The Case for Southwest

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards is arguably the most customer-friendly airline loyalty program
  • The Southwest Companion Pass is potentially the most lucrative benefit you can earn, but requires high minimum spending
  • One of Chase’s Southwest credit cards can accelerate earning the Companion Pass

I’m a Southwest guy, I’ll admit it.

They actually seem to care that their airline isn’t a torture chamber for budget-minded travellers. I’m not sure other big carriers feel the same.

Southwest’s loyalty program – Southwest Rapid Rewards – is comparable to other airlines. It’s dollar-equivalent based, meaning they assign a “fixed” value to points you earn, which can be swapped for dollars when buying travel. They don’t have a partial purchase option, unfortunately – that is, the ability to pay with a combination of points and dollars. That’d be a nice addition, but maybe isn’t worth the complication for them, and us.

That said, the big payoff for Southwest loyalty, in case you haven’t heard, is the Southwest Companion Pass. For the full story, The Points Guy has endless detail on earning, using, and maximizing the program. Nerdwallet has a great overview as well.

The quick summary: earn 110,000 points in a calendar year – through a combination of miles flown and points earned with a Southwest credit card – and anyone you designate flies with you free for the remainder of that year AND the year following. It’s a big nut, but if you can swing it – and you travel frequently enough – it’s a hugely valuable perk.

I don’t fly near enough to earn the Pass that way, but with a Southwest credit card, it’s doable – especially since the cards’ signup bonuses count toward the annual points requirement. I carry Chase’s Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority card, which charges a $149 annual fee, some of which is rebated for travel spending, etc. The details are here.

As a committed cash rewards spender, it was admittedly hard to make the switch. But the math is pretty straightforward. The Southwest card earns 1% on all purchases in points (and more on Southwest purchases), so I’m sacrificing 1% cash to try to climb the 110,000 mountain, after which all companion flights are on the house.

In my case, after a 30K mile upfront bonus on the credit card, I need to pile up $80K in spending to earn the pass. So the “cost” to me is ~$800 (or the 1% foregone on not using my “regular” cash card). I’ll recoup that in a couple of trips.

If you travel enough, and have a friend to go with you, it might be just the ticket.

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