When I lived in Austin during college, Southwest Airlines was my go to airline for quick weekend trips back home to Dallas. I knew the system well and was always one of the first to arrive at the airport to get a low number boarding pass (pre-checkin days!). Those college days have long since passed and since Southwest Airlines is not included on most airline search engine websites, it is often overlooked as an option and as such has dropped to the bottom of my most used airlines.
Somewhere in my mind I knew that Southwest had begun flying internationally, but I still never sought them out as an option. That is until my recent trip to Costa Rica. For years I have had Costa Rica on my wish list, but my searches for flights from LAX to San Jose (the capital) resulted in expensive, multi-stop flights. Since having a child, I try to avoid multi-stop flights as much as possible to reduce the headaches of missed flights or weather delays.
I took the plunge and tried out Southwest Airlines for our trip to Costa Rica. I have to say that I will now be on the lookout for their sale fares as well as keeping up with any new international destinations they add to their flight plans!
If you are new to Southwest Airlines, there are some things you should know in advance before booking one of their international (or domestic!) flights.
Where They Fly
- Cabo San Lucas/Los Cabos
- Grand Cayman Island
- Liberia, Costa Rica
- Mexico City
- Montego Bay
- Nassau, Bahamas
- Puerto Vallarta
- Punta Cana
- San Jose, Costa Rica
Even though Southwest Airlines flies to all of these destinations, some of these may require one or more connections depending on what your home airport is. From Los Angeles, direct flights go to Cancun, Cabo San Lucas and Puerto Vallarta and Liberia, Costa Rica. For Caribbean destinations, most direct flights originate from Florida.
Southwest Airlines has continued with the age old policy of first come first serve boarding. These days it’s done online, but the essence of the policy is the same. Upon checkin, you will be assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a number (1-60+). This combination will be displayed on your boarding pass and represents your reserved spot in line at the gate.
For departing from the US, the number policy is more strictly instituted with sign boards where passengers line up in order. Outside of the US, it may be less strict with a general announcement for boarding 1-30, 31-60, etc.
Once you board, you will then be free to choose your own seats. Since this can sometimes be difficult when traveling as a family, we recommend splurging on the Early-bird Checkin which costs $15 per person, per leg. I mainly recommend this for return flights, when you do not know if you will have internet access or be around the computer at the exact time to checkin. Otherwise there is a call for family boarding if you have children under 6. Family boarding goes after the A group has been called.
One of the great things about Southwest Airlines is their 2 bags fly free policy for all flights. This is a huge bonus for families who don’t want to deal with trying to cram everything into small carry-on bags. With this policy, it means less struggle inside the airplane searching for overhead bin space. During our flights, there was plenty of space which make it much easier to manage during boarding.
Food & Drinks
In flight amenities have reduced on flights throughout the world, however Southwest has always been a bit bare bones and continues that trend on their international flights. Complimentary coffee, juices, cold drinks and light snacks (peanuts, chips, cookies) are offered on all flights, however, Southwest Airlines does not serve sandwiches or meals on any of their flights. For longer flights, like ours to Costa Rica, it is recommended that you load up on snacks and even purchase a meal in the airport before boarding. This is definitely not ideal when traveling with small children, but knowing in advance does help you prepare in advance.
I was worried about this for our 5 hour flight to/from Costa Rica, both of which happened during meal times. We purchased a meal on both sides and my son was fully fed, actually eating what he wanted to eat rather than forcing down less than great airplane meals!
The entertainment system on SW flights is actually through your phone. In flight free WiFi is available on all flights, however it only works within the continental US. Unfortunately it is automatically shut off at the boarder, which means for flights from LAX, that means shortly after take off! In order to watch the movies, which are pay per view, you will need to download the Airtime Player app before boarding. During our flight we didn’t have any internet access, except right before landing, so I didn’t purchase any movies.
Most people on the plane seemed to arrive well prepared with their laptops or iPads loaded with things to watch. With Netflix’s new service allowing viewers to download certain TV shows or movies to watch while offline, I was also sorted for the duration of the flight.
This is one area that Southwest soars well above other airlines. Between the numerous calls I made to customer service to check on flight information and staff on the ground I was greeted with nothing but quick and courteous customer service representatives.
There was a last minute terminal change for our recent flight, which meant we had to exit and re-enter the airport. Since we had already purchased our food and drinks for the flight which was going to be confiscated at security, Southwest quickly sent information ahead to our new gate to issue us two $14 meal vouchers to make up for anything we had to dispose of. We ended up only having to throw out our drinks, so this more than covered what we had lost. Regardless of that part, I thought the quick response of the staff members to make sure that we had our food covered was above and beyond what any other airline would have done.
Even with the possible inconvenience of no assigned seats, we found that the great customer service made up for the worry of possibly not getting seats together (which we had no problem with). The airplane feels very family friendly and customer service oriented which goes a long way these days. I would not hesitate to fly with SW again on their international (or domestic) flights. The important piece is to plan ahead for meals and entertainment. If you do this, your flight will be hassle free.
If you are interested in checking out Southwest Airlines more, sign up for their Rapid Rewards Program (and emails about sales). Also consider getting a Southwest Airlines credit card that will allow you to accrue points very quickly. We met several people on our flights who were flying on their miles and with companion passes. If Southwest flies where you want to go, these are good options to think about.
Have you flown Southwest with your family? What are your thoughts?
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