Southwest Doesn't Fool Around
Either Southwest Airlines had better deals for my favorite route than its competitors or its superior Web site tools made it easier for me to ferret them out. Either way, kudos to Southwest. In the not-so-hot department were the airline's long list of what passengers weren't allowed to do and its very short list of what Southwest was obliged to do for them. Left me feeling a little chilly.
This week, I headed southwest as I continued making the rounds of travel-planning Web sites for the E-Commerce Times.
My first impression of Southwest Airlines' Web site was that its online presence faithfully reflected its corporate persona: It looked to be a roll-up-your sleeves, no nonsense outfit.
The top half of the page was devoted to promoting a new destination for the airline -- Milwaukee. Book now, the item urged -- and frankly, I was tempted, as the image beckoning to me was one of the most enticing Wisconsin views I've ever seen.
The rest of the layout was straightforward: The usual screen for booking travel was on the right, while the bottom half consisted of three columns that divvied up the rest of the site's offerings, from deals to specials to tools.
Perhaps influenced by the utilitarian tone of the site, I got right down to the business of booking a flight. I hereby promise my faithful readers that this will be the last time I attempt to land a decently priced Thanksgiving trip -- for this series, at least -- and, as a bonus, I'll give you my time-tested recipe for stress-free and cheap travel during Thanksgiving week.
A few clicks later and a round of applause for Southwest was in order: My relentless optimism in the face of overwhelming anecdotal evidence that the travel industry had no intention of cutting consumers a break on this American holiday finally paid off.
I found a flight leaving Baltimore on Wednesday, Nov. 25, departing from Washington Airport for New Orleans at 9:50 a.m., for US$263. There was a return flight available on Sunday, Nov. 30, at 2:40 p.m. for the unbelievable price of $75.
Three weeks before Thanksgiving, that is nothing short of a holiday miracle. My amazement was tempered only slightly by the add-on of $53.88 in taxes and fees. When all was said and done, my fare totaled $368.30.
Despite all of my exercises in buying a ticket for a Wednesday flight for this series of reviews, my actual plan has always been to fly out the Saturday or Sunday before Thanksgiving Day and return early Friday morning, the day after. I realize that not everyone's work or family schedule can accommodate that, but for those who have some flexibility, I highly recommend it.
I have gotten on more than one Friday-after-Thanksgiving flight and found the seat next to me empty. I have never paid more than $250 for my round-trip fare. In fact, I've usually paid considerably less, despite my usual tardiness in securing a ticket.
I'm not picky about what day I fly out -- whatever flight is cheapest is my driving force. While tooling around the Southwest site, I found a feature that made that selection incredibly easy. It laid out the flight prices in a calendar format -- something I've seen on just one other site.
With it, I saw that I could fly out of BWI on Sunday at 7:40 a.m. (ugh) for $75 and return on Friday, at 9:20 for $153. Grand total? $268.90. Or, for an even cheaper option, I could pair the two $75 Sunday flights for a round-trip ticket that totaled just $203.80 including taxes and fees.
I was not able to duplicate Southwest's low pricing on another flight I tried: New York (LaGuardia) to San Francisco (Oakland) from December 15 to 29. The cheapest I could get was a total price of $440.40 -- of which $70.17 consisted of government fees and taxes. That seemed steep compared to other cross-country flights I've priced for this series, albeit not necessarily out of these same airports.
The rest of the Southwest site offered nice touches such as early bird check-in. It was the first I'd seen that had a Spanish language option. It also offered a Southwest-branded gift card.
Southwest's "Boarding School" how-to was an absolute delight: a composition notebook with schoolkid-like drawings decorating its pages. The check-in and boarding process was described in simple language.
The Boarding School notebook drew my eye to the site's legal page. It was there that Southwest's utilitarian, straightforward tone took a dark turn. There was much on what travelers were prohibited from doing. The list of the company's obligations to its travelers, on the other hand, was relatively short.
Language in that section explained all the ways Southwest was entitled to contact us -- or any friends we might be foolish enough (I was thinking at that point) to refer to them. And, yes, Southwest did contract with third parties to provide access to our information, it said -- but it would not be liable for any acts or omissions of those third parties unless required by law.
Privacy policies, of course, are not a main driver for travel purchases, and it is the rare airline that has one that is outright consumer-friendly. Still, more overtures to potential customers would have been welcome.
I checked out Southwest's pet policy, and my vague sense of unease over its attitude deepened. There I read that Southwest maintained the right to refuse acceptance of a cat or dog exhibiting any ... "characteristics that appear incompatible with air travel," which presumably could be barking or drooling or shedding.
True, I was booking a ticket -- not forming a legally binding contract with Southwest and its band of loophole-seeking lawyers. However, my scan of its policies left me feeling ambivalent about the airline.
Certainly, I would never use Southwest to fly with my little, 16-pound lapdog, who sometimes switches into auto-bark when she is nervous.
Bottom line: Prices are good, but apparently not uniformly good -- so double check with other sites to make sure.