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TravelHow to snag the best seats on Southwest Airlines

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. It allows two free checked bags per person, makes it easy for families to sit together without charging onerous fees, provides a simple way to earn elite status, offers a family of credit cards and gives passengers four simple booking fares.

However, Southwest’s unique boarding process does not assign specific seats to travelers. The seat selection process can baffle first-time travelers, infrequent flyers or those new to the airline. While there has been some speculation about Southwest eventually changing its famous boarding process, for now, it remains true that Southwest does not have assigned seats.

As of Aug. 15, 2023, 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. This means EarlyBird Check-In will be unavailable for some customers.

Additionally, Southwest now permits same-day standby for all passengers, including those who book the cheapest Wanna Get Away fares. This allows passengers in Southwest’s lowest fare classes to waitlist for a different flight on the same day without paying a fare difference; this can be helpful for passengers flying on routes with multiple daily frequencies.

The airline also recently jacked up fees for early and Upgraded Boarding. These are the prices as of May 30:

  • EarlyBird Check-In: $15 to $99 one-way per traveler
  • Upgraded Boarding: $30 to $149 per segment, per traveler

Considering those changes, this comprehensive guide will answer all your questions about how to get the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.

How Southwest boarding works

Like many other airlines, Southwest begins boarding about 30 minutes before scheduled departure. However, the similarities largely end there. Southwest’s boarding process is unlike any other airline thanks to its open seating policy that allows travelers to sit just about anywhere they want.

Seats are available on a first-come, first-served basis, with just a few exceptions that are standard for all airlines. For example, passengers who choose to sit in an exit row must meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s age and physical requirements.

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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 through 60
  • A-List and A-List Preferred members, active-duty military members, travelers who need extra time getting to their seat and those taking advantage of family boarding (available to those with children age 6 and under)
  • Group B 1 through 60
  • Group C 1 through 60
SOUTHWEST AIRLINES

When travelers check 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 through A30, followed by A31 through A60 and so on). However, three categories of passengers supersede the standard Group A through C boarding process: preboarding travelers, families and A-List and A-List Preferred members.

Southwest also has designated preboarding areas at select airports as part of an effort to improve turn times. Color-coded carpeted areas make it clear where preboarding passengers should line up.

ZACH GRIFF/THE POINTS GUY

Passengers authorized to preboard go before everyone else, including Group A. These are travelers with specific seating needs 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 given preboarding priority can board with one travel companion for assistance and cannot sit in an exit row.

Passengers who do not qualify for preboarding but need a little extra time to board can get on the plane between the A and B groups before family boarding begins. You’ll need to speak to a customer service agent before boarding begins to receive a boarding pass indicating that you can board before families.

Families with young children are also given special boarding privileges but not until a little later in the process. Family boarding occurs immediately after Group A boarding is complete; qualifying family groups include up to two adults per child age 6 and under. Older children can also 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 can “cut the line” anytime after Group A boarding is complete.

Once you board, what comes next?

Since there are no assigned seats on Southwest flights, those who walk onto the plane first get their pick of seats. As a general rule, nobody particularly enjoys sitting in the middle seat, so those tend to be the seats left toward 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 where you’ll spend your entire flight. It helps to know about Southwest’s plane configurations when choosing your preferred seat. As you’ll see in the diagrams below, Southwest currently has three different versions of the Boeing 737.

Boeing 737-700

Southwest has 506 Boeing 737-700 aircraft, accounting for more than two-thirds of its operating fleet. The 737-700 has 143 seats in the configuration below:

SEATGURU.COM

Boeing 737-800

Southwest has 207 Boeing 737-800 planes in its fleet. The 737-800 has 175 seats in the configuration below:

SEATGURU.COM

Boeing 737 MAX 8

Southwest has 34 Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes with 175 seats.

SEATGURU.COM

What’s the best seat on Southwest?

The best seat on Southwest is subjective and depends on whom you ask. Some, especially those with small children in tow, prefer the last row. Many others think the back row is the worst possible seat, and 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 leaving that seat next to you empty.

Below 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 have a 3-3 configuration.

If you don’t fall into that category, pick a window seat. This will give you the most privacy and ensure 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 next to you.

Then it’s up in the air whether you should sit up front or in the back, which both have pros and cons. Sitting up front means that everyone boarding the plane after you will walk by you while picking their seat. Conversely, it means you’re among the first to leave the aircraft upon landing.

The back of the plane might have fewer passengers. On Southwest planes, people pick the first open seat(s) they see, which usually means there are more passengers in the first half of the plane than in 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.

That said, on the Boeing 737-800 aircraft, there are two bathrooms in the back 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; it’s 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 exit row with just two seats on the right side, meaning 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, 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 under the seat in front of you, but you’ll be among the first to walk off the plane and get extra legroom as your reward for packing light. Make a beeline to your left or 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. This is a two-seat row on Southwest’s Boeing 737-700s, 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, some don’t care to lean back during the flight.

JESSICA PUCKETT/THE POINTS GUY

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
  • Buy 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 you’ll get the seat you prefer.

Check in 24 hours in advance

If you bought Southwest’s cheapest Wanna Get Away fare, 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 lower on the boarding list.

Note that if you’re using the Southwest Companion Pass for another passenger in your party, you must check them in separately since they have a different confirmation number, but they will automatically receive the boarding position immediately following yours.

Purchase EarlyBird Check-In

In May, Southwest raised the price for EarlyBird Check-in, but travelers will still be automatically checked in 36 hours before departure instead of the normal 24 hours. This means you have a better chance of getting a more desirable boarding position than if you checked yourself in 24 hours in advance.

As mentioned above, Southwest is reducing the availability of its EarlyBird Check-In to select flights, routes and days, so it may not be available at all. The airline warns passengers that while EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee an A boarding position, it improves your seat selection options to get a favorite seat.

If you have the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card, you are eligible for two complimentary EarlyBird check-ins per year.

The information for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier credit card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Opt for a Business Select fare

Even with the best of reminders, checking in at the exact right time doesn’t guarantee you’ll get a Group A designation — or, in extreme cases, even a Group B assignment. Travelers paying for pricier Business Select fares get priority boarding spots marked A1 through A15, no matter when 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 through A15 boarding position 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 to $149 one-way per person when A1 to A15 slots are still available. Even if you don’t want to spend that cash, know that the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card and the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card offer four Upgraded Boarding passes per year. Four of these include A1 to 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 headed for the final destination stay on board when others deplane at the midway point. This becomes increasingly common later in the day, as delays and cancellations sometimes happen and travelers are rerouted onto other flights.

There isn’t much you can do if someone’s already sitting in the seat you want. However, Southwest will ask other travelers to offer up their seats and shift around so a parent can sit with a young child or a caregiver can sit with someone who requires their assistance.

Can you save seats on Southwest?

There isn’t a definitive Southwest policy for or against seat-saving. The saving process is known as the “Southwest shuffle” — one passenger boards early to save seats for the other traveler(s) in the group. However, if you decide to save seats for your travel companion(s), be thoughtful. Remember, you can’t keep those seats if someone insists on sitting there and your companions haven’t yet made it onto the plane.

Bottom line

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.

The next time you fly Southwest, pull up this guide. You will know what seats to target and how to get there as efficiently as possible.

Related reading:

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