How to Fly for Free, According to Frequent Travelers

Nope, you’re not dreaming. It is possible to fly for free for an entire year—if you have a Southwest Companion Pass.

David Ocamb and his wife, Dorene, are avid international travelers. But with pandemic travel restrictions still in place for much of 2021 and 2022, they felt it was safer to fly to destinations within the United States and surrounding area. That led them to a tool that saved them thousands of dollars: the Southwest Companion Pass.

It’s a deal that allows two people to fly for the price of one, though if you factor in the couple’s toddler, who, at the time, flew for free in their laps, the family often got three people on planes for the price of one. Their savings climbed as they visited one U.S. destination after another and even took trips to some of Southwest’s Caribbean destinations, including the Dominican Republic and Jamaica.

“It was a fantastic tool for us,” Ocamb says. “If it fits your travel style, it is a phenomenal deal absolutely worth pursuing.”

Along with savvy tactics like using a flight price tracker and knowing the best time to book a flight, companion passes are among the tools budget-conscious travelers covet the most. Intrigued? You should be. Read on to find out how to travel for free on Southwest and other airlines.

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What is a companion pass, exactly?

A companion pass is essentially a “buy one, get one free” deal. You purchase an airline ticket for yourself and can add a family or friend as your flying companion to your reservation, free of charge, as long as there’s a seat on the plane. The deals are typically offered as either a high-level reward of airline loyalty or as a perk of carrying an airline-affiliated credit card.

The Southwest Companion Pass is perhaps the most prominent example of such a program in the United States, because it allows qualified members who meet its qualifying benchmarks to use it on an unlimited number of flights. Though other airlines do have variations of the buddy-pass setup, they often take the form of an annual, single-use coupon as part a travel credit card perk. This includes certain Delta Air Lines, Alaska Airlines and American Airlines credit cardholders. For many of these certificates, though, there are dollar limits on the discount.

Why the Southwest Companion Pass is such a great deal

Southwest Companion Pass Promo RD.com, Courtesy Southwest Airlines

Customers who qualify for the Southwest Companion Pass can save a lot of money. If you fly frequently with a significant other, spouse, child or co-worker, it’s a way for them to fly with you, virtually for free, an unlimited number of times while you have the pass.

Another perk? It’s easy to use. The first step is going into your airline account and designating who your companion is. From there, “it’s absolutely seamless,” Ocamb says. “When you book a ticket, you literally just book the ticket for yourself. It has a button that says ‘add companion’ and you click that button, and you now have your companion’s pass.”

Members just have to pay the nominal taxes and fees, which comes to $5.60, one way, for a domestic flight. (That’s also what you pay in cash when booking a flight using points or miles.) Even after Southwest’s holiday 2022 meltdown, you can see why this airline was rated No. 1 for customer satisfaction.

How much you can save with a Companion Pass

Generally speaking, your savings are virtually unlimited. You can add a Companion Pass flier to cheap fares and expensive fares. That means however much you spend on the first ticket is, essentially, how much you’re saving on the second ticket.

“For us, it saved thousands of dollars, without a doubt,” Ocamb says, noting that having this cost-saving opportunity led him and his wife to book regular weekend trips. “But you have to want to travel a lot for it to be valuable.”

He notes that it can come in handy for business purposes too. His colleague, who owns a small business, regularly uses it to transport an employee, free of charge, to reduce the company’s business expenses.

How to get a Southwest Companion Pass

Now here’s the hard part. Earning the Southwest Companion Pass is the highest level you can reach in the airline’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program, and to qualify, members have to fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 135,000 Companion Pass Qualifying Points in a calendar year. Those points can come from flying Southwest or in a couple of non-travel ways, like spending on Southwest credit cards.

The airline previously awarded one-year Companion Passes as a welcome bonus for members who added certain Southwest credit cards to their wallet. This is how Ocamb and his wife got their pass. The airline has since discontinued this offer, though.

However, having a Southwest credit card makes it a lot easier to reach the Companion Pass qualification benchmark though everyday credit card spending. Just about every dollar you spend on qualifying purchases charged to a Southwest card counts toward the 135,000-point benchmark you have to reach. New card members who reach spending requirements can also earn a one-time bonus (often tens of thousands of points) that can put you nearly halfway to the threshold. Additionally, a number of Southwest’s cards provide an annual 10,000-point “boost” toward your Companion Pass qualifying progress.

Is the Southwest Companion Pass for life?

Sadly, the Southwest Companion Pass doesn’t last forever. Once you qualify for the Companion Pass, you’ll have it for the remainder of that calendar year as well as the next year. So, if you earned the pass in August 2023, you’d have it through the rest of 2023 and 2024. In order to keep it for another year, you’ll have to meet the qualification requirements again.

If you’re looking to save in other ways when traveling (and who isn’t?), here’s what you need to know about hotel rewards programs.

Be aware of Southwest Companion Pass restrictions

There are a few restrictions you need to know about when it comes to Southwest’s Companion Pass. Here are the most important:

  • You have to designate your companion before booking a flight. You’re only allowed to change your companion three times in a calendar year.
  • Once you change your companion, any existing reservations for your previous companion will be canceled.
  • Your companion will not earn Rapid Rewards points or make progress toward A-List elite status when flying with you.
  • Converting points from a partner company, like a rental car company or hotel, into your Rapid Rewards account will not count toward your progress to earn the Companion Pass.

Other airline companion passes worth checking out

Delta Companion PassRD.com, Via Delta.com

While it’s clear why Southwest’s buddy pass stands out among U.S. airlines, other carriers also offer their own programs. Here’s where to look and what you can expect from them.

Delta Companion Certificates

Delta awards companion certificates once annually to members of its SkyMiles loyalty program with certain airline-affiliated American Express cards. Though terms vary depending on the specific card, the general idea with the Delta companion pass is that you get one each year after renewing your card. This allows a partner to tag along for free on one flight. Some higher-end cards get domestic First Class or extra legroom (Comfort+) certificates, while others are limited to main cabin fares. Most often, these tickets must be used for travel within the 48 contiguous states.

Alaska Airlines Companion Fare

Alaska Airlines also gives companion passes to its Mileage Plan loyalty program members who carry certain airline credit cards. Each year after opening a card, members who reach a minimum spending requirement will receive the pass. It’s good for a round-trip coach ticket valued at up to $122. It’s worth noting, though, that members and their companions eligible for upgrades can still be upgraded when traveling using the Companion Fare.

American Airlines Companion Certificate

Credit card holders with certain American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards through its line of Barclay’s Aviator cards can earn a Companion Certificate annually. This is good for one guest on a ticket valued at $99 for members who meet minimum spending requirements and keep their account open 45 days past their card anniversary date. These certificates can be used for a companion on a domestic flight in the main cabin.

Hawaiian Airlines Companion Discount Codes

Hawaiian Airlines also gives its credit card holders annual discounts for a companion. Certain cardholders can receive a $100 companion discount as well as a 50% companion discount—both for round trips booked in coach.

Advice for using companion passes

If there’s one piece of advice Ocamb would offer to fellow Southwest fliers hoping to get the Companion Pass, it would be to take full advantage of its potential cost savings. “You have to be someone who is going to use it and do a ton of weekend flights,” he says. “My best advice is: Book early, book often. If you think you want to book the flight, book the flight.”

After all, Southwest’s cancellation policy allows all customers to get full trip credit or, for certain fares, a full refund, as long as they cancel at least 10 minutes before departure. (Yes, you read that right—just 10 minutes before departure.)

“Even if you don’t know whether you have off a weekend, book it anyway,” Ocamb says. “Just book it, and worst thing is you have to cancel.” Ready to start racking up those rewards points? Check out these affordable family vacation ideas around the country and book that first trip.

Sources:

  • Southwest: “More Status Benefits: Companion Pass”
  • Southwest: 2023 Rapid Rewards Qualifying Transactions for 2023–2024 Status”
  • Delta: “About Companion Certificates”
  • Alaska Airlines: “Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare frequently asked questions”
  • American Airlines: “Explore the benefits of your AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard”
  • Hawaiian Airlines: “Terms and Conditions: Credit Card Companion Discount Codes”

Sean Cudahy
Sean is a reporter who has specialized in travel, airlines and travel loyalty programs for more than 10 years. He most recently served as a general assignment reporter at The Points Guy, following an eight-year run as a local television news reporter. He is the recipient of the Best Business Reporting, Ohio, award from the Society of Professional Journalists.