How to get seats together as a family on Southwest Airlines

Jan 25, 2020

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One of my daughter’s first flights, about nine years ago, was on Southwest. She was just a toddler and we were heading to Orlando to experience Disney World. I was able to use some Southwest award flights to get us there, but since it was our first Southwest flight as a family, I was nervous about the open-seating policy and what it would take to get seats together. Thankfully, there are many ways for families to sit together on Southwest.

Related: Best Southwest Airlines credit cards for families

While some airlines do make it challenging to get free seat assignments together with your family, Southwest’s approach is quite different. In fact, Southwest does not assign seats in advance at all. And while it is unusual compared to the approach of other U.S. airlines, it works to the advantage of some young families, especially if you are hoping to score a free open seat for your lap baby.

My family enjoys our occasional flights on Southwest
My family enjoys our occasional flights on Southwest. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Official application links: Don’t miss out on these up to 75,000-point elevated offers on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card.

Southwest boarding 101

Before I get into some specific seating strategies, here are some basics on how the Southwest boarding process works. When you check in online, you are assigned a boarding pass number in one of three groups: A, B or C. Each of the groups has a corresponding number between 1 and 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. (The numbers aren’t exact because some people get a chance to board early in the process, regardless of assigned number.)

Boarding occurs based on your boarding group and number, so you'll need to line up in order.

If you have Southwest A-List (elite) status or purchase a Business Select fare, then you are automatically reserved a boarding slot even before the 24-hour check-in mark. Otherwise, you are assigned your number based on when you check in for your flight. The highest available boarding slot at your time of check-in will go to you.

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 group starts boarding, the B group will start lining up in the spots the A group previously occupied. You do need to (more or less) get in your actual numerical order. For example, if you have B-25, 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. (And yes, you may feel a bit like cattle.)

Southwest offers Family Boarding after the A group, but before the B groups, for any families traveling with children 6 and under who are in the B or C groups. (Obviously, if you have an A boarding pass then you will board ahead of this offer.)

Related: Why purchasing Southwest early boarding rarely makes sense for young families

Southwest Family Boarding
Southwest Family Boarding after Group A. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Once you get on board, you can choose any seats that are still unoccupied. The better your boarding group and number, the larger selection of seats you will have. 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, there will be seats occupied even before the person with the A-1 spot gets to board.

How to make sure your family sits together

There are a few things you can do to ensure that your family gets seats together when flying Southwest.

Purchase EarlyBird Check-in 

With EarlyBird Check-In, you can grab a spot in the boarding process 36 hours before the flight and 12 hours before the normal time frame — for an extra fee. Purchasing EarlyBird does not guarantee you will be given an A boarding spot, but you have a very good chance.

This is the easiest way to secure a good boarding spot, but it comes with an extra cost that ranges from $15 – $25 per flight, per person. There is no Southwest rule specifically barring people from saving seats once on board, so it’s possible to buy EBI for some in the party and hope no one else wants to sit in the seats between those who bought it (though we don’t necessarily condone that approach).

Related: Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In Worth It?

Check in exactly 24 hours before departure 

As we have noted, Southwest starts handing out most spots in the boarding process exactly 24 hours before the flight. 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 in the A, B or C group.

Remember if you are using your Southwest Companion Pass to have a friend or family member fly with you for free (other than taxes), you’ll have to check them in separately. Your companion will have a different confirmation number for his or her ticket, so make sure to check that person in at the 24-hour mark as well.

Related: The best credit card pairings to earn the Southwest Companion Pass

Board during Family Boarding

If you have a child in your party who is 6 or under, you can just board during Family Boarding after the A group regardless of your boarding pass position. Your children and up to two adults can board during this time. In theory, this means just 60 folks are 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 you want to sit in the front of the plane on certain flights.

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Have A-List status or fly on a (probably pricier) Business Select ticket 

I don’t think that either of these two solutions are all that practical for most families who are traveling on Southwest, but technically they would both secure you an A boarding pass.

Pay for an Upgraded Boarding slot, if available 

If there are unsold A-1 to A-15 slots (ones that typically go to those who pay higher Business Select fares), Southwest may offer them as Upgraded Boarding slots for $30–$50 each a short time before the boarding process gets underway. This could be a last-ditch way to board on the early side if all other methods have failed. (That said, I would have to be pretty desperate to pay $30–$50 extra per person just to board early.)

However, this is one of the benefits of the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card. It provides the cardholder four Upgraded Boardings in the A1–A15 position each year (worth up to $50 each). You can use this for any passenger within your party, you just need to use your credit card to “pay” for the upgrade. While this isn’t a perk I’d normally pay for, it is a nice bonus to the card when those early boarding positions are for sale at the gate. It is also one of the reasons I prefer this card over the other two personal Southwest credit cards. (Note, the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card also have the same welcome offer at the moment, but do not offer the Upgraded Boarding position benefit).

Related: Elevated offer: Earn up to 75,000 Rapid Rewards points with new Southwest card offers

Book the first flight of the day.

If you are on the first flight for that plane for the day, then you can guarantee you are boarding an empty plane and there won’t be through passengers already occupying seats.

Related: Why the last row on Southwest is the best place to fly

SAN ANTONIO, TEXAS - DECEMBER 12, 2018: A Southwest Airlines Boeing 737 passenger jet takes off from San Antonio International Airport in Texas. (Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)
(Photo by Robert Alexander/Getty Images)

Bottom line

I don’t have any desire to “sweat the small stuff” on family vacations, so for longer flights (like those to Hawaii), I would likely pay the extra $15 to $25 for EarlyBird Check-In so I could be relatively certain my family would be able to sit together. However, for many families, using Family Boarding or checking in exactly 24 hours before departure should be sufficient. That’s the approach I take for shorter flights or those on off-peak times when I’m pretty sure the odds of getting seats together are in our favor.

What are your tips for securing seats on Southwest together for your family?

Looking for more flying Southwest intel? Here it is:

Featured image by Alberto Riva/The Points Guy.

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