Editor’s note: This is a recurring post, regularly updated with new information.
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 families to sit together without charging onerous fees, having a simple way to earn elite status, offering a family of credit cards, and giving passengers 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 those new to the airline.
As of Aug. 15, the Dallas-based carrier announced changes to its boarding process, including reducing the availability of its EarlyBird Check-In to select flights, routes and days, meaning EarlyBird Check-In will be unavailable for some customers.
Additionally, Southwest will permit same-day standby for all passengers, including those who book the cheapest Wanna Get Away fares, allowing passengers in Southwest’s lowest fare classes to waitlist for a different flight on the same day without paying a fare difference, helpful for passengers flying on routes with multiple daily frequencies.
With those changes in mind, this comprehensive guide will answer all your questions on how to get the best seat on your next Southwest Airlines flight.
How Southwest boarding works
Like many other airlines, Southwest begins boarding about 30 minutes before scheduled departure. The similarities largely end there, though, because Southwest’s boarding process is unlike any other airline thanks to its open seating policy, which means you can sit just about anywhere you want without assigned seats.
It’s first-come, first-seated, with just a few exceptions standard for all airlines, including passengers who choose to sit in an exit row and must meet the Federal Aviation Administration’s age and physical requirements.
On Southwest flights, the boarding order is 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 members, active-duty military members and family boarding (those with children age 6 and under)
- Group B 1-60
- Group C 1-60
When the traveler checks in for their flight, Southwest assigns each passenger a boarding group letter — A, B or C — and a position from 1 to 60. 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.
Since February, Southwest has been testing out designated preboarding areas at select airports as part of an effort to improve turn times, including by installing color-coded carpeted areas to make it clear where preboarding passengers should line up.
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.
Families with young children 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. However, 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 Group C.
As soon as you walk onto the plane, you’re free to select any seat you want, but some feel it’s a lot of pressure to decide on the fly where you’ll spend your entire flight. It helps to know about Southwest’s plane configurations when deciding your preferred seat. 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?
The best seat on Southwest is subjective and depends on who you ask — some prefer the last row, especially with small children in tow. Many others think the back row is the worst possible seat, while others swear by sitting in the first five rows.
If your flight isn’t full, you’ll most likely find fewer people in the back of the plane — potentially keeping that seat next to you empty.
Here are some things to think about as you consider your seat.
If you are hoping for an empty middle seat
If you’re a party of three, you’ll want to take the entire row to ensure no one will sit next to you since all Southwest planes are three-and-three.
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, which both have pros and cons. Sitting upfront means that everyone boarding the plane after you are walking right by you while picking their seat. 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.
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 passenger in 12A has two seats’ worth of space to stretch out their legs — a godsend for tall travelers. However, if you’re on one of Southwest’s newer -800 and MAX 8 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 rows 1, 9 or 17. Southwest flight attendants split cabin service into three sections, and these are typically the rows where the drink and snack service begins.
If you only want 1 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
Here are some tactics to secure the earliest boarding position:
- 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
Remember, the best way to get the seat you want is 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 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 flight exactly 24 hours ahead of time. 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 will automatically check you in 36 hours before departure instead of just 24 hours via their EarlyBird Check-In. This means you will generally get a better boarding position than if you checked yourself in 24 hours in advance.
As mentioned, Southwest is reducing the availability of its EarlyBird Check-In to select flights, routes and days, so that EarlyBird Check-In may not be available.
“Beginning Aug. 15, EarlyBird Check-In® will be subject to availability on certain flights, routes, or days, and that will mean EarlyBird Check-In is unavailable for some customers looking to purchase it,” a spokesperson for the airline told TPG.
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
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 don’t like the number you were assigned, Upgraded Boarding is sometimes available at the gate on the day of departure for $30-$50 one-way per person when A1-A15 slots are still available. Even if you don’t want to spend that cash, know that the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card comes with four of these included A1-A15 slots each year.
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 between the 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 being rerouted onto other flights.
There isn’t much you can do if someone’s already sitting in the seat you want, but Southwest will ask other travelers to offer up their seats and shift around so a parent can sit with a toddler or young child if you’re the sole caregiver for a small child or for a person who otherwise requires your care.
Can you save seats on Southwest?
If you decide to save seats for your travel companion(s), be thoughtful and remember you can’t keep those seats if someone else really insists on sitting there and your companions haven’t yet made it onto the plane.
Save 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 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.
- Your complete guide to maximizing Southwest Rapid Rewards
- The best Southwest Airlines credit cards
- How to quickly earn the Southwest Companion Pass
- What is United Airlines’ elite status worth?
- Maximize your airfare: The best credit cards for booking flights
- The best credit cards to reach elite status
- How to change or cancel a Southwest Airlines flight
Benet J. Wilson and Katherine Fan previously contributed reporting.