underscored southwest airlines plane takeoff

CNN Underscored reviews financial products such as credit cards and bank accounts based on their overall value. We may receive a commission through the LendingTree affiliate network if you apply and are approved for a card, but our reporting is always independent and objective.

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 life of the pass. Traditionally, the pass is valid for the rest of the year it’s earned, plus the entire following year.

This means, if you earn the pass now, you’ll have it until Dec. 31, 2024. And earning it as early as possible in the year is best as it’ll allow you to have the pass for nearly two full years. And thanks to Southwest credit card offers, there’s actually a way to earn this pass right now without even stepping on a Southwest plane.

Normally, earning the pass requires a massive amount of flying on Southwest, which isn’t the norm for the average flyer. But thanks to the way the airline counts credit card bonus points, the Southwest credit cards can help you earn the pass without even stepping foot on a Southwest plane.

How does this work? And is it something you should do? 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 earn the pass, you must earn 135,000 qualifying points or fly 100 qualifying flights with Southwest in a calendar year. But, if you have a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card on the first of the year, you’ll receive a 10,000 point boost, thus requiring just 125,000 qualifying points. Keep in mind, however, that if you apply for a Southwest credit card during the year, the 10,000 point boost will not hit your account until January of the following year and will not count towards the current calendar year. So if you are apply for the card now in 2023, you’ll still need to earn the full 135,000 qualifying points. Qualifying 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 — including the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card — qualify for the Companion Pass as well.

Earning a Companion Pass with Southwest credit cards

There are currently a total of five Southwest credit cards — three personal and two business — with sign-up offers that can help you earn a Companion Pass. Here’s an overview of them:

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

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. Although we’ve seen better offers in the past, if you are in need of the pass, this could still be a great time to apply for the cards.

But keep in mind that getting one of these personal cards won’t earn you the pass all on its own, though it’s a good start. After earning the 50,000-point bonus, plus the 1,000 points you’ll get from completing the $1,000 minimum spending requirement, you’ll be at 51,000 qualifying points — 84,000 points shy of earning the pass, assuming you don’t already have a business credit card to earn the 10,000 point boost. This will put you at less than half of the points needed to earn the pass.

After earning the bonus, you could earn 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 many people shopping online these days, 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.

However, let’s take a look at the other two credit cards on the list above. With the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business card, you can earn 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 on purchases within the first three months.

After meeting this spending requirement, you’d end up with 85,000 qualifying points — 80,000 bonus points, plus 5,000 points for spending $5,000 on the card. Then you’ll only need another 50,000 points in the same calendar year to earn a Southwest Companion Pass (or 40,000 points if you already have another Southwest credit card). And there are many ways to earn the remaining points, such as regular spending on your Southwest credit card, flying on eligible Southwest fares or using the Southwest shopping portal. If you are interested in this card, this is the highest offer we’ve seen on the card in a long time, making it a great time to apply for the card.

Finally, there’s also the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business card, but the offer on this card 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. This is also the standard offer and it’s not too common to see a higher offer.

Southwest personal plus business credit cards

Now, if you want another way to earn the remaining Companion Pass qualifying points after getting the sign-up bonus from one of these cards, here’s another option — you can actually get two Southwest credit cards and combine 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, 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.

Let’s put it all together in an example. Imagine you apply for both the Southwest Plus card and the Southwest Performance Business card. That’ll earn you the pass immediately — once the points post to your account after meeting the respective minimum spend requirements. Since you need 135,000 points in 2023 (plus you’ll earn a 10,000 point boost being a card member) no additional spend or partner activity is needed, and you can be on your way flying “buy one, get one” in no time.

You can also do something similar with the less-expensive Southwest Premier Business card. If you’re a new card holder and spend $3,000 on that card within the first three months after opening the account, you’ll earn 60,000 points. Add that to the 50,000 points you’ll earn when you spend $1,000 on one of the personal cards and you’ll have almost enough points between the two cards — just 21,000 points shy.

Just make sure that your points from both cards post in the same calendar year since qualifying points reset at the first of the year. The best strategy to maximize the length of earning the pass, is to get the cards as early in the year as possible. You’ll also want to note that points typically post a few days after your monthly statement closes for when you meet the minimum spend.

And if you can’t meet the minimum spend on two cards at the same time, apply for one card at a time to spread out the spend requirement. The two business credit card offers have been steady for quite some time, but we’ve seen better personal credit card offers in the past.

Which Southwest credit card should you get?

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

With three different personal Southwest credit cards, you might be wondering which card is best for you. With the Southwest PlusSouthwest Premier and Southwest Priority cards, you’ll earn 2 points for every dollar you spend on local transit, commuting (including ride-shares), internet, cable, phone services and select streaming purchases.

Then, with the Southwest Premier Business card, you’ll earn 4 points per dollar on Southwest purchases, while the Southwest Premier and Southwest Priority cards earn 3 points per dollar and the Southwest Plus card only earns 2 points per dollar spent at Southwest. All three cards then earn the same 1 point per dollar on the rest of your 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.

But even though the earning rates on the cards aren’t market leading, there are significant differences among them that make it worth considering your options. These include the annual fees, travel credits and the option to buy up to a better boarding position.

You’ll find the benefits of the Southwest Plus, the Southwest Premier and the Southwest Premier Business are similar. The Plus costs $69 on an annual basis, while the personal and business versions of the Premier cost $99 annually. All three cards now come with 25% back on in-flight purchases, as well as two EarlyBird Check-In credits per year, which can save you between $30 and $50 annually.

Then, aside from the number of points you can earn with each card, you’ll also find a difference in the number of bonus points you get every year after you pay the annual fee.

The Southwest Plus card comes with 3,000 bonus points (worth $42 at 1.4 cents per point, which is generally the value you get when redeeming for Southwest’s “Wanna Get Away” fares) on every card anniversary, meaning every 365 days from when you were first approved for the card. The Southwest Premier and the Southwest Premier Business come with 6,000 bonus points at each card anniversary, which are worth $84 at 1.4 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.

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

With the Southwest Priority card, you’ll pay a higher annual fee at $149 per year, but the benefits are significantly better. Not only do you earn 7,500 bonus points (worth $105) at each card anniversary, you’ll also receive a $75 Southwest travel credit every year and four upgraded boarding certificates annually. The $75 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 $75.

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 $126) 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 these benefits, 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?

The coveted Southwest Companion Pass is a terrific travel perk if you're hoping to bring a companion on your adventures this year.

I’ve personally been a Southwest Companion Pass holder for 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, theoretically doubling the value of the sign-up offers.

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

Southwest personal credit cards:
Learn more and apply now for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus card.
Learn more and apply now for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card.
Learn more and apply now for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card.

Southwest business credit cards:
Learn more and apply now for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business card.
Learn more and apply now for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business card.

Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards currently available.

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