Southwest Airlines Flying Tips

I’ve been flying Southwest Airlines for about a year now. It’s been quite a change for me. I spent years flying mostly long-haul international flights from when I lived in Britain to the United States. Now most of my flying is short hops between Orange County’s John Wayne Airport and San Jose. Southwest runs a bus-like schedule between the two airports, and I’ve fallen in love with their service plus learned a few tips along the way.

One of the best things about Southwest is the no fee policy if you have to change or cancel a flight. Can’t fly? You get a refund or credit for a future flight. No deductions, no fees — nada. It’s wonderful. It doesn’t even matter what class of Southwest ticket you book. At the very worst, if you don’t go, you’ll get whatever you paid in full as credit.

How fair is that? Super fair, considering that other airlines can charge fees in excess of the actual ticket price. I find it sad that JetBlue, which I love to fly for many reasons, charges an outrageous $100 change fee. Why, JetBlue, why!

Specifically, Southwest Airlines has three classes of tickets:

  • Business Select
  • Anytime
  • Wanna Get Away

The first two let you get a full refund on your ticket, if you can’t fly. They also allow you to change to another flight on the same day without having to pay any difference (if the fare has gone up, you’re safe).

Wanna Get Away doesn’t give you a refund. Instead, you get credit for future travel that lasts for a year. If you change your flight, you won’t get dinged with a change fee, but you will have to pay any difference between the fare you booked and the new one.

If you’re really worried you’ll never fly Southwest in the future, then booking either Business Select or Anytime fares makes sense. Personally, I wouldn’t pay the extra if a Wanna Get Away fare is available. These are typically half the cost of the other Southwest fares.

A huge culture shock for those new to Southwest is the boarding procedure. I didn’t get it, as first, and apparently I’m not alone. Southwest even has a Boarding School section of their web site to explain it more.

When you check in, you’re assigned a boarding letter and number. Those with letter A board first, then letter B, then letter C. Each letter also has up to 60 numbers — IE, there’s A1, A2, A3 and so on to A60, then B1, B2, B3 and so on to B60, then C1, C2, C3  and so on to C60.

When it’s time to board, you line up. First, all the A1-A30 people arrange themselves in order in front of a sign with their group number. The A31-A60 people do the same. Then the A1-30 people board. When that line is clear, the sign at the front flips so that the B1-B30 group can line up while the A31-A60 people board:

Southwest Boarding System

The process continues until each group has been processed. Behind the signs at the front are other signs that segment each group into fives, like this:

Southwest Boarding System

In the picture above, you can see how those with a numbers 51-55 stand in one section of the line while those 56-60 stand in another.

Crazy? I thought so, at first. Why can’t I just book the seat I want? A Southwest flight attendant told me the airline tested this, but it slowed down boarding. And I have to agree. Regular flyers know the system, line up religiously in correct order, then go aboard to get the best seats. It really works, better than any other airline I’ve flown.

What are the best seats? I’ll come back to that, but first the boarding pass tip. You want the lowest number possible, so that you go on first. The easy way to do this is to buy a Business Select ticket, which gets you early boarding (usually A1-12 boarding number) plus a free drink that never expires. I have about 30 of these now, and eventually I plan to buy an entire flight a drink.

Business Select is only $15 more than the Anytime fare, so if you want guaranteed early boarding, along with the ability to speed through security quickly in certain airports using the Fly By lane plus that drink, go for it.

Don’t want to spend the extra on Business Select? You can still get a high number with Anytime and Wanna Get Away fares. Just check in early, as soon as you’re allowed, online.

That’s 24 hours before your Southwest flight. Go to the Southwest site here as soon as you can in that 24 hour period and generate a boarding pass. The sooner you do it, the higher number you’ll get. Leave it late, and you’ll be in the B or worse the C group. No one likes the C group!

Don’t have a printer, such as when you’re traveling? Don’t worry. Check in online anyway and ignore the print screen. Then when you get to the airport, use one of the computer kiosks to check in again. It’ll see that you already have checked in and issue you a printed boarding pass — but since you checked in early, your original boarding number will be retained.

Another way to get a low boarding number is if you fly enough to become a Rapid Rewards A-List member. I’ve just earned this, and I’ll be curious to see how it goes. It means that Southwest is supposed to reserve “the best boarding pass number available — most likely an A” when you book a flight using your Southwest Rapid Rewards number.

I guess that means I don’t have to worry about printing my boarding pass as soon as possible. The “most likely an A” part worries me a bit, but I’m guessing that’s covering a case when someone might book a ticket just hours before a flight and when boarding pass numbers have already been assigned. We’ll see!

Now about those best seats. Most people want to avoid the middle seats. If you get a high number and board near the end, you’ll probably end up sandwiched between people on a busy flight. Board early, and you can get the window or aisle seat of your choice — toward the front of the plane, too, if you want to get off early. In addition, you’ll find plenty of overhead storage space. Boarding early is a plus!

Personally, I think seat 11E is the very best seat on the plane (here’s the SeatGuru chart to all seats on a typical Southwest Airlines plane):

Best Seat On Southwest Airline Flights

Seat 11E is the one to the left, closest to the window. Rather than the usual three seat arrangement, there are only two seats in this particular row. Where there should be an 11F seat right against the window, that’s missing, as you can see better here:

Best Seat On Southwest Airline Flights

This means:

  • No middle seat issue
  • Extra room to your right, if you sit in 11E
  • Extra tray table to use, since you can easily access the table that would have been in front of 11F, if that seat existed
  • Extra storage in the seat in front of where 11F would have been (under seat 10F)

Technically, the storage space under seat 10F belongs to seat 12F. In reality, the person there rarely uses it. This is because they’d have to reach forward two rows to get to it. So pretty much, 11E gets to use that space leaving the space directly in front of 11E free for legroom.

That’s pretty much it. To summarize the key Southwest Airlines tips:

  • No fee to change or cancel a flight
  • Check in early to get lower boarding number
  • Use the airport check in kiosks to print a boarding pass if you checked in but lacked a printer
  • Best seat in the house is 11E
  • Business Select gets you on early and a free drink

Finally, people take the lineup very seriously. If you’re A23 and stand in front of A22, that’ll get noticed by those around you. Line courtesy goes like this, as far as I’ve found. Walk to your general area when called, where you’ll be among five other people. Hold your ticket out so the boarding number can be seen and simply ask the others already there what number they are. Then everyone sorts themselves accordingly.

Also check out this post from Elizabeth Rose over at About.com for some additional tips, more about getting the best fares rather than getting the best seat, as I’ve covered. Southwest also has its own tips section here.

Postscript: A few days after I wrote this, Southwest announced a new Early Bird program that lets you book early boarding for $10. You don’t get a reserved seat, but you can get a lower boarding number without having to fly Business Select or being an A-List member.

Somehow, Southwest says it is keeping some numbers back for Business Select or A-List members before Early Bird people can get them. From the FAQ:

Boarding positions will be assigned after Business Select and A-List Customers

I’m still unclear on how all this works. If you book Business Select a few hours before a flight — after a number of Early Bird customers have booked and been given passes, then how are they assigned “after” you. Similarly, if Early Bird people book a 4 weeks ahead — and then Business Select and A-List members book 2 weeks ahead — were Early Bird people given higher A numbers?

Meanwhile, I gained my Southwest Airlines A-List membership, and so far, it’s worked well. I had an A number in the teens (Business Select usually put me between A10-12).


Comments

  1. says

    I love flying Southwest, I just wish they had TV’s. It’s a tough call between JetBlue and SouthWest on this one, but both are great. I’ve heard Virgin America is pretty good, too. Have you ever flown with them?

  2. says

    Yes, I’ve flown Virgin as well. I wouldn’t do it again, not if JetBlue were available. JetBlue offers all that Virgin does, but you can buy an extra legroom seat for like $50 versus the crazy $350+ that Virgin wants — and get TV, etc.

    Since I work on flights, I don’t care about TV so much, though. What I really want is power, even more than WiFi — and I think Virgin offers some, JetBlue doesn’t — American, amazingly enough, has outlets in every other row.

    Bottomline, for my shorthops, I do Southwest. Going cross country, it’s JetBlue (and I’ve been very happy with them) or sometimes American or United.

  3. says

    Virgin’s pretty good. I’ve been flying it a lot over JetBlue lately.

    These days, my order of preference is Southwest for short hall, Virgin for cross country, and JetBlue if Virgin isn’t available/convenient.

    One thing you left out on Southwest: in most of the Southwest gates I’ve been to, they provide both LOTS of outlets, and then either really comfy chairs (with outlets *and* USB chargers) and/or “laptop bars” where you can sit on a bar stool and plug in. For those of us who work a lot at airports, Southwest’s gates are the best, by far.

    As for Virgin: all their flights now have WiFi and it mostly works quite well (only had a problem once). They also do have power outlets between every seat (so two outlets for the three seat setup), but they do this annoying thing where the actual power “rotates.” So, some of the time the power won’t be there. I don’t understand why this is, and it’s a bit annoying, but at least there’s power sometimes.

    And Southwest announced today plans for all flights to have WiFi by early next year.

  4. Marshall says

    Now if we could just get them to pay as much attention to their aircraft maintenance as they do their ultra-hot savings! I like SW as well, but when I ‘wanna get away’ I also wanna get there.

    -MDS

  5. says

    I used to commute to work on Southwest, Hartford to Baltimore, back and forth every week. My experience was that Southwest does a better than average job at getting you there. On >150 flights, I never got stuck more than a few hours. Their aircraft are mostly identical and interchangeable. When one breaks, they bring in a reserve ship. United flies something like 14 aircraft. That why I got stuck in O’Hare for 25 hours last time I flew them: first there was a thunderstorm delay, then the aircraft broke, then the flight crew went over hours, then they couldn’t get a replacement pilot who could fly that particular aircraft. Finally I bought a one way ticket home on Southwest.

    The other neat thing about Southwest is that they gave me a companion pass so my wife could fly with me free. That was great while it lasted.

  6. says

    Virgin doesn’t go to too many of the cities I typically travel to, especially from Orlando, so I haven’t used them yet. I agree with you on Southwest and JetBlue. The other airlines don’t really stand out for me. I’m still waiting for an airline I can fly with my pets (not in the cargo space).

  7. Mike says

    Southwest rocks!

    Another nice touch: fat people have to buy two seats.

    I personally have nothing against the Jet Blue $100 thing, if it covers costs and helps keep the price down for us well-organized, punctual types.

  8. says

    I started to take Southwest between Vegas and San Diego recently. The 2 things that annoy the hell out of me, if you do not get business select and get stuck in the back, it’s always between 2 obese people who smell. Or when you get business select and sit near the front, their policy is to allow handicap people and parents with young children on first.

    So I have the choice, either sit in between 2 very fat people or, leave the plane with a migraine from the screaming or the poor guy who can’t control himself from swinging his arms and hitting me in the face over and over and over again, while laughing hysterically non stop. The flight attendant laughed when I asked to be shot and put out of misery.

    I think I just have bad luck.

    As much as I hate United and bitch about them, screaming children do not get priority seating. Basically you need to fly so much that you have no life to get the good seats. Thus everyone around you is as bitter or close to as bitter as you are and just sits there and makes no noise. I know this sounds horrible, but I kinda prefer it this way. ;-)

  9. says

    Protip: Drink service is done by 3 people and is divided into sections that start at rows 1, 9 and 17, or something like that. Sit in one of those rows to get served first.

  10. Ken Spreitzer says

    Dude, awesome idea to buy the whole flight a drink. Be sure to have someone along with a video camera to document it.

    When registering online, be sure to do it as early as possible. Section A can fill up within minutes. (Wait, should I not have shared that tip?)

    JetBlue’s $100 change fee is ridiculous. I foolishly chose them once because they were a bit cheaper than Southwest. I think the flight was like $69? Then I wanted to change the flight by a day. Spend $100 to change a $69 ticket? Sheyeah! As if!

  11. Emerald says

    To add some clarification about the question of Early Bird Boarding and the Business Select, A-List. A1 – A15 is always held for Business select, no matter when they purchase their ticket they will get one of those numbers. A-Listers are typically A-15 – about A-20, and then the Early Bird purchases are after that.

    Families with children do not preboard – they board with their group if they have an A boarding pass, or if they have a B or C boarding pass then families with children 5 and under board after the A’s but before the B’s.

    Special assistant needs do get to pre-board, however if you pre-board you are prohibited from sitting in one of the exit row seats.

    SWA is a great way to get where you are going, and the people who work there enjoy what they do.

  12. tai0316 says

    Really great article! You helped me decide what kind of ticket to buy on Southwest. Thank you!

  13. Keith says

    I made Southwest’s A-list and here are my observations.

    It’s valuable for the following reasons:
    * no need to check in online exactly 24 hours in advance of the flight to get a decent boarding number. (I used to set 24 hour, 5 minute reminders on my PDA so I wouldn’t forget, which was no fun if I had an early morning flight which meant waking up early two mornings in a row!)
    * use of the the fly-by lanes in airports that have them
    (That’s pretty much it.)

    It’s NOT valuable for the following reasons
    * low boarding number “status” does not transfer if one changes flights at the last minute (i.e., meeting ends early, get to the airport in time to catch an earlier flight, give up “A” boarding group on later flight for the opportunity to arrive home earlier, but with potentially a much later [and "unreserved"] boarding position)
    * reservation of a flight on the same day does not qualify for A-list boarding priority because the lower boarding positions have already been assigned.

    These last two run counterintuitive to what one would think is a program targeted primarily at business travelers who often have last minute schedule changes or make last minute travel plans. One would think SWA could reserve a few lower boarding slots to account for these situations (as they do for last minute “business select” fares, where there are typically unused boarding slots around the A10-15 range).

  14. Dallas Olmsted says

    Southwest servie is horrible. They are the cheapest ticket though. I purchased a “wanna get away” ticket for a round trip flight about 40 days in advance. Called them to cancel the flight the next day and they would not refund my money.

    Who on earth offers a product where it is non refundable if no services are rendered? I will never fly them again. f*** off Souhwest.

  15. says

    No, they won’t refund you money on that type of ticket. They will give you credit for a future flight without penalty, which is pretty rare in the airline world.

    Try buying a ticket on United and cancelling. Maybe you’ll get credit, but that will only be after a $150 fee is taken off.

    Every airline offers a product where the cost is non-refundable if you buy a certain class of ticket, even if you don’t fly. Southwest is one of the incredibly rare airlines that actually doesn’t make you take a severe penalty if you want to use that money with them in the future, for another flight. The deserve applause for that.

  16. Tom says

    Just want to reply to the previous post, which misses a loophole out there for some purchasers of non-refundable tickets. Delta (and Northwest before them) WILL change at no charge or issue a refund for a non-refundable ticket if the request is made by midnight of the day after the purchase. I’m not sure about other airlines, but I suspect there are more who will do it.