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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Wanna Get Away
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.