Southwest Airlines user's guide: 12 tips for flying the popular, polarizing carrier
Southwest Airlines is the nation’s largest carrier by domestic passengers, counts millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter and outspends rivals on advertising.
Yet the airline and its quirky ways – no assigned seats, two free checked bags and the occasional flight attendant-turned-comedian, among others – still manage to regularly confound travelers.
The questions are enough to make Southwest regulars reach for their free drink coupons. (See No. 9 below).
With Southwest newbies and infrequent fliers in mind, USA TODAY developed a primer on the airline with the colorful planes.
12 ways Southwest Airlines is different from its competitors
1. You can’t book Southwest tickets on online travel agency websites such as Expedia, Travelocity, Orbitz or Priceline. Southwest only sells tickets on its websites (Southwest.com and swabiz.com for corporate travelers) and through its reservations center. Some websites might display their prices but will direct you to Southwest to book.
2. There is no first class or business class. All seats are economy class, all planes Boeing 737s.
3. There are no seat assignments, and no plans to add them. Passengers are given a boarding group (A, B or C) and position within that group (1 to 60) and board in that order, picking any open seat on the plane. Critics have derided it as a cattle call.
4. The coveted A passes largely go to travelers who buy Southwest’s priciest tickets (“Business Select”) or have status in the airline’s Rapid Rewards frequent flier program. (It’s not called A List status for nothing). All other passengers fall behind them in line based on the time of online check-in. Check-in begins 24 hours before departure. Travelers set alarms and smartphone reminders to make sure they check in as close to 24 hours preflight as possible.
5. You can jump the boarding line, but it’ll cost you. Southwest brags about its lack of fees, but the airline brings in hundreds of millions of dollars a year from EarlyBird Check-In. It recently raised the price from a flat $15 to $15, $20 or $25 each way per person depending on the route. EarlyBird does not guarantee an A boarding pass, and Bs are routine on popular routes at popular times, but travelers who buy it do get a 12-hour jump on those who don’t. Pro tip: if you're going to buy it, buy it when you book your ticket because EarlyBird order is based in part on timing of the purchase. For Southwest passengers who must have an A pass, Southwest sells last minute upgrades, when available, at the gate, for $30, $40 or $50 one way. You are guaranteed A1 to 15. Southwest also hiked upgraded boarding fees in 2018.
6. Yes, checked bags fly free. Southwest is the only U.S. carrier that allows two free checked bags, a savings of up to $70 over other airlines on domestic flights for passengers who check two bags. But you can’t stuff them silly or bring an unlimited number. Southwest charges for for extra bags ($75 each) and overweight (51 to 100 pounds) and oversize bags ($75 for either).
7. Need to change a flight? Southwest famously won’t ding you $200 per person in change fees like most major airlines. BUT you will have to pay any fare difference since you purchased your ticket. Don’t want to take that 6 a.m. Sunday flight you booked from Las Vegas to Los Angeles? It could cost more than triple the amount of your original ticket if you snagged a cheap sale fare and switch last minute.
8. The airline’s cancellation policy for tickets is generous. As long as you cancel a flight at least 10 minutes before scheduled departure, Southwest issues a credit for the amount of the ticket. It is good for one year, on any route, for the named passenger. (That means your child even if you paid for the ticket. You can't use their credit.). If your original ticket was $250, you have that to spend on/toward another flight. Other airlines issue credit for nonrefundable tickets, too, but their $200 ticket change fees (for domestic tickets) makes the credit useless on cheap flights.
9. Southwest doles out free drink coupons, but don’t bother begging for them on Twitter when your flight is delayed or you're celebrating a birthday or honeymoon. The drink coupons are only sent to members of its frequent flier program after 10 one-way flights. (You can buy the drink coupons on eBay.) Speaking of drinks, Southwest raised its drink prices in early 2018. Southwest does treat passengers to a free alcoholic beverage on certain "holidays'' every year, including St. Patrick's Day, the airline's birthday (June 18) and Halloween.
10. Southwest has a golden ticket, and it’s called a companion pass. All you have to is take 100 one-way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points (from Southwest flights, partner points and credit-card spending) in a year. The companion pass enables a designated traveler to fly for free with the companion pass holder.
11. In-flight snacks are free but don't expect to fill up on them. Southwest doesn't sell food or serve meals on any flights, so pack food for a long flight or pick something up at the airport. The airline recently ditched peanuts, its signature snack for years, due to passenger allergy concerns, so pretzels are the staple snack.
12. Some of the airline's flight attendants and gate agents are aspiring entertainers, so you may hear some singing and jokes. (Southwest also offers free live TV and movies for a fee, streamed to your own device.)
USA TODAY caught up with the guy whose dance moves have taken the Internet by storm. His name is Nicholas DeMore and he says all he wants to do is make you smile. USA TODAY