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 to get a good seat on Southwest Airlines, 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 Southwest EarlyBird Check-In.
I prefer not to spend any more money than I have to but found Southwest 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 Early Bird 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: Is Southwest Early Bird Check In 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 Southwest 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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These tips will help you find the best seat on a Southwest flight – Photo: Southwest Airlines
Love it or hate it, Southwest Airlines has a unique seating process. Where most airlines will assign you an exact seat, Southwest gives you a boarding number and you can choose any open seat on the plane. Some enjoy choosing who they sit next to, but others don’t like the added anxiety of not knowing where you will sit until you are on the plane. I wanted to run down some ideas on how to get the best seat possible on a Southwest Airlines flight. They have seemed to work out pretty darn well for me over the years.
If you haven’t flown Southwest before, it can be a little confusing. When you check in, you will get a boarding letter – A, B or C – and a number – 1-60. A1 is the best and C23 (on a 737-700) / C55 (on a 737-800) is the worst. No matter what number you have, there are ways to improve where you sit — unless you are last to board.
The first Boeing 737 in Southwest’s new livery – Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter
Some people will be going for the window seat, while others for the aisle. I don’t know anyone trying to get a center seat. You might think having a low letter/number guarantees you a good seat, but it might not. I offer you eight tips on things to improve your chances of scoring a sweet seat. Then I added a few other ideas that I really do not actually suggest… they might get you in trouble. There’s no scientific research to these and not saying they always work, but they seem to work time and again:
1. Ask if the flight is full
Before boarding ask the gate agent if the flight will be full or how full it might be. If it is full, none of these really matter. Just try to get a window/aisle seat as close to the front or in an exit row. If you are in the C-group just be prepared for a middle seat and a bad flight. But really, the best thing is not to be a C (see below).
BONUS:Checking Out Southwest Airlines’ Social Media Center in Texas
2. Don’t be in the C group
Seriously, just don’t be in the C-group. If you read AirlineReporter and end up in the C group, you should be embarrassed. If you just happened on this story and are not a frequent flier (welcome, be sure to read our other stories), then this is your lesson to make sure to check in early and avoid the C group.
Okay, I know sometimes life happens, so if you somehow end up in the C group, just take the first window or aisle seat possible and next time check in earlier.
Cabin mockup of the 737 MAX 8 with the new Meridian seats – Image: Southwest
3. Don’t sit in the exit row
Oh you think these are the prime seats, right? Well, maybe for legroom, but they will be the first center seats to go. If you only want legroom and don’t care about someone sitting next to you, go for it. However, I’d much rather snag a row with an empty middle seat — if you’re in the same boat, then do not sit in the exit row!
4. Sit near the front
Try to get a seat near the front of the plane. When it starts to fill, other passengers will keep heading to the rear, hoping to either find an empty row, window seat, or aisle seat. Even if they make to the back, and realize only center seats are left, they won’t head back to the front… they will just take one near the rear and more likely leave you with an empty seat next to you.
Southwest’s Innovator II, from a similar angle (Pre-Evolve interior shown)
5. Don’t pick an empty row
Seeing an empty row can be exciting… but it can also backfire. Pick a row with someone already sitting in the aisle or window seat (and you take the opposite). If you take a new row you might end up getting a couple (or a child with a parent) sitting next to you.
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6. Take a young kid with you
I don’t have one, so I can’t really do this, but I see a lot of empty seats in a row if there is kid traveling with an adult. Probably not worth it to borrow someone’s kid to increase the chances of an empty seat in your row. I always feel bad for people flying alone with a kid, but I am also going to try and avoid sitting next to them, if possible. I had a recent Southwest flight, where a kid urinated in his seat. Again, felt bad, but I also don’t want to be the one sitting next to him.
7. Don’t be attractive
This one I personally have a hard time with, because I am so attractive (that is sarcasm by the way). It seems all the attractive people (especially women) will find seats filling up next to them quite quickly. Try to look as least attractive as possible to keep the seat next to you empty for as long as possible.
BONUS:Touring Southwest’s Network Operation Center
8. Avoid eye contact
Now, don’t go too far and not look at someone talking to you. But people feel much more comfortable asking “is that seat taken,” if they have your eye contact. Look out the window or start reading the in-flight magazine. If you want to go pro, put in some headphones.
A Southwest 737 departing John Wayne Airport – Photo: John Nguyen | AirlineReporter
Alright. The seat suggestions above still make you a decent person. The ones below do NOT. I suggest you never actually do these, but have seen others use them and end up with some empty seats. Just be careful… some might backfire and others might start making you rethink what kind of person you really are.
A. Pretend you do not understand English
Right or wrong, in many cases this will leave you with an empty seat. But be sure you know the language you are pretending to speak. If your potential seat-mate knows the language, your flight is going to get awkward, very quickly.
B. Take the center seat
I have never had enough guts to try this one and it is risky. The idea is people are less likely to take the window or aisle if they already know the middle seat will be taken. If this backfires, you are going to find yourself in the center seat, when you easily could have had a window or aisle. Your pride will suffer and your seat-mates will question your motivations.
BONUS:A Close Look at Southwest Airlines’ New Seats — Are They Improved?
C. Take up as much space possible
Take your laptop out and start working on it, spread your arms out as much as possible, and put your crap in the middle seat. It will make passengers think the seat is already taken and move on. If you want to go full-on a-hole, when asked if the seat is taken… say “sure is, they are in the bathroom.”
Some LUV – Photo: Southwest Airlines
Pretend to be sick or insane. Maybe do both. Talking to yourself helps, but people might assume you are just talking on a phone with bluetooth. Just be careful… if you go too far, you are getting booted off the plane before it leaves the gate.
E. Go more than just un-attractive
Wear dirty clothes, don’t shower a week before your flight. Be sure to wear some neon-colored Crocs, and of course have them smell… heck wear some white socks with them too! Have some good Mexican food in the airport and ask for extra beans. The downside of this is you have to deal with your own stench and you might not even be allowed on the plane.
BONUS:Checking out Southwest’s Culture-Centric Headquarters
F. Start crying + begging
I know some people have some legitimate space issues. But that is a very small percentage of the population. If you start crying and being semi-hysterical (remember, don’t want to get booted) and begging people to change out your middle seat for something better… you likely will end up with an empty seat next to you. Maybe throw in a few dry-heaves in there to make sure.
Flying in a window seat on a Southwest 737
SOUTHWEST EARLYBIRD OPTION
I am not a fan of paying to board early or have a priority boarding status. However, if wondering what boarding number you will end up with, or you have too much money that you are looking to be rid of, then the EarlyBird option might be for you. Is EarlyBird worth it? That depends on you.
BONUS:Flying to Aruba on Southwest’s Inaugural Flight — In a Window Seat
EarlyBird automatically checks you in 12 hours before the other passengers. It normally benefits you, but if there are others, with status, or those that also pay for EarlyBird, you can still end up in the B-group. Lame. Although, being in the B-group, you will likely still get either a window or aisle. You can also pay ~$40 at the gate for a primo spot, but most folks aren’t willing to spent that kind of money.
FINDING THE BEST SOUTHWEST AIRLINES SEAT CONCLUSION
Being patient, checking in as early as possible, and keeping your cool are probably the best ways to find a good seat on a Southwest flight. Even if you do end up in the middle seat, then just try to smile and know you are still going to get to your destination.
There have to be more tips and tricks. What are some of your strategies for getting the best seat on Southwest? And if you found this helpful, you might also enjoy some of the other awesome airline stories we have written!
Story updated in January 2016
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David Parker Brown
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: email@example.com://www.airlinereporter.com
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