*Updated November 2016*
With the Oakland airport just 12 minutes from my front door, my family flies Southwest a lot. Southwest is often a favorite of flying families as well, but as it has different rules and practices from other airlines, it can often trip up the inexperienced.
Don’t be unprepared for your next Southwest Airlines flight when you travel with your children. Here are all the details you need to know to make the most of Southwest’s policies and make your next trip on Southwest with kids a breeze.
1) Free checked bags will save you a bundle.
Southwest is one of the few airlines that still offers free checked bags – 2 bags up to 50 lbs each. This is a real benefit for families who travel, as it is often difficult to pack light with all the gear that little ones require. I find that Southwest sometimes has slightly higher base fares than other airlines on similar routes, but when you factor in bag fees, Southwest actually comes out as the cheaper option many times.
If you do take advantage of the free bags, be aware that lap children do not get a baggage allowance. Also, strollers and car seats do no count towards your free bag allowance. Those items always fly free.
2) Birth certificates are required for ALL lap children.
Southwest is the only airline that requires you to show a birth certificate for your lap child, no matter what his or her age. So even if you obviously have a newborn who would never be mistaken for a toddler nearing the two year cutoff, pack that birth certificate!
3) Boarding “verification documents” for lap children can only be obtained at the airport counter.
In order to board your Southwest flight with a lap child, you need to obtain a boarding verification document. This document is similar to a boarding pass and confirms that the child has been age verified by showing a birth certificate. You can only get it at the ticket counter at the airports — you cannot print it in advance like you can with other Southwest boarding passes. So, be sure to leave yourself extra time to check in at the ticket counter at the airport if you are traveling with a lap child.
4) Family boarding will allow you to get seats together as a family.
Southwest doesn’t have assigned seats unlike most other domestic carriers. Instead, it assigns boarding group numbers (A, B, & C, each numbered 1-60) to passengers, who are then free to take any open seat as they board. As you can probably guess, the good seats (exit rows, then aisles and windows) go fast, so that passengers who board later in the process find that often only scattered middle seats are available. This isn’t a good situation for families who usually want to secure three or more seats together.
But never fear! Southwest allows all families with children ages 6 and under to board between the A & B groups. In my dozens of flights with Southwest, I have always been able to secure three seats together for my family when we board during family boarding.
If your children are older than six and you want to make sure you get seats together, my advice is to consider paying for “early bird check-in” ($15 each way). Paying for this option puts you in the front of the line, and you will usually secure an A group (or early B group) boarding pass.
5) Southwest has very little food, so pack your carryon with lots of snacks.
There are a lot of things that will make your kids cranky when you fly, but don’t let hunger be one of the causes! Air travel is hectic, and I never rely on being able to have time to buy food at the airport. Packing snacks is simply a must when you have kids, and even more important when you fly Southwest because of its limited food choices.
On Southwest flights, flight attendants will liberally distribute the peanuts and (usually also) pretzels, but there is very little else in the way of food aboard. Longer flights offer additional free packaged snacks. Our last flight, for example, had shortbread cookies, Oreos, and Ritz Bits cheese crackers. But do not expect a sandwich or a hot meal for purchase like many other airlines have. As a result, you really need to overpack snacks and meals when traveling with small children.
6) If there are extra seats on the plane, you can snag them for your lap child — for free.
Because Southwest has open seating, if there are open seats to be had, you can usually snag them for your lap child. Very few people will choose to sit next to you when you have a baby in full view! You can improve your chances of securing that empty seat by choosing seats at the very back of the plane or also by simply bringing your car seat on board to claim the space (be sure to check with the gate agent to make sure there are sufficient empty seats to allow you to bring the seat on board first).
7) Southwest’s child fares may save you some money over full fares.
Very few domestic airlines offer child discounts these days, but Southwest is one of the few that still offers children’s fares. These fares are usually only a discount off the full fare/last minute prices, so you will almost always beat them if you are booking the discounted “Wanna Get Away” fares with plenty of advance notice. But if you have to travel Southwest with your child very last minute, be sure to check for child fares.
8) Southwest has no change fees, which is great when a little one’s illness derails your trip.
Southwest is the only major US airline that does not charge change fees when you have to cancel or change a booked trip (only the fare difference is charged). This is a great benefit to anyone who has to change plans unexpectedly, but I find it gives me even more peace of mind when it comes to traveling with kids. After all, kids often get sick more often than adults and having the flexibility to deal with those situations without suffering a huge financial penalty is quite a benefit.
Be sure to check out Southwest’s Travel with Children section on its website for the latest information. And please share your tips for flying Southwest with family in the comments!