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Southwest Airlines is a popular airline that flies to more than 100 destinations across the United States. Travelers rave about the brand’s low fares, generous free baggage policy and minimal fees. Southwest has an airline loyalty program known as Rapid Rewards, and if you're new to flying with Southwest or have yet to join their loyalty program, you should know that it may be slightly different from other flying experiences that you’ve had with other U.S.-based airlines. That’s because Southwest operates differently. We’ve outlined the essential things to know before flying Southwest below.
Things to know about flying Southwest and its loyalty program
1. Seats aren’t assigned
Southwest doesn’t allow flyers to reserve seats in advance, and there are no assigned seats. Instead, Southwest has a unique boarding system. Each traveler is assigned a boarding group and a position upon check-in. Boarding groups are A, B or C. Positions are numbered and range from 1-60+.
Your boarding group and boarding position will dictate what order you get on the plane. For example, A39 will board much sooner than C12. You can check in to your flight beginning 24 hours before departure. The sooner you check in, the closer you’ll be to the front of the line. When the gate agent calls your boarding group, you can get in line in numerical order. Then, you’ll be able to get on the plane and choose where you want to sit.
If you want to board the plane early without rushing to check-in, you have four options:
Purchase a Business Select fare. This ticket is more costly, but it ensures that you’ll have a boarding position between A1 and A15.
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In up to 36 hours before your flight. While this won’t guarantee an A boarding position, it will give you the earliest available position. Southwest will automatically check you in before the 24-hour check-in marker and you’ll be given a boarding position. This service costs $15 to $25 one-way per person.
Earn elite status through the Rapid Rewards program. Elite status members get a better boarding position. If you’re an A-List or A-List Preferred member, Southwest automatically reserves your boarding position 36 hours prior to departure. You still need to check in to your flight to receive your boarding pass.
Families and active military members can board before the B group begins boarding. This is available when traveling with kids ages 6 and under and also includes up to two adults. Active-duty military members in uniform can also board at this time.
» Learn more: How to hack Southwest's boarding groups
2. It’s best to check in sooner, rather than later
Does it matter when you check in on Southwest? Yes. As mentioned above, the sooner you check in to your flight, the better your chance of getting a boarding position closer to the front of the line, thus giving you greater flexibility to choose where you'd like to sit after boarding the aircraft. You can check in starting 24 hours prior to departure.
3. You can cancel a flight at least 10 minutes before departure without penalty
If you know that you won’t make your flight as planned, you can cancel your flight without penalty. If you booked with a Business Select or Anytime fare, you can choose to receive a method-of-payment refund, or you can obtain travel credit. For travelers who booked Wanna Get Away fare, you can cancel and get travel credit.
To cancel without penalty, you’ll need to call and cancel your reservation at least 10 minutes before your scheduled departure time. If you don’t do this, and you purchased Wanna Get Away fare, your tickets won’t be refunded. If you don’t cancel at least 10 minutes before departure and you purchased Business Select or Anytime fare, you’ll receive travel credit.
4. You get two free checked bags
Southwest Airlines is one of the most generous airlines when it comes to baggage allowance. All travelers, regardless of ticket type or status, can check two bags at no extra cost. Bags must meet the size and weight requirements to be free. Each bag must not be more than 62 inches (height, width and depth combined) or 50 pounds. Otherwise, additional fees will be charged.
» Learn more: The guide to Southwest baggage and other fees
5. Snacks and nonalcoholic beverages are free
When flying with Southwest Airlines, snacks and nonalcoholic beverages may be available at no extra cost. However, unlike other airlines, Southwest Airlines doesn’t serve full meals or sell additional snacks. Southwest normally offers alcoholic beverages for purchase, but due to COVID-19 safety protocols the airline has suspended this service. Southwest currently offers a limited selection of snacks and nonalcoholic beverages, when available, on flights greater than 250 miles.
If you have a long journey coming up, you may want to pack some snacks so you’re not hungry.
6. Entertainment is free
When flying with Southwest Airlines, you won’t need to pay for entertainment. All entertainment is free and doesn’t require Wi-Fi access. To access this free entertainment, you’ll need to bring a personal device, like a cell phone, tablet or notebook. With that in mind, Wi-Fi access is not free and costs $8 per day per device for an all-day pass.
7. The Rapid Rewards program earns based on spending, not miles
Some frequent flyer programs are spending-based, while others are distance-based. In the Southwest Rapid Rewards loyalty program, you’ll earn based on the dollar amount you spend, not miles flown.
» Learn more: Why I love Southwest Airlines
8. Your fare type will determine how many points you earn
The fare type purchased will dictate how many points per dollar you earn as a Rapid Rewards member.
As a basic member you will earn:
Wanna Get Away: 6 points per $1.
Anytime: 10 points per $1.
Business Select: 12 points per $1.
You can also earn Rapid Rewards points in other ways:
Use Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards to make purchases.
Book with hotel or rental car partners.
Book hotel stays through the Southwest hotel portal.
Book tours and travel experiences through Southwest Experiences.
Shop with partners (dining, home, specialty).
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
9. Elite status members will earn more points and get more perks
In addition to the type of fare purchased, you’ll earn more points if you’ve achieved elite status through the Rapid Rewards loyalty program. Basic members will earn at the rates noted above, but A-List and A-List Preferred members earn more. A-List status flyers will earn 25% more points, while A-List Preferred status flyers will earn 100% more points.
Wanna Get Away
7.5 points per $1.
12.5 points per $1.
15 points per $1.
A-List Preferred members
12 points per $1.
20 points per $1.
24 points per $1.
Additionally, elite status members get more perks.
A-List members get the following:
Priority boarding with an earlier boarding position.
A-List Preferred members get the following:
Priority boarding with an earlier boarding position.
Free in-flight Wi-Fi.
10. Rapid Rewards points never expire
Unlike some other airline loyalty programs, Southwest Airlines’ points never expire. You won’t have to worry about having account activity to keep your points. However, the points in your account will be terminated if you choose to close the account.
11. Earning a Companion Pass is a big money saver
For those who earn a Companion Pass, traveling is more affordable. That’s because you can choose one companion to join you for nearly free travel. You’ll need to pay only taxes and fees for your companion’s ticket. Here’s how it works:
If you fly on 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, you will earn the Companion Pass. Once earned, a Companion Pass lets you pick someone to fly with you every time you purchase a flight or redeem points for a flight. All you’ll do is pay for your companion’s taxes and fees. Companion Pass status remains valid for the remainder of the calendar year in which the pass is earned and for the entirety of the subsequent calendar year. You can also change your designated companion up to three times per calendar year. If you regularly fly with others, this could result in significant money savings.
12. There are no blackout dates
When redeeming your Rapid Rewards points for travel, there are no blackout dates. Book your trip for whatever dates work best for you.
The bottom line
These are the things to know before flying Southwest. Since this airline is so friendly, flexible and accommodating, it’s no wonder why so many travelers prefer to fly with Southwest Airlines.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card