Posts Tagged ‘airlines’

Tips for flying Southwest

April 15th, 2019

One of these airplanes is not like the other
“Um, excuse me, this is the one that doesn’t crash and kill everyone on board, right?”

After the unfortunate sunsetting of Virgin America I’ve found a new favorite airline for inexpensive travel throughout the United States: Southwest.

It’s a quirky budget airline that has some unusual tradeoffs. Most famously you can change your flight for no extra fee if you pay the price difference. However there’s a lot more to it than that which I’ll get into in far more detail.

This is all based on a combination of research and personal experience. The more you know ahead of your flight the less stressed out you’ll be. Trust me, you want to know all this in advance instead of asking gate agents or Googling “how to board Southwest” in a last minute panic at the airport.

Without further ado here’s what you need to know when flying Southwest.

Aircraft, seats, and entertainment

Southwest only flies 737’s, and they’re all arranged with 3×3 seating arrangements — in other words a single aisle with three seats on either side. All seats are effectively the same, though you will get more legroom in the emergency exit row.

I’ll explain this in much more detail below, but there’s no assigned seating on any Southwest flight.

Unlike most airlines where there’s an in-flight entertainment system built into the back of the seat in front of you, on Southwest it’s strictly a bring your own device affair. They do have a few free movies and TV shows to watch on their in-flight wifi so bring headphones and a fully charged device (there are no outlets.)

To be clear the onboard wifi does not provide general internet access unless you pay an additional fee. All you get for free are the entertainment options, a neat little flight tracker page, and the option to purchase alcoholic beverages.


All Southwest tickets include two checked bags, one normal sized carry on, and one small personal carry on like a purse or laptop.

What you chose to bring as a carry on may be important; be prepared to have it converted to a checked bag at the last possible second, so in other words bring anything you’ll need onboard like snacks or medication by stuffing them in your pockets.

I’ve observed they don’t count bringing a bottle of water on board as a “small personal carry on.”

In flight food and beverage

All Southwest flights include light snacks and beverages. Depending on the length of the flight you may be offered multiple snacks and beverages. For very short flights they may just have pretzels.

For around six to eight dollars extra you can order alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and extremely tiny bottles of hard liquor. Some of the included beverages are actually cocktail mixers, though you don’t have to order liquor to enjoy a virgin cocktail.

Obviously if you’re a picky eater or have dietary restrictions, bring your own. The only restriction is you’re not allowed to bring alcohol and drink it during the flight.

Boarding system and checking in

Last and definitely not least is how you board on Southwest. Unlike other airlines, it’s all open seating. (Side note: remember when movie theaters had open seating?) So what’s important to keep track of here is when you get to board the aircraft.

There are four distinct boarding groups which board in the following order: A, families with small children, B, and C. If you’re not in a family with small children, you line up next to the metal poles in the boarding area when your group is called. Next is the number on your boarding pass: 1-30 lines up on one side, 31-60 lines up on the other. Passengers are supposed to work out the ordering among themselves by comparing the numbers on their boarding passes.

Families with small children do not line up in this system, but instead form a separate line in an ad-hoc manner. The only restriction is they cannot use the emergency exit row, which for safety reasons is limited to able-bodied adults.

Since it’s open seating if you’re picky about your seat — especially on longer flights — it’s to your advantage to board as early as possible.

There’s also a second perk to boarding early: remember what I said about carry on luggage? If you’re like me and prefer to travel light with a carry on bag, you might be required to check your bag if there’s no space in the overhead bins. It’s not the end of the world, but it means you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim instead of walking out of the airport.

So how do you get into the earliest boarding group?

If you fly Southwest a lot, you’ll get bumped up to what’s called “A-list.” This means you not only get the first slots in the A boarding group, but you also get to skip to the front of the TSA security check line. It’s a neat loyalty perk that most of us will never achieve. You can also buy “Business Select” tickets which cost significantly more but also get you into the A boarding group. It’s not a true business class since you’ll share the same seats as everyone else.

I don’t think it’s supposed to work this way, but in practice if you’re anywhere in the A boarding group TSA might wave you to the front of the security check line when you show them your boarding pass.

Two other factors determine your place in line: when you check in to your flight, and if you purchase the “Early Bird” add-on. You can check in 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure online or in the Southwest app. The sooner you check in, the better your boarding position. If you purchase Early Bird you’ll automatically get checked in before the rest of the plebes who didn’t buy business select or have A-list.

Lastly here’s a clip from stand up comic Beth Hoyt explaining how not to fly Southwest. If the embedded time code doesn’t work the bit about her bad experience is from approximately 1:44 to 3:25.

How I was financially compensated for a delayed flight from Europe

August 2nd, 2018

My flight home from Oslo had a prolonged delay. The kind of delay where it slips so many times you start to lose track of which gift shops you’ve already browsed, and you have more than enough time to think about which restaurant you want to use your meal voucher at.

It turns out that delay earned me a pretty significant discount — more than 50% off in my case.

How? A couple days after the flight I got an email from TripIt, a free website I use for scheduling trip activities (hotels, flights, tours, etc.) The email said I might be eligible for compensation due to the flight delay. They included an estimate of the compensation and offered to direct me to a third party that would help me collect.

Immediately this sent off some alarm bells; it sounded too good to be true. The flight cost just under $800, and the compensation amount was about $450.

I did some sleuthing online and it turns out there’s a law in the EU called EC 261/2004, also known as “Flight Compensation Regulation.” The goal of the law is to squeeze airlines for poor performance, sending the penalties straight to the consumer. As a skeptical person I’m always happy to be proven wrong though there was a catch — according to the Wikipedia page I was owed 600 euros, or around $700 USD at current exchange rates.

Obviously these third parties that collect compensation on your behalf will take a cut, but $450 on a $700 windfall seemed like a bad deal. I spent the next couple hours digging around trying to figure out how to submit my claim directly to the airline. While their claim submission form was easy enough to find their website didn’t really explain how to use it or what information they wanted. I thought about giving them a call, but at this point the phrase “sunk cost fallacy” was already swimming around in my head. I gave in and let the third party collect and take their cut.

As you might imagine these services make it a snap to enter the information they need, upload the required documents, and presto — a couple days later they’d organized my documents, filed the claim, and soon they’d transferred the money into my checking account as promised.

I still would have preferred getting home on time to getting money back, though there’s something to be said for getting a discount on a sub-par experience. More countries should consider implementing penalties like this, and they should make it easier for consumers to collect in the event of a delay.

I took that crazy cheap flight to Barcelona

July 22nd, 2017

Park Guell
Barcelona skyline from Park Guell

Recently a new airline called Level introduced a crazy cheap nonstop flight from Oakland to Barcelona. I immediately decided to take the plunge and book a trip. If that sounds insane, keep in mind Level is from the same company as British Airways and Iberia, so it’s not just some random startup with an airplane made out of cardboard and duct tape.

Now I should mention that going in, I knew that the cheap ticket wasn’t without its limits. The flight did not include free food, checked luggage would cost extra, and selecting a seat was also an extra charge. I only paid for the latter — I’m an aisle seat kind of guy because I drink too much coffee.

The first step was buying the ticket, from there I needed to find out how much time off I could take from work. When that turned out to be a month, I also needed to figure out where else I wanted to go in Europe.

I’ll get into some trip details some other time, but first I learned a few things traveling to and from Europe on the cheap. Here’s what I found:

Book now, ask questions later

Over a couple weeks I found my friend in Greece was interested in traveling with me, I could stay at his place in Athens, and that we were both interested in visiting Rome. From there we had to figure out what we wanted to see together, and I had to figure out where else I wanted to go.

After booking half a dozen tours, a few flights, train rides, airport bus shuttles… somehow a couple months had gone by. Oops.

For better or worse, the cheapest flight out of Europe by that time was also on Level, and was also from Barcelona — but for almost double the original price. I shouldn’t have spent so much time on research. Damn!

The worst part of it is that many of the most interesting tours, museums, even restaurants that I went to were the ones I found after I’d landed in Europe, either because someone told me about them or because I happen to Google them late at night before going to bed. Clearly, mistakes were made.

Pack light

Discount airlines charge extra for checked luggage, so only bring the absolute minimum with you — and the absolute minimum back. For me this meant I had to buy a few extra supplies like a new toothbrush and more sunscreen while abroad. Not a big deal.

You might think traveling light is hard; I found the experience the exact opposite. Instead of trying to lug a rolling suitcase over cobblestone roads and dragging it up and down flights of stairs, it was just me, a backpack, and whatever was in my pockets.

Clothes were not a problem. Most of the places I stayed at where Airbnbs with their own washing machine, so about four days of clothes was enough. I actually overpacked; I bought a pair of pants and a sweatshirt that I never wore due to the hot summer weather.

Still not convinced? Well don’t take it from me, travel expert Rick Steves recommends packing light as well. Besides, there’s no better feeling than walking past the baggage claim, eyeing your fellow passengers collecting mountains of luggage while silently mumbling “suckers” to yourself.

Prepare for liftoff

No food on the plane? No problem. Buy some food at the airport that will last a while, and eat it on the plane when you’re hungry. Bring a bottle of water and some tea or whatever. Most importantly, bring an energy bar or something in case you’re hungry. In theory you could buy food before you even got to the airport, but that can result in TSA headaches.

Like many airlines, Level does have food for purchase on the airplane but it’s overpriced and there’s no guarantee it will still be in stock by the time you’re starving, so it’s best to buy food ahead of the flight.

As with any air travel, check SeatGuru to see what each seat has — in flight entertainment, USB charger for your phone, electrical outlet for your laptop, etc. Even if there is in flight entertainment, it still doesn’t hurt to have some TV shows, movies, audiobooks, and podcasts all ready to go at your fingertips. This is especially important for very long airplane rides.

Don’t fear the cheaper

So, what’s the trade off for a cheap flight like this? Here’s what I noticed.

Both flights were reasonably on-time, with the flight back getting delayed 30 minutes or so. Not bad for a transatlantic flight. Seats were as comfortable as other airlines, and the airplane was brand new. Level doesn’t have its own points/miles system, but at least for the moment you can earn Avios points through an Iberia Plus membership.

The flight leaves from OAK instead of SFO. For me anyway, I think the BART ride is a little shorter to OAK so that’s fine. However, the airport food options leave a lot to be desired. At the Barcelona airport the plane doesn’t connect to the gate, you have to get on a bus that takes you between the tarmac and the gate. This seemed a little weird because the Barcelona airport is enormous and not all of it is currently used, but maybe this saves money somehow?

The in flight food ordering system was supposed to work through a touch screen, but it was buggy and impossible to place an order without help. I suspect this will be improved in the future, and I was an unwitting beta tester. As a result the flight attendants could be a little slow to help sometimes.

The in flight entertainment was much better than I would have expected. I finally had a chance to watch Deadpool and finish the first season of Westworld. I also watched the Assassin’s Creed movie, but the less said about that the better.

Online check-in was broken on the flight out, but was working and integrated with Apple Wallet on the flight back. This is a huge time saver when you only have carry on luggage. It also means you have to make sure your phone still has a charge by the time you get to the gate, of course.

Obviously, cancellation or changes are not included in the lowest fares.

Just do it

If all that sounds fine to you, then by all means book an inexpensive flight like this on Level, Norwegian, or whatever. But make sure to book as far in advance as possible so you get the lowest rates, and say no to upsells you don’t need.

In my experience, I’ve always flown economy in all my transatlantic flights, and this seemed easily on par with what you’d get with a more expensive major carrier like United. I’d even go so far as to say that not including meal service is a plus, since the cabin frankly smells a lot better without the nauseating stench of airline food.

So if you want to cross some travels off your bucket list without spending a lot, by all means try the new cheap airlines. You have nothing to lose — especially if you don’t check any luggage.

How to be a decent airplane passenger

November 9th, 2012


Look. I’ve been doing far too much airplane travel recently. Like most of us, I’m not traveling on private jets; I’m flying “economy” on commercial airlines. Airplanes, airports — it always sucks. At best, the experience isn’t complete bullshit. At worst, the stench of airline food will make you beg for death.

Here’s my advice on how to be a decent person throughout your air travels. If we all follow these simple rules, the entire airline experience will suck a lot less for everyone.

Follow along and take notes.


  • The rules are usually posted all over the place, so don’t hold up the line because you forgot to take your shoes off or throw away your water bottle.
  • Yes the security can be demeaning in the United States. If you want to opt out of the scan, just say so. But you don’t need to be a dick about it to the employees. Harassing the security staff will make the other passengers think you’re an asshole — and they’ll be correct.


  • Check in your luggage. Don’t be one of those carry-on abusers who brings a giant suitcase on board that takes up half an overhead bin.
  • You can board at any time after they call you row. So why rush to be the first one on? Unless you’re one of those aforementioned carry-on abusers, spending an extra 30 minutes on a stinky airplane isn’t an advantage. Don’t wait in line, just walk in when everyone else already sat down.

Sitting in coach

  • Squirming wildly the entire flight is not fair to the person behind you. Letting your child repeatedly kick the seat is not fair to the person in front of you. Don’t be a dick.
  • Here’s the rule for armrests: if you take one, you can use that space and no more. Armrests are not an excuse to elbow someone in the gut.
  • As for who gets which armrest, it’s simple: the person squeezed on the inside gets it. If there’s four people side by side, only the armrest in the center is in play.
  • If the person in front of you wants to lean back, that’s their call. Need the extra space? Tough luck, cheapass. You should have shelled out for extra space.
  • Does your baby scream and cry repeatedly for dozens of hours on end? If so, have the decency to cancel your flight. I’m sure your “family emergency” or whatever is important, but that doesn’t give you the right to make the next 10 hours of a bunch of stranger’s lives completely miserable.
  • Nothing wrong with talking to your neighbors, but being extremely chatty is obnoxious. I don’t need a 10 hour lecture on collecting flowers. Know when to STFU.


  • If you’re sitting next to a young child, you probably should think twice before watching Ultraviolent Sex Horror III.
  • If you sit there with the map open the entire flight, it’s like shouting “ARE WE THERE YET” the whole time.
  • For fuck’s sake, bring your own headphones. You won’t be able to hear anything with the piece of shit ones they hand out anyway.

Food and drink service

  • Bring your own. And you’d better eat before they start microwaving the airline food, because the entire plane is going to smell like rotten farts for the rest of the flight, and the bathroom will smell like death.
  • If you’re going to order a bunch of coffee or booze every time they offer it, take the extra five seconds to request an aisle seat. It’s the least you can do.


  • You went before getting on, right? Don’t be one of those dumbasses who does the “I have to pee” dance behind the food cart.
  • Just because the seat belt sign turned off doesn’t mean you have to go mob the bathrooms with everyone else. Have some restraint.


  • You know that whole “captain has turned off the seatbelt sign” thing? Follow it, or risk getting knocked on your ass. It’s there for a reason.
  • Just like boarding the plane, there’s no reason to be the first one off. If there’s no room to stand up, then don’t. Wait your turn.
  • Airplane seat pockets are not garbage cans. Leave a magazine here if you want, but not gum or burritos.

Photo by Wildhaber