Few airlines command the customer devotion that Southwest Airlines 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 that does not assign specific seats to travelers can be baffling for first-time travelers, infrequent flyers or simply those new to Southwest. Fear not. Our comprehensive guide will answer all your questions on getting the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.
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 any other. 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.
If you can pick any available seat you want, 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 between 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 represent your place in line at the gate. And yes, you do have to line up where your number falls.
Group A lines up first, from 1–60, next to the columns designating where to stand in groups of five.
As Group A travelers move forward to scan their boarding passes, Group B passengers can begin lining themselves up to facilitate the boarding process. Finally, Group C can get in line as Group B boards the plane.
Three categories of passengers supersede the standard Group A–C boarding process: preboard 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. Other family members are asked to board according to the assignment on their boarding passes.
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. The same is true of anyone whose boarding assignment has already passed: You can cut in at any time if your boarding assignment has already come and gone. If you happen to be running late, don’t fret. Just make polite eye contact with the gate agent and show your boarding pass.
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 operates two versions of the Boeing 737.
Southwest has 512 Boeing 737-700 aircraft, accounting for more than two thirds of its 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:
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.
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 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 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 Rows 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 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.
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
For $15 – $25 per person, per direction of travel the Southwest 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 Get A1 – A15
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 A 1–15, 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.”
Buy an A1 – A15 Spot 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 or Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, come with four of these included A 1–15 slots each year (which is why these are some of our favorite Southwest cards for families).
How Did People Get on Before A1?
And finally, sometimes you could board a Southwest flight first and still see passengers already on the plane. That’s because several Southwest flights make multiple stops at cities in between an 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.
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 stinkeye. (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.)
If you’re new to Southwest, save this Things to Know graphic and 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.
This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.