Fly your companion free for almost two years with these Southwest credit cards

Jennifer Yellin, CNN Underscored
Updated Wed February 12, 2020

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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 — almost two years of flying.

Normally, earning the pass requires a massive amount of flying on Southwest. But thanks to the way the airline counts credit card bonus points, a single Southwest credit card -— or combining two credit card offers — can earn you the Southwest Companion Pass without even stepping foot on a Southwest plane.

How does this work? 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.

Earning the Southwest Companion Pass

The Southwest Companion Pass is truly a no-strings-attached perk, as it comes with very few restrictions. The primary requirement is that 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 are allowed to change your companion three times per year (not including the initial companion), meaning in theory you could have up to seven people as your companion over two calendar years.

To receive the pass, you must earn 125,000 qualifying points or fly 100 qualifying flights with Southwest in a calendar year. 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 one is the most important, because bonus points earned from Southwest credit card sign-up bonuses qualify for the Companion Pass as well.

Southwest personal or business credit cards

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card is currently offering a sign-up bonus that could allow you to earn the Southwest Companion Pass all by itself. With this offer, you'll 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'll end up with 125,000 qualifying points, which is exactly the amount you need to get the Companion Pass. That's because the $25,000 you spend earns you at least another 25,000 points, plus the 100,000 bonus points.

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 cardholder anniversary (meaning each time you renew the card for another year).

Related: Earn up to 100,000 bonus points with this highest-ever Southwest credit card offer.

If you're looking for a Southwest personal credit card instead, you can get either the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. The current bonus offers on each of those cards will score you 40,000 bonus points after you spend $1,000 on purchases within the first 3 months after you open the card.

But these personal cards on their own won't earn you the pass right away. After earning the 40,000-point bonus, you'd still need 85,000 more qualifying points to earn the pass. 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.

Southwest personal plus business credit cards

However, there's a quicker way to the promised land. You can get two of these 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 restricts customers to having just one personal Southwest credit card open at a time. But you're still allowed to apply for both a personal card and a business card.

In addition to the Southwest Performance Business card mentioned above, there's also a second cheaper business card you can consider: the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card. With the Southwest Premier Business card, you'll earn 60,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months. This card comes with a $99 annual fee, but doesn't have the same card perks.

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 $1,000 in the first 3 months to earn the full 40,000 points, while on the Southwest Premier Business card, you'll need to spend $3,000 in the first 3 months to earn 60,000 points. That means you'll spend $4,000 between both cards and earn a combined 100,000 bonus points, plus at least another 4,000 points from spending $4,000. This gives you a total of 104,000 points, which means you'll only be 21,000 points short of the Companion Pass. Similar to earning the pass with just one Southwest personal card, you can accrue the additional points needed by spending on your credit card, flying Southwest and partner activity.

Also, even though the Performance Business card can single-handedly earn you the pass, if you're not able to spend $25,000 in 6 months (and you should never spend more on a credit card than you can afford), you can instead earn 70,000 points after spending just $5,000 on the card within the first three months. So combining a personal card with the Southwest Performance Business card will earn you a total of 110,000 bonus points after completing just $6,000 in spending. That's only 9,000 points short of the Companion Pass when you include 6,000 points earned from spending on the two cards.

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.

What if I don't have a business?

Just because you're not a huge corporation doesn't mean you're not eligible to get a business credit card. In fact, you might already have a business and not even know it. If you're a rideshare driver, or you sell products online, or even if you just have a side hustle that you do in your spare time — basically, if you participate in the "gig economy" at all, you may very well have a business as a sole proprietor.

If so, you can legitimately apply for either of the Southwest business credit cards using your Social Security number instead of a company Employer Identification Number. And if your business is new, don't let that dissuade you either — just be honest about your business and personal income on the application, and the fact that you've only been in business a short time.

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.

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 $1,500 in flights on Southwest with the Southwest Performance Business card, $900 in Southwest flights with the Southwest Premier Business card and $600 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.

Even though the earn 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 Priority and the Southwest Performance Business cards 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.

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 inflight 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 A1-15 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.

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?

Since you earn the Companion Pass for the current year plus the entire following year, the best time to earn the pass is as early in the calendar year as possible. And since we're currently only in the first quarter of 2020, now's a perfect time to earn the pass. Earning the pass now means you'll be able to use it all the way through December 31, 2021.

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.

So if you want to go for the Southwest Companion Pass and maximize the amount of time you have it, 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."

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.