Thoughts on the Delta 2015 SkyMiles Program

Today, Delta Airlines announced their new SkyMiles program coming in 2015.  I wanted to provide my thoughts as I think it is an example of how the airline industry is starting to shift.

When I first got married, my wife and I had a debate on whom our official airline partner would be.  She had Silver Medallion status on Delta and I flew Southwest of course.  Once I earned my Companion Pass last year, she decided she liked Southwest a lot in a hurry.  I did decide to give Delta a try though on a couple of flights last year because they had a direct option from JFK.

From my experience with Delta, I noticed a few things.  As I boarded I noticed the plane was pretty empty.  Since I booked last minute, I got a Premium Economy seat because I booked last minute.  That section was also empty.  What I did like was how large the aisles were on the Airbus 320.   For once I didn’t have to strafe down the aisle to find my seat.  There was no chance of getting a free drink (and they certainly cost more).  Internet cost more too.  I figured I would earn a decent amount of points too since I booked last minute.  Unfortunately that wasn’t the case at all.   I only got about 2,000 points for the flight.  Really disappointing.

When I read through the details of the new SkyMiles program, I laughed a little bit because I could tell a lot of these things were inspired by Southwest.  The first change is that miles are earned based on the cost of your ticket now and not the distance flown.  This is big for those short last minute flights which is how I typically accrue so many points on Southwest.  For a person without status, you get 5 miles per dollar spent.  That means a $500 ticket would give you 2500 miles (why they still call them miles in this new program I don’t know).   For those with status, you can get between 7 and 11 miles  depending on your tier.  Although Delta has more tiers than Southwest does, this is pretty much on par with their program when it comes to bonus points.  Miles never expire with Delta which has always been a nice perk of theirs.

Unfortunately, where Delta misses the mark is that earning status with Medallion Qualification Miles (MQMs) has not changed.   You still earn status by distance flow or flight segments.   This means, buying a more expensive last minute ticket will not get you status any faster (well only marginally faster).  Like United, they also put a minimum spend on each tier as well.  This means if you have enough miles for tier status but you got there on cheap tickets, you won’t get status.

When it comes to redemption, Delta implemented a no blackout date policy.  Southwest has had this for some time.  Nice to see other carriers adopting it.  They claim to have more reward seat availability with tiers requiring fewer miles.  Since the program is not live yet, we’ll have to see on that.  Southwest has a policy allowing you to book a seat on any flight regardless of the revenue that particular flight.  They’ve added the ability to do one-way flights as well (this seems like a no-brainer).  Finally they have added a miles + cash option.  That’s pretty nice and I would love to see Southwest adopt that some day.

All in all, I don’t see anything here making me want to switch Airlines.  It’s a step in the right direction but they still have a long ways to go.  Apparently this change is so drastic for them, it’s going to take them a full year to implement.   If you’re interested in reading more about Delta’s new SkyMiles program, you can go to their site.

 

Advertisements

12 reasons why I fly Southwest

In my intro article, I go into some of the reasons why I prefer Southwest Airlines to others.  However, it’s worth spelling out in detail some of the things I just luv about the company (cheesy I know).  When a company does me right or shakes things up, I will support them to the end.  Southwest is a great example of that.  Here are the reasons why I fly Southwest.

1) No change Fees

As someone who has worked in IT in the travel industry, I have a pretty good idea of what it takes to change a booking in a reservation system.  Reservations are stored in a database somewhere usually on some legacy mainframe type system.  Even so, should it cost $200 to update a few records in a database?  Southwest says no!  I hate change fees. They are a blatant tactic to rip you off.  People’s plans change especially when flying for business.  Why should you be so penalized?  Since Southwest doesn’t charge change fees, if I get done with my business early, I can catch an earlier flight home.  Changing a flight last minute but the one you want is full?  Just try again later and chances are a seat will open up.  That’s because you can change your flight at any time.  As a result, people are constantly changing their flights even up until the last minute. This means that flight that was sold out this morning may have seats available this afternoon.

I will caveat this though that if the fare price goes up since you booked it, you will have to pay the difference.  You just don’t have a change fee of $150 or more tacked onto it.  If you are flying an Anytime or Business Select fare though, you can change it any time and never have to pay any more.  I love traveling on these tickets because I can change my plans at any time.

 2) No Baggage Fees

After 9/11 when none of the big airlines could turn a profit, they ushered in the era of bag fees.  At $15 – $30 these add up quickly.  Again, Southwest said, “we’re not doing that” and they brag about it all the time in their commercials.  This is an example of where Southwest is doing the right thing and the big airlines still don’t get it.  They think the key to profitability is nickel and diming.  Instead if they would adapt they could find profitability by filling their planes more.

3)  Rapid Rewards

Hands down the best frequent flyer program out there.  With no blackout dates, you can find a seat on any flight.  You earn more points on refundable fares and Business Select compared to other airlines.  When it comes to redeeming, shorter flight are cheaper than longer flights.  That means a trip from Houston to Dallas is significantly cheaper than a flight from Houston to Seattle.  Your reward points simply go farther.

4) No small planes

By small planes I mean something with less than 100 seats or a propeller.  I’m not a fan of any plane that I can’t stand up in.  Southwest is the largest operator of Boeing 737 aircraft (with over 550 in service).  As I understand it, the standardization on the 737 is strategic as they don’t need to have its pilots train on multiple models of aircraft.  Thanks to my colleague Mark Cerro for pointing out that this standardization also reduces maintenance and part inventory expenses.  As a consumer, it benefits us greatly because that means we never have to get on a plane that has a propeller or where you can’t stand up.

5) Point-to-Point system

The Point-to-Point system is Southwest’s answer to serving cities in smaller markets.  Whereas with the big stuffy airlines using hub-and-spoke, when you live in a small city, the only direct flight you are going to get is to the hub city.  With Southwest’s use of point-to-point, it allows them to offer more direct flights to destinations farther away.  That means, a city like Tulsa can fly all the way to Las Vegas.  Whereas, if you took United you get to fly to Houston first, likely on a small plane.

6) Safety Record

Southwest is considered one of the safest airlines in the world.  It operated for nearly thirty years before it had it’s first accident injuring 43 people.  In fact, no passenger has ever died as a result of a crash.  Sure a plane occasionally lands at the wrong airport, but that seems to be happening to lots of carriers lately. :)

 7) Open Seating

While some people fear open seating, I embrace it.  This system lets people choose where they want to sit.  Prefer an aisle seat?  No problem, pick the first one you can find.  Does the person in row 3 look sketchy?  Fine, go sit in row 9.  It also lets people make changes easier when a family needs to sit together.  The system just works.  It beats a system where 40% of the seats are reserved for premium economy.  Those seats are nice, but the price to pay for them is usually significant.  Most people don’t opt to pay for them so they get assigned out like upgrades too.  This ends up causing people who book later to not be eligible for seat assignment when they book the ticket.  Then when you check-in, you get some random seat that you usually don’t want.

 8) Faster at boarding

I’ve heard many people say Southwest can empty and fill a plane faster than anyone.  I don’t have any numbers to back it up but I believe it to be true.  Whereas other airlines need 30 minutes or more to fill an aircraft, Southwest can do it in less than 25.  The reason behind this is because of open seating.  The elitism of the big airlines lets all those with status on first.  This means the airline doesn’t fill from front to back, it’s all over the place.  This makes the process take longer.  That’s my theory at least.

 9) Customer Service

Customer Service with Southwest is top notch.  Being in the IT industry, I use Twitter a lot.  So does Southwest (@SouthwestAir).  Whenever I have a question, I can post it to Twitter and usually get a response the same day.   They are especially responsive if you have an issue. For example, one time I had trouble connecting to the WiFi using my A-List Preferred benefit.  I ended up paying for it using my credit card. I mentioned it on Twitter and I had my purchase refunded before I even hit the ground.  One member of the customer advocacy team in particular, @SouthwestNicole, takes care of my requests all the time.  I am truly impressed with the great support the company offers via social media.   According to the Department of Transportation, Southwest has consistently received the fewest number of complaints to customer ratio as well.

 10) Doesn’t promote elitism

Look at the big airlines. There is such a difference between the haves and have-nots, it reminds me of the caste system.  When you walk up to the gate, there is the special red carpet for those in first class and those who have status.  Boarding starts and then they call out each level of status: Diamond, Ruby, Platinum, Gold, and Silver one at a time.  Once the flight takes off, they close the curtain on first class so that the riff-raff behind them can’t see the elites enjoying themselves.

Southwest has none of that.  While it is true, the people with status get boarding position.  There is no process where they single them out as they are announcing them on the loud speaker (with the exception of Business Select) to indicate how many people have better status than you.  In fact, the person in line with you may be A-List preferred or have no status at all.  Once you’re on the plane, everyone is the same because the flight attendants have no idea who has status and who doesn’t.  If you’re sitting up front, it’s true that you might, but not always.  You could be a through passenger or maybe you just got lucky.  As a result, the flight attendants don’t just treat the people up front nicely, they treat everyone well.

 11) Southwest doesn’t cave to aggregators

As someone who has worked in the travel industry, I know how evil aggregators (i.e.: Expedia and Travelocity) are.  They force companies into extremely low rates and often push companies into contracts to have a lower rate with them over direct booking.  When you book through an aggregator, they get a cut (usually a fixed fee) for every reservation.  There is nothing good about this.  If I learned anything from the travel industry, it’s that I will never book anything through an aggregator.  I may use them to shop around, but I will always turn around and book directly through the company’s own web site.  Whether it’s air, hotel, or rental cars, always book directly through their web site.

Southwest rates don’t typically show up on aggregators at all.  That’s because they made the right decision years ago. That means they get more profit per transaction on Southwest.com which means they can offer you lower fares.  They do show up on some corporate booking systems (such as Egencia and Concur), but often you have to go select the airline manually to get a rate to come up.  They won’t come up on a general search.

 12) Company Culture

A lot of companies like to claim they have a great company culture, but Southwest really does.  It’s apparent in every thing they do.  Fortune magazine regularly lists Southwest as one of America’s Top Ten admired companies.  You can tell that the employees really do like working there.  They smile at you and greet you when you walk on the plane.  They don’t roll their eyes at you when you make a request.  They’ll sing to you when you land. The employees are constantly doing things for the community too.  Take a look at the Southwest blog and you’ll always see the great things they are doing for others. Southwest puts people first and their success and profitability come as a natural result of it.  As a result, it’s a company that I would love to work with some day.

These are just some of the reasons why I fly Southwest?  Why do you?  Leave a comment below?  Like one of the big stuffy airlines?  Leave a comment below and tell us why you think they are better.

For those new to Southwest, be sure and read my Beginner’s Guide.

8 tips for renting cars

After spending nearly five years in the rental car industry, I have picked up some knowledge of how to have a decent rental car experience.  Today I share my knowledge with you.  Some of you out there know a lot of this already.  However, I run into people all the time that don’t know these tips.

1) Absolutely, enroll in the company’s loyalty program

You might be thinking this is so that you get perks like free rental days or airline points, but it is not. The sole purpose of this is to keep from getting ripped off.  It’s a known fact, that rental car companies often employ some questionable people at their facilities.  I know a lot of people that have been swindled by agents at the counter.  It’s also a fact that, rental car agents get commission for suckering you into buying insurance.  They will lie and do whatever it takes to convince you to take that insurance, when you do NOT need it.  They will tell you that you are signing to decline insurance when you really are accepting it.  Just do a search on the Internet and car rental insurance and you will see what I mean.

So how do you keep from getting ripped off?  Never talk to a rental car agent.  The only way that can happen is if you enroll in the loyalty program.  Why does that help you from getting ripped off?  It’s because when you enroll in the loyalty program, you pre-select which insurance options you want to have on every rental you book.  Once you have declined everything in your profile and you book, your car will usually be ready for you when you get to the lot and you can skip the counter entirely.

Another benefit to signing up for the loyalty program is that you can skip the line at the main counter.  If you have ever shown up at a peak time to HOU or LAX, you know that standing in that line is an hour of your life you will never get back.  The line will be 30 people deep and each agent will take their sweet time hoping to sucker you into accepting insurance.  However, when you use the loyalty program, the person on the bus will tell you what slot your car is waiting for you in or your name will be on the board with a slot number.  Now sometimes, you arrive and they don’t have things quite ready and you have to talk to someone. However, that agent is different and they will just give you your car and not push insurance on you.

Of course being in the loyalty program can get you other perks as well.  Most have an option to get a free rental day after X amount of days booked.  However, it is hardly ever worth it.  Many, have partnerships with airline partners and you can typically get 500 bonus points to the airline of your choice.  I recommend going with the airline points because the free rental days are hardly ever worth it.

2) Decline all insurance

The first tip leads us right into the second, decline all insurance if you already have an auto insurance policy.  Check your policy to be sure, but most auto insurance policies will cover any vehicle you drive including rentals. Rental car companies often offer three or more insurances costing you more than $30 / day.  You probably don’t need it, but the counter agent will say whatever it takes to scare you into accepting the insurance.  I’ve even seen some lie and say “sign here to decline coverage” when you are actually accepting it.  Read everything the counter agent puts in front of you.

If you live in a city like New York or Boston and you don’t have a car, you may need to consider it though, but still there are probably better options.  Many credit cards also offer some supplemental insurance as well.  This can usually be combined with your own insurance too to eliminate your deductible.

3) Companies should enroll in a corporate renter program

No matter how large your company is, your company should enroll in a corporate rental program.  At the minimum, this locks in your rates on weekdays to something reasonable often in the $50+ per day range.  This is absolutely necessary as it caps your rates on weekdays. Otherwise the rates during the week will get as high as they can get away with because people will pay them.  I’ve met plenty of people who have paid $500+ for a three day rental when it should have only been $150.

4) Don’t be afraid to ask for another vehicle

It’s not uncommon that there is something wrong with the vehicle or you just don’t like it.  If they gave you a sports car or a giant SUV and you just don’t want it, tell them.  Don’t be afraid to ask what they gave you at the loyalty program counter.  If the car smells like smoke, ask for another car or tell the person at the gate if you don’t mind. You don’t want to get stuck with a fee because the person before you trashed the car.

Unless you are paying for a premium vehicle, rental cars are rarely anything spectacular.  In the lower rate tiers, I recommend choosing at least full-size as you often get upgraded to a better car or small SUV.  If you choose anything smaller, then you are likely to get something bad like a Mitsubishi Gallant.  Rental car companies love those cars because they are cheap.  Rest assure they have absolutely no in-car features and you are lucky to even get A/C and an AM radio.  Ok, it’s not quite bad, but pretty close.  Choose a slightly larger size and it usually pay off.  The price difference is usually negligible.

5) Inspect your car

Rental car companies used to be pretty proactive about handing you a sheet where you can indicate what damage has already been done to the car.  I’ve noticed many of them don’t do that as much lately.  If you get a sheet or not, walk around the car and look for any major scratches.  If you do get a sheet, mark it full of Xs whether there is damage there or not and hand it to the gate agent.  It protects you should they want to claim damage.

6) Some Companies have fewer shuttles

If you travel to a particular city a lot, pay attention to which car rental companies have the most shuttles coming through.  For example, when it comes to Texas, Dollar Thrifty tends to have fewer shuttles than everyone.  It’s not uncommon to see three Hertz shuttles for every one Dollar Thrifty shuttle.  If a car rental company is keeping you waiting a lot, try and change companies if you can.  The difference is you will probably pay half as much with Dollar Thrifty over Hertz.  This is ironic because Hertz owns Dollar Thrifty now.

7) Don’t rent the GPS

Renting a GPS has got to be the biggest rip-off I have ever seen.  Expect a unit that is at least three years old if you do rent one.  By the time you finish renting one for a week, you could have just bought one for yourself.  Instead do yourself a favor and pull out your phone and use one of it’s navigation apps.  Most platforms have something for free that can likely get you where you need to go.

It takes a lot of volume to turn a profit in the car rental industry.  For a typical company they have to have at least a billion in revenue to turn a profit of a handful of millions.  As a result, the industry is pretty cut throat and they have to do whatever it takes to boost revenue.  However, if you are smart you can come out ahead on your rentals.

8) Bring your car seat

If you are traveling with the family, bring your own car seat and check it with the airline.  This is a pain I know because it’s one more thing you have to travel with.  However, if you rent a car seat, it’s going to cost you at least $12 / day.  After a week’s rental, you could have bought a car seat or two.

And for one last bonus tip.  After you book the car, go back to the site (remember always book directly) and see if the rate has changed.  I find that it’s not uncommon at all for the rate to drop as the pickup time gets closer.   Unlike most of the airline industry, you can change your reservation at any time without penalty (assuming you haven’t prepaid).

I hope you find these tips helpful the next time you rent a car.  Do you have any other tips to share?  Do you have a story to share about being taken at the rental counter?  Leave it in a comment below.

A beginner’s guide to flying Southwest

Updated: April 13th, 2015

I have to admit when I started flying regularly for business years ago,  I really hadn’t considered flying Southwest.  I had taken a project in Houston and it meant I was going to start traveling there every week for the better part of a year.  Living in the small town of Tulsa, our flight options are quite limited.  Only United and Southwest had direct flights.  I booked a flight on United and thought I was good to go.  Then my coworker came over and said, “we should fly Southwest.”.  Begrudgingly I thought “why not” and I cancelled my flight and re-booked with Southwest.  When it comes to travel, this is the best decision I ever made.

This travel was last minute, so when I booked I noticed there wasn’t really any negligible difference in cost between the “Anytime” fare and the “Business Select” fare. I booked the Business Select because I heard that got me on earlier and there were free drinks involved.  I heard you needed to check in 24 hours in advance so I did and out popped out a boarding pass with a position of “A-3”.  I got to the airport and realized I qualify for the premium line which still took 15+ minutes on a Monday morning at 5 am.  This beat the 45 minute alternative in the other line though.  When I got to the gate, it clicked that I was going to be one of the first people on the plane.  “How cool was that?” I thought.  I got on the plane, sat myself down in 2-D and the next thing you know I was landing at my destination.  I then realized that my perception of the airline was all wrong.

Perception

I travel to a number of conferences a year and often the conversation with my colleagues centers around the travel experience getting there.  A lot of my colleagues have status on “other” airlines.  When discussing the journey to the conference, some are happy because they got upgraded to first class and others are pissed off because they didn’t this time.  When I tell people, I flew Southwest there, the reaction I usually get is “ewww”.   It turns out the open-seating policy of Southwest scares a lot of people.   They are terrified that they are going to get high-centered (stuck in a middle seat).  What they don’t know is there are ways to make that system work for you.

It occurred to me that your experience with these other airlines is directly related to whether or not you got the upgrade or not.  If you did, you are loving life and if you didn’t, the experience is miserable.  It takes a lot of flying to get status on those other airlines so until you have status the experience is usually terrible.  Even when you get it, you are still rolling the dice.  It’s even worse if you are traveling with a companion because if one of you does get upgraded and the other doesn’t, it makes for a difficult decision.  Take the upgrade for yourself?  Let your companion have it?  Take one for the team and sit in the back?  Either way, you lose.

Not to say that you can’t have a bad travel experience with Southwest though.  You can get high centered between two unpleasant people and you’re going to have a bad time.  However, if you are smart, you can increase your odds from that happening.  In fact, in all my travel over the last several years, I have never once sat in a center seat unless I chose to do so when traveling with a companion.  How do you avoid it?  Read on.

Improving your boarding position

There are a number of ways to increase your odds of getting a good (or at least a decent) seat.  It’s all keyed around when you get to check-in.  For most people, this is 24 hours from the time of departure.  Regardless of status, for the best boarding position, you need to check in at this time.   The exact magic behind the assignment of boarding position is considered a trade secret.  However, I can tel you the later you wait to check-in, the more people that will be in front of you.

Business Select

How do you get the best boarding position?  You pay with Business Select.  This is the most high priced fare that Southwest offers. It’s as close as you can get to the other airlines’ first or business class.  Don’t fret because paying isn’t the only way to get boarding position.  Business Select typically costs what the “Anytime” (refundable) fare costs plus $16 – $22.  For personal travel, that will seem quite expensive.  But for business travel booked with short notice, it’s often in reach.  It’s definitely more in reach than a first class fare on other carriers which is usually 5 times the cost of the economy fare.

What does Business Select get you?  You’ll be one of the first on the plane with a position of A1 – A15, you’ll get the most rapid rewards points possible for the flight, and you’ll get a free drink coupon for that flight.  Note, if you don’t use your drink coupon on that flight, you can usually get away with using it on another flight.  This is a good use for those drink coupons you get from those 6 am flights on the way to see a client.  It means you can double-up on the way home.

Do you need to worry about checking in with Business Select?  Yes and No.  If you check in at the 24 hour window, you have the opportunity to beat out the other people with your fare and be the very first on the plane.  However, even if you don’t check-in until you show up at the airport, the worst boarding position, you can possibly have is A-15.

Board earlier with status

After Business Select, the people that get better boarding position are those with status.  These people are pretty much guaranteed an A position unless they book inside the 24 hour check-in window.  When it comes to status, there are three levels A-List, A-List Preferred, and Companion Pass.  You can get these by earning 35,000, 70,000, and 110,000 points respectively.  That may seem like a lot but remember when I said I earned 6500 points on my first round-trip?  It can accrue faster than you would think.  Once you get status, you can typically expect a boarding position on every flight between A16 and A45 or so with those with A-List preferred getting better numbers.  We’ll talk more about getting status in a bit.

EarlyBird Check-in

As a new Southwest flyer, your best bet for decent boarding position while you are earning status is by paying the $12.50 for EarlyBird Check-in each way.  This checks you in automatically 36 hours in advance.  Don’t expect a spectacular boarding position, but you have a pretty good chance of getting an A boarding pass.  Typically this will put you in the A45 – A60 range.  If you do want to opt for EarlyBird Check-in, be sure and do it more than 36 hours in advance.

Regular Check-in

There’s no reason to get a C boarding pass unless you either mess up or you change your flight at the last minute.  When I say mess up, that means you didn’t check in until you got to the airport.  If you don’t have status and you’re not willing to pay, I can’t reiterate enough about checking in 24 hours in advance.  You can do it at Southwest.com, using their app, or on their mobile web site.  Wherever you are, you should be able to check-in.  If you need help remembering to check in, you can download you flights directly to your Outlook calendar and it will set a reminder 24 hours in advance for you to check-in.

Those with Rapid Rewards numbers seem to get higher priority than those who don’t.  I haven’t confirmed this but I believe this to be true after checking in some family fairly recently.  We checked in right at the 24 hour mark and they got a B-30 boarding pass.  It doesn’t matter if you have never flown a single flight, sign up for Rapid Rewards and get that number attached to you reservation.

Earning Status

For those new to Southwest, you have to do your time before you get the good boarding positions.  Luckily, I think it is a bit easier to get status on Southwest than it is on other airlines.   When it comes to tier qualifying points or TQP, you’ll find that you get them faster on Southwest than other airlines because the number of points you earn is tied directly to the price you paid for your ticket.  The price of each ticket is multiplied by a multiplier based on the fare type (Wanna Get Away, Anytime, or Business Select) to get the number of points you will earn.  The multiplier are 6, 10, and 12 respectively.  The higher the cost of the ticket, the more points you will earn.

For personal travel, book early

Like any airline, fares are lower when you book in advance.  If you know you are traveling but don’t know exactly when, go ahead and book.  With Southwest, you can always change your flight at any time without paying a change fee.  This is one of the things I love best about Southwest.  We all know it’s ridiculous to pay $150 to change a few rows in a database on some mainframe somewhere.  When you do a change, as long as you don’t wait too long, it probably won’t cost you any more.  Just know that the fares go up when you cross the two weeks out and one week out boundaries.

When it comes to personal travel though, it’s going to be hard to earn status because you are booking flights early.  If you are booking a $69 sale fare, you are more likely to hit status off the number of flights (25 to hit A-List) than with points.  The x6 multiplier and low fare simply just don’t add up.  What does work out though is when you are booking reward travel because those low fares costs you very little in points.  We’ll talk about reward travel more in a bit.

For business travel, book late (if you can)

Most of your points are going to be earned when you are traveling for business.  The reason for this is that a lot of business travel isn’t booked far in advance.  With Southwest, the Wanna Get Away fares tend to disappear once you are less than seven days from your departure date.  This means if you are booking travel for a trip next week, you’ll likely get the more costly Anytime fare.  This fare has a multiplier of 10 instead of 6.  This means not only are you going to get more points because the fare was higher, you are also going to get even more because of the multiplier.

For example, a flight one week from today going to Houston to New Orleans will cost $183 with the Wanna Get Away fare.  If you wait until tomorrow, the Wanna Get Away fare is gone because it is inside 7 days and the airplanes are a certain top secret percentage booked.  So if you wait until you book tomorrow, the flight is now $217 and only the Anytime fare is available.  Let’s do the math.

Fare Cost * Multiplier = Points
Wanna Get Away $183 * 6 = 1098
Anytime $217 * 10 = 2170
Business Select $233 * 12 = 2796

See how the Anytime fare, gets you double the points?  That’s just for one way too.  Book a similar fare on your way back and you are raking in points quickly.  Business Select gets you even more.  If you have A-List, tack on another 25% in bonus points and if you have A-List Preferred tack on another 100%.    The bonus points don’t count towards your status but they do let you fly places.

The other nice thing about the Anytime fare is that it is fully refundable so you can do standby travel on earlier flights.  Otherwise, if you have a reduced fare ticket, you have to pay to upgrade to an Anytime fare before you can standby.  That means you get home sooner when you get out of your last meeting early.

Now, I am not going to encourage you to cost your company or client more money by booking late.  However, just know that if you do, you are going to get your status a lot quicker.  I had to book a last minute flight from Houston to LGA once last year and it cost nearly $1000.  Since I took Business Select, the multiplier was 12 which meant 12,000 points.   Since I was A-List Preferred, those points doubled giving me 24k.  That’s enough points to fly just about anywhere in the US.

Upgrade your Anytime fares to Business Select

Most companies aren’t likely going to let you book a Business Select fare even if you do a book a last minute flight.  That’s ok though.  When you have an Anytime fare, the cost difference to upgrade is usually only $16 or $22.  I will usually pay this out of pocket because I am going to spend money on a drink anyways and it gets me on the plane faster.  It also gets you more points.  If you had to book your travel through a third party travel system, you will more than likely have to call Southwest to buy the upgrade.  Just give them a call and you’re good to go.  Don’t worry.  Changing your fare won’t mess up your travel system, your expense report, or the original payment of the fare.

What does status get you?

Starting with A-List, this gets you into the fly-by or premium lane at the security check point.  You’ll get 25% more points for every fight you take.   You’ll have a better boarding position and you get a dedicated phone number that you can call.

With A-List Preferred, the perks get even better. You’ll get a 100% bonus on all flights you take.  That means double points.  You’ll be connected on board, because WiFi is free for you.  You’ll have a great boarding position and you also get a dedicated phone number as well.

Lastly Companion Pass is the highest level you can achieve.  This means that any flight you book whether it is bought with cash or points, you can bring a companion with you for free.  Well, it’s almost free, you still have to pay the $2.50 per flight segment TSA 911 security fee.   This companion has to be designated in advance and you can only change it four times a year.  Earning companion pass actually has a separate point counter though, Companion Pass Qualifying Points (CPQP).  This is because, you can earn points for it in other ways such as the Southwest credit card.  This also means your boarding pass will still say A-List Preferred instead of Companion Pass.  In an upcoming article, I’ll have complete coverage of how to earn it and what happens when you do.

Reward Travel

If you start following my advice, your points are going to add up quickly.  This means you are going to want to go somewhere fun.  This is where Southwest really excels.  They really do have the best loyalty program in my opinion.  You’ve probably seen the commercials or maybe the signs, but their rewards travel doesn’t have blackout dates and a lot of flights can be quite cheap.  With the big stuffy airlines, it’s likely going to cost you 25k points whether you are flying from Houston to Dallas or from LAX to LGA. This tends to make people hold on to their points with those carriers because they want to save them for “some place good”.  Some of the other carriers just use a flat credit system like Southwest used to have.  You basically get one or two credits per flight and when you have 16, you can actually go somewhere.  This causes the same problem because you don’t want to waste your free travel on a short flight.

With Southwest, for Wanna Get Away fares, you typically pay around 50 points per dollar.  That means a $200 flight to Vegas will cost you about 10,000 points.  It’s not exact, but it generally falls in that range.  You can toggle between the cost in dollars and points when you are looking at the fares on the web site.

SouthwestFareToggle

Fare toggle on Southwest.com. Allows you to see prices of flights in both Dollars and Points.

When you book in advance, things get really cheap.  For example, that $69 sale fare will only cost less than 4k points.  That means when you book in advance, you can fly from San Antonio to Dallas round trip for around 8,000 points.  The beauty of it is for that 25k points from the other airline, I can now take three short trips instead of one.  On the flip side though, should you book late, you will pay dearly.  That same trip to Dallas will then cost you 20,000 points.  Not fun.  So plan in advance and you’ll be able to maximize the travel you get with your points.

The only costs you will incur is the taxes imposed on the airlines.  For domestic travel, this includes the TSA September 11th Security Fee at $5.60 per flight.  For International travel, the taxes can be quite a bit higher due to fees imposed by foreign governments.

Connecting on Southwest – No small planes!

Southwest offers a lot of direct flights.  However, if you are going far enough or going to a small market, then you may have to make a connection.  What’s different about Southwest is that it doesn’t operate off the horrible hub and spoke system.  They use the Point to Point system.  This means you’ll never be on a tiny plane connecting to your hub.  Instead Southwest offers a continuing flight system.  That means each airplane has a series of stops it goes each day.  The flight crew may change throughout the day but it gives you the opportunity to get somewhere without having to change planes.  This doesn’t mean you never have to change planes but sometimes it reduces your odds of needing to.

Boarding Procedure

You probably know a little about the boarding procedure, but I want to cover it briefly and add in a few points.  The first people on the plane are the pre-boarders.  This group includes those who have a medical necessity to board first as well as unaccompanied minors.  Those who pre-board cannot sit in exit rows.  Southwest uses three boarding groups A, B, and C each with up to 60 people in it.  Your boarding pass will look something like this.  Your boarding group and position is clearly identified there on the right.

Example of a boarding pass on Southwest Airlines.  Boarding Group and Position are indicated on the right.

Example of a boarding pass on Southwest Airlines. Boarding Group and Position are indicated on the right.

After chatting with various passengers over the years, I have determined these letters stand for something:

  • A for Awesome because you will get a decent seat.
  • B for Back as in you are going to be sitting in the back of the plane.
  • C is for Center because you are going to make two friends on this flight instead of one.

Business Select (A1 – A15) comes after that with the first of these getting the distinct honor of handing their boarding pass to the flight attendant.  This indicates to them that general boarding  has now started and that people may sit in the exit rows.  After Business Select, the rest of the A  group boards.

After the A group, anyone with A-List or A-List Preferred status can board.  This is key for those last minute flight changes.  If you have status, this is your guarantee that you will never be left high-centered.  After that it’s family boarding.  Look for a special post on traveling with children but for now, know that if you are traveling with the kids, you can board at this time if you don’t have an A boarding pass.

After that the B and C groups board.  Now if you are planning to travel with a carry-on, your chances of finding overhead bin space greatly diminish the farther back you are.  If you have a high B or a C, do everyone a favor and just check your bag now.  Your bag is not likely to get on and you are just holding everyone else up as the flight attendants help you look for a bin.  If they can’t find a spot, your bag will get gate checked and chances are your flight has taken off late now.

Southwest also has a cute video to walk you through the process.  If you don’t understand the process at all, I recommend you watch it.

In-flight services

Other airlines nickel and dime you in-flight on high priced drinks and satellite television.  Southwest has the most reasonable drink prices around.  While the stuffy airlines charge $6 and $7 for a drink, Southwest still charges just $5 for beer, wine, and cocktails.   They even started offering New Belgium’s Fat Tire on flights (finally a good beer on a plane!).   You can get drinks free sometimes too, but more on that in a future article.  The flight attendants have carrying drinks on a tray down to a science since they don’t push a drink cart like other airlines.  They scribble what each person has ordered onto a sheet of paper using some secret code that only they understand.  This allows for prompt drink service even on the shortest of flights.

On flights less than 2 hours, Southwest offers peanuts and usually pretzels.  Most of the year, you get honey roasted peanuts, the rest of the time you get salted.  On longer flights, Southwest will offer you a variety of snacks from Nabisco including 100-calorie snack packs.  If you are hungry, you best eat something before you board, because Southwest doesn’t offer any kind of meals on the flight, even for purchase.  I am curious if Southwest will have to adapt this any as they offer more service to Caribbean destinations.

The newer Southwest planes (737-700 and 737-800) offer in-flight WiFi.  The older 737-300 and 737-500 don’t have WiFI so I try to avoid those flights whenever possible.  In general if you can look out the window and see winglets (the part that curves upwards) on the wings, it probably has WiFi, but this is not always the case.  WiFi is available for $8 (half the price of GoGo on Delta) and free for A-List Preferred members.  Like most satellite Internet on planes, it is ok for checking E-mail but streaming videos isn’t going to happen with one exception.  Through the wireless portal, you can also access the live TV, games, movie, and a flight tracker.  You can identify flights with WiFi before you go by clicking on the flight information link when you are looking at fares on Southwest.com

Southwest Aircraft Flight Details

Flight information on Southwest airlines. Look here to see if your flight has WiFi.

Using multicast technology, Southwest is able to offer live TV service through a partnership with Dish Network on your mobile device.  This gives you access to stream 15 channels such as NBC, FOX, Food Network, and Bravo.  However, you will notice quickly that a lot of channels are missing such as CBS and ESPN.  I hope the multicast technology continues to improve so that more channels can be added to the lineup.  The streaming works pretty well for the most part and even works on my Surface RT.  They also have a selection of a few shows available on-demand. Movies are also available for $5.

Coming up

I hope this article has helped answer some of your questions about flying Southwest.  If you have had a bad perception of them, I encourage you to give them a try again armed with the information from this blog.  In my upcoming articles, I’ll cover why I chose Southwest, advice on renting cars, and survival guides for all of my favorite (and not-so-favorite) airports.  I’ll also cover things that I think they can do to improve the customer experience even more.  If you are new to Southwest, be sure and follow this blog to make the best of your experience.

Want to know more about making the most of Southwest Airlines, see my series for more articles.

Also see, Twelve reasons why I fly Southwest.

About Corey Roth

Corey Roth is an IT consultant (specializing in Microsoft SharePoint) and frequent Southwest traveler based in Texas.  Before consulting, he worked in the travel industry for five years at Dollar Thrifty Automotive Group where he led the implementation of the online reservation system.  Corey has Companion Pass status and travels on Southwest several times a month.

You can find his IT related blog at DotNetMafia.com, where he blogs about Microsoft SharePoint.

Corey is not affiliated with Southwest Airlines or any other travel partner.