One of the best perks of interning at Southwest Airlines is unlimited free travel to all 101 destinations across the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. The only catch? It’s space available or non revenue travel, meaning we fly on standby. But with a little bit of creativity and a lot of flexibility, we can pretty much go anywhere we set our hearts to.
An airplane nerd, a pilot, and a network planner walk into an airline
The world of nonrev travel is a complex one, so most interns are encouraged to take an easy first trip such as Dallas to Austin, Houston or San Antonio. But of course, as an all-time airplane nerd who luckily got assigned to live with other airplane nerds with plenty of energy and an attitude of spontaneity, it was a match made for the actual friendly skies.
The plan was a simple: from Friday night after work until Sunday night, fly on as many flights as possible. Ideally, we would fly coast-to-coast, go through 12 cities, fly on 12 different flights, and catch the B737-8 MAX in between. We would position ourselves Friday night from Dallas towards the East and on Saturday morning, fly up and down the East Coast before taking a transcon flight to the West. On Sunday morning, we would do a few more flights down the West Coast before hopping back to Texas. At the time of writing, this was our itinerary:
Spreadsheets, Spreadsheets, Spreadsheets!
We began our master plan more than a week in advanced so we consistently had to update our spreadsheets with the latest loads and researched back up flights just in case things go wrong…and in the world of nonrev travel, things are never a guarantee and things will go wrong.
Off to a Rough Start
We began our Friday night journey completely off our initial plans. My roommates and I ended up on all different flights Friday night when the flight from Dallas to Nashville went from 21 opens seats to zero open seats. After doing a quick Dallas to Lubbock turn-around (because why not?) I then flew down to Houston and onto Chicago, our stop for the night. My roommate Zac did a Dallas to Austin to Houston flight, where we were reunited and flew on the same flight to Chicago. Hudson, my second roommate flew an insane detour by flying from Dallas to El Paso to Phoenix and then to Chicago, adding more than 1,500 miles to an otherwise 800-mile journey.
Overnight at Chicago-Midway
Our strategy was to not only be flexible but to have a daily destination goal in mind. Our two overnight layovers were Chicago and Las Vegas and no matter how we get there, we set our minds to get there by the end of the day. It proved to be a good strategy especially after our last-minute flight changes since we at least had one destination in mind rather than randomly picking a destination with no plan in mind. We also made sure we didn’t book any non-refundable transactions in advanced such as hotels just in case we really had to change our destination for the day.
Think Fast, Be Strategic, and Be Flexible
After an uncomfortable but brief night at Midway Airport, we flew down on a relatively empty flight down to Atlanta to catch our flight to Jacksonville which would then take us to Baltimore, Phoenix and eventually Las Vegas. However, as we were just to begin our initial descent into the world’s busiest airport, Zac and I found out that the Jacksonville flight was no longer available, which would then mess up our whole Saturday itinerary. We quickly got together and strategize our next best move. I immediately went on www.flightstats.com to check all the Southwest departures within the next two hours while Zac went on SWA Life to check the availability. We were still adamant on ending up in Las Vegas for the night while making sure that we at least touch the East Coast.
It was all hands on deck (except for Hudson who was deep in his sleep across the aisle). After several minutes of barking Southwest departures out of ATL as Zac double checked the loads, we found our exit strategy: fly up to Milwaukee, then east to Boston, before coming back towards the same direction to Indianapolis, Denver, and finally Las Vegas. Since I haven’t been to either Wisconsin or Indiana, it would mean upping my US state count to 35 states while also squeezing another flight for the day.
The Best Flight Ever: My Dream Coming True & A Reflection on Southwest Culture
It has always been my dream to be a flight attendant for a day. As silly as it sounds, I’ve always wanted to go down the aisle and serve drinks, collect trash, and assist passengers one way or another and on our flight from Indianapolis to Denver, this is what exactly happened. As a WiFi intern, I was able to help an elderly gentleman who was having trouble connecting to the WiFi. “Should I turn airplane mode off to connect to the internet?” He asked. I said, he didn’t have to and offered him some help setting it up. I grabbed the seat back card with the instructions, knelt down besides him, and spent a few minutes walking him through the steps and the features of the inflight entertainment system. He said that he recently just got his iPhone and made a lighthearted comment about his age. I told him if he had any other questions, he can ask me anytime during the flight. He then smiled and said, “you’re a good man.”
The flight attendants also played a prank on us by asking Zac to test the air quality by making him walk up and down the aisle with the airsickness bag. One of them also announced that it was his birthday, instructing all the passengers to close down all the shades and turn on their blue flight attendant buttons that they called “Southwest birthday candles.” One of them lead the entire plane to sing happy birthday which ended up in a massive applause and blowing the “Southwest candles” by turning off the call buttons and to Zac’s slight embarrassment because it was actually not his birthday.
Overnight in Las Vegas (In an Actual Hotel)
After a long day and a half of flying, we finally reached our first actual destination: Las Vegas, Nevada on Saturday night. We quickly booked a last-minute hotel room at the Luxor via HotelTonight, an app that posts last-minute hotel deals at a great bargain. Exhausted but excited, we grabbed an Uber to the hotel, took well-needed showers, grabbed dinner, and walked down the Strip to see the Bellagio fountain show. As much we love flying and being stuck inside a metal tube several times a day, it was finally nice to lay in an actual bed and be in a place for more than 25 minutes. The next day, we decided to sleep in and take a later flight, cutting down our original plan of flying from Las Vegas to Portland, Oakland, Los Angeles, and back to Las Vegas before flying back to Dallas to simply doing a simpler route: Las Vegas to Sacramento, and then from Sacramento to Burbank and back to Dallas. We were back at Love Field Airport by 9:30 PM Sunday night, formally concluding a combined grand total of 37 flights and over 25,000 miles.
This weekend has been a whirlwind. It was extremely fun to fly across the country simply for the sake of flying. I’ve also learned so much about nonrev travel: be flexible, be patient, and also be strategic. As we passed through different Southwest stations from Chicago to Atlanta to Milwaukee, it was great to see that Southwest spirit. Our flight from Indianapolis to Denver was especially a memorable one. The crew on that flight reminded me why Southwest is not the only most loved airline out there, but one of the world’s most admired companies. It was also a heartwarming reinforcement that I am extremely privileged to now be part of this family. Lastly, flying with my roommates reminded me that passion becomes infinitely more special if you get to share it with someone and I’m glad that I didn’t even have to convince them to do this spontaneous, exhausting, and unforgettable weekend.