Many people either love or hate flying Southwest Airlines because of its unique boarding process and open seating policy. While it can be stressful having to hustle for a good seat on Southwest, I’ve found that with a few simple strategies that dreaded middle seat can easily be avoided.
Learn how the Southwest Airlines seating process works.
Southwest Airlines has a unique open seating policy – basically, seats are not assigned. When you check in for your Southwest flight, you are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a boarding position (1-60). Your boarding group and position determine the order in which you will be allowed to board the flight. During the Southwest boarding process, passengers are instructed to line up in order based on their boarding group and position. So, passengers holding A group boarding passes board first, then B, then C. Within each group, passengers will line up based on their numbers. For example, A1 will board before A20. Upon boarding the flight, you may choose any open seat. Seats on Southwest flights are in a 3×3 configuration.
The key to getting a good seat on Southwest is, obviously, to board early.
I’ve found that an A group or early B group (B1-B30) is always sufficient to provide me with several good open seats and plenty of overhead bin space. B31-B60 can be okay too but it depends on how many people you are traveling with, how full the flight is and whether the flight is connecting from somewhere else. The C group usually means “center seat” and may require you to also gate check overhead bags.
Check in EXACTLY 24 hours before your flight.
If you would like to get a good seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight, follow this rule. Check in opens 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time. The earlier you check in, the earlier your spot in line will be. Many passengers will also be checking in 24 hours before the flight so a few minutes or seconds can make a big difference in your boarding group or position. This is especially true on weekdays. My strategy is to set an alarm or calendar entry five minutes before check in opens. I pull up my reservation, enter all the necessary details (name, confirmation number) and wait. As soon as the clock hits the time check-in opens, I hit that check in now button.
If you are unsure whether you will be able to check-in 24 hours prior to your flight, purchase EarlyBird Check-In.
I prefer not to spend any more money than I have to but found EarlyBird Check-In useful for those occasions I know I will not be able to manually check in. Effective March 14, 2016, the cost for EarlyBird Check-In is $15.00 one-way per person. When you purchase EarlyBird Check-In, Southwest automatically checks you in and assigns your boarding position within 36 hours of your flight’s departure. Southwest Early Bird Check In doesn’t guarantee an A boarding position, but you most likely will be in the A or early B group. (See related post: EarlyBird Check-In: Is it Worth It?)
Pay even more money or fly more often to guarantee early boarding.
The only way to absolutely guarantee an A1-A15 boarding position on Southwest is to purchase a Business Select fare. This isn’t the most attractive option for leisure passengers though as the fare is more expensive. If you still want a crack at that A1-A15 spot but don’t want to purchase a Business Select fare, you can try Upgraded Boarding. Warning: this is not a guaranteed option as it may not be available. On the day of travel, inquire at the gate or ticket counter before the boarding process begins. If Upgraded Boarding is available, you can secure a boarding position in the A1-A15 group for $30 or $40 per flight, depending on your itinerary.
Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards members with A-List and A-List Preferred status are also automatically assigned boarding positions ahead of general boarding – just like EarlyBird but without the fee. Not much you can do about that.
Traveling with a child? Familiarize yourself with family boarding.
An adult traveling with a child six years or younger is eligible to board during Southwest Family Boarding. Family Boarding on Southwest occurs after the A group but before the B group. If you have an A group boarding pass, go ahead and board with the A group instead of waiting for family boarding.
Don’t arrive late to the gate for your flight.
I repeat, don’t arrive late to the gate for your Southwest flight. There is no point in having an A or B boarding group if you will show up to your flight right before the airplane door closes. Sometimes that can’t be helped if your connecting flight was delayed so I guess at that point, just sit in your middle seat and be thankful you caught your flight.
If you have an early boarding group but by the time you arrive at your gate they are boarding a later group, don’t be shy. Immediately step to the front of the line to scan your boarding pass. No one will think you are line cutting.
What is a “good” Southwest seat?
The best seat on Southwest depends on your own personal needs. Passengers with a connecting flight might need to sit in the front so they can deplane quicker. Taller passengers might have an eye on snagging an exit row seat. Larger groups and families traveling with small children might want to make sure they can sit together. Personally, I like an aisle seat – especially one with an empty middle seat next to it.
Find out how full the flight is before you board.
Sometimes Southwest gate agents make an announcement whether the flight is full. If not, I will ask. This is helpful in knowing whether I have a chance at my coveted aisle plus empty middle seat scenario. On a completely full Southwest flight, I would choose an aisle seat with the middle seat already occupied by someone I wouldn’t mind sitting next to. Similarly, it would be helpful for someone traveling with a lap child to know whether an empty middle seat might be available.
Choose wisely what section of the plane you pick a seat.
Obviously not an exact science but often, older travelers and those with connecting flights seem to choose the front of the plane. Families typically head towards the back, where they hope to find seats together and maybe an empty middle seat for a lap child. My sweet spot on Southwest flights is from the middle of the plane to two-thirds of the way back. The reasoning is that the front middle seats will fill up quickly with people resigned to their middle seat predicament or eager to disembark. Also, people tend to pass up the middle section of the plane in hopes a random aisle or window seat can be found at the back. Once they are at the back, they will likely just grab any seat there since it is so difficult to turn around.
Saving seats on Southwest Airlines is controversial and murky.
No one likes to spend any more money than they have to. For some passengers, this means resorting to “seat saving”. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly what Southwest’s policy is on saving seats as it is not uniformly enforced. Many people won’t necessarily mind if someone is saving a middle seat next to them for a traveling companion that is close behind but some passengers take it to the extreme. I’ve witnessed one man board early and attempt to block off a number of seats (on a full flight) for multiple travel companions with a C group. The flight attendant intervened but that is not always the case.
Recognize sneaky and dishonest tactics.
Much like the extreme seat-savers, some people think getting a seat on a plane is a no-holds barred type of thing. I’ve heard of passengers attempting to keep seats empty by pretending a nonexistent/imaginary travel companion is simply in the bathroom. Not only is this dishonest but also silly- what happens if they sit nearby and clearly no one returns from the bathroom? Conflict with fellow passengers is never a good thing.
On the less extreme end, sometimes two people traveling together try to block off a middle seat. This is great for late boarders. If you spot one of these twosomes, make a beeline for their row and ask to sit in the middle. Most likely, they will offer up either their aisle or window seat.
Ultimately, what is a good seat on Southwest Airlines depends on your personal needs and preference. If you simply follow some easy strategies you don’t have to stress over Southwest’s open seating policy or suffer through a bad flight.
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