I Just Flew Southwest for the First Time in 22 Years… And It Was Fantastic!

I needed a flight from Philadelphia to Austin on Monday evening. Since the US Airways merger American has shifted to a more US Airways-like scheduling practice, with flights varying more by day of week. There’s just not nearly as much Monday night travel as Monday morning or evenings later in the week. So there’s no flight between 5:45pm and after 8pm that I could take on American to get get home. And I had a meeting in Wilmington that would go until 5.

So instead of spending the night in Wilmington, or flying late to Dallas and overnighting there, I decided to get home late with a 7pm Southwest flight. Five days out the one-way cost me $182.

I’m a real Texan now. I hadn’t flown Southwest since 1993, but I’m glad I did, especially since I had the opportunity to correspond semi-regularly with Southwest founding President Lamar Muse a decade ago.

Still, I steeled myself to rush for an aisle seat and overhead space, and to fly for several hours without extra legroom seating. Fortunately they took my Known Traveler Number, so I’d have TSA PreCheck.

TSA PreCheck was closed, even though I arrived slightly before 6 and the line supposedly stays open until 6. But whenever I’ve gone through security where there’s been no PreCheck, TSA has offered ‘expedited’ security (no shoes come off, liquids stay in bag, but laptop is supposed to come out — and I go through the metal detector, not the nude-o-scope).

I was even able to board early in the process, which can matter on a full Southwest flight since there’s no assigned seating — and I want to make sure I have overhead space, and ideally an aisle seat.

I didn’t even know that Southwest offers to ‘automatically check you in’ 36 hours prior to flight for a fee. I obviously do not have ‘A list status’ and I was buying a ‘Wanna Get Away’ fare (just a few days out!). Sure, I could be sure to check in right at 24 hours. But I paid $12.50 for a better shot at aisle seats and bin space than that would have provided, and not needing to be quick with the trigger finger.

I was unexpectedly prepared for my Southwest flight because Thursday morning, as I boarded my American Airlines flight from Austin to Dallas, my seat assignment suddenly changed from an exit row aisle to ‘null’. I hoped it was because I had cleared the upgrade list. In fact it was just because my seat was now in another passenger’s possession. And I was given a non-“Main Cabin Extra” window seat.

It almost seemed like my Thursday morning American Airlines flight was foreshadowing that evening’s leaks about American’s plans for the AAdvantage program.

Southwest also wanted to prepare me for my flight. A little over 24 hours prior to departure I received an email letting me know about wifi and free TV, and subtly letting me know there’s no seat power on the plane (“Charge and pack your device”). But… Hello Valued Customer, really? They can sync up my reservation and email but can’t merge in name fields?

In the end the flight wasn’t full. I’d have had no problem getting boarding group A check-in if I logged on immediately when it became available in a day in advance. As it stands, I had position A35 (so behind A-List and Business Select, but ahead of all but 4 of the rest of the passengers). I’d have gotten an aisle seat just fine. A flight selling cheap ‘Wanna Get Away’ fares within a week of travel probably isn’t full, so the $12 wasn’t necessary. But it did help not to worry about checking in as soon as the opportunity opened.

I relaxed and texted a bit waiting for the flight to take off. I had been working all day and hadn’t seen any news, checked my email, read blogs. I had a lot of work ahead of me, and was looking forward to catching up on the day during six hours of flying. I figured I’d get serious once we got in the air.

The aircraft was a few minutes late in, but it didn’t take long to turn. While we taxied out came the announcement, “unfortunately the internet is inoperative on this aircraft.” All my hopes were dashed. I slouched into my seat, defeated. I decided to give it a shot once airborne though, it worked!

Smooth flight, perfectly comfortable, and into St. Louis 20 minutes early. I actually wondered how my connection there would work since my paper boarding pass was collected as I boarded in Philadelphia.

On arrival a flight attendant announced that passengers continuing to Austin:

  • Should stay in their seats and let connecting passengers off
  • Could stay onboard he aircraft if they wanted
  • Or would be given a pass to get back on the plane

I switched to an exit row aisle once everyone else deplaned, and left my stuff on the seat to claim it. I got off and was told I would just identify myself to the agent on the way out. I was asked my name as I deplaned. When it came time to reboard an hour later they didn’t check ID, she just recognized me. Returning passengers were boarded first, prior to A group. I headed for my new exit row seat, and no one sat down beside me.

This second flight was only about a third full. We pushed back several minutes early. The only thing not to like about this final segment was.. the internet wasn’t working. But I asked to have the system reset, and things came back online.

We landed 35 minutes early. All in all, Southwest was fantastic. It helped of course to have light loads and as a result an empty middle seat next to me each time. A full flight might not have been as comfortable. But I walked away happy with the experience.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Checking for flying pigs, nice words about Southwest! As transport, it has actually changed a lot since 93 – it’s a much larger airline and that makes a difference. There are still route-specific nuances but the days of being a flying greyhound bus are long gone. Not every business traveler has the luxury of burning money on a legacy carrier, and the ability to change plans is a huge bonus. I wouldn’t pick Southwest as my first choice but it’s absolutely a tool in the arsenal.

  2. Fellow ATX flyer and I have my first SW flight in ~5 year coming up (loyal AA EXP here). Hopefully mine is as smooth as yours.

  3. The real value in Southwest is-
    *The friendliest FAs among US based airlines
    *No cancellation/change fees until 10 minutes before departure.

  4. In loving southwest. Free baggage. Get the best seat just by paying $10-$12. Service during flight is friendly and sometimes funny. And their cheap fares are sometimes ultra-cheap! Because award flights are revenue based, and because I only use miles when they’re a good value, I’ve been able to get NINE free 1-ways, just through spending & bonuses…. in the two years since you convinced me to apply for the card.

  5. Sounds like a typical SW flight.

    LOL…or maybe not. 🙂

    Just a heads up about Earlybird. You can sometimes change your flights without charge, and can always cancel the flight and use that money for a different flight over an entire year without a penalty.

    BUT, once you pay for Earlybird, that money is gone. Forget the proclaimed SW “Transferancy”. If you so much as change your flight to one an hour earlier or later, you forfeit the Earlybird fee. Then if you still want to board early, you have to pay it again. 🙁

  6. Southwest *is* fantastic! “Red” brought up the two best points — their people are actually kind and friendly, unlike virtually any other domestic airline, and there are no cancellation/change fees. They also don’t charge for checked bags, which is great.

  7. The lack of change fees, while useful if you need to change your flight when you have no choice, is also often a huge downer when you want to be opportunistic as you *always* have to pay difference in fare.

    In other words, you can’t do the legacy [elite member] equivalent of free same-day-standby (or cheap confirmed same-day change); by that point, fares are usually expensive. On my last WN flight (SNA=>SJC), numerous folks walked up to the counter, asked if they could catch the earlier flight, and were told it would cost them hundreds of $, whereas with the legacies you could always grab a seat if there was one (or standby for a seat, and elite status would often propel you near the top).

  8. Gary, I’ve been telling you for years that Southwest is not the same operation it was in the days of plastic boarding cards and lining up 45 minutes before the flight. The boarding process beats all other airlines’ unless you are very, very picky about your seat.

    You don’t need to check in right at T-24 to get an aisle seat unless the flight is long or has many connecting passengers (who are allowed to check in hours before you are).

    If you were taller you would notice the paucity of legroom. That reduction in 2012 is my main gripe with Southwest.

    @Red nailed the main advantages. I expect some variation of change/funds re-use fees is in our future, so enjoy it while it lasts. For a trip you might have to cancel, Southwest should be your top choice.

  9. Southwest is my preferred airline, even if the cost is the same. With the majors I usually get a CRJ and with Southwest is almost always a 737 with updated interior. And as others mentioned you can’t beat the no change fee – especially when booking for a family speculatively.

  10. I was very nervous about my flight on Southwest last year. In part because, to be fair, I’d added a few pounds. And I’m north of 6 feet tall so the combo had me a bit nervous. But, I loved it.

    If you don’t have status, and these days if you don’t have top tier status, on one of the legacies it is really hard to beat what you get on Southwest. If I didn’t love traveling overseas so much they’d probably be the airline I focused most on. A ton of daily flights all over the country and now North America and just a pleasant experience start to finish.

  11. Free television, and free booze (I think everyone has to many vouchers) plus amazing flight crews. SWA has come a long way, or every other airline has dropped. I would pick SWA over legacy any day

  12. For me, the key to liking SW is flying only non-stop, short segments (< 2 or 3 hours). I'm based in LAS, and really love SW for trips to the SF Bay Area, Seattle and Boise. I wouldn't take it to the East Coast or Costa Rica or any place far from home.

  13. I have flown them a dozen times in the last 3 years and some of the flights -not all-were very cheap miles. It’s nice to book well in advance with miles and get them all returned if I change my mind. I have no real complaints regarding the flights.

  14. My best Southwest flight was about 20 years ago, and they had mechanical problems. Luckily it was discovered before taking off. Then they told us we could wait in the airport, or stay on the plane. We were told if we remained on we would have to stay, A half dozen of us were just as comfortable on the plane as in the airport and remained there. They closed the door and then announced free drinks. I don’t remember how long the delay was, but I do recall we didn’t care. When the others returned they seemed very puzzled to come back to a party they seemingly had missed.

  15. I’ve had two round trips flights to chicago with them for 14,000 and 8,700. You can really get great deals there. Now with BA making more “expensive” to fly short distances on miles those SW miles become much more valuable.

    You know what you get with their service too. Usually on time etc. Its the airline I’ve used the most this year.

  16. I flew to ATL for the Freddies on WN, and too, was pleasantly surprised.. I too paid the fee for 36 hour early check in.

    I liked the WiFi based TV that you can watch on an iPhone or iPad.

    Really, if AA switches to a program as leaked, with revenue based points and if they modify their upgrade process – WN looks more attractive for some destinations.

  17. @Gary what brought you to Wilmington? That’s where I live! A meeting at one of the credit card companies if I had to guess…

  18. Great friendly service. Seats are comfortable with ample leg room (I’m 6 ft tall and it’s fine). Boarding process is efficient. Good safety record.

    I think Delta is better from an operations standpoint, but Southwest is fine. I just wish they hadn’t changed their frequent flyer program to a revenue-based redemption program. I used to be able to extract outstanding value. Not so much anymore.

  19. It’s a bit amazing to me that any USA-based frequent flyer could go 22 years without flying WN, (yet alone a “thought leader in travel”) but I guess you never got to it. 🙂

    I’ve got lots of status in the major airline alliances, which generally makes WN my last choice for travel (well, Spirit or Frontier would be my actual last choices). But I do fly WN a few times a year. I even have a soon-to-be-expired Companion Pass which I got through the generosity of Chase.

    For the frequent flyer, there are definitely pluses and minuses to WN. The biggest plus is obviously the refundability in fares. If you’re the kind of person who pays for their own travel and has an uncertain schedule, this is a fantastic benefit. Otherwise, it’s a useful but not essential perk.

    I will say that WN is the only US airline whose on-board product has actually gotten BETTER in the past 10 years. The “better” is the free live TV on your own personal device. I don’t find this a fantastic benefit, but since they used to have no entertainment, it’s “better”! Otherwise, WN’s in-flight service has stayed the same (like free snack packs) while everyone else’s has gotten worse!

    I don’t much care for the WN boarding process but that’s probably because I’m spoiled by my “zone 1” elite boarding on other airlines with my preferred seat and possible (but now less likely) upgrade.

    I also miss having a lounge when I fly WN. That said, on my last WN flight from Vegas, I took the train to the D gates for the nice Centurion lounge and waited there for my C gate WN flight. Good thing I could do this because WN posted an hour delay after I arrived at the airport.

    One thing that amazes me about WN is how many of their pax go to elaborate and sophisticated means to game their system. I mean, they’re supposed to be “kettles,” right? Yet, lots of people pay the $12 to cut the boarding line. It’s become almost impossible to get an A boarding pass without paying. And many of those who don’t pay call in EXACTLY 24 hours in advance to get lower boarding numbers. My wife and I were recently in a remote location with bad wifi 24 hours before our WN flight. Relying on an atomic clock, she was able to check in almost exactly at the 24 hour mark, but my phone “stalled” and took an extra 15 seconds to load the check-in page. That brief delay got me a boarding number almost 20 spaces lower!

    And Southwest fans have figured out other boarding tricks. Like they pay for only one early check-in, board early, and save seats for friends & family. And I won’t even get into the hospital face masks I’ve seen some travelers don to discourage travelers from sitting next to them, or the seniors I’ve seen approach the boarding door with canes and then bound onto the plane once they get early boarding!

    It’s a whole other world. You’ll have plenty to learn if you continue your travels with WN.

  20. I was A List with SW for years because of business travel but stopped flying them 2 years ago when out of 10 flights 7 were delayed, 5 out of the 7 were delayed by more than 2 hours and out of those 5 flights 2 were because their was no pilot to fly the plane. These were all within a month of each other. I also noticed a big drop in their customer service friendliness. I only fly them now if my company makes me book them.

  21. Early bird is only lost if you cancel a segment. You will be able to keep it if you make schedule changes on the same city pair – I have done this multiple times on the same flight, every time the price lowered. Even if you do a change of cities, I think you still keep early bird.

    It was so much better when it was $10 and they guaranteed ‘A’ group. Too popular now and the group guarantee is gone.

  22. You lose EarlyBird if you change after T-36 hours of your original flight; once you’ve been given that spot, it can’t be changed to another flight. If you change before that, making sure to change and keep the same PNR rather than cancel and rebook, you keep the EB. If you want to cancel and don’t know when you’d want to take a flight with the EB, change to a dummy booking months ahead, then change again, keeping the same PNR, when you know the flight you want.

    Also, be sure to keep track of all PNRs where you have funds when you cancel or rebook at a lower fare; Southwest won’t do it for you.

  23. I’ve boarded in C group several times recently and been fine. At that point, you can usually choose between sitting up front in a middle seat or sitting in back in a window or aisle with an empty middle seat. That allows me to decide which is more important to me: getting off the plane fast, or having more space to get comfortable. It’s a good system.

  24. I find Southwest to be a much better experience than other domestic options, as someone without status on any airline. As mentioned quite a few times, the lack of cancellation fees is a huge plus. I like to book travel well in advance so I can lock in a good price or award ticket, but with most airlines this means forfeiting much or all of the value of the fare if plans change. I also like to use this policy strategically, rebooking if fares drop.

    One of the things I hate about flying domestic on other airlines is that overhead bins usually fill up. You get to sit through umpteen announcements about how it’s a “completely full flight” and the gate staff would be happy to gate-check your bag. Not many people voluntarily give up their bags, and then they battle for bin space. The boarding process takes much longer than it should, because people are walking the length of the plane trying to find a place to cram their roller bags. I find that on Southwest, the bins rarely get completely full, due to the lack of checked bag fees. I don’t really care if it costs money to check bags, but I resent the mess that results when airlines incentivize people to bring on board more luggage than the plane can accommodate.

    I’ve also been on a few legacy (+ VX) flights recently where the PTVs were used to blast advertisements in my face that I can’t turn off. I find this extremely distasteful.

    The frequent flyer program doesn’t have any outsized values, but it’s quite good otherwise. There are no additional capacity controls on award tickets. This means I can get a decent value out of my Southwest points most of the time, whereas it’s increasingly rare that I find saver availability for domestic segments on the legacies. There is no redeposit fee, so it’s an extremely flexible currency. I actually prefer to book flights with points over cash, because if I cancel I’m not limited to one year to reuse the proceeds. It’s a pretty decent use of UR points. If I had to make a speculative transfer (as I probably will in a few months when my annual fee comes due), I would probably choose Southwest over United.

  25. My 1st flight with them in about just as long. I booked a same day wanna get away fare frim phoenix to boise for $172. Early check in didn’t cost anything. So security snagged me at the scanner. The extra scrutiny doesn’t bother me. The time it took in making me miss my flight Sucked. The 2 checked bags free option is awesome but my bag went without me. The last call notice played over speakers as I ran for the door, getting there about 30 secs after door closed. But the SW agent was very courteous and helpful. I was booked on next flight out about 6 hrs later. That flight ended up cancelled, and they added the cancelled passengers to a flight leaving out 30 mins later. Even with the airport troubles Sw was great. Service was impeccable. Received free in flight alcoholic drinks. Actually I wasn’t charged for them. Flight attendant explained procedure saying if the cabin depressurizes the oxygen masks will fall. Stop screaming and breath into the mask.. hilarious. So yeah excellent experience w the flight. Airport not so much but that’s the nature of the beast

  26. Well, that was concise.

    Amazing you could write that much and not discuss your AA seat assignment mystery more.

  27. I disagree that they have the friendliest FA’s! The absolute WORST power hungry FA I have ever had the displeasure to fly with was a WN FA from LAS-PDX. I realize that every company has their bad apples but I think WN is about the worst in “empowering” their people to go on power trips.

    While I do continue to fly them due to their routes and FF program, I am very careful to try and not engage the FA’s at all as I have no desire to deal with another power-tripper.

  28. @iahphx much of the past 20 years I lived in DC. Southwest finally came to IAD, but IAD was especially inconvenient to me. DCA service is still pretty new, and I left DC a year ago. I rarely find them to be cheaper than legacies and before moving to Texas they lacked frequency for me.

  29. Been flying between Milwaukee and Tampa.no problems.I even tried the no plane change flight in Atlanta.it was nice and broke up the flight.I just really wish the cabin noise wasn’t so loud.not the people.they are great…SW fares are good for me.and on occasion I change flights.the early check in fee of $12.50 is transferred.everything is good.

  30. @Gary — I know what you mean about convenience and pricing. Unless you live in one of their focus cities (or whatever they call them), WN usually isn’t the most convenient or the cheapest. It’s easy to ignore them, unless you are the type of person who frequently buys revenue tickets and needs to change them. In that circumstance, seeking out WN makes a lot of sense.

    The other, underappreciated benefit of WN is if you often travel with a companion (like a spouse) and can get the two WN credit cards from Chase — thereby earning a two-year companion pass with a modest amount of spending. You can redeem the 100,000 miles they give you with these cards for 2 for 1 award tickets. It’s a pretty sweet deal especially since, objectively, flying WN isn’t materially worse than flying the legacy USA airlines, even if you have status. WN also has recently expanded into several int’l leisure markets, and the companion pass works for these destinations too.

  31. Southwest is almost always a better VALUE. Not necessarily the lowest price, but a better value overall. That’s why they’re my ‘go to’ airline whenever possible.

  32. I never got my email. I did all airline tickets for all four of us. Two got searched two didn’t. They said two were checked in two we’re. I did all the paper work we flew together. What happened? Other than that I will fly Southwest airlines the next time I fly.

  33. I used to fly SW to Nashville from PHL frequently they have reduced the flights there and only have an 8:30 PM flight back home which is frequently late. They also change the schedule frequently which is frustrating. For these reasonsI have not flown SW in all of 2015 and I have A+ status.

    You are correct there is plenty to love about SW except their schedules and on time departure from Nashville.

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