Many of you are close enough to Orlando to drive down when you visit Walt Disney World or Universal Studios Orlando, but for the rest of us, flying is the only viable option. Southwest Airlines is Orlando International Airport’s largest carrier, and between that and the traffic I often see on Disney trip planning forums and Facebook groups, I know that many of you will be using Southwest to get to Orlando. As you may be aware, however, Southwest operates a little differently than other airlines, and that can make flying with them a bit confusing to the uninitiated. I happen to fly on Southwest a ton — I am at their highest loyalty tier, in fact — and wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences about Southwest and how to get the most out of your travel experience with them.
First, the basics: Southwest fares fall into three categories:
- Wanna Get Away? Fares are the cheapest fares, and they are more likely to be available the earlier you book. You can sometimes find them close to your travel date, but if your goal is to pay as little as possible, booking at the earliest possible opportunity is going to get you the best prices as even the price of these fares tends to rise as you get closer to your departure date. They are nonrefundable, but you can cancel them and get a credit for a future flight or switch to another flight just by paying the difference in fare. These fares tend to be at most approximately 50% less than the refundable fares, but they can be even cheaper, particularly during fare sales.
- Anytime fares are fares that can be refunded for cash if your plans change and you need to cancel your flights. They are significantly more expensive than Wanna Get Away fares, and are the cheapest fares you are most likely to see if you’re booking within a week or so of departure.
- Business Select fares are the most expensive fares, and they tend to be $20 or so more expensive than an Anytime fare. They are also fully refundable, and they additionally entitle you to one free drink and allow you to be one of the first 15 people on the plane. This early boarding perk is far more important on a Southwest flight because of their open seating policy, which I’ll explain in a bit more detail below.
The easiest way to book is on Southwest’s web site. The booking screen looks like this:
Additional verbiage you need to know when booking: understand the difference between “direct” and “nonstop” flights. “Nonstop” flights are just that, nonstop. Get on the plane, it flies to your destination, and you get off. “Direct” flights are the next best option — you will stay on the same plane for the duration of the trip, but you’ll have to stop one or more places along the way to drop off and pick up other passengers. Any other flight will require you to change planes to get to your destination, and the more planes you have to fly, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. Accordingly, nonstop and direct flights are usually preferable; you can sort the available flights from your search results to include only these flights by checking the box at the top of the result list.
It bears mention (and this goes for most airlines, not just Southwest) that you can see significant differences in price depending upon what day and time you fly. Southwest makes it easy to see how things would change by shifting your day of travel in one direction or another — just click on the tab for the alternate day you’re considering, and you’ll see what the cost would be for you to fly in the day before or after. Sometimes, it can be so much cheaper that you can justify coming in a day earlier. For example, on a flight I recently booked, there was such a significant difference in price between flying in on Friday morning (our intended day) and Thursday night (the day we switched to) that it covered an extra hotel night and then some. Start your vacation earlier, for less cost. Tough to beat that!
Note: when booking, you’ll also be offered the option to purchase “Early Bird Check-in” for $15 per leg of your journey. I’ll explain that in more detail below, because it comes into play when talking about Southwest’s unique seating and check-in policies.
Changes and Cancellations
What if your plans change after you book? As I mentioned above, Southwest will let you change to any other flight, without change fees or penalties, you’ll just need to pay the difference in fare. If the new flight is cheaper, you’ll get a cash refund if you booked a refundable ticket, or a credit for a future Southwest flight if not. For that reason, it usually makes sense to check back from time to time after you’ve booked your flight (especially during Southwest’s fare sales), and see if there have been any price drops that help you. My personal practice is to go ahead and book at the earliest possible opportunity, because there is absolutely no upside to waiting to see if the fare drops — if it does, I’ll just get a credit that I will inevitably use at some point, because I fly Southwest so frequently. If you expect this to be your only occasion to fly Southwest, however, a credit might not help you, so that’s something to keep in mind when deciding when to book.
If you need to cancel entirely, what happens will be based upon what sort of ticket you purchased. If you have a Wanna Get Away ticket, you’ll get a credit to be used on a future Southwest flight. Any other ticket will give you the option of a credit or a cash refund.
Boarding and Flying
Check-In and Seating
Unlike most airlines that assign you a seat for your flight, Southwest has open seating, which means that you can choose any open seat you like. Of course, this is subject to availability, so the earlier you get on the plane, the more selection you’re going to have. That’s part of the reason that the ability to be one of the first 15 people on the plane by virtue of buying a Business Select ticket is valuable — you will more or less have your choice of seats, and you won’t have to worry about overhead bin space running out for your carry-on baggage.
There was a time when Southwest was known for its “cattle call” approach to seating, where the right to get on the plane first was awarded on a first come, first served basis, which in turn resulted in people lining up literally hours prior to their flight to make sure they got a decent seat. Thankfully, those days are gone. Now, you are given a boarding number when you check in, and that number determines when you get to board. You will be assigned a group — A, B or C — and a number one through sixty, and when your group is called, everyone lines up in order and that’s the order in which you board the flight. It’s slightly reminiscent of elementary school, but it actually works pretty well.
The boarding number you get is determined by when you check in. You are allowed to check in 24 hours prior to your flight time and boarding numbers are distributed in order starting at that time, so it is common that people will literally check in at the specific moment the clock switches and they are eligible to check-in to get the best number possible. The longer you wait after that check-in time, the higher your number and the later you’re going to get on the plane.
It’s a very egalitarian system, but the reality is that not everyone wants to — or is even in a position to — stop what they are doing to check-in 24 hours on the nose before their flight, especially when you’re supposed to be on vacation having fun. Southwest has attempted to solve this quandary by offering Early Bird Check-In. For $15 per flight (from one destination to another, regardless of how many planes you have to board), you will be automatically checked in at the 24 hour mark, and will be in front of all of the people that are manually checking in at that time. Priority among Early Bird Check-In travelers appears to be determined based upon when you bought your ticket, with earlier purchasers getting better numbers.
There are three other groups of travelers that board at a specific time — pre-board, families and A-list members. Pre-board passengers are travelers who need extra time and/or assistance to board the plane. They board before everyone else, but they are prohibited from sitting in the exit row seats, so don’t think you can pretend to need the extra time just so you can snag a prime seat — I see people try all the time, and it’s generally pretty awkward when they get bounced.
Families are defined as any group including a child 6 or younger, and they board between the A & B groups (although if you all have A boarding passes, there is no need to wait to board, you can board as you normally would). My understanding is that there is some restriction upon how many people can board as a family, but in practice, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it enforced. I routinely see mammoth groups of people boarding during family boarding, especially on the family-heavy Orlando flights.
A-list members are members of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards (read: frequent flyer) program that have flown enough to achieve status. Once you hit a certain level, you get complimentary Early Bird Check-In as an A-List member; if that Early Bird Check-in doesn’t get you an A Group boarding pass, you’re permitted to board along with Family Boarding between the A & B Group.
To summarize, here’s the boarding priority:
- Business Select Customers
- Early-Bird Check-in Customers (including A-List Members)
- Family Boarding and any A-List Members that did not get an “A” boarding pass
- Any remaining Early-Bird Check-In Customers
- Everyone else, in order of check-in
A question I often see asked is “should I get Early Bird Check-in?” The answer, as is usually the case, is “it depends.” If you have a member of your party that is under the age of 6, there is little reason to pay for Early Bird Check-in — regardless of what your boarding number is, you’re only going to have 60-ish people in front of you, and you’ll still have no trouble finding seating together even for fairly large groups of people. If not and you care about sitting together, it’s probably worth considering if you can swing it financially. There are a large number of families on Orlando flights, and there is a very good chance that you’ll be behind every single one of them if you don’t have Early Bird.
Good and Bad Seats
Most of the seats on Southwest flights are essentially the same, so there isn’t a huge difference from one part of the plane to another apart from personal preference. There are, however, a few that are worthy of special note. On the positive side, the traditional exit row seating gives you the most legroom you can get without sacrificing a proper tray table; in my view, they are the prime seats in the plane, and I’m stunned that people don’t universally rush to them. Also in the exit row, Southwest planes have one (older planes) or two (newer planes) seats that have no seat in front of them at all. They offer more legroom than most people could ever need, but they come at the expense of a real tray table (your tray table instead flips out of the arm rest). Note that neither children under the age of 16 nor adults with mobility issues are permitted to sit in the exit rows.
If legroom is the only thing you care about, the bulkhead (i.e., front) rows provide lots of legroom but you lose the real tray table AND the ability to store your stuff under the seat in front of you (because there is no seat in front of you). Realistically, however, the bulkhead seating tends to be occupied by pre-board passengers.
Are you the sort of person that likes to get your drink on as quickly as possible? Southwest divides the cabin into 3 zones for drink service — rows 1 to 8, 9 to 16, and 17 to the back of the plane. Flight attendants will start taking drink orders at the lowest row in their zone, and then work towards the rear of the plane, and drinks are distributed in the same order. Accordingly, sitting in rows 1, 9 and 17 will ensure that you are served first!
On the opposite end of the spectrum, I often see families rush to the very last row because it puts them close to the bathroom, and there is some logical appeal to that plan, but those are, by a wide margin, the absolute worst seats in the plane. In addition to getting served last, the seats in the last row do not recline at all but the seats in front of it do. As a result, you could spend the entire flight gnawing on the headrest of the seat in front of you back there. If you want to be in the back of the plane for easy bathroom access, mazel tov, but pick the second or third row from the back — you’ll still be plenty close, but it won’t be as cramped. Also worthy of note are the seats in the middle of the plane just in front of the exit row — they do not recline either. They aren’t quite as jammed up as the last row, but they are still less than ideal and inferior to just about every other seat on the plane.
There are no other differences between seats on Southwest planes that really matter, so it is just a matter of personal preference, like whether you care about having a wing obstructing your view or not. Yes, there are seats that some people would consider marginally better or worse — Seatguru.com is a great site to visit to thoroughly map out the pros and cons of every seat on a plane — but in my opinion, everything that will really move the needle for you on a Southwest plane is referenced above.
The In-Flight Experience
Once upon a time, airlines presented themselves as more than just a place to get from point A to point B. You were served a meal, there were in-flight movies, blankets, pillows, and the experience as a whole was far more posh. During that time, Southwest distinguished itself by eschewing any pretense and bragged about the fact that it was a no-frills experience in exchange for lower fares. You got a drink and a bag of peanuts, and that was it.
As other carriers have stepped away from these old-school offerings and moved more towards a no-frills approach, Southwest has actually upped its game a bit. It’s still presented with little or no pomp and circumstance, but you’re now offered a grab bag (or box, actually) of different snacks on most flights (rather than strictly being limited to a single bag of peanuts), in addition to your beverages. Alcoholic beverages are available for sale for $5/each and can only be purchased using a credit card, so have that ready when they come around to take the order. Tipping is not expected, and you will be politely refused if you try to tip.
The bigger change, however, is that most Southwest planes are equipped with WiFi (for a fee), and in addition to allowing you to get email and surf the web, it also allows Southwest to offer free television shows (including both live and on-demand offerings) and movies for rent, all of which is accessed through your own mobile device. It’s a great way to pass the time and/or keep your little ones occupied during the flight. Note, however, that to watch TV, you’ll need to have the Airtime Player app (iOS – Android) already on your phone or tablet, so make sure you add the app before you get on the plane. The in-flight WiFi is adequate for routine web surfing and email, but you should not expect it to work for data-intensive applications like Netflix or Pandora that stream large amounts of data.
Finally, while there are certainly no guarantees on this front, Southwest tends to have a more jovial, celebratory approach to flying, particularly on flights coming into Orlando that are full of people heading on vacation. Flight attendants have been know to try out their stand-up routines while delivering the safety information, and I’ve heard the Mickey Mouse theme song sung more than a few times during landing. Just run with it, you’re on vacation!
Air travel is a heavily regulated activity, so the number of hacks and tricks available to you are somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I do want to close out with a couple of quick tips that I’ve adopted from several years of flying extensively on Southwest. Without further ado:
Make Yourself An Unattractive Seatmate
Nowadays, flights tend to be pretty full, but you will occasionally be on a flight that has empty seats, and your best case scenario is having one of those empty seats be next to you. When trying to pick out a seats, every person getting on the plane is making an assessment of whether or not they want to spend the next couple of hours or so with you, so to the extent that you can dissuade them from joining you, the better your chances of having some breathing room on your flight.
I’m not suggesting that you should make yourself a complete pariah, but there are plenty of little things that will encourage others to just move on rather than join you. Setting your stuff on the seat next to you, others might assume someone else is there or even just be uncomfortable enough with the prospect of asking you to move your gear that they’ll move on to a less confrontational seat. This is also not the time to showcase the pearly whites — cold and aloof will do well for you. Boarding time is also not a bad time to come down with a hacking (but ultimately harmless) cough that miraculously clears up after the plane takes off. Holding a motion sickness bag can also help deter would-be seatmates from joining you.
You Don’t Need to Buy Early Bird Boarding For Everyone
With that said — and I say this as a parent myself, so no offense intended to anyone out there — there are few things that will make you less likely to have a seatmate like having a child with you. Accordingly, if you have a child that is over the age of 6 (such that you can’t use family boarding), you might consider buying Early Bird boarding for just a portion of your party. They will board first, armed with the powerful deterrent effect that only a child can bring, and you can be rest assured that no one is going to take the other seat in a row with your kid, and you’ll be able to join them without paying the premium for Early Bird boarding.
The same thing works fine for adults — just have some in the party do the Early Bird, and they’ll save seats for the rest of the party. I do want you to advise you to be considerate and not have one person try to save several rows worth of seats, but you can save a seat or two per person without a lot of grief. I have no idea if Southwest has an official policy on this, but frankly, if you advise someone that you’re holding the seat for a family member or friend and they insist upon sitting in it anyway, it’s going to make for a pretty awkward flight; it’s therefore very unlikely that you’ll be unsuccessful when saving a seat.
So, what other tips and tricks have you all picked up from flying Southwest? Got any other questions? Let me know in the comments!