The Southwest Companion Pass — the key to buy-one-get-one airline tickets for you and a loved one — is the stuff of travelers’ dreams. And mine came true in early 2020, when I finally earned one of my own. Yet my travel aspirations were quickly dashed when COVID-19 took travel largely off the table in 2020.
The Southwest Companion Pass is a much-coveted perk. Every time you book a flight with cash or points while holding the pass, you can choose a companion to fly with you for nearly free (just pay the cost of taxes and fees, which start at just $5.60 one way). The challenge is earning it.
There are two ways to earn the Southwest Companion Pass:
Fly 100 qualifying one-way flights in a calendar year.
Those seemed like lofty goals. In fact, many people ultimately earn it through a combination of frequent flying and through a Southwest credit card sign-up bonus, such as for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card: Earn up to 80,000 points. Earn 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $10,000 on purchases in the first 9 months.
Still, I wasn’t confident I’d spend enough on Southwest airfare — even with the help of the welcome bonus.
But a golden opportunity came in early 2020, when Southwest announced a new intro offer on its Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card: Earn 70,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $25,000 on purchases in the first 6 months.
How I got the huge sign-up bonus
There’s no doubt $25,000 is a huge amount of money to spend, but — for better or for worse — I was set to spend it. Separately from my job at NerdWallet, I run a small business. My drone business called for expenses including new drones to review, annual professional membership renewals, web hosting fees and a big tax bill.
Contrary to most normal advice, I went ahead and racked up $306.29 in credit card processing fees between Pay1040 and Plastiq en route to meeting the $25,000 spending requirement. Couple that with the $199 annual fee, and I was effectively paying about $500 to earn the Southwest Companion Pass.
Projected value of my $500 Companion Pass ($4,350)
Would you pay $500 for a Southwest Companion Pass? At the time, it seemed like a no-brainer. Here’s how the numbers shook out:
Estimated value earned from Companion Pass airfare ($2,700)
2020 was set to be a busy year of flying for me and my boyfriend (who would be my companion). Among our travel plans:
Round-trip flights for a friend’s wedding in Malibu, California, in July (estimated value: $150).
Round-trip flights for a friend’s wedding in Temecula, California, in September ($150).
Round-trip flights to Orange County, California, to visit family for the holidays ($200).
Those were my only set-in-stone plans. Then I calculated the cost of hypothetical travel based on rough estimations:
A trip to St. Louis to visit my mom (estimated value: $250).
A summer vacation to Hawaii ($300).
A work trip to New York, where my boyfriend would tag along ($300).
Total estimated value of Companion Pass airfare in 2020: $1,350.
And that’s only accounting for 2020; the Companion Pass is good for the remainder of the year in which you earned it plus the following full calendar year (in my case, that’s through 2021). I’ll estimate my airfare costs would be roughly similar in 2021.
Total estimated value of Companion Pass airfare in 2021: $1,350.
Total estimated combined value of Companion Pass airfare in 2020 and 2021: $2,700.
Value of sign-up bonus ($1,600)
The sign-up bonus on the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card is as follows: Earn 70,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Plus, earn an additional 30,000 points after you spend $25,000 on purchases in the first 6 months. Based on NerdWallet estimates, the sign-up bonus is worth $1,600.
Value of other cardholder benefits ($50)
I’m probably going to lowball this one compared to most people, but I don’t find the additional benefits on the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card to be that compelling.
There’s a Global Entry or TSA Precheck fee credit (worth $100), though I already have that. You’re entitled to four upgraded boardings every year (when available), but I prefer being the last to board anyway. You get 365 annual in-flight Wi-Fi credits, but sluggish airplane internet makes me feel more anxious than productive, so I usually don’t end up signing in anyway.
I’ll peg the cardholder benefits at $50, for the couple times I muster up the courage to log in to airplane Wi-Fi.
Actual value of my Companion Pass, so far ($1,807)
As early-2020 me debated whether it was worth earning the Southwest Companion Pass, the answer seemed obvious. In exchange for $500 in fees, I’d receive about $4,350 in the form of nearly free airfare, Rapid Rewards points and other cardholder extras.
Yet in April, my Companion Pass arrived — just about the time we realized that temporary lockdowns initiated in March wouldn’t end anytime soon.
By May, the first wedding on my schedule was canceled completely. In June, the second wedding was postponed indefinitely. I never visited my mom in Missouri, and we never took that trip to Hawaii.
Value earned from Companion Pass airfare ($199)
My boyfriend and I did use the Companion Pass once — we flew to Salt Lake City over the summer to explore Utah and Arizona’s national parks. His airfare would have otherwise cost $199.
We have no other plans to travel and don’t know when we’ll use the Companion Pass again.
Value of sign-up bonus ($1,600)
I now have a tidy stash of Southwest Rapid Rewards points, though. Assuming that Rapid Rewards points aren’t subject to devaluation in the immediate future, that’s savings in the rewards bank. When travel resumes, I’ll use my points to pay for my airfare.
Value of other cardholder benefits ($8)
I took one other flight: an emergency trip to visit a family member (my boyfriend did not join). I didn’t use the upgraded boarding, as middle seats were blocked anyway. I did log on to the Wi-Fi, which normally costs $8, to send some Slacks to my editor.
Was my quest to earn the Companion Pass worth it?
I’ve still netted about $1,300 in value after accounting for all the fees I paid to get the Companion Pass, despite my boyfriend using it only once this year.
Luckily my effort clearly wasn’t as much of a waste of time and money as it could have been, but the whole ordeal is still a reminder that no credit card benefit is a guarantee — as is the case with just about any other membership program.
At least this type of annual pass has me hopeful I’ll use it again. When safe travel resumes, you can bet we’ll try to take all those trips we lost out on in 2020. COVID-19 might have ruined my Companion Pass in 2020, but I’ll more than make up for it in 2021.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2020, including those best for: