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Free Flights: 5 Ways I Maximize Earning Potential With Southwest Airlines

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I’m a big fan of Southwest Airlines for many reasons. Whether it’s the family-friendly attitude, the free checked bags, the whimsical heart-themed marketing, or flexible change policies, there’s something appealing about Southwest for almost everyone.

Personally, I love flying Southwest for the flexibility of changing or canceling my travel at any point, picking my own seat, and booking cheap award flights for spontaneous getaways. In fact, I book flights on points almost four times as often as I pay for Southwest flights in cash, according to my travel history over the last ten years. 

Here’s how I book more than a dozen free flights each year on Southwest.

1. Sign Up For a Southwest Frequent Flyer Account

inside Southwest plane
Unsplash

I’ve been a Southwest Rapid Rewards loyalty program member for the past 15 years. By taking three minutes to fill out an online form, I’ve been able to earn points on every single cash flight I’ve taken since then, including for travel paid by my employers. And because I have an account for those points, I’ve been able to book several hundred free flights through the years – yes, really. 

While this may sound like an obvious tip, you’d be surprised how many travelers never bother to claim points they’ve already earned – myself included, prior to 2007. Even if you only fly once or twice a year, those points will add up – and since Southwest points never expire, you can keep saving them until the right time. 

And of course, having a loyalty account with any airline makes it easier to keep track of your boarding pass, Known Traveler Number for TSA PreCheck and Global Entry, and more. When I book a Southwest flight, my boarding pass automatically appears on my account so I can skip the check-in desk at the airport and go straight to the priority security line. In fact, I make it a game to see how quickly I can get from the airport curb to my flight gate; my current record is 3 minutes, and 12 seconds at my home airport. 

2. Hold a Credit Card That Earns Rapid Rewards Points

I earn almost all of my free travel by paying for everyday expenses with a credit card that earns travel rewards. Not only do I earn between one to five points on every dollar I spend, but I’ve also earned multiple sign-up bonuses for meeting certain spending requirements within the first few months of holding each credit card. 

Offer Details

Secure application on issuer’s website.

Annual Fee: $69
Bonus: 75,000 Points
APR: Variable APR
Rewards Rate: 1X-2X Points
Details: Full Review

Terms and restrictions apply

Offer Terms

Annual Fee: $69

APR: Variable APR depending on credit worthiness.

Rewards Rate: Earn 2X points on Southwest purchases. Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including ride-sharing. Earn 2X points on internet, cable, phone services, and select streaming. Earn 1X points on all other purchases.

Sign-Up Bonus: New cardholders can earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Who Should Use This Credit Card? People who fly Southwest several times a year.

Why We Like It

Why We Like the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

This is the entry-level card for aspiring Rapid Rewards point earners, and new cardholders can earn a 75,000-point sign-up bonus, which can help get you closer to booking flights for your next travel destination.

Above all, for a modest $69 annual fee, the Rapid Rewards Plus credit card helps you rack up points as cheaply as possible, and all points earned with this card get you closer to a Southwest Companion Pass®.

Our favorite Rapid Rewards Plus perks include the 3,000 bonus points and 2 EarlyBird Check-Ins awarded to cardholders on the anniversary of your account opening. It’s all added incentive to retain the card after you’ve earned the introductory sign-up bonus.

Southwest offers multiple credit cards with varying annual fees and perks to fit your unique needs. As a small business owner, my favorite Southwest card is the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card, which includes annual credits for free Wi-Fi on board as well as four free priority boarding credits each year. 

Since I often fly other airlines as well, I prefer putting the bulk of my daily expenses on credit cards that offer rewards that are transferable to multiple airlines and hotels. Sometimes when I run out of Rapid Rewards points, I’ll top off my Southwest account with points from one of these cards in order to book the flight I want. 

Related: A Roundup of Southwest Credit Card Deals: Up to 50,000 Points

Some of my favorite cards for travel are the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Capital One Venture Credit Card. All of these cards earn multiple points per dollar spent on travel, and some even include generous travel benefits including insurance for delayed or lost baggage, and trip interruptions such as missed flights. 

3. Earn Bonus Points on Everyday Expenses

woman shopping online with credit card
iStock

Believe it or not, you can earn free flights even without flying or holding a credit card that earns rewards.

Shopping portals are one of the best-kept secrets for earning cash back or points and miles, where businesses pay affiliate partners commission in exchange for driving consumers to their retail websites. In turn, those business partners attract shoppers by sharing a small percentage of the order total.

For example, if I spend $100 sending my mother flowers through a Teleflora shopping portal merchant, I can earn as much as 15% cash back or up to 30 points per dollar. In fact, back when I was a new graduate with a whopping $28,000 annual salary, I earned enough points every year through various airline shopping portals to take a free international Asia trip to see family.

Southwest has a shopping portal, and Slickdeals has its own browser plugin that automatically applies the best coupon deals and discount codes to your order at checkout. But they’re not the only ones: There are dozens of companies that offer rewards ranging from cash back to travel miles to hotel points. Cashbackmonitor.com is a great tool that shows the best rewards you can earn from thousands of retailers.

Earning amounts vary, but some merchants offer reward multipliers ranging as high as 15 or 30 points per dollar. And even small amounts add up relatively quickly: with the right discipline, you’ll be flying high for free in no time, especially on airlines like Southwest that offer award flights from as low as 1,300 points one way. 

So the next time you shop online for new clothes, household goods, or your latest Slickdeals find, take an extra five seconds to see what rewards you can earn by using a shopping portal. 

4. Dine Out (Yes, Seriously)

two friends laughing at dinner
iStock

You can even earn travel points when dining out. In addition to any points you might earn from a dining-friendly credit card, you can sign up for dining programs from Southwest and other airlines that reward you for every dollar you spend at their partner restaurants. You’ll often earn between 1 to 2 points per dollar if you opt-in to receive marketing emails, and will also be eligible to earn bonus points for leaving reviews or participating in special promotions as they arise. 

5. Fly a Buddy For Free With the Southwest Companion Pass 

couple on a plane
iStock

The Southwest Companion Pass is arguably the most valuable perk in the travel industry, especially if you know how to use it effectively. I’ve been an on-and-off Companion Pass holder since 2013, and have used mine to book more than 120 free flights for relationship partners, family members, and friends. 

The coveted Companion Pass allows you to fly a designated travel companion for free on any flight you book – even if you booked on points. But the pass isn’t easy to get: Earning a Companion Pass requires earning 125,000 Rapid Rewards points within a calendar year.

Of course, it can be a challenge to earn 125,000 points in a single year by flying. And unfortunately, Rapid Reward points from dining, shopping, and credit card transfer partners do not count toward your 125,000 quota. So your primary options will be to earn your points by flying paid Southwest flights, or by spending on a Southwest credit card.

Every so often, Southwest has been known to offer promotions for customers interested in earning the Companion Pass on a trial basis – including as recently as September 2022. The rules for earning the promotional pass will vary with each promotion, but the perks are usually well worth the effort required. 

While we work hard on our research, we do not always provide a complete listing of all available offers from credit-card companies and banks. And because offers can change, we cannot guarantee that our information will always be up to date, so we encourage you to verify all the terms and conditions of any financial product before you apply.

Katherine Fan
Katherine Fan
An avid fan of Slickdeals since 2005, Katherine is passionate about living well without breaking the bank. Katherine has written more than 1,500 articles on personal finance and travel for media publications such as NerdWallet, The Points Guy, CreditCards.com, LendingTree and Upgraded Points in addition to Slickdeals.

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