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Guide to Getting a Good Seat Flying Southwest Airlines

Not all seats are created equal and you deserve the best.

Not all seats are created equal and you deserve the best.

Love it or hate it, Southwest Airlines has a unique seating process. Where most airlines will assign you an exact seat, Southwest gives you a boarding number and you can choose any open seat in the plane. Some enjoy choosing who they sit next to, but others don’t like the added anxiety of not knowing where you will sit until you are on the plane.

When you check-in you will get a boarding letter A, B or C and a number 1-60. A1 is the best and C60 is the worst. No matter what number you have there are ways to improve where you sit — unless you are last to board. I have flown quite a bit on Southwest and have picked up a few tricks and I figured I would share them with you and hopefully learn a few more from you.

Some people will be going for the window seat, while others for the aisle. I don’t know anyone trying to get a center seat. You might think having A1 guarantees you a good seat, but it might not. I will give you seven tips that I suggest trying, then a few things that I have always thought about how they might work but one shouldn’t necessarily try. There’s no scientific research to these and not saying they always work, but here’s what I got:

1. Ask if the flight is full. Before boarding ask the gate agent if the flight will be full or how full it might be. If it is full, none of these really matter. Just try to get a window/aisle seat as close to the front or in an exit row. If you are in the C-group just find a center seat as soon as possible.

2. Don’t be in the C group. Seriously, just don’t be in the C-group. If you read this blog and end up in the C group, you should be embarrassed. Okay, I know sometimes life happens, so if you somehow end up in the C group just take the first window or aisle seat possible and next time check in earlier.

3. Don’t sit in the exit row. Oh you think these are the prime seats right? Well maybe for leg room, but they will be the first center seats to go. If you only want legroom and don’t care about someone sitting next to you go for it. However, Southwest has a pretty good seat pitch of 32-33″, so I like going for not having a person sit next to me and exit rows always fill up.

4. Sit near the front. Try to get the first window or aisle seat on the plane. Boarding passengers are always  hoping to not have to get a center seat and will travel to the back of the plane hoping to find one. This means they will leave center seats in the front of the plane hoping for premium seat in the back. When they don’t find them they will just take a center seat in the back.

5. Don’t pick an empty row. Pick a row with someone already sitting in the aisle or window seat. If you take a new row you might end up getting a couple (or worst a child with a parent).

6. Take a kid with you. I don’t have one, so I can’t really do this, but I see a lot of empty seats in a row if there is kid traveling with an adult. Probably not worth it to borrow someone’s kid to end up having an empty row. My last Southwest flight some kid pee’d in his seat, luckily I was not sitting next to him.

7. Don’t be attractive. It seems all the attractive people (especially women) will find seats filling up next to them quite quickly. Kind of like speed dating, but not that fast. Try to look as least attractive as possible to keep the seat next to you empty for as long as possible.

Alright, now here are the ones you really shouldn’t use. Either they are crazy, rude or just plain wrong:

A. Avoid eye contact. If you make eye contact, it is easier for others to ask if they can sit next to you. Yea, this is easy, but it is just darn rude and I think of it as cheating.

B. Take the center seat. I have never had enough guts to try this one and it is risky. This will only work if the flight isnt that full and could get you a row to yourself.

C. Take up space. Take your laptop out and start working on it, don’t crunch your arms in if no one is sitting next to you and maybe store a jacket or something on the center seat. I normally won’t store something on the center seat since that is getting into the “not nice travel buddy” category, but being 6’1″ and 250lbs it is easy for me to look like I am taking up space.

D. Act. Pretend to be sick or insane. Just be careful… if you go too far you are getting booted off the plane. Hmm, actually on second thought, I might purposefully sit next to a person like this just to write up a fun blog.

E. Go more than just un-attractive. Wear dirty clothes, don’t shower a week before your flight.  Just don’t go too far, you might be booted off the plane.

F. Start crying. I have seen this work quite a few times, but it is annoying. Not sure if people are being genuine or not, but they say they have just can’t sit in the middle seat and start begging for someone to switch them. Argh! I am normally a nice guy, but if you “can’t” sit in a center seat, pay the $10 for early-bird check in or just check in earlier. If you are willing to fake-cry to get out of a center seat, that is just sad.

There have to be more. What are some of your strategies for getting the best seat on Southwest?

Image: Fly_4U

45 comments to Guide to Getting a Good Seat Flying Southwest Airlines

  • Fly Alaska or Delta or American or Air Tran.

  • Daniel

    I flew Delta Shuttle which has a similar boarding process. A somewhat full flight from BOS-LGA, as soon as the rear aisle seats were taken, the rear FA made an announcement that only middle seats remained, the front center seats filled up. I was already in a window seat and the aisle seat guy had is laptop out but still our middle seat was taken (wished they’d bring back the MD-88s instead of A319s).

  • Vincent

    Wow. Half of these require you to be a gross person. How about you use the chance to actually interact and maybe meet someone new, have a few nice words and maybe learn something. Its amazing what happens from chance encounters. If all you do is make your space “safe” and hermetic you might as well stay home.

    • Hey Vincent,

      You bring up a good point. I have had some great conversations with people on Southwest and other airlines, even people I talk to after the flight. However, I would prefer to have the empty middle seat and talk over it if possible :).

      David

  • Also, I try not to get an ‘A’ Ticket but rather a B one. The closer you are to the first person on the plane the better the chances of having someone fill your empty row. It’s better to go in with some options rather then not knowing or not having any options.

    • I have heard that from quite a few people. I still shoot for A-group and take a look at the people at the gate. If they look like people I wouldn’t mind sitting next to, I will board in A. I always have the option to board with B.

      David

  • Nicholas

    If the goal is not to have someone sit next to you the best is no matter what group you are go to the back of the plane, let’s face it the amount of time it will take you to get off the plane and get to bagage claim your still more likely to get there before your bag does. so the extra time it takes to get off the plane eats up the amount of time it takes to get your bag. But also since everyone goes for the front of the plane even in first group of C you can get a window or isle seat in the back of the plane sometime to your self.

  • Rudy

    I always place something in the middle seat while i’m sitting in the window seat, so everyone that passes is hesitant to sit next to a seat that has stuff sitting in it. Also, on a flight I was recently on, I saw a women sit in the middle seat and put the aisle seat tray table down so it was her personal row. I don’t think anyone got the nerve to ask her to put her tray table up.

  • rich

    I don’t agree with the sitting in front suggestion. My observations in the past (I haven’t flown SWest for a couple of years) was that as the plane starts to fill up, people just assume there are no good seats left and grab seats in the front of the plane. For some reason people seem obsess with sitting in front of airplanes, even at times grabbing a middle front seat and leaving an aisle or window seat open in the back half of the plane.

    I know some people have a connection to make so they want to get off the plane ASAP and I know the last row or two can be unpleasant due to its location by the bathrooms but I still see a rather strong obsession to sitting in the front of the plane. Just my observation.

  • Jeff S

    For some reason, the first row (bulkhead) always fills – someone always wants that center seat. Often this is the case for the first couple of rows. I always go back 5 or 6.

    As an “A-lister” I automatically get seated right away. But I ask at the counter if the flight is 100% full. If it is, I board as the last member of the “A” group – #60 on the plane. This way I can look for a couple sitting together. In most cases (not being sexist here – just mildly observant), the women is smaller than the man and sitting in the middle seat. If I know every seat is going to be taken, I choose to select who I am sitting next to rather than have them select me.

    I talk for a living, so plane rides for me are shutdown time. The ultimate in the person sitting next to me:
    - Small
    - Clean
    - Very, very tired

  • Andrew

    I’ve done the “Sit in a middle seat in an otherwise empty row” thing before, and while it doesn’t get you the whole row free, it usually guarantees you that you’ll end up with the middle seat free once boarding finishes. I grab an empty row towards the back, sit in the middle, and by the time someone asks to sit in the row, I just slide over to the window, then they take the aisle, and that middle often remains free.

  • Dan

    David this is hilarious! I find it funny how serious everyone is about this topic…
    How about you bring one of those fart sound machines and anytime someone approaches your row, you press the remote and make the sound… “oh excuse me, I had spicy food for lunch”… that would probably work every time! Thanks again for the laugh!

  • JNield

    Great advice David although I disagree on one point. If you want the greatest chance of an empty middle seat, try to go towards the middle (nearest the front) because there are two types of people. Those who will go as far (literally) as they can to try to get a premium seat or those who don’t care and will just take the first middle seat they find (in front).

    My new strategy since I’m a bigger guy (6’3″ and 170LB), is to give up the premium seat quest and lose some weight so I don’t feel squished (and make my seat buddy feel squished either. This is especially important since I nonrev.

  • Sam

    you can add this to the don’t-do list, but i actually saw this first hand.

    I was in C, and this guy who was sitting in D just told everyone trying to sit in E or F that his wife and kid was using the restroom, and you guess it, he was traveling alone. How someone could do that just seats is beyond me, but thankfully I don’t have to fly WN often.

  • robby

    The real question at the gate is ‘how many thru pax’ are there? (if your flight is not originating there).
    If you don’t change planes but just stop somewhere, be ready to move into your desired improved seat fast on landing as the other savvy travelers will be doing so….that’s the time to get the bulkhead window or exit row window. The purchase of EB is a necessary evil……the highest I’ve gotten was A-59.
    The perfect seat on any given SWA flight is affected by many things, including trip length, sightseeing, layover times.
    I am considering doing a FLL-MSY-LAX-SFO, all on the same plane.
    I’ll starve !!
    Be sure to see the new SWA concourse at PHX, it’s incredibly handsome…

  • Sanjeev M

    I don’t think there’s anything past the C-17 boarding zone cause there’s only 137 passengers on most Southwest jets. Granted, once the 737-800′s come in we’ll have up to C-55.

  • James Burke

    Simialar to Southwest’s open boarding is Ryanairs. I prefer Ryanairs, as the back door is open too. Few people go to the back stairs, and you can scoop up an aisle/window 3 rows from the back that is just as good as being 3 rows from the front!

  • Leah

    If I arrive to late to get an “A” group, then I let them know that I suffer from panic attacks and can I please board with the handicap travellers. It always works and I have the pick of seats and insurance that my carryon is exactly where I want it.

  • Dan

    I fly SWA nearly every week and typically prefer a window seat so I can stare out trying to recognize places that I have been or want to go – weird? Maybe. If you prefer the window seat, keep in mind that not all rows are creaated equal. The walls of the plane consist of basically recessed windows and protruding plastic ribs. The trick (especially if you are someone like me with broad shoulders) is to choose a row in which the recessed window portion of the sidewall aligns with the back of the seat. This effectively gives you a few more inches of shoulder room – especially nice on a full flight.

    Also, look sometime at the overall shape of the plane body. It is narrow in both the front and rear. The first 3-4 rows and last 3-4 rows are slightly more narrow than the rest of the plane. Look at how the overhead compartments are installed if you don’t believe it. You will see where the trim piece at the sidewall has a bend. I don’t think that they narrow the aisle to accomodate this fact! Happy Contrails!

  • SimMiles

    Those suggestions are really true, I love the one about not making eye contact. That one is really funny. It is the opposite of what we usually do :)

    Southwest Virtual Airlines

  • Sam

    There’s a nifty piece of software called “Book Me” that assists you in having the best chance to get an “A” when flying Southwest. Check out http://Get-Your-A.com and follow the links to download. It isn’t perfect, but its not bad for FREE!

  • Doug

    Anyone who says dOnt get a is crazy. Also an exit row is guaranteed to have nokids but likely a center

  • Jeff

    A simple box of tissues on your lap will probably assure you of an empty seat next to you. During boarding just look pathetic and blow your nose (repeatedly), dab your eyes, or wipe your brow. Anything that involves body fluids will be a signal to others to keep moving.

  • Jeff

    You’re right, it is pretty ignorant (but effective). I always ask if the flight is full; if so, it serves no purpose.

  • [...] this topic is about stories written in 2012, but I will share that the top three over all were: How to Get a Good Seat on Southwest Airlines, Taking a Tour of the Boeing 747-8I and My Review of Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 Business Class. [...]

  • [...] this topic is about stories written in 2012, but I will share that the top three over all were: How to Get a Good Seat on Southwest Airlines, Taking a Tour of the Boeing 747-8I and My Review of Singapore Airlines Airbus A380 Business Class. [...]

  • Susan

    I always ask if the flight is full as I board the plane. I locate an aisle seat where the window is already taken and the center is empty. Then I make friends with the person at the window and tell them we have to ‘hand pick’ our seat mate. I always look for a small woman, minimal luggage, who looks like she’s showered. Then I extend a gracious and warm welcome to them to come sit in the best row on the plane. It works every time!

    By the way, I sit on the aisle because so many folks don’t know the etiquette of getting up when the plane lands and the seat belt light goes off. I’m tired of asking the aisle person if I can get off the plane because they want to wait for the plane to empty first.

    I fly SWA every week. There isn’t a better airline!

    • Joanne

      Susan,
      Since you fly SW weekly can you make a recommendation where a family of four should try to sit, 2 adults 16 & 14 year old teens. I haven’t flown for over 17 years and have had panic attacks just thinking about flying! What seats/rows might have least turbulence. I’m finally doing this so my kids can meet their grandmother for the first time. I paid for EB checking, so I’m hoping to get an A-boarding number.

      thanks!

  • Ron

    YOU’RE ALL AMATEURS. My wife flew on SW from Houston to Chicago a few months ago. Near the front she saw a window seat – which she preferred. A man was sitting at the aisle seat with a child’s doll next to him. She hesitated but asked if the window seat was taken – and the man said no. She thought it might have been occupied by his “spouse” with a child sitting in the middle. The plane took off with no one occupying the center seat except the doll. The passenger told my wife he doesn’t want anyone sitting next to him so that’s why he carries a doll on SW – for the center seat! – So go buy a doll.

  • Glenn Verdult

    Glenn Verdult here. Great advise. I always find doing things on time helps but hey when youre a busy person what can you do. glenn verdult winstons

  • Andy

    Pathetic effort to Hogg the last Browne ,
    This article cracks me up

  • This is sooo friggin funny! Especially after I just spent 30 minutes watching the clock and waiting for the 24 hour mark to check in. Ended up in B. Must be the paid early boarding who got A.

  • […] helped by a human.  I was issued a boarding pass with a depressing boarding number: C8 (check out this story for those of you that aren’t familiar with the WN boarding […]

  • Michael Fitch Baileywig II

    You cry on a flight you may get bumped.

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  • Bruce lee

    I try to find the fattest person that no one wants to fly with.. Then we board together and he sits on the aisle and i sit on the window. Then we dare anyone to take the center seat.

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