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!
That’s what this post is all about. Don’t be unprepared for your next Southwest Airlines flight when you travel with your children. Whether you are flying with a lap child on Southwest, young kids in their own seats, or older tweens and teens, Southwest does things a bit differently. 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.
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 overall option many times.
If you do take advantage of the free bags, be aware that lap children do not get a baggage allowance. Also, checked strollers and car seats do not count towards your free bag allowance. Those items always fly free no matter what!
2) 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 like 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.
3) 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! Now that my younger child is over the age for family boarding, I set an alarm on my phone for 5 minutes before the 24 hour mark as an extra reminder.
Let’s face it – busy parents don’t always remember to check in at exactly 24 hours in advance, even if you do set an alarm. For longer flights when sitting together really matters, my advice is to consider paying for “Early Bird check-in.” The price varies from $15-25 each way, depending on demand. Paying for this option puts you in the front of the check in line. This means you will usually secure an A group or early B group boarding pass.
But that’s not the only viable shortcut. If you hold either the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business 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. See my guide to Southwest credit cards for all the details.
4) Birth certificates are required for ALL lap children.
Flying with a child under age two on your lap? Southwest is the only airline that requires you to show a birth certificate for your lap child.
This rule applies no matter what the age of your lap child and even for domestic flights. 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!
Related: Tips for Flying with a Lap Todder
What 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, because enforcement differs from airport to airport and agent to agent.
5) Plan for extra time to get boarding verification documents for lap children.
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 this boarding verification document at the ticket counter (or the Skycap curbside counters) at the airports pre-security. You cannot print or download 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.
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 – especially not in 2021 with many airport restaurants closed or overrun with demand. Packing meals and snacks is simply a must when you have kids.
It’s even more important though when you fly Southwest because of the airline’s limited food choices. Don’t expect a sandwich or a hot meal for purchase like many other airlines have. Southwest has only pre-packaged snacks.
The snack options in Southwest have changed a bit in recent years, particularly since the hiatus in flying that many travelers took in 2020 and early 2021. If you were used the pretzels of old, you won’t see them reliably anymore (and if you were planning for peanuts, those were discontinued awhile back due to allergies). The Nabisco snacks that used to be served on longer flights like shortbread cookies, Oreos, and Ritz cheese crackers also appear to be gone now.
In 2021, my family has mostly been served a Southwest branded snack mix (with pretzels, bagel chips, and cheese crackers) and sometimes also Brownie Brittle on most flights. Flight attendants usually let you help yourselves to as many of these packaged snacks as you’d like, but the snacks are not enough for most kids on anything but the shorter haul flights.
7) Southwest has ample kid-friendly entertainment (but you need to download Southwest’s app before flight!)
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 many years.
In 2018, Southwest expanded its entertainment offerings. Messaging apps iMessage and WhatsApp are now free, but what will make most families happiest are the free in-app movies. 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.
There is usually a wide-variety of recently released kid-friendly movies available mixed in among a few classics, so chances are good you will find something new to keep your kids engaged. In September 2021, for example, choices included the new Pixar film Luca, Despicable Me, Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Raya and the Last Dragon, Shrek, Soul, and more.
8) If there are extra seats on the plane, you can snag them for your lap child – for free.
Back to lap children for a second. Although I often purchased seats for my kids as babies and toddlers on other airlines, I didn’t as often on Southwest. Why? Because of Southwest’s unique seating policy!
Because Southwest has open seating, if there are open seats to be had anywhere on the plane, you can usually snag them for your lap child without paying for a ticket. 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. Alternatively, claim the seat by bringing your car seat on board to occupy the extra space. Of course, be sure to check with the gate agents to make sure there are sufficient empty seats to allow you to bring the seat on board first. They’ll give you the go ahead on flights that are not sold out.
9) Southwest’s unaccompanied minor program is one of the best (and least expensive).
Speaking of money saving tricks, Southwest has one more that families with older kids need to take note of. If your child is ready to fly as an unaccompanied minor, Southwest’s policies are some of the best.
Southwest charges only $50 each way, while many other airlines charge triple that! And Southwest only charges for 5-11 year olds. Kids who are 12 and up are free to travel without the service. Other airlines continue requiring it until kids turn 15, even if they don’t need it.
My daughter flew as an unaccompanied minor on Southwest for her one and only time so far. She was 10 years old and went down to Southern California for a weekend with her uncle. The gate agents and flight attendants took great care of her, and I was happy the service didn’t cost an arm and a leg for such a short trip. Now that she’s 12, I’m also happy I will no longer have to pay to use the service once I determine she’s ready for solo travel. Since we fly so much and she’s independent and savvy, I’d be totally ok with letting her fly on a similar Bay Area to SoCal flight without help.
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! Points on Southwest also never expire, so it’s not another date to track.
And be sure you are doing all you can to earn points 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.
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!).
11) Southwest’s no change fee policy affords flexibility to families.
For families, flexibility in travel is a huge benefit. With kids, things come up – from sickness to a school or extracurricular scheduling conflict.
For a long time, Southwest was the only US domestic airline that did not charge change fees when you had to cancel or change a booked trip. Other airlines have added this benefit in 2020 and 2021, but Southwest’s policy is still far more generous that the competition. (Related: Comparing Airline No Change Fee Policies: Which is the Best?)
So how does this work? If you need to cancel a trip, Southwest will hold the full value of your ticket for a full year from when you booked it as a credit. There’s no additional penalty or fee for this privilege.
If you need to change to a different flight, the same principles apply. If the new flight you book costs less money, you get the difference as a credit good for one year. It’s only of course if the new flight costs more that you have to pay the extra fare difference. But again, there are no extra fees involved in any of this.
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 online 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 the date 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 or for flights you think are likely to drop in price, it’s often best to book with points for just this reason since you won’t have a 1 year credit expiration to track and 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 was a paid Southwest Airlines #SouthwestStorytellers brand ambassador in 2018. I originally published this post back in 2014 before I had any relationship with the airline. As always, all opinions are my own.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article referenced discounted child fares. Southwest discontinued those fares on June 1, 2021.