Free travel with credit card rewards isn’t an urban myth, and you don’t have to be a super spender to make it happen. Our editor Emily Sherman can teach you how.
If you’ve ever wondered what the editorial team of CreditCards.com talks about when we’re not busy writing about credit cards and rewards, I can let you in on a secret: We talk about credit cards and rewards.
She then proceeded to tell us how she’d saved on her upcoming trip to Mexico, making our jaws perform a collective drop. At that moment, each of us wished we had the Companion Pass, the most perfect travel benefit offered by the Southwest Rapid Rewards program.
Read on to learn how the Companion Pass can help you save money or even fly for free if you swipe your cards right – and how you can easily get one right now.
What is the Companion Pass?
The Southwest Companion Pass is a benefit for Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program elite members. It allows you to choose a companion to bring with you free of charge (except for taxes and fees) on any Southwest flight, whether you book it with cash or points. The pass is good through the remainder of the year you earn it and the year after that.
As you can imagine, the Companion Pass offers an amazing potential for savings, but you need to earn it first, and the requirements are quite steep. To qualify, you must collect 125,000 qualifying points or fly 100 qualifying one-way flights each year.
How Emily used the Companion Pass to fly for free
Emily earned her Companion Pass last year.
“I signed up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card at the beginning of 2020, when it was offering a bonus of up to 75,000 points*,” she says. “I had planned to use that influx plus a trip I had planned in the summer to hit my 125,000 to earn the Companion Pass.”
Unfortunately, the pandemic canceled all her trips, and Emily ended up earning the pass in November instead. She relied on other ways to earn points like a limited-time grocery bonus, shopping portals and using the card for a down payment on her new car. The 25,000-point boost Southwest offered toward the pass in response to the pandemic helped a lot too.
*Current bonus for Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card is 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months, plus 3 points per dollar on dining purchases, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year.
As a result, Emily started 2021 with more than 100,000 Rapid Rewards points and a Companion Pass to boot and couldn’t wait to take advantage of her stockpile.
“I’m still a little hesitant about travel, so all I’ve booked so far is a trip to Mexico for a family wedding in June,” she shares. “I was able to combine low prices from the pandemic with my Companion Pass to save big on this trip. For a round-trip flight to Cancun, I found a ticket that cost only about 14,000 points (an incredible deal on its own), plus $80 in taxes and fees. Then, I was able to add my partner as my companion for no additional points – just another $80 in taxes and fees.”
In the end, the flight would have cost Emily and her partner $160 in taxes and fees, but, as the true credit card nerd she is, she’s taken her savings further.
Using rewards like a credit card queen
When you turn into a credit card nerd, you become very strategic about your spending. Sometimes I see it as a game – not because you’re “gaming the system”, but because there are levels to it. Better credit scores open new credit card opportunities, new credit card opportunities unlock “achievements” (new benefits and ways to save), and you “level up” by being smart with your credit cards.
In this game, Emily has leveled up to a credit card queen. If you thought spending $160 to fly to Mexico and back with your partner is an incredible deal, hold on to your jaw because it’s about to drop like mine has.
Emily hasn’t spent a cent on those flights to Mexico.
One of the cards in her arsenal is the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, which comes with flexible miles that can be used for any past travel purchases. She used it to cover the $160 in taxes and fees.
“When I paid … for the Southwest flight on that card, it showed up on my statement as a Southwest transaction and was therefore coded as travel,” she explains. “I get 1 cent per mile of value, so I covered the cost with about 16,000 miles.”
Further, she used her new American Express® Gold Card to pay for the hotel.
“It might seem counterintuitive that I paid my $800 hotel booking in Mexico with cash when I had the points to cover it – and even more so when I technically would have earned a higher rewards rate with my Venture or Southwest Plus card,” she says. “But, I’m more than halfway through meeting a $4,000 spend requirement to earn a 60,000-point bonus on my Gold card, and I don’t have that many large purchases planned for the next few months. Taking advantage of this booking helps ensure I snag that welcome offer, earning a much higher return than I would from any rewards rate.”
American Express points are some of the most valuable in the credit card world, and 60,000 points could be worth $600 in airfare when booked on amextravel.com – or more, if Emily chooses to transfer her points to one of Amex’s travel partners.
Level up your credit card strategy
Inspired to get to Emily’s level? She advises to be considerate about the value you’re getting for each point when you use your rewards.
“Covering a trip for no cost out of pocket is awesome, but you shouldn’t necessarily jump at the first deal you find just because you have the points to cover it,” she suggests. “Especially if you have multiple trips planned in the near future, make sure you compare the cash price to the cost in points or miles against the average value of a rewards program’s currency (via a site like The Points Guy).”
If you need a new credit card to level up your game, head over to CardMatch, our tool that provides credit card options based on your credit profile without any impact to your score and sometimes offers exciting bonuses. Happy saving!