How to Fly Southwest Like a Travel Expert
Southwest Airlines was once known as a low-cost carrier, a way to fly the skies for less than what all the other airlines were charging. That was true for years, but the expansion of ultra-low cost carriers like Spirit and Allegiant airlines have recently made Southwest's prices seem nothing if not ordinary. While they might not be the cheapest ticket in the biz anymore, there are still some major benefits to flying Southwest.
Southwest Airlines 101:
Southwest Airlines was founded in 1967 in Texas by Herb Kelleher, and during its first years in existence, operated wholly within Texas. Fun fact: as a creative way to compete with other carriers, Southwest began giving passengers whole bottles of Chivas Whiskey included in ticket prices. As a result, they became the largest distributor of that brand in Texas!
After purchasing AirTran in 2010, Southwest now serves 101 destinations in the U.S., and they're expanding internationally. Right now, you can travel as far as Costa Rica on Southwest planes. Soon, you'll be able to fly to Hawaii, hopefully by the end of 2018!
The Perks of Flying Southwest:
Southwest has a very different corporate identity than its other competitors. It's known as one of the friendliest airlines (its New York Stock Exchange symbol is "LUV" for a reason!), and the company tends to go out of its way to do the right thing for its customers.
In the age of daily PR scandals coming from what feels like literally every airline, Southwest's customer-first attitude is a breath of fresh air. Just take a look at how this airline conducts business as usual.
For one thing, every passenger gets two free checked bags just for flying Southwest, no matter how much they paid for their tickets. This is in stark contrast to its domestic competitors, like United, which now has basic economy fares on nearly every flight in its domestic network. For another thing, it's really easy to change a Southwest flight: there are no change fees (you just pay the difference in fare), and if the price of your flight drops before you travel, you can rebook and receive a credit for the fare difference! If you're booking using Rapid Rewards points and you cancel or change a flight, you'll see the points redeposited immediately into your account.
You'll also not receive seating assignments on Southwest. Rather, you'll receive a letter group (A, B, or C), and a number 1-60. Seats are first-come, first serve, so you'll want to get as high a letter and number as possible.
Southwest Ticket Pricing:
Southwest Airlines offers tiered ticket pricing and award tickets:
Wanna Get Away is the airline's first, and cheapest, tier. These tickets earn six Rapid Rewards points per dollar, and you'll receive the standard free snacks and non-alcoholic beverages, two free bags, and cancellable flights (for a travel credit, good for 12 months). You can make same-day changes, but you'll pay the difference in price in the fare.
Anytime Fares are fully refundable, which means the fare goes back to the original form of payment in the event you need a refund. You can make same day changes, and only pay a difference in taxes. You'll also earn 10 Rapid Rewards points per dollar on the fare.
Business Select fares are also include the features of Anytime fares, but with A1-15 boarding, a free alcoholic drink, and premium security lane access. These tickets earn 12 Rapid Rewards points per dollar.
The Best Way to Pay for Airfare on Southwest:
To pay for your ticket, you should use a points-earning credit card. The best credit card for airfare purchases is the American Express Platinum card, which earns 5 Membership Rewards points per dollar. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, which earns three points per dollar spent on all travel and dining purchases, is also a great choice. Chase's Ultimate Rewards points are fully transferrable to Southwest Airlines at a 1:1 ratio (but other transfer options are available).
Southwest offers three co-branded credit cards. The Southwest Premier Card has a newly heightened sign up bonus of 60,000 Rapid Rewards points for spending $2,000 in three months. Plus, you'll earn 6,000 points on each account anniversary. Unfortunately, the Southwest card only earns two points per dollar on Southwest purchases. You'll also earn up to 15,000 tier points towards A-List status for spend put on the card. The annual fee on this card is $99.
The Southwest Plus card is nearly identical, but you'll only earn 3,000 points per account anniversary, and won't have an opportunity to earn tier points. You'll also pay a lower annual fee of $69.
Southwest Status Benefits:
Southwest has two tiers of elite status, which are pretty simple compared to other programs. Because Southwest doesn't have a first-class cabin, there are no upgrade opportunities, but depending on your travel habits, earning status with Southwest could make sense for you. Additionally, there is a special benefit earned for flying 100 one-way flights or earning 110,000 tier points in a year, that I consider one of the most rewarding benefits in the award travel industry.
A-List is Southwest's first level of status, earned by flying 25 one-way flights or earning 35,000 tier qualifying points. You'll get priority boarding, no matter what your boarding pass letter and number says. A-List boarding happens immediately after all the A boarding group passengers board. You'll earn 25 percent more tier points per dollar spent, priority security lane access, and free same-day standby.
A List Preferred status is earned by flying 50 one-way flights or earning 70,000 tier qualifying points. You'll receive all of the benefits of A-List status, plus a 100 percent bonus on points earned when flying, and free WiFi while on board.
Companion Pass is not necessarily an elite status, but it's a privilege earned by flying 100 one-way flights or earning 110,000 elite qualifying points in a calendar year. Once earned, you'll be able to elect someone of your choosing the ability to fly with you for free (only paying taxes). This includes award flights. For a traveling couple, this can results in thousands of dollars saved over the lifetime of the pass. Even better, you'll enjoy the use of companion pass for the remainder of the year in which you earn the pass, plus the entire calendar year after. One "hack" is to earn the elite qualifying points from credit card spend, including any bonus points you may earn from a sign up bonus mentioned above.