Why doesn t Southwest do assigned seats?
September 30, 2023 | Travel Pedia
Why can't you choose seats on Southwest?
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Incoming Southwest CEO Says Assigned Seats May Be in Airline's Future
Southwest does not currently assign seats but instead gives passengers a boarding group and reserved boarding number when they check in.
Assigned seating may be in Southwest's future, the airline's incoming CEO said at a virtual town hall this week.
The airline, long known for its unique way of doing things, does not currently assign seats but instead gives passengers a boarding group and reserved boarding number when they check in. However, incoming CEO Robert Jordan, who was previously the airline's executive vice president and will officially take the reins in February, said it may be time for a change.
"Could we one day need to take back up the assigned-seating question? I think we may have to do that," Jordan said, per Travel Weekly , adding the airline would look at the impact of seat assignments on things like turnaround time and how important it is to business travelers. "Just know this. We are committed to continuing to look at our product, making sure it's relevant."
But Jordan added the potential move isn't something customers can expect to see in the immediate future. And as for another Southwest mainstay, Jordan said free checked bags aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
Instead, Jordan said the airline will focus on things like providing more reliable Wi-Fi, hiring more workers (which will, in turn, mean more planes in the sky), and restoring full in-flight service.
"We need to get back to the point where you can set your watch by the reliability of our operations," he said, adding, "It's going to take into 2023 to restore the network completely back to where we were in 2019."
Southwest has also added new customer services this year, like allowing passengers traveling back to the United States from international destinations to purchase discounted COVID-19 test kits .
The airline is also known for its Companion Pass program , which allows eligible fliers to designate one other person to fly with them nearly for free.
Alison Fox is a contributing writer for Travel + Leisure. When she's not in New York City, she likes to spend her time at the beach or exploring new destinations and hopes to visit every country in the world. Follow her adventures on Instagram .
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How to Hack Southwest’s Boarding Groups
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Table of Contents
How does Southwest boarding work?
What is the southwest boarding order, how to get your southwest boarding position, how to get the best seat on southwest airlines, southwest family boarding: how to sit together, other ways to get get a good seat on southwest, southwest seating chart, when you're not happy with your southwest boarding number, southwest boarding groups, recapped.
The Southwest Airlines boarding process is a practice perhaps more polarizing than whether pineapple belongs on pizza. But one thing’s for sure: The Southwest boarding process is certainly unique.
There are no assigned seats. There’s no guarantee you’ll get that coveted window seat behind the exit row (which means no seat directly in front of you). There’s no guarantee you’ll end up seated next to your bestie.
Yet it also means you get to pick your seat from whatever is available once you get on the plane. If the guy in Row 3 has already whipped out his tuna sandwich, maybe you opt for a seat at least a few rows back.
The Southwest boarding process is also theoretically more efficient (at least according to MythBusters ) than most boarding systems with assigned seats. So how does the process work? We unpack Southwest’s boarding method to help you get the best seat on your flight.
SOUTHWEST CREDIT CARDS WITH BOARDING BENEFITS
Unlike some credit cards offered by other major airlines, Southwest cards don't automatically get you priority boarding. But they do cover some of your costs when you pay to get a better boarding position:
on Chase's website
Reimbursement for 4 upgraded boardings, when available, each anniversary year.
Reimbursement for 2 EarlyBird check-ins each anniversary year.
To receive reimbursement for an upgraded boarding or EarlyBird Check-In, you must pay for it with the card . Reimbursement will appear as a credit on your statement within one to two billing cycles.
» Learn more: Best Southwest Airlines credit cards
Rather than assigning seats to passengers, Southwest has an open seating style. As far as determining who gets to pick their seats in which order, here’s how it works:
A Southwest boarding group (either A, B, or C) and position (1-60) will be assigned to you at check-in and it'll be printed on your boarding pass. Group A boards first, then group B, and afterwards group C.
If you end up with A1, then it’s your lucky day — you’ll likely get to be the first passenger on the plane. There may be some exceptions for people with certain disabilities, pre-boarders or people on an earlier connecting flight.
Here’s what a boarding pass with the boarding position looks like. This passenger will board with group A and has a boarding position of 40.
If you like to be the first on the plane, aiming for boarding group A is a good idea. If you end up with C60, well, hopefully, you’re fine with the middle seat near the bathroom.
As the gate agent prepares the plane for boarding, they’ll call boarding groups (e.g., Group A, 1-30). From there, you’ll have to head to one of the numbered posts at the gate area, broken up into smaller blocks (e.g., position 1-5). Stand between the corresponding posts based on your boarding position.
Once onboard, pick any open seat, stow your stuff in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, and get ready for takeoff.
Here’s the order of Southwest's boarding groups, from first to last:
Southwest allows people who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability, who need boarding help, extra time, or who need help stowing an assistive device to board first. To be a part of that group, you’ll have to request preboarding from a Southwest customer service agent at the ticket desk or departure gate.
Expect to be asked what Southwest calls "fact-finding questions" to decide if you meet the qualifications for pre-boarding. If you do, you’ll receive a boarding pass with a specific preboarding designation, and you’ll be allowed to preboard with one companion. If you’re traveling with more than one other person, they’ll typically have to board with their original group.
People who are preboarding are not allowed to occupy an exit row seat.
2. The A group
The first set of people to board Southwest flights are people with seats in A1-A15, which is typically filled with Southwest elite flyers, people who purchased Southwest Business Select fares and those who paid extra for their tickets before boarding (you can purchase any leftover upgraded boarding positions in the A1-A15 category either online through Southwest's upgraded boarding portal within 24 hours of departure, or at the gate).
The rest of the A group follows with A16-60.
3. Other people with disabilities
If you don’t qualify for preboarding but need extra time to board, you can board after the A group but before the following Family Boarding and B groups. You’ll still need to speak to a Southwest customer service agent, who will print you a new boarding pass with an extra time designation, indicating that you can board with this group.
4. Families and active-duty military in uniform
If you’re traveling with a child 6 years old or younger, you and up to one other adult can board during Family Boarding, which occurs before the B group. Active military traveling in uniform may also board during this time.
5. Groups B and C
Everyone else now gets to board, with the B group going next. And for large and full flights, there’s a C group. Both groups board in numerical order starting with position 1 and moving to position 60.
There are a few ways to get an early Southwest boarding position, but many of them come at an extra cost. If you don’t want to pay anything more than what the Wanna Get Away, Wanna Get Away Plus or Anytime fares already cost, your boarding position will be decided based on the order you’ve checked in.
You can check in online at Southwest.com or on the app beginning 24 hours before your flight's scheduled departure time. Or, you can check in at the airport or with an agent at the airport. But, the longer you wait, the worse the boarding position you’ll have.
Set a calendar reminder or phone timer for that 24-hour mark (maybe even a few minutes early to get the webpage loaded and logged in) to make sure you get as early a boarding position as possible.
Everyone has a different favorite seat on an airplane, but the easiest way to get the best seat on Southwest is to have an A1-15 boarding group position. Since this is the first group to board, you’ll have your pick of nearly any seat on the plane. Here are three ways to guarantee an A1-15 group position on Southwest, but it’s going to cost you:
Buy a Business Select fare
Business Select fares come with many perks including Fly By priority lane access, a complimentary premium drink, and yes, guaranteed receipt of an A1-A15 boarding position.
Business Select fares are not cheap. They can often be multiple times more expensive than Wanna Get Away fares, but they tend to be a better deal than Southwest’s middle tier called Anytime fares.
If you’re willing to pay for a seat upgrade, it’s almost always better to opt for Business Select over Anytime fares because you’ll get benefits like elevated points earning and the guarantee of a good seat.
Buy upgraded boarding when available
While not quite a guarantee, Southwest allows you to buy any remaining A1-A15 boarding position on for an extra fee. You can purchase that either on the day of travel at the ticket desk or gate, or within 24 hours of takeoff on Southwest's website .
It’s $30 to $80 per segment depending on your itinerary. These positions are not assigned to regular ticket customers once the 24-hour check-in window begins, so if the flight is low on elite flyers or Business Select passengers, there may be some available for purchase.
Some cards, such as the The Platinum Card® from American Express or The Business Platinum Card® from American Express , can offset the cost of upgraded boarding by offering a $200 airline incidental credit , which is an annual statement credits toward incidental air travel fees with one qualifying airline of your choice.
Use a Southwest credit card to get complimentary upgraded boarding (when available)
As a benefit of having the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card or the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card , you’ll be reimbursed for up to four upgraded boardings to positions A1-A15 every anniversary year.
The process is the same as anyone else purchasing upgraded boarding. You’ll have to buy it on the day of travel at the ticket desk or gate, and it’s only for sale if seats are available. But no matter the cost — whether $30 or $50 — you’ll get that four times a year in the form of a credit reimbursement.
Those boardings can be purchased all at once or for different flights, so you could opt to upgrade your posse once or give yourself the VIP treatment a few times throughout the year.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards
As mentioned above, families (two adults traveling with a child six years or younger) will board after Group A but before Group B. If the child and adult both have Group A assigned on their boarding pass, they can board along with Group A in their allocated boarding position.
However, this still doesn’t guarantee you’ll sit together, especially if your boarding position is A50. The best way to ensure you sit together and where you want, is to buy a Business Select fare, upgrade your boarding pass or have the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card or the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card .
These choices won’t guarantee an A boarding position like the recommendations above, but they’ll still put you ahead of others who try to check in online 24 hours out or at the airport ahead of their flight:
Have Southwest status
Customers with Rapid Rewards A-List Preferred or A-List Member status get their boarding position automatically reserved 36 hours before departure. That's before normal check-in begins, putting them ahead of everyone else who has to wait for that 24-hour window. The benefit also applies to other travelers on the same reservation as A-List Preferred or A-List Members.
While holding Southwest status is not a guarantee of an A position (e.g., if everyone else on the flight also had A-List Preferred or A-List status), it will get you the earliest position available and most often lands you in the A1-A15 positions.
Buy EarlyBird Check-In
EarlyBird Check-In is an add-on to your ticket that automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight's scheduled departure time. That puts you in the running for the best boarding position next to the folks with Southwest status or Anyime and Business Select fares, and ahead of everyone else who has to wait for the 24-hour window.
EarlyBird Check-In typically costs $15-$25 one-way per passenger on top of your fare price.
As far as how the order of EarlyBird Check-In is decided amongst everyone who pays for it: Boarding positions are assigned based on the time that EarlyBird Check-In was bought relative to passengers within the same fare class. So Wanna Get Away Plus passengers will be checked in ahead of Wanna Get Away passengers with EarlyBird.
EarlyBird does not guarantee a boarding position, but it does increase your odds of getting in a better boarding position. Often, you’ll find yourself in A20 or better with EarlyBird check-in.
If you’re trying to decide what’s a good seat on your Southwest flight, head over to Seatguru. Once there, type in your travel date and flight number to choose your flight.
Oftentimes, Seatguru will show several aircraft configurations for a specific flight. For Southwest, Seatguru features three aircraft seating charts: Boeing 737 MAX 8, Boeing 737-700 and Boeing 737-800. Make sure the aircraft type you’re on matches the result provided by Seatguru.
After you’ve confirmed that, take a look at the seat reviews. The seats on the plane will either be green, yellow, red or white. Green means it's a great seat (usually with extra legroom), yellow means there is some drawback (like limited recline), red shows several drawbacks (such as a misaligned window and near the bathroom).
Seats that are white have no pros and no cons, they are just regular seats for the cabin.
If you’re cool with checking your luggage should the overhead bins get too stuffed, and your life isn’t over if you get the middle seat, then don’t panic if you get in the C group.
But if you need to be among the first to board, and you checked in late enough that you ended up with a bad boarding position, your best bet is to pay the $30-$50 for an A1-15 boarding position, either in-person at the airport or online.
If Business Select is sold out, you’re probably out of luck on purchasing upgraded boarding. Next time, consider purchasing EarlyBird Check-In or booking a higher fare class to begin with. Or, keep it simple and accept that the middle seat isn’t all that bad.
On the bright side, it’s one less person you have to bug when you need a bathroom break than if you had taken the window seat anyway.
Southwest offers three boarding groups (A, B or C), and a position 1-60+, which get assigned at check-in. While the Southwest boarding process can be confusing at first glance, remember this: Check in exactly 24 hours before your flight, and most of the time you’ll be OK.
Or, be prepared to pony up some extra cash for expensive tickets or upgraded boarding passes. Know which of your credit cards may offer airline credits to offset these fees, as they can get you out of a jam when you miss the check-in deadline.
If you’re traveling with a larger group with multiple reservation numbers, everyone needs to handle their business and check in separately if you want any shot at getting boarding positions near each other.
Southwest follows an open seating style, meaning there are no assigned seats. You’ll be assigned a boarding group (either A, B, or C) and position (1-60+) upon check-in, which determines your boarding order. Once on board, you choose your seat. If you’re last to board, you likely won’t get to sit with your family.
However, Southwest has a solution to better ensure families can sit together. If you’re traveling with a child 6 years old or younger, up to two adults may board during Southwest’s Family Boarding period, between A and B boarding (unless both the child and adults have A boarding passes and can board in that earlier group).
For an additional fee, EarlyBird Check-In automatically checks you in ahead of the traditional 24-hour check-in. While it’s not a guarantee of the coveted A boarding group, you’ll end up in an earlier boarding position than if you had not paid for it.
Considering families with children 6 and under can board before the B group anyway, paying for EarlyBird Check-In is usually not worth it for those families.
However, if you have children older than 6 but you don’t want to risk that your family can’t sit together (and you don’t want to deal with asking someone else to trade seats on your 8-year-old’s behalf), it can make sense to pay for EarlyBird Check-In.
Your Southwest boarding group is determined upon check-in. The earlier you check in, the earlier your boarding group.
Typically, you’ll check in for your flight online beginning 24 hours before the scheduled departure time or anytime thereafter. If you don’t, you can check in and get your boarding pass at the airport through the Southwest ticket counter or, if available, a self-service kiosk.
However, you can secure an earlier boarding position by purchasing a Business Select fare, purchasing EarlyBird Check-In that automatically reserves your boarding position 36 hours before departure, or by purchasing an upgraded boarding pass from the counter on the day of travel (when available).
Generally, yes. Since Southwest-operated flights have open seating, you simply choose any available seat once on board.
There are a few exceptions, such as passengers who preboard may not occupy an exit seat.
Seniors do not get priority boarding on Southwest.
There is priority boarding for customers who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability or who need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device. In that case, you’ll board before Family Boarding, between the A and B groups.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023 , including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card
1x-3x Earn 3X points on Southwest® purchases. Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare. Earn 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services, and select streaming. Earn 1X points on all other purchases.
75,000 Earn 75,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.
1x-5x Enjoy benefits such as a $50 annual Ultimate Rewards Hotel Credit, 5x on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards®, 3x on dining and 2x on all other travel purchases, plus more.
60,000 Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
1x-2x Earn 2X points on Southwest® purchases. Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare. Earn 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services, and select streaming. Earn 1X points on all other purchases.
Will southwest airlines ever introduce allocated seating.
Dallas-based Southwest Airlines is an outlier in the airline industry with its unassigned seating policy. Measured by the number of flights offered, Southwest is now the world's fourth-biggest airline. But Southwest doesn't dictate where you sit. However, according to the incoming CEO, that may change.
Southwest's new CEO flags introducing allocated seating
As reported in Travel Weekly , Bob Jordan, due to take over the top job at Southwest Airlines next month, flagged dropping the unallocated seating practice at a town hall meeting held on Wednesday.
"Could we one day need to take back up the assigned-seating question? I think we may have to do that," he said.
Southwest Airlines has long argued that its unassigned seating policy is popular with passengers and facilitates speedier boarding. That means planes spend less time at the gate and more time in the air generating Southwest money.
Over the years, the airline has tinkered with the no-system boarding system. Around 15 years ago, Southwest began assigning boarding numbers within each boarding group, in the process better controlling the boarding process as more and more people took to the air.
Around the same time, Southwest stopped allowing travelers with young children to jump the queue and board early. That was an equity issue, preventing families from deliberately rocking up to the gate at the last minute on the cheapest fares and going straight to the front. These days, if you are traveling with a child aged six or under, unless you pay the premium, the best Southwest will do is board you between the A and B groups.
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Monetizing the Southwest Airlines unallocated seating practice
Bob Jordan told yesterday's town hall meeting that changes to how the airline boards passengers aren't a top-tier priority. But Mr Jordan is interested in minimizing the time aircraft spend at gates and courting favor with high-valued business travelers.
"Just know this. We are committed to continuing to look at our product, making sure it's relevant," the incoming CEO said.
Southwest's seating free-for-all is an interesting tactic. Southwest likes to style it as a passenger-friendly option. "At Southwest, we let you sit where you like. We don’t assign seats on our flights, so feel free to sit in any available seat once you board the plane, " the airline says.
Southwest controls what would otherwise be an unseemly scramble by assigning every passenger to one of three boarding groups and a numbered boarding position.
In the 2020 calendar year, Southwest Airlines made nearly 28% of its overall revenues from ancillary fees, and like any respectable low-cost carrier, successfully monetizes the boarding process. Depending on the itinerary, Southwest passengers can sidle up to the agent at the departure gate and pony up between US$30 - $50 to go straight to the front of the first boarding group.
Alternatively, passengers can choose to pay Southwest's full-fare option on a flight rather than buy a ticket in a discounted fare bucket. Southwest's Business Select fare also guarantees passengers a spot at the front of the first group to board.
Other changes on the horizon at Southwest
Meanwhile, Bob Jordan flagged a few other things will stay the same while others may change. He confirmed there are no plans to create a Southwest first class product. Nor are there any plans to start charging for checked-in baggage.
But the new Southwest CEO says the airline does need to provide better inflight WiFi and hire up to 10,000 more employees. The latter move, which Mr Jordan wants to get done this year, will help solve the cancelations and delays that have recently plagued Southwest and caused significant problems for tens of thousands of Southwest customers.
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Southwest open seating is the ultimate expression of its founding ethos: to make air travel affordable and accessible for everyone.
Hold on to Your Seats: Southwest Open Seating
First-time Southwest Airlines Customers in the 1970s were welcomed on board with a unique proposition: self-serve, open seating. Your reservation confirmed a seat on the plane . . . you just never knew which one. Some Hostesses (now called Flight Attendants) would quip, “It’s open seating. You can sit anywhere you want—just like at church.”
Most other commercial airlines were assigning seats and experimenting with cabin layouts that gave them the opportunity to create more cabin classes and more fare structures. But Southwest kept it simple. Low fares gave everyone a chance to travel.
First-class cabins were nonexistent at Southwest. Nobody had priority in boarding: The first person in line was the first person on the plane. The people sitting up front weren’t enjoying gourmet meals and champagne. Everyone had the same snack and drink choices.
The Company’s egalitarian operating philosophy was driven largely by Founder Herb Kelleher, who deplored the class mentality and treated everyone he met as an equal, whether it was a Supreme Court justice or a hotel concierge. Titles and positions meant little to Herb, who had a reputation for making himself just as available to Mechanics and Reservations Agents as to the Board of Directors. Even when conventional wisdom suggested the airline could make more money by offering first-class tickets, Herb let his values and passion for fairness drive business decisions. “Conventional wisdom put a hell of a lot of airlines out of business,” he said.
The open-seating policy has been a Southwest hallmark since its first flight, and the benefits were immediately clear. Numerous studies showed that open seating enabled Southwest to get Customers on planes more quickly and efficiently than its competitors. Faster boarding meant more on-time departures, and cost savings that led to lower ticket prices.
Customers—even Southwest’s most devoted fans—developed a love-hate relationship over the years. They loved the low-cost flights but hated the thought of being stuck in a middle seat if they got stuck in a traffic jam on the way to the airport.
In 2006, Southwest toyed with the idea of abandoning open seating. It tested assigned seating on 200 flights out of San Diego and repeated the experiment in San Antonio. The airline surveyed Customers, including frequent fliers, and the outcome of the “great seating experiment,” said CEO Gary Kelly, was clear: Customers like having the freedom to choose their own seats. And if Customer preference wasn’t convincing enough to keep open seating alive at Southwest, the efficiency factor sealed the deal. The tests proved that assigned seating increased boarding time by one to four minutes.
Although open seating remained, Customer feedback pointed to frustrations that warranted some big changes. By 2007, Southwest had said goodbye to the first-come, first-served boarding approach and eliminated the need for Customers to camp out at the gate for a shot at a coveted aisle or window seat. Instead, it assigned letter and number combinations that were printed on boarding passes. When an Operations Agent called a boarding group by letter, Customers took their place in line, in numerical order. The Company has also grown to incorporate some add-on services to better meet the needs of business travelers, including Business Select and upgraded boarding options.
Other airlines have attempted to imitate the Southwest low-fare, economy-only, no-frills model, but Southwest remains the only major airline in the United States to offer open seating. It’s just one of the ways Southwest continues to embrace its roots as the Company that democratized the skies.
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How to snag the best seats on Southwest Airlines
Few airlines command the customer devotion of Southwest Airlines , considered one of America's most family-friendly aviation brands. The airline does things right in many ways that other airlines do not: offering two free checked bags per person, making it easy for families to sit together without charging onerous fees, having a simple way to earn elite status, offering a family of credit cards, and giving passengers four booking fares.
However, Southwest's unique boarding process does not assign specific seats to travelers — a process that can be baffling for first-time travelers, infrequent flyers or those new to the airline.
As of Aug. 15, the Dallas-based carrier announced changes to its boarding process, including reducing the availability of its EarlyBird Check-In to select flights, routes and days, meaning EarlyBird Check-In will be unavailable for some customers.
Additionally, Southwest will permit same-day standby for all passengers, including those who book the cheapest Wanna Get Away fares , allowing passengers in Southwest's lowest fare classes to waitlist for a different flight on the same day without paying a fare difference, helpful for passengers flying on routes with multiple daily frequencies.
With those changes in mind, this comprehensive guide will answer all your questions on how to get the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.
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How Southwest boarding works
Like many other airlines, Southwest begins boarding about 30 minutes before scheduled departure. The similarities largely end there, though, because Southwest's boarding process is unlike any other airline thanks to its open seating policy, which means you can sit just about anywhere you want without assigned seats.
It's first-come, first-seated, with just a few exceptions standard for all airlines, including passengers who choose to sit in an exit row and must meet the Federal Aviation Administration's age and physical requirements .
On Southwest flights, the boarding order is as follows:
- Preboarding (those who need specific seats to accommodate a disability, those who need assistance with boarding and stowing an assistive device and unaccompanied minors)
- Group A 1-60
- A-List/A-List Preferred members, active-duty military members and family boarding (those with children age 6 and under)
- Group B 1-60
- Group C 1-60
When the traveler checks in for their flight, Southwest assigns each passenger a boarding group letter — A, B or C — and a position from 1 to 60. The unique boarding code, such as A45 or B52, is printed directly on the boarding pass and represents the person's place in line at the gate.
At the gate, passengers line up single file at gray metal columns to match their boarding group letter and boarding position. Boarding is called in groups of 30 (A1-A30, followed by A31-A60 and so on). However, three categories of passengers supersede the standard Group A-C boarding process: preboarding travelers, families and A-List/A-List Preferred members.
Since February , Southwest has been testing out designated preboarding areas at select airports as part of an effort to improve turn times, including by installing color-coded carpeted areas to make it clear where preboarding passengers should line up.
Passengers authorized to preboard go before everyone else, including Group A. These are travelers who have a specific seating need to accommodate a disability or who need assistance getting to their seats or stowing an assistive device. Preboarding is based on need and is determined by the gate agent before boarding begins. Passengers who are given preboarding priority are allowed to board with one travel companion for assistance and cannot sit in an exit row.
Families with young children are also given special boarding privileges , but not until a little later in the process. Family boarding takes place immediately after Group A boarding is complete; qualifying family groups include up to two adults per child age 6 and under. Older children with the family are also able to board at this time, but other family members, such as grandparents or aunts and uncles, are asked to board according to the assignment on their boarding passes.
Active military personnel are also permitted to board at this time.
A-List and A-List Preferred members are said to receive the "best available boarding pass number" but occasionally end up with a Group B or C boarding designation. However, as a nod to their elite status, they are allowed to "cut the line" anytime after Group A boarding is complete.
Once you board, what next?
Since there are no assigned seats on Southwest flights, whoever walks onto the plane first gets his or her pick of seats. As a general rule, nobody particularly enjoys sitting in the middle seat, so those tend to be left to the end of the boarding process for Group C.
As soon as you walk onto the plane, you're free to select any seat you want, but some feel it's a lot of pressure to decide on the fly where you'll spend your entire flight. It helps to know about Southwest's plane configurations when deciding your preferred seat. As you'll see in the diagrams below, Southwest currently has three different versions of the Boeing 737.
Southwest has 506 Boeing 737-700 aircraft, accounting for more than two-thirds of its currently operating fleet. Each Southwest 737-700 has 143 seats in the configuration below:
Southwest has 207 Boeing 737-800 planes in its fleet. Each Southwest 737-800 has 175 seats in the configuration below:
Boeing 737 MAX 8
Southwest has 34 Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes — with 175 seats.
What's the best seat on Southwest?
The best seat on Southwest is subjective and depends on who you ask — some prefer the last row , especially with small children in tow. Many others think the back row is the worst possible seat, while others swear by sitting in the first five rows.
If your flight isn't full, you'll most likely find fewer people in the back of the plane — potentially keeping that seat next to you empty.
Here are some things to think about as you consider your seat.
If you are hoping for an empty middle seat
If you're a party of three, you'll want to take the entire row to ensure no one will sit next to you since all Southwest planes are three-and-three.
If you don't fall into that category, pick a window seat. This will give you the most privacy and ensure that no one is climbing over you to get in or out of their seat. You also won't have cabin crew and other passengers walking up and down the aisle right next to you.
Then it's up in the air as to whether you should sit up front or in the back, which both have pros and cons. Sitting upfront means that everyone boarding the plane after you are walking right by you while picking their seat. It also means that when you go to deplane, you're one of the first to walk off the aircraft.
The back of the plane, on the other hand, might have fewer passengers. On Southwest planes, people tend to pick the first open seat(s) they see, which usually means there are more passengers in the first half of the plane versus the second half. There's also a better chance that the seat next to you will be left open on a flight that is not full.
With that being said, on the Boeing 737-800 aircraft, there are two bathrooms in the back of the plane and just one bathroom in the front. So, there is a higher probability that more passengers will head to the back of the plane if they need to use the restroom.
If you want legroom
Aim for Seat 12A, the window seat on the right side of Row 12, as you're facing the back of the plane on Southwest's Boeing 737-700s. Row 11 is an "edit" row with just two seats on the right side, which means that Seat 11A is "missing." Thus, the passenger in 12A has two seats' worth of space to stretch out their legs — a godsend for tall travelers. However, if you're on one of Southwest's newer -800 and MAX 8 models, then the best seats are in rows 14 and 15.
If you want to get off the plane quickly
Choose Row 1. You won't have any storage available under the seat in front of you, but you'll be among the very first people to walk off the plane and get extra legroom as your reward for packing light. Make a beeline to your left or your right as soon as you board.
If you're thirsty
Choose rows 1, 9 or 17. Southwest flight attendants split cabin service into three sections, and these are typically the rows where the drink and snack service begins.
If you only want 1 seatmate
Aim for Row 11, seats B and C. On Southwest's Boeing 737-700s, this is a two-seat row, so you won't have to worry about sharing space with a third person.
If you are OK sitting up straight
Choose the last row or the row in front of the exit row. While the right to recline is a hotly contested privilege among economy travelers, there are travelers who don't care to lean back during the flight.
How to get the best seat on Southwest
Here are some tactics to secure the earliest boarding position:
- Check in exactly 24 hours before departure
- Hold A-List elite status
- Purchase EarlyBird Check-In, Upgraded Boarding or a Business Select ticket
- Book the first flight of the day
Remember, the best way to get the seat you want is to board as early as possible, but holding a Group A boarding pass doesn't always mean that you'll get the seat you want.
Check in 24 hours in advance
If you purchased Southwest's cheapest Wanna Get Away fares, the easiest way to get the earliest boarding assignment available is to check in for your flight exactly 24 hours ahead of time. Even waiting a minute or two after that check-in period could put you significantly down on the boarding list.
Note that if you're using the Southwest Companion Pass for another passenger in your party, you'll have to check them in separately since they have a different confirmation number.
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
For $15-$25 (based on distance) per person each way, Southwest will automatically check you in 36 hours before departure instead of just 24 hours via their EarlyBird Check-In . This means you will generally get a better boarding position than if you checked yourself in 24 hours in advance.
As mentioned, Southwest is reducing the availability of its EarlyBird Check-In to select flights, routes and days, so that EarlyBird Check-In may not be available.
"Beginning Aug. 15, EarlyBird Check-In® will be subject to availability on certain flights, routes, or days, and that will mean EarlyBird Check-In is unavailable for some customers looking to purchase it," a spokesperson for the airline told TPG.
Business Select fares automatically get A1-A15 boarding priority
Even with the best of reminders, checking in on the dot doesn't guarantee you'll get a Group A designation — or, in extreme cases, even a Group B assignment. Travelers who pay for pricier Business Select fares pay a premium to get priority boarding spots marked A1-A15, no matter what time they check in.
Earn Southwest elite status
Southwest frequent flyers who have earned A-List or A-List Preferred elite status get priority, including the "best available boarding pass number."
Purchase an A1-A15 boarding at the gate
If you don't like the number you were assigned, Upgraded Boarding is sometimes available at the gate on the day of departure for $30-$50 one-way per person when A1-A15 slots are still available. Even if you don't want to spend that cash, know that the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card comes with four of these included A1-A15 slots each year.
Why you might see some passengers already on board
Sometimes, you'll board a Southwest flight and see passengers already on the plane, even when you hold a coveted A1 boarding spot. That's because several Southwest flights make multiple stops at cities between the origin and final destination. Travelers who are headed for the final destination stay on board when others deplane at the midway point. This becomes more and more common later in the day, as delays and cancellations sometimes happen, and travelers end up being rerouted onto other flights.
There isn't much you can do if someone's already sitting in the seat you want, but Southwest will ask other travelers to offer up their seats and shift around so a parent can sit with a toddler or young child if you're the sole caregiver for a small child or for a person who otherwise requires your care.
Can you save seats on Southwest?
There isn't any definitive Southwest policy for or against seat-saving, known as the " Southwest shuffle ," where one passenger boards early to save seats for the other traveler(s) in the group.
If you decide to save seats for your travel companion(s), be thoughtful and remember you can't keep those seats if someone else really insists on sitting there and your companions haven't yet made it onto the plane.
Save this Southwest cheat sheet
If you're new to Southwest, save this "Things to Know" graphic on your phone so you'll be able to board like a pro on your next flight.
Southwest's boarding process might be intimidating or even frustrating for some who aren't used to it, but there is a lot to appreciate once you get the hang of it. As a general rule, Southwest travelers have less carry-on luggage for the overhead bins because of its generous free checked bag policy, and open seating allows people to shuffle themselves into order as they board the plane.
So, the next time you fly Southwest, pull up this guide, and you will know what seats to target and how to get there as efficiently as possible.
- Your complete guide to maximizing Southwest Rapid Rewards
- The best Southwest Airlines credit cards
- How to quickly earn the Southwest Companion Pass
- What is United Airlines' elite status worth?
- Maximize your airfare: The best credit cards for booking flights
- The best credit cards to reach elite status
- How to change or cancel a Southwest Airlines flight
Benet J. Wilson and Katherine Fan previously contributed reporting.