5 Secrets About Flying on Southwest Airlines You Need to Know
Here's all the little-known intel on the popular budget carrier, according to experts.
Out of all the options available when booking a flight, Southwest Airlines stands apart from the others. Its popularity as a budget carrier with a wide service map helped to make it the fourth-largest airline by passenger volume, carrying more than 126.6 million travelers in 2022, according to Statista. But while most people are familiar with the company's unorthodox boarding procedures, there's still more you should know before you book your next trip. Read on for the secrets you need to know about flying on Southwest Airlines, according to travel experts.
Pay for the Early Bird Check-In if you're traveling with a carry-on.
Southwest's policy of not assigning seats to ticket holders is as widely known as it is divisive. That's why when you're planning to board by group with luggage in hand, you might want to splurge for the opportunity to jump to the front of the line.
"If you're a carry-on-only type of traveler and don't want to be forced to have Southwest check your baggage in due to lack of overhead storage space, then you need to spend the extra $15 on the Early Bird Check-In," suggests travel influencer Kara Harms, founder of Whimsy Soul. "This will ensure earlier boarding and plenty of overhead bin space for your stuff."
However, this might not always be an option: The airline has been taking heat for a recent decision to limit the number of flights where Early Bird Check-In is available to passengers. Fortunately, there is still one way to ensure you get on the plane ahead of the crowds.
"If you purchase Business Select—which is not business class, despite the name—you will always board with the first group," says Lindsay Myers, a New York-based travel expert and founder of Get Lost With Lindsay. "And remember that families and active military always board between when they call the 'A' and 'B' groups."
Certain rows get drinks faster—and it's not just the front of the plane.
There's nothing worse than feeling thirsty or hungry on a flight and having to wait what feels like an eternity for your turn with the beverage cart. But since Southwest Airlines famously eschews a tiered cabin by ditching familiar perks like first class, flight attendants can conduct their runs entirely differently than on other flights—meaning where you sit can matter.
"If you want beverage service faster, you want to be seated in rows 1, 9, and 17—or at least the rows right behind those," says Jim Wang, frequent Southwest flyer and founder of financial advice website WalletHacks.com. "That's where they start their service so you can get your drinks a little bit faster."
You can fly with someone for free thanks to the airline's Companion Pass perk.
Most airlines have a rewards system in place that allows you to cash in your miles for flights after you've flown enough over time, or earn upgrades to higher-class eats. However, those who are true Southwest devotees can go one step further when it comes to free airfare.
"Achieving the Companion Pass status can be a game-changer," says Justin Albertynas, travel expert and CEO of hotel booking engine RatePunk. "It allows a designated person to fly with you for free (minus taxes and fees) whenever you travel, potentially doubling your travel value."
According to the airline's website, travelers can reach this tier if they fly "100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 135,000 qualifying points in a calendar year." Those who want to speed up the process can also work toward this goal by signing up for one of the company's eligible co-branded credit cards.
You can save money on your flight even if the ticket price drops after you book.
Part of the agony of booking a flight can be trying to pinpoint exactly when to score the best airfare. But those who are traveling with Southwest can rest easy knowing they'll still be able to get the best price even after they've bought their tickets.
"It's important to keep checking back on the flight of your booked Southwest trip," says Harms. "If you bought tickets that end up dropping in price later on, you can request a Travel Credit or partial refund on the price difference! I usually opt for a Travel Credit so my next flight can be totally free to heavily discounted."
This tactic can be especially helpful when serious savings are at stake.
"Whenever they announce a sale, I simply log into my account and look to change my flight," says Wang. "When you look at the schedule, it will tell you if the fares are lower or higher than what you paid. You can even 'change' your flight to the same exact flight and get the difference back as a credit."
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The rear of the plane might not be as bad as you think.
Getting seated at the rear of the aircraft can be a lowlight of the travel experience. Usually, it entails not having enough remaining space to stash your carry-on, or having to wait much longer to deplane once you land. But thanks again to Southwest's unique seating policy, this could potentially work to your advantage.
"It's most common for folks to pick the first empty row they see at the front of the plane, but I prefer to head toward the way back," Harms tells Best Life. "More often than not, I'll get a whole row to myself or at least an empty middle seat for a more comfortable flight."