How to Fly Southwest Airlines (And Get the Seat You Want)

There is a lot to love about Southwest Airlines. Two free checked bags, no change fees, price drop credits, just to name a few. Southwest carries more domestic passengers than any other US airline, and if you haven’t been one of them, you should read on to find out how to fly Southwest Airlines.

Tips for Traveling on Southwest Airlines 

To help you take advantage of Southwest’s best perks and understand how Southwest differs from the major legacy carriers, follow this step-by-step guide on what to expect when flying with Southwest Airlines.

What to Know Before You Book with Southwest Airlines

Southwest is considered one of the largest low-cost carriers in the world. Since so-called “low-cost” carriers tend to earn a considerable amount of revenue from ancillary fees, I’m not sure Southwest belongs in this category anymore. In fact, Southwest is known for quite the opposite. There are very little extra fees when booking a Southwest Airlines flight, and any fees are extremely easy to avoid. 

Years after major airlines such as American, Delta, and United started charging extra for checked bags, Southwest has maintained its policy of including two free checked bags (up to 50 lbs. each) in all fares. This is in addition to the personal item and standard carry-on bag allowed onboard, which some airlines are even charging for now. If you need to bring a lot of luggage on your trip, Southwest will often be your best bet, so don’t forget to compare total cost.

The other main advantage of flying Southwest is the flexibility of having no change fees. We all know travel plans can change and Southwest will not penalize you for this. Have some peace of mind knowing that you can change dates or even change destination if your original travel plans aren’t going to work out. Better yet, Southwest even offers a credit if the price drops after you have booked.

The biggest potentially negative difference between Southwest and other major carriers is the fact that there are no assigned seats on Southwest. Instead, Southwest has stuck with an open seating policy, which allows you to choose any seat on the plane during boarding. Though, depending on your boarding order, there might not be too much to choose from if you are last to board. Another major difference is that there is no first or business class on Southwest so don’t expect any premium services.

Southwest has a robust domestic network that focuses on providing nonstop service to more places rather than relying on funneling all flights through a few central hubs like the other major carriers. Recently, Southwest has expanded internationally and plans on starting Hawaii service in the near future. Although Southwest currently has no interline agreements, the large number of flights helps get passengers moving in times of irregular flight operations. And since Southwest flies only Boeing 737s, there are a large number of seats on every airplane.

Like what you hear so far? Read on to find out more on how to book and what it's like to fly Southwest Airlines.

How to Book a Flight with Southwest Airlines

The only way to book a flight on Southwest Airlines is by booking directly on Southwest.com. Although some third-party sites have incorporated Southwest’s flight schedule into search tools, the airline does not share fares with any third-party booking engines, and therefore, you will not be able to compare prices on Southwest. Since Airfarewatchdog utilizes a human crew, we are able to send you fare alerts on Southwest, and all airlines, so you can compare and decide what option is best for you. 

When booking on Southwest, make sure to use the handy low fare calendar to view fares on a flexible date calendar. This way you’ll easily be able to find which dates the lowest Southwest fares are available. Southwest offers three types of fares. The “Wanna Get Away” fares are the lowest option and really the only option most leisure travelers should consider. The other two options, “Anytime” and “Business Select”, are refundable, but the much higher price makes them not worth the few extra perks they offer.

After selecting your flights, it's pretty straightforward to complete the booking. The one extra you'll be offered to purchase during booking is EarlyBird Check-In. This will automatically check you in 36 hours before your flight so you’ll be one of the first to board and have earlier access to choose your seat. However, you can usually get a decent boarding position by just setting a reminder to check-in exactly 24 hours before departure.

Southwest usually has a weekly sale that is released on Tuesdays and expires either on the Thursday of that week or sometimes it is an extended sale that lasts through the following week. These sales are usually just standard price drops and other airlines often match these prices. A few times each year, Southwest releases its better sale fares, which have set prices that are based on distance traveled.

You won’t see too many flash sales on Southwest, but Southwest does have competitive pricing on markets where the ultra-low-cost carriers such as Spirit and Frontier fly. On these routes, Southwest often has fares lower than what is advertised in its sales, and with two free checked bags included, is the better deal for those that need to carry a lot of luggage.

Credit for Price Drops and Changing Your Flight on Southwest Airlines

After booking, you’ll have 24-hours to cancel and get a full refund. Even after that 24-hour period, keep checking to see if your flight drops in price. If you find a lower price, you can rebook at the lower rate and receive a credit for a future Southwest flight up to one year from the original date of purchase.

Similarly, if you need to cancel or change your travel plans, just make the change up to 10 minutes before departure, and you won’t be charged any extra fees for doing so. A fare difference may apply, and if your changes result in a lower fare, you’ll also receive a credit.

To make changes, cancel, or rebook a lower fare, just look up your reservation on Southwest.com and make the necessary changes. You’ll keep the same reservation number and any credit you are due will be attached to that reservation number. Southwest allows you to easily view unused travel funds on its website. These funds can only be used for the individual named on the original ticket and expire one year from original date of purchase.

Check-in for a Southwest Airlines Flight

This is one very important step when traveling on Southwest Airlines if you want to have your choice of seat. Southwest assigns a boarding order depending on when customers check-in. Therefore, you’ll want to check-in online precisely 24 hours before departure to secure a boarding position in group A or group B. If you forget to check-in exactly 24 hours before departure, you may end up in group C boarding and could have limited choices (i.e., middle seats) when you board the aircraft.

This is a big deterrent for many who want to know ahead of time what seat they will be sitting in on the plane. However, with a little planning, simply setting an alarm to check-in online exactly 24 hours prior to departure can pretty much guarantee you a window or aisle seat or adjoining seats for those in your party.

Boarding a Southwest Airlines Flight

Another one of the big complaints when flying Southwest is the boarding process, which is often referred to as a cattle call. I personally think the first come, first served, open seating policy helps with boarding. Rather than a mob of people fighting to board the plane as soon as their zone is called, Southwest lines everyone up by boarding group and number before boarding so the actual boarding process is orderly. 

Since there are no assigned seats, choose any available seat once you board. You may see some customers attempting to save seats for friends or family or just so they won't have a seatmate, but saving seats is not allowed and you can simply ask for a flight attendant's assistance if another passenger is blocking the seat you want to sit in. If there are other similar seats available, avoid any unnecessary confrontation. One extra perk you'll notice is that there is almost always ample space for your carry-on bag due to the fact that customers are able to check bags for free.

The Southwest Airlines Inflight Experience

Southwest is known for helpful customer service and a friendly in-flight experience. Announcements are often made with a bit of a comedic flair and Southwest encourages its employees to be creative rather than sticking to a mundane dialogue. Southwest has a comfortable 31 to 32-inch seat pitch on its standard seats and up to 39 inches in exit rows so you won't feel too cramped in the cabin.

During your flight, you’ll receive complimentary soft drinks and snacks and have the option to purchase alcoholic beverages. There are no hot meals served on Southwest flights. In my opinion, hot meals on an airplane should never be a deciding factor on which airline you choose. Airplane food just doesn't cut it for me so I'll gladly eat before my flight and enjoy whatever snacks are offered for free or bring my own. 

As for entertainment, Southwest doesn't have any seatback screens but does allow free live and on-demand streaming from your own digital device. Select movies are available to stream for a $5 fee, and if you'd like to browse the internet, Southwest flights have Wi-Fi access to the entire web for an $8 fee. Stay in touch with family and friends on the ground with access to iMessage, Viber, and WhatsApp for just $2 per flight.

Southwest’s Greatest Perk: The Companion Pass 

Quite possibly the greatest perk in all of travel, Southwest's companion pass allows unlimited "free" flights for a chosen travel companion as long as you are traveling together on the same plane. If you have obtained a companion pass, after purchasing a ticket for yourself, you can add your travel companion to your reservation by only paying some, not all, of the required taxes/fees. These are usually around $6 each way for domestic flights but will be more for international flights. 

In order to get the companion pass, one must fly a total of 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year. Once you obtain one of these metrics, the companion pass is yours through December of the following year. Qualifying points can be earned in a number of ways including spending on a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card (and earning sign-up bonus points), traveling on Southwest, or shopping and dining with participating restaurants and retailers. 

Unfortunately, the companion pass has become more difficult to obtain this year. As of April 2018, Southwest started limiting the number of personal credit cards one can get in a 24-month span, so most people will only be allowed to receive one large sum of bonus points in a given year. Unless you travel extensively on Southwest or spend large amounts of money on a Southwest credit card, it will be difficult to obtain the valuable pass. Nonetheless, if you travel often and use Southwest’s other partners to earn qualifying points, the companion pass could be something to strive for.

Even without a companion pass, traveling on Southwest is one of the best options out there due to the flexibility alone. When I check for flights, I always compare with Southwest, because I like the freedom of being able to change plans and not being charged a ridiculous fee for doing so. The added perk of being able to bring as much luggage as I need without paying extra makes me choose Southwest more often than not if the price is competitive.

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