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How to get seats together as a family on Southwest Airlines

Nov. 20, 2021
10 min read
Southwest seats
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Editor's Note

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There's a lot for families to love about Southwest Airlines. Free checked bags can be a lifesaver and knowing you're eligible for free changes and cancellations is also a customer-friendly policy for whenever "life happens." The open-seating policy, though, can be stressful if you're traveling with children since there's no guarantee about where you'll sit.

While some airlines make it challenging to get free seat assignments with your family, Southwest's approach is quite different. In fact, Southwest does not assign seats in advance at all. While Southwest's open-seating policy is unusual compared to 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.

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How does Southwest boarding work?

Boarding a Southwest aircraft with plenty of open seats. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Before we get into specific seating strategies, here are some basics on how the Southwest boarding process works.

When you check in for your flight, you are assigned a boarding pass number in one of three groups based on the time you check in: A, B or C. The passes in each group are numbered from 1-60. Someone who checks in relatively early may be assigned A45, potentially the 45th person to board. Someone who doesn't check in until much later may end up with C15, or roughly the 135th person to board. However, the numbers aren't exact because some people get a chance to board early in the process, regardless of their assigned number.

If you have Southwest A-List status, purchase a Business Select fare or buy EarlyBird Check-In, you are automatically reserved a boarding slot before the 24-hour check-in mark. So, you'll board early on in the process. 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.

Related: 9 cool places you didn't know you could fly on Southwest

When it comes time to board, you will line up in order at signs for your respective boarding groups. There will be an A1-A30 line and an A31-A60 line. Once the A group starts boarding, the B group will begin 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 B25, you need to be toward the back of the B1-B30 line. It isn't as hard as it sounds, but it is a unique process. And yes, you may feel a bit like cattle.

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Southwest boarding in St. Louis. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

Southwest offers Family Boarding after the A group but before the B group, for up to two adults traveling with children 6 and younger. This essentially allows families to "skip the line" if they were otherwise assigned a B or C boarding position.

Once you get on board, you can choose any seats that are still unoccupied. The better your boarding group and number, the more seats you will have to select from. This is relevant for everyone, but especially relevant if you are trying to get multiple seats together for your family. However, if the flight has through passengers from a previous flight, some seats will be occupied even when A1 boards.

Related: Best offer we've seen yet: Earn up to 100,000 bonus points with these Southwest cards

How to make sure your family sits together

A child flying Southwest in Hawaii. (Photo by Summer Hull/The Points Guy)

Now, let's discuss 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'll automatically get a spot in the boarding process 36 hours before the flight -- which is 12 hours before you'd otherwise be able to check in. Purchasing EarlyBird doesn't guarantee you'll get an A boarding spot, but you have an excellent chance.

EarlyBird Check-In is the easiest way to secure a good boarding spot, but it comes with an extra cost that ranges from $15-$25 per direction per person. This purchase is nonrefundable, even if you later cancel your reservation. So, you won't want to buy EarlyBird Check-In unless you're sure you'll take the trip.

However, note that several Southwest credit cards, including the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, reimburse you for up to two EarlyBird Check-Ins that you charge to your card each anniversary year.

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

Check in exactly 24 hours before departure

You can use the Southwest app to check in if you're away from your computer. (Photo by Paul Hanaoka/Unsplash)

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 or in the Southwest app precisely 24 hours before departure to check in your whole party. This will be the difference between you getting in the A group or the 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 their ticket, so make sure to check that person in at the 24-hour mark as well.

Related: Top 9 Southwest international destinations for families

Board during Family Boarding

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

If you have a child in your party who is 6 or under, you can board during Family Boarding after the A group regardless of your boarding pass position. Your young children and up to two adults can board during this time.

In theory, only 60 folks will have boarded ahead of you and about two-thirds of the plane should be empty if you board during Family Boarding. However, passengers on the flight's previous segment will also occupy some seats unless you're on the first flight of the day. Even so, you'll almost certainly find a few empty rows if you board during Family Boarding.

Related: Your guide to flying with kids of every age

Have A-List status or fly on a Business Select fare

If someone on your reservation has A-List status, Southwest will automatically reserve boarding positions for the entire group 36 hours before departure. Likewise, you can purchase Business Select fares to guarantee A1-A15 boarding positions -- but these fares are often rather pricey.

As such, neither of these solutions are practical for most families traveling on Southwest. However, families that fly Southwest often should consider holding one or more Southwest credit cards to make earning status a little easier. For example, with the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, you'll earn 1,500 tier qualifying points toward A-List status for every $10,000 spent. Plus, those purchases count toward earning a Companion Pass, too.

Related: The ultimate guide to Southwest credit card eligibility

Pay for an Upgraded Boarding slot, if available

You may be able to buy Upgraded Boarding at the counter. (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)

If there are unsold A1-A15 boarding 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 before the boarding process gets underway. This is a last-ditch way to board early if all other methods have failed.

Paying for upgraded boarding is an expensive solution unless you have the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card. After all, both of these cards will reimburse the cardholder for up to four Upgraded Boardings each card membership year. While I'd have to be pretty desperate to pay for this perk, it's a nice bonus when it's available at no cost to the cardholder.

There's no way to buy Upgraded Boarding until you're at the airport, so you'll need to inquire at the ticket counter or departure gate to see if there are options available. If you want to use one or more of your complimentary Upgraded Boardings from the Southwest Priority Card or Southwest Performance Business Card, you'll need to have your card available for the transaction. The charge is processed normally and then later reimbursed on your credit card statement.

Related: Why now is the best time to apply for Southwest Airlines credit cards

Book the first flight of the day

Southwest offers many continuation flights, so passengers from the previous segment may already occupy some seats on board when boarding begins. However, if you are on the first flight of the day for your aircraft, there will be no through passengers already on board.

Related: The difference between direct and nonstop flights

Bottom line

Some passengers love Southwest's open-seating policy, while others strongly dislike it. But love it or hate it, families can work around it. With young children, Family Boarding is a great (free) option. And for families with kids older than 6, checking in exactly 24 hours before departure should be sufficient. But if you don't want to "sweat the small stuff," paying the extra $15-$25 per person per direction for EarlyBird Check-In is an excellent way to ensure your family will sit together.

Finally, if you've had your eye on a new Southwest credit card, now is an excellent time to apply. After all, the following Southwest consumer cards are all offering a sign-up bonus of 50,000 points after you spend $2,000 on purchases in the first three months from account opening and an additional 50,000 points after you spend $12,000 on purchases in the first 12 months from account opening:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card.
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card.

Best of all, these bonus points could help you earn the famous Southwest Companion Pass through the end of 2023 if you time your spending carefully. And with the Companion Pass, you'd only need to pay the taxes and fees on your companion's ticket when you fly together on Southwest.

Additional reporting by Becky Pokora.

Featured image by (Photo by Katie Genter/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.