10 Reasons Southwest Is the Most Underrated Airline

Feb 4, 2019

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You may never read TPG contributors boasting of their experience flying on Southwest, or showing pictures of their seats alongside Singapore Suites, the Etihad Residence or the showers on Emirates. It’s just not that flashy or glamorous, but it is highly underrated by some travelers.

I hold the distinction of being one of the only TPG contributors with Southwest A-List status and feel that too many travelers in the miles and points world don’t bother giving it a chance. In today’s article, I’ll give you 10 reasons why Southwest deserves a shot at your business, but I’ll also show you four ways that Southwest might not be for you.

Southwest Is Not a Typical Airline

When you think about it, the airline industry can be maddening with its myriad nonsensical rules that seem to only exist because they’ve always done it that way. And when it comes to increasing fees and declining service, American, Delta and United often appear to march lockstep to the same drummer, with carriers like JetBlue and Alaska not far behind (and don’t get me started on Allegiant, Frontier and Spirit who have their own set of rules and fees).

Las Vegas, NV, USA- November 3, 2014: Boeing 737 Southwest Airlines takes off from McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas, NV on November 3, 2014. Southwest is a major US airline and the world's largest low-cost carrier. It is the largest operator of the 737 worldwide.
Southwest has a strong US-based route map but it also flies to international destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America.

However, many of the pain-points that most airlines inflict on its passengers are strangely absent from Southwest. Here are some of Southwest’s most prominent features that aren’t appreciated enough:

1. No change fees.

How much shopping would you do at a store that would charge you $200 to return a $100 purchase? On the other hand, you don’t think twice when shopping at a store that has a no-questions-asked return policy, which is how I feel about buying a ticket on Southwest.

Change and cancellation fees were once just a $50 nuisance. But now airlines like American, Delta and United impose an outrageous $200 fee on virtually any change or cancellation. The message that sends to me is that I should never consider buying a ticket, or redeeming my miles, until I’m absolutely positive that my plans are written in stone. And in family life, what is ever truly written in stone? But with Southwest, which levies zero change fees, I find myself booking tickets at the first moment that I might consider possibly going somewhere.

As a result, I can’t remember how many times I booked a flight on Southwest, only to change or cancel it later when my plans changed. This one feature has truly changed the way I approach travel.

2. Two free checked bags.

Southwest is the last US carrier to offer free bags for everyone on domestic flights. I love this feature not because I travel with 100 pounds of luggage on my short business trips, but because it changes the whole dynamic of boarding and deplaning an aircraft with 137 to 175 people. Without free checked bags, leisure travelers will attempt to carry on as much as humanly possible, leading to a race to seize the limited space in the overhead bins. This slows down boarding, and often leads to some passengers being forced to check their carry-ons. In fact, flight crews at some airlines are so zealous to speed up boarding that they sometimes preemptively forbid carry-ons, even when the bins aren’t actually full.

Needless to say, Southwest passengers seem to carry less on board, so boarding is quicker and less stressful. I’m also able to deplane faster when I don’t have to wait for every other passenger to retrieve the maximum amount of carry-ons they are permitted. And when I do take longer vacations with my family, I’m always happy to check whatever we need, at no additional cost.

boeing 777x
On Southwest, you may not have to fight as hard for overhead bin space since checked bags are free. (Photo courtesy of Boeing)

3. Super-simple rules.

Most airlines have routing rules that forbid you from flying so-called hidden city routes, or nested tickets. That’s on top of their super-complicated upgrade procedures and convoluted frequent flyer programs. With such intricate rules for everything, it sometimes seems as if some airlines are run by the IRS.

Yet Southwest tries to keep it simple. They don’t prevent you from saving money on tickets, and there’s no upgrade rules since there’s only one class of service and there isn’t a ton of fine print. Finally, its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program couldn’t be much simpler. You earn 6, 10 or 12 points per dollar depending on your fare class, and points are worth about 1.5 cents each toward any Wanna Get Away seat on any flight. Just try explaining any other frequent flyer program in one sentence like I just did!

4. Spacious seats.

At a time when all other US airlines appear to be trying to squeeze as many seats as possible into their planes, Southwest has retained remarkably generous legroom in comparison. Consider that all the seats on Southwest’s 737-800 and 737 MAX 8 aircraft offer 32 to 33 inches of pitch, about the same as the 33 inches you get on American Airlines when you pay more for Main Cabin Extra. Or consider that American puts 172 seats on their 737 MAX 8 with a first class section and galleys for meal service, compared to 175 seats on Southwest with much smaller galleys. The conclusion is simple; by offering first class and extra legroom seats, American, United and Delta have less space for most passengers in regular economy class.

Southwest seats
(Photo courtesy of Southwest)

5. The Companion Pass.

We’ve written much about the famed Companion Pass and the how to earn the pass by leveraging credit card sign-up bonuses, but I still have to mention how awesome it is. You just can’t put a price on unlimited 2-for-1 airfare or awards. My wife and I both have the Companion Pass, and we simply don’t consider any other airline when Southwest flies to where we’re going on a family trip.

6. Great service.

According to JD Power, Southwest Airlines has the highest customer satisfaction of any airline in North America, trouncing both its low-cost and traditional competitors. A major factor has to be its service, which in my experience is far less surly and prone to power-trips than on other airlines. Their crew members aren’t perfect, but it’s not uncommon to see Southwest flight attendants smiling, joking and singing as they go about their job.

Also, Southwest has some of the nicest phone representatives in the business. While I’ll usually avoid calling an airline unless it’s the last resort, I find that it’s easier to call Southwest than to try to accomplish something unusual online.

7. Family-friendly open seating.

OK, some people really can’t get used to it, but I love it. So long as I check in 24-hours in advance, I’ll always get a boarding position in the first half (B30 or better). This means that I’ve never had trouble sitting next to my companion or have been stuck sitting by myself in the middle seat. I also find open seating much more family-friendly, especially since young families can board after the A group regardless of their boarding position during family boarding. Therefore, there’s never a concern about finding seats together, even on full flights. And when we travel with a lap child and the plane isn’t completely full, we have always gotten a free seat for the little one (though if the plane was 100% sold out that would not be possible).

Southwest Family Boarding
Southwest Family Boarding after Group A

8. Lots of Nonstops.

Do you need to fly from New Orleans to Kansas City? Your choices are flying nonstop on Southwest, or changing planes in places like Houston, Dallas or Atlanta. In fact, Southwest’s route network is unique in that they really don’t have hubs. Instead, they’ll fly nonstop between any two cities with enough traffic to support the service. This means that you’ll often find that Southwest offers the only nonstop service between two airports, especially when neither is another airline’s hub.

9. Free Live TV, Movies and Radio.

You can stream Southwest’s free entertainment to any device, and it usually seems to work. As an added bonus, the entertainment isn’t ever interrupted during announcements and advertisements. Internet service is reliable and just $8, too.

Southwest's IFE provided several channels of live TV as well as other info pertaining to the flight.
Southwest’s IFE provided several channels of live TV as well as other info pertaining to the flight.

10. Family-friendly Frequent Flyer Program.

Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program is a boon for family travelers who need several seats on a single fight. Since you can use your points to book any unsold seat on any flight, I’ve personally booked as many as seven family members on a trip, no difficulty. With other frequent flyer programs, you are always facing limited award availability and the prospect of having to “split the team” to book an award flight.

This was one of the reasons that Southwest is TPG‘s top-rated airline for families in the US.

Southwest Might Not Be for You If …

Yes, I love Southwest, but I’ll also admit that it isn’t for everyone. Here are four reasons Southwest might not be the best choice for you:

1. You live near a smaller airport, or need to fly into one. Since Southwest only flies 737s, they don’t offer regional jet service to smaller airports. Do you live near or need to regularly visit places like Savannah, Georgia; Burlington, Vermont; or Madison, Wisconsin? Then Southwest probably isn’t for you.

2. You live on the other side of town from Southwest’s airport. Southwest often serves the smaller of a city’s two airports. In fact, it dominates traffic at Chicago Midway, Houston Hobby and, of course, Dallas Love Field. That’s great if you live nearby, but it can be a deal breaker if you have to get there from the other side of town and accessing the airport is especially inconvenient. Other notable absences from its route map include New York-JFK and Miami. 

3. Your company pays for first class.  I’ll argue that Southwest’s seats are about equal in comfort to American, Delta and United’s extra-legroom seats in economy. But that said, I’ll always take a first class ticket if someone else is paying.

4. You need to fly overseas. Southwest serves many international destinations in Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. But when you need to go elsewhere, then you’re out of luck. However, I occasionally use Southwest for positioning flights to reach an international gateway when I’m traveling on another airline that doesn’t offer a saver level award from my home airport in Denver.

Bottom Line

Many frequent flyers (especially some in places like NYC) underrate Southwest. It might be time for you to reevaluate the airline for your own needs — especially if you can pick up an easy Companion Pass in the process.

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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