Reacting to the Latest SW Companion Pass News

I've written about Southwest's Companion Pass on several occasions in the past, since I think it's one of the best travel deals out there. Recently, Southwest had announced that hotel point transfers will no longer count towards qualification for the Companion Pass, a few days later, they made a partial backtrack, giving us until the end of the first quarter of 2017 to make the transfers. Here, I'll discuss what I decided to do with this information, with regards to the points I had stockpiled for a Marriott Hotel + Air Package.

The backstory

Even before Southwest put the dagger into the hearts of many miles/points churners on January 1st, I had been considering using my points transfer to receive Alaska or United miles as part of a Marriott Hotel + Air Package.

I was leaning heavily towards getting the Hotel + Air Package that included 120,000 Southwest miles on January 1st, since that would immediately qualify me for the SW Companion Pass for all of 2017 and 2018, but Southwest understood my plan (and presumably that of many others) to maximize the pass benefit for a full two years. They waited until the very day that would make the most sense to redeem for this package, leaving many scrambling for backup options.

Luckily, I had already written my previous post, where I identified what I feel to be the 2 best alternatives to the Southwest Companion Pass play. As I was forced to consider those alternatives further, I realized that they really weren't that bad. In fact, if you have no into of flying to any of the tropical destinations serviced by Southwest, or you're hoping to fly premium class products, there's really not much reason to have miles and the companion pass with Southwest.

What I'm doing

Despite the fact that I am looking to move into more business-class travel, there's no getting around the value-proposition of essentially doubling the travel-potential of miles with a companion pass. What's more, Southwest flights can be cancelled at any time leading up to the flight, allowing for speculative booking, last-minute adjustments, and general de-stressing of the award-booking process. Finally, I have found that Southwest often has the best redemption values for many routes across the US and the tropics (I just researched a spring break trip to Costa Rica for 2 people for 19k miles, round-trip!). It's an unbeatable combination of perks for me, so I just went all-in!

It took just three minutes by phone to convert my 270,000 Marriott points into a Hotel + Air Package that includes 7 nights at any Marriott Cat 1-5 hotel and 120,000 Southwest miles. The post I referenced earlier looks at the best Cat 5 and 6 redemptions, which is useful because you can always add an extra 30,000 Marriott points later to bump up to a higher award category.

The Bottom Line

If you have a stash of Marriott Hotel points, it's time to cash out for a Marriott travel package. My redemption netted me a SW Companion Pass for all of 2017 and 2018 + 120,000 Southwest miles. Combining the two benefits of this redemption generates $3,200 in free flights. Oh, and lets not forget the 7-night stay in a Marriott, from which I expect to extract about $1,000 of value. The total value of the package works out to about 1.5 cents-per-point, whereas typical Marriott redemptions are worth more like 0.5-0.7cpp!

Four-Capital+ Latin Sampler Maximizing the New United Excursionist Perk

I have been thinking about exploring more of Latin America lately, and now that there are new opportunities for free one-ways on United bookings, I thought I'd work out an itinerary that incorporates both interests. In this post, I'll share how to see four countries, four capitals + one ancient mountain-top village using a very affordable number of United Miles. I'll also compare my "latin sampler" to the original "latin hopper" route that inspired it.

Itinerary Highlights

The itinerary I've constructed is based on having stopovers to visit cities I've never explored: Mexico City, Lima, Cusco (Machu Picchu), Panama City. In addition, I'd get to revisit one of my favorites, Bogota. Here's why I picked each place:

  • Mexico City - I'd never wanted to visit the capital of Mexico until I saw the opening scene of the most recent 007 movie, which put the city on display during Dia de los Muertos. Intrigued, I dug deeper to find that it was one of two Spanish colonial capitals in Latin America and also featured impressive indigenous ruins like the Aztec city of Teotihuacan. I am also blown away by the wealth of inexpensive hotel award stays available, like the Hampton Inn & Suites in the city-center for only 10k Hilton points per night.
  • Lima - Peru is known to have the best food culture in Latin America, they have a unique national drink (Pisco), and Lima is still a very inexpensive city.
  • Cusco - Machu Picchu is the big + in the title of this post. It's on just about every backpacker's list of places to see, and I feel the call, too!
  • Bogota - The capital of Colombia is coming into its own, in the wake of much progress with issues of violence related to the drug trade and rebel groups. Bogota is probably not for beginning travelers, but it's very energetic and, if you keep your wits about you, a lot of fun for a great price!
  • Panama City - The capital of Panama is an international hub, thanks to the Panama Canal and it's central location within the Americas. There is a big expat scene, an up-and-coming "old-town" (Casco Viejo), and numerous inexpensive hotel point redemption options (the hotels are cheap to book anyway though).
  • San Jose, Costa Rica (PTY Alternative) - While I do intend to visit Costa Rica in the near future, Panama is higher up on my list for this particular trip. However, if you've got the Southwest Companion Pass, San Jose makes an excellent alternative for reasons I'll explain later!

A New Latin Hopper with United: My Four-Capital+ Itinerary

MEX-CUZ: 20k United Miles in business class on an Avianca A319, with an overnight layover (read: one night to party in Lima!). This business product is not as good as the one on their A330's, but is at least as good as most US domestic first-class seats.

CUZ-LIM: I would use 4.5k British Airways Avios in economy class on a LAN flight of approximately 1.5hrs, but if lacking Avios, flights booked at least a few weeks ahead are usually in the range of $75-90 between these cities.

LIM-BOG: Free in business class using the new United one-way loophole. This flight is typically operated by Avianca in an Airbus A330, which is a very solid business-class product.

BOG-PTY: 10k United Miles in economy on a short COPA flight.

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I should mention that I left out flights to and from the US intentionally (fill in your own blanks!). For me, flying out of LAX to MEX for about $100 would be an obvious choice and then I'd probably redeem miles for the return from PTY. Redeeming Singapore Krisflyer Miles for the PTY-LAX flight would also set me up nicely for this award chart routing hack.

Comparing My New United Latin Sampler to the Old Latin Hopper from Drew at Travelisfree has lots of creative content in the same vein as what I have been exploring, and a few years back, Drew mapped out the original "latin hopper." His itinerary was from San Juan (Puerto Rico) to Quito to Lima to Cancun and it cost him only 20k United Miles in economy. Since both San Juan and Cancun are Southwest Airlines destinations, he used Rapid Rewards Miles and the Southwest Companion Pass to cut his positioning costs in half. If you'd like to know more about how that works and how you can get one, check out this post.

My new latin hopper can also be done for 20k United miles in economy (24.5k total miles to include the extra city, Cusco), but I chose to step it up another notch by adding 10 hours of business class flying for just 10k more miles. Considering that it would cost an extra 25k miles to get a similar amount of business class flight-time out of any domestic US travel with United, I find this to be a bargain.

My itinerary can also be positioned on the front-end with Southwest flights, and could be adjusted to return via San Jose (Costa Rica) instead of Panama City to return in the same fashion. In doing so, the Southwest Companion Pass could be put into play the same way Drew did on his hopper positioning flights.

While Drew's itinerary began and ended with beach destinations, my route takes in more large cities, but overall, the results are very similar. We each hit Lima, Peru and another Northern South America capital, and have stopovers for as long as we want in at least four Latin American cities (although I add a 5th with Cusco using Avios, hence the "Four Capital+" designation). In all, I'd call it a draw, which is good for miles and points travelers in these changing times.

The Bottom Line

Despite several United Airlines MileagePlus Program devaluations in the two years since the first latin hopper route was widely published, it's still possible to do basically the same thing today. Using my route, you can see some of the coolest places in Latin America and travel in style and comfort without using up too many precious miles or breaking the bank. The miles and points game is alive and well!

If you'd like to create your own route using the United excursionist perk as a "free one-way," check out: A Helpful Resource for Free One-Ways with the New United Award System