How to Get a Great Seat on Southwest


Most U.S. airlines share a similar attitude about seat assignments: If you pay for a flight, an assigned seat is part of your fare. What's more, you're usually able to select which seats you want at the time of booking.

There are some exceptions, of course. If you book a basic economy fare on a legacy carrier, or if you fly on a discount airline such as Frontier, your seat will be assigned at check-in — you don't get to choose it, unless you pay a fee. Either way, you'll have a seat assignment at the time you board the plane.

Southwest Airlines, on the other hand, has an entirely different process when it comes to seat selection. There are no assigned seats on Southwest, only assigned boarding groups and numbers that dictate the order in which passengers get on the plane.

Because of this, some flyers stress out when they think about flying Southwest. Will they get to sit with their friends? Will they board the plane dead last? Will they get stuck in a dreaded middle seat for the duration of their trip?

These are all reasonable concerns, but if you dismiss flying on Southwest because of them, you could be missing out. You'll often find great prices on Southwest, you can change or cancel your Southwest ticket without any penalties, and you get two free checked bags on every flight. Ironically, Southwest's seating policy can actually make it easier for families to fly together. (See also: Why Southwest Is the Best Domestic Airline for Families)

You can minimize boarding anxieties by knowing how the Southwest boarding system works and taking a few steps to ensure you get a great seat. Here are the best ways to get good seats on this unique discount airline.

Check in as early as allowed

When you check in for your Southwest flight, you will be assigned a boarding group based on the time you check in. The first boarding group is Group A, the second is Group B, and the third is Group C. Each group assignment comes with a number between one and 60, too, indicating your place within that group.

Check in early enough and you could get a boarding position such as A50. Check in late, on the other hand, and your boarding position could be closer to C60. You'll use your group letter and boarding number to find your place in line within the Southwest boarding queue when it's time to board the plane.

You can pay extra to get into Group A (more on that in a minute), but you usually don't need to. Here's the free way to score a great seat on Southwest: Since boarding groups and numbers are based on when you check in and you can check in as early as 24 hours before your flight, your best bet is checking in as soon as the system allows it.

"Available boarding positions will be distributed on a first-come, first-serve basis upon check in," says the Southwest website. "The earlier you check in, beginning 24 hours before your departure, the lower your boarding group and position will be." Lower in this case is what you want.

For example, if your flight leaves Wednesday at 6:10 a.m., you need to check in for your flight online on Tuesday at 6:10 a.m. on the dot. This will give you the best chance at an early boarding position, which will give you a much better chance at a seat you want. Set an alert for yourself and be near your computer or smartphone a few minutes before the start time begins. (See also: This Credit Card Helps You Earn Miles in the Best Domestic Frequent Flyer Program)

Pay for early boarding

If you're worried you'll forget to check in at exactly 24 hours in advance, or you have a prior commitment that makes you unavailable at that time, you can pay for early boarding on Southwest. "Upgraded Boarding" makes it possible to buy your way into an A1–A15 boarding position. You can pay for this perk at the Southwest ticket counter or the gate, and it will set you back $30, $40, or $50 per segment depending on your trip.

Alternatively, for a little less money, you could pay for "Early Bird Check-In." This service costs $15 each way, and automatically checks you in before the 24-hour regular check-in begins. While Early Bird Check-In doesn't guarantee you an A boarding position, it does improve your chances of getting one.

Fly with kids ages 6 and under

If you're traveling with young children, you have a natural advantage when it comes to boarding. According to Southwest, "an adult traveling with a child six years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the 'A' group has boarded and before the 'B' group begins boarding."

Southwest offers this benefit to ensure families with young children sit together. Not only does this perk help parents avoid sitting away from their children on the plane, but it helps them avoid having to pay for Early Bird Check-In or Upgraded Boarding, which could be steep for a family with kids in tow.

Book a Business Select fare

Business Select is Southwest's version of a business class ticket, but unlike on other airlines, it doesn't get you an assigned seat at the front of the plane. Still, by buying a Business Select fare, you'll automatically get an A1–A15 boarding position, a premium drink, and expedited check-in and security lane clearance in the airport (where available).

Before you choose this option to score a better seat, however, you should consider other ways you could get the job done for less money. Business Select fares can cost more than twice as much as Wanna Get Away fares, which are Southwest's cheapest fares. As an example, a flight we found from Chicago to Montego Bay cost only $211 for the cheapest fare and $514 for Business Select.

It doesn't make sense to pay $300 more for Business Select when you can pay $30 round-trip for Early Bird Check-In instead, so weigh your options carefully before you overspend.

Earn elite status with Southwest

There is one final way to get a great seat on Southwest. By earning elite status with the airline, you can score automatic early check-in and an early boarding position.

Southwest offers two forms of status: A-List and A-List Preferred. A-List status can be achieved by flying 25 paid one-way flights on Southwest or earning 35,000 tier qualifying frequent flyer points within a calendar year. A-List Preferred requires 50 paid one-way flights or 70,000 tier qualifying points within a calendar year. Award flights don't count toward elite status.

While elite status comes with additional perks like priority check-in and free same-day standby, it also comes with a boarding benefit. Although Southwest doesn't publish boarding details for elite members, discussion forums suggest that both A-List and A-List Preferred members are automatically checked in for their flights 36 hours before departure, starting with position A-16. This would put them behind Business Select customers, but before everyone else, including those who purchased Early Bird Check-In.

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