I don’t fly Southwest Airlines very often.  By that, I mean that I fly them 2 to 3 times a year, sometimes a little more.  It’s not that I dislike Southwest, I certainly don’t, it’s just that between my work (which has no contracts with Southwest) and personal travel (which I tend to use to pad my elite qualifying status) I just simply don’t have that many occasions to use Southwest.  I suspect if they were ever to see fit to add Washington National (DCA) to their route map, I might fly them more often, but until then, I will likely not fly them enough to become an “A Lister.”

In any event, I did fly Southwest down to Tampa this weekend, and I thought I’d share the details with you.  I don’t offer my experience as any kind of evidence of anything other than the fact that I had an uneventful and pleasant trip.  I’ve had 2 Rapid Rewards tickets sitting around for sometime now, and I thought this to be an ideal opportunity to use them.  I booked the flights, BWI-TPA-BWI a few months ago with a Friday, January 8 departure, and Monday, January 11 return.  Standard Rapid Rewards inventory was widely available when I booked, and I had no problem securing the seats.

About a week before the trip, I received an email reminder from Southwest of my upcoming trip.  That reminder included a bit of advertising, including an offer to try Southwest’s new Early Bird Check-in (EBCI).  If you buy EBCI, Southwest will basically check you in at 36 hours prior to departure, giving you early access to a better boarding group number in theory.  I was curious to try the product, so I bit.  The cost is $10 dollars each way, so a total of $20 dollars for the flight down to Tampa for Mrs MJonTravel and I.  I only bought EBCI for the flight to Tampa since I just wanted to try it out.  More on how it worked out in a minute.

As luck would have it, Mrs MJonTravel had a work conflict come up that caused us to need to return on Sunday instead of Monday.  I thought to myself “fabulous…I’m sure there won’t be any Rapid Rewards seats left.”  I grudgingly went to Southwest.com, and much to my surprise, all but one return flight on Sunday had Rapid Rewards availability, standard availability at that!  Southwest.com is just one area where Southwest really sets itself apart.  I changed our return reservations myself online, and I promise you, it took less than 5 minutes!  It was so easy.  Kudos to Southwest for making it that way.  No change fees, add collects, or drama.  Yay!  Better yet, had these have been purchased tickets, I could’ve changed our return with no $150 dollar change fees, only paying the difference in fare if there were any.

After changing our flights, it was time to print our boarding passes.  There was no need to rush to the nearest computer at exactly the 24 hour mark since I had purchased EBCI.  Southwest had done the work for me.  I’m sure glad they did, because even with EBCI, our boarding positions were A43 and A44.  Better than C, but not that great, especially considering that we got almost the same boarding positions on the return without paying extra for it.  In their defense, it was a busy Friday night, and our flight was packed.  Furthermore, EBCI is first come, first served and I didn’t buy it until a few days before our flight.  But it still makes me wonder if Southwest might not need to consider a limit on the number of EBCI slots made available?  I think that’s something they may need to think about.

I won’t bother with reviews of my flights.  They were fine.  The inflight staff to/from Tampa were polite, pleasant and friendly, just like you’d expect from Southwest.  We did not check luggage for this trip, and since we had checked in online, we did not interact with ticket counter staff.

Rapid Rewards – Southwest’s Frequent Flyer Program

Rapid Rewards is a fairly straightforward frequent flyer program.  If you are a purely domestic flyer, don’t care about using miles to travel internationally, and live near an airport that Southwest serves, Rapid Rewards is an extremely attractive program.  Fly 8 roundtrips (1 Rapid Rewards credit per flight), you get a Standard Award (16 credits) deposited into your account, no muss, no fuss.  Add the Rapid Rewards Visa to your wallet, use any of their partners, and add credits to you account at a “Rapid” clip.

I was mildly amused when waiting for our flight to Tampa on Friday.  A passenger whom I overheard saying she flew the same flight almost weekly was blathering about how she could never use Rapid Rewards tickets anymore unless she used a Freedom Award (2 standard awards for last seat availability).  I didn’t have the heart to tell her that I was traveling on a standard award (and so was Mrs MJonTravel).  🙂  So, those tickets are available.  In fact, a bit of poking around the Southwest website with some test bookings seems to indicate to me that award availability is pretty good.  I’m sure it varies from market to market and time of year, but I didn’t see anything that indicates to me that there is any kind of real difficulty in finding standard award seats on Southwest if you’re the least bit flexible.

The Bottom Line

Southwest works for a great many people, including myself.  Southwest’s great people, simple product, and reasonable policies for changing your travel plans cannot be beat.  While American and AAdvantage will continue to be my primary airline and frequent flyer program for the foreseeable future, Southwest is a compelling option for many, especially if extensive international travel isn’t on your agenda.