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The Complete Guide to Flying Southwest With Kids

Trips With Tykes has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trips With Tykes and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. Opinions, reviews, analyses & recommendations are the author’s alone, and have not been reviewed, endorsed or approved by any of these entities.

With the Oakland Airport just 12 minutes from my front door, my family flies Southwest Airlines a lot. Southwest is often a favorite airline of flying families as well, and with good reason. Since it has different rules and practices than other airlines, however, it can sometimes trip up inexperienced flyers, especially travelers with kids. But don’t let that worry you — Southwest also has a a number of unique perks that are of great value for family travelers. You just need to know how to take advantage of all that the airline offers!

Flying Southwest with Kids - Southwest Planes at Airport

That’s what this post is all about. 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 perks and make your next trip on Southwest with kids a breeze.

Southwest Airlines with Kids -- Preschooler in Airport

What You Need to Know About Flying Southwest Airlines with Kids

1) Free checked bags will save you a bundle.

You’ve probably seen the ads: “Bags Fly Free.” Southwest is the last of the U.S. domestic airlines to still offer free checked bags – 2 bags per person 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 even when Southwest has slightly higher base fares than other airlines on similar routes, 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 not count towards your free bag allowance. Those items always fly free no matter what!

Tips for Flying Southwest Airlines with Kids

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 and even for domestic travel. If you have flown another airline with a lap baby, chances are pretty good you would not have been asked for proof of age unless the child looked to be nearing the age of 2. Not so with Southwest. Even if you obviously have a newborn who would never be mistaken for a toddler nearing the two year cutoff, pack that birth certificate! (And if you don’t have a birth certificate yet for your child, often hospital discharge papers or vaccination records from your child’s pediatrician can suffice. Call the airline in advance if you find yourself in this situation.)

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 what is called 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 or the Skycap counters at the airports pre-security — 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, even if you aren’t checking bags.

4) Family boarding will allow you to get seats together as a family.

Southwest Airlines Family Boarding

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. Passengers who board later in the process find that often only scattered middle seats are available.

This might seem like a sticky 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 no matter what their assigned boarding numbers. In my many dozens of flights with Southwest, I have always been able to secure three or four seats together for my family when we board during family boarding. I’ve been nearly separated from my kids far more often on the airlines that supposedly promise assigned seats.

5) There are other tricks for ensuring you sit together with older kids too.

If your children are older than 6 and you want to make sure you get seats together, there are options for sitting together as well.

First, there’s always the “fastest finger” option, which is totally free. Southwest’s boarding group numbers are assigned starting at exactly 24 hours before a flight. As long as you check in (using the Southwest website or Southwest app) at that very moment, you have an excellent chance of getting at least an early B group boarding pass. In my experience, this is certainly early enough for a family to find seats together. But you do have to be very fast – every second counts!

Flying Southwest with Kids - Family Boarding

My 5 year old at the line up poles for Southwest’s unique boarding process.

Let’s face it – busy parents don’t always remember to check in at exactly 24 hours in advance. My advice is to consider paying for “Early Bird check-in.” Price varies from $15-25 each way, depending on demand. 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.

But that’s not the only viable shortcut. If you hold the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card from Chase, you are also entitled to 4 priority boardings per year when available. This is a smart backup to have in a pinch for those times you forgot to check in at 24 hours and risked it without Early Bird.

6) Southwest has minimal food, so pack 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 meals and travel 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 pretzels (peanuts are no longer served due to allergies), but there is very little else in the way of food aboard shorter flights. Longer flights offer additional free packaged snacks. On some recent flights, for example, we were served had shortbread cookies, Oreos, and Ritz cheese crackers. Flight attendants let you help yourselves to as many of these packaged snacks as you’d like, but do not expect a sandwich or a hot meal for purchase like many other airlines have.

Southwest snacks aboard our last long flight (OAK to MDW).

Southwest snacks aboard our last long flight (OAK to MDW).

Now that Southwest has started flights to Hawaii, note that there are additional food options on these longer flights. See my review of a Southwest flight to Hawaii for all the details and photos.

7) Download Southwest’s app in advance of your trip to enjoy free kid-friendly movies.

Keeping kids entertained on planes is essential for a less stress flight for parents. While we try in my family to pack a few tech-free entertainment options for our kids, electronic devices area also a crucial part of our strategy for passing the time.

Southwest’s WiFi and in-flight entertainment options have really come a long way in the last few years. The airline pioneered $8 WiFi – cheaper than every other carrier – and has had live streaming TV channels for several years.

Southwest Airlines with Kids - Free movies

Enjoying free movies aboard Southwest Airlines!

And as of November 1, 2018, the offerings got even better. Southwest now offers free movies on all of its WiFi equipped planes (the vast majority of the fleet has WiFi). Messaging apps iMessage and WhatsApp are free too. Southwest always has a wide-variety of kid-friendly movies available, so chances are good you will find something new to keep your kids engaged. My kiddos were happy to spot recent animated hits like Ferdinand, Early Man, and Teen Titans when we flew during our Thanksgiving travels.

Flying Southwest with Kids - New Free Movies on Southwest WiFi

In order to access the movies on smartphones and tablets, however, you must have the Southwest app on your device. Be sure to download it before your trip, as you can’t do it in the air without paying for WiFi too.

8) 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).

9) 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 Southwest’s 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 (and for grandma and grandpa on multigenerational trips, senior fares are available too!)

10) Southwest’s Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program is the most flexible and usable for family travelers.

Have you ever collected airline miles for years only to find them next to impossible to redeem at a decent rate when you actually want to use them? Or have you had trouble finding enough award tickets for a family of four or more on a single flight? You’ll have no such problems with Southwest. Why? If there are seats available for purchase with cash, you can redeem your Southwest Rapid Rewards points for them. This anytime availability makes Southwest’s frequent flyer program the most practical and easy to use for traveling families in my experience.

So be sure to sign you and your kids up for Rapid Rewards accounts the very first time you plan to fly Southwest. It takes seconds. You’ll accrue miles you can actually use!

And be sure you are doing all you can to earn miles for your family’s next trip. Chase partners with Southwest to offer three different personal credit cards with big signup bonuses that can help add to your Rapid Rewards balance. Those include:

Be sure to read my guide to which Southwest credit card is right for you for all the details on these offers and the specific card choices. There are two business card choices as well if you are eligible for a business card (and it’s possible to have both a personal and business Southwest credit card as well, like I do!).

Southwest Airlines with Kids - Back Row of Seats with Southwest Heart

LUV those easy-to-use Rapid Rewards points.

11) Southwest has no change fees, which is great when a little one’s illness derails your trip.

Southwest is the only US domestic 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.

12) Southwest can even save your family money when fares drop.

Last but certainly not least is my favorite and most-used feature of traveling with Southwest. Not only can you change flights with no penalties with Southwest, but Southwest will also give you a credit back when a flight you already have booked drops in price. For families buying 3, 4, or more tickets, even small per ticket savings can really add up.

This isn’t automatic – you have to call or rebook your flight at a lower rate yourself. But if you watch for Southwest fare sales, you can often save your family some real money on future travel. Note that these credits must be used within a year of when you originally booked the flight, so don’t miss the expiration dates.

If you booked your flight with Rapid Rewards points, your miles will be fully refunded to your account with taxes and fees refunded in full to your credit card. For travel that you aren’t sure you will take, it’s often best to book with points for just this reason since you won’t have a 1 year credit expiration to worry about.

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!

Disclosure: I’m a paid Southwest Airlines #SouthwestStorytellers brand ambassador for 2018. I originally published this post back in 2014 before I had any relationship with the airline. As always, all opinions are my own.

Advertiser Disclosure: Trips With Tykes has partnered with CardRatings for our coverage of credit card products. Trips With Tykes and CardRatings may receive a commission from card issuers. 

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Flying Southwest Airlines with kids? Insider tips and tricks from a parent who has flown Southwest with family nearly 100 times. How to save money with Rapid Rewards, special rules for lap children, snacks, in-flight entertainment, and more. #SouthwestStorytellers #SouthwestHeart #AirTravel #FamilyTravel #FlyingWithKids

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