I’ve shared often why my husband and I have made Southwest Airlines’s our family’s airline of choice the past decade. Kind and funny employees, a growing route map, and policies that work especially well for family travelers have helped earn our loyalty (even when the going gets rough like it did during the 2022 holiday season!). What I also love is that the airline doesn’t nickel and dime me for the amenities I like and need when I fly. I’ll take free, please.
If you’ve seen the ads, you might already know “bags fly free” on Southwest. But the reality is that the airline offers a lot of other free amenities and perks that will cost you on many other airlines. For families buying three, four, and more tickets, getting all those little extras for free can really add up to some major savings.
A few of these Southwest freebies aren’t necessarily well-known, so I thought I’d use this as a chance to educate other travelers about them. I want you to be able to take full advantage to save more money in your family’s travels!
If you aren’t familiar with flying aboard Southwest Airlines, be sure to check out my other top Southwest articles to get acquainted with the airline first:
- The Complete Guide to Flying Southwest with Kids
- How to Maximize Southwest Flight Sales
- Southwest Hawaii Flights
- Guide to Southwest Credit Cards: Which One is Right for You
Now on with the Southwest freebies!
7 Things that are Totally Free on Southwest Airlines
1. Checked Bags
As much as I try to carry on whenever I can, it’s impossible to do all of the time. I often need to check a bag on longer trips or trips to cold destinations (anyone who can pack for a ski trip in a carry on bag is officially a superstar). When my kids were babies and toddlers, checking a bag or two was simply a necessity. I didn’t have the hands free to carry on with strollers and car seats and the kids themselves.
The Southwest checked bag mantra is simple — “Bags Fly Free!” Southwest is now the only U.S. airline that does not charge for checked bags for domestic travel. All ticketed passengers get two free checked bags up to 50 pounds each on all domestic (and international!) flights. Southwest even allows skis and golf bags to fly free as part of this allowance, plus surfboards on intra-island Hawaii flights. I appreciate that I never have to stress with Southwest to check bags when I need to.
Just a few years ago, nearly all the major U.S. airlines actually increased their bag fees from $25 to $30 for the first checked bag on domestic flights. And some charge even more for second bag fees or simply if you don’t pre-pay for checked bags. So the Southwest savings differential has only gotten even bigger.
2. Carry On Bags
With the growth of low cost carriers both in the US and abroad, many more airlines are now charging for carry on bags as well. In the US, ultra-low cost airlines like Spirit, Allegiant, and Frontier charge a carry on fee that is often higher than their checked bag fee. This is all for the privilege of bringing anything larger than a purse or backpack aboard. Legacy airlines have jumped on this bandwagon, offering “basic economy” tickets, some of which don’t permit large carry ons either (like United’s basic economy fares).
There are no carry on bag fees, however, with Southwest. All passengers can bring up to a full size roller bag on board (up 24”L x 16”W x 10” H) as well as a personal item like a purse or small backpack. Parents with lap children even get an extra diaper bag allowance.
One other benefit to note of Southwest’s bag policies: because Southwest doesn’t charge for checked bags, more passengers check bags than otherwise might. That means the overhead bins on Southwest rarely fill like they do on other airlines. You can usually find a place to stow your carry ons aboard Southwest.
3. Changing or Canceling Your Flight Reservation
Pre-2020, all other US airlines except Southwest charged a hefty fee for changing flight reservations more than 24 hours after you’d booked a flight. This flight change fee was as high as $200 on most major U.S. airlines.
Thankfully a lot of airlines began eliminating many of these fees in the last few years – but not all of them. Legacy carriers like United, Delta, and American eliminated change and cancellation fees for many fares, but not for their basic economy tickets. Ultra low cost carriers like Allegiant, Frontier, and Spirit revised and reduced their change and cancellation rules but still mostly assess charges of some kind.
Southwest, however, still offers the very best change and cancellation policy of them all. It’s the only one that can really be called free across the board. Every single ticket the airline sells – from the most expensive business select fares to the cheapest advance purchase “Wanna Get Away” fares – can be changed or canceled for no fee. This is true on all domestic and international flights without exception. It’s also true for all award tickets booked with Southwest Rapid Rewards points.
Most other airlines that have eliminated many change and cancellation fees will now issue passengers a flight credit good for one year from the date of purchase of the original ticket. But a credit is no good to passengers who can’t actually use it in time!
Southwest, however, offers a flight credit that never ever expires. For infrequent flyers who maybe only fly once or twice a year, this difference is essential. Passengers are a lot less likely to lose their money to expiration (which is, let’s face it, a backdoor fee) on Southwest than on all other airlines.
One more related Southwest bonus – if the fare you booked has dropped in price, Southwest will actually give you the difference as a credit back for a future flight. Seriously! So watch for those Southwest flight sales and see if your already-booked trips have dropped in price for a chance to save.
Airlines radically downsized their food options in the last decade. And while a few have brought back a couple of complimentary snacks the last few years, most U.S. carriers now offer very little food in economy class on any of their flights for free. If you want anything more substantial, you’ll need to fork over some big bucks.
Southwest is a no frills airline so there are no $27 croissant breakfast sandwiches for purchase on their flights. But you get more to eat for free.
Southwest flight attendants are always super-generous with the airline’s free snack offerings. On shorter flights, a bag of snack mix with pretzels, bagel chips, and cheese crackers usually served. On longer routes, flight attendants usually offer both snack mix and Brownie Brittle snacks. And you really can take as many as you want. On Southwest’s Hawaii flights, there’s a more extensive complimentary snack box that is equivalent to what many airlines would charge $7-10 for.
5. In-Flight Entertainment: Movies, TV, & Messaging
In-flight entertainment on all airlines has been changing rapidly the last few years and for the better. But Southwest still offers much more of theirs free than is available on many other domestic airlines.
Southwest’s current system requires your own device (smartphone, tablet, laptop), but almost all of the entertainment content is entirely free. There are usually several dozen recently-released movie choices as well about many live streaming TV channels.
Southwest also added free iMessage and WhatsApp access so you can stay in touch even if you don’t purchase WiFi.
6. Award Tickets
You’ve worked hard for your miles, racking up many hours on planes and spending a lot on credit cards to earn them. So why do so many airlines want to charge you for the privilege of using them? Believe it or not, many airlines do just that.
Some airlines do it by charging hefty fuel surcharges on award tickets that can be hundreds of dollars. Others do it by charging fees, including fees for phone booking services or partner awards.
There are simply no hidden or tricky fees when redeeming your Rapid Rewards points on Southwest, even if you redeem them for same day travel. The only extra cost you’ll pay for an award ticket is mandated government fees. For US travel, this is $5.60 each way.
7. Seat Assignments
Seat assignments have become an increasingly contentious commodity on most US airlines. Many airlines, especially low cost carriers, charge for the privilege of having any assigned seat. Many others simply make nearly everything but middle seats “preferred” seats that travelers have to pay to book. For parents, it’s a complex game of chicken just trying to find seats together with their kids anywhere on the plane without paying mightily for the privilege.
Southwest solves the problem by simply not having assigned seats. Parents with young kids can almost always be assured of seats together because of the airline’s policy of allowing families with kids 6 and under to board between boarding groups A & B. Other travelers can get the seats of their choice by checking in for their flights right at 24 hours in advance and getting an early boarding number.
Southwest offers Early Bird Check-in ($15-25 each way) that you can pay for if you want to be first on the plane when you can access the best seat options. But it truly is optional. It’s entirely possibly to fly the airline regularly, never purchase Early Bird, and still get great seats — as I happen to do!
Honorable Mention: $8 WiFi
Although WiFi isn’t free on Southwest, I thought it deserved a mention. Why? It’s cheap on Southwest compared to the competition. Only JetBlue and Delta do it better at the moment (JetBlue is the only US airline to offer free WiFi to its passengers on all flights and Delta just began offering free WiFi on about 80% of its fleet).
Related: Tips for Flying JetBlue with Kids
Southwest is certainly next best, charging $8 per flight segment for WiFi service. Every other U.S. airline charges a hefty fee for their WiFi service — as much as $25 a day or more if you wait to buy on board your flight. Even the discounted pre-purchased passes can be much more expensive. Southwest is also in the process of upgrading to faster WiFi service in 2023 throughout its fleet so it’s only going to get better from here in the months to come.
One other bonus you shouldn’t forget? If you have the Southwest Priority Credit Card from Chase and use that card to purchase WiFi, you get a 20% discount. And if you have the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card (my favorite) you get up to 365 WiFi credits per year if you charge the cost to the card. (Learn about these cards and the differences in Southwest credit card offerings.)
Honorable Mention: Your Companion(!)
One final freebie – albeit one that you have to work to earn – is that you may be able to have a companion fly free with you aboard Southwest Airlines. This benefit can be available for up to two years on every Southwest flight you fly. Seriously!
The Southwest Companion Pass is one of the best perks in US domestic travel. Either my husband or I has had a Companion Pass most of the time for the better part of the last decade, saving us many thousands of dollars. It’s complicated to earn, but you can learn more about how I do it in my guide to the Southwest Companion Pass over on The Points Guy.
So What Fees Does Southwest Airlines Charge?
As great as it is to get things for free, the reality is that Southwest does charge fees for a few options and extras, some of which I’ve mentioned already. I very rarely pay for any of these fees, but here’s a quick summary of what those fees are so you can be prepared and decide whether any of them offer the right value proposition for your own travels.
- Early Bird Check-In: Southwest charges $15-25 per person each way for Early Bird Check-In, which automatically checks passengers in 36 hours before travel. Early Bird Check-In provides earlier boarding group positions which means you have a higher chance of securing your preferred seats or sitting with your companions.
- Upgraded Boarding: Southwest sells several upgraded boarding options, usually up to 24 hours before the flight online or also at the gate. These are usually A1-A15 boarding positions that went unsold to business select customers. Price varies from $30-$80 per flight segment.
- Alcoholic Beverages: Southwest charges $6-7 for alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, and liquor) on both domestic and international flights. That said, it’s pretty generous with sending free drink coupons to frequent flyers – I often have vouchers to share!
- Overweight/Oversize Bags or More Than Two Checked Bags: I’ve yet to ever bring more baggage that Southwest’s standard bag allowance of two 50 pound bags, but if you have larger/heavier or more bags than that, fees start at $75.
- WiFi: $8 per flight segment (note this is a change as of early 2023 – Southwest used to offer $8 WiFi for a full day even if you flew multiple segments.)
- Unaccompanied Minor Fee: Southwest charges a $50 per person fee each way for minors ages 5-11 flying without an accompanying adult. This is one of the lowest unaccompanied minor fees charged by US airlines. See my comparison guide for unaccompanied minor flights for details.
The Bottom Line
Many airlines can nickel and dime with you lots of extras that cost more. My family has chosen to fly Southwest because the money we save with the airline’s free offerings really adds up, even when tickets aren’t necessarily the cheapest up front. Always, always do the overall math before you book with any airline!
Disclosure: This post was originally published in 2018 when was a paid Southwest Airlines #SouthwestStorytellers brand ambassador. I have updated it multiple times more recently independent of that relationship. As always, all opinions are my own.