Is the Southwest Companion Pass still worth it in 2020?

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I have for years called the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass the hands-down best deal in domestic travel. Getting two passengers for the price of one every time you fly, whether on a paid ticket or award ticket, even when the primary passenger’s ticket is paid for with someone else’s miles, has been a no-brainer massive value for anyone who can accept Southwest’s boarding process / lack of assigned seats. However, on a Frequent Miler on the Air broadcast late last year, I said that the value of the Companion Pass has decreased from my perspective. That led me to consider the question: is the Companion Pass still the hands-down best deal in domestic travel? Is it worth pursuing in 2020 and beyond? The answer here will certainly vary, but this post is about why I was questioning it early this year. Of course 2020 has not turned out the way anyone expected and those of us who earned a Companion Pass early this year and expected to get 2 years of use out of it have been disappointed since there has been no extension to our December 2021 expiration date. While that indeed is disappointing, the fact is that I was surprised at the conclusion of this post when I wrote it pre-pandemic and looking back at it and forward to what I expect will be more domestic travel in the coming year or two, the conclusion still holds.

Advantages of Southwest

From the outset, Southwest has some advantages that make it attractive as compared to American, Delta, and United. Flexibility is one of the things I value most highly in travel plans and Southwest offers the ultimate flexibility: tickets can be cancelled up to about 10 minutes before departure for no penalty (I think the closest I’ve ever actually cut this is about 30 minutes before). If you book an award ticket, that means you can cancel up to shortly before departure and immediately get your points back and request a refund of the taxes to your credit card (though you do need to specify that you’d like a refund of the taxes rather than having them held as a credit for future travel). If you booked a cash ticket, you can similarly cancel up until just before departure and you’ll get a credit that is valid for a year from the date of booking. You would need status with the other major carriers to get that kind of flexibility, and even then I’m not sure you can cancel as close to departure without penalty.

One particular advantage of the Companion Pass benefit is that it works on both paid and award tickets. This means that you can add your companion for just the taxes (usually $5.60 one-way within the US, more for international destinations) whether you paid for your ticket on your credit card, you used your Rapid Rewards points, your company bought your ticket, or great aunt Suzy used her Rapid Rewards points to buy your ticket. That’s been a nice deal in two-player mode since you can even use the companion’s rapid rewards points to book a ticket for the primary traveler and then add the companion for free.

A third advantage that could be huge for those who pack heavy is that Southwest includes two free checked bags per passenger. While you might be able to get one free checked bag by having the right credit card with the other airlines, you’ll always get two with Southwest. You’ll also always get a free carry-on — there is no basic economy.

A final strength of the Companion Pass in terms of award travel has long been that it is possible to get a great deal when planning far in advance. While the major loyalty programs have traditionally charged 12,500 miles each way for a domestic economy class ticket, Southwest has long had a more revenue-based program. This has meant that I have scored tickets to fly across the country more than once for fewer than 10,000 points one way. With the Companion Pass, that is less than 5,000 points per passenger. For a transcon flight, that has long been a steal.

Pressure from the big guys

However, what was long a steal just isn’t the same steal anymore. The domestic award travel landscape has changed pretty dramatically over the past year, thanks to the following three things:

  1. It is possible to book United domestic awards via Turkish Miles & Smiles for 7.5K each way
  2. American Airlines has gone to dynamic pricing with frequent web specials from 5K each way
  3. Delta has continued dynamic pricing and increased the frequency of flash sales from 10K round trip

Each of these three points comes with its caveats (Turkish can be hard to book, AA web specials can’t be changed, Delta’s best prices are basic economy), but they are hard to ignore. While Southwest enthusiasts will rightly point to the fact that Southwest flights offer predictable value in terms of the number of points required as compared to the cash price (whereas dynamic pricing on the major carriers can be truly dynamic rather than always revenue-based), the fact is that there are now opportunities to book domestic awards for competitive rates on the major carriers and economy class availability can be decent on all three (though of course nearly nonexistent at peak travel times). Add in the fact that close-in travel with Southwest is likely to cost an exorbitant number of points whereas a domestic United saver flight is still the same 7,500 miles plus $5.60 through Turkish whether booked 3 months in advance or 3 days in advance and you have some argument to be made for the major carriers if you want to be able to plan or change flights close to the date of travel.

How useful you find AA’s economy web specials or the Turkish sweet spot will obviously depend on where you’re based and prefer to fly, but the bottom line is that Southwest no longer enjoys the huge advantage in terms of award cost that it once did.

Comparisons

I am no computer programmer. Perhaps someone with the skills to write the right script could somehow scrape all of the necessary data to make a full comparison, but I’m relying on old fashioned searching, much like my more hunt-and-peck style of typing (which I’ll note is a pretty fast hunt-and-peck, but still much less efficient than those who were smart enough to take a keyboarding class back in the day). However, I wanted to make a quick comparison to take a look at the value of the companion pass for travel for two people versus simply being diversified in terms of having points in various programs.

I decided to search from five airports – my “home” airport of Albany, NY (both because this comparison is useful for me personally and because it represents a smaller market that is served by all of the major carriers), New York and Los Angeles because of the fact that they represent two major US markets that are kind of “hubs” for everyone, Chicago because it is both a major market and a hub for both Southwest and United, and Dallas as it is both a major market and a hub for both Southwest and American. I searched a random date a few months in advance (before the pandemic hit) for travel from these cities to three destinations: Orlando, San Francisco, and Omaha. I picked those three destinations in order to have one major destination on each coast and one additional destination somewhere in the middle of the country that is served by all the major carriers to represent domestic travel to/from a smaller or more mid-sized market.

My sample size here is admittedly tiny. I literally searched one date, I intentionally picked a weekday (since I figured I could count on the lowest saver award availability from the major programs) and I didn’t discriminate in terms of the desirability of connections or anything else. I simply wanted to see whether or not Southwest was still competitive considering newly dynamic pricing and the Turkish sweet spot. My expectation as I wrote the paragraphs above was that Southwest might be better in some instances but likely not by much in those instances and that they would be behind in others.

Here are my results for one-way travel in total points for two passengers on the cheapest option with each carrier on a random weekday (examined pre-pandemic). I’ve bolded the cheapest option for two passengers in each instance.

  1. Albany
    1. To Orlando
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 13,000
      3. Southwest: 6,863 
      4. United: 15,000 miles (via Turkish or 20K via LifeMiles)
    2. To San Francisco
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 27,000
      3. Southwest: 12,480
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish, 27K via LifeMiles)
    3. To Omaha
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 23,000
      3. Southwest:  10,594
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish, 20K via LifeMiles)
  2. New York City
    1. To Orlando
      1. American: 12,000
      2. Delta: 9,000
      3. Southwest: 6,168
      4. United: 15,000 + $11.20 19K via United)
    2. To San Francisco
      1. American: 12,000
      2. Delta: 18,000
      3. Southwest: 8,490
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 25K via United)
    3. To Omaha
      1. American: 12,000
      2. Delta: 22,000
      3. Southwest: 6,168 + $11.20
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 20K via LifeMiles)
  3. Chicago 
    1. To Orlando
      1. American: 12,000
      2. Delta: 10,000
      3. Southwest: 5,630
      4. United: 15,000 (via LifeMiles)
    2. To San Francisco
      1. American: 16,000
      2. Delta: 16,000
      3. Southwest: 6,863
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 25K via United)
    3. To Omaha
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 15,000
      3. Southwest: 7,184
      4. United: 15,000 (via LifeMiles)
  4. Dallas
    1. To Orlando
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 10,000
      3. Southwest: 5,992
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 20,000 via LifeMiles)
    2. To San Francisco
      1. American: 12,000
      2. Delta: 14,000
      3. Southwest: 6,095
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 25K via United)
    3. To Omaha
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 14,000
      3. Southwest: 6,821
      4. United: 15,000 (via LifeMiles)
  5. Los Angeles
    1. To Orlando
      1. American: 20,000
      2. Delta: 20,000
      3. Southwest: 14,077
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 25K via United)
    2. To San Francisco
      1. American: 10,000
      2. Delta: 9,000
      3. Southwest: 3,235
      4. United: 13,000 (via LifeMiles)
    3. To Omaha
      1. American: 25,000
      2. Delta: 13,000
      3. Southwest: 7,546
      4. United: 15,000 (via Turkish or 25K via United)

That result surprised me. I expected Southwest to ring in better in a few instances. I did not expect Southwest to win every one of those searches, nor did I expect the margins in some cases even though I knew I was searching a weekday in a non-peak travel season. Again, I did that on purpose as I thought it would give an advantage to the major carriers. Saver availability is often harder to come by during peak summer travel dates or school breaks; I thought that by choosing an off-peak date, the major carriers would have a greater opportunity to return a cent-per-mile rate that would be closer to Southwest than it turned out to be.

What do the results of the above mean?

I’m not sure they mean a ton for everyone. Again, the sample size was pretty small. However, I still find it very intriguing that Southwest came out on top every single time. Before running the above searches, I had been convincing myself that perhaps the Companion Pass isn’t so important to me now that I can fly on United for 7,500 miles anywhere in the US (pending UA saver availability) and now that I’ve seen cheap web specials from both AA and Delta pretty regularly. I was questioning whether or not I would continue to pursue the points for the Companion Pass and when I sat down to write this post I expected to convince myself that the Companion Pass didn’t really matter much to me. For me, the opposite happened: the results confirm for me that the Companion Pass is still a worthwhile pursuit and for many people and situations may still be the best deal in domestic travel.

Unfortunately, the new cardmember bonuses on the personal cards have been at a low point for while now, making the Companion Pass a bit harder to achieve through two welcome bonuses, which has been the traditionally easy path to the necessary points.

However, this year the Companion Pass requires fewer points in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: Southwest is giving everyone credit for 25,000 points toward the Companion Pass, meaning that a member needs to earn an additional 100,000 points during 2020 to have a Companion Pass through the end of 2021.

Each member is now limited to a single personal card every 24 months (Update: As pointed out by YoniPDX in the comments, the terms on the business card applications only preclude you from the bonus if you have had that particular card before. This means that for those under 5/24, it should theoretically be possible to get two business cards to earn the Companion Pass as long as you apply for two different products (i.e. the Premier business and the Performance business). That said, the bonus on the Southwest Performance Business Card has been high enough during 2020 to earn the pass with just the welcome bonus from that card alone — though it’ll require a lot of spend. See more detail below.

Alternatively you could open one business and one personal card. Typically, the best time to apply is from late fall into early in the new year since it gives you the opportunity to meet minimum spending requirements (and therefore earn the new cardmember bonuses) early in the year, the purpose being to accumulate the necessary points as early as possible in order to have the Companion Pass for as long as possible (if you earned the new normal requirement of 125K points in January, you’d have the pass for nearly 2 years since it is valid for the rest of the calendar year in which it is earned and the entire following year). But if you picked up one card already this year and find yourself within a reasonable distance of earning the pass thanks to one big welcome bonus, keep in mind that you can fill the gap via purchases, via the shopping portal, via referrals, or via points earned from flying Southwest when travel resumes (See our Southwest Companion Pass Complete Guide for more in each of the above). Note that you do need to be under 5/24 to get approved for a new Southwest card — and if you’re starting from zero, you would be better off waiting until the end of 2020 to apply so that you can earn a pass early in 2021 that will be valid until the end of 2022. Timing is everything.

For more information about the Southwest credit cards, click any of the card names below to go to our dedicated pages for those cards.

Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Plus Card
65K points
65K points after $2K spend in the first 3 months
(Offer Expires 9/21/2020)

$69 Annual Fee

Info about this card has been collected independently by Frequent Miler. The issuer did not provide the details, nor is it responsible for their accuracy.

Recent better offer: Up to 75K points: 40K points after $1K spend in the first 3 months plus 35K after $5K spend in 6 months [Expired 2/10/20]

Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card
Up to 100K points
Up to 100K points: 70K after $5K spend in first 3 months + 30K points after a total of $25K spend in first 6 months

$199 Annual Fee

Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Card
60K miles
60K after $3K spend in 3 months

$99 Annual Fee

Recent better offer: None. This is the highest public offer we've seen.

Bottom line

Southwest is no longer a runaway winner for value. It might be great and certainly can still be a great value, but dynamic pricing and cheap partner awards on the major carriers has put pressure on Southwest. A newly increased 125K requirement doesn’t help, though flights to Hawaii perhaps do. <–That was the conclusion I wrote at the outset expecting that Southwest would not turn out to be the best value in all of my searches. I got a laugh when I got to the end of this post with a completely different conclusion than I expected. The bottom line for me is that I did go after the Companion Pass for 2020/2021 after all — in my case through a combination of referral points and spend. With Southwest ringing in as far below the others in my test searches, I stand to save even more when adding a third passenger now that my son has passed his second birthday, so you’ll still mostly find me on Southwest domestically in the coming years.

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