Complete Guide for Families Flying Southwest Airlines

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When you're flying Southwest Airlines, here are a few things you need to know.

Most (if not all) U.S. air carriers are taking every opportunity they can to charge passengers for extras: bags, food, the ability to choose your seat. Southwest Airlines is refreshingly different. Between the no change or baggage fees, open seating, and family boarding, they’re more than just a way to get cheap flights…they’re a really great airline. Get ready to take notes, because we’re breaking down the differences with a complete guide of everything you need to know about flying Southwest Airlines.

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The Complete Guide for Families Flying Southwest Airlines

First things first: I LOVE Southwest Airlines. The only time I don’t fly Southwest is when I have to go somewhere they don’t fly. Fortunately, they fly to a lot of places, so I don’t have to “cheat” on them very often. There are a lot of other airlines I like and appreciate. I love flying Southwest Airlines. You’ll have to decide for yourself if you love them as much as I do.

I’m breaking down absolutely everything I’ve learned and what you could want to know about Southwest Airlines in this guide. There are a few things that make them different than other domestic U.S. carriers, so read on for the full scoop.

Southwest Isn’t Just in the Southwest

What started off as a regional airline has expanded in a big way over the years. Southwest flies all over the Southwest (as you’d expect). They also fly up and down the east coast, Midwest and southeast United States. Southwest doesn’t fly to Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota and South Dakota. It has more limited service in the Pacific Northwest and some of the Northern states. All in all, there aren’t a ton of places you can’t get to on Southwest Airlines inside the continental U.S.

Southwest Airlines travels all over the United States…not just through the Southwest. Photo: Sarah Gilliland.

Internationally, Southwest flies to multiple places in Mexico and the Caribbean, and they’ve recently added Hawaii as a stop.

You cannot buy tickets on Expedia, Travelocity, or any third-party travel site. You can only buy seats on a Southwest Airlines flight through their website or app.

Low Fares and No Change Fees

Southwest Airlines is a low fare airline but not a budget, bare bones carrier like Spirit or Frontier. When we travel as a family, we always consider how much time we have and whether it’s cheaper to fly or drive. The larger your family, the more expensive it is to fly together. Southwest fares are some of the lowest out there (although not always…do a cost comparison before you book).

One of my favorite things about Southwest (aside from the fact that they’re a low-cost airline) is that they don’t charge a change fee. If your plans change and you have to change your flight, no biggie. They charge only the difference. Delta recently charged me almost $200 per ticket to change a flight in addition to the difference in fare. That was a whole lot of ouch.

You'll generally enjoy the lowest fares when flying Southwest Airlines
Southwest Airlines often has the lowest fares. But, there are some differences to flying this airline that we recommend learning in advance…so keep reading! Photo: Jill Robbins

Obviously, it’s best to be very sure of your plans before you drop money on airline tickets, but things happen. I love the flexibility (and kindness to my pocketbook) that Southwest offers. Southwest has three different fare categories (more on that in a minute) and two of them are fully refundable. Even their budget category allows changes without charging you a fee.

In addition to no change fees, Southwest will also give you credit if the price of your booked flight drops. However, you have to monitor fare drops on your own and make them aware of the change. Even though I’m aware of this perk, I’ve yet to take advantage of it. I’m very “fire and forget” with travel, and I usually move on to thinking about/worrying about something else. But, if you’re extra thrifty, check the price of your flights a couple of times between booking and travel to see if there have been changes. If you see the fare has dropped, you’ll have to contact Southwest and ask how to claim your credit. They will not contact you.

Southwest Cancellations and Delays

We cover a full range of delay questions on this post but it is important to know that Southwest operates differently than some other airlines in the case of cancellations and delays.

Southwest Operations

Southwest operates point to point and not as a hub and spoke airline. This means that instead of flights originating and starting from hubs (like Delta’s Atlanta and American’s Dallas) flights connect different destination points. This means that when something goes wrong, it trickles.

Contract of Carriage for Southwest Airlines

Every airline has a contract of carriage that explains what will happen if a flight is delayed or cancelled. Many budget carriers only offer to rebook or refund you. Some airlines have alliances and offer interline tickets where they carry other lines passengers. These airlines may rebook you on a different airline if there is a cancellation. Southwest does not do this.

What both of these items mean is that when something goes wrong on Southwest it can go wrong for a few days. While it doesn’t happen often, it does happen. Knowing what you’re agreeing to when buying a ticket helps to prepare for these situations. We recommend leaving buffer days in your plans. If you need to be at work at 7am on the 2nd, don’t book a 7pm flight back on the 1st. This is a good practice for any airline.

No Class…No First Class, That Is

There is no first class or business class on Southwest Airlines flights. All seats are the same from the front to the rear of the cabin. There is no curtain dividing first/business class passengers from the peasants in economy. No first class bathrooms, first class lounge. There’s no special drink or meal service. Everyone gets the same amount of legroom. You get the idea.

If you’re used to that little bit of extra luxury on flights, you won’t have that on Southwest. I do love the extra roomy seats in business class, especially on overseas flights. The pre-takeoff drink in a real glass is always kind of fun. But unless you’re a die-hard luxury traveler who would be deeply disappointed without the first class experience, the lack of a premium cabin on Southwest Airlines is a non-issue.

There’s no first class cabin on Southwest Airlines. All seats and service are the same. Photo: Nasreen Stump

Southwest does, however, offer Business Select. This isn’t a separate cabin but is a separate (more expensive) ticket category. Business select is fully refundable. It gets you guaranteed early boarding, and a complimentary premium drink. You also get more Rapid Rewards miles when you purchase a Business Select ticket. Business Select ticket holders are in the same cabin as everyone else. Aside from early boarding and not paying for your in-flight booze, there’s no difference in seating or service.  Prices vary widely based on flight.

Southwest Fare Categories Broken Down

Southwest has three fare categories – Business Select (as detailed above), Anytime, and Wanna Get Away. When you search for flights on their you’ll see the three difference rates.

The difference between Anytime and Business Select is usually negligible. The Wanna Get Away tickets are by far the cheapest. However, you’re not likely to get this lower fare when you’re booking at the last minute.

For example, booking a nonstop flight from San Antonio to Phoenix a month out, Wanna Get Away fare is $142 and Business Select is $526. Huge difference, right? Anytime fare is $504 so you can see what I mean by negligible difference between Business Select and Anytime. Obviously the $142 is the price I want to pay.

You'll generally enjoy the lowest fare flying on Southwest Airlines.
To get the most out of flying Southwest Airlines, you’ll need to understand the three fare categories. Photo: Sarah Gilliland.

If I look at that same flight one week out, Wanna Get Away is unavailable. The other two fares remain the same. The Business Select at $526 is the best deal since you get an upgraded boarding position and a free premium drink, plus more Rapid Rewards points.

The moral of the story is to buy your tickets as early as you can when traveling on Southwest. I know last minute travel opportunities can arise. Sometimes, waiting until the last minute can get you some deals. That rule of thumb usually doesn’t apply to flying Southwest. If you are flexible with your dates or are in the very early stages of trip planning, you can check out the Southwest Low Fare Calendar. This lets you see the cheapest days in the month are to fly.

No Assigned Seating – What’s Up With That?

Most major carriers charge a premium price if you want to pick your seat. Your basic, bare bones price will get you an assigned seat at the gate, which usually means the middle seat that wasn’t picked by those paying premium prices. This doesn’t work for families traveling with kids, particularly when the kids aren’t old enough to sit separately from their family members. If you’re flying Delta or American, you’re practically forced to buy a more expensive ticket so you can select your seats and sit as a family. My kids are nine and they could probably survive a flight with me in another part of the cabin, but it definitely isn’t ideal for me or whatever adult that isn’t me who gets stuck next to them.

When flying Southwest Airlines, you can board early with kids under four
You can board early with kids six and under. If your kids are older, you need to be sure you understand Southwest’s boarding/seating process. Photo: Nasreen Stump

When you are flying Southwest Airlines, you won’t have assigned seating. Passengers board in boarding groups (A, B, and C) and each passenger within the boarding group is assigned a number. If you’re number 1 in boarding group A, you’re the first one on the plane and you get your pick of seating. If you’re number 35 in boarding group B, you’ll have less options, and, if you’re traveling as a family, finding seats together (and getting the coveted overhead bin space for your larger carry-on) is trickier.

Southwest is a Kid-Friendly Airline

Flying with babies and young children is stressful. Families with kids six and under are allowed to board between the A and B groups. You shouldn’t have trouble getting seats together, although they may be towards the rear of the cabin. Unless we’re making a tight connection and need to sprint off the plane, we don’t mind sitting toward the rear of the cabin. Like most families who travel together, where we sit isn’t as important as sitting together. Be aware that two adults can board with each child six and under. If the adult and the child BOTH have an A boarding pass they can board with the A group.

If you’re flying Southwest Airlines with kids under two, you need to have the child’s birth certificate with you. If you’re traveling with an infant under 14 days, you must have a medical release. Kids under two are free if they don’t occupy a seat. More about Southwest Airlines’ infant policy here.

So…how do I get on the plane first?

If you don’t have younger kids and want to be among the first to board (AKA get your first choice of seating and be assured to keep your family or group together) you have options. The first is to do online check in at exactly the 24-hour mark. This means you have to be on your computer with your finger poised over the check-in option at exactly 24-hours before your flight departs. Not 23 hours and 45 minutes. It has to be 24-hours on. the. dot. I’m not kidding. You snooze you lose. And by lose, I mean you’re in high B or C boarding groups.

We usually take early morning flights, so setting the alarm and logging in to your Southwest account at exactly 24-hours isn’t the most fun way to start the day. But we’ve usually managed to get in the A group – typically towards the end of the A group – by checking in online at the 24-hour mark. However, I have checked in at exactly the 24 hour mark and gotten low B group. People don’t mess around with their Southwest Airlines check in.

Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In

Another option is to pay to play. When you are flying Southwest Airlines, you can buy early bird check in when you purchase your ticket. The Southwest Airlines website will ask you if you want it before you check out. You can also add it to a previously purchased ticket. EarlyBird Check-In will automatically check you in 36 hours before your flight (12 hours before everyone else can check in).

Early bird check in will run you between $15 and $25* per passenger per flight, depending on route and availability. I recently purchased a flight from San Antonio to Los Angeles (non stop) and the early bird check in was $25 each way. That added $50 to the cost of my trip. but it saves me remembering to check in at the 24-hour mark. I still need to remember to print my boarding pass or have it sent to my phone – but it gets me in the A boarding group and on the plane first. Be aware that A group is not guaranteed with EarlyBird Check-In, but it’s more likely. Your mileage may vary.

If you don’t purchase early bird check in, you’ll usually be offered an opportunity to upgrade your boarding position at the gate…for a price. The fee for this varies, but it is always more expensive than buying the early bird check in. I did this once and it jumped me into to the first 15 to get on the plane. A solo traveler, I had not bought early bird check in and I’d forgotten to check in until it was almost time to go to the airport. I was at the end of the C boarding group on a full flight to Las Vegas – AKA middle seat somewhere in the rear. In this circumstance, it made sense for me and I don’t regret it,but if you want to assure yourself of a great boarding position, the other options I mentioned are better.

We are big fans of early bird check in, especially when we’re traveling with our kids. While it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world to split up for a three-hour flight, it’s not ideal for us and part of the fun of traveling as a family for us is being together and experiencing all of that travel together. If you are traveling with teens or think it’s no big deal to sit next to someone besides your spouse or partner on the plane, it might not be worth the spend for you.

*Southwest Airlines’ website lists this price range. However, in recent experience (booking about eight Southwest flights over the past 12 months) I have never seen EarlyBird check-in offered for less than $25. I fly out of San Antonio and have taken flights to Orlando, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Phoenix, so the cities I’m traveling to and from (obviously popular destinations) may have something to do with paying the higher end of their pricing.

When you're flying Southwest Airlines, know your food options are going to be limited.
“Plane Crackers” are Ritz Crackers made for Southwest in the shape of an airplane. They’re good but this is about as hearty as it gets on Southwest Airlines. Photo: Jill Robbins

Saving Seats – Is that OK?

There is no official policy on saving seats on a Southwest flight. Are you in a lower boarding position than whomever you’re traveling with? You have the option to board together at the higher boarding position. The gate agent won’t let someone who is in boarding group B board with someone who is in boarding group A.

I have seen a lot of saving seats on Southwest flights. For whatever reason, people traveling together aren’t in the same boarding group. The person with the best boarding position saves the seats. I think this practice lacks basic courtesy. This is essentially taking something for free that other passengers are paying for. That said, Southwest’s policy is not to intervene.

I have seen large family groups who are in later boarding position ask the flight attendants to help move passengers around so parents can sit with their kids. This receives mixed reactions from passengers who are asked to move seats to accommodate families. My guess is that these families are unfamiliar with Southwest’s seating/boarding policies and didn’t realize the consequences of boarding in a later boarding group with a family…so don’t let that be you.

No Checked Baggage Fees

With most airlines charging fees for checked bags nowadays, the fact that Southwest doesn’t is a major selling point. Airlines are charging $20-$40 to check a bag, so if you’re a family of four who wants to check at least one bag each, it drives the cost of your travel up. If you’re not light packers, it can get expensive.

Southwest offers each passenger up to two free checked bags of up to 50 pounds each. I personally try to do carry-on only as much as possible, but my husband and I do not agree on this and he prefers to check his bag. When we are traveling together, I usually go ahead and check my bag since I’m going to be at the baggage claim anyway. Since it’s free, he doesn’t like the hassle of schlepping his suitcase through the cabin.

Southwest allows one carry-on and one personal item in the cabin. I usually take my small rollerboard suitcase and a backpack. If I’m carrying a purse, it gets stuffed in my backpack when I’m boarding because the one carry-on and one personal item rule is enforced by the Southwest flight attendants.

In Flight Services

I hear a lot of people rave about how great the in flight services are with Southwest. I’ve never had a negative experience with any Southwest personnel when flying Southwest Airlines and you’ll sometimes find flight crew that sings or tells jokes as part of the boarding process or safety announcements, although we all know that on board safety isn’t a joke and no one on Southwest tries to make it so.

Southwest serves drinks and snacks in flight. There’s no other food available. Photo: Jill Robbins

We flew on my son’s birthday last year and the flight attendant had the entire cabin sing happy birthday to him AND allowed him to help pass out snacks. I’ve never had that level of service on any other carrier. This right here is part of what keeps me loyal.

In addition to a small amount of snack items and the standard beverage options you’re used to on flights (sodas, juices, coffee, tea, alcohol for an extra charge), Southwest also offers in flight entertainment options. You can watch movies and live TV for free on the Southwest app (download it before you travel). Want Wifi? It’s $8 per day. I’ve used the WiFi to work in flight and it’s fast and reliable.

Southwest Rapid Rewards Program

I know a lot of travelers who are a whiz with loyalty programs and smart use of points. While I’m getting better at maximizing those memberships, using miles and points has never been intuitive for me. Southwest’s program is easy to understand and use. They also send drink coupons occasionally with your Rapid Rewards Statement, and who doesn’t like that?

Remember earlier when I mentioned Southwest’s three fare categories? You’ll accrue different levels of Rapid Rewards miles for each category. You get 12 times your fare in miles with a Business Select ticket. You get 6 times your fare if you buy Wanna Get Away (the lowest fare category). If you buy the higher fare, you’ll get rewarded in miles. Make sure you sign up for Rapid Rewards. My husband, my kids and I all have Rapid Rewards accounts that let us store our personal information and really streamlines the booking process for us. You can transfer Rapid Rewards miles between accounts but we’ve so far not done that.

When flying southwest airlines, understanding the fare categories is key to understanding rapid rewards
Rapid Rewards have awesome…well, REWARDS! Both my kids have Rapid Rewards accounts! Photo: Jill Robbins

If you fly Southwest often and you really want to maximize your Rapid Rewards points, I recommend you check out one of the Southwest credit cards. I currently have two – one personal and one for my business. The current offer (check to see what’s available on the Southwest website or in flight) is 80,000 miles when you sign up for the business card through Chase. It was 65,000 when I signed up for my business card and I saw the 80,000 points offer when I’d had my card for about a month. Sigh. Keep an eye out for the best deals.

Learn More About The Rapid Rewards Program

Earn points for travel at any time. No blackout dates and points don’t expire. Learn more here.

mickey and minnie standing in front of southwest airplane
“The World’s Most Magical Celebration” beginning Oct. 1 to honor the past, present and future of Walt Disney World Resort on its 50th anniversary, got a jumpstart Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2021, in Houston, Texas, with the unveiling of a Southwest Airlines jetliner unlike any in the skies. The 737-700 sparkled inside and out with EARidescent Disney decorations in a high-flying celebration of 50 years of Walt Disney World Resort. Southwest Airlines – also marking 50 years – joined Disney in splashes of colorful graphics throughout the aircraft. Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse in the EARidescent fashions they will wear throughout the 18-month celebration in Florida, joined in Tuesday’s festivities at William P. Hobby Airport. Inaugural flight of the commemorative co-branded aircraft was to Orlando International Airport, itself decorated in fantastical Walt Disney World Resort 50th celebration décor. (Harrison Cooney, photographer)

Southwest and Disney Partner to Celebrate Walt Disney World‘s 50th Anniversary

We know a lot of families fly Southwest when heading to visit Mickey. How cool would it be to fly on the special Disney/Southwest celebration plane? Co-branded on the outside with both logos, it also features character sightings and Disney touches inside the aircraft.

But there’s more! Everyday from September 28th through November 16th, 2021 you can enter the Southwest50 Days of Giveaways sweepstakes. A winner and up to three guests will win a Southwest and Walt Disney World Resort
prize package each day. Consumers can visit to enter each day for a chance to win a vacation package that includes lodging, Walt Disney World Resort Theme Park tickets, a Disney Gift Card with a value of $200, and round trip air travel to Orlando, Florida, on Southwest.

So…what do I NOT like about Flying Southwest Airlines?

Very little, actually. There’s not much to dislike: no change fees, refundable fares, best prices, free checked bags. Southwest is different than other U.S. carriers but knowing the ins and outs in advance (I hope I’ve helped you out) usually eliminates any confusion or negative experience with those differences.

Other than not liking the fact that they don’t fly everywhere I have to fly (and they’re expanding at a good rate so I can’t really be mad at them about that), there are three things I don’t love about Southwest airlines:

Limited food service

You’ll receive in-flight snacks, such as cookies or pretzels, but if you want something more substantial, you need to bring your own. Meal service on domestic flights is pretty much a thing of the past, but other carriers often have snack boxes or sandwiches available for purchase in flight. Southwest does not. Really, this is a minor thing but something worth knowing about and planning for, especially when you’re traveling with kids.

Booking really far in advance isn’t possible

You can book your Southwest flight about five months in advance. You can’t book any further out than that. I mentioned booking tickets early on Southwest for the best price and not waiting, but they don’t offer you the option of booking really far in advance for planned travel.

Direct flights aren’t always nonstop flights

Southwest has a few routes where you can book a direct flight from one point to another but the plane will actually stop in one or more locations in between. You won’t have to deplane or change gates, but this can add to your flight time and impact your seating. I once booked a “direct” flight from Tampa to San Antonio and it actually stopped in Houston to let passengers off and on. Passengers getting on the plane in Houston didn’t have their choice of seating, since the plane was mostly full. I had boarded in Group A in Tampa, where the flight originated, so I didn’t have an issue with seating, but it added some time to my journey home. Just be aware.

Also, while this has not presented an issue for me, Southwest sometimes utilizes smaller airports. For example, Southwest flights going through Dallas will go through Dallas Love Field Airport which is on the other side of the city from the main Dallas Forth Worth Airport. Flights going through Houston will go to Houston Hobby instead of Houston Intercontinental. Flights going through Chicago will go through Midway versus O’Hare, etc. If you will change carriers – for whatever reason – double check that you are not going to be required to change airports.

Overall, the pros greatly outweigh the cons and I fly Southwest as often as I can. They are the overall best for saving money, they have a great on-time rate, and great service.

8 responses

  1. I’m going to be flying with my 4 children. My youngest is under 6, so we’d get to board between A and B. Will my other 3 children get to board with us or should I pay for early check-in? It’ll be an extra $300 for our family to do that.

    1. At SWA, the entire family can board together when the group contains parents of children under 6. However, I don’t have experience with a large family that includes older kids and the SWA website does not address this. It says two adults boarding with a child under 6 can board with that child between the A and B groups. It doesn’t say anything about the rest of the group or how older kids are handled.

      Based on my experience the gate agent is going to allow the family to board together, assuming the other kids aren’t adults.

      I have two pieces of advice: check in at exactly 24 hours on the nose (and I mean exactly…have the computer up and be logged in when the clock hits the magic number) and check in your entire group. You have a shot at A boarding group that way.

      My second piece of advice is to reach out to SWA on social. I recommend Twitter because SWA seems to be the most responsive there. Ask your question there. Chances are good you’ll get an answer.

      Also, with a family that size, I’d prepare the older kids for the possibility they might need to split up and have a plan about how you’ll handle that.

      Having said all of that, if you want to make sure you all can board together, the way to guarantee it is to pay for early check in. Early bird x 6 is expensive, but it will relieve your concerns.

  2. If traveling with a 20 month child…any documentation required?

  3. Great article! We, too, are “married” to SWA and their credit cards! We’ve had enough points the last 3 years for me to travel as a free companion with my husband. (He has the business credit card, so we make sure that all available points and bonuses dump into his SWA account.)
    But a few comments:
    1 – I think you have a typo under seat-saving where you write: “Are you in a lower boarding position than whomever you’re traveling with? You have the option to board together at the higher boarding position.” You do NOT have the ability to board with a higher group person! I see people try all the time and get turned away – politely, of course.
    2 – Also under seat-saving, we’ve had some confrontations about that and now carry a copy of an email from SWA HQ that says that they have no official policy and they just hope everyone will be considerate 🙂
    3- Booking in advance: I LOVE the SWA window for booking! I have been screwed by the “major” airlines who open their seats 331 days in advance – some of us just can’t know our plans that far in advance (we own our own business) and we end up paying a huge premium for booking “late”. The SWA 5-month window gives us a shot at competing with all the teachers in the world who know their Disney dates 5 years in advance.
    4 – As a former Travel Agent, I can tell you that “Direct” and “Non-Stop” have ALWAYS been two very different things! It is the concept I explain the most to folks, and people are always surprised. Also note that a “direct” that lists no change of planes can legally be changed to a connection with a plane change…without notice. It’s a huge impediment to my friends who are wheelchair users and need to know that they can stay on one plane. But it’s industry standard, not just SWA.
    SO – thanks for a great article! SWA also does a good job with UAMs (Unaccompanied Minors) when you feel that your kids are old enough.

  4. All I have to say is – UR headquarters is lying when they tell you that you for a small charge you can change ur flight plan – I TRIED THAT AND THEY WOULD NOT ALLOW ME TO DO IT – SO I LOST OVER $400. TO THEM AND THAT HURT SINCE I AM ON A VERY LIMITED INCOME!!!

  5. also to note… they frequently have one-day-only ticket sales, usually on Tuesdays. Sometimes these are just on flights to and from one particular city – but here’s the trick: since all flights are sold as one-way, if your home airport is the “featured city”, you can use these sales to go anywhere.

  6. Just FYI, it’s actually children 6 and under for family boarding, not four.

  7. Thank you Jill for this handy and comprehensive article! I’ve never flown SW, and so I needed to read this info to make an informed decision. Thanks for sharing your insights!

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