The new Southwest interior with new seats and carpeting. Photo by Southwest Airlines.

These tips will help you find the best seat on a Southwest flight – Photo: Southwest Airlines

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 on 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. I wanted to run down some ideas on how to get the best seat possible on a Southwest Airlines flight. They have seemed to work out pretty darn well for me over the years.

If you haven’t flown Southwest before, it can be a little confusing. When you check in, you will get a boarding letter – A, B or C – and a number – 1-60. A1 is the best and C23 (on a 737-700) / C55 (on a 737-800) is the worst. No matter what number you have, there are ways to improve where you sit — unless you are last to board.

The first Boeing 737 in Southwest's new livery - Photo: Mal Muir

The first Boeing 737 in Southwest’s new livery – Photo: Mal Muir | AirlineReporter

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 a low letter/number guarantees you a good seat, but it might not. I offer you eight tips on things to improve your chances of scoring a sweet seat. Then I added a few other ideas that I really do not actually suggest… they might get you in trouble. There’s no scientific research to these and not saying they always work, but they seem to work time and again:

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 be prepared for a middle seat and a bad flight. But really, the best thing is not to be a C (see below).

BONUS: Checking Out Southwest Airlines’ Social Media Center in Texas

2. Don’t be in the C group

Seriously, just don’t be in the C-group. If you read AirlineReporter and end up in the C group, you should be embarrassed. If you just happened on this story and are not a frequent flier (welcome, be sure to read our other stories), then this is your lesson to make sure to check in early and avoid the C group.

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.

Cabin mockup of the 737 MAX 8 with the new Meridian seats. Photo: Southwest

Cabin mockup of the 737 MAX 8 with the new Meridian seats – Image: Southwest

3. Don’t sit in the exit row

Oh you think these are the prime seats, right? Well, maybe for legroom, 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, I’d much rather snag a row with an empty middle seat — if you’re in the same boat, then do not sit in the exit row!

 




 

4. Sit near the front

Try to get a seat near the front of the plane. When it starts to fill, other passengers will keep heading to the rear, hoping to either find an empty row, window seat, or aisle seat. Even if they make to the back, and realize only center seats are left, they won’t head back to the front… they will just take one near the rear and more likely leave you with an empty seat next to you.

Southwest's Innovator II, from a similar angle. (Pre-Evolve interior shown)

Southwest’s Innovator II, from a similar angle (Pre-Evolve interior shown)

5. Don’t pick an empty row

Seeing an empty row can be exciting… but it can also backfire. Pick a row with someone already sitting in the aisle or window seat (and you take the opposite). If you take a new row you might end up getting a couple (or a child with a parent) sitting next to you.

BONUS: Southwest Airlines Reveals a New Livery (Paint Design) in Dallas

6. Take a young 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 increase the chances of an empty seat in your row. I always feel bad for people flying alone with a kid, but I am also going to try and avoid sitting next to them, if possible. I had a recent Southwest flight, where a kid urinated in his seat. Again, felt bad, but I also don’t want to be the one sitting next to him.

7. Don’t be attractive

This one I personally have a hard time with, because I am so attractive (that is sarcasm by the way). It seems all the attractive people (especially women) will find seats filling up next to them quite quickly. Try to look as least attractive as possible to keep the seat next to you empty for as long as possible.

BONUS: Touring Southwest’s Network Operation Center

8. Avoid eye contact

Now, don’t go too far and not look at someone talking to you. But people feel much more comfortable asking “is that seat taken,” if they have your eye contact. Look out the window or start reading the in-flight magazine. If you want to go pro, put in some headphones.

A Southwest 737 departing John Wayne Airport. Southwest is the dominant carrier for intra-California flights. Photo: John Nguyen | AirlineReporter

A Southwest 737 departing John Wayne Airport – Photo: John Nguyen | AirlineReporter

Alright. The seat suggestions above still make you a decent person. The ones below do NOT. I suggest you never actually do these, but have seen others use them and end up with some empty seats. Just be careful… some might backfire and others might start making you rethink what kind of person you really are.

A. Pretend you do not understand English

Right or wrong, in many cases this will leave you with an empty seat. But be sure you know the language you are pretending to speak. If your potential seat-mate knows the language, your flight is going to get awkward, very quickly.

B. Take the center seat

I have never had enough guts to try this one and it is risky. The idea is people are less likely to take the window or aisle if they already know the middle seat will be taken. If this backfires, you are going to find yourself in the center seat, when you easily could have had a window or aisle. Your pride will suffer and your seat-mates will question your motivations.

BONUS: A Close Look at Southwest Airlines’ New Seats — Are They Improved?

C. Take up as much space possible

Take your laptop out and start working on it, spread your arms out as much as possible, and put your crap in the middle seat. It will make passengers think the seat is already taken and move on. If you want to go full-on a-hole, when asked if the seat is taken… say “sure is, they are in the bathroom.”

Some LUV - Photo: Southwest Airlines

Some LUV – Photo: Southwest Airlines

D. Act 

Pretend to be sick or insane. Maybe do both. Talking to yourself helps, but people might assume you are just talking on a phone with bluetooth. Just be careful… if you go too far, you are getting booted off the plane before it leaves the gate.

E. Go more than just un-attractive

Wear dirty clothes, don’t shower a week before your flight.  Be sure to wear some neon-colored Crocs, and of course have them smell… heck wear some white socks with them too! Have some good Mexican food in the airport and ask for extra beans. The downside of this is you have to deal with your own stench and you might not even be allowed on the plane.

BONUS: Checking out Southwest’s Culture-Centric Headquarters

F. Start crying + begging

I know some people have some legitimate space issues. But that is a very small percentage of the population. If you start crying and being semi-hysterical (remember, don’t want to get booted) and begging people to change out your middle seat for something better… you likely will end up with an empty seat next to you. Maybe throw in a few dry-heaves in there to make sure.

Flying in a window seat on a Southwest 737

Flying in a window seat on a Southwest 737

SOUTHWEST EARLYBIRD OPTION

I am not a fan of paying to board early or have a priority boarding status. However, if wondering what boarding number you will end up with, or you have too much money that you are looking to be rid of, then the EarlyBird option might be for you. Is EarlyBird worth it? That depends on you.

BONUS: Flying to Aruba on Southwest’s Inaugural Flight — In a Window Seat

EarlyBird automatically checks you in 12 hours before the other passengers. It normally benefits you, but if there are others, with status, or those that also pay for EarlyBird, you can still end up in the B-group. Lame. Although, being in the B-group, you will likely still get either a window or aisle. You can also pay ~$40 at the gate for a primo spot, but most folks aren’t willing to spent that kind of money.

FINDING THE BEST SOUTHWEST AIRLINES SEAT CONCLUSION

Being patient, checking in as early as possible, and keeping your cool are probably the best ways to find a good seat on a Southwest flight. Even if you do end up in the middle seat, then just try to smile and know you are still going to get to your destination.

There have to be more tips and tricks. What are some of your strategies for getting the best seat on Southwest? And if you found this helpful, you might also enjoy some of the other awesome airline stories we have written!

Story updated in January 2016

 

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EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & FOUNDER - SEATTLE, WA. David has written, consulted, and presented on multiple topics relating to airlines and travel since 2008. He has been quoted and written for a number of news organizations, including BBC, CNN, NBC News, Bloomberg, and others. He is passionate about sharing the complexities, the benefits, and the fun stuff of the airline business. Email me: david@airlinereporter.com

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62 Comments

Fly Alaska or Delta or American or Air Tran.

But AirTran will only last so long and when absorbed by Southwest, they will so open seating.

David

Flatulence.

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).

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

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.

But it also depends on #1 if you have a checked bag and #2 if you have a quick layover. If I have a checked bag or a long layover, I try for the back to get an empty seat next to me. Otherwise I shoot for the front.

David

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.

Ha. Yea, you have to ask yourself if you want to sit next to a person willing to do that ;).

David

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.

I’m trying your strategy right now, seems like everyone on this flight went to the rear looking for that open aisle or window. Still empty middles up front. Anecdotal true, but a data point.

On a 90% full (or so) flight near back of plane as I write. There are a few empty middles on the right side (looking towards front of plane) there are some empty middles in the center area and at the back but not at the front. Luckily I was early A 30 with window seat and someone took the aisle pretty quick so empty middle.

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

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.

Man, this is brilliant, I just replied earlier in thread. I tried back aisle, but every seat is full from row 11 back. Going to try you’re idea next swa ninja boarding flight.

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!

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.

JNield,

At 6’3″, 170lbs, losing weight is not really an option for you sir, that’s pretty lean already!

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.

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!

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.

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!

I’m sitting on an swa flight right now and he’s right certain rows have a recess and an ingress . Good to know. As far as back and front of the plane being smaller can’t see it from row 17

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

you sir, are a douche.

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

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,

This tip is pretty ignorant…yet hilarious!

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

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!

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!

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

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.

Michael Fitch Baileywig II

You cry on a flight you may get bumped.

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.

But what if I’m traveling with companions, and I actually want to sit next to them? Then, what’s my best strategy? We’re a group of three.

Hey Nicole,

Check in as early as you can. At least if one of you have a low number, you can try and save some seats. It might be worth one of you investing in Early Bird, save the seats for the rest.

If that doesn’t work, smile nicely and ask — maybe offer to buy someone a drink to move.

Good luck!

David

Dear Fliers,
You guys are pretty funny..I have read your comments and I think I will stick with the EB seating….you guys spend to much time figuring out the best way NOT to sit by someone…Enjoy the moment.

This article does nothing but encourage bad manners, selfish attitudes, and rude behavior. I always enjoy meeting great people when I fly Southwest or any other airline regardless of where I’m sitting. Then again, I was raised to be kind, caring and courteous, and that makes all the difference when traveling.

Allen Michael

You must be under 6 feet tall. Us taller people NEED the extra legroom. So get off of your high horse.

hello my mom will be flying with southwest in january from florida to chicago…im a bit nervous since this is her first time flying and im afraid she might get lost or confused and since I’ve never flown with southwest idk what tips to give her. Can you please help? thank you 🙂

I’m attractive. Guess I’m SOL or I could go for the not showering smelly look. That would perhaps take some of the attractiveness out. Lol.

Wow, nothing like being in love with yourself there JS. I’m sure on your next flight you will have at least one open seat in your row, as your ego will be taking up the middle seat beside you. LOL
sorry guy’s I had to get my 2 cents in on that one

As long as you don’t get into the lounge area facing backward on back of the plane your okay…. Although I think they got rid of the lounge seats….

I almost always get better seats on Southwest than any other carrier. Where else can you book 2 days before departure on a filling up flight and still get the chance at an aisle seat (as long as you check in 24hrs ahead). I’ve booked on other carriers 30 days ahead and all that was left to confirm were center seats. If you are a single traveler, the math works for you because couples almost always take a center and aisle or center and window. I was reluctant to believe on my first couple flights, but I have since become a cheerful fan of their system, and I’ve never been relegated to the dreaded Center Seat.

Flying Trucker

I figure it like this….. Get early bird, find another big person like me and board at the same time. Share a row. Who’s gonna want to squeeze in between two fat people? LOL

Jeremy Ocheskey

Get a fake pair of handcuffs and put them on sit in the aisle seat so everybody can see you lol.

Oh — that’s a good one :).

David | AirlineReporter

I have a whole strategy to keep an open middle seat next to me, and it works probably 80-90% of the time; the open seat next to me is many times one of the last or the only one left on the plane. First, pick a window or aisle in the sweet spots, row 9-10, or sometimes better, 17-19. The senior citizen fliers seem to believe they must grab the first seat they see lest be left seatless, and so grab all the front row middles regardless, and end up filling about row 1-6ish. Everyone else keeps going back hoping for an empty non-middle, but when they get back there, now they’re stuck and can’t turn around against traffic, so the other middles fill up mostly from the back, forwards. A few pass up early rows hoping for an exit row, but if it’s filled, they take the next couple rows behind the exit to not get stuck too far back.

Step two… I pull out my computer bag, put it on the middle seat next to me, and make an intentional mess of papers and cables while furiously “searching” for some mysterious paper or flash drive, while also never ever looking up. It seems 95% of people are too inhibited to interrupt me to get my attention, and keep on going by me, sometimes up and back more than once. Once they say “the door is now closed”, and everyone is seated, I repack and enjoy the free middle-seat under seat storage. Seat A is best if I need to use my laptop, since the B-seat tray is great for a mousepad. Of course, if someone asks me for the seat, I’ll of course let them have it, but the goal is to have no one ask in the first place.

I nearly always check in at exactly t-24, so usually get within ~B15 or better, which is almost always sufficient for this to work.

Artur Hernadi

This open seat policy makes people fight for good spot. They stand in line to rush for a good seat. When I buy a seat I want that seat to be there for me no matter when I arrive. -Why written on my ticket A3 then? What is the point to write on the ticket the seat number then? Stupid Southwest.

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