Is Southwest really cheaper than other airlines?

My parents are big flyers with Southwest Airlines, and I often hear from friends and family that Southwest is always cheaper than other airlines, and that’s why they fly them. But is it really?

Southwest is one of several low-cost carriers – in the likes of Allegiant, Sun Country, Spirit, and the former Air Tran (which merged with Southwest). The premise is to provide lower-cost fares between cities – lower than that of their mainline counterparts at American, United, Alaska and Delta.

In talking with many other frequent flyers, and taking into account my own experience, I usually find Southwest more expensive than other airlines, even taking into account the savings from no-change fees, and free baggage allowances. That said, I wanted to dissect some fares here so you could see the differences.

First off, it’s important to note that Southwest concentrates a large chunk of their flying into alternative airports – in the case of Chicago that’s Midway over O’Hare and in the case of Washington DC that’s BWI over Dulles or Reagan. That said, I’m going to be looking at fares between the same cities, for easy comparison.

Let’s look at Baltimore/BWI to Los Angeles/LAX departing October 21, returning October 28. This is a totally random date, and I’ve selected the cheapest flights for the day.

On Southwest, it will cost you $382, connecting in Dallas Love Field.

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It’s worth noting that in trying to find the comparative flight on a mainline carrier, I did find numerous cheaper fares on Spirit, however for the purposes of this test, I’m going to not include those.

Check this out — Alaska Airlines prices in at $297 and it is non-stop.

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So, in this case, that’s one for for the mainline carrier. Southwest does not price in cheaper.

Let’s try again – this time searching from New York La Guardia to Seattle/Tacoma on February 10, coming back the 17th. Again, random dates.

Southwest has “Wanna Get Away” fares for $348 round-trip. Not too bad.

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On the mainline side, we have numerous fares at…well…$348. So, this one is a tie. You’ve got your pick between United and American.

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Now, let’s try Albuquerque to Orlando departing March 8, returning March 15.

On Southwest, it’s $319.50.

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On the legacy side, it’s $353.50. So, in this case, Southwest is cheaper.

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Now, let’s mix things up a bit and look at Dallas to Chicago. For Southwest, they fly Love Field to Midway. Again, March 8-15.

It’s $222.

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Excluding the Spirit flights at $81 round-trip (wow!), American prices in with a savings of $1.

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Lessons Learned

  • Southwest isn’t always cheaper. In fact, sometimes you can save a couple hundred by using a legacy carrier.
  • Southwest, when cheaper, is usually not significantly cheaper than a legacy carrier.
  • Southwest offers free checked bags for the first and second bag, so take that into consideration, unless you have elite status or a co-branded credit card for the other airline.
  • Southwest often flies into alternative airports, so in the case of the last test between Dallas and Chicago, you may be better off flying out of DFW and into ORD, simply because of the connection possibilities, and/or public transportation alternatives.
  • It looks like the legacy carriers try and compete with the fares on Southwest. So, Southwest fares may be lower, but the legacy carriers follow right behind in lowering their prices to match.
  • Here’s where Southwest edges out the competition, though: If you’ve got to cancel your flight, you can do so and receive a credit for the money spent. On a legacy carrier, you’re pretty much flat out of luck. Here, Southwest wins…by far.

In the end, though, Southwest really doesn’t have a significant savings, even where there are savings. I’ll stick to my guns and go on the legacy carriers, if I’ve got the choice.

Do you find Southwest Airlines cheaper than other airlines?

 

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Comments

  1. Kate says

    I don’t find southwest the least bit cheap. But we will definitely be flying them more because of the ability to cancel tickets.

  2. Daniel Boone says

    With Southwest I tend to book my flights as soon as the schedule opens up, because in general, that is when the fares are the cheapest. Then I keep checking (rather frequently) the price for the same itinerary (same SWA flight) on Southwest.com, and if I find a cheaper fare (often there is a price reduction in the ensuing weeks or months), then I rebook it through the website. It is very easy, you just click on “change” reservation button and follow the instructions. You either get a refund, or hold the funds for future use. If the price does not drop, or gets more expensive as the travel date nears, then I did well for booking it so much in advance. In my experience, SWA tends not to drop the price within a week of travel. Last time I flew to DCA, the plane was 20% full, but the one way ticket was still $380.

  3. says

    Southwest offers TWO free bags not just one so to me that is already $100+ in round trip savings. What I recently found is that a near trans-con nonstop (OAK-CMH) was cheaper than their own one-stop and connecting flights. And the other airlines were a little more than WN but were connecting flights.

  4. Ghostrider says

    You know Walmart and SW have some very interesting similarities one being they purport to be the “cheapest” but if you really compare their fares like Walmart many many time there are very very few cheap seats the rest at or above market. But then a lot of people have sipped the cool aid

  5. Rusty says

    Southwest is great in three areas. Two you mentioned were no bag fees and the credit if you have to cancel your trip. The other and biggie for me is dynamic award pricing. Example, our points round trip cost to Orlando next month is 4546 points ($49 each way) instead of 25K on AA, etc plus points get redeposited for free if you need to cancel.

    My strategy is to use Southwest points for domestic travel and save big 3 points for international business/1st travel often getting 10+ cpm in redemption value.

  6. Jeff says

    Living in Los Angeles, Southwest completely owns certain routes. At this point if you want to fly to Vegas or the Bay Area from LAX or Burbank you really don’t have a choice. Everyone else has basically abandoned those routes.

  7. Emily says

    of course Southwest won’t be the cheapest every time. I also think it depends on where you live, what hub flies of your area and if you’re going to another hub. I do think that Southwest is typically the cheapest out of Chicago and I don’t find Midway all that inconvenient/hard to get to. I travel about 30% of the time for work and I’ve found that it’s much easier to build up points for free flights through Southwest than it is on other airlines. So for that reason, I’d choose a slightly more expensive Southwest flight if it’s within reason.

  8. Stephanie says

    Southwest isn’t always cheapest but living in Vegas they are the biggest carrier. Recently though I’ve book roundtrip LAS-PDX for 95.96 on a weekend mid-April and LAS-SFO for 77.90. And one way LAS-STL for 119.80. Just need to hit a good sale and keep checking to see if the price goes down.

  9. Peri Duncan says

    After my experience with SWA this past week, they will never be getting my money. So don’t forget: you choose your seat on legacy carriers–it is every man for himself, no matter what they say, on SWA.

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