Trying to decide between American Airlines and Southwest for your next trip?
The quick answer is that Southwest is highly regarded as a low cost airline with the best customer service, but it primarily serves North America and the Caribbean. American is one of the largest airlines in the world and travelers will get what they pay for with customer service.
Low cost airlines are some of the most popular options for travelers when planning a trip around the country or around the world. Since this is the case, it’s pretty common to see vacationers comparing American Airlines and Southwest Airlines.
When traveling in the United States, choosing between them will come down to comfort, experience and price – all will be covered in this article. To begin, we’ll give a brief background on both:
American Airlines is the world’s largest airline based on fleet size and number of passengers carried per year – nearly 200 million of them. This was a direct result of merging with US Airways in 2011, but American got it’s original start in 1930 when two airline organizations merged at the time.
Southwest Airlines is the world’s largest low-cost carrier, first established in 1967. First operating solely in the state of Texas, Southwest later expanded their reach to the United States and beyond. Southwest has high customer satisfaction ratings while offering competitive pricing on tickets.
Pricing & Extra Charges
Pricing is almost always the key factor when choosing between airlines. Since airfare tends to be one of the biggest travel expenses when taking a trip, it’s important to know how each company charges for tickets, baggage and extra hidden fees.
American uses a fairly standard booking system, separating options into classes. Main Cabin seating is what we’ll be using for this pricing example, which allows you to choose your seat and includes no change fees, which is a plus if you need to switch flights after booking.
We tested booking flights throughout the year to compare pricing and concluded that a round trip along the East Coast is generally around $240, cross-country flights are around $400 and a trip to South America is about $500 for a single passenger with a possible stop at favorable flight times.
Here’s a full breakdown of what each American Airlines class includes:
- Basic Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, and advanced seat selection with general boarding for the lowest cost possible
- Main Cabin: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with general boarding
- Main Cabin Extra: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, more leg room for $20 over Main Cabin
- Premium Economy: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and exclusive meals with free alcoholic beverage for about $300 over Main Cabin
- Business: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on international flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club for about $1000 over Main Cabin
- First: includes carry-on and personal item, one checked bag and advanced seat selection with early boarding, priority check-in and security, wide seats with more leg room, complimentary amenities bag, free WiFi, and premium dining on domestic flights with access to the Flagship Lounge and Admiral’s Club for about $500 over Main Cabin
Southwest pricing is also based on class, separating costs into three easy choices: Business Select (premium), Anytime (moderate) and Wanna Get Away (cheapest). There isn’t a huge difference between the classes since the seating is pretty standard across the board. The biggest differences are experienced with the extras included with each fare. Here’s the breakdown:
- Wanna Get Away: includes two free checked bags, no change fees and no cancel fees for the lowest price available
- Anytime: includes two free checked bags, no change fees, no cancel fees and the opportunity to change your flight last minute and get a refund for about $400 over “Wanna Get Away”
- Business Select: includes two free checked bags, no change fees, no cancel fees, opportunity to change your flight last minute or refund a flight, priority boarding, priority security line and a complimentary alcoholic beverage for about $400 – $500 over “Wanna Get Away”
We used the Wanna Get Away option to price out different trips throughout the year, comparing to American’s costs. We found that a round trip along the East Coast averages about $150, a cross-country trip with a likely stop is around $300, and a round trip to the Caribbean is about $515.
P.S. – When you’re done reading this one, don’t miss our other expert airline comparisons:
American baggage fees for your first checked bag are included in the above list, but extra bags are priced as follows: first bag, if not included in ticket price, is $30, the second is $40, the third is $150 and each additional bag after that is $200. Pricing may vary for international flights.
Southwest never charges for luggage unless you have more than two checked bags per person. Each bag you bring in addition to the first two will cost $75 each. All checked bags must meet or be under the weight and size requirements, which is typically 50 lbs per bag at less than 62 inches long. Otherwise the fee could be $75 for an overweight or oversized bag.
American doesn’t have many hidden fees, but there are a couple extra options you can get with your flight. For example, if you’d like to insure your flight and get a refund, fees will be assessed according to the price you paid for the round trip flight. The fee is typically between $50 – $150.
Southwest has upgraded boarding available on some flights, usually between $30 – $50 extra per person. We recommend adding this option with your Wanna Get Away ticket, since this ticket option boards last. This allows you to board early and choose the seat you want. Southwest does not allow guests to pre-select their seat, so early boarding is the only way you’ll be able to choose who you sit next to.
Early check-in can be also purchased for $15 extra, guaranteeing a smoother start to your day at the airport.
Ways to Save
American has the AAdvantage Program, which is a loyalty program with points given for taking flights, or spending money with their hotel, rental and dining partners. The points can be used for flights, upgrades and car or hotel rentals. Their Elite Status reward members get the best advantages if they are very frequent flyers.
Southwest has a rewards program called Rapid Rewards, that allows you to earn miles by booking flights and spending with Southwest retail and accommodations partners. You can use your points/miles on flights, hotels, car rentals, gift cards, merchandise and Cardmember experiences. The best part about the program is that there are no blackout dates for booking flights and the points never expire.
Non-members can also look for the “lowest fare” marker when booking regular flights to find the best rate.
Seats & Flight Experience
In addition to pricing, comfort is the next most important factor when choosing your airline. We fully cover the details on the flight experience from comfort and safety on board, to the friendliness of the staff and the quality of the food served.
American‘s Main Cabin seating has become noticeably smaller in recent years, allowing for more passengers to board each flight. Travelers have noticed that the leg room has become shorter and the lavatories seem to have shrunken. It’s possible if you’ve never been on an American Airlines flight before that you won’t have any complaints, but for those who fly American regularly, this was a big change.
Southwest has the same kind of seats throughout the entire plane, so those in Business Select will be choosing from the same seats as the “Wanna Get Away” passengers. The major difference is that economy passengers will typically board the plane last. Since there is no way to select your seat in advance of the flight, boarding the plane last could mean that you won’t be sitting with your traveling party.
As far as the comfort level of the seating goes, Southwest has some of the largest economy seats on the market with big headrests and cozy cushioning. Most passengers agree that the seating is fairly comfortable compared to most other lower-cost airlines.
American has Premium Economy, Business and First Class, which provide roughly the same experience. All promise early boarding, large and cozy seats, and special service from the flight attendants. An amenities bag with sleeping blankets and eye masks, a special menu created by professional chefs and more privacy make the premium positioning worth it.
However, there have been reported complaints about the flight crew not attending to the premium seating as expected and reports of bumping people from first class – a major no-no for those who paid to be in that valued spot. It appears that American is doing more to step up their game after hearing these complaints.
Southwest, as mentioned before, has Business Select and Anytime classes. However, these don’t work in the traditional sense. These higher classes simply mean that you can get on the plane sooner and might have better perks for getting a refund on your flight, along with the possible free drink in Business Select.
The seat size and comfort level are the same across the plane, but the benefit to Business Select is that you can board the plane early and choose the window, exit or front if you want.
American tends to have mixed reviews regarding their flight crew. Some have reported praise for the captains and attendants who have gone above and beyond to serve their passengers, but many have complained about the total lack of customer service and noticeably bad corporate culture.
It’s easy to see how an environment of friendliness can get lost in the shuffle since this is such a huge company. But needless to say, airlines are in the service industry and passengers expect more out of their staff.
Southwest is very highly rated by passengers, achieving the highest possible score in the Department of Transportation’s Air Travel Consumer Report for the lowest number of complaints per year. The staff at Southwest is generally very friendly and hospitable on each of its flights.
American provides free snacks and drinks with each flight, along with a large menu and beverage list for overnight and international flights. Wifi can be purchased for a small fee in Economy, but will be included with Premium seating. Headrest screens are also available for free entertainment on every flight.
Southwest will also include free snacks and drinks on all of their flights and will even give out free alcoholic beverages on certain holidays. Wifi can be purchased on the flight, but there is plenty of free entertainment on board in the headrest tv. Live streaming, movies and shows are offered on all flights.
Availability to major US cities and international destinations is generally easy to find with most airlines, but more obscure cities might be harder to land. If you’re looking to travel spontaneously, it’s helpful to know which airlines are most accommodating. In the event that your flight changes or gets cancelled, it’s also good to know which airline will get you on a new flight faster.
Southwest has 734 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling nearly 4,000 passengers every day. American, is again one of the largest airlines, sending travelers on nearly 6,800 daily flights with 864 aircraft in it’s fleet.
American serves 95 locations in the US, with it’s main hub in Dallas/Fort Worth and an additional 10 other hubs around the country.
Because of American’s giant alliance and network of codeshare agreements with other airlines in the country and around the world, booking, cancelling and flight changes should be easily accomplished – that is, if their relationships with their many various worker’s unions are in tact. There have been more cancellations recently due to mandatory plane groundings, which accounts for about 4% of their flights. This is considered a high number of groundings in the airline industry.
Southwest has many destinations all over the United States, with it’s central hub in Dallas, TX, as well. Many flights are available daily within the country, even in the slower months. Typically, if a flight is cancelled or delayed, the company will get you on another Southwest flight as soon as possible. If you have to change your flight last minute, they will make you pay the difference if the flight is more expensive or they’ll give you a credit if the flight is less expensive than your original.
American serves almost the entire world with national and international flights departing daily. International destinations include 95 locations around the globe, serving 55 different countries on over five continents.
Southwest‘s farthest destination is San Jose, Costa Rica. They mainly operate inside the United States, but they have several locations in Central America including a Los Cabos, Puerto Vallarta, Cancun and Cozumel in Mexico, and Belize City.
They also reach islands in the Caribbean including Cuba, the Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, Grand Cayman, Montego Bay, Punta Cana, San Juan and Aruba.
Airlines in general are very safe as far as emergency landings goes and plane crashes are extremely rare. Based on percentage, air travel is the safest when compared to other forms of transportation. But it’s worth noting which airlines have the best safety measures in place for you personally, as well as your luggage.
Both airlines are equipped with the standard aircraft makes and models. Airbus supplies planes to the majority of airlines across the world and the aircrafts they build come equipped with a “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline.
American uses mainly a mix of Airbus A320 and Boeing 737-800 narrow-bodied aircraft. The wider bodied planes in operation are their Boeing 777 and 787 models. Each of these is considered the highest standard of aircraft in the industry.
Southwest‘s fleet is primarily comprised of Boeing 737 jetliners. Boeing, like Airbus, is among the safest types of planes on the market, with a .8% fatal crashes per one million flights according to Boeing’s Statistical Summary.
Most airlines have a few incidents in the books, while others have many. For the most part, no airline commonly experiences scenarios that cause major harm to passengers, but we’ll touch on the worst incidents each airline has experienced.
American has had significantly more incidents do to it’s age and size. American Airlines planes have been hijacked 17 times, according to the Aviation Safety Network (two of them on September 11, 2001). Also in 2001, American Airlines experienced it’s second deadliest crash when Flight 587 crashed into a Queens neighborhood, killing all on board.
More recently, in 2016, a Boeing 767-300 caught fire before takeoff in Chicago O’Hare due to an uncontained failure. The entire crew and all passengers were able to get off safely, with only a few receiving minor injuries in the panic.
Southwest has never had a fatal crash, but has experienced two deaths on board. The only death caused directly from air trouble was the result of engine failure, where debris damaged a passenger window. The passenger sustained injuries and later died.
Three other reports of injuries have occurred due to rough landing or emergency landing outside the runway.
When it comes to safety, both airlines strictly follow the TSA guidelines for prohibited items aboard the aircraft. They also adhere to the rules of each country they fly in to during international travel and will have each traveler complete a form stating that they have not brought any prohibited items in their checked bags or carry-ons, which are subject to search.
It’s helpful to review each airline’s baggage requirements before flying. Some people may not know that the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 is among both airlines prohibited items, along with most electric skateboards in checked bags. American also requires mobility devices to be within certain guidelines and given advance notice.
As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. If no luck there, Southwest has a separate web page where customers can file lost luggage reports and complaints. They’ll also pay up to $3500 for lost or damaged luggage if applicable.
American also has an option to track your bags and will reimburse you for the items lost while you’re on vacation when you file a complaint. If the luggage has gone missing for more than three days, a questionnaire must be filled out and their Central Baggage Resolution Office will handle it from there.
In conclusion, a random example roundtrip flight from Miami to New York City during the busy summer month of June will cost one person about $262 with American and will cost one person about $258 with Southwest. Both of these options factor in carry-on bags and at least one checked bag.
American may offer slightly more in their Main Cabin option with no change fees and advanced seat selection, but the poor customer service, smaller facilities and the possibility of getting your flight delayed or cancelled is enough to leave this option behind. However, international flights in first class could well be worth your while.
Southwest, in this example, is minimally cheaper than American and includes two whole checked bags for one person. You’ll have a comfier chair, free snacks and drinks, free entertainment and much better service. However, you won’t get to select your seat ahead of time and could risk sitting separately from your travel partner.
Overall, we believe that Southwest is the best option, especially when traveling within the United States. American, however, is a viable option for international trips. If all circumstances are equal and you’re on the fence, Southwest is the way to go.