Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
Few airlines command the customer devotion that Southwest inspires. America’s most family-friendly aviation brand, according to our survey, does things right in many ways that other airlines do not, from offering two free checked bags per person to making it easy for parents to sit with young children without paying premium fees, having elite status, a certain credit card or booking way in advance.
But 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 simply those new to Southwest — especially during a full-blown pandemic. Fear not. Our comprehensive guide will answer all your questions on getting the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.
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Related: These are the best Southwest Airlines credit cards
How Southwest boarding works
Like many other airlines, Southwest begins boarding about 30 minutes before a flight is scheduled to depart. But the similarities largely end there because Southwest’s boarding process is truly unlike that of any other airline. The airline has an “open boarding” policy, which means that you can sit just about anywhere you want: up front, way in the back or right in the middle. There are no assigned seats, not even at the very front of the plane. It’s first come, first seated.
There are a few exceptions, of course: If you want to sit in an exit row, you still have to meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s age and physical requirements. And this should go without saying, but you can’t sit in someone else’s lap unless you’re under the age of 2. If there’s already someone else in the seat you want, you’ll have to pick a new spot.
Related: What to expect when flying Southwest during COVID-19
If you can pick any available seat you want, then who gets to board the plane first? The boarding order goes as follows:
- Group A 1–60
- Family boarding, active military and A-List/A-List Preferred
- Group B 1–60
- Group C 1–60
Southwest assigns each passenger a boarding group letter — A, B or C — and a position from 1–60 when that traveler checks in for their flight. The unique boarding code, such as A45 or B52, is printed directly on the boarding pass and represents your place in line at the gate.
In normal years, you’d line up at the gate in single file based on your boarding position. Boarding was called in groups of 30 (A1–A30, followed by A31–A60 and so on). Now, due to COVID-19, Southwest is only boarding in groups of 10 people at a time. This allows more distance between passengers and means you don’t need to camp out next to the gray metal columns designating your number within the A, B or C group. Instead, you’ll need to listen carefully for your boarding group and start boarding when your position range is called.
However, three categories of passengers supersede the standard Group A–C boarding process: preboarding travelers, families and A-List members.
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.
Young families 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 and 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, but 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 over to the end of the boarding process, for stragglers in Group C.
As soon as you walk onto the plane, you’re free to select any seat you want. But since it’s a lot of pressure to decide on the fly where you’ll spend your entire flight, you’ll want to read on so you know what seats to plan for ahead of time.
It really helps to know a little something about Southwest’s plane configurations when deciding which seat is best. As you’ll see in the diagrams below, Southwest currently has three different versions of the Boeing 737.
Southwest has 476 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 48 Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes, although as of right now they are all grounded. Additional requirements and pilot training will need to be conducted before these planes are back in the air, and as of right now, Southwest estimates that this won’t happen until at least the second quarter of 2021.
What’s the best seat on Southwest?
Now that you know how the planes are configured, what’s the best seat on Southwest? The answer, of course, is extremely subjective. TPG’s loyalty and engagement editor, Richard Kerr, is a big fan of the last row on Southwest planes, especially with small children in tow. But many other people think the back row is the worst possible seat.
But now that Southwest is no longer blocking the middle seat, there is a chance that a stranger will sit next to you — which is something you might want to try to avoid these days. If you are on a flight that isn’t full, you’ll most likely find fewer people in the back of the plane — potentially keeping that seat next to you empty.
So let’s say you’re in Group A, and the plane is your oyster. Where should you go? Here are some options.
If you want a socially distanced seat
In these days, staying far away from other passengers is ideal. If you are a party of three (or any multiple of three), then you’ll want to take the entire row — since all Southwest planes are three-and-three. This will ensure no one is sitting next to you.
But if you don’t fall into that numbers 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.
And then it is up in the air as to whether you should sit up front or in the back. They both have their pros and cons. Sitting up front means that everyone boarding the plane after you is walking right by you while picking their seat. But it also means that when you go to deplane, you are 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 is 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.
Personally, if the flight isn’t full, I always pick the back of the plane in Southwest during normal times and it’s still my recommended spot during COVID.
Related: How I plan to socially distance when flying
If you want legroom
Aim for Seat 12A, the window seat on the right side of Row 12 when you’re facing the back of the plane. Row 11 is an “edit” row with just two seats on the right side, which means that Seat 11A is “missing.” Thus, the lucky passenger in 12A has two seats’ worth of space to stretch out his or her legs — a godsend for tall travelers.
If you’re on a Boeing 737-800, you have a second opportunity to score the legroom jackpot, as this aircraft configuration features a second seat with double the leg room in Seat 12F. But 737-800s only account for about a quarter of Southwest’s fleet, so your best bet is still to gun for 12A.
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. So if you want 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 Row 1, 9 or 17. Southwest flight attendants split up cabin service into three sections, and these are the typically the rows where drink and snack service begins.
If you only want one 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, as well as 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
If you’re new to Southwest, you may be wondering how to get the absolute best seat (aka the earliest boarding position). Here are some tactics:
- 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
The best way to get the seat you want is simply 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 every dollar really counts and 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 Southwest flight exactly 24 hours ahead of time. This is important: Set an alarm to go off one minute ahead of check-in time or ask your mom to call you at that time — whatever it takes. Even waiting a minute or two after that check-in period could put you significantly down on the boarding list.
Tip: If you are 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.
Related: 13 lessons from 13 years’ worth of Southwest Companion Passes
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
For $15-$25 per person each way, Southwest’s computers can automatically check you in 36 hours before departure instead of just 24 hours. This means you will generally get a better boarding position than if you checked yourself in 24 hours in advance. Here are thoughts on whether EarlyBird Check-In is worth the investment.
Business Select fares automatically get A1-A15 boarding priority
Even with the best of reminders, checking in on the dot doesn’t guarantee that 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
After that, 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 just don’t like the number you were assigned, Upgraded Boarding is sometimes available at the airport on the day of departure for $30 to $50 one-way, per person when A1–A15 slots are still available. Even if you don’t want to spend that cash, know that both the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card come with four of these included A1–A15 slots each year (which is why these are some of our favorite Southwest cards for families).
Getting the ideal seat this year might be more important than ever, so this is a huge benefit of the cards. And best of all, the current sign-up offer on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card comes with the Southwest Companion Pass (valid through February 28, 2022), plus 30,000 points after you spend $5,000 on the card within the first three months of account opening.
Related: It’s back! Earn a Companion Pass with the new sign-up bonus on these Southwest cards
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 the coveted A1 boarding spot. That’s because several Southwest flights make multiple stops at cities in between a final-point origin and destination. Travelers who are headed for the final destination stay on board while 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 rerouted onto other flights, which means less available space for passengers boarding the flight later on.
Related: This is the difference between a nonstop and a direct flight
There isn’t much you can do if someone’s already sitting in the seat you want; if you’re one of the last people on the plane, we suggest you just smile, be grateful that you made it on board and make the best of the situation for the next few hours.
But there are a couple of tricks you can employ if you really, really want to sit together with someone else. Keep in mind that the only scenario where your desire constitutes a demand is if you’re the sole caregiver for a small child or for a person who otherwise requires your care. Southwest will ask other travelers to offer up their seats and shift around so a parent can sit with toddler or young child, but this isn’t a fair request to make of other passengers if you simply want to snuggle up with your significant other.
Can you save seats on Southwest?
There isn’t any definitive Southwest policy for or against seat-saving. Kerr, TPG’s loyalty and engagement editor, calls this the “Southwest Shuffle,” where one passenger boards early to save seats for the other traveler(s) in the group, just as you would at the movies.
If you decide to save seats for your travel companion(s), be thoughtful — don’t hop on board, spread out your belongings over six seats in two separate rows and expect other travelers to just walk past without giving you the stink eye. (You also have no right to keep those seats if someone else really insists on sitting there, and your companions haven’t yet made it onto the plane.)
Print 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 potentially 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 next time you fly Southwest, pull up this guide so you know what seats to target, and how to get there as efficiently as possible.
Featured photo by Jim WATSON/AFP/Getty Images.
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Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
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