For many Southwest Airlines is the still the cheapest and most convenient US Domestic discount carrier, even though they went to a revenue based frequent flyer program a few years ago and the rewards are not what they once were. Are they with any airline? But, there are strategies to extract the most value from them. They still have no change fees and this allows you to stalk the best fares and cancel if your plans change or even re-book at a lower fare if the price goes down. You have one year from the date of purchase to use a credit from a canceled reservation. If you are using Rapid Rewards, the points go right back into your account and any fees you paid on the fare become a credit. (I make the assumption that you are as frugal as I am and that you are booking the lowest fares that they offer, which are Wanna Get Away fares and that you are at their base tier.) Keep in mind that if your flexibility is limited and you must fly on certain dates and at certain times, your credit will go towards the current fare when you go to re-book and this could be multiple times higher than what you were anticipating. Jump on the dates you need. If the fare goes lower you can re-book again. If it doesn’t, then you have locked in the best price.
As a budget traveler, a higher tier on Southwest does not add much value. There is open seating on Southwest and the order you board the plane is determined by your line assignment when you check in. If you check in online at exactly 24 hours before your flight, you will most likely get a low B boarding pass, depending upon how many other people are checking in then and how full the flight is. You can pay extra for an Early Bird Check In up to 36 hours before the flight and receive the earliest assigned boarding position at that time. It will most likely be an A boarding pass, but not always. Lines are formed to board the plane starting with boarding position A1 to A30 and then A31 to A60, B1 to B30, etc. until all the seats are filled. I don’t like to pay extra fees, so I always try to check in at exactly 24 hours before the flight. A low or even high B line assignment usually guarantees a window or aisle seat.
These days most flights are full, so select your seat assuming that someone is going to sit in that empty middle seat! I don’t have long legs, so I prefer to nuzzle against a window. An aisle seat can potentially give you more room, but you have to keep clear of the drink service and foot traffic. Southwest serves complimentary non-alcoholic beverages and snacks like peanuts, pretzels, and cookies. You can usually choose more than one snack per service pass. Just ask. Southwest flight attendants are known for being friendly and for their willingness to accommodate reasonable requests. If you want something more substantial, you should carry it on. You pay for alcoholic beverages with a credit card or a valid Southwest drink ticket.
Depending upon the length of the flight and if I need sleep before I arrive at my destination, I will forgo the drink service completely. I bring a filtering water bottle to fill at a water fountain before I board the plane. This way I can immediately get comfortable and won’t be interrupted 45 minutes later by the beverage service. Flying is dehydrating so it’s always good to have your own water for whenever you get thirsty. The crew brings around water regularly and you can get up and ask for some, but I find this interrupts my flow. If I’m alert when the beverage cart comes around, I will get a beverage and a snack to supplement what I already brought with me. If not, a solid 90 minute sleep cycle is worth its weight in gold when you’re arriving at a place like Vegas, Baby. Vegas!
Another perk of Southwest is that up to two bags per person fly free. This does not mean that the baggage compartments won’t fill up quickly, but it will not be the free for all it is on an airline where they charge extra for bags and everyone is getting on the plane with a maximum size carry-on bag and an additional bag one inch smaller, which is supposed to count as a small personal item!
You don’t earn that many frequent flyer points in the Southwest Rapid Rewards Program when you only book discounted fares, so getting a good credit card bonus is almost mandatory. Wait until they offer 50,000 Rapid Reward credits when you charge $2000 on the card in the first three months. The standard offer is 25,000 credits for $1000 in charges. They no longer waive the yearly credit card fee for the first year and it is now $99. I get a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card every other year. I mark my calendar to remind me to cancel it before I have to pay the next year’s fee. In the alternate years, I work another frequent flyer or travel card. I also have a credit card that earns points but has no yearly fee. I use this one in-between the other credit cards. I always want to receive a little something extra whenever I use a credit card! (Obviously, I do not carry credit card balances as this would negate my frequent flyer savings.)
I managed to earn only a little over 10,000 points in addition to my 50,000 point bonus on the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Credit Card in 2014 because it was the first year that I worked two frequent flyer cards at the same time, because I had a lot of big travel coming up. The second card was a Barclaycard Arrival Plus World MasterCard. I will give you the details of this card, more Southwest basics and information about Rapid Rewards in my next installment : Southwest Airlines | Credit Cards, Maximizing Rapid Rewards and Finding the Best Fares.