Trip Report: Southwest Airlines from Tampa to Birmingham

Admittedly I usually only write about my more “glamorous” travels, be it Qantas A380 first class, or even Virgin Atlantic Upper Class. This trip report is the opposite extreme — coach on a no-frills airline between two exceedingly mediocre cities.

I needed to be in Birmingham the Monday after Thanksgiving, and didn’t end up booking my ticket until two days before departure.

Not surprisingly the walk up fares were outrageous on most airlines, except Southwest. There’s one common misconception about Southwest — people think they have lower fares than the legacies. That’s definitely not true, except for walk-up fares. The maximum fares they’ll charge are much lower than those of the competition, and that’s consistently the case. But up until then you have as good of a chance at finding a cheap fare on American as you do on Southwest.

I ended up purchasing a Business Select ticket for $266 one-way, which, while not cheap, was five times cheaper than anything the competition offered. Business Select tickets come with priority boarding and security lines (and a free alcoholic beverage, though I don’t drink), which was enough for me, given that the cheapest non-Business Select fare was $240.

I checked in about 22 hours before departure (because I was trapped at the dungeon known as Ikea 24 hours before departure… don’t ask) and got a boarding pass for A3 (boarding group “A,” position “3”).

I got to the airport about two hours before departure. That’s not because I actually thought I needed to arrive that early, but because I had to stop at Ikea on the way to the airport. And if you’ve ever been to Ikea, you know there’s no such thing as a “stop” at Ikea. Fortunately it was my quickest trip to Ikea ever, meaning I was in and out in about two hours, which is a personal record.

Security lines were shockingly short given that it was the Monday after Thanksgiving, so the priority security line only saved me a few minutes. The TSA was friendly, and my private massage was especially firm this week, just the way I like it.

I had never actually been in the Southwest terminal in Tampa, which is stunning, definitely the nicest terminal in Tampa. Unfortunately I quickly noticed that my flight was the only one delayed by more than a few minutes.

Knowing I wouldn’t get a pre-departure beverage aboard I stopped by Starbucks.

The gate agent announced our flight would be getting to the gate at 6:20PM and that we were expecting a 6:40PM departure. This is where you’ve gotta love Southwest — the famous 20 minute turn. Any other airline will take at least 45 minutes to turn a plane, while Southwest can do it in nearly half that time.

Sure enough when the plane arrived it took passengers about 5-10 minutes to deplane, and then a minute later boarding began. I was in the first boarding group because of my Business Select fare, and was the fourth person to board.

As someone that’s used to assigned seating, the open seating thing really threw me off. My strategy was to sit in the aisle seat in one of the first few rows, though oddly they were already all taken. I guess Southwest lets those passengers on a “direct” flight stay aboard for the connection, so they snagged up the best seats.

At that point my strategy was thrown off so I headed back to the exit row in hopes of snagging one of those seats. Unfortunately little did I know Southwest has some odd exit rows on their plane, since they’re different on both sides of the aircraft (see seatmap here). So by the time I decided on seat 12D and realized the seat wasn’t in an exit row, all the other good seats were taken (the guy in front of me snagged 12F, which doesn’t have a seat in front of it). So I chose a standard seat half way back on the plane. FML.

The flight was packed so I figured the boarding process would be hellish as people try to figure out where to sit, especially when it comes to families. But shockingly enough, boarding was not only civilized, but faster than I’ve seen on any other airline. Because the seats are all first come first serve, people are motivated to move fast and choose a seat before all the good ones are gone. Kind of brilliant, kind of really stressful. But it does help with making those 20 minute turns happen.

The other stressful part of boarding is trying to do everything in your power to ensure you have an empty middle seat. There was someone in the window seat and I was in the aisle, so I avoided eye contact with those walking down the aisle at all costs. I even faked sleeping in hopes of them not disturbing me to claim the middle seat. It worked till the end of boarding, when a guy took the center seat.

The flight itself was uneventful. The flight attendants was polite though far from overly-friendly. They certainly weren’t going to do the Southwest Shuffle (you may find portions of this video to be disturbing… you’ve been warned!):

One of the things I’ve always noticed from a distance is how fast Southwest planes taxi. Legacy pilots seem to taxi as if they’re trying to lose a race to a snail, while Southwest pilots taxi fast enough to get a speeding ticket on the Autobahn. At one point I was fairly certain we were going to take off on the taxiway. Hey, I guess if that’s what it takes to keep the flight on schedule…

During his post takeoff announcement the flight attendant mentioned the buttons for the reading lights in the panel overhead. He then mentioned the call buttons next to them, and indicated they were broken on today’s flight. Funny enough, this was probably a reverse Southwest joke. I laughed while the rest of the plane didn’t, since I assume they don’t fly often enough to know that doesn’t really happen and he was joking. So I guess they thought he was being serious. Or maybe he was being serious?

Southwest’s cabin service is super-efficient. There are no drink carts, which is great, since instead they take all drink orders shortly after takeoff and then distribute the drinks after that on trays. That’s awesome given that the aisle isn’t blocked, making for easy lav access.

After the drink service was complete (maybe 20 minutes before landing) the flight attendants distributed bags of nuts. Gotta love Southwest for still having good ‘ol nuts (though they weren’t warm). 😉

We landed just a few minutes behind schedule, and I saw another way that Southwest achieves those 20 minute turns. While there was one flight attendant saying bye to passengers at the door, the other was already cleaning the cabin and folding seatbelts for the next flight. That’s how you make a 20 minute turn happen.

And unfortunately I found myself in chilly Birmingham upon landing… cruel, cruel weather.

On the whole Southwest was exactly what I expected. They’re incredibly efficient, and it comes down to teamwork of all the employees. The flight attendants were no different than the average crew found on a legacy airline, though I’m sure Southwest has better crews as well.

Of course the lack of a first class and “real” frequent flyer program that will earn me international first class tickets are what will prevent me from flying Southwest in the future, at least with any frequency. Still, I certainly wouldn’t mind flying them again if their schedule was convenient. They’re nothing to actively avoid.

And if anyone (that doesn’t know) can guess what I was in Birmingham for, you score bonus points…

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Comments

  1. You were “positioning” yourself for that new Birmingham-Dubai flight in the Emirates A380 First Class Suite.

  2. You survived! Ha ha, I actually really appreciate your report to help show that Southwest really is nothing to avoid. It isn’t fancy, but it isn’t bad. In fact, in some ways it really does have its advantages (as long as you don’t mind economy). 😉

  3. “But up until then you have as good of a chance at finding a cheap fare on American as you do on Southwest.”

    That really depends where you are. Out of Baltimore, WN is cheaper than AA 99% of the time. Maybe in Tampa it’s different, but not in my neck of the woods.

    Thank you for your non-condescending TR though.

  4. I’ve been really looking forward to this trip report for some reason. AA is the carrier that I am elite with but I found myself rooting for you to love Southwest. I fly them frequently for business and don’t necessarily love them, I feel like part of the team in an odd way. A couple of additional points:

    -On the 30 minute hop from DAL to AUS they actually take the drink orders before takeoff.

    -Some flights they offer both Honey Peanuts AND Pretzels.

    -The flight attendants are friendly but also extremely focused on efficiency.

    -The Companion Pass is one of the best deals around right now for couples or families. It can be attained for almost 2 years for only 2 credit cards and a few more points. My wife and I both did it and now we will be able to take many quick domestic weekend trips and bring our 2 kids for free. To put this in perspective, we can get 36 roundtrips (9 for the whole family) from DAL to Disney World using the points we received on the 4 credit cards (2 for me, 2 for the wife) needed to achieve the companion pass.

  5. “Not surprisingly the walk up fares were outrageous on most airlines, except Southwest.” I think this depends on the route and other factors. This summer I had to fly from ORD-SAN on short notice and AA and UA were much less expensive than WN (MDW-SAN). I have noticed similar patterns from the Chicago area to the Boston area.

  6. I like first-class cabins as much as the next guy, but there really are a lot of things that Southwest really gets right. I’m glad that you painted a pretty accurate picture of the typical Southwest experience.

    As for their fares, Southwest’s prices have surely risen over time, but for a non-elite traveling on, say, Delta or USAirways (who tend to have the cheapest fares from Florida), if you are checking two bags (not me, but someone may!), they will save you money there, and many of their flights are either direct or non-stop. If you were to fly to Birmingham on Delta, it would require a connection in Atlanta. That time may be worth more to you than the few extra bucks on Southwest’s fare for a non-stop.

  7. @Lucky: EK jokes aside, I think that some of your readers are right about about the “walkup” fares issue. I did a quick check on ExpertFlyer for one-way fares on that Monday (11/28) and actually the lowest fares with no advance purchase requirements are (were) on UA and US ($148) whereas the lowest WN fare was $240 (the one you saw). I think that it is just a case of those fare buckets were full. Probably because for many fliers WN is an airline of last resort (no offense — I have nothing against WN per-se — but I know more people who would rather fly a legacy carrier than those who would rather fly a low-cost carrier, when possible).

  8. Plus, in addition to my “last resort” comment above, it’s obvious that cheaper buckets fill up before the more expensive ones…

  9. Thank you for posting that photo of a Starbucks cup.

    Didn’t know what one looked like.

    Knock that off my bucket list!

  10. I like bonus points. Here’s a guess — are you going to be a luxury travel consultant? Google tells me there’s such an agency in Birmingham, and maybe it’s connected to your trip to India?

  11. Most WN flights are through flights making half a dozen stops as the move about the country. Of course the through passengers have to stay on board, how else could WN manage the 20 minute turns. And there’s nothing to prevent them from improving their seats during the stop, so the good seats will always be taken unless you are boarding at the initial departure of the flight.

    It is stressful to get a good seat – and you didn’t despite paying a premium price.

    It also seems like WN is more delay prone because they don’t have as much slack in their schedule as other carriers. Most of the delays are modest, but it isn’t unusual to see a flight 2 hours behind schedule. That seems to be more rare among the legacies unless there is a mechanical or weather issue, where on WN as the day rolls on a plane can get quite late and stay late.

    I prefer assigned seating and a better mileage program – and as you say, usually you can find the same fare on legacies. And WN’s no-change-fee doesn’t help with any same day flight changes. Unlike other airlines that let you switch to another flight the same day, WN will make you pay the difference between their walk-up fare and what you paid, making a same day change very expensive. Now if you need to cancel or change the date, then WN’s progam is pretty generous – though AS is even better if you are MVP Gold – free same day changes and no change fees.

  12. I used to fly WN all the time between SNA and SJC. I switched as soon as I moved to SEA. Yes, they’re quick, but it is stressful. And I don’t care for boarding positions. Back when it was just ABC, it was much more tolerable.

  13. While I enjoy premium class as much as the next guy, I still choose Southwest regularly. I respect the little things they do differently to improve efficiency, some of which you noted in your post. The FAs also come by every 30 seconds to clear garbage during the flight, which helps make the post-flight quick cleaning and quick turns possible. I like this because I don’t have to hang on to empty cups and food garbage longer than necessary. I also love that it’s easy to cancel a WN ticket online and I automatically get a credit towards future flights. I despise the change/cancellation fees that other airlines impose. It seems like smart policy because when I’m hemming and hawing over whether to book a flight, I remember the WN refund policy and that puts me over the edge.

  14. Hope you enjoyed Birmingham (but no bonus points for me) 🙂

    I share your feelings on Southwest – they’re fine for short flights, which this one was. My strategy for an empty middle seat, after ascertaining that the cabin is not booked 100% full, is to sit in an aisle seat in the next-to-last row. Then, avoid eye contact (as you did). Holding a barf bag can be helpful in extreme situations.

  15. Coming right after your Germany splurge, this whole trip report is hilarious! And, surprisingly, quite useful. Southwest has carved out a very reliable niche for itself.

  16. Nice post. A couple of thoughts. First, having flown WN frequently for a period of time , I really like flying WN for domestic coach, particularly in terms of consistency. Once you learn their system, from arriving at the airport, to boarding, to the aircraft, you know the system and can rely on it every time you fly. The high degree of consistency can take a lot of stress out of flying. Also, another thing I really like about Southwest is that at 6’3″, WN has reasonable seat pitch. Finally, in terms of the seating game, it is not so stressful once you know the system and make sure to get a decent boarding number.

    Second, I think you make a good point about walkup fare issue. The difference between Southwest of today and Southwest of old, is that it no longer has reliably lower fares compared to other majors (certainly you can find deals on some routes or at some airports). However, as you point out, Southwest is still a bargain for the walkup fare, and that fare is fully refundable to boot.

    While I currently don’t have much reason to fly Southwest, I always keep it in mind, particularly when it comes to a last minute flight.

  17. This post is kind of absurd.

    ONE. As a travel blogger, you should know that buying a ticket two days before flight never makes sense.

    TWO. Why pay $26 extra for essentially nothing? Why throw money anyway?

    The stingy in me is very sad.

    a

  18. I like the insight on WN flight as I’ve never flown with them before. I really don’t like their general boarding policy. You paid for a business select ticket with priority boarding yet you had people on the plane already. Could those peeps already on the plane change seats while deplaning?

  19. I have been anxiously awaiting your trip post on this since you posted about the flight on twitter! I am a frequent flyer of WN since they are the only airline that flies non-stop from my home airport SJC, to ONT.
    Your trip report is really accurate, but I am bummed for you that you did not get one of the singing FA’s, or the stand up comic FA’s! I find that more than not, the FA’s are much more humorous on WN than any other airline.

  20. Thanks for the wonderful TR Lucky! I was hoping you’d enjoy your experience on Southwest. Two of my relatives are Southwest pilots and I fly them frequently as they’ve always been the first choice for my family. I love first class like the next guy, but there’s something to be said for pure efficiency at it’s finest. Thanks again.

  21. My guess on why you are in Birmingham:
    -You are going to become a travel agent
    (kinda funny btw, I was down there just before the Chicago Do Seminar–even stayed in the Colonnade close to where you are)

  22. My strategy on Southwest for trying my damnedest to avoid anyone in the middle seat next to me is to get on the plane, head towards the back, find an empty row, and then sit down IN the middle seat.

    That’s enough to make most people avoid you, since most people don’t actively choose to sit next to someone if they have a choice. After a while, the flight starts to fill up, and someone finally decides to sit in your row (since I’m the only person still in the row), and at that point, I move over to the window seat, and they take the aisle (I love window seats…what’s the point of flying if you can’t look out the window?).

    But again at this point, you’re often the last row to get an additional person, so unless the flight is really really full, this usually works for me to ensure a free middle, since I don’t actually move out of the middle seat until very late in the game.

  23. Sorry folks, I should have clarified. I meant last minute FULL FARE walk-up fares, where Southwest is much lower. The highest price Southwest will charge is much lower than the highest price a legacy will charge.

    @ Stvr — Due to circumstances outside of my control I had to book two days before departure. Also, I value premium security lines, being first aboard, and having a refundable ticket at $26. Surely I’m not alone.

  24. Those of us in smaller markets like LBB appreciate that WN’s point-to-point model makes for mainline direct flights to more places like ABQ, AUS and LAS as well as to the expected DAL. WN is the only airline that serves big planes to LBB; AA and CO are both ATR’s or ERJ’s. I have never minded WN’s seating policy, and I appreciate it as a model of efficiency.

    I never noticed the faster taxiing, but now that you mention it, I think that I have noticed it subconsciously but never really thought about it. Sometimes it is a little bit scary when the plane has landed and the pilots turn off into an angled taxi ramp and it seems like you’re still going too fast.

    @mike choi, #24: Yes, passengers on a through flight have the chance to change seats when other passengers deplane. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, your chances of getting a great seat when you board the plane are diminished. On the other hand, if you are on a through flight, you don’t have to sit in the same seat the whole time, so if you get stuck in a middle seat for the first segment then you can definitely improve your seat when others leave. So you will only have 1 or 2 hours in a bad seat instead of 4 or 5.

  25. Also, I think the FA was probably joking about the call button being broken. I think I have heard that one before, and the FA got a good laugh out of it. I think it helped that it was not the only joke in her pre-takeoff spiel, so the “audience” was already primed for humor.

  26. Lucky – any additional recommendations for long haul flying on WN? (I’m flying them SFO-New Orleans next week – couldn’t resist a price that was $200+ cheaper than the legacies. I agree that normally the legacies match WN fares, but not in the SFO-MSY market.)

  27. Southwest pilots are fearless. Once at BDL, on Southwest, we were in line to take off with a thunderstorm rolling into the field. A US Airways flight was in front of us and pulled onto the runway as lightning was striking towards the end of the runway. After a couple minutes, the US jet pulls off the runway and gets back in line. Our plane pulls onto the runway, fires up the engines, and we take off right into the heart of the thunderstorm without stopping, lightning firing around us. I think I could hear the pilots yelling “CHICKEN!” at the US pilots…

  28. Ben–I have another guess of why you are there–you are there for a Lufthansa worker conference, considering the Lufthansa Christmas ornament you put up on the tweeter. Gonna work as a Lufthansa rep?

  29. I was laughing reading this! I fly WN a couple of times a week up and down California.

    I had this guy, and many other awesome flight attendants on WN: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnOxvbGOTbM

    My favorite pun – “All seats arrive into Sacramento at the same time, so please take the next available seat!”

    I am glad you (kinda) liked WN! But, it hurts me to see that you have no RR number on the boarding pass – hope you got points for this flight, as at $266 x 12 points, you would get 3,192 points, or $53 in Wanna Get Away fares you could give to a relative 😉

  30. My only flights on Southwest were also my only flights through Tampa: BWI–TPA–FLL (same plane) and back the same way. Of course people improved their seating during the stop. On the return the stop was longish (perhaps 40 minutes) and we were able to change seats, get out, and reboard before the passengers originating in Tampa (so we kept our improved seats). This was many years ago with the old A-B-C-D boarding process. On the outbound they had a mechanical at BWI and decided to deplane, but since boarding passes had already been collected, they kindly asked everyone to remember their seats and return to them when getting back on. This request was thoroughly ignored, and reboarding turned out to be a mad rush with no order whatsoever.

  31. I love the WN jokes. And you’re right that when people aren’t searching 10E when they hit row 37, things go a little faster.

    Being based out of SFO, I do like how VX and (and WN’s point-to-point model combined with cheap gate space at OAK and SJC) put pressure on the legacies, especially for decent-sized markets like SEA, LAS, LAX/SNA etc, DEN, ORD/MDW. It makes it much easier to plan last minute weekend vacations, like Vancouver/Whistler in two weeks. ($128 roundtrip flying into SEA)

    It will be interesting to see what happens when WN’s fuel hedges start to expire.

    Also congrats on the new job!

  32. Were you in Birmingham visiting/interviewing with Brownell Travel??

    Do I still get the bonus points? 😉

  33. Ben, glad you finally gave SW a try. I usually fly them in CA, and to TX & AZ. It may not be your cup of tea but I love the efficiency of the SW service. When I started flying United I was stunned at how every aspect of that flight was drawn out from boarding to takeoff, the in-flight service and de-planing. As a business traveler, I like SW’s prices, flight availability and efficiency. Now at least you know why so many flock to SW. Kudos to you for going out on a limb to try something different!

  34. Wait a minute, if you bought a Business Select tix, weren’t you checked in at T-36? That’s one of the beauties of BS and being A list. The system checks you in early so you don’t have to worry about it.

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