Southwest Airlines: Great Prices, But Beware the Bait and Switch

Before I kick off my little pity party that’s doubling today as a do-it-yourself therapy session, let me state for the record that I think Southwest Airlines is still the best-run US domestic airline in the business.

Although I have no loyalty to any airline, I love flying Southwest. A big reason is they are generally tough to beat when it comes to low fares, but what really takes Southwest to the next level are their employees — I think they’re the friendliest in the industry, bar none. And I mean all of them; from the pilots, gate agents and stewardesses flight attendants, to the baggage handlers and cleaning crews.

Okay, I can’t vouch for their mechanics, but I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that they’re just as happy-go-lucky as the rest of Southwest’s employees.

Now that I’ve got that out of the way, it’s time to beef. And unless you’re the type that’s got more money than time I’d advise you to pay close to attention, because what happened to me can easily happen to you too.

As many of you know, I’m speaking at next month’s Financial Bloggers Conference in Denver. Although I briefly considered trying to save a few bucks by driving from my Southern California home, in the end I decided it made a lot more sense if the Honeybee and I traveled by air.

Of course, that required me to purchase a couple of plane tickets. So after a little online research, I found the best deal, by far, was being offered by Southwest Airlines.

How good? Well, after entering the pertinent data into their website, Southwest came back with an almost unbelievable deal: two tickets from Southern California to Denver for $104 each, and two tickets for the return leg for $114 apiece. Add it all up and Southwest was offering me two tickets to Denver and back for a grand total of $436!

Are you kidding me?

I thought I had died and gone to heaven, even though all I really did was stumble upon one of Southwest’s web-only “Wanna Get Away” specials.

In any case, I was so happy with my good fortune that I did a quick Irish jig (it wasn’t much more than 10 seconds) before I hit the “continue” button.

Anyway, the next step was to pay, so I dutifully filled out the requisite info and hit the “purchase” button.  And that’s when the trouble started, folks.

Instead of seeing a confirmation screen on my monitor that verified I had just scored what was probably the best airfare deal west of the Rockies, I got a message in red letters that started with this word: “Oops!”

The rest of the message essentially noted that Southwest could not complete my purchase for the return leg of our trip. Fine; I understand websites have occasional hiccups. But after being steered back to the flight selection screen for the second time, Southwest had changed the deal they originally offered. While the cost of the tickets for the outbound flight remained the same, the return leg ticket price had magically increased an additional $199. Each.

As a result, the new total fare was $833.20.

What the … ?

In the blink of an eye, my airfare just increased $398!

I couldn’t believe it. This was outrageous!

To paraphrase Weekly World News columnist Ed Anger, now I was madder than a flight attendant stewardess with an armful of overflowing barf bags. I felt like I had just taken four $100 bills and tossed them into the whirring jet engine blades of a Boeing 737.

On the summary page, Southwest did their best to make me feel better by noting that the higher “Anytime” fare they had just foisted upon me had the advantage of “great flexibility.” It didn’t work.

I didn’t want “great flexibility” — I wanted the “excellent value” they originally offered me with their “Wanna Get Away” fare!

Forget great flexibility -- I want an excellent value. Â (Click to enlarge.)

As far as I was concerned, Southwest just pulled a classic bait and switch maneuver, and so I called one of their online customer service representatives to voice my displeasure.

Jordan, bless her heart, tried her level best to explain how there are only a limited number of those special fares available. She suggested there might have been only one “Wanna Get Away” fare available for the return leg, but since there were two tickets requested, it rejected the original offer.

“Then why did Southwest offer me the fare in the first place?” I asked.

“I can’t answer that, Mr. Penzo.”

Jordan then tried to make me a happy customer by offering me their “Wanna Get Away” fare on the return leg, but only if I was willing to stay another day in Denver. Unfortunately, that was not a viable option for me.

So, after I finished wearing myself out ranting about the terrible financial injustice that had just befallen me, and with the two of us locked in an obvious stalemate, Jordan offered up her condolences.

“I’m really sorry we can’t help you, Mr. Penzo.”

Jordan’s patience was admirable, and her voice was so, well … disarmingly pleasant. I swear I could almost see her sympathetic smile on the other side of the line.

“I am too, Jordan.”

We then wished each other well and said goodbye.

What a nice young lady! I thought to myself as I hung up the phone.

And as I sat there, resigned to my inglorious fate, I suddenly realized that, for some strange reason, I wasn’t really mad anymore.

Mildly irritated; yes.  But angry? Nah.

Photo Credit: Kevin Coles

24 comments to Southwest Airlines: Great Prices, but Beware the Bait and Switch

  • Ahhhhh, decisions, decisions, decisions!!! Tis one of the beauties of a free enterprise system, isn’t it? think about it, under a socialistic system none of these hassles would exist. the decision would have already been made for ya in some way or another. :)

    of course none of this would have happened to me. i gave up on air travel a long time ago when you had to wait in a certain designated area to pick up a passenger from LAX. remember those times? ahhh the good ol’ days, where did they go? :)

    • Len Penzo

      I remember the days when I could get to the airport about 40 minutes before departure (not boarding — departure) and slide into my seat without any hassles.

      While I’m strolling down memory lane, I also remember the days when half-empty planes weren’t unusual. If you can believe this, back in the late 80s (or maybe it was the early 90s) when I used to take a lot of business trips to San Antonio, American used to run a DC-10 (a twin-aisle behemoth) between Dallas and San Antonio that was usually 70 percent empty. I never understood why they used to do that, but it was a lot of fun having such a huge airplane almost to yourself!

  • I can’t believe this, but I’ve had the same thing happen at Southwest.com. My call was eerily similar. Very nice employees. My take home lesson: they should have bigger type telling you there are limited seats, and second…grab ‘em fast when you see a great deal! Might want to do the jig afterward, Len.

    • Len Penzo

      Ha ha. You’re right, Joe.

      One thing I will do in the future the next time I see a super-saver deal like the one Southwest offered me is to type my information as quickly as possible before doing my Irish jig. You never know when somebody is just ahead of you in the ticket-buying queue about to pull the rug out from under you.

  • Lola

    Moral of the story: Never do your jig until the transaction is complete! Sorry Len. :(

  • Ugh, thanks for sharing. So many damn nuances to getting a good flight price – book on a Tuesday, take connecting flights, etc. Never simple. But people that don’t do some research and compare pay a premium

    • Len Penzo

      Yep.

      That’s why, on most flights, the odds are pretty good that the stranger sitting next to you most likely paid a different fare than you did. And in some cases, it’s one that is either significantly higher or lower.

  • That sucked. What did you end up doing? I assume southwest was still cheaper. I wonder if you book separately if you could have gotten the 1 ticket deal…

    • Len Penzo

      Southwest was still the cheapest, Lance. So I’m flying with them in both directions. (But you can bet on my way home I won’t be asking anybody else in my row how much they paid for their seats.)

  • i too have had a similar thing happen..

    it would seem to be in their best interest to post a “just # seats left at this price” message next to the wanna get away listing.. and have that number appear when the total got below 5..

    not only would this prevent the situation that you found yourself in, but it would be a big marketing push to potential buyers to jump on deals when they are available.

  • I cant believe this – I fly southwest all the time (home airport DIA), and I”ve never once had a problem. One time, I was due to go to DC (Dulles) and I was sitting there, waiting for boarding. Turns out, I missed it and just sat there as the plane took off. They got me on a flight to baltimore quickly, and for free! I’ve never had a problem with them. Did she at least offer you the “wanna get away” fare for 1 of your tickets?

    • Len Penzo

      Jeff, I actually had a brain fart and did the same thing once on a flight to Albuquerque. I was waiting at the wrong gate for my plane and completely missed it.

      Boy did I feel stupid. Anyway, the folks from Southwest were awesome and got me there on the next plane.

  • It happens, don’t bother to imagine about your trip before checking the same in real time because now it’s an era where business is everything and nothing is like the customer satisfaction what gives a great business damage to companies but they never understand their mistakes.

  • This has never happened to me but thanks for the heads up. I like Southwest but I have to drive to either Chicago Midway (50 miles) or Milwaukee (65 miles) to fly them. I generally try to fly from O’ Hare which is about 2o minutes away where the gates are too pricey for Southwest.

  • You got past anger way faster than I would have, lol. But yay for customer service that tried to help. Sorry your dreams of super cheap got dashed. :-(

  • Lelhani

    When something like that occurs, the best thing you can do, is open up a different browser. The “cookies” on the one your were using when things went wrong, will keep throwing you into a loop of ever increasing prices and possibly sold out dates. So if you are in Firefox, calmly close that browser and open, say Google Chrome. BTW people should ALWAYS comparison shop by opening 2 different browsers, especially involving anything with a reservation, hotel, rental car, air fare…. Browsers are not created equal!

    • Len Penzo

      D’oh! Lelhani, I already knew about the cookies. In fact, I always tell people to clear their cookies when they are comparison shopping for the very reason you stated. Why I didn’t put two and two together and do exactly as you advise can only be explained by my initial dumbfounded anger momentarily short-circuiting my brain. Thanks for the reminder! LOL

  • If it’s any consolation, I’ve had the same thing happen with both American and United.

    On the flip side, I’ve had the reverse happen a few times, too. Couldn’t pull the trigger because there were certain details not settled yet. Went back and voila! fares dropped – same flight, same day.

    It’s the online lottery. When you see something, you gotta move FAST!

    Look forward to meeting you in Denver.

  • Len,

    I love Southwest. Sorry to hear about your trouble. I’ve never had that happen. I’m assuming you know that if Southwest drops their price you can rebook for the lower price and use the difference as a credit towards future travel (from one year of the original booking). Right now you can fly back on Sunday for $114 or Monday $104 so you might want to take a second look and see if you can snag a cheaper fare while Southwest is having their current sale.

    • Len Penzo

      Thanks, Craig! I just went to their site and got a return flight for the lower price — although the Honeybee and I have to fly with them again within the next year to take advantage.

      Maybe we’ll take a quick hop to San Francisco or Las Vegas.

  • carthell

    Huh. I thought I was the only person in the world that finished airplane reservations close to midnight ET, close to when the airlines usually change their fare databases.

    A few years ago while securing a especially good deal, there was a piece of information that I needed from a fellow traveler. The traveler didn’t have the info, and wasn’t particularly motivated to find it. A short period of time later after midnight, the deal doubles in price. Ouch.

    I can’t think of a industry that best puts into practice the old maxim, “If you snooze, you lose.”

  • [...] Penzo with Southwest Airlines: Great Prices, But Beware the Bait and Switch  I would have been PISSED.  Go Len for being [...]

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