Discount airline Southwest is frequently feted for its customer service and unique way of doing business…and it’s reasonable prices. It’s true that Southwest DOES do business a little different and that could make your first Southwest flight a little unnerving – if not prepared. So, if it is your first time flying Southwest there’s a few things you need to keep in mind. We explain all here!
A quick note: As a disclaimer of sorts, I am unabashedly a huge fan of Southwest Airlines and have been for years. While I was NOT compensated by them for this post, I feel like I should be 🙂
First Time Flying Southwest Airlines – what to know
When flying Southwest travelers must first understand the cultural and philosophical perspective that Southwest approaches its business model from. It’s different than other airlines.
Founded in the late 60’s by the now legendary (and recently deceased) Herb Kelleher, Southwest prides itself on outstanding customer service, timely arrivals, and affordable prices. The premise is best captured by the statement still present on the Southwest website:
“If you get your passengers to their destinations when they want to get there, on time, at the lowest possible fares, and make darn sure they have a good time doing it, people will fly your airline.”
And fly they have. The wildly popular airline has become more than a fringe player over the years by doing things a little differently (e.g. Bags Fly Free, their unique boarding process, a laser focus on customer service and so much more). It’s truly a cultural thing with Southwest and with rare exceptions embodies almost everything they do.
With that foundation in mind let’s dive into some of the unique things to know when it is your first time flying Southwest.
No Assigned Seats (a bit unnerving when flying Southwest for the first time!)
Perhaps the most visible and interesting thing Southwest does (besides great customer success) is not assign seats to passengers. Most airlines allow / require / assign you a specific seat on the plane. And there are entire pricing models and rewards program benefits built into most airlines around this model.
Not so with Southwest. No assigned seating. Passengers are free to choose any seat they want (first come first served) and with the exception of the exit row and bulkhead seats every seat is the same.
When flying Southwest for the first time this can be a little disconcerting. More than a time or two novice Southwesties (is that a thing!?) will conclude their boarding number and zone (e.g. B23) is their seat number. Nope…it’s your boarding group and position. And it’s the boarding process that ultimately plays the largest role in the quality of seat you get (more on this later).
Direct Flights that aren’t actually direct (the Southwest “through passenger”)
This is one of the things I do NOT like about Southwest. The “through flight” (which is what I call it…I am sure there’s a proper name for it) is essentially a stop at an airport where you don’t get off. And the stop isn’t always apparent when booking the flight (it is, to be fair…you just have to look for it).
For example, if I am flying to Dallas from say Ontario, it might appear like a direct flight, but in actuality it stops in Tulsa (yes, this is route I’ve done), briefly, before heading on to Dallas. This can make a direct flight appear shorter than it is (or just appear like a direct flight). And yes, you don’t get off the plane – it’s usually a tight turn – it is annoying if you weren’t expecting it.
Travelers should simply look a little deeper when booking a flight to see if their segments fall into this category. It may not be a big deal to to you one way or the other but you should at least be aware of it.
Couple other things to note about this “feature” on Southwest Airlines. Once nice thing is that after all the passengers get off the plane it’s just you and a handful (like 10 or so, usually) AND you get to pick a different seat. I’ve done this and snagged a nice exit row seat.
You do need to wait in your seat until the FA does a count…then it’s a mad dash to grab that exit row. So be ready.
Sometimes, if the flight is early, the FA’s may actually let you off the plane for 10 minutes or so (maybe to go grab a snack or just stretch). To re-board (since you don’t have a boarding pass for the flight leaving that “through” AP) you need to show your ID to the gate agent. It’s always best to let them (and the FA) know when you get OFF the plane.
You don’t need to wait in the line with the rest of the folks…just go straight up to the gate agent. Make sure you do so BEFORE they start boarding the flight or you might get stuck. And always leave a bag or something in your seat before you leave the plane. That way that nice exit row will be waiting for you.
No First Class
First class is for snobs. Or at least not the folks flying on Southwest. As an airline with a history of success in the regional flight space Southwest opted for more butts in seats than a higher class of travel. They’ve never looked back. Every plane, for the most part, is the same, and there’s no first class seats. Nope…it’s equal opportunity at Southwest and that’s consistent with their affordability goals.
That said, Southwest is no longer a regional carrier with longer haul flights across the country every day. Yet, no first class and while occasionally that would be nice on some longer flights, they’ve stayed away from it…and I kinda respect it.
The Southwest Boarding Process
This blog’s namesake is inspired by Southwest’s boarding process. The “C” boarding group is the last (and worst) boarding group to be in when flying Southwest. It almost guarantees you will get a stuck in a middle seat and you might have trouble finding a spot for your bag in the overhead bin. While stuck in the C boarding group one day (because of my own stupidity) I got inspired to write this blog.
Anyhoo…back to the Southwest Boarding process. Like most things Southwest, it’s a little different and if it’s your first time flying Southwest you need to do your homework. Here’s the deal.
- After checking in, travelers are assigned a boarding group from the letters A, B or C. You are also assigned a number (1-60). For example, your boarding pass may say A32 or B57. The plane boards alphabetically by group (A first, B, then C) and by number (A1 boards before A38, etc). You get your boarding group and number when you check in (or based on your status, in some cases…more on this in a moment). The letter group and number determine the order you board.
- Near each airport boarding gate Southwest typically has metal stanchions that are numerically divided into fives (1-5, 6-10….26-30, etc, all the way up to 60). The gate agent announces the boarding group (like A or B – remember, A goes first) and travelers are supposed to line up in numeric order (by letter grouping) next to the stanchions and prepare to board. The order doesn’t have to be perfect as long as it’s close. Most fellow passengers are not fussy about you being in front of them by one or two and the gate agent doesn’t care either as long as it’s close and definitely as long as you in the right group (no sneaking in now, C boarders…).
- Then, Southwest boards it’s “Business Select” passengers first – they are the first 15 people on the plane (A1 – A15). Then the rest, in order. Once the A group is out of the way, the B group lines up, then C, etc. Families without A boarding passes can board between A & B. And of course, like most Airlines Southwest let’s Military board a little early too (if in uniform) and folks requiring special assistance.
It sounds like organized chaos and I suppose at times it is / can be, but I have to give it Southwest…it actually works pretty well – especially when you’ve done it a time or two. If it’s your first time flying Southwest it may be a little disorienting at first, but you catch on. It’s actually pretty efficient at getting folks on the plane for a quick turn and an on-time departure.
I put checking in after the boarding process because I think it’s helpful to understand the boarding process before looking at the checking-in process. Like most airlines you can “check in” and get a boarding pass no earlier than 24 hours before your flight departs.
Unlike other airlines, however, this 24 hour window could be very important in determining the quality of your seat (especially if you are not an A-Lister, a status afforded to high frequency travelers in the Southwest Rapid Rewards program).
Once that 24 hour clock starts it is often a mad race to get checked in. If you wait until too late…or until you get to the airport…or heck even 3 hours into that 24 hour window you could get a B or C boarding pass. With all of the business travelers the A’s go pretty quick and the savvier travelers are scooping up the rest of the A’s leaving you the scraps.
If you are a member of the Rapid Rewards program and you have A-List status this doesn’t apply to you. You are guaranteed an A boarding pass (although checking in earlier might get you a higher A # and perhaps a better seat).
For the rest, you need to check in as early as you can – especially when traveling with families (see my section of traveling with kids on Southwest, later).
I’ve seen many a family, college student or old-timer who didn’t have a clue and now have C boarding passes and are stuck in a middle seat for 4 hours (it was clearly their first time flying Southwest!). Had they done a little research they could have avoided that mess and snagged an aisle.
Picking a Seat
I’ve actually written an entire article on picking your seat on Southwest, but I will hit the high parts here and you can read the full article at your leisure.
What you need to know:
- It’s open seating – so pick whatever seat is free when you get on the plane
- If you board in A group you will be able to get your seat preference (aisle or window) and if you board EARLY in the A group you might even score an exit row
- In the B group it’s a toss up, but most likely you will be able to get a window and very possibly an aisle…but it’ll be way back
- If you are in the C group it almost guarantees you will get a middle seat (and have trouble finding a spot in the overhead bin…so grab any slot you see for your bag)
My preference is an aisle seat towards the front (so I can get off quicker – which is sometimes important on connecting flights).
Read the full article here: 14 Travel Hacks for Picking the Best Seat on a Southwest Flight
Just a quick note about Southwest and through passengers. They do something unique (as noted earlier). Because they are so fast on the turnaround they will often stop at an airport but several (sometimes many) passengers will stay on the plane because their final destination is the next stop. These are known as through passengers so don’t be shocked when you walk on to the plan and someone is already in your aisle seat!
Bags Fly Free
In a clever bit of a marketing panache Southwest Airlines bold pronounced that bags fly free! Yep, while most other airlines started charging large fees for checked bags, Southwest, in keeping with their low-cost roots, took a different approach. Both your first and second bags fly free.
Of course, you will still need to comply with the weight standards (50 lbs) or be charged a heavy bag fee of 75.00 per bag that weighs more than 50 lbs.
Here at the CBoardingGroup we always recommend folks NOT check a bag, but if you do, there’s no extra cost for you! Yay you!
Curious why we suggest never checking a bag? Read the #1 Travel Hack of all Time – Never Check a Bag for more information.
Entertainment System – Bring your own Device (plus some notes on Wi-Fi)
Onboard seat-back entertainment systems are a wonderful way to pass the time. Several airlines charge for access to portions (e.g. movies) of their system (although the trend is to make this free). Southwest, does not charge for this access (although they do charge for wi-fi access if you want to do anything BEYOND their entertainment…like work emails or Facebook).
Southwest also doesn’t have any physical equipment installed in seatbacks (and thus no cost…smart move on their part). Instead, it’s bring your own device. Simply turn on the wi-fi for your phone, tablet or PC and voila…you are connected to the fairly well-built onboard entertainment system – which is free!
Wi-fi will run you 8.00 for the flight which is (or has been) MUCH cheaper than other airlines who often charge ludicrous prices for access. Not at Southwest…rmember they do things different!
A-List Preferred Members (the highest tier of their Frequent Flyer program) get wi-fi for free.
Get the Southwest Mobile App
Most airlines have their own mobile and Southwest’s is definitely worth getting for your android or iPhone. You can use the app to book flights (I rarely do) and to check in and get your boarding pass (what I use it for).
The app will also give you updates on your travel itinerary (e.g. your flight is boarding or the gate number for your next flight, etc). All handy info.
Perhaps most important (ok, maybe not that important…) is that the app will also give you streamlined access to the onboard entertainment systems (free TV, etc). Best to have the app downloaded and installed before you get on the plane to minimize any technical issues.
One interesting (and new) feature is that via a partnership with ride-sharing company Lyft, travelers can book a Lyft from within the app.
Sign for Lyft Ridesharing and get $5.00 off your first ride. Use this link.
You can read all of the details about the Southwest mobile app here (and find links to download them).
Don’t forget to sign up for Rapid Rewards
I can (and should…and will) write a full blown article about the Southwest Rapid Rewards Program, but let’s hit the highlights here.
Like all airlines, Southwest has a frequent flyer program. Travel a lot…get points…get free flights. Their program is one of the simpler program. Just a few levels. Easy to understand, easy to redeem. Just easy.
If this is your first time flying Southwest (and even if you are not planning on traveling a bunch) why not collect the points? If you are traveling a bunch you can earn your way into the A-List tier which means you will always get an A boarding pass (which if you paid attention to the earlier sections of this article means a lot). To earn A-List it only takes 25 1-way flights.
The highest tier, A-List Preferred has even more benefits including double points, free wi-fi, etc.
Learn more about the Rapid Rewards program here.
The Southwest Credit Card
Many airlines offer a branded credit cards and Southwest is no different. Signing up for a Southwest credit card can reap you a tidy sum of points (perhaps worth a trip or two). Keep any eye out for the best deals as they vary throughout the year.
For more information on Southwest Credit Cards consider these links (opens in a new window):
- Chase Southwest Priority Credit Card Review – Southwest’s Premium Card
- Southwest Credit Card Offer
- New Southwest Credit Card + 80,000 Point Bonus… One Step Closer to the Companion Pass!
First Time Flying Southwest with Kids (some pro tips…)
Like most airlines Southwest allows families with young children to board ahead of the masses. Sort of. Family boarding on Southwest takes places AFTER the A-group has boarded. Families with Children 6 or under can board (as a family) before the B-group boards. Of course, if you happen to have an A boarding pass simply board in your normal spot.
One thing to note, however, when flying Southwest with kids, is that later boarding groups (especially the C boarding group) are almost always guaranteed to get middle seats and/or not sit together. If you have a nervous nelly of a 10-year old he/she may have to sit by themselves unless you find a compassionate passenger (they exist…but don’t count on it) who’s willing to move.
This is why it is CRITICAL to check in at exactly 24 hours before your flight to make sure you get an earlier boarding group. If you are a flyer who has status with Southwest (an A-lister) you will probably be ok, but remember that if someone in your party has, say, A23 and someone else has A54, the A54 cannot board with you at A23. You, as A23, however, CAN board with them at A54.
Traveling with kids can be a little stressful (for parents and kids) so plan ahead when flying with kids on Southwest. If worst comes to worst it might be worth paying the 15.00 early bird check in fee to avoid this mess altogether.
You might be interested in checking out our humorous take on traveling with kids: 15 Super Awesome Kids Travel Tips – from actual kids (inspired from a Southwest flight with my kiddos, no less).
Sometimes the FA’s sing and/or tell jokes
This happens more times than I would honestly expect and it’s never ever (and I mean ever) happened on any other airline. But, occasionally the flight attendants will sing, or tell jokes and other quirky things.
I don’t know if the FAs are encouraged to do this, or are just simply happier inside of the Southwest employee system and let their joy out to our benefit, but I am always amused when it happens. And I think it endears Southwest to its customers. Here’s a few classics:
The End – enjoy your first flight on Southwest
Hopefully its evident why I love Southwest Airlines so much. In a world of corporate greed and company-first ideas Southwest stands apart. Their unique brand of customer service coupled with fair prices create loyal customer after loyal customer. If this is your first time flying Southwest Airlines you won’t be disappointed – especially if you’ve read this article. Happy travels future A-lister!
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Not chaos at all. Everyone lines up and knows exactly where to stand and when to get on. Chaos is the other airlines boarding groups when you have all the gate lice milling around.
>Direct Flights that aren’t actually direct
So what that should read is “not all direct flights are nonstop”, which is true for every airline. While people often conflate “direct” and “nonstop”, they are actually airline industry-wide terms that refer (respectively) to a flight with the same plane and flight number or to a flight that doesn’t stop. Put another way, all nonstop flights are direct flights but not all direct flights are nonstops.
Because of their business model, Southwest operates and markets more direct flights than other airlines but it’s not something unique to them. It’s also pretty clearly marked on their search engine- direct flights that aren’t nonstop have the stop(s) clearly listed on the booking, and if you select the “Nonstop” checkbox on the search it will only show nonstop flights
We have flown SouthWest a few times, but we just got the Companion Pass from signing up for their credit card this year. Im so worried I’m going to forget to check in at the right time – I’ve got all the alarms set!
Correction: Southwest is not like other airlines as far as their military boarding. No other airline requires military to be in uniform. Southwest’s policy is not military friendly at all as it is usually prohibited to travel in uniform. In fact, we are usually directed in our orders to travel in civilian clothes. Southwest is awful towards military.