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When Southwest Airlines first started serving my hometown of Denver in 2006, I was positively giddy. Sixteen years later, Denver is now Southwest's biggest hub, and my family and I might be its biggest fans. Over the years, I've learned a thing or two that I'm happy to share with experienced Southwest travelers and newbies alike. 

Southwest Basics

The first thing to recognize some of what Southwest does to help it stand out among airlines:

  • No seat assignments
  • No first-class section
  • No change fees
  • All passengers get two free checked bags

Seats are first-come, first-serve, and you board based on the number on your boarding pass, which is A1-60, followed by B1-60 and then C1-60. You can pre-board before the A group if you have a medical need and see the gate agent to get a special pass (but you don't need to provide any explanation or proof of your medical condition). Families traveling with small children can board between the A group and B group, which my family casually refers to as "A61" or "B0."

Earn a Southwest Companion Pass

The key to saving lots of money with Southwest is earning a Southwest Companion Pass®. Unlike the one-time companion passes included with some airline credit cards, the Southwest Companion Pass gives you unlimited free airfare for a designated companion on any flight that you take, including award flights. All you have to do is pay the taxes on your companion's ticket, which are typically $5.60 per flight (but can be somewhat higher for international destinations that impose other government fees). 

Getting the Companion Pass requires earning 135,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year, which sounds like a lot. But my wife and I have both held the Companion Pass for over 10 years, and we have an easy way to do it.

Southwest airplane in sky Related Article

A Complete Guide to the Southwest Companion Pass

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My Easy Way to Earn the Southwest Companion Pass

Every year, we both apply for a business and a personal Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card from Chase. Many Southwest cards offer generous sign-up bonuses, and the combined total of our bonus points along with the spending required to earn them give us each more than the 135,000 points we need. Plus, since you aren't required to spend those points to receive the Companion Pass, you can save them to use on award flights!

My wife and I both apply for these cards toward the end of the calendar year, and we set the card's due dates to the 26th of the month. That makes the statement closing date the 1st of the month. We only complete the minimum spending requirement during December so the points land in our account on January 1st. Since the Companion Pass is good until the end of the following calendar year, we get two full years out of each Companion Pass that we earn on January 1. 

Compare Southwest Consumer Credit Cards

Credit Card Annual Fee Intro Bonus Perks Learn More

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

$69 50,000Southwest Rapid Rewards Points More Info

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points * 0.014 base)

  • Lost luggage reimbursement
  • Baggage delay insurance
$99 50,000Southwest Rapid Rewards Points More Info

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points * 0.014 base)

  • Lost luggage reimbursement
  • Baggage delay insurance

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

$149 50,000Southwest Rapid Rewards Points More Info

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points * 0.014 base)

  • $75 Southwest annual travel credit
  • 25% back on inflight drinks & Wi-Fi
  • 4 upgraded boardings when available
inside Southwest plane

Three Ways to Optimize Your Southwest Flight

Regular Southwest flyers may already have the Companion Pass and know the drill when flying. If that sounds like you, consider these advanced strategies that can help you ensure your flight is nothing less than stellar.

1. Get the Best Boarding Pass

One straightforward method is to have a medical pre-board pass, but this should only be done when your need is truly great. For example, I did this when I broke my shoulder, and my wife has done it when she was toward the end of her pregnancies.

If you don't qualify for medical pre-boarding, you can buy early boarding, and the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card will reimburse you for up to four pre-board fees each year. Alternatively, you can get a better boarding position by paying the Early-Bird fee, by having A-List status or just by traveling with young kids.

If you don't fall into any of those groups, set your alarm for 24 hours and two minutes before departure. Then go to and look at the official U.S. time that Southwest apparently runs its servers on. Enter your info into Southwest's website or app to check in, and at precisely 24 hours before your scheduled departure, click "Check In." Doing that at the right moment will usually get you in the B  boarding group, and sometimes even at the back of the A group.

2. Get the Lowest Fares

Southwest often has very low fares, but they are usually for those midweek flights departing at odd hours. If you want to fly on Friday afternoon, it can often be triple the price.

However, Southwest flights are sometimes subject to frequent schedule changes. And when there are schedule changes, you get to change your flight to any flight within 14 days before or after the original flight, for no additional charge. To take advantage of this, I'll book the least expensive flight I can find within 14 days of my desired date. As long as the flight is more than a couple months out, it's likely to be subject to change. When that happens, I call Southwest and request the flights I originally wanted. 

Other tips include:

  • Book flights that depart early on weekdays: These are typically less expensive and more subject to change.
  • Book round-trip reservations: Even if only one flight is changed, you can rebook both.
  • Book your original flights with connections: This helps maximize the chances of one changing.
  • Check for cheap fares to nearby airports: You're allowed to change your flights to other airports considered to be co-terminals. For example, several co-terminals in Southern California are LAX, BUR, SNA and ONT.
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3. Maximize your Companion Pass

Once you get your pass, you can designate a companion, and then change companions three times each calendar year. So you could potentially have up to four companions in year one, and three in year two.

But once you change companions, you have to change the companion for all future trips. So it makes sense to add your current companion to all future trips, even if you plan on changing companions later, in order to hold your second seat.

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Jason Steele

Jason Steele is a journalist who specializes in covering credit cards, award travel and other areas of personal finance. As one of the nation’s leading experts in the credit card industry, Jason’s work has been featured at mainstream outlets such as Yahoo! Finance, MSN Money and Business Insider.