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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.
The first thing to recognize is all the things Southwest does that help it stand out among airlines. There are no seat assignments, no first-class section, no change fees and all passengers receive 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”.
Once you know the basics, you can have a much better experience as you get more familiar with the airline.
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 125,000 Rapid Rewards points in a calendar year, which sounds like quite a lot. But my wife and I have both held the Companion Pass for over 10 years, and we have a simple trick to earning it.
One Simple Trick to Earning Required 125,000 Points
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 125,000 points we need.
Plus, since you aren’t required to spend those points to receive the Companion Pass, you you can save them to use on award flights!
My wife and I both apply for these cards towards 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 that 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.
Three Ways to Optimize Your Southwest Flight
Regular Southwest flyers may already have your 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.
How to 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 towards 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 Time.gov and look at the official US 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.
How to Get the Lowest Fares
Southwest often has very low fares, but they are usually for those mid-week flights departing at odd hours. If you want to fly on Friday afternoon, then it can often be triple the price.
However, Southwest flights have recently been 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, as these are typically less expensive and more subject to change.
Book roundtrip reservations, even if only one flight is changed, you can rebook both.
Book your original flights with connections to maximize the chances of one changing.
Be sure to check for cheap fares to nearby airports as you’re even allowed to change your flights to other airports considered to be co-terminals. For example, there are several airports in Southern California that are considered to be co-terminals, including LAX, BUR, SNA and ONT.
How to 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 different companions in year one, and three in year two.
But once you change companions, you will 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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