Never Pay Baggage Fees Again: Why Budget Travelers Love Southwest Airlines

southwest airlines
Aero Icarus under Creative Commons

Southwest Airlines fans know the routine: 24 hours before your scheduled departure, you make a mad dash for the computer to check in for your flight. That prompt check-in is key to getting a good seat on the discount airline, which doesn’t assign seats — it leaves it up to passengers to seat themselves on each and every flight.

The days of snagging a coveted “A” boarding pass are likely gone unless you’ve paid for early boarding or have amassed an approximate bajillion Rapid Rewards points. But there are still plenty of solid reasons to fly Southwest, both to save money and to get more for your travel dollars. If you aren’t already including this carrier in your airfare searches, you’ll want to change your ways.

Bigger Seats: Headed Your Way in 2016

New planes joining Southwest’s fleet will provide .7 more inches of seat cushion for weary travelers to rest on. Boeing 737 planes set for takeoff in mid-2016 will feature seats 17.8 inches wide. It may not seem like much extra space, but the new seats are more than a half-inch larger than those on most major airlines. It could be the difference between a comfortable flight and three hours of feeling the circulation to the lower half of your body slowly drain away.

In the 1980s, many major carriers offered seats between 19 and 20 inches wide. But rising fuel costs and a struggling air travel industry pushed airlines to pack more passengers onto every departing flight. In many cases, that meant reducing seat width or pitch in order to squeeze a few more rows of paying travelers onto a plane.

For Many, the Best Frequent Flyer Program users voted Southwest the best frequent flyer program this spring, favored by 32% of the more than 1,500 travelers who completed the poll. Delta came in second place, with a paltry 17% of the vote. “Southwest is a great value for domestic flyers, and their Companion Pass is one of the most valuable rewards available on the market,” The Points Guy Brian Kelly told Mashable in light of the poll results.

Southwest enacted changes to Rapid Rewards in April, and it took some time for Jason Steele, another writer at The Points Guy, to determine the true effects of the changes. Rather than charging the equivalent of 70 points per dollar for Southwest reward flights, the program now determines the points required based on where you fly, when you fly, and even variables like demand and the time of your flight.

So while before you could pretty much guess whether your points could get you on a free flight, now you’ll have to poke through Southwest’s itinerary to find the cheapest or otherwise most-feasible flight to use your rewards on. “Southwest still has plenty going for it … but the truth is that nobody knows what value to expect from Rapid Rewards anymore, which is not how a loyalty program should work,” Steele concluded.

But Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program is still one of the easiest ones to decipher: You earn a point for every dollar you spend on airfare, the airline offers unlimited rewards seats and your points don’t expire — ever. And Southwest doesn’t have annoying blackout dates for reward travel.

Want to earn points faster? The Southwest Airlines Visa card offers 50,000 bonus points if you spend $2,000 in your first three months, two points per dollar spent and 6,000 anniversary points.

No Change Fees, Free Bags and Other Perks

Even if you aren’t adding up your rewards points as we speak, Southwest has plenty of other perks that make it worth flying.

Southwest is the only major U.S. airline that doesn’t charge change fees. That means you can change your mind or your plans as many times as you like before stepping onto your flight. The one catch: Southwest, like many airlines, does have a no-show fee.

If you fail to notify the airline at least 10 minutes before your departure that you’re going to miss your flight, you’ll lose that ticket and any right to a credit to use on another flight. And missing your departure could even void your return flight. If you’re a frequent Southwest traveler, store its customer service line in your phone in case you change plans or are in a cab that likely won’t make it to the airport in time.

Another perk: Go ahead, pack that extra bag. “Lost so much in the complaining about rising fees is the fact that Southwest still allows travelers to check two bags under 50 lbs. for precisely no money,” David Landsel explained on a recent list of reasons to fly Southwest. “And if you are traveling with more than that, it’s kind of hard to feel sorry for you having to pay your share.”

OK, one last way Southwest saves you money: the booze. One very happy customer reports that free drink tickets are readily available, but if you need to pay up, it’s still worth it — drinks on Southwest cost just $5 each, compared to the $7 and up on most airlines.

Your Turn: Do you fly Southwest? What’s your favorite money-saving perk?

Lisa Rowan is a writer, editor, and podcaster living in Washington, D.C. She thinks free drink tickets on flights are better than Christmas.