Is Southwest a Good Airline?

If you don't mind the unassigned seating and like the generous bag policy, Southwest is a solid, affordable choice.
Elina Geller
Alisha McDarris
By Alisha McDarris and  Elina Geller 
Updated
Edited by Meghan Coyle

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When determining which airline to fly with for your next business trip or family vacation, there are many factors (and many airlines) to consider. Depending on where you’re headed, you may be wondering: Is Southwest Airlines good, bad, expensive, safe or worthwhile?

Here’s our breakdown to help you answer these questions and figure out if Southwest is the right airline for your next trip or your airline loyalty.

NerdWallet's airline analysis

For starters, Southwest Airlines falls near the middle of NerdWallet’s recent analysis for the best airline rewards program overall. Based on categories like the airline's elite status program, rewards point value and additional fees, the airline outranked American, Delta, United and Frontier, but fell short of Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue.

Rank

Airline

Score

1

4.9

2

4.1

3

3.6

4

3.5

5

3.0

6 (tie)

2.8

6 (tie)

2.8

8

1.9

What is Southwest Airlines like?

Beyond its rewards program, here’s what to expect, from booking to boarding, if you’re considering flying Southwest.

  • Making reservations: When it’s time to book your flight, Southwest makes it easy through its app or website. You can search for flights in cash or points, and you can select the low fare calendar if you want to find the best deal and have flexibility with your dates. Southwest flights don’t show up on most third-party search sites, like Google Flights or Priceline; you can typically book a flight only through Southwest.

  • Check-in: Checking in is straightforward and can be done up to 24 hours before your scheduled flight. If you don’t want to wait in line at the airport ticket counter, you can check in online through Southwest’s website or app in just a few minutes. Some airports may also have self-service kiosks or a curbside Skycap podium for a quicker check-in. If you want to hack Southwest's boarding process, it's imperative that you check in as close to that 24-hour time frame as possible.

  • Boarding: Southwest’s boarding process is a bit different than other airlines since there are no pre-assigned seats. Passengers get to choose seats as they board, so the earlier you board, the more choice you have. Additionally, while most airlines board by zones, Southwest boards by group (a letter from A-C) and position (a number from 1-60). Your boarding group and number are determined upon check-in — the earlier you check in, the lower your boarding position and the sooner you board (with A1 being first). You can also score Group A boarding by purchasing a Business Select fare or Upgraded Boarding, when available.

  • In-flight experience: Once you’re in the air, is Southwest Airlines comfortable? It certainly offers more amenities and legroom than some budget airlines. For instance, Spirit and Frontier don't offer complimentary food or beverages, and make you pay for a roomier seat. On Southwest, drinks and snacks are served for free, seats are designed to provide lumbar support and knee space and, on many flights, there’s free entertainment that you can stream from your own device. In fact, Southwest ranked in the top three in our recent analysis of onboard entertainment.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
NerdWallet rating 
  • Loyalty program: As a Southwest Rapids Rewards member, you’ll earn points that never expire and that can be redeemed on flights and more. Fly often enough and you can earn elite status with priority boarding and check-in. Fly 25 qualifying one-way flights or earn 35,000 tier qualifying points in a calendar year for A-List status, and 50 flights or 70,000 points for A-List Preferred. If you fly 100 qualifying flights or earn 135,000 qualifying points, you can reach Companion Pass status. You can buy Southwest points, but it's not generally recommended.

  • Fare types: There are four fare types on Southwest: Wanna Get Away, Wanna Get Away Plus, Anytime and Business Select. Each comes with its own perks and benefits as well as a different point-earning structure: Earn 6 Rapid Rewards points per dollar on Wanna Get Away fares, 8 points per dollar on Wanna Get Away Plus fares, 10 points per dollar on Anytime fares and 12 points per dollar on Business Select fares.

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Southwest Airlines reviews

Reviews of Southwest Airlines are consistently positive. Skytrax, which publishes certified airline ratings, gives Southwest a rating of 4 out of 5 stars based on the quality of its staff and service, including cabin comfort and cleanliness, additional charges, in-flight food and beverages, and customer interactions.

Online customer reviews tend to agree with Skytrax’s assessment. According to the 2022 Airline Quality Rating report, Southwest was ranked as the No. 1 airline in 2021 and 2020. In addition, Southwest had the second lowest consumer complaint rate in 2021.

Southwest Airlines safety record

Is Southwest Airlines safe? According to AirlineRatings.com, Southwest Airlines has a 7/7 safety rating in 2023. However, Southwest is no longer part of the top 20 safest airlines in the world, like it was in 2021.

Other things to consider

Airlines aren’t only about comfort and class, of course. There are other factors to consider when determining whether to fly Southwest.

Reliability

Southwest's reliability is overall hard to pinpoint. In the 2023 Punctuality League Report published by aviation rating site, OAG, Southwest was ranked No. 13 out of 20 airlines for on-time performance. However, in the January 2023 Air Travel Consumer Report issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation, Southwest had a 77.5% ranking for on-time arrivals, ranking in fourth place out of 15 airlines.

When it comes to baggage, Southwest ranked No. 4 out of 15 airlines for least number of bags mishandled with 0.61 mishandled bags per 100 in the Air Travel Consumer Report. In January 2022, Southwest reported 0.53 mishandled bags per 100, which was a slightly more favorable statistic compared to the one in 2023.

General cost

Southwest isn’t always the cheapest airline, but once you factor in a free carry-on and two free checked bags, flying with Southwest can be cost-effective depending on your travel style and destination.

Loyalty program

The Southwest Rapid Rewards program offers unlimited rewards seats on every flight, no blackout dates, and points that never expire. Plus, you can earn points by flying Southwest, by making everyday purchases via online shopping and the airline’s travel partners, and by using a co-branded credit card such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card.

Unique Southwest perks

Companion Pass

As you may have gathered, Southwest is fairly unique among airlines. It’s one of the few U.S. airlines that offer two free checked bags in addition to a carry-on and personal item. The airline also offers a coveted Companion Pass: a ticket that allows you to designate one travel companion to fly with you for free (minus taxes and fees) every time you book a flight using cash or points.

To score this benefit, you’ll need to fly 100 one-way flights or earn 135,000 qualifying points (points earned from booking flights on Southwest, using a Southwest co-branded credit card or making purchases with Rapid Rewards partners) in a calendar year. Then, you can enjoy a Companion Pass for the remainder of the year you earned it, plus the full following calendar year. Your designated travel companion can be changed up to three times in a year.

Flexibility

Additionally, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling your travel plans. If you cancel Business Select and Anytime tickets at least 10 minutes before departure time, the cost of your flight can be refunded. If you purchased a nonrefundable fare (Wanna Get Away and Wanna Get Away Plus), you can get the payment amount back in Southwest credit to use on a later flight.

Lowest fees

Related to the airline's welcome flexibility for flight bookings, a recent NerdWallet analysis determined that Southwest charges the least fees of the major domestic airlines.

These numbers are averages based on a hypothetical customer who selects a seat, carries on one bag and checks one bag. It includes fees for both main cabin and basic economy fares.

Who should avoid Southwest Airlines?

Naturally, not every airline will appeal to every traveler. Here’s who might not consider Southwest the best choice:

  • Travelers who don't live near a hub may find Southwest flights are in slightly shorter supply. Southwest doesn’t fly to as many destinations as airlines like United, so those outside of the airline’s regular service area may find it more difficult to find the flight they want.

  • Travelers who enjoy premium flight perks, like first class offerings, will be disappointed to find out that Southwest doesn’t have them. The Business Select fare guarantees an early boarding position, and you can upgrade your boarding position for a fee at the gate if seats are still available. But if it’s more legroom, larger seats or lounge access you’re searching for, it's better to look elsewhere.

  • Travelers who prefer to select their seats or are determined to sit with family or friends may prefer a different airline. There is family boarding between boarding groups A and B, but if you miss it, you may have to sit apart.

Final thoughts on flying Southwest

Is Southwest a bad airline, or should you seek out its flights? The answer generally falls somewhere in the middle. Customer satisfaction is high, flexibility to change or cancel flights has always been exceptional, and free checked bags on every flight is a big plus.

As for the drawbacks, no seat assignments or first class perks, plus a mixed reliability rating, are worth factoring in. Whether these realities are deal breakers largely depends on your travel style. Overall, Southwest is a solid airline that offers a comfortable experience at a decent price.


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