Southwest elite status review: Hundreds of dollars in valuable benefits are easier to earn in 2021

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Southwest is a favorite airline among MMS staff and readers. It has super customer-friendly policies, like two free checked bags per passenger and generous change and cancellation policies. And Southwest incentivizes its customers to fly them frequently.

It pays to be loyal to the airline to rake-in benefits by setting up a Southwest account. Southwest status can be worth hundreds of dollars. It’ll be worth much more than that if you achieve the holy grail of travel, the Southwest Companion Pass, just by earning a bonus or two on the best Southwest credit cards (I’ll show you how easy it can be).

COVID-19 pushed Southwest to make it easier for travelers to earn elite status and its coveted Companion pass in 2021.

Here’s what to expect from Southwest elite status and the COVID-related changes the airline has implemented.

Southwest flies to fun destinations in the Caribbean, Mexico and the U.S. — including Hawaii. (Photo by MH Anderson Photography/Shutterstock)

Should you earn Southwest status?

You’ll be surprised at the value you’ll receive from elite status offered by a low-cost airline like Southwest. Let’s first clear up some jargon about the Southwest Rapid Rewards program, different Southwest fares and the ways you earn status for your flights in the list below.

Different types of Southwest fares

Southwest offers three different fares for its flights:

  • Wanna Get Away — The cheapest option
  • Anytime — More expensive but fully refundable
  • Business Select — The most expensive but comes with perks like priority boarding, free alcohol and is fully refundable

Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs)

For every dollar you spend on Southwest airfare, you earn a certain number of points toward elite status called Tier Qualifying Points (TQPs). You can’t redeem these points for flights. They’re just like elite night credits at a hotel. For example, if you stay 50 nights at a certain hotel, you get hotel elite status.

Here’s how Southwest doles out TQPs:

  • Wanna Get Away (the lowest fares) — 6 TQPs per dollar
  • Anytime — 10 TQPs per dollar
  • Business Select — 12 TQPs per dollar

You can also earn TQPs by spending on these cards:

You’ll receive 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for each $10,000 in purchases, up to $100,000 in purchases annually (for a maximum of 15,000 TQPs). However, the number of TQPs you can earn through credit card spend is uncapped for the 2021 status year due to COVID-19.

One-way qualifying flights

Similarly, you’ll earn Southwest elite status after you complete a certain number of qualifying one-way flights. A qualifying one-way flight is a trip on Southwest from your origin city to your destination city (including connections). Award flights don’t count, so you’ll have to pay cash.

Base fare

You earn Tier Qualifying Points on your base fare. That means you only earn points for the actual airfare, not for taxes and fees associated with the ticket.

Earn Southwest A-List elite status

How to achieve A-List status: Fly 25 qualifying one-way flights or earn 35,000 Tier Qualifying Points in a calendar year.

Benefits of A-List status:

  • Priority Boarding: If you don’t know how the Southwest boarding process works, it’s unique. There are no assigned seats. Instead, it’s first-come, first-served. The sooner you check in for your flight, the earlier you can board because you’ll get a place closer to the beginning of the line. With A-List status, Southwest automatically checks you in 36 hours before each flight. That’s 12 hours earlier than anyone without elite status. So you’re guaranteed to be one of the first passengers aboard (though anyone who springs for Business Select will still be ahead of you).
  • Fly By Priority Lane: A-List status comes with priority check-in, which means you can reach the departures desk faster. In some cities, you can even go through security faster. Folks who don’t check bags or already have TSA PreCheck won’t care much about this perk.
  • 25% bonus: You’ll earn an additional 25% points.
  • Same-day standby: You can jump on an earlier Southwest flight for no charge if there’s room. This is a cool perk, but it’s also available to anyone who purchased a ticket above “Wanna Get Away.” Also, it’s only available for flights between the same cities, so if an earlier flight opens up to a nearby destination, you can’t jump on it.
  • Dedicated phone line: You’ll have a phone line to connect with customer service if something goes awry.

Changes to earning A-List status due to COVID-19

Southwest is making it easier to earn A-list status in 2021 for those who had a Rapid Rewards account open before Jan. 1, 2021. All Rapid Rewards members will automatically receive 15,000 Tier Qualifying Points and 10 one-way flights towards A-List and A-List Preferred status

After the boost has been added to your account, you’ll only need to earn 20,000 more Tier Qualifying Points points or fly 15 more one-way flights to earn A-list status.

Southwest A-List Preferred status

How to achieve A-List Preferred status: 50 qualifying one-way flights or 70,000 Tier Qualifying Points in a calendar year.

Benefits of A-List Preferred status:

  • All the benefits of A-List status.
  • 100% more points: Instead of earning just 25% more points than someone without elite status, you’ll earn 100% more points. That’s a pretty big deal, especially if you fly enough to earn A-List Preferred status.
  • Free Wi-Fi: With A-List Preferred, you’ll always have free Wi-Fi aboard all Southwest flights. Southwest charges $8 per day for inflight Wi-Fi (which really isn’t that bad), so depending on how much you fly, this could really save you.

If you have the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card you’ll have perks that mimic many status benefits. For example, you’ll get 365 inflight Wi-Fi credits per year and four upgraded boardings per cardmember year (when available). To learn more about the perks of this card, read our Southwest Performance Business credit card review.

Changes to earning A-List Preferred status due to COVID-19

Similar to the changes earning A-list status, Southwest is making it easier to earn A-list Preferred status in 2021 for those who had a Rapid Rewards account open before Jan. 1, 2021. All Rapid Rewards members will automatically receive 15,000 Tier Qualifying Points and 10 one-way flights towards A-List and A-List Preferred status.

After the boost has been added to your account, you’ll only need to earn 55,000 more Tier Qualifying Points points or fly 40 more one-way flights to earn A-list Preferred status.

Southwest Companion Pass

This isn’t elite status per se, but it does come with unbelievable perks that you must work for in order to qualify. So we’ll cover it. The Southwest Companion Pass is the greatest deal in the travel industry, after all.

How to earn the Southwest Companion Pass: Fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying Southwest points in a calendar year — although it will be easier to earn the Companion Pass in 2021 (more on that below). The Companion Pass doesn’t rely on Tier Qualifying Points. You can earn the Companion Pass simply by earning the welcome bonus and spending on Southwest credit cards, like:

Currently, the three personal cards have are offering a welcome bonus that earns 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. Plus, earn 3X points on dining, including takeout and eligible delivery services, for the first year. 

Note that you can only hold one Southwest personal credit card at a time, but you can have one or more business Southwest cards, in addition to a personal card.

If you do earn the Companion pass through Tier Qualifying Points, it will be easier this year since you’ll get a boost similar to that for elite status. Flyers will get a boost of 25,000 Tier Qualifying points and 25 one-way flights towards earning the Companion Pass. That means you’ll need to earn 100,000 Tier Qualifying Points or fly 75 one-way flights to earn the Companion Pass.

Benefits of the Southwest Companion Pass: The Southwest Companion Pass lets a friend or family member travel with you for free whenever you travel on Southwest. It doesn’t matter if your flight is booked with points or purchased with cash – your companion flies nearly for free (you’ll still have to pay taxes and fees on their ticket, but that’s usually ~$11 round-trip).

You can change your Southwest companion up to three times per calendar year, after you initially choose your companion. That means you can have four different companions the first calendar year, then three in the second year – or 7 total across the life of the pass.

Read this post for everything you could possibly want to know about the Southwest Companion Pass.

Changes to Southwest elite status due to COVID-19

Elite status extended by 12 months: If you had Southwest A-List or A-List Preferred elite status in 2020, Southwest is letting you keep it through December 31, 2021.

Companion Pass extended: Southwest had already extended Companion Passes that were meant to expire on Dec. 31, 2020, to June 30, 2021. Now, the airline has further pushed back the expiration of the perk to Dec. 31, 2021.

Southwest travel funds extended: If you had travel funds that were meant to expire by September 7, 2020, they’ve been extended until September 7, 2022.

Earn elite status through credit card spend: In 2021 you can earn Southwest elite status through spending on select Southwest credit cards. For every $10,000 spent on a Southwest Premier, Priority, Premier Business or Performance Business card, you’ll earn 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points towards A-List or A-List Preferred status. The amount of Tier Qualifying points you can earn is uncapped this year, so it’s possible to earn elite status through credit card spending alone.

Bottom line

It’s true — Southwest is considered a low-cost airline. But it’s amazing, and an absolute favorite of the MMS team. It even has surprisingly valuable elite status which is easier to earn in 2021. You can receive benefits like:

  • Priority boarding
  • Bonus points for flying
  • Same-day standby
  • Free Wi-Fi
  • Priority check-in

Plus, the Southwest Companion Pass is the holy grail of travel perks. Fortuitous that it happens to be the easiest status perk to earn.

Let us know what you think of Southwest elite status. And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips and reviews delivered to your inbox once per day!

Joseph Hostetler is a full-time writer for Million Mile Secrets, covering miles and points tips and tricks, as well as helpful travel-related news and deals. He has also authored and edited for The Points Guy.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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