Sunday, October 18, 2009

Southwest Vacations - Traveling from a Travel Agent Perspective

Travel agents are notorious for making sure details are in order when booking a clients vacation. We cross all our t's and dot our i's so that our clients have no complaints when they come home. Seat assignments on flights are one thing this agent makes sure are carefully taken care of. So when this agent decided to travel on Southwest Airlines with clients - well, we found ourselves in a curious position.

The last time we flew Southwest several years ago, the airlines seating policy was "first come, first served". Since we are always early to the airport, this delighted us. Now, Southwest advises obtaining a boarding position number at least 24 hours before flying each way. They also allow some of their ticketing to pay $10 extra for early boarding. That doesn't work for everyone, though. In this agents opinion, this causes more problems than it solves.

First off, regardless of what type of ticket you purchase, this policy requires that you be at a computer 24 hours before flying to get online as soon as possible to get a boarding number. While that is fine if you are home the day before you leave, if you are on a cruise ship the day before you are supposed to fly home, this certainly isn't practical. Many cell phones don't work while at sea and it isn't cheap to sit at the cruise lines Internet Cafe trying to get online to obtain a boarding number.

Now while every airline asks you to do online check in, the timing is not that you must do it exactly 24 hous before - you can do it anytime that is convenient for YOU, because your seats are already assigned. Not true with Southwest - the later you try to obtain a boarding number, the worse position you are gong to find yourself in.

Second, Southwest only allows certain ticket fares to pay extra for a preferred boarding time. If you decide to take advantage of Southwests Vacations vacation packages and book a hotel and car rental along with your air, you are given paper tickets and cannot pay extra for preferred boarding. How is that when you are spending more money on Southwest than if you would just purchase a ticket alone? Because we purchased a vacation package, we ended up being penalized by not being able to pay extra for a preferred boarding time.

What happens if you don't have a boarding time and just show up at the airport? You get on the plane last and if you are traveling with family on a full flight, take a good chance you will all be seated separately. And mostly middle seats are left as well, so if you enjoy being squished in a middle seat, this policy may not bother you.

Our experience as agents traveling with a client now has use thinking twice about recommending a Southwest Vacation package for a client with this ridiculous boarding policy.

Here is our actual experience:

The day before we traveled, we were online 15 minutes before our 24 hour window to make sure we could get as early a time as possible. We kept submitting our info until the website allowed us to get in. The result? Positions B5 and B6 and B 10 and B11. At the airport, this found us with a choice of the last six aisles for seats together. Not a problem.

For the return, here we are at Paris casino in Vegas. Our choices, according to the check in desk for printing boarding passes were to either pay $14.95 for 24 hour access on our laptop in our room or to purchase time at one of the airport check in kiosks located throughout the hotel to print a boarding pass. We opted for the kiosk. And here is where the rubber met the road.

At the kiosk, we are required to prepay with a credit card at least $5.99 worth of time (plus an extra dollar to print the pass). As we watch our time ticking down, I input our information on the Southwest screens and kept getting a message that they are unable to access our flight. In the meantime, I am standing in between two women who are printing A boarding numbers on the same flight. When my time runs out without being able to get boarding positions, I call Southwests 800 number.

The SW clerk tells me I can't check in online because I have a paper ticket. I fully understand this I tell her, I just need a boarding position number. She tells me that they are having problems with their computers and to try later. I tell her if I try later I can guarantee I won't be sitting with my wife. She tells me 80% of passengers will be inthe same position. I tell her that I am standing in between two people who are printing boarding numbers on the same flight. She tells me this is impossible. This argument goes on for five minutes until I ask for a supervisor.

The supervisor gets on, tells me that because of the computer problem they will have to put me on hold and call the Las Vegas airport to see if they can give me a number.I am put on hold for five minutes and the supervisor then comes back and gives me boarding numbers B12 - B15 for us and our clients. I ask if the system is down, how is that I don't have B1 and B2? She can't answer that. I then tell her that we have spent $6.00 on the boarding kiosk and our clients spend $12 and we have nothing. She tells us that it is never necessary to use a kiosk, we can certainly call for boarding times.

Does Southwest give that information anywhere on their website? Absolutely not. Does that help us? Absolutely not, because we still need to stop what we are doing 24 hours before we fly to get a boarding number or risk being assigned to leftover seats. As a client is making sure you get hold of your airline 24 hours before you fly home practical when you are on a relaxing vacation?

It is a shame that SW has this ridiculous policy. They were a pleasure to fly - we left out of a small airport that didn't have the issues and delays that our regular airport, JFK does. The planes actually left on time for both flights and we arrived at our destinations early. The flight crew was delightful.

But having experienced their ridiculous seating policy, we will not only never fly them again, we will explain to our clients exactly how their seating policy works and encourage them to use another airline. Beware of using Southwest if you care about where you will be seated.

Gary Kelly - CEO - you need to come up with a better way to board. Why can't Southwest just do what every other airline does and allow you to choose seats when you book?