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July 6, 2011

Southwest Airlines - Moooooo

We just returned from our annual Iowa trip (which explains the lack of blogging recently...sorry!), and for the first time ever, we flew Southwest Airlines.

While it wasn't the most hideous experience out there, I have to say that I will be thinking long and hard about it before ever choosing them again.

(Thanks to Ellen Barone)

Like all things, airlines included, there are good things to be said. But there are definitely a lot of downsides too.

Let me start from the beginning.

First, and I cannot emphasize this enough, if you're going to be trying something new, look it up online first. See what experiences others have had. I think we would have found some eye-opening stuff out there if we had looked.

But we didn't. Southwest was economical, and we had heard some good things about them, so we clicked "buy" on our tickets and didn't even think about it.

You might not want to repeat that process.

A week or two before we were scheduled to leave, I get an email that offers early-bird check-in. $10 per person, gets you on the plane earlier. Yeah, it sounds like a cash-grab. We don't mind boarding late. We keep our carry-ons under the seat, so we're not fighting for room in the overhead bins.

So I ignore it.

Then we get to Seattle on the day of travel, and this is what we see (not our picture, but this is basically what we experienced):

(Thanks to Martha Stewardess)

Ok, it wasn't quite *this* bad, but it sure felt like it. The line went all the way around the concourse, and was probably 45 minutes long.

I have never seen a longer line other than at Christmas or other potentially huge travel days.

We went outside to the curb-side check-in, and still waited at least half an hour, or maybe even 45 minutes (you kind of lose track of time when you're standing there bored out of your skull).

It was insane!

When we finally got through security (I got body-scanned for the first time!), we go up to our gate to check and see if there are available upgrades to 1st class.

Those of you who have flown Southwest before are probably saying right now "What? There is no 1st class on Southwest!" And you would be getting ahead of me, and I'd have to thwack you for it.

Yes, we find out that there is no 1st class on Southwest. Not only that, but there aren't assigned seats (I knew we didn't have a seat, but I foolishly thought that we would get that at check-in).

Hence, I go back to the very first thing I said in this post: check new things out online before doing them!

See, instead of assigned seats, you are assigned a boarding position, based on when you check in. The categories are A (1-60), B (1-60) and C (1-30). You board based on your letter and number, standing in line in order, and seating is a total free-for-all. Because of our check-in time, we were C25 and C26.

That sounds scary, doesn't it?

(Thanks to Arizona Republic)

The guy was very gracious, and could obviously tell that we were total newbies. He explained that you can check in online 24 hours ahead of time, and will get you an earlier boarding number. If you do the early-bird check-in, that can make it even better. He then marked my wife's ticket so that she could board between Groups A & B, and thus ensure that we would be able to sit together.

He didn't have to do that, so we really appreciate it.

The flight itself was pretty good. Southwest planes have great leg room, so that was a bonus (they'd better, since they don't offer a 1st class option). We were fairly comfortable and all went well.

So for the trip back, we knew we would be better prepared. But there was still something to reach out and bite us in the ass.

I paid attention to the early-bird check-in option this time. It says that it will assign your boarding position 36 hours ahead of time. While not ensuring an "A" category, you'll at least be in the low "B" categories.

Thirty-six hours ahead of our flight, I was stationed at the computer, waiting to pounce. I decided to see if I could pay for the early-bird check-in early, so that I would then just have to check in without having to go through the whole payment process.


At exactly 36 hours before our flight, I hit "check in" and got an error message, stating you can only check in 24 hours ahead of time.

What???? I paid my money!

I was flummoxed.

I called up Southwest quickly, because I didn't want to lose our position!

And that was the next kick in the balls.

You see, early-bird check-in can be purchased at any time, and your boarding category is based on when you purchase it. Thirty-six hours before the flight, the computer collects all the early-birds, sorts them by when they were purchased, and assigns boarding categories.

In other words, we could have bought this a week before we even left Seattle (much less Chicago, on our way back) and we would have been one of the first to board, most likely!

The email doesn't really hint at this procedure, though now that I know it, I can see it.


Anyway, we did get A41 and A42, so we were able to get our seats with no problem on the way home. Also, we did get our boarding passes online, so were able to go to the "check baggage only" line-up at Chicago Midway, which was quite civilized and quick. Even the check-in line wasn't *that* long, compared to what it was in Seattle.

We honestly felt like cattle being lined up and herded onto the plane (hence the title of this post). This process does avoid the usual "everybody gather around the boarding gate and then try to fight for better boarding position" process that most airlines have, when they just call "Group 5" to the gate. I do like that. It's organized.

But the open seating is just a nightmare. The cash-grab of early-bird check-in is atrocious (though I guess they have to make money some way, since they don't charge for your first two bags, another huge plus).

The seats aren't so comfortable that it wouldn't be nice to have the option of awesome seats in 1st class.

I put some of this down on me, for not doing due diligence (CHECK NEW THINGS OUT ONLINE FIRST!). But this is such a foreign concept of boarding and checking in that I wouldn't have even thought to look it up in the first place!

Now I know.

(Thanks to King Quagmire)

And knowing is half the battle.


  1. I have never flown Southwest and probably never will because I hate their policy of humiliating overweight people by making them buy an extra seat. I know someone who was pulled aside because she was identified as a COS (customer of size). They made her sit in a mock seat and put the armrests down to prove that she fit in the seat, even though she was only going to be sitting by her husband. Also, the whole cattle call boarding bullshit is enough of a turnoff to convince me to forego their marginally cheaper fares for more conventional boarding and seating policies.

  2. I had forgotten the "overweight" part. Which is yet another reason that not having a first class option is idiotic.

    Bigger seats can be a good thing!

  3. no ticket change fees make them the clear winner if your travel plans are fluid or could change.

  4. They have that? Have to admit that since it never came up, I didn't check that out.

    Good to know.

  5. yup if plans change you can just cancel your ticket and use the value later on (within 1 yr) without any additional penalties. that is why so many people fly southwest. once you know the nuances of their system, it is always a useful alternative.

  6. That is a pretty good bonus.

    See, people? It always pays to research things before doing them! :)

    Thanks for this, beef (and why aren't you following this blog? :P)


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