Seems you can’t jump online these days without seeing yet another video of something ridiculous happening on a plane, or in an airport—you’re not the only one who feels as if its been far too long since we Americans came anywhere close to enjoying domestic air travel.
If I may raise my hand, if I may be that guy, just for a minute—I still do. (Please—don’t beat me up.)
Okay, so maybe the word enjoy is a bit much—we’re talking a pressurized tuna fish can, hurtling through the skies, cabin air thick with honey roasted peanut dust and too much off-brand perfume—but for nearly five years now, not only have I been flying Southwest almost exclusively—I kind of like it. This wasn’t a planned thing; it just sort of happened—relocated to new city, a city with lots of Southwest service, low fares to the places I need to be most frequently, what the heck, why not.
Spending much of my career in New York, Southwest had never really been on my radar. I wasn’t at all sure what to expect. But the first flight went off without a hitch. The second was remarkably hassle-free. So I booked again. Then again (and again). Here’s why I’ll keep booking. Less budget, more travel: Score up to 40% off hotels, flights and packages with Expedia.
#1 Southwest will never steal your money. Change your flight? Cancel it and fly later? No charge, no problem. When I see a good fare, even if I’m not entirely certain a trip will take place, I snag it. If I don’t go, I cancel and push that money into the next flight. Every last penny. If I want to switch my dates around, I just pay the difference. If the fare has gone down (which happens), the difference is refunded. In an era where people accept use-or-lose as the norm, where people pay more than the cost of a flight to bump it up by a day, this alone makes Southwest better than, well, pretty much everyone.
#2 Two free checked bags. Lost in so much kvetching over rising fees is the fact that Southwest still allows travelers to check two bags under 50 lbs. for precisely no money. (If you are traveling with more than that, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for you having to pay your share—hire a moving van, for goodness’ sake.)
#3 Priority access is easy and cheap. EarlyBird Check-in costs $15 each way, no matter how many stops you make. You’ll be checked in automatically and will likely end up close enough to the head of the line to get an exit row seat, or, at the very least, have your choice of window or aisle, most of the way up and down the plane. Source: Nearly ever flight I have taken on Southwest over a roughly five-year period.
#4 The longer you fly without having a seat assignment, the less you will miss this. Because I always go EarlyBird, I always have a wide selection of seats to choose from, once I get on the plane. (See #3). Deciding on the spot, I find, is just better. Maybe there’s a giant, loud group in front and I prefer the back, or vice versa. If I don’t like the day’s crop of seasoned travelers already manspreading in the exit rows, I can just wave that whole scene goodbye and choose a nearby window or aisle seat, next to someone who does not scowl as I approach their row. I have choices. I like choices. Choices are good. (And for those of you asking, families who need extra time and are stressed about being seated together get to board relatively close to the front of the herd—don’t freak.)
#5 All the entertainment I need is in the palm of my hand. (Wait, what?) No seat back televisions for your neighbor to jab angrily for five hours, no sir—Southwest’s clever little system is actually accessed through your very own phone/tablet/laptop. Also, should you require, there is internet for sale.
#6 In years of traveling Southwest, they have made me late exactly once. And that was because of some force majeure-level insanity on the East Coast. Really, it was no big deal. They treated us well and got us on our way when they could, without a whole lot of drama. Of course, that’s nothing more than anecdotal evidence, but the reality is, in 2016, Southwest scored close to 90 percent on-time arrivals, beat out only Alaska and Hawaiian had better on-time performance records. (JetBlue, by comparison, rang in at an embarrassing 69 percent.)
#7 Flying Southwest can still feel like you’re in some cool kind of club for in-the-know cheapskates. Southwest famously prevents third parties from crawling their site for low fares—as a result, too many consumers don’t even factor it into their search when planning travel. (People: This is very bad. You always want to search Southwest.) Consequently, and this is strictly based on experience—again, over nearly five years of flying—there seems to be a dearth of casual travelers stumbling onto the planes trying to figure out what the hell they’ve gotten themselves into. Better still, free checked bags means fewer scofflaws attempting to ram their giant cases into the overhead bins, then holding things up (and throwing cabin-disrupting hissy fits) because their luggage has to be removed from the plane and gate-checked. By and large, the people I meet flying Southwest understand and are fine with Southwest’s methods and culture. If flying a domestic airline can be a mellow experience at this point, on a good day, Southwest comes damn close.
#8 If they can’t get me where I need to go or somewhere very close by, I probably don’t need to go there. At this point, the question is where doesn’t Southwest fly? It helps that I’m not particularly annoyed by stopovers, though there are plenty of non-stops on most of the routes I travel. It helps that when necessary, I am more than willing to fly into a cheaper airport, a bit further from my destination. Then again, it’s entirely unfair at this point to assume that Southwest can only take you to Hartford or Manchester or Islip or wherever it is you don’t want to go. That’s simply untrue. Check the schedules, you’ll see. And they’re not just domestic anymore—think Mexico City, Costa Rica, Cancun, Cabo. Best news of all: Flights to Hawaii should be a thing by this time next year.
#9 They have the last thoroughly decent staff in the air. Even with all of the changes employees have had to endure, Southwest’s crew seem to have retained their dignity, in turn allowing us ours. Little smiles and jokes and thoughtful touches like offering water while you wait in line for the lavs or encouraging you to grab extra snacks from the basket are almost commonplace. (One attendant recently asked, did I want a splash of half and half in my hot chocolate? It would taste better, she said. She was right.) Tiny gestures like these can mean a lot after a long day on the road. The good-natured ease with which the majority of attendants do their jobs make the experience so much less stressful than it can be elsewhere.
#10 Southwest does not overbook. Not that they ever had an aggressive policy of doing so, but as of 2017, they will no longer overbook flights, eliminating the sort of drama that made the entire world hate United Airlines forever, this past spring.
#11 Southwest is uncool and proud. You won’t find nifty color schemes or trying-too-hard branding, designer uniforms or runway-ready attendants. Which is fine, because all that nonsense costs money. Seat pitch and width might average slightly higher on JetBlue or Virgin America, but Southwest seats are no slouch—comfy leather and plenty spacious for the average traveler.
#12 They have craft beer in cans. For $5. A couple Fat Tires or Lagunitases (that’s not a word, is it), a window seat, a sunny day flying over the Rockies, or the Great Lakes, or up the West Coast—it may not be the best thing in the world, but I think we can all agree: It’s far from the worst.