A high point of December was logging into my Southwest airlines account and seeing “Congratulations! You’ve earned the Companion Pass!” The Companion Pass is one of the most coveted travel rewards and I can’t wait to use it!
One of our goals is to take a few more trips within the US this year spending as little as possible. I follow several financial blogs and forums and one of the topics that caught my attention was “travel hacking.” Over the years, I’ve heard the term and received multiple credit card offers with points and sign-up bonuses attached to them, but I’ve always thrown them away. However, I did some basic research and found that earning credit card points to reduce the cost of travel could be a viable option for us.
As with most topics, I find the internet filled with tons of information but it’s so overwhelming to learn about a new topic and figure out where to start. To be clear, I haven’t even scratched the surface of travel hacking and honestly there are forums where I can’t even follow some of the concepts (I promise I’m not an idiot, there are just people out there who have mad skills and can take travel hacking to a different level!). But, I took an online course Travel Miles 101 free course which helped me better understand some of the options (this isn’t an affiliate link, but definitely a free course I’d recommend to give you and understanding of travel options and to help you narrow your travel focus).
Although we want to travel internationally, I thought I’d start with our goal of traveling within the U.S. We currently travel frequently domestically (my mom fell ill last year so I travel to visit her frequently). On the recommendation of the Travel Miles 101 course, I checked all of the airports to see what airlines they all have in common. Again, several airline options with various ways to earn different types of points and apply them to different airlines. I then looked at the cost of flights with several airlines and Southwest happened to be a common denominator with competitive pricing. I also stumbled across a couple of articles about the coveted Southwest Companion Pass, which allows you to name a companion who can fly with you (wherever Southwest flies) for free. Looking at Southwest’s route map, there are numerous destinations and we could base our travel/vacation plans on these available destinations.
What is the Southwest Companion Pass?
The Southwest Companion Pass allows you to designate a “companion” to fly free with you (you must fly together; they cannot fly for free on their own). The companion pass is valid for the calendar year in which you earn it and the following year (depending on when you earn it, it will provide 1-2 years of free travel for your companion).
How to earn the Southwest Companion Pass
To earn the Southwest Companion Pass you have to earn 110,000 miles in one calendar year (Jan. 1-Dec.31). You can earn these points by taking/buying SW flights, their shopping portal, and/or via Southwest Credit cards (including purchases made with these cards and sign-up bonuses for meeting a minimum spend within the first three months).
How I earned the Southwest Companion Pass & its Value
Since I’m unable to earn 110,000 miles by flying or spending, I decided accumulating points via the Southwest credit card sign-up bonuses would be my best bet (sign-up bonuses can change, but they were both 50,000 when I applied). Southwest offers two personal and two business credit cards. I didn’t feel comfortable opening the business cards, so I opened two SW personal cards (Southwest Plus and Premier) about 5 months apart. I opened the Premier card first, which gave me 50,000 points after spending $2,000 in the first three months (between recurring monthly expenses and some planned purchases, we were able to meet the minimum spend). This gave me 52,000 points (50,000 sign up bonus plus 2000 for hitting the minimum spend). Then about five months later, I applied for the Plus card (same bonus and spend) and earned another 52,000 points. Now I had a total of 104,000 miles, so I spent an additional $6000 over a period of 6 months (combination of recurring monthly expenses, planned medical and other expenses) which allowed me to hit 110,000 points in December 2016 (the companion pass is valid through Dec. 2017). Not only can my husband fly free with me, I also have over 110,000 miles I can use to book award travel. For example I can use 10-20k points to book a round trip flight and my husband flies for free, so we can essentially make several trips for free, less about $10 charge per round trip flight you can’t cover with points. What a deal!!!
The cost of the cards and what to do with them
You shouldn’t charge more than you can afford and you should never carry a balance on your credit cards. Both the Plus and Premier cards carry an annual fee ($69 for Plus and $99 for Premier, which you’ll see in your first statement), but it is offset by the 3000 (Plus) and 6000 (Premier) anniversary points each card awards you, annually. You can opt to keep the cards open or close them after you receive your anniversary points (and before your next annual fee is processed), or keep your card(s). Since my Companion Pass will expire at the end of 2018 and I won’t be eligible to apply for these credit cards until 2018/19, our plan is for my husband to earn the companion pass in 2018 by following the same process I did (barring any changes).
Companion Pass Lessons Learned
When we try to earn the Companion Pass again, we will start much earlier in the year (i.e. January) and then plan to open the second card three (vs. five months) later assuming we can meet the minimum spend. This will allow us to use the companion pass for a longer period of time (i.e. Mar/Apr-Dec of year one and the full second year). This year, I was only able to use the companion pass in December. Also, I received a “refer a friend” link from Southwest, but I deleted it. Next time, I’ll keep it and use it (rookie mistake). You can easily google for these links or visit blogs who have affiliate links to the bonuses for these cards (and many others).
To successfully use points for traveling, your best bet is to figure out your travel plans (or goals): do you want to travel domestically or internationally? Do you need airline miles, hotel miles, and/or cash? Once you know what you want to do, it will be much easier for you to figure out how to get there.
Next steps in our travel hacking
Next, we’d like to focus on the best card to use for hotels and then figure out the game plan to get us to Europe next Christmas. More to follow on this front in the future.
Do you have any travel hacking recommendations? What cards (or bonuses) have you used? Any hotel card recommendations?
Thanks for stopping by!
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