How to Get the Best Seat on a Southwest Flight [Complete Guide]

And Do So Without Paying $150+ Extra for Business Class

Whenever you fly, you want to get the best seat on the plane for your money. With Southwest, getting the seat you want is more complicated. That’s because there are no assigned seats on Southwest flights. Rather, as passengers board the plane, they may choose any unoccupied seat.

I'm holding my son Michael on a Southwest flight

My son Michael and I on a Southwest flight last summer

Over time, I’ve given an inordinate amount of thought to how to get the seat you want on a Southwest flight. Here’s a complete guide to scoring your desired seat, whether that be an exit row, an aisle, or a window. (If you prefer the middle seat in the back row near the lavatories, you can stop reading now.)

Step 1: Decide Which Seat(s) You Want

For any airline, the way to decide in advance what seat(s) you want is to consult the SeatGuru map for your flight, as I discuss in this post: SeatGuru: How to Get the Best Seat on the Plane.

Southwest’s entire fleet currently consists of just three types of aircraft. You will fly on one of these planes:

  • Boeing 737-700. This plane makes up 73% of the fleet. Here’s the SeatGuru map, which shows great seats in green, bad ones in red, etc.:
  • Boeing 737-800. This plane makes up 25% of the fleet. Here’s its SeatGuru map:
  • Boeing 737 MAX 8. This plane, introduced just last month, makes up only 2% of the fleet. A SeatGuru map has not yet been posted. You might be able to determine your seat of choice by reading this article.

Step 2: Get a Better Boarding Position

Because of Southwest’s “open seating” policy, boarding earlier rather than later obviously improves your chances of getting the seat you want since fewer seats will be claimed when you board.

All passengers are assigned to the A, B, or C boarding group. Within each group, they are assigned to a number, 1-60+. The best boarding position is A1. The worst is C60 (or whatever the highest C-number happens to be).

Here’s how to get a better boarding position:

  1. Buy a Business Class Ticket? — Not recommended.

    Purchasing a “Business Select” fare guarantees you an A1-A15 boarding position. But those fares often cost hundreds of dollars more than the least expensive fare for a flight.

    There are certain circumstances where buying a business class ticket on Southwest makes sense. But I certainly wouldn’t recommend purchasing one just to improve your boarding position.

  2. Earn A-List or A-List Preferred Status? — An arduous approach.

    Those with A-List or A-List Preferred Status on Southwest are assigned a boarding position before general checkin begins. While that doesn’t guarantee an A boarding position, it ensures that you will receive the earliest position available.

    The problem is that it’s a slow road to qualifying for status. The lowest status (A-List) requires 25 qualifying one-way flights or 35,000 tier qualifying points in a calendar year.

  1. Purchase EarlyBird Check-In? — A good option.

    For $15 one-way, you can purchase an advanced boarding position. Specifically, you will be assigned a boarding position after Business Select and A-List customers but before general checkin.

    (Among those who purchase EarlyBird checkin, boarding priority is determined first by fare class, with “Anytime” ticketholders getting preference over “Wanna Getaway” ticket holders. Then, within those classes, priority is determined by the time stamp of the EarlyBird Check-in purchase.)

    While EarlyBird Check-in doesn’t guarantee you an A boarding position, it is an economical way to virtually guarantee yourself a good boarding position. You can purchase it up to 36 hours prior to your flight’s departure online or by calling Southwest. (Note that EarlyBird Check-in is nonrefundable, even if you cancel your flight.)

  2. Purchase “Upgraded Boarding”? — A viable, lesser-known option.

    You can guarantee yourself an A1-A15 boarding position by purchasing “Upgraded Boarding.” You can purchase it on the day of your flight at the ticket counter or gate for $30 or $40 per segment, depending on your itinerary.

    I discussed this option with a gate agent a couple weeks ago. She said that Upgraded Boarding is only available for purchase on flights that don’t sell all the available business class seats. (You don’t get the other benefits of business class, however; just the upgraded boarding position.)

    Perhaps the best time to purchase Upgraded Boarding is when, for whatever reason, you hold a C boarding pass on a long, full flight. In that case, you will almost certainly be stuck in the middle. Purchasing Upgraded Boarding would change your fate considerably, effectively guaranteeing you an aisle or a window and giving you a shot at an exit row.

  3. Passenger with a Disability? — Can board early.

    Passengers with disabilities or needing assistance—and up to one travel companion—may board early.

    Southwest states that passengers may preboard (board before the A group) if they “have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device.” Passengers with disabilities who just need extra time can board immediately after A boarding is complete. To do so, they must get a special boarding pass from an agent at the ticket counter or gate. They may not, however, sit in an exit row.

  4. Board During “Family Boarding” — Great for families.

    Any adult traveling with a child 6 years old or younger is allowed to board immediately before B boarding begins.

    If you hold a B boarding pass or higher, an interesting idea would be to identify someone traveling with an infant and offer to help that person board the aircraft by carrying something, folding up a stroller, etc. He or she would get the benefit of your help, and you would get the benefit of being able to board before the B group.

    If I were a parent traveling solo with an infant, I would gladly receive someone’s help in exchange for enabling that person to board earlier. And because I feel that way, if the situation were reversed, I’d have no problem offering to help someone board, knowing that doing so would enable me to board earlier. In an effort to not come off as a creep, I’d probably say something like, “Hey, I’ve got three kids and know how difficult it can be to board with children. Could I give you a hand? I’d be happy to carry that bag for you or fold the stroller up when it’s time.”

  5. Military Boarding — Unofficial, but common.

    Southwest does not have an official policy regarding boarding military personnel. Frequently, however, they announce at the gate that military personnel may board between groups A and B. If they don’t announce it, and you are in the military, I’d recommend asking a gate agent if you can board at that time.

    Note that, according to this thread, it is further up to the discretion of the gate agent as to whether a valid military ID is sufficient to board or whether the military personnel must be traveling in uniform.

  6. Frantically Check in Exactly 24 Hours in Advance? — It’s dicey these days.

    Checking in exactly 24 hours in advance of your flight—and not a minute later—may get you a good boarding position. I say “may” because it’s not a guarantee. At least, not anymore.

    Back in the day, checking in 24 hours in advance virtually guaranteed you an A boarding position or at least a very good B boarding position. It was the free way to a great set.

    But so many people these days take advantage of the above options that checking in exactly 24 hours in advance usually results in a boarding position in the mid-to-late B’s. With a mid-B boarding position, you can usually get a window or aisle. With a late-B boarding position, you may be stuck in the middle.

Step 3: Board the Plane with a Plan . . . and Advanced Tactics

Ok. You know what seat(s) you want. And you’ve got the best boarding position you can. Now it’s time for some heads-up play while boarding the plane.

Here are some tactics for different situations:

  • Very Best Seats

    If you have a very good A boarding pass, you may be able to score one of the best seats on the plane—those that SeatGuru shows in green. I have one tip in this regard.

    I’ve noticed when boarding a Southwest flight that, in addition to a flight attendant at the front and back of the plane, there is often one in the middle of the plane as well. And do you know where that person is usually standing? He or she is usually standing in an exit row, right in front of the aisle seat (seat C or D).

    If you ask the flight attendant if you can have that seat, he or she will just move to another nearby row, and the great seat is yours. It almost feels like the flight attendant has been saving it for you.

  • Multi-player Game: Save Seats

    Southwest does not have a policy for or against saving seats. So, regardless of whether you think saving seats should be allowed, you can at present save seats without doing anything wrong.

    A particularly leveraged way to take advantage of this situation would be for one person in your party to purchase Upgraded Boarding, thereby getting an A1-A15 boarding position. That person could then save seats for the other members of your party.

  • Single-player Game: Go for Extra Seat

    Let’s say you want an aisle seat, as I always do. I recommend taking the first one where someone is sitting in the window seat with both the middle and aisle seats open. If you take that aisle seat, the middle seat is still open.

    Because you took a seat toward the front half of the plane, as others board, they will pass up the middle seat next to you, hoping to find a window or aisle seat further back. (And if they don’t find a window or aisle seat, then they will just take a middle seat toward the back of the plane.) So you stand the best chance possible of getting not only the seat you want but an open seat next to you.

    (This same general approach works if you want a window seat instead.)

  • How to Get a Good Seat if You Board Late

    Sometimes you may find yourself in the unfortunate position of boarding the plane quite late—either because you have a bad boarding position or, say, because you are running late for your flight. In that case, there is still a heads-up way of getting a good seat. Here’s what to do.

    As you board, there will be some rows with open middle seats. Look at the passengers sitting in the window and aisle seats. What you are looking for are two passengers that appear to be a couple.

    As soon as you find two that appear to be a couple, ask if the middle seat is available. If they are a couple, one of them will often slide into the middle seat, thereby giving you a window or, more often, aisle seat.

    If they don’t slide into the middle seat, you could say, “You know, never mind, I’m going to see if there is a better seat further back.” And then you could just look for the next likely couple occupying window and aisle seats with a middle open between them, and try again.

  • When All Else Fails, Barter

    When all else fails, you can ask the passengers sitting in the window and aisle seats if they’d be willing to take the middle seat in exchange for you buying them a drink or Wi-Fi onboard. If they go for it, you’ll have yourself an upgraded seat for $5-8.

Conclusion

Some people love Southwest and fly them all the time. And I know many readers are working to score the Southwest Companion Pass early in January of 2018, which will result in tons of free flights for them and their companion for almost two years.

Others don’t like Southwest, and one reason is because of their boarding policy.

In either case, I hope the above tactics enable any of you who fly Southwest to get the seat you want every time.

Question: What other tactics do you use to get the seat you want on a Southwest flight? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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10 thoughts on “How to Get the Best Seat on a Southwest Flight [Complete Guide]

  1. If you are traveling with a person with a mobility challenge, you will be the very first to pre-board with that person before the A group. This allows the person to be wheel-chaired down the jet way and find a convenient seat near the front of the plane. One person–and sometimes the entire family–can board with the person.

      • Mike is correct (the post is incorrect) — with a pre-board card, a person needing extra time and their one companion board before the As begin.
        I fly Southwest often (have A list, will miss A list preferred this year) and have noticed gate agents seem to be cracking down more and limiting early boarding to the person who needs it and one companion. (Even if it’s clear that an additional companion might be helpful.) If the person with the pre-board card has more than 1 person with them, the others board based on their boarding passes.

        • Amy,

          Thanks very much for the comment.

          Looking into it further just now, I discovered that there are actually two different circumstances for boarding those with disabilities. Southwest states:

          “Preboarding is available for Customers who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device. Customers who are traveling with assistance and emotional support animals qualify for preboarding. If a Customer with a disability simply needs a little extra time to board, we will permit the Customer to board before Family Boarding, between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ groups.”

          I had only covered the latter circumstance in the original post. I’ve now updated the post to cover the former circumstance as well. Thanks to you (and Mike) for pointing that out.

  2. There is also military boarding that me and my wife take advantage of. Boards after all A groups but before B. We don’t even bother checking in early anymore.

    • Drew,

      Good point, thanks. I had forgotten to include military boarding as it isn’t an official policy of Southwest (as far as I know). But I do hear it offered at the gate most of the time, so thanks for the reminder. I’ve updated the post accordingly.

      Out of curiosity, have you ever been denied military boarding (because the gate agent doesn’t offer it)? Have you been able to board with just a military ID, or have you had to be in uniform? Have you ever tried to board a larger party during military boarding than just you and your wife?

      Thanks again for the comment. And thanks very much for your service.

  3. Great post, got some good ideas for the future. Especially I’ve been annoyed with how low my boarding position has been when checking in at T-24, so I appreciate the insight. I love the idea of helping a single parent with their stuff to get in on family boarding. That’s a true win win.

    • Thanks, Julian! Yeah, T-24 is tough these days. Given that the quick reflexes of all that time playing Nintendo as a kid are no longer enough to guarantee me a good boarding position, I’ve begun thinking there is just less good inventory at T-24. 🙂

  4. This may or not be a popular reply but it does work quite often on flights that aren’t 100% full (4+ open seats). I’m a large guy… 6’4”, 200lbs and broad shoulders usually in A or very early B seats. It seems the past year or so I’ve been on flights with roughly 20-30 pre-boarders and families (seems like I’m traveling on tuesday-Thursday much more recently). Also, traveling to Houston, Dallas, Atlanta and other southern cities much more I am noticing many larger people on these flights. So what I do is find the largest ones seated already as close to the front of the plane as possible and take their aisle or window leaving our middle seat one of the most undesirable on the flight.

    • Well, if there are going to be some free middle seats on the flight no matter what, then I’d say it’s actually best not only for you but for other passengers as well if one of those open seats be between you and another large passenger. Otherwise, one (or two) passengers will need to sit next to you and the other large person, which can be uncomfortable for all involved given how narrow Southwest’s seats (and most/all airlines’ economy seats) are.

      I’ve similarly found that when I’m holding a lap child, passengers (understandably) pass up the middle seat next to me when possible. Again, though, I think this a win-win as my child and I certainly appreciate the extra room and other passengers appreciate not being right next to little kids.