My Secrets to Getting the Best Seats on Southwest

by Shelli Stein

People either love or hate Southwest Airlines. Few take the middle ground and no one wants that dreaded middle seat! If you’ve been wondering how to select a seat on Southwest Airlines, listen up. Here’s what you need to know.

Some travelers won’t even fly Southwest due to their quirky open seating boarding process It can be stressful and often means you have to summon up your best hustle energy to get a good seat on Southwest. And of course, a good seat means different things to different people.

It’s best to board with a plan! Here are some tricks, tips and strategies so that the dreaded middle seat goes to someone other than you!

What's it like to fly Southwest Airlines

How Southwest Airlines Open Seating Policy Works

If you’re new to Southwest and can’t figure out how to pick your seats, don’t worry, neither can anyone else.

Southwest Airlines has an open seating policy. Seats are not assigned ahead of time, rather passengers are assigned a boarding group, A, B, or C, and a boarding position, 1-60.

The boarding group and position determine when you board the plane, and thus how many seats you will be able to choose from.

The whole thing used to be a true free for all. The airline handed out placards with one of the three letters. People would line up under a letter, camping out on the ground for literally hours before a flight departed, in hope of improving their real estate situation onboard the flight.

Southwest decided this wasn’t a good look, and back in the mid-2000s added boarding positions. Now, the lines have numbers and everyone is expected to sort themselves out based on their exact position in line.

Unless you really are dead set on sitting at the bulkhead or you really want an exit row aisle or window, the key to finding a decent seat on a full flight is to secure a boarding position in roughly the first half of passengers to board.

What Makes For a “Good” Southwest Seat?

All of this talk about seating begs the question, which seats qualify as good ones? The seats on the plane are more or less all identical. Except for exit rows, there’s no extra legroom seating, and there’s not really any perk to one seat over the other, besides location.

Southwest Airlines seat selection

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The best seat on Southwest depends on personal needs. Travelers with connecting flights might want to sit in the front in order to make a quick exit, but then there are those who head straight for the back perhaps because they are a family looking for seats together. Some folks head to the back hoping the flight won’t be full and they’ll have a row with an empty middle seat.

One piece of information I like to have before I sit down is how full my flight is. I’ve seen Southwest gate agents make announcements as to whether a flight is full, but they often make this up just to get everyone on the plane quicker. One inexact way to judge is to see how many people remain in the gate area after the A Group is called. If about half the gate area lines up for A boarding, it’s a safe bet there will be plenty of empty seats.

The Complete Guide to Southwest Airlines’ Quirky Perks and Hacks

During full-ish flights, choosing seats in the front-center section increases your chance of securing an empty middle seat between you and a neighbor. When there are plenty of empty seats, though, the rear of the aircraft can be downright spacious.

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Rule Number One: Check-In ASAP

If there’s one rule Southwest regulars follow religiously, it’s this: check-in exactly 24 hours before the flight. I sometimes even set an alarm for the exact minute!

Southwest Airlines Check-In seat selection boarding group

Use this page. Use it early.

Get on your laptop, open the Southwest website on a smartphone or download the Southwest app. Within a few minutes of opening, many of the coveted top boarding positions will be gone, so it’s crucial to click that Check In button as early as possible.

I know some Southwest frequent flyers who set an alarm five minutes before check-in opens. They’ll enter all the necessary information on the website to check in and then as soon as the clock ticks 24 hours, they’ll click the button.

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EarlyBird Check-In Option

Not sure if you’ll be able to check-in 24 hours prior to your flight? Consider purchasing Southwest EarlyBird Check-In. EarlyBird Check-In costs $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 EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee an A boarding position, but it stands to reason you would be in the A or early B group.

Does Southwest Airlines Have a Family Boarding Policy?

Have a family? You’re in luck. An adult traveling with a child six or younger may board during Family Boarding, after the “A” group has boarded and before the “B” group begins boarding. If the child and the adult are both holding an “A” boarding pass, they should board in their assigned boarding position, but if either is B1 or later, this shortcut helps families sit together.

Southwest Boarding Groups Move Quickly — If You’re Late, Walk-Up Front

Once Southwest starts boarding, things happen quickly. If you are running late and have an earlier boarding position, just walk to the front of the line to board. Don’t worry, cutting isn’t rude in this circumstance.

I’ve seen this happen many times, especially with travelers from connecting flights.

Pay Extra or Fly More

Southwest offers a fare that guarantees an A1-A15 boarding position: Business Select. These fares are pricy — more than a fully refundable ticket — but they include FlyBy Priority Security lane access and come with free cocktail coupons.

What Exactly Is a ‘Wanna Get Away’ Fare?

If you don’t want to purchase a Business Select fare, Upgraded Boarding is an alternative. Upgraded Boarding is not always available, but can be worth trying.

a close up of a credit card

Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card

The new Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card actually includes Upgraded Boarding on four flights per year. It also comes with a heap of intro bonus points, if you spend enough.

On the day of travel, go to a Kiosk at the airport and Check-In again. It’s also possible to ask about Upgraded Boarding at the baggage counter. You can also ask at the gate before the start of the boarding process.

If Upgraded Boarding is available, depending on your itinerary, you’ll be given a boarding position in the A1-A15 group. The cost is $30 or $40 per flight depending on your itinerary.

Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards members with A-List and A-List Preferred status. These members are automatically assigned boarding positions ahead of general boarding. They even board ahead of EarlyBird flyers.

Want to be unpopular? Try Saving Seats 

Southwest saving seats

Save a seat and someone’s likely to give you this look.

Some travelers will attempt to save seats for people boarding after them. Many frequent flyers will complain because Southwest doesn’t seem to have an official policy on this practice. Even if they do, crews don’t consistently do anything about it.

I’ve observed that most people don’t care if someone is saving a middle seat next to them when their traveling companion is boarding soon. But beware! Some passengers take saving seats to the max.  You may need to speak up or ask a crew member for help.

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How do I select a seat on Southwest Airlines can be a confusing question to answer. These tips and suggestions can help you navigate Southwest’s open seating policy with the least amount of stress, a good dose of humor about how it all somehow works, and the best chance of getting the best seat possible!

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Shelli Stein is a health and fitness entrepreneur who travels the world in search of culture, food, and fun! Besides contributing to PointMeToThePlane, you can find her at Joy in Movement.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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Mark May 23, 2019 - 7:13 pm

If you check in C group, check your carry on. It saves everyone time! Departure is earlier and the time wasted could be used drinking a beer or walking to baggage claim. Oh, you don’t want to wait? It takes 5 -10 minutes at baggage claim compared to 30 mins waiting for SW to check your Carey on because there was no room in the overhead bins.

Stan August 14, 2019 - 8:38 am

Early bird fees are sometimes more than $15, depending on the length of the trip, but still can be worth it.

Shelli August 14, 2019 - 9:42 am

Good point, Stan. Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation!

Mike Cunningham September 6, 2019 - 10:08 am

Early birds are no longer $15. They’ve gone up to $25 per person each way.

Shelli September 6, 2019 - 9:07 pm

Hi Mike, According to Southwest, EarlyBird check-in can be purchased at prices ranging from $15-25 one-way per passenger.

William Randall February 25, 2020 - 12:15 pm

We just booked southwest from Milwaukee to Vegas and the early bird checkin wwas$50

William Randall February 25, 2020 - 12:24 pm

Sorry bout that,it was $25 apiece

Shelli February 25, 2020 - 12:28 pm

No worries, William. It’s confusing, for sure. Glad the math worked out as it should have. Thanks for reading!

karen September 6, 2019 - 1:24 pm

I have a connecting flight and paid for early check in. Does that roll over to my connecting flight?

Shelli September 6, 2019 - 9:12 pm

Hi Karen, I’m not exactly clear on what you mean by connecting flight. First I’m assuming your connecting flight is also on Southwest. Did you buy the connecting flight separately or by connecting flight did you mean a stop and then a change of planes?

Jame January 3, 2020 - 9:51 am

I think Karen means, I.e. one reservation from east to west coast, with a Dallas layover and continue on a different aircraft, that would be two segments, right? Does the purchased early bird cover both boardings or need to buy two?

Shelli January 4, 2020 - 10:08 pm

Hi Jame, Thanks for reading and for your follow-up question. I still need more information from Karen, though, to properly answer. Here is a post on Early Bird that might help clear up any confusion.

Donna February 10, 2020 - 6:22 pm

I purchased the early bird check in so what do I do once I get to the airport. Do I still need to get online at 24 hours prior to departure to reserve a boarding pass ? And what do I do once I get to the gate ?

Shelli February 10, 2020 - 6:32 pm

Hi Donna, Thanks for reading. Hope this helps answer your questions:

Steve June 25, 2020 - 2:07 pm

I need to fly to Florida nonstop with my wife who is disabled, how do I board with a wheelchair? I also need to make sure we make the flight and not be put on standby. Any tips for me? I haven’t flown in 40 yrs.

Shelli June 26, 2020 - 12:00 am

Hi Steve, I suggest you call Southwest Airlines directly and talk with them about your needs. I’m quite certain they will be able to assist you. Safe travels and thanks so much for reading and taking the time to ask your questions. Hope my suggestion to reach out to SWA helps!

Steve October 22, 2020 - 2:53 pm

Our trip to Florida went perfect. SW airlines was great and we got first boarding and everyone was friendly and helpful. We had a great trip. Flights were half full,and middle seats left open.

Shelli October 22, 2020 - 3:05 pm

Thanks so much for the data points Steve. Glad you had such a great experience. Generally speaking, SWA does not disappoint!

Therese October 6, 2020 - 2:07 pm

Since Southwest does not have assigned seats this is my question, My family of 6 is flying, I hate to fly so I always want an aisle seat, others are ok with whatever, but I want us all close by each other. I plan to check in early but do you have any other suggestions?

Shelli October 6, 2020 - 4:56 pm

Good question, Therese. Given you’re a family of 6, I’m thinking at least one of the family members will be able to grab an aisle seat. If not, maybe someone outside your family will switch with you. Early bird check-in is the way to go because it puts you in a favorable boarding group. Good luck, and thanks much for reading!

Claudia Walsh May 11, 2021 - 1:29 pm

Does a Wanna Get Away ticket mean the last to board?

Shelli May 11, 2021 - 4:46 pm

Good question, Claudia. Southwest assigns boarding groups based on a few factors. This fare type does not mean last to board. To understand more about the Wanna Get Away fare, I suggest taking a look at this post, Hope this helps.

Beth May 27, 2021 - 11:26 pm

I fly Southwest all the time but I have a trip coming up in July where my family is traveling from Oakland to Cincinnati on 3 different confirmation numbers and would like to seat near each other. My granddaughter has her own confirmation number but we cannot qualify for family boarding because she is 7 years old. We all don’t want to buy an Early Bird check-in but the flights are full so how can we ensure that at least she is seated with one of us and we are not all in middle seats.

Shelli May 30, 2021 - 9:11 pm

Hi Beth, Try reaching out to SWA with your concerns and see what they suggest. Also, I imagine there will be people on your flight who would swap seats with you so your granddaughter can sit with family. Safe travels!

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Kathleen Hiller November 2, 2022 - 10:39 pm

Do they allow handicap to board first? Is it possible to get seats if unable to walk the aisle?

Shelli November 3, 2022 - 10:36 am

Hi Kathleen, I believe that Southwest does make a boarding call for anyone needing extra time to board. I’m not sure about the answer to your second question though. You might want to reach out to Southwest and ask them directly.


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