Booking Unpublished Southwest Fare Results in Audit & “Illegal Itinerary” Cancelation

On January 27, 2014, Southwest Airlines took a leap forward by starting to sell tickets to international destinations.  Initially, Southwest flew to only 3 international destinations: Aruba, Bahamas, and Jamaica.  Now flying to 11 international destinations in 7 countries (plus San Juan, Puerto Rico), Southwest Airlines has started to become a viable option for US-based travelers looking to add a little international flavor to their travel plans.  However, as a primarily domestic airline, the transition to becoming an international presence has been filled with a few bumps in the road that directly impact your travel plans.

Southwest Airlines International Destinations

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Recently, I attempted to book several unpublished Southwest fares for international travel.  There has been some forum discussion of booking unpublished Southwest fares, though most of these discussions were limited to domestic flights.  One helpful post indicated that “WN’s software will not sell you an unpublished connection. You have to standby or buy the two segments separately.”  I chose to test whether this was possible by calling their customer support telephone at 1 (800) 435-9792 because the alternative was to book separate itineraries, and risk being stranded in a connection city if the first (or second) flight was delayed.

My first trip was travel from Boston to Mexico City (see trip report part 1 and 2).  Trying to book the trip through Southwest.com resulted in this error:

Unable to Book Boston to Mexico City

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To build the unpublished set of connections so I knew what to ask the Southwest agent for, I started backwards from the destination.  On Southwest’s Interactive Route Map, I selected Mexico City as my destination, and checked the “Nonstop only” box.

Direct Flights to Mexico City on Southwest Airlines

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Seeing that my only options were SNA, SAT and HOU, I immediately eliminated SNA because that would involve unnecessary backtracking.  I looked at Southwest flight schedules and saw that there was no nonstop flight from HOU to MEX (or return) for my dates of travel!

Houston to Mexico City Involves a Stop in San Antonio

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This confused me until I realized that it isn’t until October 12, 2015 that Southwest offers nonstop flights between Houston and Mexico City!  So if you run into a similar “huh?” moment when booking your Southwest international flight, keep in mind that it may simply be that their schedule will change to permit a nonstop flight in the future.

This left me with the only option of flying through San Antonio.  Continuing to work backwards using the Interactive Route Map, my options to get to San Antonio were as follows:

Flying into San Antonio

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It turns out that the best option involved transit through Baltimore-Washington International Airport.  Painstakingly, the Frankenstein-esque itinerary for our trip from Boston to Mexico City would take over 9 hours of travel time in one day, but would put the entire trip onto a single PNR.  This was important to me because I was apprehensive about a delayed Southwest flight resulting me being stranded if I booked separate reservations.  With my desired flights in mind, I called Southwest.  1.5 hours later (!), my BOS-BWI-SAT-MEX itinerary was booked!

Multi-Stop Non Published Southwest Fare from Boston to Mexico City

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During this extended call, I learned from the Southwest agent and her supervisor that Southwest does not allow for international itineraries with 2 or more stopovers to be booked without agent assistance because the software managing their baggage system would struggle to handle the connections.  As always, take this information with a grain of salt as it came from a single source.

I was thrilled that I was successful not only because all travel was on a single PNR, but there was a cost savings.  Booked separately (BOS-BWI-SAT and then SAT-MEX), the travel would have cost $340 on my date of travel.  Booked on a single itinerary, the cost of the trip fell to $275.  The agent was stumped as to why this was the case, but I wasn’t complaining!  But if it sounds too good to be true…

How I Felt After Southwest Called About My Unpublished Ticket

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Exactly 1 month later, I received a call from a 214 area code number that I did not recognize.  I’m glad I picked up because it was Southwest calling to tell me that my itinerary was “illegally booked” (her wording made me feel a little like Tom Brady standing in front of Roger Goodell), and that it was being canceled!  I was informed that Southwest would not allow for the itinerary because there would be insufficient time to exit past security, and re-check in at San Antonio International Airport for the international leg of the journey.  I pleaded my case by showing her that I was very easily able to book the BWI-SAT-MEX itinerary on Southwest.com.  Thus, adding a BOS-BWI leg should not affect what happened between BWI-SAT-MEX.  The logic fell on deaf ears.  Ultimately, I was presented with 2 options:

  1. Re-book the exact same trip on separate PNRs.  Risk being stuck in San Antonio if I missed the connection to Mexico City.
  2. Re-book the trip, but travel out to San Antonio the night before.

As much as I wanted to travel on the original itinerary, I ended up choosing to play it safe and flew out to San Antonio the night before.  As prices had risen substantially in the month that had elapsed, the agent was helpful in re-booking my trip in the original fare category.

I was told by the Southwest agent I spoke with that my illegal itinerary was flagged by an automated itinerary audit.  She informed me that had this itinerary slipped through the cracks (and she has seen it happen), I would have been unable to check-in for the first flight – despite the itinerary being ticketed by Southwest.

Sorry Gary Kelly – Thumbs Down on this Experience

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All’s well that ends well, and I was excited to have been able to make it out to Mexico City.  However, this experience was an important lesson for many of us looking to stretch our travel dollars/points, or our vacation days.  Even when you think you’re outsmarting the system, you may be outsmarting yourself in the end.  The re-booking agent told me that multi-stop itineraries like mine would likely be possible “down the road” but did not have an estimated date.  Until then, it looks like we’ll just have to wait before we can get creative with our Southwest routing on unpublished international itineraries!

I’d love to hear your experiences in booking unpublished Southwest fares, both domestic and international, in the Comments.

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  1. If they ticketed you and then stranded you how not against DOT laws. Did they charge you more money once it was fixed ?

    • mike-

      That’s a good question. I didn’t push the Southwest agent more about what would have happened had this slipped through the cracks when I spoke with her, partly because the entire process (from initial booking, to re-booking) took well over 3 hours of telephone time. I suspect that booking unpublished fares on Southwest occurs infrequently enough that they are able to catch the problems.

      And no, I was priced out in the original fare categories of the date on which I initially booked my ticket. So no extra costs for me.

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