Unraveling the Southwest Companion Pass

Southwest is clearly the leader among airlines in using technology to help us book flights, redeem awards and manage our travels. It has the best and most comprehensive website with fare and travel information clearly displayed and explained. While some airlines take hours to send confirmations, Southwest does it in a minute or less. Yet in spite of its sophistication in using technology, information on its Companion Pass is hard to come by.

Southwest’s Companion Pass is one of the most sought-after rewards offered by any of the airlines. It allows a companion to fly free with you for a year. You can use it even if you fly on award travel, and you can change whom you designate as a companion several times throughout the year. If you travel frequently it can be worth thousands of dollars.

I’ve earned the Companion Pass for many years, meeting Southwest’s requirement of either flying 100 one-way flights each year, or earning a combination of flights and dollars spent on its Southwest Visa credit card. A sum of $1,200 spent on the credit card has translated into one segment, while Southwest flights charged on the card count double. I’ve qualified for the pass by a mix of the two, typically flying 50 to 70 flights a year, and charging all my flights on the credit card.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that I might not qualify this year. It’s the result of Southwest’s changes to its Rapid Rewards plan that went into effect in March 2011. That’s in spite of my having flown just as frequently, almost 70 flights through November, and having spent much more on airfare compared to last year, a result of its huge price increases between many of the West Coast cities. (Many of those fares have gone from less than $100 to more than $200.)

To qualify under the new rules, you now need to fly either 100 actual flight segments or accumulate 110,000 points earned from points awarded with each flight and points earned using its Visa card. It is no longer possible to convert credit card points into flight segments; instead they combine with points awarded with each flight.

Points are now awarded based on ticket price: 6 points per dollar spent for senior fares and 10 points per dollar spent for “Anytime” fares. For example, a $202 senior fare from San Diego to San Francisco gets you 1,146 points. A $236 Anytime fare earns 2,140. So this is a case in which the senior discount also results in a senior penalty. If you’re a senior you may not want to book senior fares.

In addition, in previous years you would earn a Companion Pass for accumulating segments and credit card points over any 12-month period. Now it’s confined to a single calendar year.

What is Southwest’s response? Jonathan Clarkson, director of Rapid Rewards, explained this new policy, and said that he actually expected more people to qualify under the new rules.

You do have some other options to increase your points quickly before the end of the year, but it’s not clearly stated just what they are on Southwest’s website. Calls to Southwest’s Rapid Rewards desk to ask about these options led to confusing answers and a lack of knowledge on the matter from otherwise very knowledgeable agents.

Southwest sells points on its website right under the listing of your Companion Pass status. It says “Looking for more Rapid Rewards points? Buy points now and reach your favorite destination even faster. Simply select the desired number of points and click Continue.”

But, in fact, they do not count toward a Companion Pass, according to a customer service agent. It turns out that there are some points that count and others that don’t, something not mentioned on the website.

You can transfer points from some of its credit card partners to Southwest to add to your Companion Pass points, but that’s not noted either. Qualifying partners include MarriottHyatt and several other hotel partners, but points from Starwood, another partner, do not qualify.

Southwest provided me the following policy: Companion Pass Qualifying Points are earned from revenue flights, points issued on Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Cards, and points earned from Rapid Rewards Partners. Purchased points and points earned from program enrollment, Tier bonuses, flight bonuses and Partner bonuses do not count toward Companion Pass status.

Southwest should add this to its website to avoid the need to spend hours of effort to understand all of the rules. They’ve set the bar for excellence with their website, and this is one area where clarity is needed.