Is Southwest Airlines a Low Cost or Budget Airline?

by John Harper

So you’re new to Southwest Airlines. Perhaps you’re traveling from Europe or Asia, or just haven’t ventured over to the Southwest clan, where tickets can only be bought on one website (southwest.com). This isn’t a normal airline, so you may have no idea what to expect.

Will Southwest Airlines charge bag fees? Are there seat selection fees? Does Southwest charge, like budget airlines in Europe and Asia, for carry-on bags or airport check-in?

You may have read that Southwest is one of the first low-cost airlines in the world, but don’t be confused by the airline’s history or moniker: Southwest is nothing like a typical European or Asian low-cost carrier.

Does Southwest Charge For Checked Bags or Carry-On Bags?

Does Southwest charge for checked or carry-on bags?

Southwest does not charge any passengers for two checked bags.

Unlike pretty much every other airline in the world, absolutely not. Southwest remains the only domestic U.S. airline that includes two checked bags with every ticket, even the lowest-priced Wanna Get Away fare.

Does Southwest Charge To Select Seats?

Southwest Airlines Choose Select Seats

Southwest seats are all open, all available, which means that seat selection depends on when you board, and by extension, when you check-in for your flight. Image by Southwest Airlines

Southwest does not allow passengers to pre-select seats, so no, there is no charge for seat selection. Southwest uses an open seating policy, similar to how seats on most intercity trains are allocated. Passengers are allowed to choose any seat they like after boarding.

This brings up a somewhat different problem: since when you board determines how many seats you have to choose from, how does Southwest go about determining who boards first?

How To Get a Better Boarding Pass Position on Southwest

How Do I Get A Boarding Pass on Southwest Airlines

Southwest Airlines seating depends on boarding. Image by Southwest Airlines.

Since seating is picked on a first-board, first-choose basis, boarding position determines seat choice.

Southwest assigns each passenger a boarding position, indicated by both a letter — A, B, or C — and a number, at check-in. Anyone can check in to their flight online 24 hours before departure. Thus, the closer you are to the 24 hour, zero second mark, the earlier you will board.

There are several ways to circumvent this process and secure an even earlier boarding position, however.

  • Early bird check-in. For about $15, Southwest will check you in automatically, just ahead of normal check-in time. This generally guarantees a spot in the ‘A’ boarding group.
  • Upgraded check-in. Southwest actually reserves the first 15 boarding positions, A1-A15, for premium travelers, including Business Select ticketholders and certain elite frequent flyers. Any of these first 15 spots that remain at check-in can be purchased as “Upgraded Boarding”, for $30 to $50. Unlike Early Bird check-in, which applies to an entire itinerary, Upgraded boarding is only applied to a single flight.

Hack: The Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card includes four free upgraded boardings per year.

Does Southwest Airlines Offer Wi-Fi and/or TV?

Wi-Fi on Southwest Airlines?

Southwest Airlines has fleet-wide WiFi and entertainment.

Unlike low cost European carriers Ryanair and EasyJet, Southwest Airlines offers wi-fi and television on all flights. A Southwest Wi-Fi pass can be purchased for $8 onboard and is good not just for a flight, but for an entire day of travel.

While none of Southwest’s jets have seatback entertainment screens, movies and free live television are offered via the wi-fi connection and can be played on a smartphone, tablet or laptop computer.

Does Southwest Airlines Have Food Onboard?

Does Southwest Airlines serve or sell food onboard

Southwest does equip its 737s with galleys, and snacks are free, but don’t expect a big meal.

Southwest and peanuts became somewhat synonymous in the airline’s early years, when they only served peanuts while most U.S. airlines offered full complimentary meals in coach class.

Southwest no longer offers peanuts but the airline has diversified. Unlike Asian and European low cost carriers, however, Southwest doesn’t charge for food or drinks onboard. Expect complimentary pretzels and soft drinks on even the shortest flights, a selection of free snacks on longer flights, and even snack boxes on the longest transcontinental and Hawaii flights.

Cocktails, beer and wine are also available on all Southwest flights, all for $5.

Is Legroom and Seat Comfort on Southwest Airlines Good?

Unlike many international carriers, Southwest installs more-than-adequate legroom on all of its jets. Southwest has a standardized fleet — all Boeing 737s — and all seats are pitched at least 32 inches apart. That legroom is greater than in any other U.S. airline’s domestic economy cabin, and about on-par with what most economy travelers enjoy on ultra long-haul flights.

All seats have soft leatherette surfaces. All seats recline. In its newest cabin design, Southwest is installing the widest economy seats on any Boeing 737 in the world (achieved by slimming down the width of armrests).

The Upshot: Is Southwest A Low-Cost/Budget Airline

Southwest was once synonymous with budget air travel, but in light of newer business models Southwest appears more of a hybrid.

Fares on Southwest flights can still be incredibly low, particularly considering that bags, snacks, seats and carry-ons are all included. Sometimes, however, Southwest fares stretch far above even high dollar airlines. The airline has developed a cult of business travelers who prefer the airline for its flexibility and simplicity.

Southwest is nothing like low cost international carriers a la AirAsia, EasyJet, LionAir, Ryanair, or Spirit. Flyers used to those airlines will enjoy a more comfortable and elevated experience on Southwest.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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derek April 27, 2019 - 10:50 pm

Southwest used to be a budget carrier but now I consider it in a class of its own. In many ways, it is better than a full service carrier. In a few ways, it’s quirky. In no way is it inferior except for not having assigned seats.

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