not stick around all the way until October, and the current offers are quite high. And second, the 25,000 qualifying bonus points that Southwest put into your frequent flyer account earlier this year are only valid for 2020. Unless the airline extends that bonus, your account tracker will likely reset once January 1 hits, and the threshold for the Companion Pass will revert back to the normally higher 125,000-point level.

So if you decide you don’t want to chance waiting for October and prefer to earn the Southwest Companion Pass this year to have for the rest of 2020 and all of 2021, now’s the time to grab one or even two of these Southwest credit cards and get them working for you.

Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card.
Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card.
Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card.
Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Card.
Learn more about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit 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.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Note: While the offers mentioned above are accurate at the time of publication, they’re subject to change at any time and may have changed, or may no longer be available.