So I finally tried out Southwest (my impressions here). Ironically, although Southwest gets labeled by many as one of the most “family friendly” airlines, I traveled without mine. Still, I’ve been thinking about that most family friendly moniker – is it deserved? What follows is my analysis of Southwest’s policy quirks and how friendly they actually are for my family. Note: I’m not saying whether they’re friendly for YOUR family or not. So please don’t @ me. But I figure the exercise will help me analyze whether Southwest family friendly policies actually help my family or not. I’m sure the analysis might be helpful to others as well and I genuinely enjoy hearing how other families travel so please share your feedback.
As a bonus, I’ve included a few ideas for how to mimic Southwest’s policies on other airlines if you need to. Let’s take a look.
1. Bags fly free (2 free checked bags)
Probably the single most talked about of the Southwest family friendly policies is their generous baggage policy. Southwest flights hearken back to a time when you didn’t have to pay for checked bags. Every passenger on Southwest gets two regular sized checked bags included with their airfare. I’d have to say that for parents of young kids, this probably ranks #1 in terms of Southwest’s family friendly policies. Even though we travel light, not having to worry about paying for bags really comes in handy.
Still, getting free checked baggage is pretty attainable on other airlines. Obviously, having low level status usually nets you a checked bag, but you can also do it via co-branded airline credit cards. Most international flights still allow for at least one checked bag as well (though not in basic economy). When we need to pack a car seat, we like to stuff extra clothes and items in our Jeep Car Seat bag (affiliate link) which flies free of charge (as do most car seats and strollers).
Verdict: Family friendly
2. Families get to board between groups A and B
After bags flying “free”, Southwest probably is best known for their Greyhound bus seating policy. You get a boarding number (split into groups A, B, and C) and then it’s a free for all for seats. Southwest looks out for families by allowing families with kids six and under to board between groups A and B. Generally this ensures that your family gets to sit together. Of course, if you’re flying from your hometown at the start of summer vacation or flying out of somewhere family focused like Orlando, the whole plane might be family boarding! If that’s the case, you may want to pay to get group A boarding.
I’d say this family friendly policy is a bit overrated for my personal style. I prefer knowing where my seat assignment is to the stress of having to find one, even if I can reasonably trust that I’ll find a row for my family during family boarding. One nice benefit, though, is if you’re traveling with a lap infant, the flight attendant often encourages you to “save” an extra seat if the flight isn’t full. (Speaking of lap infants, you’d do well to check out Trips With Tykes Southwest with kids guide to make sure you bring the right identification for your baby!)
I find getting seats together easier on other airlines. Normally, I book early enough to get the chance to choose the right seats. Even if not, airlines generally try to accommodate at the gate, especially with very young children. And finally, when necessary strangers generally prefer NOT sitting with your two year old, so that works in a pinch. Having status with an airline helps too, though that by no means is 100% necessary.
Verdict: Could go either way
3. You can cancel or change ticket without fees (mostly)
Southwest has one of the most generous refund policies in the business. Generally, you can cancel or change your ticket up until the actual flight time for a refund. This comes in the form of Southwest credit (for cash tickets) or points (for awards). This policy, frankly, rules. I find it especially useful as a family traveler with young kids because I often want to choose flights based on travel time. The generous change policy gives me the chance to move my reservations around if they fit my budget, or cancel entirely if I find something better with another carrier. I find that tough to beat.
For other airlines, the only way you can really pull this off is with status or schedule changes. High level status members can often change/cancel awards (though not usually cash flights) for low to no fees. If the airline pulls a schedule change on you and it’s significant enough, you can often change or cancel your flight as well. But that’s not something you can bank on (though it never hurts to ask – never accept schedule changes outright without trying to ask for something better).
Verdict: Very family friendly
4. On board food options
Sike! There are none! Southwest only offers snacks and recently got rid of peanuts one of their higher protein options (though I’m not against them getting rid of them). Southwest has flights across the country, to Hawaii, and to the Caribbean – on these flights you might get some crackers or something. Yikes. I find this a huge detractor from the whole family friendly idea.
Most other airlines allow you to buy food. While that’s not ideal, it matters when your kid just needs something. We generally bring our own food on all domestic flights and you probably should too.
Verdict: Very NOT family friendly
5. Cheap Wi-fi and entertainment
Southwest offers cheap Wi-fi that works from the moment you walk onto the plane. $8 for 24 hours really is one of the best Wi-fi deals going (besides Jetblue). I had no problem with mine on my flight though I’ve heard that some planes are worse than others. The free live TV is good for entertaining your kids but I’d suggest being prepared just in case the Wi-fi goes out. Being able to use it at the gate is a huge family friendly plus though. You should also download the free airtime player app.
To top this, just fly Jetblue, where Wi-fi is freeeee. I do find that low cost carriers like Jetblue and Southwest do much better with Wi-fi, probably because they built more of their infrastructure when the internet actually existed.
Verdict: Family friendly
6. Rapid Rewards points can be redeemed for any seat
Finally, I should note that you can Rapid Rewards points to pay for any seat available on the plane. Sure, it can be super expensive points wise but it will at least give you another option than paying cash. This isn’t a huge deal either way, but can be useful if your family needs to fly in a pinch.
These six “features” of Southwest are basically what I think of when I think Southwest family friendly policy. Or, in the case of food, unfriendly policy. Overall, I think Southwest is slightly overrated as a family friendly airline, but I can’t deny that it’s pretty great for families. But what do I know, I only flew it once!
So, let me know in the comments – does Southwest deserve it’s title of most family friendly airline, or is it more nuanced and family dependent (my personal opinion)?
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