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By: Bryce Conway – Founder of 10xTravel.com
Over the past couple of decades, Southwest Airlines has managed to do what many other airlines could never dream of doing. They’ve somehow become one of the most popular airlines in America, while also being one of the most misunderstood.
Everyone has heard of Southwest, many have flown them before, yet most people I talk to are not even vaguely familiar with many of Southwest’s policies and procedures.
So, today we are going to take a look at 10 things that you need to know to help you make the most out of flying Southwest, including how to use them to watch one particular NFL team win the 2019 Super Bowl.
Here we go!
1. Southwest doesn’t fly everywhere
Southwest Airlines currently flies to 100+ destinations in the US, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and the Caribbean. They also have announced a number of new routes to Hawaii, which will go on sale sometime in late 2018.
100+ destinations might sound like a lot, but if you look at their interactive route map you will notice that they generally only fly to major cities often served by multiple other airlines.
Southwest also flies to many “secondary airports” in the cities they serve — Houston Hobby (HOU) instead of Houston International (IAH), Dallas Love (DAL) instead of Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW), etc. — so make sure to double check before using them for a positioning flight.
Personally, I live in Columbus, Ohio and use Southwest for just about all of my domestic travel. I can drive 20 minutes to the airport and hop a direct or one-stop Southwest flight to just about any major city in the US.
The same could not be said for someone living in Montana, West Virginia, or any other area of the country that is not close to one of the red dots on the map above.
One other downside of Southwest is that they operate out of non-traditional hubs, with Dallas Love Field and Chicago Midway being the biggest ones. So you will likely spend your layovers without access to airport lounges and other major airport amenities.
2. Southwest Has No Partner Airlines
Somewhat related to #1, Southwest is not involved with any airline alliance and has no other partner airlines of any kind so when exploring options to fly Southwest, what you see on the map above is what you get.
If you want to fly elsewhere you will need to purchase a ticket on a different airline.
Note however that Southwest is a 1:1 transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so any point earned with a Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve, etc. is potentially a Southwest point.
This also means that any status earned on other airlines will not be honored when flying Southwest. Which is somewhat of a moot point because…
3. Southwest doesn’t have a conventional “first” or “business” class
Southwest only flies one type of plane, a Boeing 737, and has no first class, business, or economy plus seats anywhere on the plane. Seats are in a 3 x 3 configuration and every one of them is virtually the same.
Which makes every Southwest flight feel like you are flying on the same plane.
You can book “Business Select” flights on Southwest but this simply gives you priority boarding, extra Rapid Rewards points, and a free alcoholic drink. Which you can enjoy in the exact same sized seat as everyone else on board.
One upside of Southwest’s exclusive use of the Boeing 737 is that you will never find yourself stuck on a narrow body airplane with a 5’ ceiling and overhead bins that are the size of large shoeboxes.
4. Southwest has a unique boarding process and open seating policy
Southwest’s boarding and seating policy is perhaps the most misunderstood aspect of their airline. So, let’s talk about it for a moment.
Southwest has an open seating policy for every flight they fly. Think of it as a public bus — once you board, you can choose any seat you like.
This, of course, makes it advantageous to board first. So you should probably crowd around the gate and rush the door, right?
Not so fast.
Boarding position is assigned numerically based on when you check in to your flight. There are A, B and C groups, each with numbers 1-60. A1 boards first, followed by A2, and on and on until C60 becomes the last person to board the plane.
Boarding positions A1 – A15 are reserved for Business Select customers. Everything after that is assigned on a first come, first served basis based on when you checked in to your flight.
Check-in begins exactly 24 hours prior to departure. And when I say exactly, I mean down to the very second.
So unless you want to sit in a middle seat by the rear lavatory, be ready to check in exactly 24 hours prior to departure with the vigor of a 16 year-old buying tickets to see Taylor Swift. I’m talking hand on the button, eyeing your watch as the seconds count down.
Or you can pay $15 for EarlyBird Check-In to beat the crowd. This feature will automatically check you in 36 hours prior to departure, which usually results in a boarding position in the late A group in my experience.
When checking in exactly 24 hours prior to departure I generally get a boarding position between B1 and B60. Which guarantees that you will get either a window or aisle seat on the plane.
Good enough for most folks.
Southwest’s boarding policy is widely criticized by many in the travel community but personally, I am ok with it. People generally don’t crowd the gate area, boarding is completed faster, and it’s easy to find seats with your travel companions as long as everyone remembers to check in at a reasonable time.
Saving seats for people is discouraged, but somewhat common on Southwest flights. Just please don’t be that guy who saves an entire row in the front of the plane.
5. Southwest’s Award Pricing is Granular
Unlike many other airlines, Southwest has revenue-based awards. Each Southwest Rapid Rewards point is worth almost exactly 1.5 cents each toward their “wanna get away” fares no matter when or where you are flying.
Other airlines charge use region-based or distance-based award charts with different award rates for each class of service, Southwest.
Let’s look at a quick example to see what I mean.
A nonstop flight from Columbus to Las Vegas on February 22, 2019 is currently going for $176.
That same flight can be booked for 11,739 points, which is a value of 1.5 cents per point.
In a sense, you’ll never have to play the “should I use my points or pay cash?” game when flying Southwest. Your value per point will always be roughly the same so it’s just a matter of whether you have the points to cover the ticket.
6. Southwest has fantastic cancellation and change policies
Southwest’s cancellation and change policies might be my favorite feature of their airline, other than the Companion Pass.
The main reason being this; Southwest does not charge any cancellation or change fees on award flight reservations.
So your commitment to flying that Southwest flight you just booked is no more binding than a dinner reservation at Applebee’s. You can cancel the flight at any time and receive all of your miles and fees back with no questions asked.
Southwest flights booked with cash can also be canceled without penalty, but you won’t get a cash refund. Instead, you’ll be given a Southwest voucher that is good for one year.
Southwest also recently changed their policy to allow passengers to change their reservations without causing them to become non-refundable.
So what does this mean for you?
It means that you should use your Southwest miles to book any and every flight that you have even a remote chance of flying.
Birthday coming up next month? Better book a flight to Vegas, just in case.
Kids thinking about a spring break trip? Book a couple of options ASAP to lock in the price.
Browns win their first game in over a year? You bet your ass I booked a flight to watch them win the Super Bowl in Atlanta.
All of these flights are 100% refundable so I have nothing to lose. I can even cancel and rebook if the price drops, which I often do when Southwest runs a seasonal sale.
At any given time, I have at least 3-4 Southwest award flights booked (usually to Vegas) that have less than a 10% chance of actually happening for me.
Better to have them and not need them than need them and not have them. Wow, that felt strange to type.
One more point to cover.
While I strongly encourage you to use your Southwest points to lock in potential flights, I would not recommend doing this with cash flights or other types of points.
Don’t transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Southwest just to hold a bunch of flights in your name. Doing so will result in an overall loss of value.
And remember that cash bookings will only get you a Southwest voucher if you cancel. So only do so as needed.
7. Southwest doesn’t have hidden fees
Many people falsely associate Southwest with other budget airlines that charge fees for everything from seat selection to snacks. Which couldn’t be further from the truth.
The only expenses you can expect to pay when flying Southwest are for Wi-Fi access, alcoholic drinks, premium movies or to upgrade your boarding position.
Snacks, non-alcoholic drinks, choosing your own seat (via open seating of course) and live TV on all of your devices are all free. As are…
8. 2 free checked bags for every passenger
Unless you have been living under a rock, you’re probably aware of the fact that Southwest offers two free checked bags on every flight they fly. Each bag can be up to 50 pounds and you can check them online or at the Southwest check-in desk.
This comes in handy when you need to bring an entire case of champagne to Las Vegas, which just so happens to weigh 49.5 pounds.
Our Editor in Chief would like to point out that the cost of checked bags is built into the ticket price which means they’re not really “free”. 🙂
9. Southwest releases flights about 7-9 months in advance
Most airlines start selling tickets 11 months prior to departure. Southwest does not.
In fact, Southwest opens their schedule in about two-month increments up to a maximum of about nine months prior to departure.
Today is October 15, 2018 and Southwest is currently accepting reservations through June 8, 2019. But on November 15, 2018 Southwest will start accepting reservations through August 5, 2019.
This makes things a little tougher for anyone looking to book flights well in advance of their trip.
You can check out Southwest’s flight schedule and release dates by visiting their flight schedule page.
10. Southwest has a Companion Pass that will make all your friends jealous
The Southwest Companion Pass is effectively a buy one, get one free flight coupon for any Southwest flight that you fly. It’s valid for upwards of 2 years and you can earn one without ever stepping foot on a Southwest plane.
And next week we will show you how you can earn one and start traveling the world (well, North America anyway) for next to nothing.
Editor’s Note: Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, hotel, airline, or other entity. This content has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of the entities included within the post.