Quirky singing flight attendants. Free-for-all boarding. Freebies in an airline industry full of extra fees. Southwest Airlines does things a little differently than most U.S. airlines, but that can really be good news for traveling families. Get the inside scoop on how to make the most of the little Southwest differences on your next flight.

Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Southwest Airlines is a favorite among many traveling families. With friendly crew members and an expanding route network, Southwest has become the airline my family flies the most often. I happen to think Southwest is a great choice for many other family travelers as well.  Our TravelingMom network agrees, recently voting Southwest its top pick among U.S. airlines.

Southwest does things a little differently than most other airlines. The good news is that these differences mostly translate into benefits for parents traveling with their kids. To maximize the benefits, however, you have to know and follow Southwest’s rules.

Here are the key details you need to know about flying Southwest in general, including lots of tips for flying Southwest with kids.

No Checked Bag Fees.

Southwest is the lone holdout (in a good way!) among U.S. domestic airlines when it comes to checked bags fees. Passengers can check up to two bags per person for free (50 lbs and under). This is an important benefit for families traveling with lots of gear who can’t or don’t want to carry on.

No Change Fees.

11 Essential Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Southwest is the only U.S. airline that does not charge change fees when you need to change or cancel your flight. You’ll only pay the difference in fare from your old reservation and your new one. If you need flexibility (and what parent doesn’t?), Southwest’s system works well.

Price Drop? Get Credit Back!

Not only does Southwest not have any change fees, but the airline also allows you to obtain a credit if the price drops on a trip you have already booked. This means you should monitor your already-existing reservations, especially when Southwest announces a big sale. Note two important limits on using this credit so you don’t miss out: 1) the credit is valid 12 months from the date originally booked the ticket and 2) the credit can only be used by the person whose name is on the ticket.

Open Seating.

Southwest does not have assigned seats unlike most major airlines. Instead, passengers are given a boarding number at check-in and line up to board in that order. Group A (1-60) boards first, followed by Group B (1-60) and then Group C (1-30). In order to sit together as a family, families need to board reasonably early to find several seats available next to each other. The good news is that there are several strategies to snag early boarding for your family. Keep reading to find out which one is best for you.

Kids 4 & Under? Board Early.

Families with children ages 4 and under get automatic early boarding between groups A & B and should have no trouble getting seats together. In my dozen and dozens of flights on Southwest with kids, I’ve always been able to find a completely empty row of three seats across for my family at this time.

Older Kids? Check In Early for Early Boarding.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Devaluation

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

If your kids are too old to qualify for family boarding, then it is essential to check in for your Southwest flight early enough to be assigned a good boarding number. If you hit the check-in button on the Southwest website or app at exactly 24 hours out (and I mean exactly), you’ll usually get a high A or low B boarding pass, which is good enough.

Don’t Want the Hassle of Check-In 24 Hours Early? Buy Early Bird.

If you don’t want the hassle of remembering to check in for your flights at the 24 hour mark, Southwest offers Early Bird check-in for a fee of $12.50 each way. The Southwest system checks you in automatically at the 24 hour mark, again usually securing you a high A or low B boarding position.

Lap Baby? Don’t Forget a Birth Certificate.

Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that requires a birth certificate for lap children of any age. Other airlines only ask for them for older lap children who might be nearing the 2nd birthday cutoff.  So even if you are flying with your infant of a few weeks old, take that birth certificate along.

Hungry? Southwest’s Food Choices are Limited but Kid-Friendly.

Southwest Snacks

Photo credit: Leslie Harvey / Frequent Flyer TravelingMom

Southwest doesn’t offer any hot food on any of its flights, even for a fee. Food options include pretzels and peanuts on most short haul flights. Longer flights have a variety of pre-packaged snacks such as Ritz crackers, Nabisco 100 calorie snack packs (Chips Ahoy, Lorna Doones), animal crackers and more. Most of these are quite kid-friendly and the flight attendants usually encourage you to help yourself to several. But you may still want to make time for a real meal in the airport.

Rapid Rewards Rocks.

Southwest’s frequent flyer program, Rapid Rewards, offers a lot of flexibility for family travelers who need to book several seats on a single flight. As long as there are seats available, you can use your Southwest Rapid Rewards points to book them. In order to maximize your miles, of course, you’ll want to do a little math for the best redemption, but even Southwest’s recent Rapid Rewards changes are simpler than other airline programs.

Want More Miles? There’s a Southwest Credit Card for That.

Families who love earning Southwest points and use credit responsibly should consider one of the two Southwest credit cards offered by Chase. The Plus card has an annual fee of $69, and the Premier card’s annual fee is $99. With the cards, you will earn double points on all Southwest purchases and one point per dollar for everything else. But where you can really pad your frequent flyer account quickly is with the signup bonus, which can often be as high as 50,000 miles.

Do you fly Southwest as a family? What tips would you add? Tell us in the comment section below.