Megan and I are going to Spain this summer, traveling first class on British Airways. It’s shaping up to be a great vacation so far with nearly every flight we wanted — the right dates, the right routes, the right cabins, etc. Nothing’s worse than trying to use your miles and finding out that you have to settle for business class or travel mid-week.
But we do face one hiccup: Our return flight from London gets us in at Denver around 6:30 PM, and the schedule between Denver and Seattle has always been annoyingly sparse for my taste. We’ll just miss the 6-7 PM bank, and the pickings are slim after that. I was about to settle for two tickets on United, which would mean paying $402 (or 50,000 miles) for the privilege of sitting around in the airport and getting home after midnight.
Then I remembered this other airline I used to fly long ago. Southwest Airlines was my go-to in college, and a free ticket to Seattle was actually my first award redemption ever. I swore off Southwest not for bad service but just because I liked the value I saw in more conventional loyalty programs that would let me travel in a lie-flat seat to other countries …not just other counties.
In this case, I didn’t really care who I fly. I will be back in the U.S. already, two hours from home. My goal is to get back that night. And Southwest had an attractive offer. Almost half the price of United and an hour earlier. Denver is actually a fairly large hub for them.
You Can’t Book a Cheaper Ticket if You Don’t Know It Exists
The problem is that I complete forgot about Southwest. I actually have a problem opposite from what they’re trying to create from a marketing standpoint. Southwest does not publish its fares on the Global Distribution System (GDS) that travel agents and most websites use to compare prices. If you want to see what Southwest charges, you have to go to their site, and once you’re there you are much more likely to buy a ticket rather than continue comparison shopping.
A reputation for low prices, reinforced by a sales model that discourages comparison shopping, can feed on itself until you don’t consider anyone else. (I don’t actually think they’re consistently cheaper — I’ve seen them much higher, too — but that’s beside the point.) In my case, not being in the GDS means I’m used to not seeing them. I’m always looking at ITA Matrix or Hipmunk. Out of sight, out of mind.
To avoid forgetting about Southwest like I did, you could run two searches, or you could use another price comparison site called Skyscanner. I would prefer if some of the other sites included options like Southwest even if they weren’t collecting a commission on it. At least I’d be reminded to check.
There are lots of small airlines around the world (including Asia and Europe) that for whatever reason are not included in the GDS. If you can’t find the price or schedule you want, remember that you may need to look harder.
Why Southwest Is Great for Positioning Flights
Flights like my connection from Denver to Seattle are called “positioning flights” because I need to position myself to get between home and the actual airports served by my award ticket. They’re annoying but sometimes necessary. Willingness to fly to or from a different city makes it easier to find award space, and I was getting no luck on the non-stop from London to Seattle.
But availability can always change at the last minute. If you have elite status these changes may be free. Even if you have to pay for a change, it can mean a more convenient itinerary. The problem is that you may have hotels or other arrangements to book that don’t allow flexibility in your dates. You might change the flight, but you can’t afford to wait. You need to secure a backup.
That’s where Southwest is especially helpful. They are the ultimate backup airline when you’re not sure if you’ll actually need to fly them or not.
The cheapest “Wanna Get Away” fares can be cancelled up to 10 minutes before departure with no penalty, and you’ll get the full credit to use again on a future Southwest flight.
Award travel is just as flexible. I booked our tickets with points that I transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. ~13,000 points for two tickets is a much better deal than 50,000 miles for award seats on United (which didn’t have any saver-level award space, that day or the next).
More expensive “Anytime” fares are refundable to your credit card. If you don’t want to deal with credits, this makes it even easier to wait for better award space to open up on another carrier, though it does mean you pay more if you end up keeping it.
Several times in the last few years I’ve booked tickets on Southwest Airlines. I haven’t flown them for almost a decade, but I’ve booked tickets for family and friends when it was the best option — and saved my traditional airline miles for my own international travel. I’ve booked backup tickets for myself I hoped I’d never have to use. And even now that I probably will use these tickets, it’s not so bad. They’re generally a good airline. I just have to prepare myself for the transition from first class to Group C boarding.
But just in case, I will definitely check to see if Alaska increases their frequency this fall. 😉