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What Changes to Southwest Airlines’ Rapid Reward Program Mean for Frequent Flyers

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shows a soutwest counter at the airport

Southwest Airlines is continuing an ill trend in which airlines are making it increasingly difficult to remain loyal to a single air carrier.

Recently, United Airlines did away with mileage being the basis of its frequent flyer program, replacing miles flown with dollars spent and number of flights taken.

Now, along comes Southwest Airlines to alter qualification for its most popular Rapid Rewards frequent-flyer perk: the much-coveted Companion Pass.

How Is Southwest Changing the Rapid Rewards Program?

Starting in 2020, Southwest is increasing the number of points flyers must accumulate in order to earn a Companion Pass. The new number: 125,000 points.

That’s about 14% more points than is necessary under the current plan, in which a frequent Southwest flyer earns a Companion Pass after 100,000 points.

The alternative path to a Companion Pass – buying 100 one-way tickets (50 round trips) – isn’t changing.

Southwest, on its social media pages, told disappointed flyers that “business needs require us to make changes from time to time in order to maintain the same unique perks for our most loyal customers.”

Why is Southwest Making This Change?

In all likelihood, this is the result of an explosion in airline-branded affinity credit cards.

Credit cards such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa have been a boon for the airline industry because credit-card company pay hundreds of millions of dollars buying airline miles and points that they then award to credit card holders for purchases made on a particular airline’s branded card.

However, those cards regularly offer huge mileage or points bonuses for signing up, and then offer 2x or 3x miles or points for purchases of airline services on the card.

The upshot is that is has become easier for flyers to earn premium awards, such as the Companion Pass. So, it’s quite likely Southwest is responding to this by making it harder to earn a Companion Pass, thereby once again restricting access to its most-loyal flyers who actually spend time with their butts in the seats of Southwest planes.

What’s So Great About A Companion Pass?

Southwest Airline’s Companion Pass is, quite possibly, the holiest of grails among all airline frequent-flyer programs. That’s because a Companion Pass holder can bring a companion along on any flight, for free, for a year. It is essentially a 365-day buy-one-get-one-free perk. All the pass-holder must pay are taxes and fees.

When Southwest was largely just a regional air carrier, the Companion Pass wasn’t such an enticement. But now the airline flies to Hawaii as well as popular, tourist hot-spots across Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America, including Cancun, Cuba, Jamaica, the Bahamas and Costa Rica. As such, the Companion Pass is hugely valuable these days.

Under the new Rapid Reward program changes, Southwest will still allow a Companion Pass holder to change a registered companion three times a year.

Is There an Easy Way to Reach 125,000 Points?

A Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Visa remains the easiest way to jump-start your accumulation of points toward earning a Companion Pass.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Visa credit cards each offer 40,000 bonus points after spending just $1,000 in the first three months. That’s roughly one-third of the 125,000 you’ll need to obtain the Companion Pass.

A better bet is the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa card. After spending $5,000 in the first three months, Southwest will dump 70,000 points in your Rapid Rewards account – 56% of the 125,000 you need.

The Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa offers 3x points on Southwest Airlines purchases; 2x points on spending for social media and search-engine advertising, Internet, cable and phone services; and 1x points on everything else. 

That means that once you account for the $5,000 in spending, you’ll add another 5,000 to 15,000 points to your Rapid Rewards balance, getting you much closer to earning a companion pass.

At minimum, you will earn 75,000 points in the first three months you own the card. That means you will need 50,000 points over the next nine months. Mathematically, that means you’ll need to spend between $1,852 and $5,556 a month on the Rapid Rewards Performance Business card to reach your 125,000 point goal.

Every year afterwards, Southwest will give you 9,000 points on the anniversary of your card. So, after the first year, you will need to earn 116,000 points annually to qualify for another Companion Pass.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa has a $199 annual fee – not the cheapest among travel credit cards, but also not the most expensive.

What is a Better Travel Credit Card Option?

Even if you are loyal to Southwest, there are better credit card options for accumulating free flights, though you won’t find a perk like the Companion Pass anywhere else in the airline affinity-card market.

One of the best is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. For a $95 annual fee, you get a credit card that gives you 2x points on all travel and dining purchase. Plus, you get 60,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months.

Moreover, if you redeem your points at the Chases Ultimate Rewards site, your points are worth 25% more, meaning it’s easier to qualify or free travel or hotels. (Each point is worth one cent. So the 60,000 bonus points, for instance, would buy $750 worth of travel expenses at Chase Ultimate Rewards).

You can also transfer Chase points to a variety of airline frequent-flyer programs, usually at a 1:1 ratio though sometimes Chase and its airline partners offer bonus transfer rates. Partners include: Aer Lingus, Air France/KLM, British Airways, United, JetBlue and others.

You can also transfer Chase points to Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program, but, honestly, you’re better off with one of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa cards because, depending on which card you apply for, you will earn between 3,000 and 9,000 Rapid Rewards points on your card anniversary. And you’ll get the same 2x points for spending (3x if you use the Southwest Rapid Rewards Business Performance card).

Another good option is the Capital One Venture card. You will earn 2x miles on every purchase you make, not just dining and travel. Capital One will also give you 50,000 bonus miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months.

An added perk: Capital One will give you up to $100 in statement credit when you apply for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry, which make traveling through airport security and passport control much easier. The Capital One Venture card imposes a $95 annual fee, though it’s waived in the first year.

As for business cards, you really can’t beat the Chase Ink Business Preferred card. It competes very well against the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa.

With Ink Business Preferred, you earn 3x points on the first $150,000 in business spending in categories including travel; shipping; Internet, cable and phone; and advertising on social media and search engines. On all other purchases you earn an unlimited 1x points for every $1 spent.

You also pick up a substantial 80,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first three months.

The travel benefits mimic those of the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Because of that, I’ll argue that the Ink Business Preferred card is a better option than the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa. Chase points transfer to the Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa at a 1:1 ratio, so the 80,000 bonus points gets you closer to the 125,000 you need for the Companion Pass.

And the $95 annual fee is less than half the cost of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa.

The Wrap Up

Southwest has definitely made it harder to earn the airline industry’s most prized frequent-flyer perk – the Companion Pass. And Southwest’s loyal customers are definitely miffed.

But this just continues a trend in which airlines are looking for ways to truly single out their most-loyal customers, while downplaying those who achieve status without actually putting their butt in the seats of an airplane very frequently.

If flying with your spouse, partner or child is your goal then you should definitely consider the Chase Ink Business Preferred card. The 80,000 bonus points on signup will go a long way toward helping you reach your goal.

Then, in Year 2, I would apply for a Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Visa. Assuming that card still offers a 70,000-point signup bonus, you will again be close to earning a Companion Pass for a second consecutive year.

After that … well, you’ve got a lot of spending to do.

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