Ridiculous or not? “Low cost” airlines that cost more

When David Simon wanted to fly from Milwaukee to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he assumed “low cost” airline Southwest would offer the lowest fare.

Then he did the math.

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A roundtrip flight on Southwest – including two “free” bags – cost $334.

He checked US Airways’ fares. Even after he factored in $25 for the first checked bag, $35 for the second and $60 for a premium seat reservation, it still came to $227 – more than $100 less than Southwest.

“It’s a reason to hate when an airline says ‘bags fly free,’ says Simon, who is an occasional Southwest passenger and like other air travelers, automatically assumes a “low cost” carrier actually offers the lowest fares.

His experience – which, by the way, is hardly unusual – raises an interesting question: Are our assumptions about airfares all wrong?

Let’s get one misconception out of the way first. “Low cost” carriers were never really about fares; they were more about the airline’s own operating costs. Airlines started after deregulation were inevitably called “low cost” or “discount” because their expenses were lower than those of the “legacy” airlines that existed before deregulation.

Fares are set by expensive machines that predict supply and demand, but also by yield managers who factor in issues that an algorithm can’t, such as customer perception. And if an airline like Southwest is perceived to have a better fare, then it can often name its own ticket prices.

It helps that pretty much the only place you can buy a Southwest Airlines ticket is through Southwest.com, which makes a side-by-side comparison with a competitor difficult. Some bargain-hunters wouldn’t even bother to shop around.

Perhaps they should.

Lissa Hoeprich did when she was looking for flights to Portland, Maine. Usually she finds a cheap fare on Southwest to Manchester, NH, and then rents a car. But she says she was shocked when she discovered she could fly directly to Portland and save $140 on US Airways.

“We didn’t need to check luggage, but even if we had, that would have been much cheaper than the Southwest tickets,” she says.

At best, this is a cautionary tale about labels in the airline business. When anyone refers to themselves as “discount” or “low cost” – be careful. (And if they have the audacity to call themselves “ultra” low fare, be extra careful.)

Labels can be problematic, if not misleading, and just because you call yourself something doesn’t make it so.

But at worst, this is a case study of several airlines leveraging a well-earned reputation for low fares to their short-term advantage. Look, I love the “bags fly free” ads as much as the next airline passenger, as much as I’m enamored of JetBlue’s stylish “you above all” advertising campaign that evokes the Pan Am era of air travel.

But if those ads make us turn a blind eye to the true cost of air travel, where does that leave us? Paying higher fares, often without knowing it, that’s where.

I think that’s unfortunate.

I’d rather knowingly pay a reasonable premium for the superior customer service offered by the likes of JetBlue and Southwest than be duped into shelling out more by a slick ad campaign. Or by my own ignorance.

162 thoughts on “Ridiculous or not? “Low cost” airlines that cost more

    1. The “Told Ya” people have unrealistic expectations.  Look, no airline is ALWAYS going to be lower.  Just like Target isn’t ALWAYS going to be lower than everybody else.

      Southwest is “generally” a lower-cost airline.  Not the “lowest” cost, and not always.  Another factor is that Southwest lets you ‘cancel’ and rebook if they lower their fare later – and give you a credit for the difference or even cash back along with free bags are both big monetary factors you need to consider when calculating the ‘true’ cost of a ticket.  Of course, check around.  But most of the time Southwest will be one of the cheapest, if not the cheapest (and they’re not thieves like Spirit and their ilk.)

  1. It’s a reason to “hate” when an airline that usually has excellent pricing turns out to not do so in some instances?  This seems to be going a little far to me.  I don’t get angry at the local gas ‘n sip when occasionally the Exxon undercuts their price by a couple of cents.  I don’t “hate” the local discount grocery when Whole Paycheck… errr… Foods scores a great deal on strawberries.

    Maybe US Airways was offering a sale, maybe it’s a new flight, maybe they struck a deal with the local (or US) govt. for fare subsidies, maybe Southwest’s fares just didn’t catch up yet, maybe Southwest’s flights were booked more heavily, and they had already sold all the cheaper fares.  There are lots of reasons for one airline to charge more than another, despite generally lower costs, and it not be part of some nefarious plot to exploit a well-earned reputation.

    1. I must respectfully disagree in part.  I have no problem with Southwest trading on its reputation that its a low cost airline.  My issue is that if it were really a low cost leader they would allow their fares to be displayed in other sites.  That leads me to believe that southwest is not as low cost as they would have us believe.

      I do know that as an SFO-LAX commuter, Southwest hasn’t been the low cost leader for years. Southwest and American Airlines charge almost identical prices with American generally slightly lower. 

      1. they used to offer their fares on sites like Expedia. however, there were SO MANY PROBLEMS with those tickets, that SWA just said “forget it”, and would rather be in charge of their own inventory and able to keep an eye on service. just an FYI.

      2. You’re splitting hair between fares of WN and UA – AA- VX and DL. Currently all the latter have their lowest BASE fare at $44 O/W while WN is at $45.58. If you factor in the free checked bags, then WN is the low price winner.

        1. Except that on that route NO ONE checks luggage.  Go to the baggage claim section and you will notice that the carousel has one single red bag on it.  I know cause its my bag and I don’t pay to check luggage on AA.

          That particular route is a commuter route.  It’s laden with business travelers who are more likely to be elite members, or are staying for a very short period of time and can make due with a carryon

          The folks who are most likely to pay for luggage on that flight are vacationers and they’re most likely to drive that particular corridor.

          1. SWA has about 11 flights from LAX to SFO a day. Does not seem like they need folks like you to fill their planes up. How can do they do that (stay afloat) if they are more expensive than others for the same route? Simple, just like Apple, Southwest has a huge loyal customer base.

          2. you’re so right. i used to work in that terminal for about 6 years, and i saw those flights board for the last few. i can guarantee you that those planes are not filled with only business flyers, not even the majority. you got college kids galore, divorce kids doing the parent-shuffle, vacationers exploring the other end of the state, and regular ol’ people flying for a specific purpose.  AND they offer crazy things like $44 fares.

          3. It’s pretty presumptuous to look at people and determine that they are not business travelers.  When I fly, I generally travel in jeans, electing to change into business clothing at my destination so I look fresh and crisp instead of wrinkled.  I don’t wear my wingtips and french cuffs all the time.

            College Kids:  The only college kids who fly that corridor are ones going home and can borrow a parent’s car.  It’s a short 5 hours drive. (4 if you’re a college kid)  College kids would rather drive and have a car at the destination then have to rent a car or be carless. 

            I remember being a college kid at  UCLA.  I flew from LAX to SFO once and everyone thought I was absolutely mad.

          4. Folks like me.  Who exactly are folks like me?

            But we digress.  You ask how can SW fill up their planes if they are more expensive.  Arizona has already answered that question.  By excluding its prices from the search, many people just assume that WN is the cheapest and make no further inquiry.

    2. For years, the prices for the US Airways flights from PHX have been the same or much lower than Southwest.

      If you do the research, Southwest does not have the lowest fares and sometimes they have the highest fares.

      1. Really Arizona? “The same or much lower”? Never “somewhat lower”? Never “just a tad higher? ALWAYS the same or much lower?

        I realize (as you’ve made clear) you hate Southwest – for whatever reason, be it lack of assigned seating, lack of a real “elite” status, lack of first class, lack of, well, whatever. But I can assure you – if Southwest didn’t fly into Phoenix, US Airways’ fares would be a lot higher than they are now. You can take any city with low-cost carriers against comparable, equidistant cities without them, and check fares to destinations served by the low-cost carrier: the legacy carriers jack the prices up on flights where there’s no low-cost competition to make up for what they lose when they have to compete fairly for the same business. Lose that competition, and your precious US Airways would screw you to the wall.

    3. The word “hate” was used in my email to Chris in response to those who posted how they “hate” bag fees. I re-used it in that context. You are correct, I don’t REALLY “hate” Southwest. 🙂

  2. Gee…you’ve finally stumbled upon something that many people have known for years. It’s a fact that Southwest quite often isn’t the cheapest option, even after taking into account checked bag fees. But their clever marketing campaigns have convinced many ignorant people that they are, in fact, the cheapest options. So much that many people don’t even bothering checking other airlines. Good for Southwest, I guess!

    1. you are exactly right to call these people who assume that an old reputation of being inexpensive is just ignorance.   It is also these ignorant people that often cry “no fair” and “they took advantage of me.”  It takes two extra minutes to add flt details on Orbitz just to get a second glance of prices.   I have never thought of Southwest being one of the cheapest of airlines and it surprises me to read how many people who do.  I guess company marketing directors have an easier job than I thought if so many people are this gullible.

      1. I agree with you.  Here are a few of the reasons why I fly US Airways:

        1. First Class
        2. Star Alliance member…I can cash in my miles for flights on top-rated airlines like Asiana, Singapore, New Zealand, etc. for FC and BC seats to Asia and Europe.
        3. Star Alliance member…I can fly a member airline and earn miles for my US account, receive airport benefits, etc.
        3.  International flights
        4.  More domestic flights
        5.  Airport lounges
        6.  Assigned seats

        I do fly a lot, I do fly international for business; I do fly international for personal vacations…so it makes sense for me to fly an airline that meet my needs.

        1. I guess that is why both airlines are still currently in operation… Everyone has different needs, wants, and expectations.  It is up to the consumer to decide what is best for them at that time and act on that research.  

        2. And I don’t disagree that these might all be reasons someone would choose US Airways over Southwest. But if, like 90% or more of fliers, you are never going to be paying to sit in first class, whether it exists or not is irrelevant. Scratch that – if you’re flying coach, you’re better off in a one-class airplane, because the flight attendants are divided equally among all coach seats. On a typical 2-class, narrow-body flight, you have one attendant catering to the whims of the eight or twelve people in first class, and just two to split up the 95% of passengers who are in coach. The same applies to airport lounges – to which most people will never be admitted (which is the entire point). As for assigned seating, it only helps on USAirways if you are willing to pay more for the premium seats; otherwise, what’s the point of knowing WHICH tiny coach seat you’re going to be crammed into? With Southwest, you can board and pick the best seat available at that point, and if I recall correctly, there’s greater seat pitch on Southwest than in coach on USAirways.

          Likewise, if you don’t fly internationally for work (like 90% or more of fliers), and/or you don’t plan to enter the Legacy Airlines Miles Lottery to determine when or if they *might* deign to let you cash in your miles on an international ticket with a routing you can actually use, the overseas route network of a carrier is a worthless benefit. In fact, some of the worst airports to fly into, for a domestic passenger, are the big “international” hubs like Atlanta, Chicago, LAX, the NY airports, and so forth – international flight clutter can make domestic traveling miserable.

          “More domestic flights” isn’t necessarily valid. You live at a US Airways hub, so of course you have lots of domestic flights available on them. If you live in a city that’s not a hub for one of the five legacies, and if no one of them dominates your airport, then you are unlikely to have more than three, possibly four flights a day on a given carrier, all of which will be to the nearest hub, none of them direct flights to any distant airport. Southwest’s point-to-point system, on the other hand, can actually produce far more options (and more useable ones) to your ultimate destination.

          For instance, flying New Orleans to Phoenix – your own airline’s hub – on Southwest I could take any of nine flights, eight of which are moving me in the correct direction the entire time and take no more than six hours, some as short as three and a half. On USAirways virtually every flight option routes me up through DC, Charlotte, Chicago or Philadelphia (!) with no times shorter than 7 hours and many taking more than ten.

          Sure, for those willing to pay for first class seating, airport lounges, and so forth, legacy airlines are quite nice. Otherwise, their fees and service levels are a big middle finger to the bulk of their flying customers.

          1. There are many airports that Southwest doesn’t fly to that other airlines do. And between many other city pairs, particularly longer flights, Southwest will require to you transfer once or twice, while several other airlines fly direct (New York-Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco, for instance).

            In my experience, seat pitch and service between airlines is about the same overall. Really. Southwest used to be better with these, but in the past year or two, I can’t tell a whole lot of difference. The assigned seats work both ways, too: you could just as easily get stuck in a middle seat in the back on Southwest unless you pay for early boarding, just as easily as you could on any legacy carrier.

  3. There are a lot of reasons another airline’s fares could be lower than Southwest’s. The biggest reason may actually be Southwest’s presence in the market causing every other carrier to drop their fares to compete. As we’ve seen, competition sets the rates, not necessarily mileage. Try to buy a cheap ticket between Minneapolis and Fargo, for example.

    Was this an anomoly? Perhaps. But if you build your airline based on offering cheap fares, you should not be $100 more, on any route, AFTER bag fees! It is just not that hard to compare pricing between the markets you serve and adjust accordingly.

    Yes, when we check bags we all hate the fees. Examples like this illustrate the power of advertising. “Oh, I’m checking two bags…better fly Southwest to avoid a bag fee!” Assuming the OP did not end up needing to change his ticket down the road, he made the right call…pricewise.

    Neither airline offers a nonstop, so I assume the travel times and duration of each airline’s itinerary were similar. With all things being equal, I would fly Southwest over USAirways…but they aren’t. To keep $100 in my pocket, I would have chosen USAir as well.

  4. Now I’m asking myself “are people really that stupid that they don’t actually check this sort of thing?”
    Seriously, assuming that Southwest (especially) or any other carrier is cheaper just because it has been in the past makes absolutely no sense. And it isn’t like checking other airline sites or search engines is difficult or takes more than a few minutes.

    1. Maybe they are that stupid or just uber dogma believers.  With the new “google flights”, it only takes a few seconds to display fares between 2 large US cities. Then one can go to Southwest to compare. Hey folks it’s called SELF SERVICE and that includes the fare search.

  5. Funny this article popped up today. Yesterday I booked 2 tickets on WN. The tickets cost $100 more a piece compared to fares on DL and US. Why? Because 1) WN does not charge a ridiculous $150 change fee, only fare difference and 2) WN has happy and pleasant employees. The “free” luggage allowance was a non-issue for this trip because we plan to have at most only 1 check-in bag.

    This year, I booked 3 tickets on WN that cost more than the same flight on DL. I have not regretted it.

    1. And how often have you had to pay a change fee to an airline?  You may do so frequently so this is a better option for you, but if you don’t change your ticket frequently, it sounds like money you could be saving.  As for customer service, all airlines have happy and pleasant employees and all airlines have bad employees. I fly about 125,000 miles a year on many carriers and I can’t say any airline has all happy employees or that any airline has all bad employees.  It’s hit-or-miss with every airline.  For years I thought Frontier had all good employees, but twice this year I had some very nasty ones.

      1. And how many times have you bought travel insurance and had to make a claim? 

        Personally, I haven’t had to pay for a change fee in the last year, but that’s not the point. How many times have you seen articles where someone asks for help because an “emergency” came up and the airline tickets were non-refundable. Hmmm, not many of these cases involve Southwest, except where someone wants their money back.You’re right. Not everyone has 100% happy and good employees. But if you travel enough, you can recognize patterns, and certain providers are better than others. Until Southwest decides to take a nose dive in their customer service, I will continue to fly them, and happily pay a premium to do so. If you’re elite with a legacy carrier, you don’t have a reason for flying Southwest. Stick with the legacy carrier, get preferred seating and first class upgrades. For the rest of us, Southwest makes it more equitable for the peons.

    2. Same here. The no-change penalty and 2 free bags is a game changer for us. Fares are more or less the same nowadays (regardless of airline type label) from my airport, NYC Metro Area, specially if one buys tickets early.

  6. The real value of discount airlines is that they offer competition. In a free market economy, saturated routes like SFO-LAX are all essentially going to match prices. You can bet if SWA left the market AA would push up prices as high as their customers would be willing to pay.

    Some people flu Southwest because they absolutely don’t want to fly a Saab or Embraer. Some fly legacy airlines so they can get upgrades on their next trip across the pond.

    It is always up to the customer to comparison shop and choose the flight and price that is best for them.

  7. He “assumed” that a certain company would offer the cheapest price without checking? I’m guessing that he gets taken for a ride alot….

    1. Nope. Been in the travel business for over 20 years. I know most of the ins and outs and constantly keep up with industry trends.

      My email to Chris that started this was in response to how many people “hate” airline bag fees and how there MAY be a price to pay for avoiding a bag fee.

      1. If you really know the ins and outs of ticketing, you should have done more to help Chris understand how fares really work.  This article is another uninformed piece of journalism that doesn’t help people on fares and what they are and are not seeing online.  Just because people can now buy airline tickets online, doesn’t mean they know what they are seeing or doing.

      2. Quote – [how many people “hate” airline bag fees and how there MAY be a price to pay for avoiding a bag fee.]

        So the logical conclusion is that people will try to AVOID paying a baggage free, correct? How does one do that?
        (1) Use an airline with no baggage fees (i.e. 2 bags on WN and 1 bag on  B6). Then obviously these airlines’ cheap seats will sell out first.
        (2) Cram an elephant into your carry on. Very bad idea but it’s what is happening.
        (3) Use your alliance (or credit card) status to get free baggage fees. Lucky you!
        (4) Don’t fly. No this does not count.

        I wonder how people “hating” baggage fees got twisted to demonstrate how USAirway’s fare can be cheaper the Southwest’s fare.

        I assume USAir monitors ATPCO as simply matches all the base fares of other carriers for the same Origin & Destination. This is how the industry works. I hate to say that you should know this since you have been in the same industry for 20 or more years.

        I have to agree with Bodega here. Your response was “sensationalized” to create another post for the day. Sure it throws a bone to a hungry crowd passionate to get heard (me included). But you really could have been more helpful if you explained how fares/rules and seat availability really worked to affect the actual price people pay. I guess we will all have to wait for that day.

  8. Come on, Elliott… you just took this problem from your son’s 2nd grade math book and added a lengthy narrative, right!?

  9. Shop around!  There are many factors besides price –  the connections, the number of stops, ticket change policy, or just the fact that the airline personnel were pleasant on the last trip.  Maybe Jet Blue and Southwest are on to something – be nice to your passengers and they will come back and pay more for the experience.  

    I am very pleased with the ticket numbering / boarding sequence on Southwest.  That feature is even better than assigned seats for “regular” airlines because I know if I will get a place for my bag and if my companion will be sitting with me.   Never sure of that on any other flight.

  10. My old company’s corporate travel agent had a website that compared all airlines, and everywhere I went, SouthWest was always substantially higher.  It really shocked me. Frontier would fluctuate, it would sometimes be more, and sometimes be less, but usually it was more as well.  Jet Blue always tended to match the legacy carriers.  It has always been my experience that the “Discount” carriers do generally cost more, but when they have sales, they are too good to pass up.  For example, the wife and I flew to Vegas last year for $125 a person round trip on SouthWest.  We looked to go again this year and SouthWest was over $400 while United was $210. 
    I have several friends and family members who will only book southwest, they won’t even consider looking at another airline because of the bag fees and change fees and because they “know” SouthWest will always be cheaper.  When I point out its not cheaper, they still insist because of the change fees. Even when I ask them how often they change a ticket, the only time they do is because of a flight cancellation.  Then they insist the legacy carriers would have charged them a change fee when their flight was canceled.
    I also always shear the customer service argument as to why SouthWest is the greatest. I have seen great customer service on every airline I have flown with, and I have seen horrible customer service on every airline I have flown with.  So I think the argument people make that the discount carriers have better service is a red herring.  Every airline has many great employees, and a few bad ones.

    1. I want to add a data point I just found.
      I have been flying between the same two cities for a few weeks now, and will for a few more months.  I just looked at booking my flight a month out. There are only two airlines that have direct flights between these two cities, United and SouthWest.  Every week I checked, SouthWest was $300 to $400 more than United. That is shocking to me!  That’s more than 2 changes on United plus a bag checked in both directions.
      I would rather only pay the change fee if I need to change.  Not upfront just in case.

      1. Do you mean nonstop flights?  Southwest offers the most ‘direct’ flights of any carrier which means a stop in route but no change of plane.

        1. I think Emanon256 said DIRECT flights – which IATA defines as “Any flight ticketed as a single flight coupon, irrespective of whether there are enroute stops and/or changes of aircraft types” – between the two cities s/he is traveling.  Nevertheless, direct or nonstop, I would like to check my GDS and see why s/he said that United Airlines fares were $300-$400 cheaper than Southwest’s fares. So, I will need the origin and destination city to find out why such a big disparity in fares (as  claimed). Hard to believe that SWA is that uncompetitive. But who knows?

          1. Since IATA also has a definition for nonstop flights, we were taught to use direct for flight that stop in route to distingush between the two.  Many years ago, business people use to request them so they could have a fast meeting at the airport between flights.  Man, that dates things!

          2. By the way, Emanon256 meant CHANGE FEES (not change of aircraft).
            The assertion made was that s/he can add the CHANGE FEE twice ($150 x 2) plus add the United Baggage Fee ($25-1st bag) in both directions to United’s fare it will still be cheaper than Southwest’s fare.

            While this may sound incredible, it might be true. So maybe Emanon256 will be kind enough to identify the 2 cities used in the example so we can validate the accuracy of this assertion.

          3. My GDS says that UA has 3-4 nonstops and B6 has 1-2 nonstops between DEN-BOS daily. WN website says they have 2 nonstops daily.

            TODAY, My GDS has the ff: lowest R/T BASE fares (before tax) for UA and B6:
            B6   SL14AE2U     198.00     14Day Adv Pur
            B6   UH10QO2C    238.00     10Day Adv Pur
            UA  SEK143KS      238.00     14Day Adv Pur   3Day Min Stay 
             for TUE/WED/SAT travel only

            The lowest BASE fare (before tax) in SWA website for nonstop is $221.40 R/T. You will see it being offered  (seats available) 12 days from now.

            So, the (nonstop) lowest fare is from JetBlue (B6), followed by Southwest (WN) and then United (UA). Neither B6 nor WN have minimum stay or day of week travel restrictions. UA has for its lowest fare. *** Note whether you can find a seat for this fare is subject to seat availability at the required booking class ***

            Therefore for nonstop flights for DEN-BOS, it is not correct to make a blanket assertion that UA is $300-$400 cheaper than Southwest’s. In fact, if you search properly, you can easily prove that Southwest and JetBlue CAN BE CHEAPER than United. They are also less restrictive and provide 1 or 2 checked bags free.

          4. 1.       I provided information as a data point based on my actual searches, nothing more.  I did not make a blanket statement that every seat on every day is more expensive on WN than UA.

            2.       I have to be certain places on certain times and on certain days.  Every time I searched for this schedule WN was constantly $300 to $400 more expensive.

            3.       Just because WN has published fares, does not mean they currently have inventory for sale at the lowest published fare.

            4.       The B6 flights on the days I am traveling are red-eyes only, so I did not consider them.
            Tony, I don’t know what your problem is. But every time I post something on Chris’s site, you seem to tear me apart and try to disprove everything I say and make meaningless arguments over semantics rather than the actual topic of discussion.  Now you state that “If I search properly…”  Well I did search properly based on my work travel as I clearly stated. 
            I think you are nothing more than a cyber-bully, who is so upset about his own life that the only thing you can do to make yourself feel better is to go on forums and try to rip people apart.  We are all here to discuss things, and you seem to miss the point of a discussion entirely.

          5. Emanon256, you made the ff assertions:
            (1)”There are only two airlines that have direct flights between these two cities, United and SouthWest.” 
            Well , JetBlue flies up to 2 nonstops flts daily.

            (2) “Every week I checked, SouthWest was $300 to $400 more than United. That
            is shocking to me!  That’s more than 2 changes on United plus a bag
            checked in both directions.”
            Since you said you are looking at flights A MONTH OUT, then it’s VALID to include the WN fares that are ACTUALLY AVAILABLE SEATS 12 DAYS FROM NOW. My GDS cannot search WN fares, just like you I have to go to SWA website to get the actual fare.

            Here’s the issue Emanon256, if I find a incredible assertion, I check it. You and I certainly do not want to leave an impression that SWA fares are $300-$400 more expensive than UA’s. I believe that is not fair to Southwest Airlines.

          6. Fine, have fun policing the entire internet. 
            I was simply sharing what I found with my specific bookings that with those bookings, UA was cheaper than WN.  I am not trying to be unfair to WN, I am simply sharing what I found.  I also shared in an earlier post on one flight that WN was cheaper than UA and I flew them.  Was that not fare to UA?  Are you going to defend them now?
            I am glad you found a random flight on a random Monday (12 days from today) for less than my flight in one month so that you can defend Southwest and prove me wrong.

          7. Emanon256, I actually make money selling UA/CO tickets. I can’t sell WN tickets. I have nothing against UA because they feed me. I have nothing to gain defending WN because they don’t feed me. I would fly UA/CO/WN/DL/AA/B6 etc. but I will not justify the airline I choose to buy by putting down other airlines or making incredible claims. If you love flying UA, fine. If you hate WN, fine, just say it straight.

          8. I am not justifying one airline over another.  In one post I said on a certain time and day WN was cheaper than UA and I flew WN.  I said on another day and time WN was more expensive than UA.  I am not putting either airline down.  They are just usually more expensive on the dates and times I fly, when I book. I gave an example in agreement with Chris, and an example that was in disagreement with Chris.

            If you want me to say it straight, I’ll tell you I hate both airlines and prefer F9.

          9. I think you are misunderstanding Tony’s posts, as I fully understand what he is telling you. 

            The whole point of his posts and mine today are to show/tell those of you who shop online that what you see is only part of the story.  All you are seeing is what is available for the dates you put in.  If you put in for two people, there actually may be a lower fare for one and then passenger pays the next higher fare, but you don’t know that, we do on our live systems. 

            With the airlines being online for the public to book and buy tickets, they are making more money off you because of what you don’t see and don’t know.

          10. Thank you Bodega.  Your responses are always clear and non-attacking and I appreciate them.  I also appreciate you clarifying.

  11. Having re-read the article, I wanted to add some additional comments:

    1) Does Southwest really brand itself as a “discount” airline?” It may have in the past, but does it still advertise this today? On the Southwest website it simply says “Great Value. Excellent Customer Service. Our Mission” It mentions “low fares” but doesn’t every other airline also mention “low fares?” Also, isn’t US Airways’ stock ticker LCC, which I understand to mean “Low Cost Carrier?”

    With “legacy” carriers abandoning meal service, snacks, etc. the in-flight service gap between WN and the “legacy” carriers is non-existent. Perhaps the reputation comes from the fact that Southwest and Jet Blue does not offer FIRST class seating?

    2) Southwest offers a simple fare structure, and has the lowest overall fares in the markets that it serves.

    Try booking a flight from PIT > BWI vs PIT > DCA. Same with RDU > PHL vs GSO > PHL or CLT > PHL. Huge price difference. Maybe not for the biggest “discount” fares, but for a last minute, unrestricted, refundable ticket, there is savings. Also, whenever WN enters a market, fares drop by a lot.

    Consider that the most expensive one way, last minute fare is around $600, that is substantially less than other carriers that charge upwards of $1900 for the same routes. Southwest’s unrestricted fare is much lower than other carriers.

    Southwest does not offer the lowest fares on all markets but their fare structure is fair and consistant.

    3) What about customer service? The biggest reason why I WN is my first choice is not the baggage fees, but that WN does not charge “change fees.” To pay $300 for a ticket, then $150 if changes are needed irritates me. Sure, WN charges fare difference, but thats better than $150 + fare difference!

    Also, if you book last minute on DL/AA/UA/US, it is difficult to get a good seat assignment. Unless you book an overpriced premium ticket, or have elite status, often only middle seats are available. On WN, I know that I ALWAYS have a chance to get a window or aisle seat, even if it means pay $10 for early bird boarding.

    Finally, WN employees just seem happier. The flying experience seems more pleasant.

    4) There are times not to fly Southwest
    They don’t fly everywhere. If I need to fly to DRO or HDN, I’m out of luck
    Sometimes their schedule just doesn’t work or the connection is suboptimal. like ECP > SEA
    Many readers here are elite flyers. Thus, you get perks and benefits on your preferred airline. You are stuck with that airline as you try and re-earn your elite status.

    For peons like me (who lost elite status when I didn’t need to fly much anymore), WN is my preferred airline, even when they aren’t the cheapest fare!

  12. Southwest is like Wal-Mart.  Everyone thinks that Wal-Mart has the lowest prices but they don’t always have the lowest prices…years of advertising “Always the Lowest Price” (this tagline for Wal-Mart was replaced a few years ago) they branded themselves as having the lowest prices and people just believe it.  Southwest did the same thing…they advertised that they had the lowest fares.  Since Southwest fares are only available at their website, most people don’t check the other sites.

    When Southwest goes into a new market, they lower the fares which causes the other airlines to cut fares andor capacity.  Six months+ later, the fares for that market are higher than before Southwest came into the market.

      1. You’re more polite than I would be, flutiefan. That six-month claim about fares being higher than before Southwest entered the market is so patently untrue that to write it borders on deliberately lying.

        ArizonaRoadWarrior happens to live near an airport where (a) Southwest has a large presence, but where (b) America West was formerly headquartered and hubbed, and (c) America West bought USAirways and chose to take that as its business name instead of keeping its own. As a result, his home airport is probably one of the only ones where USAirways is determined to keep prices low, probably well below cost, in order to protect its home base. Ask people who live in a city where USAirways is the dominant carrier and there isn’t a low-cost alternative how much fares are.

    1. I think that was a typo, that is most likely a fee for a “Premium” seat in economy.  Such as an exit row or near the front.  Back seats and middle seats are still free.

  13. There is a hidden factor that is an advantage for travelers on Southwest that is not included in the comparisons with US Airways fares. If you want to make a change to your itinerary on US Airways or any other legacy carrier, it will cost $150 per passenger. Southwest will let you make changes for free as long as the fare has not increased. If the new fare is higher, just pay the difference. I’ve even made changes on Southwest where the new fare is less than the old one. Southwest provides a credit for the difference which is good for one year from the date that the original ticket was purchased. 

    Also, if there is a problem with a flight, I would much rather deal with the friendly Southwest personnel than the grouches at US Airways. A few years ago my wife and I were stuck at Manchester, NH airport (MHT) due to severe weather conditions closing every airport between Providence and Washington. Our Southwest flight to Tampa was supposed to leave at 6:30pm. It was now after 11:00pm and the Gate Agent informed us that the aircraft for our flight was still on the ground at Baltimore and that they expected it to leave BWI within the next two to three hours. We decided that rather than spend most of an uncomfortable night at MHT and getting into Tampa at 6 or 7 AM, we would rather stay overnight in Manchester and get out on a flight the next day. I approached the Southwest gate agent and explained what we wanted to do. He was able to get us the last two seats available on the 8:30 morning flight. He told us to go to the baggage office on the lower level where our bags would be brought and said that the baggage office could give us info on distressed passenger rates at local hotels. When we got to that office, the bags were waiting there and we were told about several hotel deals including a $20 discount at the Holiday Inn which was less than a mile from the airport. That is where we ended up staying. Other than our hotel expense, there was no charge for making this change. All of the Southwest employees we interacted with that night were friendly and helpful.

    1. Every legacy carrier I have flown has provided the same service in the event of irregular operations such as extended delays or weather causing everything to be delayed.  They always waive the change fee, don’t charge the fare difference, and provide hotel discounts in these situations.  I don’t think this is Unique to SouthWest.

    2. When there are irregular operations Southwest is actually at a disadvantage compared to most other airlines because Southwest doesn’t have ticketing and baggage agreements with other carriers.  That means that the other carriers won’t accept a Southwest ticket for transportation, nor will bags be checked through to the other carrier.

      I’m not saying that the legacy carriers will actually do this, however they do have the option, which is more than Southwest can offer.

      Beyond that, it is up to the person buying the travel to decide what is the best value for their money and their time.  We all use different judgments to decide what is a better value.

  14. I know Southwest USED to be low cost and sometimes they still are.  But I have heard their prices are creeping up.  It’s just a reminder that you need to check prices.  For some they don’t mind paying a premium to travel a particular airline, but most people still have a breaking point.  

    I prefer Jetblue and would pay a little extra to fly them over many other airlines (especially on longer flights since they have Direct TV), but at some point the price could get to high and I would fly another airline and make sure my IPad was charged up! 

    I’ve never flown Southwest, it’s just too much hassel having to go to their website.  Occasionally I’ll check their prices, but more often it’s too much work.

    1. There is a reason why JetBlue was named number ONE  North American airline (in the low cost airline category) by  J.D. Powers; they are simply better than most. http://businesscenter.jdpower.com/JDPAContent/CorpComm/News/content/Releases/pdf/2011075-nals.pdf
       Southwest came in a close second in that same category.

      Aside from the nicer seats and entertainment, JetBlue’s terminal 5’s food court here in JFK is awesome (compared to other airline’s). They still have the 1st bag free so that’s also a plus. For me, they are ‘unbeatable’ nonstop from NYC to the West Coast and Florida. Unfortunately, JetBlue does not fly everywhere.

      I agree with you that Southwest USED to be a low cost carrier (LCC). I think it’s hard to define what an LCC means today. Southwest is no longer only a point-to-point airline. Nowadays, they have hubs just like legacy carriers do. They also bought AirTran giving them better access to Atlanta and DC. Whenever I check their fares from NYC to XXX, they’re always the same as those of other carriers’. For me if the number of connections and flight elapsed times are similar, then the 2 bag fees and no change fees is the tie-breaker. (We actually got to use their no change fee feature last July-August. Saved us 5 pax times  $150. You never know when you’re going to need it.)

      JetBlue on the other hand has codesharing agreements with (foreign) international carriers and has their fares and seat inventory in Global Distribution Systems (GDS) making them look more like a legacy carrier. I am not sure if Lufthansa Miles & More and JetBlue True Blue mileage/points are fully transferable or usable on the other airline.

      It’s hard to tell where Southwest is going in the future in terms of ticket distribution. But their direct-to-customer sales model has not hurt them so I don’t think that will change soon. We still have to go to their website for those web-only special fares.

  15. I have never flown Southwest. Everytime I check their fares to where I want to go, other airlines are cheaper. You need to have a spreadsheet to add up all the fees with the fare.

    1. This makes no sense.

      It’s the *other* airlines who have all the extra fees – fees to reserve a specific seat at booking time, fees to check bags, fees to change tickets, fees for a “premium” seat, fees for… well, you name it. If you hate fees, why NOT pay a premium to the airline that offers the fewest fees and reward them for a business model that better suits you?

  16. If all the legacy carriers were to disappear and only the low cost carriers were left, where do you think their airfares would go, certainly not down, so there is only one direction left in which they would go.

  17. Of course you can find instances where Southwest isn’t the least expensive carrier, but you are not factoring in that Southwest, unlike US Airways and most others, has no cancellation or change penalties (other than having to pay any difference between the original fare and whatever the new fare is on a oneway basis). 

    That advantage isn’t worth paying an extra $100, but that and the free bag situation are worth considering when planning a trip. I also factor in that the most people at Southwest actually seem to care about me . . ..

    1. I would hope that when someone is comparing prices they consider the likelihood of needing to change fllights, carry bags, etc.

      Two weeks ago, I had to fly to LA for a emergency court hearing.  The one way fare was $165 for a restricted ticket, $178 for an unrestricted ticket.  I choose the $178 because my plans were not solidified and I wasn’t sure if I would make my flight.    I paid $13 to insure against a $150 change fee. 

  18. “Some bargain-hunters wouldn’t even bother to shop around.” If they don’t bother to shop around then they are NOT bargain-hunters.

  19. A “low cost airline” is only as good as it’s latest price. I used to go to Southwest automatically, but with the number of airline search websites out there, I don’t do that anymore. Most of these websites don’t identify low fares on Southwest, AirTran, and a few others, and I often check their websites before booking, but I haven’t flown on these “llow cost airlines” for several years, because someone else has always offered a better fare.

  20. I can remember when you went to the grocery store and the bigger the quantity the lower the price per oz. Not any more. They all spend millions to dupe us out of our money. Remember SHOP smart!

    1. Marketing directors are having an easier time.   Too many people can’t do the math to figure out the price per unit even though their intention is to get the lowest price.  Is the company to blame?-Nope.  The price is posted and the size is located on the item. 

  21. So because Southwest often has the lowest fare the customer should assume they alwasy do? That is just silly. I always check the fares of all airlines on a site where that is easy to do and then check Southwest and select accordingly based on the additional add on charges for checked bags etc. Southwest is like all airlines–when the flight gets more full the prices are higher. But consumers have to expend a little effort to find the best price. 
    If it is close I will always choose Southwest as I know my experience is likely to be better than with other airlines in terms of customer service and treatment before and during the flight. And dont forget change fees if you have to make a change in your plans and if the price goes down on Southwest you can cancel and rebuy and get a credit to use on future flights. Theer is a lot to consider as you compare pricing.

  22. I have used Easy Jet in Europe for years but have stopped depending on them as their “total cost” can exceed legacy airlines. A recent trip from Lyon to Prague cost an extra USD $270.00 (fare was $130.00 one way) as the total weight of my 2 checked bags exceed their very low 20 kg (44 lbs) by 3 kg.
    When booking on-line, I missed the “fine print” that stated the 20 kg limited was not “per bag” but the total of all bags combined. This was after I paid $15.00 for the 1st bag & $ 21.00 for the 2nd bag. Total for checking 2 bags was $306.00 !! Insane & insulting.
    Be very careful when booking Easy Jet in Europe.
    Gerald Vineberg

  23. I checked Southwest recently for a senior fare and came up with $654.  I purchased on Delta for $223.  Southwest had 2 stops, Delta 1.  Found that pretty consistent.

    1. Consistent with what? Are you saying you routinely check other flight arrangements – different city pairs, different dates, different advance notice amounts – and *this* particular experience was consistent with them? Because as I read your post, you only checked one fare for one flight.

      Again, that particular flight – ANY particular flight – may be more, or less, on a given airline.

    2. Delta doesn’t offer senior fares and Southwest’s senior fares have less restrictions than the Delta nonrefundable advance purchase fare. So you aren’t comparing apples to apples.

  24. US Airways has stripped down so much of their domestic service and sells everything à la carte. They are a “low cost” carrier, too, so I’m not surprised at all. ALWAYS check all of the airlines’ fares and fees before buying.

  25. I’ve been researching “lowcost airlines” in Europe for an upcoming flight. The hidden extras – especially  on Ryan Air – were eye opening. If you don’t have an EU passport then you have to check in at the counter – cost 4 Euros; paying with a credit card unless it’s a Visa Electron debit card – cost 5 Euros each way. 

    This one I hate – you need to pay for a checked bag at the time of booking – so somehow for a bicycling trip a month off I am supposed to know exactly how much I’m taking – or otherwise I’ll pay double for a checked bag.
    Look out Americans – I bet the airlines are studying the European models to see what they can get away with. 

    1. I don’t think it’s fair to label this as the “European” model – it’s what Ryanair does, and to some extent EasyJet, but it’s not the norm. The biggest trick up their sleeve, though, is how they name the airports they fly to – their so-called Munich, Madrid and London destinations are like 2 hours by bus/train from those cities.

  26. If I can’t see an airline’s fares on Expedia, it doesn’t exist for me. I’ll probably buy the ticket on the airline’s website, but I won’t make the extra effort to check the fare at the comparison stage.  Consequently, I’ve never flown Southwest and have wondered why so many people did, unless it was the main airline for their city.  I do love the fact that SW doesn’t charge a baggage fee, but it would  need to be transparent in its fares (through Expedia, Travelocity, etc.) to get my business. It always seemed like SW was hiding something, and now we know what it was.

    1. see my earlier post. SWA USED TO LIST ON THESE SITES. there were tons of problems (as we’ve seen herein Chris’ column), and SWA decided those problems outweighed any benefits. they’d rather not have their customers have problems with their product because a 3rd party vendor repeatedly screwed up.

      1. Read my post again: I use Expedia, Travelocity, etc. to compare fares, then I
        buy from the airline’s website.  Why would I add an extra step by comparing the
        best of those rates with SW’s rates for the flight I’m interested in, especially
        as we now know that SW isn’t necessarily cheaper? Since SW offers free bag
        check, I might buy a SW ticket – on its website – even if it cost a bit more,
        but only if it were included in the Expedia search.  Didn’t AA try this awhile ago and end uphaving to re-list with Orbitz?  I haven’t checked lately as I don’t fly the legacy carriers and haven’t flown within the US since the pornoscanners came in.

        1. Brooklyn – your approach works for you – so go right ahead. I would term it the “lazy man’s approach” except that if you’re already willing to look at both Expedia and Travelocity and “etc.” (whatever that encompasses-Orbitz?), I can’t see how not looking one additional place is so much work that you can call it laziness to skip it.

          I, on the other hand, think the possibility of saving some money is worth the extra minute and thirty seconds it takes to check a fare on Southwest – and if it’s cheaper, I am already right there for booking it.

          1. Because everyone has a difference time value of money.  Perhaps Brooklyn finds searching on websites to be tedious. 

            I used to shop for the cheapest car rental.  I checked the megasites and the individual sites.  In my experiences, after an hour of searching I would save $5 per day.  I quickly concluded that the $5/day saving wasn’t worth it and focused on two rental companies.

            I have better things to do with my time than messing around on the internet to save a couple bucks.

        2. What you don’t understand about Expedia, Travelocity and the others in regards to issuing tickets is that they have to report to ARC just like the the rest of us.  Southwest isn’t on all airline reservation systems only two that I know of.  I don’t know what system(s) the OTA’s use, but if they can’t issue Southwest tickets because of the system, then they can’t have those fares on their website.

    2. Until a few years ago, I shunned Southwest Airlines. I didn’t like the “cattle” call concept and valued my assigned seat. During the same time, I was also an elite flyer and frequently was upgraded to first class, and had my choice of seats. Also, Southwest’s schedule didn’t work well for my travel schedule.

      Times have changed. I don’t fly enough on one airline to qualify for meaningful status (Gold or higher). Southwest has rapidly expanded its destinations. Southwest has improved its “cattle call” system. They fly to more places I need to go, like DEN, MCO, ECP.

      Besides what I have already said, their fare structure is simple. 3 fare structures. Basically a discount fare, a full fare and a full fare + early boarding + drink. You know what you get, and they generally treat you right. Are they the lowest? Nope, but unless the price difference is extreme, I’m going to stick with the company that has treated me right in the past.

  27. It’s a known fact the low cost airlines, such as Southwest, have brought down which were once “sky high” fares. These low cost airlines, once they enter new markets, must continue to compete with everyone else. It’s buyer beware. I prefer to fly Southwest, but pricing is always the deciding factor for me. If Southwest is more, I fly someone else.

  28. I would gladly pay a premium for a Southwest ticket, because I prefer to reward companies that have provided me with outstanding service, and avoid those that have not. In fact, if Southwest doesn’t serve my destination, and the drive is less than 12 hours, I hit the road rather than fly another airline. 

  29. I just looked at airfare between DEN and IAH/HOU which is a route I fly often.  For the weekend of 11/11 at the time of day I am flying, Southwest (WN) was $205 and the best other price I could find was UA at $325 plus bag fees.  So there, I PROVED WN is always cheaper! (Just kidding.)

    I fly different airlines at different times due to many factors beyond price.  Schedule, number of stops, which airport I end up at, if I will want to purchase food on board and if I want a pre-assigned seat or not.  For short trips (less than 3 hours in the air) I don’t mind WN if there are no connections.  I really hate the connection process on WN because of the lack of assigned seats.  You might be A 1 on your boarding pass but very often because of the tight connection times you end up being the last getting on the connecting plane and stuck in a middle seat between two sumo wrestlers.  

    While it is possible to find flights on legacy airlines that are less costly than WN, many of those leave or arrive at off hours that are simply not convenient for me. I don’t want to fly out or arrive at 01:00.  I prefer an hour of the day when I am normally awake.  And flights at peak hours of the day usually cost more on every airline which is where WN sometimes still has a price advantage (as in my example above).

  30. While I think that Chris is a great proponent of the traveling public, & have pretty much been in his corner most of the time, this post troubles me. It certainly puts a negative spin on southwest. While I don’t think that Southwest is always the low cost provider, I do think they are competative in certain markets. At best we are looking at anecdotal evidence, & doubt that you could have a free ticket change policy on the US ticket. Very few people are comparing apples to apples. How much is the cost of a ticket to fly on a legacy carrier that includes the ability to change flights without incurring the $150.00 FEE.
    Yes we should all check costs on all flights, but we have to compare the same levels of service and options associated with each airline.

  31. The presumption of this article is that passengers actually have a choice. But in reality where you live and where you want to fly to dictate your options. The USA is a huge country and no airline can cover all the bases. Some airlines have virtual monopolies in their hub airports making it very difficult for travelers to find a cheap fare.

    Fares are not static, so it’s only possible to make a fair comparison on a given snapshot of time. Anyone who knows anything in this industry understands the relationship between fare buckets (booking classes) and seat inventories, and how it affects the price that one ultimately pays (even if airlines’ base fares may be exactly alike for the same origin and destination). So, a comparison between Southwest’s and USAirways’ fares is only relevant for a specific traveler’s itinerary at a moment of time, and it’s not really sound to make dogmatic proclamations.

    That said, there are good reasons why travelers have PREFERENCES.
    Southwest no-change penalty and 2 bags free obviously makes them stand out compared to other airlines. These features MAY be valuable to some travelers (include me in the group). Others may not care.

    But there are some “not so obvious” factors that travelers “should” care about – employee morale (greatly affected by wages), aircraft type, and whether the service (air and ground) is outsourced.

    I avoid flying a regional airline if I can. Why? Because most of their pilots (and crews) are underpaid. Also, I try to fly on a “bigger” airplane (more space, less weight and balance issues and more experienced, higher paid captains). Finally, I like airlines that do not outsource their operations (more cohesive and secure). You can check what Southwest pilots and flight attendants make compared to their peers (legacy carriers). Then, you can check what regional airlines (that are affiliated with legacy carriers) pay their crews. You might have a change of heart specially when your airline is *Express, *Connection, *etc. There’s something more to just a cheap fare.

  32. Do the math, weigh your options and buy accordingly.  The “free” bags are no different than a hotel offering “free” wi-fi. It may not always be as good a deal as you initially thought. If you don’t do your homework and end up paying more than you had to, that’s your own fault.

  33. Here is your fare lesson for today.  When the OP went to look for flights, he is seeing what is available.  What any of you who shop tickets online don’t see are the actual list of fares. 99% of the time Southwest and USAIR will have the same fares in a market, it is just that what the OP found is the lowest fare on Southwest was sold out because people look to Southwest first and don’t think about the other carriers that fly in the same routing. Therefore USAIR still had a lower fare available on those particular flights.

     I can go into my GDS and pull up fares from one city to another which has nothing to do with looking at the flights at the moment, just seeing what is offered in the market.  You can’t do that on line.  Fares and booking flights are not the same but are all part of the ticket you purchase.

  34. Southwest is a great airline.  So is JetBlue.  Both receive high marks for customer service and generally provide positive experiences.  Both are more generous with their free bag policies.

    All of that said, both airlines are often higher than their competitors.  Why?  Because they can.  Because often people are willing to pay more for a better reputation, whether that translates to a better experience or not.

    Don’t believe me?  Let me illustrate the point from my own experience drawing on thousands of reservations made at AutoSlash.com:

    Most people would agree that Dollar, Thrifty and Hertz are all reputable car rental companies.  If given a choice, where all 3 priced a particular rental at the same price, which vendor would you pick?  What if Hertz were 5% more than Dollar/Thrifty.  Now what if Hertz were 50% more ($450 vs. $300)?

    The results might surprise you.  A significant number of customers would choose Hertz at a much higher price than than their competitors.  Is Hertz providing a higher level of service to warrant the higher rate?  You’d probably get different answers depending on who you ask.

    Southwest may be capitalizing on their low cost reputation, but they are also benefiting from the fact that they continually rank near the top in customer service rankings for airlines.  JetBlue is in the same boat.  In the case JetBlue, the TV’s at every seat don’t hurt either.

    When JetBlue was the scrappy upstart, their rates often were less.  I flew them all the time (almost exclusively).  Now I often find myself flying Delta and American.  If the price difference is small, I’ll rather fly JetBlue, but when they’re significantly higher, I’d rather save the bucks.

    I don’t fault JetBlue for this.  Hey, it’s capitalism.  If they can charge more and keep their planes full, then more power to ’em.  Same for Southwest.  One would hope that the other airlines would recognize that excellent service carries a premium and the tide would rise.

    The bottom line is that consumers need to educated.  Don’t assume anything.  Check prices early and often across *all companies*.  Know baggage policies, cancellation policies, re-booking fees, etc.  That goes for airlines, hotels and car rental companies.

    Did you know that airline prices can change multiple times a day?  How about that if your price drops on a JetBlue flight drops before you travel, they will issue you a credit for a future flight for the difference.  

    How about that when car rental prices drop, you can cancel your old reservation at the higher rate and re-book at the lower rate?  AutoSlash.com does this for free automatically.

    An informed consumer is a smart consumer.

    1. Umm, I am one of the schmos that pays a premium for Hertz. Why? Because they have excellent customer service and I can’t recall any instance where I felt like I was ripped off. 

      I can’t help but feel that some of the responses to this article are hypocritical. 

      We talk about voting with our wallets, and giving business to companies that care about customers. I am an informed consumer and realize that the cheapest price is not always the best bargain. I am willing to pay a premium to fly Southwest, stay in Marriott hotels and rent with Hertz because I am assured that I will be treated right. 

      Would YOU dare rent from Advantage rental car or Payless rental car, even if they offered a significantly lower rate? 

      1. You might be surprised to know that Advantage is owned by Hertz (since 2009 I think).  They even share cars in many locations.  They are an extremely reputable company.  At AutoSlash, we’ve never had a single complaint about Advantage.

        Payless on the other hand…

      2. I too pay a premium to rent at hertz for a variety of reasons.  My experiences at Alamo/national and dollar were routinely abyssmal.

        The issue with discussing southwest is that different people have different needs and are actually receiving a different product. 

        Some of Southwest strengths are, 2 bads fly free and no change fee,

        Since I don’t pay for checked bags and I rarely change my flights, those two big advantages are meaningless to me

        By comparison, assigned seats are crucial to me.  I tend to be the passenger running down the tarmac asking the capitain to stop the plane.  If I booked southwest I’d always be in a middle seat in the back row.

        So, i think its really what’s important to you based on your travel habits and needs

  35. I shop around first but low cost is not my first choice because of different reasons: FF program, Lounges access, Interline or Alliance check thru luggage or connection. Elite status usually give free luggage allowance across Alliance, never pay for a luggage fee or extra fee in my life even I overload sometimes and they closed their eyes. Lost cost airlines usually don’t belong to an alliance. Most of the times, the saving dont worth the inconvenience. Lounges Access is very important when you fly long haul  or internationally for shower and breakfast on Arrival.

  36. here’s another thing people have not factored in: Southwest only posts 3 fares on their site: Wanna get Away, Anytime Fare (full fare), and Business Select.  However, there are about 7 different levels in “Wanna get Away”, starting very low and going up—though nowhere near Anytime fare.  Southwest lists the lowest available Wanna get Away fare on the column.  That doesn’t mean that a lower price wasn’t available previously, just that the lower fare bucket has already sold out. So the chart is now showing the new lowest available fare in WgA. 

    So perhaps SWA *was* lower than USAir at one point, but people satched up those fares.  Perhaps those are USAir’s lowest fares, and no one has bought them yet—maybe because they all went to SWA! it’s all about timing.  you may have just been too late to see the lowest fare.  but, you can ALWAYS call SWA and ask what the lowest fare on the flight was.

    I know this doesn’t matter to folks who are wanting to buy their ticket now, and don’t care what they price may have been last week, that’s now gone.  however, you shouldn’t be blind to the fact that the prices may indeed have been lower than the competition.Finally, Chris, please put it in bold letters: LOW COST DOES NOT MEAN LOW FARE. those are 2 different entities.

  37. There is still some bad math going on here. “Even after he factored in $25 for the first checked bag, $35 for the second and $60 for a premium seat reservation, it still came to $227”.  Umm.. $25+$35+$60 = $120. That’s ONE WAY! Round trip it would be $240. Which doesn’t even factor in the cost of the ticket itself. Since Southwest was $334, I can’t imagine that Southwest wasn’t the lowest price if he really wanted to check 2 bags and take advantage of the premium seat thing.

    It seems like he was comparing a round trip on Southwest with a 1 way fare on US Airways.  Silly!

    On the other hand, yes it is true that Southwest isn’t always the lowest fare, especially if you aren’t the type to check bags. But you are getting great customer service, and that is sometimes worth the extra price.

  38. Like any other airline, Southwest’s fares are reliant on when you are purchasing the ticket.  One fare range flutiefan neglected to mention was the web only fare, which is usually pretty darn low.

    Last month, I was looking at taking my son to LAX for a college visit to UCLA.  As it would have been a short trip, no bags would be checked so I was looking at all the airlines on Kayak and then Southwest as well, since they have so many flights to LAX from Tucson.

    All the other airlines (and I use this as an all-encompassing term since I couldn’t possibly check every single airline in the world) came in at $300 or more.  Southwest had an online web only fare of $59 each way, after taxes.  I would have been able to fly the both of us round-trip to LAX on Southwest for the cost of one ticket on another airline.

    Timing is everything when looking for air fares.

    1. You are absolutely correct in the timing is everything.  What is there right now many not be available 5 minutes from now and the fare you paid today may even go down tomorrow and will be even the same class of service just they changed the fare overnight. 

    2. you are correct that there are “WEB ONLY!” fares. however, they are listed under “Wanna get Away” on the fare chart.

  39. I have to say that this is the most ridiculous “ridiculous or not” question you’ve ever posed, Chris. If someone believes that because a business markets itself as a low-cost brand there’s no reason to shop around, and is then disappointed when they find an example where the “low-cost” brand isn’t really the cheapest, that’s not the company’s fault. I have some family members who have a love-hate relationship with Southwest because they hear a sound bite on a commercial and assume they understand the way pricing works. On one hand, they are hesitant to even consider other airlines because “bags fly free” – even when someone points out to them that another airline is cheaper for a given flight even after bag fees are factored in. On the other hand, they once changed a flight on Southwest at the last minute and were upset that they were charged the difference in fare – “but the commercials say no change fees!” They didn’t understand that fares are almost always more expensive at the last minute, and that the legacies would have charged the fare difference and then tacked on another $150 just for making the change.

    Southwest is sometimes the cheapest option. Other times it’s not. Smart people take a few minutes to calculate the options and take into account bag fees and any other add-ons. As others have pointed out, Southwest also has much more lenient change policies than the legacies, so that’s something else to consider. For some people, that adds little or no value, while for others it’s huge.

    Another point (though I wouldn’t expect the casual traveler to pay much attention to this) to consider is whether or not their origination and/or destination airports are a hub for one airline or another. MKE is one of the airports I consider when I’m booking flights, and Southwest usually isn’t a very good option from there because their service is pretty limited and the prices are less competitive. OTOH, MDW is a hub for Southwest (even though they don’t call it one), and I’ve found that Southwest is often the cheapest out of Chicago (either MDW or ORD) or close to it.

    1. Yes. I have to agree with you on the question posed and the negative spin associated to SW.  I really like Chris & all he does for me in particular & the traveling public in general, but this kind of chapped me.

    2. What is ridiculous is to see that most people have voted yes.  I think asking this question might have more validity than at first thought because it puts a little insight to the number of people who want no accountability in life.

  40. “Low Cost Airline” has nothing to do with what fares they charge, what costs they incur, what extra charges they do or do not charge their customers for… it is all about positioning in their marketing strategy and the brand image they have developed for themselves.

    What is important in this discussion is exactly what this person did, do the cash flow calculations and see what the bottom line cost will be for each carrier on the route and schedule you wish to take.

    It is simple as that and if you fall for the marketing hooplah about “bags fly free,” then you deserve to pay more for your ticket.  Don’t be lazy and figure it out.

    That being said, I like Southwest, but I rarely fly them because the routes I typically fly are cheaper with other carriers.

  41. Has Southwest ever advertised themselves as being the lowest fare out there?  I don’t think so.  I think it has always been incumbent upon the consumer to check prices and buy what fits their needs, not assume Southwest is the cheapest.  

  42. It comes back to my statement every time! Use qa real to goodness ASTA travel agent. We look at airlines you have never heard of when it applies. Spirit, Vision, Allegient, all airlines that have interesting fares from some cities. Some charge for bags, some have clubs for reduced rates, all can drive you crazy. But…..a good agent knows where to look for each client. There is no hard fast rule, as each client has a different need. I charge a whole $30.00 for my service. I earn it every time!

    1. No thank you.

      I made 30 round trip trips from the Bay area to LA last year.  Most at $98 round trip.  I’d rather keep that $900 in my pocket than give it to you.

      I live in the Bay Area. I lived in LA for 13 years.  I seriously doubt that you could give me $900 worth of services under these circumstances.

  43. I have always found that the legacy carriers are very competitive in Chicago with Southwest.  They are lower in many cases and while many folks like the free bag service, I don’t like the way Southwest handles boarding.  I don’t want to have to get to the airport early and I have found that even if you check in 24 hours on the dot you still don’t get the best codes.  

    1. Jebaker – if you can check in online, it matters not one whit whether you get to the airport “early” or whether you get there just before they start lining people up to board. You’ll have a boarding position that’s set, either way, at the time of check-in.

      Until a few years ago, yes, it paid to both check in online exactly 24 hours in advance AND to show up early at the airport, because all you got was a group (A B or C), and if you wanted to be at the head of the A line, you got to the terminal early and camped out under the boarding sign. With the new system, that’s all gone – you board in the order of check-in, period.

    2. Your mileage may vary, but checking in exactly 24 hours before the flight has gotten me an “A” boarding pass every time except once, when I was given a very early “B”. IMHO, that’s fine…I don’t need to be the first one on the plane; I just want a window seat.

  44. An airlines reputation on price is no excuse for a consumer NOT to shop around for the best fare. If you blindly purchase the first ticket you see, then you get what you paid for. 

  45. Love it….a foregone conclusion.  Any idiot could have figured out it was just a matter of time before Southwest and Jet Blue would become like every other legacy carrier. 

  46. Are you kidding?   Why in the world would anyone who is truly looking for a cheap airline ticket only look at one carrier?  True, Southwest does require an extra search, but comparing it to something like Kayak or Orbitz isn’t hard.  

    Just because they are a “low-cost” carrier to me means one thing – they don’t offer first class.  

    I’ve almost always had better experiences on Southwest and Jetblue and recommend them to my friends.  You’re right, that doesn’t mean they are always the cheapest.  But in the age of internet search engines, that shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.

  47. What a great debate. I’m especially grateful for the airline insiders who know a lot more than I do about the process and who have added so much to the discussion. When I grow up, I want to be just like you.

    1. Well thanks to YOU and YOUR WEBSITE for giving us a venue to interact and exchange ideas. I’m already grown up and I all I know is that there are 30,000 or so travel agents in the USA and only one Chris Elliott.

  48. I find that Southwest is consistently more expensive than other airlines-at least on the routes I fly.   However, they have more direct flights (on my routes) and also in my experience are more forgiving when it comes to changes.  I work in a hospital in a tourist driven city.  EVERYDAY I have patients from out of state that are forced to change their flights because they are admitted to the hospital.  Southwest is consistently forgiving of fees and fare changes when it comes to this.  They are not taking advantage of anything.   They have their product and they list what they charge.  So does every other airline.  It is up to the consumer to check the prices of other airlines and compare it with their own needs/wants.   It is foolish to come back and say “they took advantage of me” when they only checked one source for pricing. 

  49. If you do your research, you will quickly see who has the best rate for your flight.  Stop being lazy, and blaming the airlines.  There are many search engines that will do a multi-airline search in seconds.  If you want, cross-check it with SWA or whoever else you think might be cheaper.  Take responsibility, and stop blaming “others”.  There is ebb and flow in every market, and from hour to hour.  Give me a break!

  50. I just did a pvd to cho comparison and SW$346.80 , UA $345.30, US $344, DELTA $346.80  all charged the same fare with US being the LOWEST and SW/DElta the HIGHEST.  So whats the difference?  Assigned seats?  cattle calls? Free drinks? Bags? —-for me it is the STOP over in January location.  Delta is taking me to Atlanta, US+UA it is CLT SW BWI –who is going to get the snowstorm hit ?  Then there is the last flight out SW is dropping me off at 11pm at night—bad move here.

    Even with a $25 bag fee UA or US is the better choice going into CLT and having a 9pm drop off rather then a 11pm in the DEAD OF WINTER.

    1. Bravo! You just showed that when seats are available for each airline’s lowest fare, the price of the ticket across all of the airlines would be more or less be the same. Therefore, you simply pick the airline that will give you the most convenient flight. (Of course you need to weigh whether bag fee or change fees will enter you own equation.)

      This makes one wonder why there are many OTAs and meta-search sites doing shopping comparisons? What’s the point of making a lot of comparisons if  airline fares will likely be the same if you buy early enough and seats are widely available?  Just pick your favorite airline and fly! Essentially market competition will force airlines to offer the same fares.

      However, when seat availability tightens, it’s a different story. You are really searching for (remaining) available seats at each airlines least expensive booking classes and then comparing what you’ve found. Hence, you have to shop around because the VARIABILITY of ticket prices has increased.

      1. you are 1005 correct.  When I shop in advance, I just pick AA.com.  I know what I am getting, it works for me, the prices are usuallly comparable with others.

        When inventory tightens and I am flying out of SFO to LAX, I often fly Virgin America.  AA usually costs about $160ish each way plus $30 to hopefuly upgrade to first class.  Virgin will guarantee me a first class ticket for $200ish each way.  About the same.

    2. And again – on any particular flight, the options may or may not be the best for you on any given airline. Even to an apparently non-existent location like “CHO”. Wherever it is, if you were flying with a checked bag, all the airlines other than southwest would immediately cost you $50 more ($25 for a checked bag each way). Two checked bags, because it’s winter and you have a bunch of heavy clothes for a vacation? Make that $120 more. The times might still be bad, but that’s a schedule issue, and those change constantly.

  51. Southwest is pretty good when it comes to their fare specials.  They also make it really easy for people to figure out that it’s maybe $99 to fly out and $129 to fly back.  You’re not left trying to figure out which flight combination yields the lowest fare.

    They’re also pretty good when it comes to full-fare.  I think their fully-refundable fares are probably much better than those of the legacy carriers.

  52. Haven’t read all the comments, but in my experience, Southwest does two things:
    1) They force the other airlines who serve the city-pair (in this case MKE-FLL) to lower their fares.   Yes you have to change on WN, but you have to do that on almost every carrier excepting maybe Frontier’s poor excuse for the corpse of Midwest Airlines.  I am sure that before Southwest served both MKE *and FLL, fares were much higher.
    2) Southwest offers reasonable last-minute or “walk-up” fares so that a trip that needs to be made can be made without a second mortgage.  But that’s not applicable in this case.

    Caveat Emptor!

  53. Choosing an airline or flight first depends on your flying patterns which include frequency, time of year, destinations, and routing. Then based on that criteria selecting the best option for you can be made. It may well be that WN and other carriers fit quite well, or it may be that the legacy carriers make much more sense. If you know you are going to purchase a specific product (like a car or major appliance) do you only go to one store without checking to see what the price for that product is elsewhere? Why is the purchase of an airfare supposed to be any different, due diligence would certainly require anyone to figure out what the best fare for them would be. 

  54. David Simon should consider, that although Southwest costs more, he’s likely to have a much better experience with them than with bottom rated US Airways. I’d pay the extra in return for being as sure as I can be that I and my bags will actually arrive on time.

  55. Those of you who keep posting in favor of Southwest because you ONLY have to pay the fare difference are missing the whole picture.  Southwest sets their fares by advance purchase: 21 days AP, 7 days AP, no AP or walk-up.  If you purchased a 21 day AP fare, and want to change at the last minute, you WILL pay the difference to the walk-up fare, which can be considerable, often $200-300.

    On a legacy carrier, yes, the rule is the change-fee plus the fare difference — IF THERE IS ONE, but it is often possible that you ONLY have to pay the change fee.  There is no automatic fare difference, but there is on Southwest.  Changing your ticket on a legacy may often be only $150 flat, but Southwest’s fare difference will usually be more, especially if you purchased 21+ days in advance.

    1. You’ll likely have the same problem with legacy carriers since their cheapest fares also have a 14-21 day advanced purchase requirement. So you might be better off with WN since you save the change PENALTY fee ($150).

      Last July-August, we did make a change for 5 tickets (LGA-LIT) and it cost us $5 each on WN. Had I did the same on DL/UA (which we usually fly for this route), it would have cost me $150 x 5 plus fare difference if any. Note this was not a last minute change.

      That’s said a last minute change for any carrier will usually burn a whole in your pocket since there will likely be no seat allocation on any cheap fare bucket.

      1. Exactly. Plus, the fact that Southwest doesn’t charge change fees is a benefit if you want the flexibility to change your flights further in advance. We’ve benefited from this twice already. Once, we were traveling with my in-laws and found out a month before the trip that they had accidentally booked a different outgoing flight. The prices of the two flights were identical, so we simply switched to theirs, at no cost. The other time, we found a great rate on a doable but less-than-ideal outgoing flight and booked it. After a couple weeks of searching, we found a day where the price on our preferred flight had dropped until it was almost as low, changed our booking, and paid only about $30 total.

      2. I don’t know if this is still true, but on American, if you changed the outbound flight you were basically screwed.  The outbound ticket was repriced at the current price plus change fee

        But if you changed the inbound flight, the repricing was based upon the pricing structure as of the day you bought the ticket, assuming that fare class was still available.

        Perhaps on of the TA can explain it better.  I thought that was weird but made use of that fact on vacations.

        1. Carter, you are actually ticketed for EACH leg at a certain BOOKING CLASS. When you buy 14-21 before you depart, the PROBABILITY that seats (space) will be available on the cheap booking class for your flight is HIGH. As the dates become closer to your departure, the probability gets LOWER since more people would have come in and bought out the cheaper classes.  So you will be forced to rebook at the higher priced booking class. The probability of finding a seat on a different RETURN date is higher because people are more flexible for their return date.
           If the same class is available on the new date, then the airline MAY (repeat MAY) just charge you the CHANGE FEE (i.e. $150) and not the fare difference. But, this is the case if the airline is willing to just *REVALIDATE* your ticket.

          Some airlines require *REISSUE* of a ticket when there are changes. That will require RE-PRICING of the whole journey PLUS the CHANGE FEE. Normally, you will pay a lot more if reissues are required since the fare basis that was used to price you old ticket may no longer be active and you might have to pay the current fare (which is possibly higher). Airline mostly never give you back money if the current fare is lower.

          1. okay.  I’m not sure if we are talking about the same thing.  Why is the return ticket treated differently that the outgoing ticket.

            For example, 14 day advance RT tickets from SFO to RDU was about $300. Walk up tickets were $900.  I wanted to leave a day earlier or later.  They told me that I’d have to have the outbound repriced at the walk up rate. I declined.

            I decided to return a day earlier,  I was able to retain the 14 advance purchase rate and just paid the change fee.  Is that the revalidate?

  56. Whenever I check Southwest out of STL at least a week in advance, the fare is higher than USAir.  Usually have a stop somewhere but I’m retired so don’t care.  Every segment including on board crew were wonderful, check in a breeze except TSA as usual, etc.  Spent $112 less per ticket than Southwest.  I’ve always shopped around and usually get a better fare.  Sometimes it takes calling an airline directly and hopefully getting a sharp agent that will figure out how to give me better fare than online.

  57. I haven’t read all the comments yet but in the article it talks about MKE to FLL and on that route Southwest has non-stop service, as does AirTran and Frontier. So, OF COURSE, USAirways is going to charge less as they’re going to make you connect through CLT.  That’s where the difference comes in; you’re going to spend an extra hour or two in order to save that much money. If your time is so valuable that a connection is not an option you’ll spend more to get there non-stop. If you have time to spare, save the money and take the connecting flight. Southwest is my 1st choice out of ABQ but I’ll fly someone else for a truly better deal, like when I was able to fly USAiways “F” class for the same price as Southwest’s full-fare coach — that’s pretty much a no-brainer.  Love them or hate them, Southwest is probably the most aggressively low-fare carrier around. And the lack of “fees” is refreshing.  But someone is always going to be cheaper. 

  58. Due diligence is up to the traveler.  You can’t believe anything in ads (do you really think the Wonder Bra fits all women the same way?), you have to do some research.  That’s part of the game.

  59. As a very frequent flyer whose company policy requires us to book low fares, I rarely find Southwest has the lowest fares UNLESS you can book a web special fare during one of their many sales  Often, US Airways is cheaper even with bag fees added. 

    Southwest is no longer the innovative, low cost, flyer friendly carrier they once were.  Their revamped “frequent flyer” program was a HUGE step backwards for many business travelers, and you cannot be sure their cost for flights is the lowest anymore.  They board “cattle car” style so you and a spouse/traveling companion may — or may not —  be able to sit together unless you board early on a flight originating at that airport.

    And there is a reason they don’t let you see them on many comparison web sites — they aren’t competitive anymore and seeing their fares on Travelocity or similar web sites would show that in a minute. 

    With the AirTran acquisition, Southwest moves farther and farther away from their “roots” and more and more “legacy” carrier.  And, just to be clear about costs, Southwest is the MOST UNIONIZED AIRLINE FLYING. 

    BTW, the article emphasizes Southwest but the photo is JetBlue.  JetBlue is a nice airline to fly (seat reservations, Direct TV/satellite radio at each seat)but don’t count on it being the cheapest, either.

  60. I think it’s a little unfair to JetBlue to call them out and post a pic of their airplane when all the examples cited are Southwest.

    Yes, Southwest has gotten extremely expensive, especially after they revamped their Rapid Rewards program.  I cancelled my SW credit card after I realized that my regular flights had nearly doubled– even several months in advance.

    However, I still have a JetBlue credit card, and still find them cheaper than legacy airlines.  I live in Philadelphia, and if I book in advance, it’s less than half the cost to fly from JFK-SFO on JetBlue than it is to fly PHL-SFO on USAirways or United (or EWR-SFO on Continental).  And that includes my round-trip Amtrak ticket to New York.

    Flying PHL-SFO on Southwest is about the same cost as USAir– and I have to change planes in Chicago!

    Granted, if I don’t have the time to spend 2 hours getting to the airport, I suck it up and pay for USAir.  But what am I paying for?  Not extra room and in-flight entertainment, that’s for sure.  Give me JetBlue any day of the week.  “Low-cost” or not, they treat me better than any of the legacy carriers.

  61. Well, I do shop around (I’m a former travel agent) and check Southwest against what I find.  In many cases Southwest IS cheaper, but not always.  I got best price on Southwest for trip to Washington, DC.  Other carriers were lots higher.  Like everybody else, they have tiered pricing and when the cheapest seats are sold out, you pay more.  Bottom line is book early and compare for best deal.

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