How to fly for free on Southwest

Over the past few years my wife and I (and occasionally our kids) have flown at least 10 domestic flights for free. At first we didn’t have much of a strategy. We would just utilize the bonus points from a new credit card to purchase flights whenever we were headed out of town. But over time a system emerged that made it easier for us to take full advantage of credit card rewards that allows us to fly for free. Always.

Our airline of choice has pretty much always been Southwest. The main reason is that they offer flights from Baltimore (BWI), where we live, to Rhode Island (PVD), where my mom lives, St. Louis (STL), where my mother-in-law lives, and Minneapolis (MSP), where my wife’s extended family lives. Another reason is that they typically have the lowest airfare, especially when Wanna Get Away seats are available. And the Rapid Rewards (frequent flyer) program is one of the best in the industry.

It’s important to realize that much of what I’m going to tell you requires excellent credit — and in many cases it’s going to cause you to juggle a bunch of credit cards at once. Do not attempt this if you are not a responsible credit user, or you do not trust yourself with more than one card.

Full Disclosure: I have no affiliation with neither Chase nor Southwest Airlines.

The best cards to accrue Southwest points.

As of right now, the 7 best credit cards to rack up Southwest Rapid Rewards are all issued by Chase; Chase Ink Plus, Chase Ink Bold, Southwest Plus Business, Southwest Plus, Southwest Premier Business, Southwest Premier, and Chase Sapphire Preferred.

Between all of these cards you can earn 260k bonus points. You would also earn — at a minimum — an additional 17k points by spending the minimum required amount to receive the bonus points. To put this into perspective, I can fly between BWI and PVD for as low as 8,726 points per roundtrip (4,363 one-way). This means that I can fly to Rhode Island and back 31 times on points alone (there is a minor charge called the “September 11th Security Fee” of $5.60 per one-way flight that you can’t pay for with points).

Ease into it.

If you are new to travel hacking and are moderately interested, but you don’t want to pay any money out of pocket to try it, then your best bet is to start with the Chase Sapphire Preferred. This card offers 40k Ultimate Rewards (UR) that can be transferred from your Chase account to your Southwest Rapid Rewards (RR) account at 1:1 (this means if you have 40k UR, you will have 40k RR after transferring). Plus, it doesn’t charge a first year fee.

Once you have been approved and receive your Sapphire Preferred card, you will need to spend at least $3k within the first 3 months to obtain the bonus points. If you don’t normally spend $3k in a 3 month period, then you shouldn’t increase your spending just to meet the minimum (this is illogical and a waste of money). You may want to wait until a large purchase is on the horizon (new appliances, skilled labor, etc) before signing up for this specific card.

If you’re married then you and your spouse can both open separate Sapphire Preferred cards essentially doubling your rewards — remember that this can only be done if both you and your spouse have excellent credit. It may be better to stagger this if your monthly credit spending averages less than $2k.

When it’s time to get another card.

When you are coming close to reaching the spending necessary to receive the bonus points, it’s a good idea to start looking for a new card. Since credit card rewards change so frequently it’s a great idea to keep a spreadsheet of the cards that offer either Ultimate Rewards or Rapid Rewards, their associated fees and the dates that you opened your accounts. This will help you decide which cards to sign up for and when, and how long your accounts have been open (important for deciding if/when to close accounts).

My wife and I will typically sign up for a new credit card every single month. This month I signed up for the Southwest Premier card which currently offers 25,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first 3-months. This isn’t hard for us to reach, especially considering that childcare costs us $1,290 per month. We essentially have to swipe our card once to receive these points. Next month she will sign up for this card so we can double our points.

Fees and “paying for points”.

A few of these high-tier cards come with both annual fees and first year fees. The Southwest Premier is a good example of this. Before I even received my card in the mail I had a $99 fee charged to my card for opening the account. This is enough to scare many people away, but it can make sense if you think about it in terms of “buying points”. For example, the 25k points that I will receive from this card will cost me $.004 per point ($99/25,000) — this is almost enough points for me to fly to Rhode Island 3 times.

The previous two cards that I’ve mentioned are consumer cards. The final consumer card that I’ll touch on is the Southwest Plus. Currently, they’re offering 25k bonus points after spending $1,000 in the first three months. With a first-year fee of $69, this equates to about $.003 per point ($69/25,000). This card also has an annual fee of $69.

By utilizing only these three cards you can rack up 90k bonus points and you will only incur $168 in first year fees, leaving you with an average of less than $.002 paid per point ($168/90,000).

Business-specific cards for even more points.

The remainder of the cards are business specific, so if you have a small business then you should definitely look into these cards. It’s possible to open these cards without being an employer by using your Social Security Number, however you should figure out if you qualify as a business owner first. You might be pleasantly surprised to find out that you actually do have a business.

The Ink Bold and Ink Plus which have respective bonus points of 50k and 70k do not have first year fees. They do, however, have annual fees of $95 each. The Southwest Premier Business is directly equivalent to the Southwest Premier, and the Southwest Plus Business is equivalent to the Southwest Plus in every sense, besides the fact that one is a business card and one is a consumer card.

These 4 cards will allow you to rack up another 170k points, while only having to spend $168 on first year fees. This comes out to roughly $.001 paid per point.

Reducing or canceling cards.

As a consumer with excellent credit and a small business owner I am eligible to receive all of the above stated cards. With my inclination to frequently sign up for new cards with bonus points, it’s important that I keep a spreadsheet detailing when I would get hammered with annual fees (which would raise my paid per point costs).

About 2-3 months before each card reaches their 1 year anniversary I will contact the credit card issuer and ask them to either reduce my account to a lower-tier card with no annual fee, or ask them to cancel the credit card completely. One common fear is that opening and closing so many cards will damage your credit, but if you have excellent credit this should hardly have an impact.

It’s completely possible for a married couple to accrue as many as 554k points together, simply by each opening the 7 cards that I’ve mentioned in this article (and spending the minimum required amounts for the bonus points). If, for whatever reason, you wanted to blow through these points immediately, you would be able to fly every other weekend for an entire year, and still have points left over.

Bonus!

Another huge perk of flying Southwest is their illusive Companion Pass. This rarely obtained pass allows a named companion of your choice to accompany you for free on all flights for a full calendar year. The two ways to get this pass are to fly 100 one-way flights or by accruing 110,000 Rapid Rewards points. The three aforementioned consumer cards will get you up to 90,000 points. The remaining 20,000 points can be earned either through business cards or by your spouse transferring their Chase Ultimate Rewards points to your Rapid Rewards account.

For more info you can check out the Companion Pass’s terms and conditions here: Southwest Companion Pass

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