Everything you need to know about the best seats on Southwest Airlines
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Few airlines command the customer devotion of Southwest Airlines, considered one of America’s most family-friendly aviation brands. The airline does things right in many ways that other airlines do not: offering two free checked bags per person; making it easy for parents to sit with young children; not charging onerous fees; having a simple way to earn elite status; offering a family of credit cards; and giving passengers three (soon to be four) booking fares.
However, 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 the airline. Fear not. Our comprehensive guide will answer all your questions on how to get the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.
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How Southwest boarding works
Like many other airlines, Southwest begins boarding about 30 minutes before a flight is scheduled to depart. The similarities largely end there, though, because Southwest’s boarding process is truly unlike that of any other airline. The airline has an open seating policy, which means 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. 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, then who gets to board the plane first? The boarding order goes as follows:
- Preboarding (those who need specific seats to accommodate a disability, those who need assistance with boarding and stowing an assistive device and unaccompanied minors).
- Group A 1–60.
- A-List/A-List Preferred, active-duty military and family boarding (those with children age six and under).
- 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 the traveler checks in for his or her flight. The unique boarding code, such as A45 or B52, is printed directly on the boarding pass and represents the person’s place in line at the gate.
At the gate, passengers line up single file at gray metal columns to match their boarding group letter and boarding position. Boarding is called in groups of 30 (A1-A30, followed by A31-A60 and so on). However, three categories of passengers supersede the standard Group A-C boarding process: preboarding travelers, families and A-List/A-List Preferred 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; 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 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. However, it’s a lot of pressure to decide on the fly where you’ll spend your entire flight. You’ll want to keep reading so you know what seats to aim 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 506 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 34 Boeing 737 MAX 8 planes — with 175 seats.
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 former loyalty and engagement editor, Richard Kerr, is a big fan of the last row on Southwest planes, especially with small children in tow. Many other people think the back row is the worst possible seat.
TPG’s senior editor and resident Southwest expert Benét Wilson swears by sitting in the first five rows (minus the bulkhead seats), even with children.
If you’re 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.
Let’s say you’re in Group A, and the plane is your oyster. Where should you go? Here are some options.
If you are hoping for a possible empty middle seat
If you’re a party of three (or any multiple of three), you’ll want to take the entire row — since all Southwest planes are three-and-three. This ensures no one will sit next to you.
If you don’t fall into that 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.
Then it’s 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’re 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’s 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 on Southwest.
If you want legroom
Aim for Seat 12A, the window seat on the right side of Row 12 as you’re facing the back of the plane on Southwest’s Boeing 737-700s. 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. However, if you’re on one of Southwest’s newer -800 and MAX8 models, then the best seats are in rows 14 and 15.
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 and get 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 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 or 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 wonder 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. 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.
Note that if you’re 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.
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
For $15-$25 (based on distance) 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. Read more about 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 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 might be more important than ever, so this is a huge benefit of the cards. Additionally, the current sign-up offer on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card is 75,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months.
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 a coveted A1 boarding spot. That’s because several Southwest flights make multiple stops at cities in between origin and final destination. Travelers who are headed for the final destination stay on board when 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.
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.
There are a couple of tricks you can employ if you really, really want to sit together with someone else, though. Keep in mind that the only scenario where your desire constitutes a worthy demand is if you’re the sole caregiver for a small child or for a person who otherwise requires your care. In those cases, 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 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 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, the next time you fly Southwest, pull up this guide and you will know what seats to target and how to get there as efficiently as possible.
Additional reporting by Benét J. Wilson.
Featured photo by Benét J. Wilson/The Points Guy.
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