Yet another report came out this week, this time from the United States Travel Association, all about the state of domestic air travel – how much we, the traveling public, do not care for it.
Some frustration is understandable – we've all been there. Lately, I can't say I've felt much of that. For three years now, I've been flying Southwest almost exclusively. I didn't plan this, it sort of just happened – new city, Southwest hub, low fares, short flight, why not.
As a former New Yorker, it was never really on my radar, so I wasn't sure what to expect. The trip, it turned out, was remarkably hassle-free. So I booked again. Then again (and again). Here's why I'll keep booking:
1. Southwest will never take your money and run.
Change your flight? Cancel it and fly later? No charge, no problem. When I see a good fare, even if I'm not entirely certain a trip will take place, I snag it. If I don't go, I cancel and push that money into the next flight. Every last penny. In an era where people accept use-or-lose as the norm, where people pay more than the cost of a flight to bump it up by a day, this alone makes Southwest better than, well, pretty much everyone.
2. Two free checked bags.
Lost in so much of the complaining about rising fees is the fact that Southwest still allows travelers to check two bags under 50 lbs. for precisely no money. (If you are traveling with more than that, it's kind of hard to feel sorry for you having to pay your share.)
3. Priority access is easy and cheap.
EarlyBird Check-in costs $12.50 each way, no matter how many stops you make. You'll be checked in automatically and will likely end up close enough to the head of the line to get an exit row seat, or, at the very least, have your choice of window or aisle, most of the way up and down the plane. Source: 98% of the trips I have taken on Southwest over a three-year period.
4. The longer you fly without having a seat assignment, the less you will miss this.
Because I always go EarlyBird, I always have a wide selection of seats to choose from, once I get on the plane. (See #3). Deciding on the spot, I find, is just better. Maybe there's a giant, loud group in front and I prefer the back, or vice versa. If I don't like the day's crop of seasoned travelers already manspreading in the exit rows, I can just skip that whole scene and choose a nearby window or aisle seat, next to someone who does not scowl as I approach their row. I have choice. I like choice. Choice is good.
5. All the entertainment I need is in the palm of my hand.
Southwest's system is accessed through your own phone/tablet/phablet/laptop. This means no newbies fiddling with the TV in back of my seat, trying to figure out how to change the channel, or, worse, playing some boring game that requires constant jabbing of the screen. The screen that is just a couple of inches from the back of my head. Because that makes so much sense. Also, should you require, there is internet.
6. In years of traveling Southwest, they have made me late exactly once.
And that was because of some force majeure-level insanity on the East Coast. Really, it was no big deal. They treated us well and got us on our way when they could, without a whole lot of drama. Yes, that's just anecdotal evidence. Yes, Southwest has struggled with on-time-ness in recent years. Apparently, 2013 was particularly bad. (Guess I got lucky.) The good news: As of January, they're back up above the national average of 80 percent, right on par with JetBlue and just a hair below Virgin America. Good enough for me.
7. Flying Southwest can still feel like you're in some cool kind of club for in-the-know cheapskates.
Southwest famously prevents third parties from crawling their site for low fares – as a result, many consumers don't even factor it into their search when planning travel. (This is very bad. Always search Southwest.) Consequently, and this is strictly based on experience, there seems to be a dearth of casual travelers stumbling onto the planes trying to figure out what the hell they've gotten themselves into. Better still, free checked bags means fewer scofflaws attempting to ram their giant cases into the overhead bins, then holding things up (and throwing cabin-disrupting hissy fits) because their luggage has to be removed from the plane and gate-checked. By and large, the people I meet flying Southwest understand and appreciate Southwest's methods and culture. If flying a domestic airline can be a mellow experience at this point, Southwest on a good day comes close.
8. If they can't get me where I need to go or somewhere very close by, I probably don't need to go there.
At this point, the question is where doesn't Southwest fly? It helps that I’m not particularly annoyed by stopovers, though there are plenty of non-stops on most of the routes I travel. It helps that when necessary, I will fly into a cheaper airport, further from my destination. Then again, it's entirely unfair at this point to assume that Southwest can only take you to Hartford or Manchester or Islip or wherever it is you don't want to go. That's simply untrue. Check the schedules, you'll see.
9. They have the last decent staff in the air.
Even with all of the changes employees have had to endure, Southwest's crew seem to have retained their dignity, in turn allowing us ours. Little smiles and jokes and thoughtful touches like offering water while you wait in line for the lavs or encouraging you to grab extra snacks from the basket are almost commonplace. (One attendant recently asked, did I want a splash of half and half in my hot chocolate? It would taste better, she said. She was right.) Tiny gestures like these can mean a lot when you're crammed into a flying tuna fish can with a bunch of tired strangers. The good-natured ease with which most of the attendants do their jobs make the experience so much less stressful than it can be elsewhere.
10. Southwest is uncool and proud.
You won't find nifty color schemes or fun branding, neat-o uniforms or runway-ready attendants. Which is fine, because all that nonsense costs money. Sure, seat pitch and width might average slightly higher on JetBlue or Virgin America, but on Southwest, you still get a leather seat – one that's plenty spacious for the average traveler.
11. They have Fat Tire in cans.
For $5. A couple of old-school Colorado craft beers, a window seat, a sunny day flying over the Rockies, or the Great Lakes, or up the West Coast – it may not be the best thing in the world, but I think we can all agree that it's far from the worst.
The author has never accepted (nor has he been offered) complimentary flights from Southwest Airlines. He writes about travel for Airfarewatchdog, the only web site to list Southwest fares, even though they receive no commission for doing so.