My Southwest.com Wish List

Southwest.com is a great web site.  I’m on it several times a week and I consider it one of the better ones out there.  However, as someone who has built a web site serving the travel industry, I have some thoughts on how it could be improved.  Why should anyone listen to me?  They shouldn’t, but I do have experience in the implementation of a lot of web sites.  This experience comes specifically around usability design.  As a die-hard Southwest supporter, I would love to help make the experience better for all users.

Home Page

I like the home page because it has all of the links you need while not being terribly “busy”.  It gives me access to most of the information I need and makes it easy to get started booking flights.  From usability studies of travel sites I have been involved in, I know the first thing the user is looking for is the box containing the reservation section.  Southwest does this right.

Southwest.com Home Page

The home page is critical as it is the entry point to the site.  The desktop version of the home page tends to be a bit heavy and you can experience issues on high-latency connections such as LTE or in-flight while you are waiting for scripts to finish loading.  You’ll see these if you try to type in a location too soon.  If the callback doesn’t go and translate your airport code to the name of the full name of the airport, you’ll get an error when you submit your search.

Southwest gets the job done though and it has a bit of personalization through the use of cookies.  You see this right away as it remembers the last flights you search for.  It also has a recent searches pull-down which lets you view other flights you have looked for.

Through the use of cookies, Southwest saves the last flights you searched for.

Through the use of cookies, Southwest saves the last flights you searched for.

We’ll talk about the rest of the reservation process in a bit.  Let’s look at some of the “widgets” on the home page.   In this case, I am referring to the component on the right hand side of the page the provide modular functionality.

Account Log In

The account log in is your key to personalizing the rest of your home page.  It lets you check-in for your upcoming flights as well as see your current Rapid Rewards points.

Southwest.com Login

Southwest.com Login

The Southwest.com login panel features a Remember Me checkbox.  Unfortunately, there is a long history of this working off-and-on over the last four years.  In fact, it has worked so little that it has forced me to remember my Rapid Rewards number.  Right now, I would say this doesn’t work at all.  It did work for most of 2013 though through the use of a cookie.   I’d love to see this fixed.

After logging in

After you log in, the home page shows you some details including your status and number of points.

SouthwestLoggedInStatus

Check In

After you log in, I believe some of the functionality on the home page should change.  For example, the Check In link prompts you for a Confirmation Number, First Name, and Last Name.  Since I am logged in, it should have this information prepopulated with my next flight (especially if I am within 24 hours).

southwestHomeCheckin

Change Flight

Again this is useful on the home page.  However, once I am logged in, it should not prompt me for my details, it should show me a list of all my existing flights and let me continue from there.

Check Flight Status

This is another situation of a widget that should behave differently when you are logged in.  Actually, it should perform this functionality when you are not logged in and it just knows your rapid rewards number.  It should show you all of your upcoming flights and the status without having to click details or take any other action.  I understand that there may be technical hurdles to this.  However, I feel that flight information can be cached every minute and this data can just be queried against the cache.

SouthwestHomeCheckFlightStatus

My Travel

I love this section, it tells me my next flight and my upcoming flight.

SouthwestHomeMyTravel

I also like that this widget, will have a button present when it is time to check in for my flight.  I often find myself refreshing the home page as I am approaching the 24 hour mark to get my check-in as soon as possible.

What’s this widget  missing?  A link to see the rest of my travel (future and past).  I often have more than one flight booked and I would like to see the rest of them.  I should be able to click a “More” link or maybe on “My Travel” to go to another page to see all my flights.  Instead I have to click on My Account (in a totally different widget) and then View all underneath “Upcoming Trips”.  I would love for this widget to show me my flight status and gate number directly from here.  Ideally, this information would just be shown without any additional clicks.

My Rapid Rewards

This section shows you how you are tracking towards getting status.  It gives you a percentage but doesn’t show actual points.

SouthwestHomeRapidRewards

Clicking on the “To A-List” or “To A-List Preferred” link takes you to the details page.  However, once you get to that page, there is no way to see any other details about Rapid Rewards, nor is there a way to check your other statuses such as Companion Pass.

SouthwestRapidRewardsAccount

I’ll cover more on the Rapid Rewards section in just a bit.

Reservations

I like Southwest’s reservation system a lot.  It’s come a long ways.  Anyone remember back when you used to have to select the departure date with a multi-select box?  Southwest kept this long after the JavaScript popup calendar was invented. :)

Let’s talk about the rates screen next.  Southwest.com shows you what you searched for including the dates and cities.

SouthwestReservationsHeader

From a usability stand-point, what I find lacking here is the ability to completely change the date.  You can click on nearby dates to compare fares, but if you need to change it completely, there is no option to start over.

I like that the rates for the outbound and return flight are on the same page.  I also like that they are priced separately.  This means you can fly to different cities on Southwest without a penalty.  I also love that it’s easy to toggle between dollars and points.

SouthwestReservationsRates

I would like to see a number of additional things here though.   First, i would like to see more of the flight details directly on this page.  Specifically I want to know what type of plane it is and whether or not there is WiFi.  Right now if you want that information, you have to click on the flight number to get that information.

SouthwestAircraftFlightDetails

Next, if the plane has a stop, but not a plane change, it’s buried underneath another mouse click.  I’d like to see this information all at once.

Clicking the "stops" link tells you where the plane stops along the way.

Clicking the “stops” link tells you where the plane stops along the way.

On the next page, you get a confirmation of what you selected before you have to start entering personal information.  I like how it tells you if your flight has WiFi here.  It also tells you when there are limited seats left for Business Select.  Other airlines do this too, but it’s on the rates page.  I think I like it better here since it keeps the rates page cleaner

Southwest.com Reservations Confirm

Scrolling down, you have to hunt a bit for the “Continue” button.  I think the “Add a Hotel” and “Add a Car” sections are a bit too prominent and detract from booking the reservation.  That’s just my personal opinion though.  I’ve never used those ever.  It would be nice if the credit card advertisement wasn’t there since I already had the card, but I don’t mind it too much.

Southwest.com Reservations Continue

When you get to the last page, it prompts you for your traveler information.  If you haven’t logged in yet, I don’t think it does a good chance to prompt you to log in.

Southwest.com Reservations Step 3

As a new user reading from left to right, you are prompted to enter your information.  No where here does it say if you log in, it will populate this information for you.  This should probably be present right above the personal information so that the user doesn’t enter the information twice.   A lot of sites will now allow you apply whatever you entered in and join the loyalty program directly from this screen.  I think this would be a good value add and increase membership for people who aren’t familiar with the benefits.

Further down this page, it prompts you for your default contact method.  It gives you a choice of E-mail, Text, or Call.  This should really default to Text I think..  However, I really think you should be able to specify this setting in your profile and have it automatically set.  That would allow this section to be removed from the page entirely.

Southwest.com Contact Method

After this, you can choose to apply travel funds.  I have to say travel funds need a lot of work with Southwest.com.  The only way to apply them here is if you know the previous reservation number they were associated with.  That means if you ever change or cancel a flight and have funds left over, you better keep track of that confirmation number.  It’s really the only way you have a hope of applying them to your flight.  If you don’t know the reservation number, then you need to know the credit card number used when you booked the flight and you have to call.  Anyhow, we’ll cover that more in a post in the future.

Southwest.com Reservations Apply Travel Funds

Rapid Rewards

I find that the Rapid Rewards section has the information you want but a lot of it is quite buried.  Even as an experienced user of the site, I have trouble finding information such as how I am tracking towards companion pass.  Let’s start with the entry point.  If you click Rapid Rewards in the global navigation, you get something like the following (even when logged in).

Southwest.com Rapid Rewards Landing Page

Southwest.com Rapid Rewards Landing Page

This is great information, but I probably already know this if I am a signed-in member.  Instead as a user, I am expecting to see information on my account, recent travel, points earned, tier status, etc.  Instead, there isn’t a single link to any of this information from the Rapid Rewards section.  How do you get the Rapid Rewards information info you need?  Click on the “My Account” link in the right navigation.  That takes you to the Snapshot page.

Southwest.com Rapid Rewards Snapshot

Southwest.com Rapid Rewards Snapshot

This is your entry point into the account information you are looking for, but some of the thing you want are still a bit hard to find.  This page has some information I am looking for, but has a ton of information I don’t need.  A lot of screen real estate is wasted by the huge buttons on the side.

It shows me my next flight which is great.  However, the View All link probably should be in the bottom right.  Next to Upcoming Trips, it would be nice to show the number of flights I have booked.  They recently changed the text to “Set up Flight Status Messaging”.  This is a nice improvement because it used to say “Get Flight Status”.   The latter makes me think I could get the flight status easily from this screen which was not the case.  Instead it took me to the screen allowing me to sign up for an alert.  I would like to see them add a link when your flight was within 24 hours that had the flight status.  Even better, show the flight status directly on this page without me having to click another link.

Other information I am looking for on this page is about points recently acquired.  It’s there in the bottom left of the screen, but it barely makes “the fold” (if you still believe in that old dated design paradigm).

Saved flights are a nice concept but pretty much useless because they are buried.  It’s easier to just type in your cities on the home page again.  If they exposed this information there, they would get more use.  Past flights can be useful from time to time.  However, I have never seen anything on Promotions ever so it probably needs to go.

If you scroll down this page, you will see an icon for “View my Tier Progress”.

View My Tier progress at the bottom of the Rapid Rewards Snapshot

View My Tier progress at the bottom of the Rapid Rewards Snapshot

This link confuses me a bit.  First, it should just show your tier progress which you can see by clicking “My Rapid Rewards” in the navigation.  It takes you to this page in the Rapid Rewards section which shows your status.

Tier status page in Rapid Rewards

Tier status page in Rapid Rewards

However, this isn’t the page you get if you click on “My Rapid Rewards”.  That leads to a bit of confusion to the user.  It turns out most of the pages you need are underneath the My Rapid Rewards menu item, but there is no central navigation between any of the items.

Landing page when clicking My Rapid Rewards

Landing page when clicking My Rapid Rewards.

Clicking on this page yields you absolutely no useful information.  Again, the huge buttons on the left waste a lot of screen real estate.  However, if you happen to scroll down a little bit, some of the most valuable information in the whole section is there in the left.  It’s how you are tracking on all tiers.

Scroll down on the My Rapid Rewards page to find your tier status and recently awarded points

Scroll down on the My Rapid Rewards page to find your tier status and recently awarded points.

Here you can see how you are tracking towards tier status, Companion Pass, and your recent rewards activity.  If you remember from my introductory post, you have two separate qualifying point totals: one for tier status and one for Companion pass.  Here is where you see that information.

Clicking “View My Details” takes you a screen where you can view your point history for Rapid Rewards point, tier status, and Companion Pass status.  I find this information highly valuable, so I feel it should be promoted in the navigation over the current links they have there today.  Ideally, you can get it directly from the snapshot page.

View your rapid rewards activity with a variety of filters.

View your rapid rewards activity with a variety of filters.

Once you find this page, I find that it works pretty well.  It has the right amount of filters and provides enough details to figure out where your points came from.

My Travel

Clicking on My Travel shows you similar information from the snapshot.  Again, I think it should show you more than just one flight.  It should show you all future flights booked (within reason).

My Travel page inside Rapid Rewards section.

My Travel page inside Rapid Rewards section.

If one of your upcoming flights will earn you points, it will show an estimated number of points.  This is the raw base value of the points received based on the fare type you booked.  It would be nice though if it showed you the number of points you get with your bonuses such as A-List (25%) and A-List Preferred (100%).  In reality, this flight should give me around 6,452 points.  I’m sure there are a number of technical complexities to make that happen so if it’s not feasible, maybe state something like (+ tier bonus points).

Estimated points for upcoming flights does not include bonuses.

Estimated points for upcoming flights does not include bonuses.

Flight Status

The flight status page can be a bit frustrating for me.  As I mentioned above, I have to type my flight information in every time, even though the web site knows what my next flight is.  This often leads me to typing in the departure and arrival cities without specifying a flight number (since I rarely remember it).  This gives me a list of all the flights for the day.

The Southwest.com flight status page doesn't show status unless you click on the details link.

The Southwest.com flight status page doesn’t show status unless you click on the view status link.

What’s missing here?  The actual flight status.  To find out the status, you need to click the “View Status” link.

Clicking view status shows you the gate number and flight status.

Clicking view status shows you the gate number and flight status.

That’s great, I have the flight status now.  When I have a flight later in the day, I will check this page throughout the day.  Unfortunately, this page doesn’t refresh automatically.  If I hit the browser refresh button (F5), it will reload the page and then I will have to click the “View Status” page yet again.  I would love for this page to just show the status automatically, but maybe there is a performance issue with the way the data is retrieved.  I fully understand that.

To get to a page that you can actually refresh, click “Details”.  Here you will get a page dedicated to this flight.  Hitting refresh will reload the page and won’t require any additional clicks.  If you happen to know the flight number when you start your search, you will be taken directly to this page as well.  What I would really like is for this page to update itself periodically.  I would also like it to have a time stamp on it on when the status was last updated.  That way when you hit refresh on a slow connection, you can tell if the status actually updated or not.

Session Timeouts

As a Rapid Rewards member, any time I return to the Southwest.com site to book a new flight, I get prompted with the following.

Session timeout received when returning to Southwest.com.

Session timeout received when returning to Southwest.com.

I fully understand why session timeouts occur.  When you are booking a flight, the fares are only good for so long.  It should definitely display this message if you start to book a flight and then get interrupted because you went to a meeting and came back.  However, it shouldn’t show this message when you open a new browser and come back to the site three days later.  It should clear my session automatically and take me to the home page without an error.

Summary

Southwest makes a great web site that serves my needs from booking to checking my tier status.  Why did I take all the time to document this?  Because, I am passionate about Southwest and I am a user of the site several times a week.  I feel that I can share a unique perspective from both an end user and someone that understands UX.  I love the people at Southwest and by no means is this a knock on the hard work from the great people in marketing and IT behind the web site.    I care about the end users of the site.  The better the experience for the user, the more successful the site can be.

I decided not to include the mobile site or the in-flight site as this post is already long enough.  Be on the lookout for future posts on how I think we can improve the user experience for those sites too.  I’ve got lots of ideas for all of these sites, so if anyone at Southwest wants to talk more in detail, I’d be happy to.

Have other ideas for improvements to Southwest.com?  Leave a comment!

Using TSA PreCheck with Southwest and Egencia

As I have mentioned in the past, I’m not really a fan of aggregators.  Unfortunately, many companies make you book your travel through providers such as Egencia, American Express, or Concur.  I’ve used Egencia for the past several years with my employers.  Since Southwest isn’t aggregator friendly, the experience isn’t always the best but it has improved some.  I’d prefer to be able to book my travel directly through SWABIZ, but I haven’t had a company let me do that yet.

Depending on how your company has set up Egencia, Southwest rates may or may not show up in the general rate search.  If they don’t show up, the trick is to choose them manually in the Airline selector before you request the rate.

Select Southwest in the Airline list on Egencia.

Select Southwest in the Airline list on Egencia.

TSA Precheck

When it comes to TSA Precheck, the first step is to add your TSA Known Traveler Number to My Profile -> TSA Secure Flight.  Unfortunately, this does not work with reservations booked with Southwest right now.  What happens is that this number gets written into your reservation number as a TSA Redress Number instead.  That doesn’t help you.  As a result, when you go to check in and print your boarding pass, TSA Pre will not be on your boarding pass.

So how do you get TSA Precheck to work when this happens?  Unfortunately, you have to call Southwest (1-800-I-FLY-SWA).  Give them a call and ask them to add your TSA Known Traveler number to your reservation.  Many agents will just add it for you.  Some will ask you to provide the number to them.  That sucks I know, but that’s about the only solution right now.  It beats going through the regular line though.

Setting this value in your profile works with other airlines such as American, Delta, and United, etc.  However, as you Southwest flyers know, they just got TSA Precheck a few months ago.   I suspect, it will work eventually through Egencia, but who knows.  I submitted a request through the Contact form, I’ll post updates as I hear them.

Flying with Children on Southwest

If you travel a lot, you may soon realize that you have enough points to fly the whole family somewhere. As great as a vacation sounds with your spouse and kids, getting there via air can be quite the ordeal.   A lot of families fly on Southwest, especially on weekends and holidays and you can too.  These tips can help make the day less stressful and get you there in a better mood.  Do this, and hopefully, you won’t be “that family.”

Set expectations

I’m no expert on parenting, but I think many of you will agree, if you tell your kids what is going on ahead of time, you can avoid a lot of issues.  For example when going through security, if you don’t tell your two year old that they are going to get their blanket back after it goes through the X-ray, you are likely to experience a melt down.  For all they know that monstrous machine is going to swallow it whole and never give it back.

Take the time, to explain to your kids what will happen when you are checking bags, going through security, boarding, and in flight.  Explain what they can and can’t do ahead of time.  The more they know, the less likely there will be an issue when something unexpected happens such as a flight delay.

Arrive earlier than you normally do

As a business traveler, I know I can show up at my airport exactly 52 minutes before my flight and get through security and have a beer before getting in line to board.  That’s not going to fly when you have the kids with you.  Give yourselves double the time that you normally do.  Don’t give yourself too much time though, because idle time kills.  As soon as your child gets bored waiting to board, sure enough, he or she is going to get in trouble.  Whether it is running off or hitting their brother, it’s going to happen.

Bring Entertainment

This one is obvious. I don’t know how people ever traveled with kids before the age of hand-held electronic devices.  Even if your child isn’t in to games, they can always watch a movie on your tablet.  Make sure your devices are fully charged and bring the power adapters.  You never know when your flight is going to get delayed.  Once that entertainment device dies, they will look for other means of entertainment such as punching their little sister.  What’s nice now is that the devices don’t have to be turned off during takeoff and landing.  This makes that time a bit more tolerable.

Bring Credentials

As some of my extended family recently learned, you can’t travel with an infant (less than 2 years old) without a birth certificate.  I assume this is to keep people from stealing babies.  Children between 2 and 12 don’t need any identification unless you are traveling internationally.

Pack lightly

This is hard to do I know, especially with small children. The fewer suitcases you can bring the better.  Keep in mind you are carrying those, your carry-ons, the kids, maybe a stroller and a car-seat.  That’s a lot!  If you can bring one less suit case, it makes a big difference.  Sometimes, rental car companies will let you rent car seat, but it is usually quite cost-prohibitive, so you might as well bring yours.

Inspect your child’s carry-on

The last thing you want do is get pulled out of security because your child packed a toy gun or 16 ounces of liquid soap.  Go through your child’s bag multiple times.  I guarantee you will likely find some kind of contraband.  Check it right before you get in the car too before heading to the airport. You never know what they will slip in there.

Bring snacks

A hungry child is a loud child.  Bring snacks because otherwise you’ll end up buying high priced snacks at the airport.  Once you are on the plane, if you don’t have anything, you’re just screwed until the peanuts and pretzels come around.  My children also tend to become “hungry”, when they get bored.  Sometimes, a quick 100-calorie pack is the perfect distraction.

Take the time to explain the drink and snack service on the plane.  Also warn your children that sometimes, this service doesn’t happen due to turbulence.  This will help avoid any issues should the service get interrupted.

Have a boarding strategy

As a frequent traveler, you may find yourself with status and therefore having a nice A boarding pass.  The problem, your spouse and kids are likely stuck with a B or C.  You should know that there is no way the gate agent is going to let your spouse on with you when they are in a different boarding group.  I can usually get my kid on with me though. Although, lately, I saw a gate agent deny early boarding to the kids.  So you are taking your chances with this technique.

What you absolutely don’t want to do is get on early and then try to save a whole row of seats for your spouse and kids.  That’s a real asshole thing to do and everyone on the plane will hate you.  If you want to sit together, my recommendation is that you just wait and board with the rest of your family.

Of course what I haven’t mentioned yet is Family Boarding.  This allows those traveling with small children (under the age of 5) to board after the A group.  This is your best bet for traveling with small children.  You won’t be sitting up front, but you will be able to easily get a seat together somewhere in the middle of the plane.  Family boarding does not mean you get on before everyone else.

Children under 2 traveling on your lap are free but is it worth it?

Usually not.  For a short flight, it may be no big deal. If you are making a connection and going to be in the air 3+ hours, suck it up and pay for another seat.  On longer flights, your baby might fall asleep. It’s nice to be able to put them in a car seat.  Southwest offer reduces fares for children under 12 but you have to call to get them.  When I am booking reward travel, I have never bothered before and I just pay the whole amount.

Say hi to the pilots, but get out of the way

It’s cool for you to introduce your child to the pilots, but don’t do so at the expense of everyone behind you.  Remember, there are people behind you trying to get on the plane.

Explain what is happening on the plane

If your children are new to travel, take the time to explain takeoff and landing.  When they hear a noise such as the wings moving or the fasten seat belt sign, explain what it is.   Tell your kids about turbulence before it happens.  In my experience, the more information I arm my kids with before-hand, the better.

Hopefully, these tips will help you get you and your family to your next vacation destination.  If everything else fails, you can always ask the fight attendant for a drink.  I’ve had more than one take pity on me when experiencing troubles keeping the kids happy.

Houston Hobby Airport Survival Guide

I called the Houston Hobby (HOU) airport my home for several years before moving on.  I’ve always liked it. It’s a smaller airport, but just big enough to get you just about wherever you want to go on Southwest in one hop.  Here you can fly anywhere from around Texas to New York (LGA).  The airport features 20 gates notably dominated by Southwest.  It’s recently seen a host of improvements including TSA Pre-check, Clear, and a new baggage claim.  It has a small food court in the middle along with local restaurants further into the terminal itself.

Looking towards gates 40 - 49.

Looking towards gates 40 – 49.

Hobby Airport has a T-shaped airline terminal with gates 20 – 29 on the left and gates 40 – 49 on the right.  It hosts a bevy of Texas-based restaurants from the Pappas Bros including Pappas Burger, Pappasitos, and Pappadeaux’s.  You can find free WiFi at any of the Pappas Bros restaurants along with Buffalo Wild Wings.  However, the Internet is often spotty and I find I end up using my own most of the time.  You can find power pretty easily at all of the Southwest gates features AC and USB chargers.

You never know what you will find in the center of the airport.  Right now, it’s a display for the Houston Rodeo.

Houston Rodeo display in the center of Hobby Airport

Houston Rodeo display in the center of Hobby Airport

The Food

If you’re traveling to the east coast, it is not uncommon to pick up a layover here if your home is one of Texas’s other Southwest airports.  If that happens, you need to know where to go.  If you like Cajun or seafood, the best food there is hands-down at Pappadeaux.  Here you can get seasonal fish and all your fried Cajun favorites.  It will cost you a pretty penny with many meals costing more than $20 USD.

Pappadeaux's in Hobby Airport

Pappadeaux’s in Hobby Airport

For other food options, I go with Dunkin Donuts for breakfast located at the end of the terminal by gate 27.  If you want a sit down breakfast and have time to kill, go with Pappas Burger as they have a variety of breakfast taco type options.  They also have power in the booths along the back wall.  In the afternoon, this is also a good place to get a shake.

If you want quick service, Papasitos has some decent tacos. Lastly, Buffalo Wild Wings (gate 24) is always a favorite for dudes.  When I go there, I often wait outside and wait for a seat at the bar to open up.  It gets a bit crowded though.

If you are waiting outside the security check point, there is a Pappas BBQ with a bar. They generally have at least one acceptable beer, but I am not a fan of the BBQ there at all.  I guess I am just spoiled by the Salt Lick in Driftwood, TX (FYI, never eat at a Salt Lick in an airport).  That and I don’t think you can properly smoke meat in an airport.

Hobby Airport is one of the few airports where you can walk around with an open container. As a result, you can get a drink anywhere to go.  As a result, it is not uncommon to see beer vendors in the middle of the terminal.  You just need to down it before you get on the plane.  It’s also a good idea to not get to intoxicated at the airport as Southwest has no issue denying boarding to people who aren’t sober.

Security

The security lines can be quite long at Hobby at times.  This is especially the case if you are traveling Monday morning or Thursday evening.  If you have priority, the wait generally isn’t too bad.  They have also recently added TSA Pre and Clear.  If you don’t have expedited screening, plan on waiting a bit longer.

Rental Cars

Hobby Airport has off site rental car locations.  Each location has their own shuttle bus.  Avis and Budget are closer to the airport. Hertz, Dollar, Thrifty, and the others are considerably farther away.  Like any airport, expect to wait longer than any other carrier with Dollar and Thrifty. You get what you pay for.

Parking

Parking on-site at Hobby will cost you $17 / day.  It features the same windy spiral ramps that IAH does.  You have no hope of parking on a low level most of the time.  If you’re paying for your own parking, your best bet is Eco-Park or one of the off-site providers.  Eco-Park is around $6 / day but it’s a bit of a walk and it is uncovered.  Sometimes, you can find a shuttle to take you some of the distance but I have walked all the way to the terminal a time or two.  When you do Eco-Park, you will feel like you are walking through a restricted area because you go right through the employee parking lot.  Once you get inside, you walk through some hallways where you also don’t feel like you belong.  The off-site parking options have similar prices.

The Future – International Service

Southwest fought hard to get International service at Hobby Airport.  Ultimately, they won and are footing the bill of the new expansion where they will occupy four out of five gates.  When it finishes at the end of 2015, Hobby Airport will serve as a hub for people going to the Caribbean and Mexico on Southwest.  This conveniently goes along with the absorption of the remaining AirTran International flights this year.  This will make Houston Hobby quite the popular airport in the years to come.

Construction progress of the new Hobby International Terminal viewed from Gate 40.

Construction progress of the new Hobby International Terminal viewed from Gate 40.

More information can be found at their web site.

http://fly2houston.com/hobbyHome

Getting free drinks on Southwest

When I have to fly, it’s a guarantee that I am going to want a beverage or two in-flight (unless it’s 6:00 am and I am on my way to work).  If I have a preference, I’ll pay for as few of those as possible.   More often than not, I don’t have to pay for a single drink.  In fact, I haven’t paid for a single one this year.  I attribute this to a variety of factors and your success will vary, but I wanted to share a few tips with you today.

Remember, whether you order a Fat Tire, chardonnay, or cocktail, the price is always the same.  Take advantage of that.

Business Select

As I have mentioned before, those flying on Business Select, get a free drink ticket with each flight segment.  Use this in flight and you’ve got yourself a free drink.  The ticket is for use only on that flight and has the date of the flight on it.  It’s not uncommon for you to have Business Select on your flight first thing in the morning to see your client though.  Obviously, you don’t want a drink then.  So what do you do with that unused drink ticket?  Use it on your next flight when you don’t have a drink ticket.  I have found that even though they say “valid drink coupons with an expiration date” on them, they will take your old unused drink tickets.  In fact, I have never had them reject an expired coupon ever.  If you printed your boarding pass and drink ticket on your printer at home, do the flight attendant a favor and tear it out before they get to you.

Rapid Rewards

If you are a member of Rapid Rewards, and you should be if you have been following my advice, you also get drink coupons in the mail periodically.  For every five paid round-trips, Southwest will send you four drink coupons in the mail.  These have an expiration date on them as well.  More than likely they will take them even if they are expired.  The reason, they mention expiration dates so much is that under the old Rapid Rewards program, the drink coupons didn’t have an expiration date.  If you still have some of those lying around, there is no chance they will ever take those any more.

Delayed Flights

When you have a flight that is severely delayed, like an hour or more.  I have found that the flight attendants rarely ask you for payment when you order a drink.  They do this as a way to make you a bit happier about your delay.  I don’t know if this is a universal rule, but it’s generally the case.  When your flight is delayed, sure you might be frustrated, but your best route is kindness and concern about your flight crew.  After all, when your flight is delayed, their nine hour day can easily turn into a twelve hour day.  Show some concern for them, and they might just repay the favor with a free drink.

Free drink days

Southwest has a number of days per quarter in which drinks are free for everyone.  The most recent day was Valentine’s day with the next one being Saint Patrick’s day.  You can see when these days are by pulling out the in-flight service brochure in your seat pocket.

Kindness Kills

I’ve reminded you about this in many of my posts so far.  Although, I’ve never actually confirmed it, I believe flight attendants on Southwest have a little bit of leeway when it comes to handing out free drinks.  Show concern about the flight crew, ask them about their day, be kind, switch seats so a family can sit together, or help out another passenger and you might just have a free drink coming your way.

Flying standby with Southwest

Updated: September 12th, 2016

Today, I was in the airport rather early eager to go home.  I started a new job today and my employer booked me on the last flight out.  The problem?  I was already done for the day and so I was there nearly four hours early.  I wanted to get home earlier.  My problem was that I wasn’t on a full fare ticket.   This is one place where Southwest really differs from others.  With the big carriers, you are likely to pay a fee to take an earlier flight, Southwest approaches it differently.    You see with Southwest, you can only fly standby if you are on an Anytime (refundable) fare*.  This means if you are flying a heavily discounted Wanna Get Away fare, taking an earlier flight may cost you some money. You may or may not like it but from a business perspective, I totally get it.

Now, you may have noticed that I appended that statement above with an asterisk. That’s because a few weeks ago, I discovered that you didn’t always have to pay the fare difference to fly home early.  This was one of those many occasions where I ended up to the airport (Dallas Love Field as usual) rather early.  I noticed there was an earlier flight on the board, so in a bold and daring move, I went to the gate agent to ask my standard “beg for standby” leading question “So…you have any room on the 7 o’clock flight?”. The agent took my boarding pass and looked at my original fight and told me your flight is delayed, so we can let you fly earlier with no fare difference.  I smiled, thanked the agent, and gladly took my new boarding pass because that means getting home to my beautiful wife several hours earlier.  The only problem, my shiny A-19 boarding pass was now C-2.  That meant I could be high-centered.  Luckily though, I remembered, that those with A-List can board after the A group boards.  That meant I still got a decent seat.

Unfortunately, for me tonight my flight wasn’t that delayed. It was tonight, when I learned that they could only waive the fare increase, if your original flight was delayed by 15 minutes or more.  Unfortunately, the board at Love Field didn’t show any flight delay, however the gate agent said it was actually delayed by a few minutes.  He recommended coming back a bit later to try my luck again.  After about 45 minutes, I returned and he informed me that they made an “executive decision” to let those of us with later flights get on the earlier one.  I took my new boarding pass and was ecstatic. This time it meant getting home over three hours earlier.

Update as of September 12th, 2016: Southwest now gives A-List and A-List Preferred members free standby upgrades as long as it’s within two hours of the original flight to the same destination.

You’ll hear me say this over and over again in this blog, but kindness kills with Southwest.  Be nice to the gate agents, flight attendants, captains, whomever you meet.  Being nice will get you farther than anything with Southwest.  When you are asking the gate agent to let you on an earlier flight, it’s that smile and kindness that are going to get them to bend the rules a little.  Remember that, when you are trying to get home a bit earlier and it’s sure to get you far.

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.

 

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.

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.