Did you know there's a way to fly around the U.S., Mexico and the Caribbean and bring someone with you for no additional cost? It's called the Southwest Companion Pass, and it's a status level you earn by accumulating enough points with the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards loyalty program.
"The Southwest Companion Pass is hands-down the best value for domestic economy travel -- and now some international destinations as well -- especially if you can accrue it reasonably," said Ben Schlappig, who runs the One Mile at a Time blog.
To score the Companion Pass status, a traveler must earn 110,000 Tier Qualifying Points within one calendar year, which is the equivalent of 100 qualifying one-way flights. Sound daunting? The pass is actually a lot simpler to acquire than you might think.
First, you can fly 100 one-way trips in a year, but that's pretty tough to do unless you travel frequently for business. The average family will never manage 50 trips in one year. The other two options involve strategic and responsible use of the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards credit cards, which offer cardholders one or two points for every dollar spent on the card, depending on whether the purchase is with Southwest, everyday retailers or with Rapid Rewards hotel and car rental partners.
Understand the risks of miles-earning credit cards
However, before you jump on the credit card bandwagon "you should have a credit score of at least 700, be able to use credit responsibly and be organized," advised Daraius Dubash, who with his wife runs the Million Mile Secrets blog.
While loyalty program rewards are beneficial for avid travelers, there are also some downsides to earning miles with credit card purchases. "With each new credit card application, your credit may initially drop five to seven points because of the credit inquiry hitting your credit," Dubash said.
According to Kevin Gallegos, vice president of Phoenix operations for Freedom Financial Network, a company that helps consumers improve their financial wellbeing, "FICO's research shows that opening several credit accounts in a short period of time represents greater credit risk."
And you may want to avoid signing up for credit cards if you have a major expense coming up like a mortgage. "Applying for new credit cards can send a red flag to potential lenders," Gallegos said.
That said, smart use of credit cards can actually improve your credit over time, because a large factor in calculating credit scores is your debt-to-credit ratio, or how much credit you've been offered in comparison to how much debt you owe. "That means paying your bills in full each month they are due," Dudash explained.
Accumulate points through responsible spending
Nicole Marshall, a Denver resident and Rapids Rewards member, just earned her first Companion Pass through purchases with the Southwest credit card. "It's so easy, and kind of mind-boggling how fast those points build up, assuming you're spending around $50,000 a year in day-to-day spending," Marshall said.
Southwest also regularly offers promotions, allowing users to earn double or triple points in certain categories of spending, which Marshall has taken advantage of. She's also careful to use her card responsibly, only using the Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card and paying it off each month (or sooner). "I'm a very fiscally conservative person, and I definitely don't see the benefit of the miles if they cost me money in interest accrued sitting on the card," she said. "Getting status can't be such a focus point that you put stress on yourself financially for it -- that defeats the purpose."
For Marshall, the Companion Pass gives her the chance to take trips with friends who might otherwise not be able to travel due to the high cost of airfare. "In your late 20s, not all your friends have the disposable income to be able to travel, so you're able to make it a much more feasible possibility to enjoy these experiences with them," she said.
Take advantage of credit card bonuses
Perhaps the easiest way to earn Companion Pass status is to take advantage of bonus offers from the Southwest credit cards. According to Schlappig, these promotions tend to come around quarterly and usually include a 50,000-point bonus just for signing up for the card.
The trick is to sign up for both a personal and a business credit card, which each net you 50,000 points. At this point, you've quickly accumulated 100,000 points and only need 10,000 more to reach Companion Pass status.
In addition to earning points on qualifying flights, you can also earn them by dining at restaurants participating in the Rapid Rewards Dining program (and completing reviews about those eateries), taking surveys on sites like e-rewards.com, purchasing items through the Rapid Rewards Shopping portal and purchasing and/or transferring points from various hotel programs. While points earned through these activities are minimal (typically less than 100), by combining several options you can eventually reach your goal.
Read the fine print
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when working toward the Companion Pass: Southwest allows you to maintain the elite status from the time you earn the reward until the end of the following year. So, you could potentially earn the status in January and use it for almost two full years.
As with most reward travel, there are some minor fees associated with booking flights with your Companion Pass, usually no more than $12 round trip. You can change your designated "companion" up to three times during the period you hold the status, so choose wisely. There are no blackout dates or seat restrictions for Companion Pass travel. You can also redeem those 110,000 points that secured your Companion Pass status to book your own flights.
And if you're a Rapid Rewards member who happens to live in Atlanta, you can obtain Companion Pass status through the end of 2015 after completing three qualifying round-trip flights with Southwest from the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. But act fast: Travel must be booked and completed between now and May 17.
Now that you know how to earn the pass, all that's left to do is to decide who should be your companion.