I have for years called the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass the hands-down best deal in domestic travel. Getting two passengers for the price of one every time you fly, whether on a paid ticket or award ticket, even when the primary passenger’s ticket is paid for with someone else’s miles, has been a no-brainer massive value for anyone who can accept Southwest’s boarding process / lack of assigned seats. However, on a recent Frequent Miler on the Air broadcast, I said that the value of the Companion Pass has decreased from my perspective. That led me to consider the question: is the Companion Pass still the hands-down best deal in domestic travel? Is it worth pursuing in 2020 and beyond? The answer here will certainly vary, but this post is about why I’m questioning it.
Advantages of Southwest
From the outset, Southwest has some advantages that make it attractive as compared to American, Delta, and United. Flexibility is one of the things I value most highly in travel plans and Southwest offers the ultimate flexibility: tickets can be cancelled up to about 10 minutes before departure for no penalty (I think the closest I’ve ever actually cut this is about 30 minutes before). If you book an award ticket, that means you can cancel up to shortly before departure and immediately get your points back and request a refund of the taxes to your credit card (though you do need to specify that you’d like a refund of the taxes rather than having them held as a credit for future travel). If you booked a cash ticket, you can similarly cancel up until just before departure and you’ll get a credit that is valid for a year from the date of booking. You would need status with the other major carriers to get that kind of flexibility, and even then I’m not sure you can cancel as close to departure without penalty.
One particular advantage of the Companion Pass benefit is that it works on both paid and award tickets. This means that you can add your companion for just the taxes (usually $5.60 one-way within the US, more for international destinations) whether you paid for your ticket on your credit card, you used your Rapid Rewards points, your company bought your ticket, or great aunt Suzy used her Rapid Rewards points to buy your ticket. That’s been a nice deal in two-player mode since you can even use the companion’s rapid rewards points to book a ticket for the primary traveler and then add the companion for free.
A third advantage that could be huge for those who pack heavy is that Southwest includes two free checked bags per passenger. While you might be able to get one free checked bag by having the right credit card with the other airlines, you’ll always get two with Southwest. You’ll also always get a free carry-on — there is no basic economy.
A final strength of the Companion Pass in terms of award travel has long been that it is possible to get a great deal when planning far in advance. While the major loyalty programs have traditionally charged 12,500 miles each way for a domestic economy class ticket, Southwest has long had a more revenue-based program. This has meant that I have scored tickets to fly across the country more than once for fewer than 10,000 points one way. With the Companion Pass, that is less than 5,000 points per passenger. For a transcon flight, that has long been a steal.
Pressure from the big guys
However, what was long a steal just isn’t the same steal anymore. The domestic award travel landscape has changed pretty dramatically over the past year, thanks to the following three things:
- It is possible to book United domestic awards via Turkish Miles & Smiles for 7.5K each way
- American Airlines has gone to dynamic pricing with frequent web specials from 5K each way
- Delta has continued dynamic pricing and increased the frequency of flash sales from 10K round trip
Each of these three points comes with its caveats (Turkish can be hard to book, AA web specials can’t be changed, Delta’s best prices are basic economy), but they are hard to ignore. While Southwest enthusiasts will rightly point to the fact that Southwest flights offer predictable value in terms of the number of points required as compared to the cash price (whereas dynamic pricing on the major carriers can be truly dynamic rather than always revenue-based), the fact is that there are now opportunities to book domestic awards for competitive rates on the major carriers and economy class availability can be decent on all three (though of course nearly nonexistent at peak travel times). Add in the fact that close-in travel with Southwest is likely to cost an exorbitant number of points whereas a domestic United saver flight is still the same 7,500 miles plus $5.60 through Turkish whether booked 3 months in advance or 3 days in advance and you have some argument to be made for the major carriers if you want to be able to plan or change flights close to the date of travel.
How useful you find AA’s economy web specials or the…
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