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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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