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Flying Southwest Airlines: 3 Things Every Passenger Should Know

The popular airline works a little different than rivals like JetBlue, Delta, and United.

Flying has become more difficult over the years and the pandemic did the airline industry no favors. And while masks have become optional and social distancing exists only on signs, not through any actual enforcement, travelers must still deal with long lines, slow security, and airports in many parts of the country that have seen better days.

Perhaps more importantly, people choosing to fly face higher prices than were common before the covid pandemic. That’s partly due to higher fuel prices but largely it has happened due to constrained capacity. All the major airlines shrunk their workforces during the worst of covid, and it’s hard to build staffing levels back, especially when it comes to pilots.

Shrinking capacity plus growing demands means higher prices and that may force people used to flying full-fare airlines like Delta  (DAL) - Get Free Report and United Airlines  (UAL) - Get Free Report to consider alternatives. For some, that may mean taking a look at Southwest, an airline that really has no peer in the industry. It’s not that Southwest  (LUV) - Get Free Report does things radically differently than its rivals, but it does have some unique policies and practices.

Those differences have helped Southwest build a very loyal customer base, but they can also make it daunting for people who have never flown with the airline. If you’re thinking about giving Southwest a shot, you probably should be prepared for how the airline operates.

A Southwest Airlines plane. Southwest Airlines Lead

Southwest Doesn’t Play Games With Pricing

Before you even consider booking a flight on Southwest, you need to understand that it’s a low-price airline, but it’s not a price-first discounter like Frontier or Spirit (which it’s in the process of buying). Southwest lists its pricing and that’s the actual price you will pay including your carry-on and up to two checked bags.

There’s no business or first-class on the airline. You can pay for early-bird check-in, which gets you checked in automatically 24 hours before your flight or Business Select which lets you be one of the first 15 non-preboard passengers to get on your flight. The airline does offer more expensive fares that offer more flexibility when it comes to canceling or rebooking, but the basic fare is all-inclusive.

Southwest won’t charge extra for bags, getting a seat assignment, or for rows with extra legroom.

Southwest Has a Very Unique Boarding System

Southwest does boarding differently than every other major airline. Most airlines book largely based on what you paid for the flight, your class of ticket (first or business versus coach or economy), and loyalty program level. That’s not how it works on Southwest where passengers are treated more or less equally.

The airline allows passengers to check into the flight 24 hours before its scheduled departure time. When you check in (and you should do it as soon as you can) you are assigned a letter (A, B, or C) and a number (1 through 60). When it comes time to board, the A group goes first with passengers lining up in numerical order

There are no assigned seats on a Southwest flight. Passengers board, according to their letter and number unless they have a pre-boarding authorization. Families traveling with young children can also board between the A and B groups if they don’t have an A group position.

There are also a couple of loopholes in the system. Anyone who reaches A-List or A-List Select status in Southwest’s loyalty program (which requires at least 25 one-way flights in a calendar year to qualify) gets automatically checked in in the same way people paying for Early Bird get checked in. Neither guarantees an A boarding group, but A-List and A-List Select members can board between the A and B Groups if they don’t get one.

Broadly, if you are in the latter part of the B Group or the C Group, you’re probably ending up with a middle seat and you may not get to sit with whoever you may be traveling with. In addition, people boarding later may struggle to find overhead bin space.

Southwest Caters to Loyal Customers

While Southwest does not offer first or business-class upgrades, it does offer meaningful perks to its most loyal members. A-List passengers not only get automatically checked into their flights, they can also fly standby on any flights going between the same destinations on the day of their flight at no additional charge.

That may seem like a small thing, but if you’re traveling for business, it can mean not having to pay extra or getting stuck waiting in an airport if your plans change. And, if you change your flight, while you will get a C boarding group, you can actually board between the A and B groups.

Southwest also offers its most-loyal customers (people who fly 100 one-way flights per year) what it calls a Companion Pass. That’s a designated person who can travel with you free of charge.