The United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean. If these places are where you want to fly with your family, then Southwest Airlines should be one of the first places you look. Southwest is great for your family and one of the friendliest airlines you will fly.
Southwest Boarding Process
You may know Southwest as “that weird airline that doesn’t assign seats”. If you have never flown with them before, this can be a bit stressful. Once you understand the process, however, it is fairly easy to navigate. It is especially friendly if you are traveling with young kids.
Southwest boards in three groups (A, B, C), and has numbers 1-60 for each group. Numbers are assigned in order of check-in, with the first 15 reserved for those who pay for Business Select fares or have purchased those boarding positions. You can check in for flights starting 24 hours ahead of time, and the boarding numbers usually go pretty quickly starting right at the 24 hour mark.
If you want to make sure you have a lower number, you can purchase Early-Bird Check-In. Then you will be allowed to check in 36 hours ahead of the flight. In several years of flying with Southwest, we have never purchased this service and we have never had a problem sitting together on a flight.
When traveling with children, one of the most important details you need to plan for is sitting next to your kids on the plane. Especially if they are young, your kids may need assistance with any number of things during the flight. If they are anything like my kids, they may also need a few reminders to keep the volume down and be on their best behavior.
Southwest does a couple of things to make travel easier for families. First, if one person in your party has a higher boarding number, they will let your whole party board with that person. I am not sure if this is a listed benefit, so you may find a time when the gate agents won’t allow it, but we have never had a problem in our years of flying with them. Second, Southwest offers Family Boarding between the A and B groups, if you are traveling with children age 5 or younger. Boarding at this point means you will almost definitely find seats all together, although they may be in the back half of the plane.
Lap Children Can Get Seats
If you are traveling with a lap child, check with the gate agents before boarding to find out if it will be a full flight. If not, there is a good chance your child can have their own seat. When you board, head to the back of the plane and place your child or bag in the seat next to you. Most passengers will not choose to sit next to a small child, especially in the back of the plane, so the empty seat becomes yours. Remember, this only works if there are extra seats on the plane. You did not pay for this extra seat, so if someone asks to sit there, you need to give up the seat.
Free Checked Bags
When my family travels, we avoid checking bags like the plague. Traveling with only carry-ons saves us time when we land and makes it much easier to get ourselves and our luggage where we need to go at our destination. My boys are 10 and 13 though, and can easily carry their backpack-style carry-ons, filled with everything they need. Babies and toddlers typically can’t carry their own bags. In addition to this, if you have younger kids, you may also need to bring more items when you travel. Checking bags becomes a necessity.
Southwest airlines is one of the few airlines left in the world, and the only major airline in the US, that does not charge for checked bags. Other “full service” US based airlines are even going as far as selling fares that don’t include a carry-on. As other airlines pile on the charges, Southwest has maintained their free checked bags for every ticket that they sell. This can save you a lot of money when traveling with a family, and it really adds up over the course of a year with several flights.
No Change Fees
Another area where Southwest stands out is when you need to change or cancel a ticket. When you travel regularly with kids, there is a much greater likelihood that someone will get sick right before one of your trips. Or maybe you will book at trip a few months in advance and then find out that one of the kids has summer camp that same week.
If this happens and you need to change you flights, Southwest doesn’t make you pay extra to do so. In fact, any time you need to change or cancel a ticket, there is no fee to do so. If the fare is higher for the flights you are changing to, you will have to pay the difference, but there will not be any additional fee. All tickets booked with points, Business Select tickets, and Anytime tickets are fully refundable fares. Wanna Get Away fares are refundable, but instead of cash back, you get a travel credit that must be used within a year.
It is important to note that with the recent change in Southwest’s reservation systems, fully refundable fares (points bookings, Business Select, and Anytime fares) will become non-refundable when changed. If you need to change one of these fares, you are better off canceling the tickets and then booking the new flights. That way if something comes up and you need to change the new tickets, you will be able to do so.
Southwest Rapid Rewards Points
The Southwest frequent flyer program is called Rapid Rewards, and it is one of the easier frequent flyer programs to understand. There are no award charts or different zones to fly between. Instead, Rapid Rewards is a fixed value system. This means that you earn points based on the price of your ticket, and when you redeem points, the number of points required is also based on the price of the ticket. You can toggle between points and cash prices on their flight search pages, so it is fairly easy to see the relationship between the two. Although you will never get a tremendously high value out of Rapid Rewards points, for cheap tickets, the number of points required can be quite low. Southwest offers a couple of different credit cards through Chase if you want to build up your Rapid Rewards balances.
From the Southwest site:
Companion Pass is the benefit that lets you choose one person to fly free* with you every time you purchase or redeem points for a flight. To qualify, simply fly 100 qualifying one-way flights or earn 110,000 qualifying points in a calendar year, and you’ll earn Companion Pass for the following full calendar year, plus the remainder of the year in which you earned it. *Does not include taxes and fees from $5.60 one-way.
This is a great benefit for families, because each Companion Pass removes the cost of one of your tickets for all Southwest flights. If you have two people who can earn Companion Passes, then two other family members can fly for free. This can stack with free lap child fares to save you a ton. If you have two parents and three kids (7, 5, and 1), then having two Companion Passes and a lap child means that your family of 5 can fly anywhere on Southwest for the cost (cash or points) of just two tickets.
The Friendliest Place in the Sky
With these family friendly policies and a great staff on the ground and on their planes, Southwest is known by many to be the friendliest airline in the US. The flight crews regularly add humor into their announcements and safety briefings. The ground crews are happy to help with your kids and any gate check items (stroller, carseat) you might be traveling with. Even the pilots have been known to crack a joke or two as they give their updates from the flight deck.
Overall, Southwest is a great airline to fly with your family. I’ve tried to keep this summary fairly brief, so if you have questions about any of the topics I covered, leave them in the comments below and I will do my best to answer. In the meantime, I’ll be getting ready for my family’s next adventure on Southwest. In two weeks, we head up to Rhode Island to visit with friends from college. We have been doing this trip for several years, and we have now reached the point where the parents are outnumbered by the kids. Wish us luck!