When determining which airline to fly with for your next business trip or family vacation, there are many factors (and many airlines) to consider. Depending on where you’re headed, you may be wondering: Is Southwest Airlines good, bad, expensive or worthwhile?
Here’s our breakdown to help you answer these questions and figure out if Southwest is the right airline for your next trip or your airline loyalty.
NerdWallet’s airline analysis
For starters, Southwest Airlines falls near the middle of NerdWallet’s recent analysis for the best airline rewards program overall. Based on categories like the airline’s elite status program, rewards point value, COVID-19 response and additional fees, the airline outranked American, Delta, United and Frontier, but fell short of Alaska, Hawaiian and JetBlue.
NerdWallet ranked Southwest Airlines even higher when it came to the best airline rewards programs for frequent travelers and for families. Out of eight airlines, only Alaska and Hawaiian scored higher than Southwest in both categories. See that breakdown here.
What is Southwest Airlines like?
Beyond its rewards program, here’s what to expect, from booking to boarding, if you’re considering flying Southwest.
Making reservations: When it’s time to book your flight, Southwest makes it easy through its app or website. You can search for flights in cash or points, and you can select the low fare calendar if you want to find the best deal and have flexibility with your dates. Southwest flights don’t show up on most third-party search sites, like Google Flights or Priceline; you can typically book a flight only through Southwest.
Check-in: Checking in is straightforward and can be done up to 24 hours before your scheduled flight. If you don’t want to wait in line at the airport ticket counter, you can check in online through Southwest’s website or app in just a few minutes. Some airports may also have self-service kiosks or a curbside Skycap podium for quicker check-in. If you want to hack Southwest’s boarding process, it’s imperative that you check in as close to that 24-hour time frame as possible.
Boarding: Southwest’s boarding process is a bit different than other airlines since there are no pre-assigned seats. Passengers get to choose seats as they board, so the earlier you are to board, the more choice you have. Additionally, while most airlines board by zones, Southwest boards by group (a letter from A-C) and position (a number from 1-60). Your boarding group and number are determined upon check-in — the earlier you check in, the lower your boarding position and the sooner you board (with A1 being first). You can also score Group A boarding by purchasing a Business Select fare or Upgraded Boarding, when available.
In-flight experience: Once you’re in the air, is Southwest Airlines comfortable? It certainly offers more amenities and legroom than some budget airlines. For instance, Spirit and Frontier don’t offer complimentary food or beverages, and make you pay for a roomier seat. On Southwest, drinks and snacks are served for free, seats are designed to provide lumbar support and knee space and, on many flights, there’s free entertainment that you can stream from your own device. In fact, Southwest ranked in the top three in our recent analysis of onboard entertainment.
Loyalty program: As a Southwest Rapids Rewards member, you’ll earn points that never expire and that can be redeemed on flights and more. Fly often enough and you can earn elite status with priority boarding and check-in. Fly 25 qualifying one-way flights or earn 35,000 tier qualifying points in a calendar year for A-List status, and 50 flights or 70,000 points for A-List Preferred. If you fly 100 qualifying flights or earn 125,000 qualifying points, you can reach Companion Pass status. You can buy Southwest points, but it’s not generally recommended.
Fare types: There are three fare types on Southwest: Wanna Get Away, Anytime and Business Select. Each comes with its own perks and benefits as well as a different point-earning structure: Earn 6 Rapid Rewards points per dollar on Wanna Get Away fares, 10 points per dollar on Anytime fares and 12 points per dollar on Business Select fares.
Other things to consider
Airlines aren’t only about comfort and class, of course. There are other factors to consider when determining whether to fly Southwest.
According to AirlineRatings.com, Southwest Airlines is among the 20 safest airlines in the world in 2021. It ranked below Hawaiian and Alaska, but above Delta and American. The airlines were evaluated on their crash and serious incident records, audits, industry-leading safety initiatives and fleet age. All of the top 20 airlines, including Southwest, proved to be standouts (compared to the total 385 airlines in the study) in safety and innovation.
Southwest’s reliability is overall hard to pinpoint. One rating site, OAG, gave it 3 out of 5 stars for on-time performance, ranking below Delta, American and Alaska for punctuality. And according to flight facts by Information Design, it also had the third-highest flight cancellation rate of U.S. airlines in June 2021.
However, Southwest redeems itself when it comes to baggage. The U.S. Department of Transportation found that, in July 2020, Southwest ranked second out of 17 airlines for least number of bags mishandled. In July 2021, its ranking dropped just a few spots to fifth out of 17.
Skytrax, which publishes certified airline ratings, gives Southwest a rating of 4 out of 5 stars based on the quality of its staff and services, including cabin comfort and cleanliness, additional charges, in-flight food and beverages, and customer interactions. Online customer reviews tend to agree with that assessment. The airline had the lowest consumer complaint rate in 2020, according to a recent Airline Quality Rating report.
Southwest isn’t always the cheapest airline, but once you factor in a free carry-on and two free checked bags, flying with Southwest can be cost-effective depending on your travel style and destination.
The Southwest Rapid Rewards program offers unlimited reward seats on every flight, no blackout dates, and points that never expire. Plus, you can earn points by flying Southwest, by making everyday purchases via online shopping and the airline’s travel partners, and by using a co-branded credit card such as the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card.
Unique Southwest perks
As you may have gathered, Southwest is fairly unique among airlines. It’s one of the few U.S. airlines that offer two free checked bags in addition to a carry-on and personal item. The airline also offers a coveted Companion Pass: a ticket that allows you to designate one travel companion to fly with you for free (minus taxes and fees) every time you book a flight using cash or points.
To score this benefit, you’ll need to fly 100 one-way flights or earn 125,000 qualifying points (points earned from booking flights on Southwest, using a Southwest co-branded credit card or making purchases with Rapid Rewards partners) in a calendar year. Then, you can enjoy a Companion Pass for the remainder of the year you earned it, plus the full following calendar year. Your designated travel companion can be changed up to three times in a year.
Additionally, Southwest doesn’t charge for changing or canceling your travel plans. If you cancel Business Select and Anytime tickets at least 10 minutes before departure time, the cost of your flight can be refunded. If you purchased a nonrefundable fare (Wanna Get Away), you can get the payment amount back in Southwest credit to use on a later flight.
Related to the airline’s welcome flexibility for flight bookings, a recent NerdWallet analysis determined that Southwest charges the least fees of the major domestic airlines.
These numbers are averages based on a hypothetical customer who selects a seat, carries on one bag and checks one bag. It includes fees for both main cabin and basic economy fares.
Who should avoid Southwest Airlines?
Naturally, not every airline will appeal to every traveler. Here’s who might not consider Southwest the best choice:
Travelers who don’t live near a hub may find Southwest flights are in slightly shorter supply. Southwest doesn’t fly to as many destinations as airlines like United, so those outside of the airline’s regular service area may find it more difficult to find the flight they want.
Travelers who enjoy premium flight perks, like first class offerings, will be disappointed to find out that Southwest doesn’t have them. The Business Select fare guarantees an early boarding position, and you can upgrade your boarding position for a fee at the gate if seats are still available. But if it’s more legroom, larger seats or lounge access you’re searching for, better to look elsewhere.
Travelers who prefer to select their seats or are determined to sit with family or friends may prefer a different airline. There is family boarding between boarding groups A and B, but if you miss it, you may have to sit apart.
If you’re considering flying Southwest
Is Southwest a good airline, or should you avoid it? The answer generally falls somewhere in the middle. Customer satisfaction is high, flexibility to change or cancel flights has always been exceptional and free checked bags on every flight is a big plus.
As for the drawbacks, no seat assignments or first class perks, plus a disappointing reliability rating, are worth factoring in. Whether these realities are deal breakers largely depends on your travel style. Overall, Southwest is a solid airline that offers a comfortable experience at a decent price.
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: