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First flight on Southwest – lessons learned and tips

So I finally flew Southwest for the first time and my hot take is that I don’t really understand why people have such strong feelings about it. Before my flight I ran into a lot of people who LOVE (all caps) Southwest and a lot of people who HATE it, but it just seems like a normal airline to me – with a few quirks. Of course, those strong feelings stem from the quirks. I received a lot of good tips for flying Southwest (read: how to get the best out of the quirks) before my trip, so thanks to all who chimed in. This post details the things that helped give me the best Southwest experience and also includes things I wish I had known. 

1. How to check in exactly 24 hours in advance

Famously, Southwest doesn’t assign seats. You receive a boarding number (like you do at the deli) which is based on when you check in. Since you can only check in exactly 24 hours before your flight time, it’s important to check in as soon as possible after the check in window opens. You can buy early bird check in for $15 (covering any flights from origin to destination) – this checks you in 36 hours in advance. Adam, the Travel Fan Boy, said he likes to do this for early morning flights so he doesn’t have to wake up early the day before. Fair enough. Others have scripts they use to automatically check them in, but I’m assuming the majority of people don’t have that kind of coding experience (though Google is your friend).

If you plan to check in the old fashioned way, I’d recommend what Leslie from Trips with Tykes told me to do. Open your browser (or app) to the Southwest page and hover your mouse over the “check in” button. Fill in your name and record locator. Have your phone clock (or an online atomic clock, thanks @yuterrance) open and watch the time. The MOMENT the clock flips to 24 hours before your flight, click on “check in”. This worked like a charm for me, I received A48 for my outbound and B30 for my return. (Pro tip: Don’t wake up 50 minutes before your flight takes off if you manage to snag group A boarding. Pro-er tip: Live close to the airport).

Since I wondered myself, I’ll mention here that if you have any connecting flights, you get checked in all the way through so you should get a decent boarding number for your connecting flight.

Southwest can be a quirky airline, but it's much more than just a bus in the sky. Follow these tricks and tips for flying Southwest to have the best experience possible. #familytravel #southwest #travelwithkids
Hover right over that check in button and click right at 24 hours

2. Bring your lap infant’s birth certificate

Thanks again to Leslie for tipping me off on this one. Southwest is the only airline I know that requires you to bring your lap infant’s birth certificate for proof of age. You don’t need to bring the original, a copy is fine. People have told me that a picture even works (though I can’t confirm that myself). You have to check in at the counter because Southwest will give you a boarding verification document for your lap infant. This essentially works as their boarding pass, but you must get that at the counter so build that time in to your airport plan.

3. How to find the best seat on the plane

If you’re traveling as a family with a child under the age of 6, regardless of the boarding group you receive you will be allowed to board between group A and B. That means you should be able to get a row for your family regardless unless you’re traveling out of somewhere like Orlando where families will be 80% of the plane. You might want to spring for early bird check in if that’s the case, though technically you need to pay for it for your entire party (parties board with lowest number in group).

Southwest can be a quirky airline, but it's much more than just a bus in the sky. Follow these tricks and tips for flying Southwest to have the best experience possible. #familytravel #southwest #travelwithkids
Even C1 isn’t the end of the world.

If you’re traveling alone, like I was, it’s actually not too tough to find a good seat. Lots of couples travel together which means you should see a bunch of window seats open even into the early C’s. My strategy was to just ask the first nice looking couple I saw as far towards the front of the plane as possible. Even when I got to the gate 10 minutes before takeoff, I managed to get a nice seat by choosing to sit next to a toddler, so it’s pretty doable to avoid that middle seat.

Also, the family next to me had their lap infant (the aforementioned toddler) in the middle seat, which I think is a neat trick to get extra space if the plane isn’t full. The mom told me the flight attendant actually encouraged them to do it, which was nice as well.

4. There should be plenty of overhead space

Sam from Milenomics, as he is wont to do, asked me a very good question as I was figuring out my check in plan. “Why do you want to have a high boarding group?” He rightfully pointed out that even B60 boards before one third of the plane, so getting a window or aisle should still be possible. He also mentioned that since Southwest allows free checked bags, a lot of people take advantage of that so there is plenty of overhead space. That’s a great thing to know, when flying Southwest you generally don’t need to stress out too much about overhead space.

5. Use Wi-fi from gate to gate

One great thing about Southwest is their Wi-fi is available from gate to gate. Download the Southwest app beforehand, although I had no problem using my browser. You can stream TV from your browser for free as soon as you get on the plane. Wi-fi also only costs $8 for 24 hours (across all your flights), so you can pay to browse the internet and what not. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of another US carrier that does that.

I will say I had no problem streaming TV, but for some reason I couldn’t pay to use Wi-fi at all. I tried to give Southwest my money eight times, but it didn’t work! I’ve asked enough people though to know that what I experienced isn’t really the norm, Southwest Wi-fi is as good (or bad) as any other airline, with the added benefit that it’s relatively inexpensive and you can use it from the moment you enter the cabin to the moment you leave.

Southwest can be a quirky airline, but it's much more than just a bus in the sky. Follow these tricks and tips for flying Southwest to have the best experience possible. #familytravel #southwest #travelwithkids
It was great to watch TV from my device on the ground

6. Bring your own food

Southwest gives you snacks and drinks, but that’s it. There’s no food for purchase and even if you’re on long flights, there isn’t much to eat. Make sure you pack lots of snacks or buy food to go in the terminal before you board. We like to make macaroni and cheese the night before for our kids, since it’s something with calories, a little bit of protein, and they don’t mind eating it cold. The family I was sitting next to brought three bottles of milk for their 20 month old, which I thought was pretty smart as well. Just don’t get caught unaware – hungry children (and adults) turn into cranky children (and adults).

Southwest can be a quirky airline, but it's much more than just a bus in the sky. Follow these tricks and tips for flying Southwest to have the best experience possible. #familytravel #southwest #travelwithkids
That’s it.

7. Change or cancel your flight without fees

One of Southwest’s best features is the ability to change or cancel your flights without change fees. You can cancel or change your flight any time before the listed flight time and not pay any extra fees. If you’re changing, obviously you need to pay any difference in fares. Your refund will come in the form of Southwest credit. You also need to use this within a year and for the original traveler, so be careful. If you book with points, you get all the points refunded to your account, so if you have them that’s the way to go.

Either way, not having to pay change fees is great for flexibility. You can use Southwest as a placeholder while you wait for something better to open up. See the full policy here.

8. Believe in your fellow humans’ decency 

I think one reason Southwest gets a bad rep is because some people subtly, but snobbishly, think of it as a cattle class experience where you rub elbows with “unsavory” people. Which is stupid. Yes, you’re on a public flight and yes you don’t get to choose who you sit next to. Every airline is like that. And while people will certainly fight over seating preferences, in general humans are decent. Believe in your fellow humans’ decency and be decent yourself and everything should be fine. Southwest doesn’t overbook flights, so everyone will get a seat.

Also, people tend to help others out, especially those with families. Leslie tweeted this right after I landed from my Southwest flight. 

So don’t stress out too much and just enjoy the flight!

What’s your experience on Southwest? Got any tips to help make a better experience? Please, share in the comments! 

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Southwest can be a quirky airline, but it's much more than just a bus in the sky. Follow these tricks and tips for flying Southwest to have the best experience possible. #familytravel #southwest #travelwithkids

Just an average joe trying to fly his family for less

6 thoughts on “First flight on Southwest – lessons learned and tips

  1. I find myself a fan of Southwest because they treat you like a human being. Their change/cancellation policy is the best in the business, and you don’t have to pay outrageous bag fees. To me the open seating has pros and cons: While I’d prefer to have an assigned seat, with open seating I can see where a cranky kid is or an obese person is taking up a seat and a half and avoid it.

    I’ll never understand the “unsavory” people viewpoint; those comments come from snobs. I’ve flown WN many times and I see no difference between them or any other airline. In fact, the worst seatmates I’ve had were on two separate Delta flights.

  2. Our family has flown SW consistently for the past 4 years due to the generous companion passes. We fly to MCO frequently. When we qualified to board during family boarding, we never had a problem getting seats together. They may be in the back of the plane, but we could always sit together. Now, we’re usually at the back of “A” boarding and beginning of “B” boarding. Even in “B” boarding, we’ve been able to sit together. We’re a family of 5 so we may not always be right together, but it works. I love the SW cancellation policy and the opportunity to rebook at a lower cost. What I don’t like is the lack of non-stop flights from DTW. I really should be flying Delta, but SW is just more reasonable. I ‘ve only paid for early boarding when we were traveling during a peak travel period. I was really worried on a rare nonstop flight to MCO, we could get bumped. The gate agent, Dave, at DTW, is hysterical. I really enjoy the SW humor. While I’ve really been working on traveling light, one carryon per person, there are times when we want to bring a suitcase. Also, sometimes on a connecting flight home, we like to check our bags. It’s just easier with the layover.

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