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Southwest Airlines is a perennial favorite for commitment-phobes. Known for its flexible ticket policy and two free checked bags for every passenger, Southwest doesn’t charge the fees that come with flying on other airlines.
Three major U.S. airlines — American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines — dropped change fees on many flights in 2020. Yet, even now that Southwest is no longer unique in its no-change-fee policy, it still stands out for many other reasons. And when it comes to the change policy, the fine print tucked into the Big Three Airlines' policies have some significant caveats that you won’t find in Southwest’s stipulations.
Here are eight reasons why Southwest Airlines is still worth flying, plus a breakdown of why its change policy reigns supreme.
» Learn more: Southwest Rapid Rewards program: The complete guide
8 reasons Southwest is still a top airline
Even as other airlines increase flexibility with more customer-centric policies, Southwest is hard to beat in several key areas.
1. Southwest’s change fee policy is still the best
For starters, Southwest’s change fee policy beats out other major airlines. Here’s what you need to know about changing your ticket on Southwest:
The ability to make changes on Southwest applies to all fare classes on all flights.
If your new ticket is more expensive, you’ll have to pay the difference.
If your new ticket is cheaper, you'll receive the difference as a refund or as a travel credit, depending on the fare class.
Here’s how Southwest’s policy compares with the change policies of American, Delta and United:
Do you get a refund for the difference if changing to a cheaper flight?
What flights are excluded from the permanent change policy*?
Are there change fees for tickets purchased with points/miles?
Yes (as a voucher).
Basic economy fares.
Delta Air Lines
Yes (as an eCredit).
Yes (though some fare classes are refunded as a voucher).
Yes (as a future flight credit).
Most international flights, and basic economy fares.
Yes, if you are canceling a flight within 30 days of departure.
*This is not necessarily a comprehensive list. Some airlines have separate, temporary change or cancellation policies due to the coronavirus.
While most competitors exclude many international flights and basic economy fares, Southwest’s change policy encompasses all fares. And if you want to hop on a different, cheaper flight, it’s not only allowed, you’ll also be compensated for the fare difference.
Even though the policies from the Big Three airlines are a newfound win for flyers, Southwest has always had the best change policy — and that hasn’t changed.
2. If ticket prices drop, Southwest lets you rebook for the lower price
You might be tempted to delay booking your next flight in hopes that fares drop. With Southwest, there’s no need for such a scheme. If ticket prices drop after you’ve booked, you can get that money back.
If you booked in Southwest’s Business Select or Anytime fares (both of which are fully refundable), just cancel your flight and rebook the same — albeit now, cheaper — flight.
If you booked a Wanna Get Away or Wanna Get Away Plus fare, tickets aren’t fully refundable, but they come close. You can still cancel and rebook, and you’ll receive the cost from your canceled flight in the form of travel funds — Southwest’s version of a store credit. Funds don't expire and can be applied to future travel. You can re-use that credit on the new cheaper flight and pocket the savings in a travel fund for later use.
» Learn more: How to use travel funds on Southwest Airlines
3. No hidden fees or nickel-and-diming
On the bleak end of nickel-and-diming, Spirit charges $10 to print your boarding pass at the airport. Even the higher-end airlines still tack on fees: Both Delta and American charge main cabin flyers $30 to check their first bag and $40 for the second on domestic flights. On Southwest, your first two checked bags are free. Not having to worry about added fees is a reason why flying Southwest can make a lot of sense.
And look at the fare classes. The Big Three airlines might seduce you with ultra-low ticket prices, but there’s a good chance those fares are for basic economy. Basic economy typically means fees for extras, like the ability to choose your seat or even bring a carry-on bag. What’s more, the Big Three all exclude basic economy fares from their new no-change-fees policy.
With Southwest, you can book the cheapest fare class (Wanna Get Away) and still check two bags for free while also having the ability to change or cancel your flight — as long as you’re fine getting the difference in travel funds.
4. A unique boarding process
Whether Southwest’s boarding process is truly better is a little controversial, but there is one thing most people can agree on: It’s unconventional.
Southwest doesn’t assign seats. Instead, travelers are free to choose the seat they'd like upon boarding. What is assigned is boarding order: You'll get a specific combination of letter (A-C) and number (1-60+) that determines your place in line. Your Southwest boarding order assignment is based on when you check-in, which you can do online up to 24 hours before your flight. (If you're an A-List member or purchased EarlyBird Check-In, you'll automatically be assigned a boarding slot 36 hours before the flight).
Despite occasional chaos at the gate as folks find their spot, it’s organized once onboard. Say you’re partial to window seats and the person in row 9’s aisle seat is taking their sweet time rummaging through their carry-on. No need to wait for them — just grab the window seat in row 10. If you like being the first off the plane, snag a seat near the front. If you want to reduce the odds of someone sitting next to you, consider a seat near the rear.
If being the last to board makes you uncomfortable, consider applying for the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card. Among other benefits, the card includes four upgraded boardings per year, when available.
Here’s how Southwest’s upgraded boarding works:
If available, Southwest may sell access to guaranteed boarding positions A1-A15 at the counter on the day of your flight for $30-$50, depending on the flight. Purchase an upgraded boarding position from the ticket counter or gate and charge it to your Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card, and you’ll receive a statement credit within eight weeks.
You can also get a guaranteed boarding position of A1-A15 by purchasing a Business Select fare.
» Learn more: How to hack Southwest's boarding groups
5. The Companion Pass: An unmatched perk
If you’re a frequent flyer and like the idea of traveling with a friend, Southwest offers a benefit you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere: The Companion Pass.
Southwest’s Companion Pass lets a person of your choice fly for (almost) free for the rest of the year in which you earn the pass, as well as the following year.
If you have a Companion Pass and purchase a fare in cash or points for yourself, you’ll be given the option to book a seat for them, too. All you pay is the taxes and fees. Plus, if you can’t decide on just one BFF, the decision on whom to pick is not as immutable as you might think. You can change your designated companion up to three times a year.
How to earn a Southwest Companion Pass
You can’t buy a Southwest Companion Pass; you have to earn it. To receive one, you have to either earn 125,000 qualifying points or fly 100 qualifying one-way flights in a calendar year. Unless you’re flying Southwest about twice a week, the latter can be tough to achieve.
Likewise, you can earn the points by flying a whole lot. Or you can get a big point boost if you’re approved for a Southwest credit card. Currently, Southwest is offering new customers of its credit cards some nice welcome bonuses that can get you well on your way to a Companion Pass.
As for earning the remaining points, alternative means include swiping your Southwest credit card, shopping or dining with Southwest’s online retailers or restaurant partners, or by booking a hotel or renting a car through one of Southwest’s travel partners.
6. Free entertainment onboard
Download the Southwest app and you’ll have access to free movies and on-demand content onboard. Even without the app, you’ll have entertainment including free messaging through iMessage and WhatsApp, free live TV and free music.
WiFi costs $8 per day, but it’s free for A-List Preferred Members. Or, hold the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card and you’ll get 365 $8 Wi-Fi credits per year (yes, that's one for every day). Pay for inflight Wi-Fi with the card, then you’ll receive a statement credit for your purchase.
While not the highest, Southwest still ranks highly in our guide to the best (and worst) airlines for onboard entertainment.
7. Customer-friendly policies
Southwest has a good record of consumer-friendly responses. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the airline already had one of the most flexible change and cancellation policies. This positioned it to rank well in our analysis of which airlines have handled COVID-19 the best. On top of the flexible change policies, Southwest made a quick shift to a mask requirement and new cleaning procedures at the start of the pandemic.
8. Southwest is still more affordable
All that and Southwest still tends to be cheaper than the Big Three airlines.
In fall 2020, we looked at more than 100 airfares for flights between more than a dozen major U.S. airports, across a range of booking periods (about two weeks out, six months out and for travel during the holidays).
Our analysis found that Southwest’s Wanna Get Away fares were, on average, cheaper than main cabin airfares on American, Delta and United in every scenario except one: American Airlines Main Cabin seats were about 1.5% cheaper than Southwest fares during the holiday season.
Pricing: Southwest vs. Delta, United and American Airlines
The chart compares the cost of flights on the Big Three airlines to those of Southwest, represented as a percentage difference from the Southwest fare.
American Airlines came out just 0.06% more expensive than Southwest overall, but Southwest was 10% cheaper than United and an even more striking 26% cheaper than Delta.
» Learn more: American Airlines versus Southwest
That applies to fares booked in cash and by redeeming Southwest points. Rapid Rewards points never expire and the value of Rapid Rewards points closely mirrors cash prices, so you don’t need to worry about whether you got a good or bad redemption when booking Southwest flights.
Why fly on Southwest in the era of flexibility at other airlines
For travelers who value the flexibility to change their flights, flying with Southwest was the easy choice given its generous change policy. But now that the Big Three have joined the ranks of airlines that no longer charge change fees on many flights, it raised the question of whether Southwest could stand out as a superior airline.
From boarding procedures to free checked bags to a change fee policy that’s still better than what you’ll find among the competition, the reasons to love Southwest have been — and continue to be — abundant.
How to maximize your rewards
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