Trying to decide between flying Frontier or Southwest? Since both similar, lower-cost airlines, it’s a common dilemma!
The quick answer is that you get what you pay for when flying an ultra-low-cost airline like Frontier and that means lesser service and perks compared to Southwest. Southwest is highly rated in customer satisfaction and overall service, but the rates may be slightly higher per flight.
That’s the way-too-short answer, so we’ve put together a full guide with every important nuance you need to know about these airlines.
Here’s a short background on the two to start us off:
Frontier Airlines was founded in 1946 with a focus on the Rocky Mountain Region. After closing in 1986, a new business group opened with the same name in 1990 within the original Stapleton International Airport hub in Denver. It’s one of America’s top ultra low-cost carriers and the ninth largest airline in the world.
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.
Tickets, Pricing, & Extra Fees
Pricing is the top factor people consider when comparing airlines. Every flight will vary in pricing, and can appear to change over time as you search for flights leading up to your vacation. But we’ve done the work to compare prices between the two airlines so you can have a decent understanding of the cost and what’s included.
Frontier uses a bundled approach for purchasing tickets, which means the flight can be as cheap or as expensive as you want depending on the perks you choose. You’ll start by selecting your departure and destination cities, followed by the date, and then the list of available flights will appear. Pricing begins with a base fare for a roundtrip as you choose your flight times. The base fare only pays for a seat on the plane and nothing else.
We priced out a few trips to find the average costs of flights during the year and found that Frontier typically charges about $185 round trip on the East Coast and around $500 for cross-country flights for a single passenger. This is the base fare and will incur extra fees for baggage and other perks.
After choosing your base fare, you’ll be prompted to select the bundle you’d like. Here’s the breakdown of the bundles:
- The Perks Bundle: $45 allows you to bring one personal item, one carry-on bag, and one checked bag. Plus you can select your seat and get priority boarding.
- The Works Bundle: $100 allows you to bring one personal item, one carry-on bag, and one checked bag. Plus you can select your seat and get priority boarding. You can also get flight flexibility and a total refund if you request it.
- Unbundled: this approach allows you to customize your selections and can get expensive fast. To select a premium seat it can cost up to $60 per flight, where standard seating can be as little as $15. A carry-on bag is $40 per flight. One checked bag is $40 and two bags will cost you $92 per flight. Flight flexibility is $10 per flight.
You can find all of these bundles listed on Frontier’s site.
Southwest pricing is 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”
You can find all of these fare types listed on Southwest’s site.
We used the Wanna Get Away option to price out different trips throughout the year, comparing to Frontier’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:
Frontier includes baggage fees in their “Perks” and “Works” bundles, but the Unbundled option charges $40 for carry-ons, $40 for one checked bag and $92 for two checked bags. Overweight or abnormal items like skis, surfboards and instruments will have different fees assessed on site.
They encourage guests to purchase their luggage online with their ticket because prices for individual bags will cost more at the ticket counter and will sky rocket at the gate.
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.
Frontier seat selection is included with the “Perks” and “Works” bundles but the unbundled option will charge anywhere from $15-$60 to select your seat. Purchasing flight flexibility is $10.
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
Frontier has a savings program called Discount Den that costs $60 a year. This is a subscription program that allows members to access exclusive savings throughout the year and will even allow kids to fly free on select flights.
Frontier also has an Airlines World Mastercard which collects miles with every purchase on the card. In addition to using miles toward flights throughout the year, card members will get priority boarding with each flight and foreign transaction fees will be waived on international purchases.
Outside of these programs, anyone can view Frontier’s current discounts on the home page of the website or see the full list under the “Deals” tab. These will change pretty frequently and will typically be themed for the holiday or season.
Southwest has a rewards program called Rapid Rewards which 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
Experience, next to pricing, is one of the top reasons for travelers to choose one airline over the other. Most passengers are looking for comfort and quality, along with friendly customer service and cleanliness. We’ll touch on different parts of the flight so you can know what to expect between airlines.
Frontier offers the bare minimum in their seat design and technology, which is why they are able to make your flight so cheap. It’s important to realize this going in before you have a rude awakening stepping aboard the plane. The seats come pre-reclined and you won’t be able to adjust them, plus the tray tables are slim and there is no on-board entertainment.
Some people complain about the cramped feeling of flying with Frontier, but you may have a better experience if you’re able to sit in the exit row or if you have an aisle seat. On the bright side, Frontier has received awards for cleanliness in the cabin.
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 low-cost airlines.
Frontier doesn’t have a First Class, but you can upgrade to premium or “stretch” seats at the front. They cost $60 to reserve when you book online and will offer an experience more typical of standard seats in other airline’s Economy Class. The only perks to booking one of these is to access a comfier seat, get priority boarding and to not feel cramped while flying.
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 row if you want.
Frontier does not have the best customer reviews regarding their staff, but that doesn’t mean you won’t encounter a friendly flight attendant. Generally, the service is poorly executed because of the cheaper price for flying. The airline does not go above and beyond to accommodate guests because they are not required to.
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.
Frontier is a great example of getting what you pay for. Since the base ticket only books a spot on the flight, you’ll be paying for all the extras – including food and drinks on board. We suggest bringing snacks and a water bottle with you to avoid overpaying on the flight, along with some headphones and a laptop or a book for entertainment.
Southwest does 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.
These airlines will have regular flights to and from major cities, but more obscure cities and international flights might be harder to schedule and plan for. If you’re looking to travel spontaneously, it’s helpful to know which airlines are most accessible. It’s also good to know who can switch your flight more easily in the event of a cancellation or flight change.
Frontier has 106 aircraft in it’s current fleet, taking travelers to 115 different destinations.
Southwest has 734 aircraft in their fleet, shuttling nearly 4,000 passengers every day.
Frontier has plenty of destinations and is based in Denver. They place an especially high priority on the Rocky Mountain region of the United States. They’ve also got focus cities, or smaller hubs, in nine other US cities including Miami and Atlanta. Save for a few, most 115 of Frontier’s destinations are within the United States. Cancellations and flight changes have been more of an issue with Frontier, mainly due to their airline size and customer service reputation.
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.
Frontier currently has one route to Canada, going to Calgary. The other international offerings include Mexico, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Jamaica. In Summer 2021, they’ll offer flights to Nassau in the Bahamas and Philipsburg in St. Maarten.
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.
Frontier allows adult passengers to bring one pet in a small carrier that fits under the seat in front of them. The charge per pet is $99 each way and must be reserved in advance to guarantee placement. They’ll allow any small pets, including dogs and cats, plus rabbits, guinea pigs, hamsters and household birds. These rules apply to domestic flights, but Frontier will allow dogs and cats on flights to the Dominican Republic and Mexico.
Southwest will permit both dogs and cats on board the plane with reservations made in advance. Space is limited with only six pet carriers allowed per flight. Passengers will be required to keep their pets contained in their carriers for the duration of the flight and will pay $95 each way for their pets to travel in cabin.
Both Frontier and Southwest will not transport any kind of pet in the cargo hold of the airplane.
Lastly, all commercial airlines are extremely safe and major incidents are very, very rare. Percentage wise, minor incidents and major accidents don’t happen often at all. But it’s worth noting which airlines have the best safety measures in place for not only you and your family, but also your luggage.
Both airlines use the standard aircraft makes and models, which have high safety and security ratings. Airbus comes with a “Skywise Reliability” program which reports safety concerns automatically to the airline and make the most highly rated planes on the market, never experiencing a fatal crash in their entire existence.
Frontier uses Airbus A319, Airbus A320, and Airbus 321-200 models, while 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.
It’s extremely uncommon for airlines to experience minor issues. Emergency landings are not out of the ordinary for any safe airline, along with wing panel or landing gear trouble, but passengers are almost never in danger.
However, track records are still important, so we’ll cover major incidents to give you all of the info you need.
Frontier had a few fatal incidents in their early days piloting smaller aircraft, but these days have proven much safer. Aside from a few small incidents of turbulence and bird strikes, the most recent accidents have involved chemical odor on board. This smell occurred several times between 2016 and 2018 on different A320 and A321s resulting in over a dozen passengers and several pilots being hospitalized due to the fumes.
Other than these incidents, the only true accident that has occurred in the last five years involved heavy winds and a hard landing in Orlando in 2019. No injuries from crew or passengers were reported in this case.
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, these airlines follow the TSA guidelines for prohibited items aboard the plane. They also adhere to the standards of each country they fly in to during international travel and require each traveler to 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. Lithium batteries are strongly prohibited on Frontier flights.
As far as losing baggage goes, checking directly with the airline in the airport should be your first step. Second, Frontier will assess damaged baggage and may pay the cost of damage, if applicable, up to $3500. For lost baggage, they require you to submit a Delayed Baggage form in person or on their website.
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.
To wrap it up, Frontier may be ideal for quick, spontaneous trips alone, but Southwest is the real crowd pleaser when traveling as a group.
It makes sense to take Frontier when you’re looking to save money or book a quick flight out of town, but the cost will also determine the service received in the airport, on the phone and on the plane. If you go into the flight expecting precious little in accommodations, then traveling with Frontier will be much easier.
We prefer to take Southwest almost always, since the cost is not usually high for most flights and they include two free checked bags per person on each flight. As long as you stay within the weight limit for your bags and you arrive to the gate early for boarding, traveling with Southwest will be a breeze. Not to mention the free snacks and friendly attendants in flight.