28 Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines (Baggage, Check-in, Boarding)

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Southwest Airlines is one of my favorite airlines to fly for a host of reasons but mostly because of the value I can get with cheap fares and easy Rapid Rewards earning opportunities.

There are a lot of things to know about Southwest that can make your booking and flight experience much smoother and save you time and money in the future, especially if you’re flying them for the first time.

So here are 28 tips for flying Southwest Airlines that cover everything from baggage, check-in, and boarding to saving money and points on flights.

If you’re more of a visual person check out the YouTube video and infographic at the end of the article! 

Interested in finding out the top travel credit cards for this month? Click here to check them out! 


Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines

1. Get the Southwest Companion Pass

The biggest tip I could ever offer if you want to maximize value with Southwest, is to look into getting the Southwest Companion Pass. This allows a companion to fly for free with you on any Southwest flights for up to two years!

The Companion Pass can easily be obtained by getting two credit cards from Chase.

The Chase Southwest cards come with bonuses with as much as 80,000 Rapid Rewards. Since you only 125,000 Rapid Rewards (or 100 one-way qualifying flight flights) for the Southwest Companion Pass, this allows you to instantly obtain the Companion Pass!

That pass can be worth well over $3,000 so if you’re looking to save money with Southwest, definitely consider this.


2. Get the best Southwest credit card offers

As I just mentioned, Southwest credit cards offer different types of bonuses all of the time — we’ve seen offers range from 25,000 points to 60,000 points for these cards!

Try to seek out the best offers for the business Southwest credit card and for the personal cards like the Southwest Premier and Southwest Plus.

While you are limited to one personal card, it is possible to get a personal card and a business card but I would wait 30 days in-between applications.

Also note that if a higher offer comes out within 90 days of you applying, ask Chase to match you to the higher offer and they usually will! 


3. Know which Southwest 737 seats have extra leg room

Almost the entire Southwest Airlines fleet consists of 737-700s and 737-800s. In fact, Southwest is the largest operator of the Boeing 737 worldwide!

This means you can expect virtually the same flight experience each flight.

If you like to seek out extra leg room or upgrade to business select in order to snag the emergency exit rows with more room, knowing which type of plane will be flying is key since the 737-800s have an extra “2-person row.”

You can see the difference between the two seat maps below.

The 737-800 (pictured on the right) is bigger and has more seats with extra legroom. Some seats might have limited recline or bad window views, though. You can read more about the specific differences between Southwest seats here

 

Southwest seat maps 737 700 737 800
Southwest seat maps.

4. Southwest is the largest “point to point” operator in the US

Southwest is the largest “point-to-point” operator in the US. This means that it’s extra easy to find direct flights to many destinations versus other airlines who operate with more of a true hub model.

If you hate extra flying, Southwest could offer you an escape!


5. Southwest serves secondary airports

One of the potential drawbacks to Southwest’s network is that they serve a lot of secondary airports. For example, in Houston, Southwest serves Hobby (HOU) instead of George Bush Intercontinental (IAH).

This often means going without nice airport lounges or other amenities but also means traveling through smaller airports that are often easier to get in and out of.


6. Southwest does not have a true business class or first class

Most airlines have a separate cabin for business class or first class with nicer, more comfy seating — but not Southwest. Every seat is virtually the same and there are no rows dedicated for premier seating.

Southwest does have “Business Select” fare which offers priority security/check-in, flexible cancellation, a free premium drink, and priority boarding (A1 to A15) but you’re not given a seat with more legroom or comfort. It also comes with additional perks like better earning rate and you can click here to find out if if Business Select if worth it for you. 

No first class is a bit of a bummer.

7. Southwest has a unique boarding method

You do not select or get assigned a specific seat for Southwest flights.

Instead, you check-in at exactly 24 hours before the flight and then you are assigned to a number in either Group A, B, or C. Starting with Group A, each group will board the plane in order based on the number each passenger received at check-in.

It’s a surprisingly efficient process but does cause some people worry that they can’t select their seat when they purchase their ticket. You can read more about the boarding process here.


8. Saving seats on Southwest

There’s long running debates about whether or not you should be allowed to save seats on Southwest.

Although I think it’s acceptable to save seats within reason, it’s something you typically want to avoid if you can. However, if you need to save seats for several passengers, people are much more understanding if your saved seats are near the back of the plane. Trying to save a row of seats up front is practically begging for confrontation.


9. Two free checked bags

Southwest allows each passenger two free checked bags. So you usually don’t have to worry about paying for your luggage. If you want to check a third bag, it will cost you $75.

If you’re considering flying with low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit, be sure to factor these savings in!

  • Read more about the baggage policies here.

10. You get free drinks and snacks

On Southwest flights you’ll be given free snacks like pretzels and peanuts (on longer flights you might get Nabisco crackers/cookies). You’ll also be given free non-alcoholic drinks on your flight. While these snacks are convenient, you probably want to bring a sandwich or something with you on board if you think you’ll get hungry on a longer flight.

Southwest snacks.

11. Get “real drinks” for free

If you’re flying on a holiday or it’s near your birthday or anniversary, you should let the flight attendants know and they might hook you up with a free drink or two. We’ve also gotten free drinks from just starting conversations with some of the nice flight attendants.


12. Wanna Get Away fares offer great value

Wanna Get Away fares are the cheapest Southwest fares and don’t allow you to cancel them and get a cash refund (though you still get a credit for the originally ticketed passenger only). These fares can be dirt cheap, especially when Southwest runs flash sales.

These flash sales come around a few times a year and offer some exceptionally low fares as low as $40 one way. Keep an eye out for these fares because they can save you tons but you they require you to act fast and are often limited to flights on certain days of the week (that aren’t very desirable like Tuesday or Wednesday).

  • When these sales aren’t running you can still check the low-fare routes by using this tool.

13. Last-minute flights are expensive

One important tip for flying Southwest, is that last minute flights on Southwest can be very expensive. It’s somewhat dependent on the route but it usually pays to book Southwest flight well in advance.

This is especially true when flying internationally — for more on all of the Southwest international routes and prices, click here


14. You can fly stand by

Business Select, Anytime fares, and A-List members can opt for earlier flights when they have opened up free of charge.

But Business Select and Anytime fares can simply be changed to earlier flights when there’s availability so sometimes it doesn’t make sense to go the standby route.

Wanna Get Away passengers can sometimes get put on standby two hours before or after their flight — this is an unstated policy though so YMMV.

The deadline for making changes to your flight is 1 hour prior to departure.


15. Southwest doesn’t release flights one year in advance

Unlike many other carriers, Southwest does not allow you to book flights a year out in advance. Instead, you may only find flights about 7 months in advance.

Southwest will publish their release dates and you should be able to start making bookings early that morning (though sometimes technical difficulties require you to wait).

With the new flights coming to Hawaii, you’ll definitely want to jump on some of these routes as quickly as possible to lock down the best rates

Click here to see the latest release dates.


16. Rebook Southwest flights to save $

Southwest allows you to make changes for free to your flights. If you change your flight, you’ll only be responsible for the difference between the fares. This can work in your favor if the price decreases from the time of your purchase.

If the price in cash or Rapid Rewards goes down from the time you book, you can rebook your flights and be credited for the difference. Wanna Get Away fares get a travel credit and Business Select and Anytime can get a cash refund.

When the flash deals come out always check if your route is cheaper.

  • Read more about how to cancel and change flights here.

17. You can cancel 10 minutes prior to departure

Regardless of the type of fare that you purchase, you can cancel your fare 10 minutes prior to departure. If you’ve purchased an Anytime fare or Business Select, you’ll simply get a refund but if you purchased an Anytime fare you’ll be issued travel funds.

Southwest travel funds will expire one year from the purchase date (booking date) of the original flight and can only be used for the passenger who had their ticket cancelled.  


18. Convert travel funds to LUV vouchers

Some people have been able to extend the expiration date for their travel funds after they expire by paying a $100 reinstatement fee. The travel funds are then converted into LUV vouchers when the reinstatement takes place. You may only have 6 months to request the reinstatement and the voucher may only be valid for 6 months from issue. 

The good thing about getting a travel voucher is that you can use that for anybody. So in some instances, it could be very well worth it to pay $100 dollars so that you can apply those funds to a different traveler.

  • Read more about this here.

19. Hawaii and the “Southwest effect”

Studies have shown that when Southwest begins flying to a destination, prices usually lower (this is called the Southwest Effect). This is great news because Southwest is getting ready to start flying to Hawaii!

So you might seeing some more reasonable prices to Hawaii pretty soon.


20. Earning Southwest Rapid Rewards

You earn Rapid Rewards based on the type of fare your purchased. You’ll 6X the points per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares, 10X for Anytime, and 12X for Business Select. As you climb into A-List and A-List Preferred your earning rates go up.

Here are the earnings for an A-List and A-List Preferred member.

A-List

  • 7.5X per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares
  • 12.5X per dollar for Anytime fares
  • 15X per dollar for Business Select

A-List Preferred

  • 12X per dollar for Wanna Get Away fares
  • 20X per dollar for Anytime fares
  • 24X per dollar for Business Select
Southwest Rapid Rewards earning structure.

21. The value of Rapid Rewards is tied to the cost of the flight

Unlike points from airlines like United and American and many other airlines, the value of Rapid Rewards are directly tied to the cost of the current price of the that airline ticket.

So a flight that costs $400 will require about 2X the amount of Rapid Rewards as a flight that costs $200. I say “about” because there are some fluctuations. Typically, your Southwest points will be worth between 1.4 to 1.6 cents per point but sometimes the value can fluctuate even more.


22. How to know when to use Rapid Rewards

To determine if using Rapid Rewards is a good idea, you should:

  1. Find the cash price of the ticket
  2. Subtract the award fees from that price (usually $5.60)
  3. Divide that number by the required amount of Rapid Rewards
  4. Multiple that number 100
  5. If that figure is below 1.3, you may not want to use your points. 

To get an even more accurate figure, you can also subtract the value of the Rapid Rewards you would have earned on your flight for Step 2. For example, if you found a $100 cash fare for a one-way ticket you’d subtract $5.60 + however much you value the Rapid Rewards you’d earn.


23. Earn Extra Rapid Rewards

Southwest has a shopping portal and a dining portal. Both of these allow you to earn extra Southwest points when you shop at certain stores or visit certain establishments.

Read more about how to maximize earnings with the shopping portal here.

You can also earn Southwest Rapid Rewards when you stay at certain hotel partners, book rental cars,  and sign-up for utility plans in certain states.


24. You probably don’t need EarlyBird

EarlyBird will automatically check you in 24 hours before the flight, allowing you to more easily secure a good seat — usually a high A or low B boarding pass.

Unless you’re going to be away from a computer or mobile device at exactly 24 hours before your flight, you usually don’t need Southwest EarlyBird. Just setting an alarm to remind you to check-in is usually all you need.

  • You can read more about whether or not it’s worth it to purchase EarlyBird here.

25. Kids 6 or under?

If you’re traveling with kids 6 or under, you’ll be able to board during Family Boarding which is right after Group A and before Group B. If that’s the case, you really won’t need EarlyBird.


26. Flying with kids under 2?

Southwest allows kids under 2 to fly for free. However, they do require you to bring a brith certificate with you to verify the age.

A medical release for travel is required for any infant under 14 days old.


27. Upgrade to Business Select

Instead of paying the high prices for business select, consider upgrading to business select at the gate. It will cost you $30 to $50 depending on the distance of the route.

I usually first inquire about which spot we’ll be given upon upgrading. For example, it might be A1 or A10, you never know. If it’s near the top, that almost always means that seats in the emergency exit rows will be available (and so you might be able to get the row with only two seats or extra leg room).

This usually doesn’t work on routes with high business travel traffic but often works out great when flying to places like the Caribbean.


28. Bring something to entertain you

Southwest is not like other alines, such as JetBlue that offer screens for you to enjoy in-flight entertainment. For this reason, you need to make sure you have the battery power or literature, puzzles, etc. you need to keep yourself entertained for the duration of the flight.

Some Southwest flights will have wi-fi, though. You can check if your Southwest flight will have wifi here.

If your flight has wi-fi then you can use the Airtime Player app to use view features a flight tracker, arrival and connecting gate information, games, and access to Southwest.com (it’s free to access all of that).

If you want to pay for wifi, you can watch free live TV, on-demand TV, movies, and enjoy web browsing and messaging during your flight. You can read more about the in-flight entertainment here.

You must download the Airtime Player app before boarding if you want to view a movie or on-demand TV.

Here are the download links for that app:


Final word on tips for flying Southwest

Despite the lack of premium experience available, Southwest has a lot to offer in terms of cheap flights with quality service. You know exactly what you’re going to get with Southwest and if you know when and where to look, you can tap into some extreme savings by flying Southwest.

Cover photo by Tomás Del Coro via Flickr


Southwest YouTube video

Southwest Infographic

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