Booking and Flying Southwest Airlines

by on September 20, 2016 27 Comments

Filed under: Saving Money, Transportation, Trip Planning

Anytime I discuss travel that involves flying, I love to mention Southwest Airlines as an option. They’re sometimes easy to forget since their prices typically don’t appear on search engines like Kayak or Google Flights (both are great tools for comparing flight prices by the way!). But as one of the largest airlines flying in and out of Orlando International Airport, Southwest Airlines is an excellent option when planning a Walt Disney World vacation. Because their offering is so different from many of the other major airlines (low fares, no bag fees, and no assigned seats), I thought we’d take some time to talk about what it’s like to book and fly Southwest Airlines. If you’re lucky, I may even add some tips and tricks I’ve learned along the way, so let’s get started!

This chart from Southwest.com explains the differences between fares

This chart from Southwest.com explains the differences between fares

Booking: Online booking is incredibly easy. You plug in your starting airport, your destination, date or dates (depending on whether you’re purchasing one-way or round trip), and the number of people. On the next screen, you’ll see three different prices for all the flights available for those dates: Business Select, Anytime, and Wanna Get Away.

From this page, you can also click on other dates near the dates you originally selected to check their prices as well, or you can access the Low Fare Calendar.

The Low Fare Calendar from Southwest.com shows the lowest fares on each day

The Low Fare Calendar from Southwest.com shows the lowest fares on each day

     Money Saving Tip #1: Use the Low Fare calendar when you don’t have set dates for a trip (or if you’re like me, when you’re hoping to squeeze in a spontaneous inexpensive trip). It’s a quick and easy way to see the least expensive price every day for a month at a time.

Once you select a flight, you’ll see a page with the flight details and total cost. Then it’s time to type in all of your information including name, date of birth, gender, e-mail, and billing information.

     Money Saving Tip #2: You can find discounted Southwest gift cards through a variety of sources. I like to buy Southwest giftcards from Target using my RedCard, which saves me 5%.

After purchase, Southwest sends a confirmation e-mail with your confirmation code. This code will be used frequently throughout the process, so keep it handy!

     Money Saving Tip #3: Price out the trip for one person and then again for the total number of people in your party. If the per person price is different, you can save money by booking some of your group at the lower price and the rest of the party at the higher price instead of booking everyone in your party at the higher price.

Only a certain number of tickets are allocated to each price. If for example, you see $109 per person for the return trip when searching for one adult and $139 per person for the return price when searching for four adults, you can keep decreasing the number in your group until you get back down to that $109 per person price. Book those people at $109. Then go back and book the remainder of the group at $139. Let’s say there are three tickets left at $109. That means rather than pay for four people at $139 ($556 total), you could book the group as two separate parties and pay for three tickets at $109 and one ticket at $139 ($466 total). In our example, that saves you $90.

Southwest.com will tell you how many tickets are left at the lower price

Southwest.com will tell you how many tickets are left at the lower price

You can also see how many are left at a certain price by going through the process as if you’re were going to buy the ticket. When you get to the second page, it will say “2 left at this price”.

Re-booking: Regardless of the type of ticket you bought, it’s pretty easy to change your flights after booking as well. From the Southwest Airlines home page, you can click “Change Flight”. Using the confirmation number and your first and last name, you can pull up the details of your currently booked flight, select which direction (if roundtrip) that you want to change, and then select a new flight. Depending on the price difference between your original flight and the new one, you will be issued a credit or asked to pay the remaining balance.

     Money Saving Tip #4: If the price of your flight goes down after you book it, you can use the “Change Flight” feature to secure a credit or refund. In this case, you’ll select the exact same flight that you originally booked when you get to the screen to pick your new flight. Depending on which type of ticket you had or how long ago you made the reservation, you’ll either receive a refund of the difference or a credit to apply to future flights.

EarlyBird: During the booking process, you’ll be asked whether you want to buy EarlyBird Check-In for an additional $15 per person each way. Since Southwest doesn’t have assigned seating like other airlines, this gives you the opportunity to board the plane before the general population. That means potentially better seats and not having to worry about whether there will be enough room for your carry-on bag by the time you board.

     Money Saving Tip #5: Consider upgrading to EarlyBird for just a portion of your group rather than the entire group. The first person can make sure the most essential carry-on items are packed in their bag. Then when everyone else boards later, it won’t be a big deal if their bags are gate checked.

     Money Saving Tip #6: Consider upgrading to EarlyBird for just the return trip. When you’re on vacation, it’s inconvenient and hard to remember to check in for your flight home 24 hours in advance. If you purchase EarlyBird for just the return trip, you don’t need to worry about that since it will complete automatic check-in for you.

Rapid Rewards: Southwest Airlines assigns two point values to every flight. One is the number of points you earn by booking that flight, and the other is the number of points to buy that flight. If you have a Rapid Rewards account, you can earn points for all of your flights that you can then use towards the purchase of another flight. You can create an account without using or opening a credit/debit card.

     Money Saving Tip #7: If you fly often enough, you can accumulate enough points through the Rapid Rewards Account to buy a free flight using accumulated points.

Kiosks for Southwest at Orlando International Airport

Kiosks for Southwest at Orlando International Airport

Check-in: Online check-in opens 24 hours before your scheduled flight. As I mentioned above, Southwest Airlines does not assign seating. The earlier you check in, the earlier you board. If seating is important to you (for example, if you want to sit with your significant other), then you’ll want to check in exactly at that 24 hour mark. Online check-in is pretty simple. After you click “check in” on the homepage, you’ll provide that confirmation number from booking and your first and last name. When you click check in, you’ll be given the option to view, print, or e-mail your ticket.

You can also check in at the airport. If you do not have any checked bags, airport kiosks can be used to check in and print your ticket. If you have checked luggage, you’ll have to go to the Southwest counter at the airport (or use the one at your Disney hotel for the return trip) to check your bags. Note that you can check in online at the 24 hour mark to reserve your boarding position even if you have checked bags. In that case, you would just proceed to the counter to check your bags.

Signage for the train to Southwest gates

Signage for the train to Southwest gates

Some of the food options near the Southwest Gates

Food options near the Southwest gates

Some Southwest gates provide comfortable seating with built in electrical outlets

Some gates provide seating with built in electrical outlets

Gates: The telltale signs of a Southwest Airlines gate include metal posts used in the boarding process (more on that below) and in some instances, leather seats with built in outlets. At the Orlando International airport, Southwest flights typically take off from and land in Terminal A (opposite Terminal B where Magical Express picks up and drops off) gates 100-129. Nearby restaurants include Chipotle, McDonald’s, Starbucks, and Jersey’s Mikes Subs.

Boarding: This is probably the most confusing part for those unfamiliar with Southwest Airlines. Remember how I said that how early you check in and whether you purchase EarlyBird determine how early you board? Well, based on those two factors, your boarding pass will have an A, B, or C on it and a number between 1-60. Group A will line up first along the metal columns organized by number. Those with 1-30 will board first in numerical order, followed by 31-60. Family boarding, meaning those with kids 6 years of age and under, goes next. Group B and Group C follow in the same manner as group A. Those with Business Select tickets, A-list passengers, and EarlyBird passengers typically board early in group A, and sometimes you can also purchase an upgraded boarding position at the gate for $30-$40.

A typical Southwest gate at Orlando International Airport

A typical Southwest gate at Orlando International Airport

Numbered columns you line up near for boarding with Southwest

Numbered columns you line up near for boarding with Southwest

 

In-flight Entertainment: If your plane is enabled with WiFi, you can access a flight tracker, Southwest.com, and a collection of TV episodes for free. You can also pay $8 per device per day for full WiFi access in case you want to check e-mail or browse other websites. Even the Flight Attendants on some flights could be classified as entertainment if they’re in the mood to crack jokes.

Southwests In-flight tracker

Southwest’s in-flight tracker

In-flight Food and Drink: Typically, Flight Attendants will serve a snack that can vary depending on the time of day. On my recent morning flights, I’ve received belVita breakfast biscuits. During the afternoon or evening flights, it’s typically peanuts (or pretzels) and Cheese Nips. Free drinks include sodas, juices, coffee, or tea. Alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, or cocktails can be purchased for an additional fee. The in-flight menu can be found here.

With almost ten years of flying Southwest Airlines, I’ve almost never had a bad experience aside from the occasional flight delay. Throw in the fact that I’ve been able to find round trip flights for as low as $80 on a fairly regular basis, and they have made me one happy camper. Have you ever flown Southwest Airlines or have you considered them for future trips? Feel free to share your experiences or questions with us in the comments below!

Posted on September 20, 2016

27 Responses to “Booking and Flying Southwest Airlines”

  • by Charlene Malek on September 20, 2016, at 7:43 am EDT

    What about people who require wheelchair access, how does that work with our early bird check in we purchased. And will we still need to do the checkin process at our on site Disney hotel?

    • Individuals/families with someone in a wheelchair board before everyone else.

    • Hi Charlene! As Kristin said, individuals who require a wheelchair and their companions are considered pre-boarding, so they go before everyone else. There may be a limit to how many people can board with the person in the wheelchair.

      On your return trip, you can check your luggage at your Disney hotel when you fly Southwest. Depending on where you’re staying, they may also print your boarding pass for you. You could also just do it all at the airport if you prefer.

    • When we took my mom to Disney, she used a wheelchair, and we were allowed to have one person board with her. The rest of us boarded based on the letter/number on our boarding passes.

  • Liz – Excellent Southwest summary. I’m a huge fan. The only thing I would have added is an explanation of how the travel funds work as it can be very confusing to some. Also, for frequent Southwest travelers, the Rapid Rewards Visa card is great!

    • Thanks Becky! I’ve personally gone back and forth on whether to get the credit card, but I agree it’s worth it for frequent flyers. Haven’t heard anything bad about it 🙂

      • Even if you’re not a frequent flier – the credit card is great. If you fly to Orlando once a year, it is worth it. When they have the 50,000 point sign up on a card with a $69 annual fee – it’s enough points to easily get a family of four roundtrip tickets to Orlando (at least from Philadelphia). I was able to secure four tickets and then kept an eye on the fares – they went down. You get an automatic point refund to your account and you can do it right from the website. No vouchers to deal with, and it doesn’t expire. There is no downside to that credit card!So not only did I get 4 roundtrip tickets, I still have 25,000 points left.

  • Nice article. I would like like to mention that for those who are going to Disneyland insted of WDW there are several airports in the area served by Southwest. In addition to LAX, there is also Ontario, Burbank Longbeach, and most importantly John Wayne airport in Santa Anna which is only 15 miles away. John Wayne is not only closer than LAX, it is also smaller which makes getting in and out a lot easier. Unless there is a significant savings to fly into LAX, I would suggest using John Wayne (SNA).

  • One more good idea is to apply for a Southwest credit card. It’s an easy way to earn a free flight. If you’re interested in getting 50,000 points for signing up, a have a link.

    • I’ve heard of people working wonders with the cards to get free companion passes and all kinds of goodies. Definitely something to look into if someone uses Southwest regularly!

  • A great article that is well researched as is evident by the food choices in the terminal. A great primer for Southwest fans to Orlando.

  • by Devon Hornberger on September 20, 2016, at 12:55 pm EDT

    We’ve flown Southwest many times and had no issues until recently. Last year we flew with our children ages 7 and 9 so we didn’t qualify for family boarding. Because we didn’t purchase early bird check in we were in group B. A very nice gate agent allowed us to board with family boarding so we did end up with seats together, but otherwise we would have been separated. Only single seats were available for most of B passengers. Just wanted to point out that if you have children over age 6 that you’d like to sit with it’s worth it to buy early bird check in to be in group A. But that does drive the price up.

    • That’s a great point Devon. Since Orlando is such a family friendly destination, there tends to be a large group boarding during family boarding which leaves less room for those in group B or C. Definitely something to consider when deciding on EarlyBird. Thanks for the input!

  • The “2 bags fly free” make southwest a real money saver. We pack a suitcase of breakfast and snack items for our trip. On the trip back you have a place souvenirs.

    • Couldn’t agree more! I don’t always check a bag, but when I do, it’s usually full of breakfast food and snacks for the trip. And sunscreen. That cost of those things adds up quickly if you’re buying it on site. Great point!

  • Do they have check-in at WDW resorts at Magical Express for Southwest? I thought I read somewhere they did not? Also, if I check in and cannot print my ticket, do they accept tickets on your smartphone? Thanks for your help! Flying for the first time in 7 years and not sure how things work these days 🙂

  • We always fly Southwest and we are centrally located about 2 hours from 2 airports. Nashville like Orlando is a big hub for Southwest and Birmingham is smaller. I check both and usually get a better price from Birmingham but flights are limited.

  • Been a Rapid Rewards member for 26 years now, my wife and I have flown on average 1 flight round trip on points per year: west coast to east coast. We charge everything to the card and pay it off each month. That one round trip flight would have cost us $300 per person- well worth the annual fee!!

  • How are they handling drink purchases now? Many years ago you had to buy tickets at the boarding gate for drinks. I still have a couple of those when they offered 2 for 1 tickets. They don’t have a expiration date on them–I wonder if they’ll honor those?

    • Sam, the Southeast crew will not accept any coupons that don’t show an expiration date. I had dozens of such coupons myself, and all are scrap now.

      • But are they still doing the “We only accept coupons”. Because way back when…I bought those with cash at the gate, because they said they wouldn’t take CC or Cash on board. This was like 2010 thereabouts.

        Still…seems like a bad customer service move not to honor coupons purchased with cash that don’t have a expiration; the gate agent was upselling them, these were not perks from miles etc…they sold me these things at the gate.

        • Southwest did announce an expiration date a few years ago for drink coupons that did not have expiration dates. (Any drink coupons without printed expiration dates had to be used by a certain date.) If you did not fly regularly, you likely would not have been aware. They do accept CC on board for drinks now. If you sign up for Rapid Rewards, you will probably get free drink coupons in the mail about once a year.

  • You just can’t beat Southwest. The “bags fly free” thing is a big deal! I’m so glad you mentioned the people of Southwest. They truly make it a much more enjoyable experience than the other airlines. We were delayed in MCO last night and the guy at the gate was fantastic. making jokes at every turn, keeping restless passengers informed as well as entertained. They even make going through the routine about seatbelts and exits fun.
    I didn’t know about pricing it out for one or two people at a time. Thanks for the tip!