Most (if not all) U.S. air carriers are taking every opportunity they can to charge passengers for extras: bags, food, the ability to choose your seat. Southwest Airlines is refreshingly different. They’re more than just a way to get cheap flights…they’re a really great airline. We’re breaking down the differences with everything you need to know about flying Southwest Airlines.
The Complete Guide for Families Flying Southwest Airlines
First things first: I LOVE Southwest Airlines. The only time I don’t fly Southwest is when I have to go somewhere they don’t fly. Fortunately, they fly to a lot of places, so I don’t have to “cheat” on them very often. There are a lot of other airlines I like and appreciate. I love flying Southwest Airlines. I’m sharing absolutely everything you could want to know about flying Southwest Airlines. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you love them as much as I do.
I’m breaking down everything I’ve learned about Southwest Airlines in this guide. There are a few things that make them different than other domestic U.S. carriers, so read on for the full scoop.
Southwest Isn’t Just in the Southwest
What started off as a regional airline has expanded in a big way over the years. Southwest flies all over the Southwest (as you’d expect). They also fly up and down the east coast, Midwest and southeast United States. Southwest doesn’t fly to Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. It has more limited service in the Pacific Northwest and some of the Northern states. All in all, there aren’t a ton of places you can’t get to on Southwest Airlines inside the continental U.S.
Internationally, Southwest flies to multiple places in Mexico and the Caribbean, and they’ve recently added Hawaii as a stop.
You cannot buy tickets on Expedia, Travelocity, or any third-party travel site. You can only buy seats on a Southwest Airlines flight through their website or app.
Low Fares and No Change Fees
Southwest Airlines is a low fare airline but not a budget, bare bones carrier like Spirit or Frontier. When we travel as a family, we always consider how much time we have and whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive. The larger your family, the more expensive it is to fly together. Southwest fares are some of the lowest out there (although not always…do a cost comparison before you book).
One of my favorite things about Southwest (aside from the fact that they’re a low-cost airline) is that they don’t charge a change fee. If your plans change and you have to change your flight, no biggie. They charge only the difference. Delta recently charged me almost $200 per ticket to change a flight in addition to the difference in fare. That was a whole lot of ouch.
Obviously, it’s best to be very sure of your plans before you drop money on airline tickets, but things happen. I love the flexibility (and kindness to my pocketbook) that Southwest offers. Southwest has three different fare categories (more on that in a minute) and two of them are fully refundable. Even their budget category allows changes without charging you a fee.
In addition to no change fees, Southwest will also give you credit if the price of your booked flight drops. However, you have to monitor fare drops on your own and make them aware of the change. Even though I’m aware of this perk, I’ve yet to take advantage of it. I’m very “fire and forget” with travel, and I usually move on to thinking about/worrying about something else. But, if you’re extra thrifty, check the price of your flights a couple of times between booking and travel to see if there have been changes. If you see the fare has dropped, you’ll have to contact Southwest and ask how to claim your credit. They will not contact you.
No Class…No First Class, That Is
There is no first class or business class on Southwest Airlines flights. All seats are the same from the front to the rear of the cabin. There is no curtain dividing first/business class passengers from the peasants in economy. No first class bathrooms, first class lounge. There’s no special drink or meal service. Everyone gets the same amount of legroom. You get the idea.
If you’re used to that little bit of extra luxury on flights, you won’t have that on Southwest. I do love the extra roomy seats in business class, especially on overseas flights. The pre-takeoff drink in a real glass is always kind of fun. But unless you’re a die-hard luxury traveler who would be deeply disappointed without the first class experience, the lack of a premium cabin on Southwest Airlines is a non-issue.
Southwest does, however, offer Business Select. This isn’t a separate cabin but is a separate (more expensive) ticket category. Business select is fully refundable. It gets you guaranteed early boarding, and a complimentary premium drink. You also get more Rapid Rewards miles when you purchase a Business Select ticket. Business Select ticket holders are in the same cabin as everyone else. Aside from early boarding and not paying for your in-flight booze, there’s no difference in seating or service. Prices vary widely based on flight.
Southwest Fare Categories Broken Down
Southwest has three fare categories – Business Select (as detailed above), Anytime, and Wanna Get Away. When you search for flights on their Southwest.com you’ll see the three difference rates.
The difference between Anytime and Business Select is usually negligible. The Wanna Get Away tickets are by far the cheapest. However, you’re not likely to get this lower fare when you’re booking at the last minute.
For example, booking a nonstop flight from San Antonio to Phoenix a month out, Wanna Get Away fare is $142 and Business Select is $526. Huge difference, right? Anytime fare is $504 so you can see what I mean by negligible difference between Business Select and Anytime. Obviously the $142 is the price I want to pay.
If I look at that same flight one week out, Wanna Get Away is unavailable. The other two fares remain the same. The Business Select at $526 is the best deal since you get an upgraded boarding position and a free premium drink, plus more Rapid Rewards points.
The moral of the story is to buy your tickets as early as you can when traveling on Southwest. I know last minute travel opportunities can arise. Sometimes, waiting until the last minute can get you some deals. That rule of thumb usually doesn’t apply to flying Southwest. If you are flexible with your dates or are in the very early stages of trip planning, you can check out the Southwest Low Fare Calendar. This lets you see the cheapest days in the month are to fly.
No Assigned Seating – What’s Up With That?
Most major carriers charge a premium price if you want to pick your seat. Your basic, bare bones price will get you an assigned seat at the gate, which usually means the middle seat that wasn’t picked by those paying premium prices. This doesn’t work for families traveling with kids, particularly when the kids aren’t old enough to sit separately from their family members. If you’re flying Delta or American, you’re practically forced to buy a more expensive ticket so you can select your seats and sit as a family. My kids are nine and they could probably survive a flight with me in another part of the cabin, but it definitely isn’t ideal for me or whatever adult that isn’t me who gets stuck next to them.
When you are flying Southwest Airlines, you won’t have assigned seating. Passengers board in boarding groups (A, B, and C) and each passenger within the boarding group is assigned a number. If you’re number 1 in boarding group A, you’re the first one on the plane and you get your pick of seating. If you’re number 35 in boarding group B, you’ll have less options, and, if you’re traveling as a family, finding seats together (and getting the coveted overhead bin space for your larger carry-on) is trickier.
Southwest is a Kid-Friendly Airline
Flying with babies and young children is stressful. Families with kids four and under are allowed to board between the A and B groups. You shouldn’t have trouble getting seats together, although they may be towards the rear of the cabin. Unless we’re making a tight connection and need to sprint off the plane, we don’t mind sitting toward the rear of the cabin. Like most families who travel together, where we sit isn’t as important as sitting together.
If you’re flying Southwest Airlines with kids under two, you need to have the child’s birth certificate with you. If you’re traveling with an infant under 14 days, you must have a medical release. Kids under two are free if they don’t occupy a seat. More about Southwest Airlines’ infant policy here.
So…how do I get on the plane first?
If you don’t have younger kids and want to be among the first to board (AKA get your first choice of seating and be assured to keep your family or group together) you have options. The first is to do online check in at exactly the 24-hour mark. This means you have to be on your computer with your finger poised over the check-in option at exactly 24-hours before your flight departs. Not 23 hours and 45 minutes. It has to be 24-hours on. the. dot. I’m not kidding. You snooze you lose. And by lose, I mean you’re in high B or C boarding groups.
We usually take early morning flights, so setting the alarm and logging in to your Southwest account at exactly 24-hours isn’t the most fun way to start the day. But we’ve usually managed to get in the A group – typically towards the end of the A group – by checking in online at the 24-hour mark. However, I have checked in at exactly the 24 hour mark and gotten low B group. People don’t mess around with their Southwest Airlines check in.
Southwest’s Early Bird Check In
Another option is to pay to play. When you are flying Southwest Airlines, you can buy early bird check in when you purchase your ticket. The Southwest Airlines website will ask you if you want it before you check out. You can also add it to a previously purchased ticket.
Early bird check in will run you between $15 and $25* per passenger per flight, depending on route and availability. I recently purchased a flight from San Antonio to Los Angeles (non stop) and the early bird check in was $25 each way. That added $50 to the cost of my trip. but it saves me remembering to check in at the 24-hour mark. I still need to remember to print my boarding pass or have it sent to my phone – but it gets me in the A boarding group and on the plane first.
If you don’t purchase early bird check in, you’ll usually be offered an opportunity to upgrade your boarding position at the gate…for a price. The fee for this varies, but it is always more expensive than buying the early bird check in. I did this once and it jumped me into to the first 15 to get on the plane. A solo traveler, I had not bought early bird check in and I’d forgotten to check in until it was almost time to go to the airport. I was at the end of the C boarding group on a full flight to Las Vegas – AKA middle seat somewhere in the rear. In this circumstance, it made sense for me and I don’t regret it,but if you want to assure yourself of a great boarding position, the other options I mentioned are better.
We are big fans of early bird check in, especially when we’re traveling with our kids. While it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to split up for a three-hour flight, it’s not ideal for us and part of the fun of traveling as a family for us is being together and experiencing all of that travel together. If you are traveling with teens or think it’s no big deal to sit next to someone besides your spouse or partner on the plane, it might not be worth the spend for you.
*Southwest Airlines’ website lists this price range. However, in recent experience (booking about eight Southwest flights over the past 12 months) I have never seen Early Bird check in offered for less than $25. I fly out of San Antonio and have taken flights to Orlando, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Phoenix, so the cities I’m traveling to and from (obviously popular destinations) may have something to do with paying the higher end of their pricing.
Saving Seats – Is that OK?
There is no official policy on saving seats on a Southwest flight. Are you in a lower boarding position than whomever you’re traveling with? You have the option to board together at the higher boarding position. The gate agent won’t let someone who is in boarding group B board with someone who is in boarding group A.
I have seen a lot of saving seats on Southwest flights. For whatever reason, people traveling together aren’t in the same boarding group. The person with the best boarding position saves the seats. I think this practice lacks basic courtesy. This is essentially taking something for free that other passengers are paying for. That said, Southwest’s policy is not to intervene.
I have seen large family groups who are in later boarding position ask the flight attendants to help move passengers around so parents can sit with their kids. This receives mixed reactions from passengers who are asked to move seats to accommodate families. My guess is that these families are unfamiliar with Southwest’s seating/boarding policies and didn’t realize the consequences of boarding in a later boarding group with a family…so don’t let that be you.
No Checked Baggage Fees
With most airlines charging fees for checked bags nowadays, the fact that Southwest doesn’t is a major selling point. Airlines are charging $20-$40 to check a bag, so if you’re a family of four who wants to check at least one bag each, it drives the cost of your travel up. If you’re not light packers, it can get expensive.
Southwest offers each passenger up to two free checked bags of up to 50 pounds each. I personally try to do carry-on only as much as possible, but my husband and I do not agree on this and he prefers to check his bag. When we are traveling together, I usually go ahead and check my bag since I’m going to be at the baggage claim anyway. Since it’s free, he doesn’t like the hassle of schlepping his suitcase through the cabin.
Southwest allows one carry-on and one personal item in the cabin. I usually take my small rollerboard suitcase and a backpack. If I’m carrying a purse, it gets stuffed in my backpack when I’m boarding because the one carry-on and one personal item rule is enforced by the Southwest flight attendants.
In Flight Services
I hear a lot of people rave about how great the in flight services are with Southwest. I’ve never had a negative experience with any Southwest personnel when flying Southwest Airlines and you’ll sometimes find flight crew that sings or tells jokes as part of the boarding process or safety announcements, although we all know that on board safety isn’t a joke and no one on Southwest tries to make it so.
We flew on my son’s birthday last year and the flight attendant had the entire cabin sing happy birthday to him AND allowed him to help pass out snacks. I’ve never had that level of service on any other carrier. This right here is part of what keeps me loyal.
In addition to a small amount of snack items and the standard beverage options you’re used to on flights (sodas, juices, coffee, tea, alcohol for an extra charge), Southwest also offers in flight entertainment options. You can watch movies and live TV for free on the Southwest app (download it before you travel). Want Wifi? It’s $8 per day. I’ve used the WiFi to work in flight and it’s fast and reliable.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Program
I know a lot of travelers who are a whiz with loyalty programs and smart use of points. While I’m getting better at maximizing those memberships, using miles and points has never been intuitive for me. Southwest’s program easy to understand and use. They also send drink coupons occasionally with your Rapid Rewards Statement, and who doesn’t like that?
Remember earlier when I mentioned Southwest’s three fare categories? You’ll accrue different levels of Rapid Rewards miles for each category. You get 12 times your fare in miles with a Business Select ticket. You get 6 times your fare if you buy Wanna Get Away (the lowest fare category). If you buy the higher fare, you’ll get rewarded in miles. Make sure you sign up for Rapid Rewards. My husband, my kids and I all have Rapid Rewards accounts that let us store our personal information and really streamlines the booking process for us. You can transfer Rapid Rewards miles between accounts but we’ve so far not done that.
If you fly Southwest often and you really want to maximize your Rapid Rewards points, I recommend you check out one of the Southwest credit cards. I currently have two – one personal and one for my business. The current offer (check to see what’s available on the Southwest website or in flight) is 80,000 miles when you sign up for the business card through Chase. It was 65,000 when I signed up for my business card and I saw the 80,000 points offer when I’d had my card for about a month. Sigh. Keep an eye out for the best deals.
So…what do I NOT like about Flying Southwest Airlines?
Very little, actually. There’s not much to dislike: no change fees, refundable fares, best prices, free checked bags. Southwest is different than other U.S. carriers but knowing the ins and outs in advance (I hope I’ve helped you out) usually eliminates any confusion or negative experience with those differences.
Other than not liking the fact that they don’t fly everywhere I have to fly (and they’re expanding at a good rate so I can’t really be mad at them about that), there are three things I don’t love about Southwest airlines:
Limited food service
You’ll receive in-flight snacks, such as cookies or pretzels, but if you want something more substantial, you need to bring your own. Meal service on domestic flights is pretty much a thing of the past, but other carriers often have snack boxes or sandwiches available for purchase in flight. Southwest does not. Really, this is a minor thing but something worth knowing about and planning for, especially when you’re traveling with kids.
Booking really far in advance isn’t possible
You can book your Southwest flight about five months in advance. You can’t book any further out than that. I mentioned booking tickets early on Southwest for the best price and not waiting, but they don’t offer you the option of booking really far in advance for planned travel.
Direct flights aren’t always nonstop flights
Southwest has a few routes where you can book a direct flight from one point to another but the plane will actually stop in one or more locations in between. You won’t have to deplane or change gates, but this can add to your flight time and impact your seating. I once booked a “direct” flight from Tampa to San Antonio and it actually stopped in Houston to let passengers off and on. Passengers getting on the plane in Houston didn’t have their choice of seating, since the plane was mostly full. I had boarded in Group A in Tampa, where the flight originated, so I didn’t have an issue with seating, but it added some time to my journey home. Just be aware.
Also, while this has not presented an issue for me, Southwest sometimes utilizes smaller airports. For example, Southwest flights going through Dallas will go through Dallas Love Field Airport which is on the other side of the city from the main Dallas Forth Worth Airport. Flights going through Houston will go to Houston Hobby instead of Houston Intercontinental. Flights going through Chicago will go through Midway versus O’Hare, etc. If you will change carriers – for whatever reason – double check that you are not going to be required to change airports.
Overall, the pros greatly outweigh the cons and I fly Southwest as often as I can. They are the overall best for saving money, they have a great on-time rate, and great service.