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One of my daughter’s first flights when she was still very young was on Southwest.  We were heading to Disney World to meet up with family, and I was able to use some free flights I had earned from work to get us there on Southwest.  I don’t fly them as much anymore since I don’t have the same job that earned me Southwest credits (now points), and I no longer live closest to an airport that is served by Southwest.  That said, I have had my fair share of experience flying them over the past several years.  One of my concerns when we flew with my young daughter to Orlando was making sure we had three seats together.  Based on reading this Flyertalk thread, it seems others have the same concern.

Southwest does not assign seats in advance, so flying them with young children does present some unique challenges that you don’t have with other airlines.  At the time of our last Southwest flight, our daughter was still under two years old, but we had purchased a seat for her and her car seat to make sure she was as safe and comfortable as possible.  After doing that, we sure as heck didn’t want to have our family of three split up due to poor seat planning on our part.

Before I get into some strategies you can utilize on Southwest, here are some basics on how their boarding process works.  When you check-in you are assigned a boarding pass number in one of the three groups – A, B, or C.  Each of the groups has a corresponding number 1-60.  So, you may be A-45 which would potentially be the 45th person to board, or C-15 which would potentially be the 135th person to board (though likely more than that would have boarded by then including disabilities, family boarding, etc).  If you have A-List (elite) status or purchase a Business Select fare then you are automatically reserved a slot.  Otherwise, you are assigned your number based on when you check-in.

When it comes time to board you will line up in order at signs for your respective boarding groups.  There will be an A 1-30 line and an A 31-60 line.  Once the A’s start boarding the the B’s will start lining up in the spots the A’s previously occupied.  You do need to more or less get in your actual numerical order.  For example, if you have B25, you need to be toward the back of the B 1-30 line, or you will at the very least annoy those around you.  It isn’t as hard as it sounds, but it is a unique process the first time you experience it.

They do offer family boarding after the A group, but before the B groups for any families traveling with children 5 and under who have a boarding number outside of the A group.

Then once you get on-board you can choose any seats that are still unoccupied.  Obviously the better your boarding group and number, the larger selection of empty seats you will have to choose from.  This is relevant for everyone, but especially relevant if you are trying to get multiple seats together for your family.  Also keep in mind that if the flight has through passengers from a previous flight then there will be seats occupied even before A-1 gets to board.

So, what do you do in order to ensure that your family gets seats together?

  • Purchase EarlyBird check-in for $15.00 per ticket.  With EarlyBird check-in, you are secured a spot in the boarding process 36 hours before the flight – 12 hours before normal and without you having to check-in yourself at the exact appointed time.  It does not necessarily mean you will be given an A boarding spot, but you have a very good shot since you are 12 hours ahead of when the general public can check-in and get their “first come, first served” spot in line.  This is the easiest way to secure a good boarding spot, but it also comes with an extra cost so it isn’t for everyone.  Technically you are not supposed to save seats, though I have heard of families successfully purchasing EarlyBird for one or two people who secures a row toward the back of the plane and then others join them a little later in the boarding process.  I’m not saying you should do that, but I’m saying others have.
  • Check-in exactly 24 hours before departure.  Southwest starts handing out spots in the boarding process exactly 24 hours before the flight when on-line check-in opens.  If your boarding number matters to you and you don’t want to pay extra to secure a good spot, then it is crucial that you are at a computer exactly 24 hours before departure to check-in your whole party.  This will be the difference between you getting a A/B group or a B/C group.
  • Board during family boarding.  If you have a child in your party who is 6 or under, then you can forget all the extra hoops and just board during family boarding after the A group.  In theory this means just 60 folks boarded ahead of you, but in reality the plane can already have many passengers on-board who are continuing on from an earlier flight, so a whole row together can still be hard to come by if that is the case on some routes.  This method also does not help you if you have children who are 7, 8, 9 etc., but still need you to sit by them as they are technically too old to have your family qualify for family boarding.
  • Have A-List status or fly on a BusinessSelect ticket.  I don’t think that either of these two solutions are really all that practical for most families who are traveling on Southwest, but technically they would both secure you an A boarding pass.
  • Pay $40 at the boarding gate for one of the very first boarding numbers, if available.  If there are unsold A1 – A15 slots (that typically go to those who pay higher BusinessSelect fares) then they may be offered for $40 a little before boarding.  This is a newer option that I have never personally seen in action, but it could be a last ditch way to get on-board earlier if all other methods have failed, but I would have to be pretty desperate to pay $40 extra per person just to board early.
  • Book the first flight out in the day.  If you are on the first flight for that plane in the day then you can guarantee you are boarding an empty plane and there won’t be through passengers who are continuing on, thus already occupying seats.

I personally don’t have any desire to “sweat the small stuff” on family vacations, and would likely pay the extra $15.00 for EarlyBird check-in so I could be relatively certain my family would have an easy time securing seats together.  This is what I did when we flew to Orlando when Little C was very little.  On flights where securing seats together wasn’t as important I would just be sure to check-in 24 hours before my flight.

I know lots of you have Southwest experience, so what are your tips for securing seats together for your family?

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