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The Secret to Earning a Southwest Companion Pass

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The Southwest Airlines Companion Pass is considered to be the best travel perk in the industry. And this is the time of the year to make the right moves to qualify.

The Companion Pass entitles you to bring along another person with you for free, whenever and wherever you fly, whether you pay for your ticket or use mileage. You can use it anytime, even on holidays; there are no blackout dates. It’s much better than most other airline awards that have limited availability and severe restrictions.

You earn the pass by either flying 100 flight segments or accumulating 110,000 Rapid Reward points in a calendar year. If you qualify before the end of a year, the pass is good for the following year as well.

If you fly Southwest often, it can be worth as much as three or four thousand dollars. You’re required to designate the name of your companion and can change it three times during the calendar year.

I’ve earned a companion pass in each of the past half dozen years, and my wife has flown free dozens of times each year. But the Companion Pass has become more difficult to earn over the past few years.

You used to be able to use a combination of both flight segments and points, but no more. And it’s become more difficult to earn points for your flights, since Southwest now awards them based on what you spend for the flight, not the distance you travel.  That means you can earn as little as 200 points on a discounted fare, compared to about 2000 points before.

But there are some other ways to accumulate points and to qualify. The best way is to take out a Southwest Credit Card issued by Chase, especially when they offer a sign-up point bonus. Currently you can get 40,000 Rapid Reward points for signing up for their personal card, once you spend $1000 within the first 3 months. You can also take out a second business card, and get 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases. Each card also provides one point for every dollar you spend and two points for Southwest and travel partner purchases.  The points can be combined as long as the holder’s name and Rapid Reward accounts are the same. So if you take out both cards you’ll quickly have more than 90,000 points. The bonus points only apply to new cardholders, and you need to wait 2 years to qualify after closing the account.

When I recently checked my progress for the year, I had only earned 60,000 points and 35 flight segments, nowhere close to qualifying by the end of the year. While Southwest sells points, they don’t count towards a Companion Pass. And Southwest offers no way to let you transfer points from other airlines. I already had two Southwest credit cards I took out in each of the past two years to qualify, so that was not an option.

But Southwest will let you convert points from several hotel chains to your Rapid Rewards account. Hotels include Hyatt, Marriott, Carlson, Best Western, and Choice, at conversion rates varying from 3 Marriott points for 1 Southwest Rapid Rewards point to 10 Carlson Points for 1 Rapid Rewards point.

But, I didn’t have sufficient points in my Hyatt or Marriott accounts, and it looked like I was out of luck. But then I realized I had 150,000 points in my American Express account. But American Express points could not be converted to Hyatt or Marriott points, only to Starwood Hotel points (1000 Amex points = 333 Starwood points). Fortunately, Starwood and Marriott just merged, and they allow you to transfer points between the two at a 1:3 rate, so effectively I was able to use my American Express points for Rapid Rewards Points.

I transferred 150,000 Amex points to 49,950 Starwood points, converted them to 149,850 Marriott points, and then used 140,000 Marriott points for 50,000 Southwest Rapid Reward points, enough to qualify for a Companion Pass.

One caveat is that while the points transferred between American Express, Starwood, and Marriott almost instantly when I followed the instructions on their websites, Marriott says they need six weeks to transfer their points to Southwest.

Before doing this I evaluated the value of the points in the several accounts. The 150,000 Amex points were worth about $1500 if I used them for merchandise or a flight. If I chose a flight on certain airlines, Amex refunds 50% of the points so, in fact, the points could be worth up to $2250.

But that was less than what I valued the points to be worth if applied to earning the Companion Pass, which for me is about $3000 per year. Not only do the 50,000 points make me eligible for the Companion Pass, but those 50,000 points can also be used for free flights, valued at about $800.

Regardless of the awards you are trying to earn, you can follow steps similar to these for qualifying for your choice of awards. It’s beneficial to have a credit card that allows your points to be used by a number of different programs to give you flexibility and to get around the airlines’ limitations. Two recommendations are the American Express Card and the Chase Sapphire Card. Currently you’ll find offers of 100,000 points for the premium versions of each of these, which can each also help you qualify for a Companion Pass or other awards.

The lesson learned is that with the help of the bonus points being offered to sign up for a new credit card, you often can find a way to get an attractive award, even if it isn’t immediately obvious.