My First Southwest International Flight to Cancun Could Have Gone Better (Trip Report)

You may know that I’m one of the Condé Nast Top Travel Specialists. When the founder of that list, Wendy Perrin, left the magazine, she started a new website and created the WOW List for an incredible group of destination specialists. Since I don’t specialize in a destination, I’m not actually on the list. But as a friend of the family, so to speak, I’m invited to attend the annual gathering. This year it was at the Grand Velas Rivera Maya near Cancun, a part of the world I’d never been before. (Disclosure: the hotel paid for my stay, but the flights were on me.) That meant I had my first opportunity to try an international Southwest flight. It didn’t go as well as I’d hoped. I’m writing up the outbound today, and I’ll talk a bit about the hotel as well as the return flight in a special post tomorrow.

Why did I pick Southwest? Well, three reasons. One, I wanted to see how Southwest handled international flying. Two, it was cheap. And three, I have a companion pass and my wife could come along. I used 23,138 Rapid Rewards points plus $41.26 in taxes for me. I also bought EarlyBird for the return for $15 since I didn’t think I’d be able to check myself in. Unfortunately, the night before, my wife had to cancel. One kid had a high fever (which has since broken) and the other had lice. The joys of parenthood….

The morning of the flight, it was pouring rain. It took me twice as long as usual to get to LAX, though incredibly, the traffic inside the airport wasn’t all that bad. I had checked in the night before to get my B12 boarding number, but it said I had to go to a kiosk or see an agent to get the boarding pass. That was annoying since I had no checked luggage.

As I walked in the door, I saw an empty kiosk so I printed out my boarding pass and went to security. The Pre Check line was longer than the regular line, but I stuck with it. At the ID checker, I handed over my passport, and he asked if I had another ID. In a momentary flash of panic, I asked if there was a problem. Sure was. I had just renewed my passport, and I hadn’t signed the new one yet. Good thing I had my driver license with me. On the other side, I signed it.

I found a seat at the gate and was immediately blasted with PA after PA telling people that if they didn’t have a “DOCS OK” stamp, they had to come to the podium. I ignored it since the kiosk didn’t say there were any issues. But the woman next to me saw my boarding pass and told me to go up. Once there, I found two busy agents. The first seemed to be very new (at least at working international flights) and had to stop the other agent to ask a question every few seconds. Even though all they had to do was stamp my boarding pass, it took a couple minutes once it was my turn. They continued to page people until I boarded.

I had hoped to get a nice view outside, but Living Spaces has ruined that opportunity. They built this big display with comfy seating and have frosted over every window. This is an outrage. For shame, Living Spaces.


January 12, 2017
Southwest 340 Lv Los Angeles 840a Arr Cancun 405p
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 12A, Runway 24L, Depart 11m Late
Cancun (CUN): Gate 19, Runway 12L, Arrive 20m Late
N7703A, Boeing 737-76N, Canyon Blue Colors, 90% Full
Seat 4F, Coach
Flight 4h6m

Even with B12, my now-favorite seat 4F was open so I took it and stared out into the gloom. I do have to say, that was one sweet old paint job they had parked on the side.

The flight attendant came on and announced that while there was wifi on this airplane, we should buy it at our risk. He said that the other day when he flew to Cancun, they were connected the whole way but coming back they had nothing. I appreciated the warning.

The captain came on to say we’d have some bumps on the way up and it wouldn’t smooth until we hit Phoenix. (Turns out he was wrong. It was mostly smooth all the way to Phoenix.) We pushed back 11 minutes late for no given reason, and then it took us 20 minutes to taxi to the runway which was only a few yards away.

We took off into the soup and pointed east. The flight attendants came through and despite the early hour, I ordered a Wild Turkey. After the last few days with sick kids and a variety of other issues, I decided I earned it no matter the hour. The woman next to me was even kind enough to hand me a drink coupon. (The ones the airline gave me when I did 9 Airports, 1 Day either expired last year or I gave them out to people at Dorkfest.)

I logged on, and while we were technically connected, it’s hard to say that it was in any way useful. I was able to tweet, on occasion could receive email, but I could almost never send email and certainly couldn’t do anything else.

The flight attendant announced he’d be coming through with “light snacks, with the emphasis on light.” I took peanuts, Ritz with cheese, Fritos, and Oreos. Not exactly a breakfast of champions.

About halfway through, the lav lines were getting long, and a different flight attendant made the announcement that due to “international law” you are not allowed to line up for either lav. I’d only heard that for the front lav before, but I suppose it could be a weird Mexican law. Anyone know?

My row waited in our seats for about 10 minutes. It was almost our turn before the captain came to use the lav. Then the first officer. I gave up and went to the back. The flight attendant again told me to sit down, but I talked to her for long enough that the person came out and I was able to go in. I told her she needs one of those “take a number” things and she, looking very annoyed at the number of people continuously lining up, actually started writing down numbers on napkins and handing them out.

All in all, it took me over half an hour to actually use the lav from when I first tried to get up. After I sat back down, the flight attendant came back on the PA and announced that she would be handing numbers out to anyone who wanted to use the back lav. She said to ring the call button if people needed to use it, and nearly 30 did. She started announcing numbers over the PA when the lav opened and that annoyingly continued through much of the rest of the flight.

Just before we headed over the coastline in Texas, I decided to try wifi again. This time it connected… but it wanted me to pay $8 again. The $8 is supposed to be good all day, so I was miffed, and I wasn’t about to lose another $8. (I also sent a note to request a refund specifically because of that, but I haven’t heard back yet.) Instead I stared out the window and saw this beautiful scene as we went “feet wet.”

I resigned myself to watching crappy daytime television, but even that failed me an hour before arrival when it just stopped working. (Now I’ll never know if that woman won her People’s Court case….)

Soon we were over the Yucatan Peninsula and I was amazed at just how green and dense the forest was. We came down through some scattered clouds and landed. After taxiing around the airport, we finally parked just about 20 minutes late. I loved the variety of airlines. Just look at this line-up.

After walking down into the immigration area, I was confronted with a teeming mass of people. It seems like every flight arrived at the same time and they had us all gather together.

It was a mess, it was hot, and the line wasn’t moving very fast. It took me a full hour before I got through immigration only to be confronted by a long customs line as well. This one took only 15 minutes, but then I lost the lottery and got the dreaded red light. (Mexico makes you push a button and it randomly gives you green or red.) Red meant I had to go to another line where someone would pull apart my bags and look at everything I owned.

I made it through the throngs of people selling taxi rides and found a person holding a sign with my name at the overly crowded curb.

I had to wait another 15 plus minutes before my ride could get into the terminal area. In the end, I didn’t get to the hotel until 7pm, more than 3 hours after I should have landed.

Stay tuned for the riveting conclusion tomorrow.

Get Posts via Email When They Go Live or in a Weekly Digest

Leave a Reply

87 Comments on "My First Southwest International Flight to Cancun Could Have Gone Better (Trip Report)"

avatar
Sort by:   newest | oldest | most voted
BJ
Guest

I generally will only book widebody for anything over two hours. It’s seven toilets for 275 passengers versus three toilets for 175 passengers. The maths is easy. Doesn’t help when you’ve hit 50.

Matthew
Member

Not much widebody flying for flights over 2 hours in the US anymore, unfortunately.

Oliver
Guest

I take it you don’t fly much or are very restricted in your destinations then.

BJ
Guest

Coast to coast

Eric Morris
Guest

Brett, did you get PreCheck on a WN international flight?

Eric Morris
Guest

Google just told me what numerous emails I receive from SW and a couple of phone calls to pay infant taxes and get minors attached to parents didn’t. I guess the new SW doesn’t go out of its way to show that it is just now as good as its competition.

robert_239
Member

To call Cancun an international destination is a bit amusing, at least to me. You get the hassle of a busy immigration and customs facility and all else is chaotic and all to visit a place that is pretty much like an American destination. I spend much time in the area but Cancun and the Cancun airport are the worst part of the experience.

BigDaddyJ
Member

Yep. Arguably, a lot of American tourists want just that—a destination that feels close enough to home.

robert_239
Member

Agree with that. I am always surprised to read it is someone’s first trip to Cancun. I thought everyone in the world had been!

Chris
Guest

Same. For those of you who haven’t been, it’s essentially Vegas without the gambling.

BigDaddyJ
Member

I haven’t been, and given that I can go to Hawaii instead in a similar timeframe from the West Coast, I just do that. At least Hawaii has the wet sides of the island, which are less pure tourism…

MeanMeosh
Guest
Cancun is a big draw for us Texans, since it’s the closest “international” beach destination and one of the few ports you can visit by cruise ship from Galveston (yes, Texas does have the Gulf Coast, but anything north of Corpus Christi, the beaches are horrible, and the water is ugly everywhere). The rest of the country? I’d guess not so much, outside of the western Gulf Coast and the southern plains. As Cranky and BigDaddyJ have noted, elsewhere, there’s equal or better resort destinations that are closer than Cancun. As for me, I’d rather go to Belize or Grand… Read more »
drybean
Member

You need to visit South Padre Island off the coast of Texas and Mexico about 180 miles south of Corpus Christi. Travel channel says SPI is America’s Best Family Beach. AA, UA, WN all have non stops. BRO has a free Island shuttle.

amylarryden
Member

Took SWA from Denver to Cancun and back between 12/18 and 12/27.
– did not encounter the no lining up in the back of plane for the bathroom; believe that was your flight only

– my known traveler number did not transfer onto my boarding pass automatically even though it is in SWA system and this never happened before so can only assume it was an international issue

– in the past when I paid for extremely bad wifi on SWA, I have written an email to their customer service explaining the situation in detail and they have reversed the charge

wasawyerjr
Member
I fly a lot internationally. It is very rare that they make an issue of “congregating in the aisles is prohibitted by international law”. It’s announced then…A Dfw- Tokyo or Hong Kong will have a crowd standing in the aisle…A thought comes to mind, internal rules or policy, inexperienced cabin crew and maybe an air marshal aboard. They might have wanted to adhere to laws more strictly… I’ve been on the short runs Dfw to Cozumel too- big lines as people start to “party”.I’ve not had good luck with wifi onboard. On AA usually it’s advised that when you cross… Read more »
garyedel
Member

CUN immigration can be a real pain. What confuses me is the airport/immigration knows how many planes and arrival time for staffing purposes. Two years ago I waited 2.5 hours but last year 10 minutes. Both were Saturday winter arrivals. Pack your patience, empty your bladder and hope for the best

Eric Morris
Guest

I’ve had good experiences in CUN arrivals. Not so much on our return to the “Land of the Free”.

TimH
Member

What really gets me is the little border control “stub” that you have to present as you board the plane to leave Mexico. If you lose it, you have to pay $20 – as far as I can tell, they do it exactly so that they can get $20 off of disorganized tourists.

cpagan2
Member
This happened to me. I flew Interjet and and was in the line to check in for over half hour. When I made it to the counter the agent told me that they could not issue the boarding pass without the stub. It took me a while to make it to the Migra, then had to take cash out and then waited some more because other people came in. It was a pain overall and it was almost departing time. Fortunately the flight was delayed and getting through security was quick. As expected, once I made it to the gate,… Read more »
frumby
Member

During your 11 minute delay at pushback, was the cabin door open or closed? If the door was closed then, LAX as you know, is under major construction. From terminals to the runways themselves, the construction is causing major delays and congestion so “pushing” on time can be a fleeting proposition at times for flight crews. LAX will be difficult until the year 2019.

BigDaddyJ
Member

Wait, is this right? Looks like LAX-CUN is operated by a 737-700 with only 2 bathrooms. That’s 2 for 143 people, or roughly 1 per 71. That’s a terrible ratio (compared to their 737-800s, with 3 for 175, or roughly 1 per 58). No wonder the lines were ridiculous.

That’s worse than even the densified legacies. AA has 2 per 144 (1 per 72) on their 737-800s for the economy section, but if you’re desperate you can at least use the 3rd bathroom in the front.

deltabsg
Member

why in gods name would u take south west to CUN they have no experience in anything its the cattle car of the century

frumby
Member

Better customer service.

Oliver
Guest

It would be nice if you could get someone from WN explain how the “no standing in line for the lavs” is supposed to work in practice. Completely ridiculous unless they preassign potty slots to people or let you make potty reservations in your smart phone (OpenLav… you heard it here first). Of course, wit crappy wifi that may lead to mishaps.

Gary Miller
Guest
It is a FAA regulation, due to 911 that you can not stand in line for the lav’s. It’s a safety issue. WiFi will only work so far out of the US, the crew should have made an announcement. That being said WN is switching back to its original wifi provider since they have had so many problems with the current one. As far as the crew using the lav, you dont know how long they have been working and they have to keep hydrated, so yes they are going to use the lav. They use the front one, because… Read more »
drybean
Member

You are asking too much. How can an airline that can’t figure out seat assignment be expected to assign potty spots. How do other airlines handle the potty line?

Anonymous
Guest

* Riviera

David SF eastbay
Guest

So a flight to Mexico can have a TLM on board? You know TLM, Toilet Line Monitor.

CR
Member

I had a small desire to check out Cancun someday but after reading your trip report thus far, I now have zero desire to visit. What a mess. Looking forward to the return report.

stan
Guest

summery:

man buys southwest, gets a very southwest-like product. is disappointed.

Charles
Member

Sounds like a power tripping FA making up rules more than anything.

southbay flier
Guest

Cancun was really never on my list of places to visit. This doesn’t make me ever want to go.

Carol
Guest
Good Lord. Traveling is not a picnic! If a 20 minute delay bothers you, how do you ever deal with the BIG STUFF? Yes, other people travel too, and you will run into them at your destination. There are pills for anxiety disorders. Know when you begin an adventure that the opportunity for annoyance is always there. Download or bring a book if you need constant entertainment. Bring your own breakfast or any other special snack desires. Try to use the rest room before getting on the flight. Then, try to use the lav at the first opportunity. If you… Read more »
Jim M
Guest

I think wanting to use the restroom on a four hour flight is a pretty reasonable request.

Yo
Guest

Carol, some people may be on medications which cause them to have to go to the bathroom, a lot, so yeah, a 20 minute delay can be a pretty bad thing. I’m glad you have such an exceptional bladder, and I hope that you are doing the best you can to better the future gene pool.

BigDaddyJ
Member

Er, this is Cranky. He’s been a frequent flyer (and would still be if it wasn’t for kids). He knows as well as anyone, and I think a lot of people appreciate his reviews because of his veteran perspective.

Leslie in Oregon
Member

We’re making the round-trip between the Pacific Northwest and Cancun next month, so I appreciate the warnings about immigration and customs and am glad we decided to fly Alaska rather than Southwest. Despite years of near-free travel privileges, I’ve never been tempted by Cancun, even when I lived in NYC. Fortunately, we will not be staying in Cancun but going on to a rustic island about 2 hours away. P.S. As a former purser on international flights, I cannot imagine prohibiting lavatory lines without some kind of system in place to allow access to the lavatories.

ed.jacob
Member

If you are going to Holbox – it’s wonderful! The only reason I can think of for going to CUN!

BigDaddyJ
Member

Alaska’s 737-800s are just fine for longer trips. They are relatively dense with slimline seats in economy, but IMO reasonably comfortable, and they have 2 or 3 bathrooms in the back, which makes a huge difference compared to Southwest’s 1 in this case.

We fly them to Hawaii regularly from California, and have never had a bad experience. They don’t have IFE, but if you have a tablet or phone they do have streaming media you can access. Pre-install the Gogo Video Player.

frumby
Member

Southwest -800’s have the same lav configuration but wider seats.

BigDaddyJ
Member

Right, but the difference with WN is that Alaska flies (a) 738s almost exclusively for long-haul; (b) for the 737-700 equipment they still have, AS still has 3 bathrooms.

In other words, you’re going to get a better lav experience on AS. And, AS is good about being on-time (the best in the US if you exclude HA, which is a special case).

Al
Guest

SW Flight attendant completely made the rule up. No such thing on an international flight. Flew 2 overseas to SYD from SFO on UA and 1 flight to HKG from SFO on SQ this past year and people all the time waiting in line for the rear lavatories. No issues whatsoever with the crew of people waiting.

Yo
Guest
When I flew Southwest to Costa Rica (PHX-LAX-LIR), the gate agents out of PHX could not figure out how to get my pre-check on my ticket, (it worked with my companion though), they spent 25 minutes and went through 8 people trying to fix it. The number was in my flight profile, but they couldn’t do it and I was running out of time (especially since I had to go in the long line…grrr). Thankfully the flight out of LAX (in terminal 2) was very empty. None of the video on demand worked, and I wasn’t going to pay for… Read more »
frumby
Member

In June, Southwest will no longer be flying LAX-LIR

Yo
Guest
Really? The fare was really cheap ($425 RT from PHX). I think AS flies the same route. The timing of the flight wasn’t all that great, you get in there around 9 pm, and its a small airport, the plane RON’s there and the return is early morning. The FA’s were a bit over reacting about the bathroom. When the FO went to use the front lav, a flight attendant told everyone in line to get back to their seats, and she guarded the door until the FO came out. I understand the rules, but they were really militant about… Read more »
JoEllen
Guest
“About halfway through, the lav lines were getting long, and a different flight attendant made the announcement that due to “international law” you are not allowed to line up for either lav. I’d only heard that for the front lav before, but I suppose it could be a weird Mexican law. Anyone know?” —- What, did Southwest make this up ?…..never heard of it and my airline has been flying to Cancun for 20+ years. Gotta love it with Southwest – they’re like scared little cats who are so afraid of being politically incorrect so they idiotically state an unheard… Read more »
frumby
Member

Ranked #1 in customer service….you have a flawed opinion.

JoEllen
Guest

Sorry, continuing —
(after I read “apparently an international Mexican law” ????). So when the flight lands the Mexican authorities/police ask the crew if anyone got up to go to the bathroom while in flight ?? I can guarantee CF, if someone at Southwest can provide this “law” or rule, (written), I will NEVER say anything negative about them again.

chris1
Member

That’s typical CUN customs. First time I went arrived on a 2p Sat DL flight and got to rental car at 545p. Your pic is typical Sat congestion made worse by the one off DL or AA Sat only service. 2nd time arrived at 2p on a Tuesday and waited 15 min. Last time was on Super Bowl night , 830p arrival – no lines no waiting.

Steve
Guest
30+ year FA here and WN totally has it wrong when it comes to the international lav rule! The ONLY rule is that on the RETURN to the US you have to use the lavatory in the cabin in which you’re sitting. Now with WN being all one cabin, I suppose you could interpret that as the front half uses the fwd lav and the back half uses the aft lav. There is NO rule on flights departing the US. It sounds like it was a s&%$ show….no pun intended. I’m appalled that they are flying long flights with only… Read more »
frumby
Member

Give it a rest, Southwest has always had a two lav configuration except on their -800’s. BWI-SJC, in the winter months, is a 6 hour flight. No one complains and their flights are always full.

BigDaddyJ
Member

I’m sure plenty of people are unhappy about it—and plenty more (like me) simply avoid WN. Ultimately, though, if the flight is on-time people are unlikely to remember the lav configuration.

Don Roberto
Member

Terminal in Cancun looks like a big a mess as the passport control in Johannesburg.

Teryl Knight
Member

I’m so sorry you had a bad flight. It was all I could do to keep everyone happy. Yes, I was your flight attendant on your flight making that announcement. Too many people getting up to use the bathroom and having to wait and were getting very upset. A passenger suggested that I pass out numbers and I improvised. If I had a chance to do it over I would’ve done it differently. Please accept my most humble apology and I hope you will give us a chance again.

BJ
Guest

Teryl
The issue is more systemic. There are more passengers shoved in with the same or fewer toilets. I feel for the crew, especially on full service, when they are trying to do the service with a constant stream (NPI) heading to and from the bathrooms. I get their frustration. The crew shouldn’t have to apologise for a shitty (NPI again) aircraft layout.

Teryl Knight
Member

No I feel terrible! I’m so horrified that I caused SW bad press. I can’t even sleep now! It was a stupid thing to do! Never in my life have I been so moritified and feel so bad at a decision I’ve made. I am so sorry this person had a bad flight. I wish there was something I could do to make it up to them!

Teryl Knight
Member
The rule is for returning to the US. I made a mistake and should have read up on it in my manual. I’m so sorry for your bad experience. Never in my life have I been so mortified and embarrassed by something I have done. I literally had a panic attack when I read your blog! Like all of the blood rushing out of my head and not being able to breathe! God I wish I could do something or say something to make it all better but you were right to be upset and now I just want to… Read more »
Anonymous Amy
Guest

You’re a bitch and grown ass brat.

Steve
Guest

Teryl, you’re a class act! It’s amazing that you saw this thread and were able to clarify things with everyone. Safe flying!!

Anonymous John
Guest
The rule about the no forming lines is true but only for flights coming back to the US. The whole picking numbers things was probably good intentions but failed. You can’t really complain about the snacks, I mean it isnt first class and they do let you have as many as you want. The whole complaining about the gate agents, this is new to them and like first time travelers there are gonna be some hiccups. You wouldnt tell a 1st time flyer they must know everything about boarding seat selection etc so why would you expect a gate agent… Read more »
Anonymous John
Guest

Also people bringing all items on board when they can check 2 bags also delays the departure time.

Lewis
Guest
To Teryl’s credit – she hasn’t done anything wrong, in fact she may be enforcing a little-enforced rule. There’s a thread over on flyertalk from years ago about it where some CX/UA FAs enforced the rule in the way Teryl has. When I’ve flown on QF to/from the US, they’ve always made an announcement similar to this one: “Passengers are not allowed to congregate around the lavatories or galleys of the aircraft on any flight within or to/from the United States”. I’ve never seen it enforced for people lining up for lavatories, I was under the impression the rule is… Read more »
Susan
Member
I flew to & from Cancun in early December – on UAL. Got lucky on arrival, pretty darn fast thru the lines. The chaos outside was nutty, added humor was one of the Duck Dynasty guys standing there taking photos with tourists! Fairly sure the bathroom rule was an imaginary one. We flew the UAL non-stop to Cancun, and connected thru (snowy) Denver on the way home. No wireless once you leave US & I’m still confused by their byo device thing, on the flight down the seats still had tv’s, but you had to pay to watch anything. We… Read more »
David
Guest

We flew Southwest from Houston to Cancun 4 times last year and Costa Rica 2 times.

We didn’t encounter any of the issues you encounters. Flights were on time and customs in Mexico was a 5-10 minute wait.

I would say your flight was not typical.

Jamie
Guest
First off, I love SW. They are cheap, bags fly free and their customer service is the best I’ve ever encountered. They are always so accommodating and quick to fix mistakes and address my needs (including the 2 4 1 drinks I got when I flew on Veteran’s Day). That point seems to be proven with the FA that just came on here to profusely apologize. It sounds like she was just trying to fix a chaotic situation. It seems to be unfair saying she had a power trip. Now we know the story. Perhaps it wasn’t the best way… Read more »
Leef33
Guest

Two lav’s for a four hour flight? What if one malfunctions or someone uses it for 15 minutes? Do FA’s start timing you?
What if the plane cannot take off or land on time? What if you really need to go and you break the line or break the take a number rule? Does the plane divert and you go to jail? Or do you stay seated and relieve yourself? I think there were news stories for these situations in the last two months.

Chris
Guest
just flew HOU-CUN and back last week. Unusual for this WN employee to do, but I actually purchased the tickets with RR points. It went pretty smoothly as far as I was concerned. Did hear the no waiting at either lav announcement too. Both flights had lots of empty seats even though I purchased earlybird as well. Arrived into CUN at 7 pm on a Saturday so no long lines there. And arriving back into HOU we were the only flight that was being processed so long lines there either. The check-in process is still an issue with the 2… Read more »
wpDiscuz