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Southwest Airlines is far from your typical airline when it comes to seat assignments. With most airlines, you select a seat when you purchase your ticket. Southwest, however, has an open-seating policy where you pick any available seat when you walk onto the plane. This definitely scares many, as there is no guarantee that you’ll snag your preferred seat, whether it is a window or aisle, or at the front or back of the plane.
The lack of assigned seats can frighten families even more if there is anxiety about being potentially split up from their kids. When you check in to your Southwest flight 24 hours in advance, you will receive an “A,” “B” or “C” boarding pass and each group includes numbers 1–60. Ultimately A-1 will be the first to board, after any passengers who need assistance boarding.
You Can Pay to Board Sooner
Southwest will allow to you purchase two different opportunities to get a better boarding seat. Spoiler alert: I find the prices ridiculously expensive and absolutely not worth it. If you are flying with young kids, I promise you that your family will not be split up, like you might face with some other airlines.
Early Bird Check-In
Your boarding position is tied to when you check in for your flight. You are able to check in exactly 24 hours prior to your flight departure so the earlier you check in, the better your boarding position will be. For those who do not want to have to worry about checking in online exactly 24 hours in advance, you can pay for Southwest to check you into your flight. This is otherwise known as Early Bird Check-In.
In actuality, Southwest checks you in prior to the 24 hour mark, so you should theoretically receive a better position than someone who does not pay for this option. With that said, there is no guarantee that you’ll actually receive an “A” boarding position. It all comes down to how many passengers purchase this early check-in option, how many “A-listers” are on the flight, how many “Anytime” fare tickets were purchased (as they receive higher boarding positions), etc.
With Early Bird Check-In now costing anywhere between $15 to $25 each way per passenger, that is a lot of money to shell out to hopefully get a better boarding position. Let’s say you are a family of four traveling on Southwest. You are looking at spending anywhere between $60 to $100 each way, or $120 to $200 total for your round-trip flights, if you purchase Early Bird Check-In. That is a lot of money just for early check-in.
Upgraded Boarding Position
There is a second option. When you arrive at the gate the day of your flight, you can purchase an Upgraded Boarding Position. This will guarantee you an A1 through A15 boarding pass, but is on a first-come, first-served basis and not always available. On all the many Southwest flights I’ve been on, though, I have never seen all 15 boarding passes sell out.
Purchasing this boarding pass will cost you either $30, $40 or $50 per passenger. The cost depends on your itinerary, and the gate agent will be able to disclose it to you before you decide. For a family of four you are looking at up to$200 just for that one-way flight if you purchase this option! If you thought Early Bird Check-In was expensive, this could really burn a hole in your pocket.
If you really do want that upgraded boarding position for the peace of mind, but definitely do not want to pay for it, consider signing up for the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. One of the major benefits of this card (which is our top Southwest credit card pick for families) is that it comes with four complimentary Upgraded Boarding positions per year. This means, if available, you can get boarding position A1–A15 on the day of travel, which will ensure you snag your desired seat when boarding the plane. Of course, the sign-up bonus points received on this card also count toward the Southwest Companion pass, which will allow a family member to fly with you for free for nearly two years!
Family Boarding Comes in Handy When…
Why don’t we recommend families buying up to board early and sit together? Largely because Southwest offers Family Boarding, which is available to any family traveling with a child six years or younger. So as long as someone in your family is between the ages of 0 and six, regardless of whether you have older children with you, the entire family can board during Family Boarding, after the “A” group and before the “B” group. You are essentially boarding before the majority of the passengers on the plane. This is boarding group is absolutely free, regardless of your assigned boarding position, so you can throw away the extra expense of the better boarding passes.
Since only 60 or so passengers will be boarding the plane before you, there are plenty of seats together for families to occupy. The smallest of Southwest’s planes holds 143 seats. The chances of every single passenger before you picking just the aisle seat throughout the entire plane is just not realistic, though there may be some additional through passengers on the plane before regular boarding begins. Since passengers tend to pick seats at the front of the plane (although maybe not the middle seat), this leaves the entire back of the plane pretty open at that point in the boarding process.
On a recent Southwest flight, my family of four boarded during Family Boarding and there were only three other passengers occupying rows 16 through 24. If you are flying on the larger 737 model 800 or the equally-sized Boeing 737 MAX, you’ll have even more rows to pick from.
Of course, if you are traveling during a big school vacation break or to Orlando, the family boarding line will most likely be longer than normal. At all other times, I typically see only a few families in line, which does not significantly affect getting seats together.
I am a huge Southwest fan and have never once purchased Early Bird Check-In or an Upgraded Boarding Position. Since my kids are two and five years old, still within the Family Boarding age range, I have boarded with Family Boarding on every single flight. And not once have I come even close to having an issue. There are always plenty of seats available for us during the Family Boarding process — including on peak school vacation weeks when flights were 100% sold out. Personally, I suggest saving your money and putting it toward a better use for your family’s vacation. That said, there are likely some situations (I have yet to experience) where it does make sense to purchase EBCI, so do what is right for your family.
Know before you go.
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