Saturday, June 25, 2011

Let's Head Southwest

Looking at my budget so far this year, transportation accounts for 32% of my spending!  And you have to take into consideration that I never drive so gas isn't even a factor in that spending.  Of course, it is understandable that as a college student across the country, flying should take up a considerable amount of my budget, but perhaps it is a large factor in many other demographics.

I'm going to spend this post talking about my favorite discount airline, Southwest.  An important thing to know is that they don't sell tickets anywhere but their website.  This means if you use travelocity, expedia, or some other flight booking website, you will miss out on Southwest tickets.  But before we get into the pricing, let's take a look at how Southwest differs from some other airlines.

I have flown on several airlines so far, including United and Continental (although these two have recently merged), Jet Blue, American Airlines, Delta, and Southwest.  Out of all these airlines, Southwest does have some unique features.

Southwest only offers domestic flights as far as I know, so if you are looking to go out of the U.S., you would have to get another airline.  Of course, considering how 80% of Americans don't own a passport (I just quickly google searched this statistic since I remember hearing it somewhere, but how accurate it is I'm not sure), this probably isn't that big a factor.  I think there may be rumors that Southwest may eventually go international, but I haven't come across any solid evidence of such a plan.

Bags fly free.  This has been a major advertising slogan for Southwest ever since airlines began charging ridiculous rates on second and even first bags.  You get two free check-in bags when you buy your plane ticket, so make sure that when you compare prices between airlines, you factor this into the cost.  There have been times when I've come across an airline with the same price as Southwest for a ticket and remember the very last minute that I have to pay $50 in baggage fees with the other airline.  So make sure you look up the cost for baggage before purchasing your ticket, unless of course you don't plan on taking any bags.

You pick where you sit when you get on the plane.  This may seem like a weird custom if you have never flown Southwest, but there is open seating.  So instead of booking a specific seat, you just sit wherever there is open space on the plane when you get on.  This is an interesting feature since the best seats go to those who check-in early or pay $10 for a special early-bird check-in where you get some minor benefits and get on the plane sooner instead of those who buy their tickets first.  I have never had a problem with free seating, although I travel alone most of the time so if you are going with a friend or two and want to sit together, getting on the plane late may result in each of you sitting in different rows.  Just keep this in mind when checking into your flight.

Southwest also has a great rewards program called Rapid Rewards.  Recently, they restructured it so that the points are based on the amount your spend for the flight which sucks for the flyers who always pick the cheapest ticket (aka me) but benefits those who get business class (who get to board first and may have some other benefits such as refundable tickets, etc.). They also recently removed the expiration date for points so you can steadily accumulate points for a free flight at your own pace which is always nice.

Finally, Southwest's price is almost always the lowest.  I would definitely always check with travelocity and expedia or some other flight booking site since there are some times when Southwest does have a more expensive ticket, but usually they are the cheapest.  The service is friendly (the flight attendants and pilots can actually be pretty witty) and I personally don't look for any luxurious experience when flying since most of what I do on planes is sleep (no matter the time of day too).  They also have a nice feature where even if you do get the cheapest ticket, if prices drop you can exchange your ticket for the exact same flight (given that there is still room) and get a credit for the difference.  I don't know if this is an accidental feature or that they offer it as a benefit, but it removes the risk of buying a ticket and then having prices drop and you start kicking yourself.  There is an expiration date for the credit, but I fly often enough to use it by then (I believe you have 6 months since buying the original ticket).  This also applies when changing flights to different dates or times.

Overall, prices have been steadily rising with airlines as the industry tries to gain a more stable footing.  Gas prices have recently been dropping but are still much higher than they were a decade ago, so it is important to cut costs where you can in your budgets, especially those areas that take up a large portion such as food and travel.  Hopefully, if you haven't heard of Southwest before or haven't tried it, you'll at least take a look and give it a chance.

P.S. This is just an interesting side-note that Southwest's ticker symbol on the stock market is LUV which doesn't use anything from its actual name like most companies.  I don't know the origin of this but it should be easy to look up.

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