Southwest Airlines’ Holiday Disaster: Now What?

Southwest Airlines has had a historic meltdown this holiday season. Here's what to do if you're caught up in it.
Sally French
By Sally French 
Edited by Kevin Berry

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The Southwest Airlines chaos continues. After a brutal weekend of cancellations and delays, on Tuesday, Dec. 27, 64% of Southwest flights were still canceled, according to FlightAware data. Meanwhile, Tuesday’s second-most-canceled U.S. airline, Spirit Airlines, axed only 12% of flights. Alaska Airlines canceled just 10%.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Eligible flyers can get paid for surviving the Southwest meltdown — even beyond the 25,000 Rapid Rewards points (roughly $375 in value, according to NerdWallet valuations) offered as a measure of goodwill.

On top of that, Southwest’s website has become periodically inaccessible, and — even when the website works — flight availability is limited. For folks seeking to reschedule, Southwest agents are sometimes the only ones who can process changes. Yet, phone hold times are painfully long (as in multiple hours), as are many airport lines.

My parents were set to fly on Dec. 24 from St. Louis, Missouri, to spend Christmas with me in San Francisco. Unsurprisingly, they’re not here, but they’re not giving up — and you don’t have to either. If you, like, them, are trying to fly on Southwest (or purchased airfare for a flight that eventually got canceled), here are 10 things to do now:

1. Get a cash refund for your airfare

No matter the reason, all U.S. airfares are entitled to a full refund under Department of Transportation regulations if your flight was canceled. If you’re done with Southwest, you don’t have to settle for just a future flight credit. Get that money back.

Southwest typically requires you to call customer service at 800-435-9792 to get refunded for  otherwise nonrefundable fare classes (like its Wanna Get Away fare class). But lately, phone hold times are hours long. Luckily, Southwest launched a webpage specific to the recent chaos, allowing you to request a refund by submitting your confirmation number and name. 

2. Try rebooking with Southwest via phone

If you still want to travel this holiday season, rebooking your initial flight might be better than requesting a refund, as last-minute airfare tends to be more expensive (and Southwest is changing existing reservations for canceled flights at no additional cost).

Just be warned that availability mostly comes across as "Unavailable" on the website or app.

You can try calling but Southwest hold times are long. I spent over three hours on hold before calling it quits. I spent another three hours on hold the next day until an agent finally answered. We spent nearly an hour talking, where we finally rebooked the first available flight — which was Dec. 31.

Many reports out of airports indicate that Southwest isn’t able to re-book travelers to new flights until Dec. 30 at the very earliest. 

3. Try contacting Southwest via social media

Social media tools like Twitter can sometimes become a hero. Though with Southwest, it’s semi-slow-going right now.

I sent a direct message to Southwest’s Twitter account on Dec. 25, which took a day for them to respond. Thus, the phone turned out more effective. If you do tweet at Southwest, send a direct message (not a public tweet) with all relevant information, such as confirmation number, name, birthdate, email address and Rapid Rewards number.

4. Find a more creative way to your destination

Trains can be surprisingly delightful. One-way rental cars can sometimes be cheaper (if you’re driving to a destination where the rental car companies need to increase vehicle supply). Two different groups we spoke to drove home from Phoenix, Arizona to Portland, Oregon in rental cars due to the massive flight issues. 

If the timing is right, you might consider the adventure of an RV relocation rental. Sites like Imoova and Transfercar offer RV rentals for incredibly low rates (sometimes as low as $1 per night) but with a catch — you need to drive the RV from one specific city to another.

5. See if Southwest will pay for your alternative travel arrangements 

Keep those receipts! Whether you’re now paying for unanticipated hotel nights, extra cab rides, or perhaps that $1 RV, you might be entitled to refunds. 

Southwest says customers with flights canceled or significantly delayed between Dec. 24, 2022, and Jan. 2, 2023 can submit receipts for “reasonable” expenses such as meals, hotels or alternate transportation via this webpage for consideration.

The problem? Southwest hasn’t defined what refunds are guaranteed, instead simply stating that it will “honor reasonable requests for reimbursement.” 

It’s best to only make arrangements that you’d be comfortable paying for yourself, as your mileage may vary when it comes to convincing Southwest Airlines to refund your specific costs due to the vagueness of the policy. 

6. Turn to trip insurance

Travel insurance companies might prove more useful than Southwest in reimbursements, so — if you purchased it — contact your provider immediately. Travel insurance companies have been known to cover hotel rooms, meals and more.

That was the case when a hurricane grounded flights ahead of one couple’s destination wedding in Puerto Rico, their travel insurance company paid for an impromptu wedding in New York instead.

Many travel credit cards also insure trips purchased on that card, but coverage can vary. Most issue refunds for prepaid expenses. But trip insurers won’t always be your saving grace. I called Chase’s benefits number at 1-888-320-9961 on Christmas Day to understand their coverage in my family’s scenario.

After spending 36 minutes on hold (it was Christmas, to be fair), a customer service representative said that — while it would reimburse change fees (Southwest doesn’t charge change fees anyway) — it would not reimburse alternate travel arrangements, such as flights on another airline. Coverage varies by policy and situation and again, your mileage may vary.

7. Cancel other prepaid reservations

Move quickly to cancel other reservations like rental cars, hotels and show tickets.

Many hotels and rental car companies allow you to pay for your reservation at check-in (rather than ahead of time), a practice NerdWallet recommends to avoid stressing about refunds in situations like these.

If you’re stuck with nonrefundable reservations, explain your case to a sympathetic customer service rep and they may make an exception. Or, trip insurance may help.

8. Get coverage for lost baggage

If you have baggage insurance and you’ve been separated from your possessions, you’ll likely be reimbursed for replacements or purchases to hold you over in the interim. Many credit cards come with this coverage if you paid for your airline tickets with the card. Exact coverage varies by policy.

🤓Nerdy Tip

When checking baggage, only part with easily-replaceable items. Keep your most important possessions (e.g., prescription medication, electronics or passports) in your carry-on or personal item. 

In the future, consider using luggage-tracking devices. According to the Federal Aviation Administration, only batteries with a lithium content of .3 grams or less are allowed in checked baggage. Apple AirTags meet that threshold, though not all trackers do. And check with your airline, as they sometimes have their own rules about luggage-tracking devices.

9. Have a backup plan for your backup plan

If you rebook another flight or find alternative arrangements, you can never have too many backup plans. Flights are still in turmoil, so — even if you get rebooked — there’s no guarantees your next flight will be seamless.

If your route demands a layover, choose cities with lower cancellation odds. On Dec. 27, these U.S. airports had the highest rate of cancellations (based on originating flights), according to FlightAware data:

  1. Buffalo Niagara (84%).

  2. Sacramento (39%).

  3. San Jose (34%).

  4. Chicago-Midway (33%).

  5. Baltimore/Washington (32%).

  6. San Diego (28%).

  7. Kansas City (28%).

  8. Oakland (27%).

  9. Hollywood Burbank  (27%).

  10. Nashville (25%).

Among the major U.S. airports with fewer than 4% of canceled flights on Tuesday were Dallas-Fort Worth, New York-JFK, Miami, Detroit, Honolulu and Newark.

10. Be patient and kind

The gate agent or phone customer service rep is not responsible for the Great Southwest Meltdown. Many Southwest employees are reportedly working overtime or showing additional gestures of kindness, like passing out drinks at gates. Show them the same kindness in return, and make holiday travel a little easier for everyone.

As for my parents? They’re rebooked on another flight for New Year’s Eve. Maybe the Southwest schedule will be back on track by then.

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