Flight Review: Southwest Airlines (737-700) Economy From Puerto Vallarta to Los Angeles
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To The Point
My first international flight with Southwest was very similar to previous domestic flight experiences. The pros: a near-empty plane and a speedy boarding process. The cons: no meal service and trouble connecting to the Wi-Fi.
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As part of a recent trip Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (PVR), I wanted to fly back to Los Angeles (LAX) on Southwest, especially after hearing how the airline had ramped up its international routes. After staying in this beautiful part of Mexico for a week, I was eager to test out the route and see if my experience would differ from a transcon flight TPG’s Assistant Editor Nick Ellis had taken with Southwest last year from Newark (EWR) to Las Vegas (LAS).
The great thing about Southwest’s Rapid Rewards loyalty program — aside from its lucrative and highly-coveted Companion Pass — is the flexibility you’ll have when it comes to redemptions. With TPG’s current points and miles valuations in mind, my 8,568 Rapid Rewards ticket (without taxes and fees) was worth $128.52, since he values each point at 1.5 cents. That sounds like a great value right off the bat, but once you add the international taxes and fees ($52.38), the total price conversion of the ticket is $180.90, which is about $15 less than buying the ticket outright. Although the price of the ticket ($195) includes the taxes and fees, by redeeming miles, I saved some out-of-pocket cash, but not much.
Since I had so many Rapid Rewards points, I decided to redeem them for the flight so I could maximize my cash on this trip. To pay for the taxes, I chose to use my Platinum Card from American Express so I could earn 5x on flights booked directly through the airline.
If you don’t have enough Rapid Rewards points in your account, you have numerous options. One is to transfer points through Chase’s Ultimate Rewards Portal — with a 1:1 instantaneous transfer. Another possibly more lucrative offer is to sign up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, which comes with a 40,000 sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 within the first three months of opening your account.
Compared with my past Southwest experiences, the online check-in process was a little different and more complicated for this international route. Since you don’t select a specific seat before boarding, you usually just get a boarding number immediately after you click “check in” online. Here, however, you have to confirm some personal information, including your passport number. After I spent about five minutes checking in (remember that you have to check in as close to 24 hours before departure as possible to secure the best boarding position), I received the green check mark, along with a fantastic boarding number of A 28. Note that instead of being able to breeze right through to security in the US, for international routes, you still have to go to the counter and show your passport to receive a physical boarding pass.
When Friday arrived — and after getting over the fact that I was leaving the warm weather of Puerto Vallarta behind — I hailed a taxi directly from my hotel, which was about a 10-minute drive from the airport. Even though the taxi fare was nearly $20 coming from the airport, the ride to the airport was a mere 100 pesos, or about $5.
Immediately after walking into the PVR airport, I felt a sense of ease and relaxation — it’s nothing like the fast-moving Los Angeles or New York airports.
At PVR, you have the option of checking in at kiosks, which serve each of the six main carriers, including Southwest. Personally, especially when flying internationally, I feel more comfortable being able to interact with an airline agent to confirm my flight details and routing.
The Southwest ticket counters were located at the end of the hallway and looked clean and organized. Since I wasn’t very early for check-in, I was truly surprised that I was the only one at the counter — it turned out only 37 other passengers were flying with me that day.
The agent advised me this was an unusually empty flight (since some other carriers were dealing with an oversold situation). I was immediately optimistic that I’d be able to have a comfortable flight. For this trip though, mobile boarding passes weren’t offered, which I tend to use when flying domestically.
Because this was an early evening flight, I had already had my lunch at the hotel, so I wasn’t hungry. On the other hand, if you’re craving classic American foods, like Subway, Starbucks, Burger King or Sbarro pizza, don’t worry, you’ll have plenty of time to visit those restaurants once you’re past security (or some of them, like Subway, even before that point).
Even though I had TSA PreCheck from my Platinum Card from American Express, the fast-lane security wasn’t offered at PVR and it certainly wasn’t needed — the entire security screening process took about five minutes. After placing my bags and sweatshirt into the bins, I walked through the scanners and was quickly on my way, while also feeling confident that the airport staff was diligently checking travelers.
Immediately past the security checkpoint, I saw the airport’s duty-free shopping experience. The presence of the duty-free shops was truly powerful and overwhelming. The one pictured below wasn’t the only one. As I turned corners, I knew I’d see another duty-free shop. After passing by so many, I was tempted to check them out, and, not surprisingly, the prices were not noteworthy, nor worth the hassle of traveling with extra bags.
The Priority Pass Lounge
After exploring the relatively small Mexican Riviera airport, I was glad to see the VIP Lounge, which I have access to thanks to my Priority Pass Select Membership. Although I have multiple cards that can get me into the vast network of Priority Pass Lounges, not all of the will let you in via your mobile phone.
Since I sometimes forget to carry my Priority Pass card, I was glad that my Amex Platinum Card offered mobile entry. As I checked in, I was given the Wi-Fi login information, but because I still had some of my international data plan left, I decided to skip the Wi-Fi — though I heard from others that it was acceptable.
My hopes and expectations weren’t very high for this lounge, so I wasn’t too disappointed once I got settled in. Compared with the Centurion Lounges, or even other Priority Pass Lounges across the US and the world, this one was very small, cramped and not very comfortable. Still, with that in mind, it made do for the quick 30 minutes I needed to pass the time.
The bar area was quite small, but the bartender (and waiter) offered a nice selection of mixed hard and soft drinks, along with prepared meals.
The sandwiches offered at the bar are for display only. Once you’ve made your choice, a new sandwich is prepared and warmed up quickly. Small snacks, such as fruits, muffins and cookies, are complimentary as well.
I decided to have a Coke — which seemed to have a different taste than the one offered in the US, by the way — along with some butter cookies and a ham and mushroom panini.
The airport was quite small, so the lounge was situated in a spot overlooking the taxiway, making for some great plane spotting. There wasn’t much traffic on the tarmac at the time and that led me to believe my flight would be on time — which was partially true.
The regular Southwest boarding process that I’ve become accustomed to usually has what appears to be metal-clad poles, allowing passengers to line up in groups of five, depending on the group number they’re placed in (A, B or C). Instead, at PVR, Southwest puts a retro twist on the process. The gate agents continuously flip the cardboard signs for boarding groups A 1–15, A 16–30 and so on.
Since boarding was scheduled to commence at 5:25pm, just 20 minutes before the scheduled departure, I began to feel a little concerned that we may be delayed, considering the plane wasn’t in sight at our scheduled boarding time. Thankfully, within a couple of minutes, the plane arrived at the gate, the incoming passengers deplaned within 10 minutes and we had completed boarding by 5:50pm — only a five-minute delay — with one of the quickest turns I’ve ever seen completed.
Cabin and Seat
Since I had boarding position A 28, and no one even had a boarding pass in the B group, I was able to snap a few pictures of the inside cabin before the (few) other passengers completed the boarding process. This was a Boeing 737-700 — not even the -800 version, which is a bit newer — so the seats inside were the older version of the all-leather seats. The new 737-MAX aircrafts are highly anticipated, but we certainly shouldn’t expect to see that aircraft on this niche route anytime soon.
I picked row 10 (which I had all to myself, as anticipated) on the right side of the aircraft. The seat pitch was 31 inches and measured 17 inches wide — a slightly smaller pitch than the other aircraft in Southwest’s all-Boeing fleet.
It might not have been the most comfortable seat to be in with two other vacationers by my side, but I cannot complain about this particular situation. Since I was able to put my feet up, continue business as usual and even take a quick nap while cruising at 35,000 feet, I can confidently say it was quite an enjoyable 2.5-hour flight.
My go-to seats on any aircraft — when an upgrade doesn’t clear or I’m flying an all-economy aircraft like this one — are always emergency row seats or bulkhead seats. The great thing about Southwest’s emergency row is that the armrests are moveable, unlike many others in the industry. Since I had such a low boarding number, I was sure that I’d be able to get one of those seats even if the flight was full, but once you’re in the B group, your chances become less likely.
After I settled in and we left gate six for a relatively on-time departure, we pushed back and were on our way.
Southwest is known for its affordable Wi-Fi and many options for different amounts of access. In the past, I never had difficulties completing the payment step, but for some reason, the first two credit cards I tried this time around were declined — and I had successfully used them just moments before departure. Nonetheless, after deciding to buy the full-flight Wi-Fi package for $8 (you can also purchase texting for just $2) and the third card being successful, I quickly loaded up my computer and started browsing the web since Southwest allows passengers to use its Wi-Fi “gate-to-gate.” Keep in mind that Southwest offers more than 30 free TV channels you can watch on your electronic device as well.
While I didn’t experience any additional problems caused by external forces after I completed payment, I did make a big mistake by not ensuring that my computer (and phone) were fully charged before boarding. Also, unlike Gogo Wi-Fi, which can be used by signing in and out of an account (therefore you can access it on both your laptop and phone), Southwest doesn’t allow that feature — which would be greatly appreciated in the future.
Food and Beverage
Lucky me — I was flying on Friday, March 17, St. Patrick’s Day, which is one of the many days on which Southwest offers one free alcoholic beverage. Although the beverage prices are all very reasonable (priced at $5), it’s still a nice gesture. Chips and peanuts were also complimentary. Considering many airlines don’t even offer complimentary snacks on long-haul domestic flights, it’s another nice gesture on Southwest’s part.
As my quick getaway to the paradise of Puerto Vallarta came to its inevitable end, I’m satisfied that I chose to fly Southwest back home. Not only was I able to secure myself an entire row (meaning lots of extra legroom), but I was able to redeem my Rapid Rewards points and truly make the most of all those points I’d earned on past Southwest flights.
When traveling to Mexico in the future, I will definitely consider flying with Southwest again, since its prices and service are quite consistent across the board. Although I didn’t experience many differences on this flight compared with a regular domestic Southwest flight, minor variations — from the check-in procedures to the boarding process to this near-empty flight — made it a very pleasant experience.
Have you ever taken an international flight with Southwest before? Tell us about your experience, below.
All photos by the author.
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