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Southwest Airlines—Its Fares, Customer Service, and Check In Process

A review

Southwest Airlines—the absolute king of the budget airlines—nearly always tops customer satisfaction polls.

A few critics say its corporate culture overshadows individual lives, but DrV loves Southwest and its usually friendly and enthusiastic employees.

Who can dislike an airline where employees, if they get an urge, sing spontaneous songs of gratitude to their passengers, as happened on a Dr. V flight? Or, where smaller flight attendants have been known to hide in overhead luggage bins to bring laughter to boarding passengers?

Or, where the former chair and CEO, when he thought a passenger had grossly unfairly complained against one of his employees, sent the complainer a polite suggestion of an alternative airline for future travel?

No wonder other airlines have had so much trouble competing against Southwest, even when their fares are the same.

Battle for LAX

Enjoy another Southwest employee story.

When United Airlines was set to start its low cost "Shuttle by United" service out of Los Angeles and other cities, Southwest faced its greatest threat since its inception. At that time, United was so much better funded for a long-term price war and promotional battle.

No problemo, however.

On the day United launched its new service, Southwest Los Angeles terminal employees arrived at work ready to wage "war."

They donned combat uniforms and helmets, put up camouflage, rolled a tank into the check in area, and continued giving their top quality service.

Enormous good humoured publicity was generated in a business battle that was already attracting wide attention.

Southwest actually grew its business in Los Angeles in the face of stiff competition.

Recipe for profit

Bottom line?

Low fares, great customer service, and employees who care about their company create profit.

In a cutthroat industry where most of its competitors have gone out of business or filed for court protection, Southwest has made a profit every year since 1973, including the difficult latter part of 2001, after 9/11.

Expect no frills

Dr. Voyageur highly recommends this airline, with the caveat that Southwest gives a "no frills" travel experience.

  • No rerouting on other airlines if your flight is cancelled or connection missed.
  • No free standby if the fare on the alternative flight is higher, and
  • No extra seat free for overweight persons—if you take up two seats, you'll pay for both. (Remind DrV to be diligent with his South Beach diet.)
  • No full meals. On flights under two hours, Southwest serves peanuts and pretzels. On longer flights, you'll get a wider selection.
  • No wide body jets on longer flights for more comfort. No films or video on longer flights. (Southwest has gone strongly into the Internet age.)

As of January 2009, you can still check two pieces of luggage free, if they're within the weight and size allowance, in contrast to most other airlines. In contrast, Southwest competitor Allegiant Air changes up to $140 for two bags checked roundtrip.

Southwest's unique check in process

You can check in online as early as 24 hours prior to departure. Do this! Check in online even if you don't have access to a printer.

When you check in online or at the airport, you are assigned a boarding priority number, not a specific seat.

Those who check in first win a spot in the coveted "A" group, for example "A-18." The Bs follow. If you wait to check in at an airport counter or kiosk at the last minute, you'll probably end up in the dreaded "C" group, if your flight is reasonably full, as most Southwest flights are.

When you arrive at the gate area, you'll see a row of columns marked 1 to 5 on one side and 6 to 10 on the other and so on.

When ready to board, gate agents will first ask the "A" group to stand on the side of the column that has their number. Passengers then may refine the process by comparing their boarding passes and then getting in exact numerical order.

Southwest will then ask the first half of "A" group to board and then repeat the process with the rest of the As and then the "B" and "C" groups.

As you can see, the "A's" have the best choice of window or aisle seats or sitting with their friends or family. The "C's" often up in middle seats.

We very much like this system. It's based on how important it is for you to check in early. It's quick and easy.

The only exceptions are the physically challenged who board early and those who paid the highest business fare who are assigned one of the first few numbers in the "A" group, if available.

Currently, families with small children do not get priority boarding based on that alone. They should check in online early.

Best fares

With the exception of the DING fares discussed below, Southwest's best fares usually come to early bookers, but you don't need to stay over a Saturday night or buy a return ticket for the lowest fares.

Check the Southwest website for a constantly changing array of Saturday only fares, $99 transcontinental flights, bring along a friend free, and other specials.

Note that Southwest does not include taxes and fees in the first fare displays it shows, in contrast to some other airlines.

To save money, Southwest does not have "live" listings in international airline reservation computers. It's best to contact it online, instead of going through most offshore travel counsellors, who may not have much information.

DING fares

Be sure to sign up online for Southwest's DING service, which pops up on your screen with great Internet specials throughout the week.

You tell DING what airports interest you and it gives specials based on that.

If you're going to a place like Los Angeles, be sure to input all the local airports: LAX, BUR (Burbank), ONT (Ontario), and SNA (Orange County) that Southwest serves.

Fare caution

Southwest offers low fares, but always compare them to a site like Hotwire.com, especially for last-minute travel.


To learn more about Southwest, check out Nuts! Southwest Airlines' Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success by Kevin and Jackie Freidberg with a foreword by Tom Peters.

This tells about Southwest's inspiring history and corporate culture. You'll learn about its battles with American Airlines and others. Most of all, you'll learn how to run a great company.

Unfortunately, after reading this, you may never be happy working anywhere else.

For more airfare savings tips:

Go to >> Airfare savings introduction
Go to >> Finding cheap fares
Go to >> Last-minute fares
Go to >> Combining fares
Go to >> Open jaws & circle trips
Go to >> One-way (single) airfares
Go to >> Bereavement flights
Go to >> Weekend internet fares
Go to >> Budget airlines, or Southwest Airlines
Go to >> Bucket shop fares
Go to >> Visit North America fares

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