Mockup of how the Meridians will appear on the MAX 8 aircraft. Photo: Southwest Airlines

Mockup of how Southwest’s new seats will appear on the 737 MAX 8 aircraft – Image: Southwest Airlines

I recently flew Southwest Airlines for the first time in a while. I love the airline, I love what they have done for domestic air travel in the US, and I love so many of the people who work there. But I do also LUV having a seat assignment — which you cannot get with Southwest. I feel there is much added stress having to check-in early, making sure you are in the right place in line at the gate, and the worst of all: not knowing where you will sit. However, I have spoken to so many huge fans of Southwest, that actually like the process (mainly my dad and JL).
If you have flown Southwest Airlines before, you probably know the drill. When you check in, beginning 24-hours before the flight, you will be given a letter (A, B, or C) followed by a number between 1 and 60. A1 boards first, followed by the rest of the A group in numerical order.  The process is repeated for the B and C groups. While the first fifteen seats are generally reserved for premium fare classes, frequent fliers, and paid upgrades, most positions are assigned in order of check-in time. End up in the C group, you will likely get a center seat (easy to remember – C for Center).

A Southwest Boeing 737-800 - Photo: Woodyaeroimages | FlickrCC

A Southwest Boeing 737-800 – Photo: Woodys Aeroimages | FlickrCC

For my flights (Seattle-Denver-Tampa), I set an alarm five minutes before my 24-hour mark, but was in the grocery story when it went off. I forgot about it and, 90 minutes later, got myself B30 and B29 for my flights — embarrassing for an AvGeek like me. Yes, I could have paid $12.50 for EarlyBird, which check you in automatically at the 36-hour mark, but even that doesn’t always even guarantee you an A boarding group. I also could have paid more for a BusinessSelect fare which guarantees you’ll be one of the first fifteen to board.

My stress was heightened waiting to board, because of course I wanted a window seat. My first flight was SEA-DEN on a 737-700… which only holds 143 people. Even though the math was looking good – there were 48-window and 48-aisle seats versus 89 people in front of me – I still wasn’t sure how it would work out. I ended up with a window in the very last row (with the lavs), but at least I had my window. On my second leg, from DEN to TPA, I was in a 737-800, which seats 175 . However, as it was a continuing flight, the big wildcard was how many passengers were flying through. Fortunately, I ended up in 19A – another window. SCORE!

Some pictures of my recent Southwest experiences - Photos: David Parker Brown

Some pictures of my recent Southwest experiences – Photos: David Parker Brown

As I went through this whole process during my flights, I wished I had some sort of advice guide on getting the best seat on a Southwest flight. Wait… didn’t I write one of those back in 2010? I sure did: Guide to Getting a Good Seat Flying on Southwest Airlines. Really, I had no excuse for forgetting this story. Even after five years, it still makes the top 10 most read stories- month, after month, after month, after month. No other story has had that sort of LUV.

I decided to go back and update the story with some additional tips and thoughts on flying Southwest from flying them since 2010 (bonus tip: don’t spill your drink).

What are your strategies with flying on Southwest Airlines? Take a look at my tips, then let me know what your game plan is in the comments.

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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32 Comments

Ahh, Animal Farm in the sky. All passengers are equal, but some are more equal than others.

Maybe after hanging out in a farm for a bit, maybe with cattle, you will see that it is A LOT different. Might be a system that I am not a fan of, but many do like it!

David | AirlineReporter

I’ll never forget the first time I took my wife, who had only flown on Southwest in the past, on a Delta flight… We had Sky Priority, so I knew when and where we’d be passing by the podium, but she couldn’t get over the mob of people –that all had assigned seats– trying to funnel up to the boarding pass scanner at the same time. Boarding groups were and almost always are completely irrelevant to passengers of the legacy carriers, and the Zone 3 folks will happily stand in the way of all of the Zone 1 and 2 folks every time. We weren’t even in our seats yet and she had already commented on how much more organized Southwest’s line-up-by-number system is. I couldn’t agree more.

Oh…and Early Bird Check-in checks you in 36-hours prior to the flight, not 24-hours.

From their site:

“EarlyBird Check-In Customers will have their boarding passes reserved beginning 36 hours prior to their flight’s scheduled departure time. Boarding Passes can be printed beginning 24 hours prior to the flight’s scheduled local departure time.”

Hey Matt,

It is more organized getting on the plane versus other airlines of doing a huge group of people, fighting for the front of the line. And thank you for the correction, I have updated the story!

David | AirlineReporter

410 Sprint

In no way is this rant about the elderly or people with disabilities.

I fly on Southwest about once a month for business. I live in Charlotte so needless to say most of my air travel is on American…

My company pays the premium for Southwest’s “Business Select” tickets, which is nice, but I rarely get a window or isle seat in the bulkhead or exit rows. For sure, I usually get A1 through A5 boarding but on most flights there are around 10 to 15 people who early board as “passengers with disabilities or need extra time to board”. These folks get on the plane before the Business Select passengers. Thus if lucky there might be a few open center seats in the bulkhead or exit rows… And before anyone brings it up- on a consistent basis, these passengers are permitted to sit in the exit rows. If I flew on Southwest on a weekly basis, I am not sure I would be able to justify the extra cost of Business Select. The only perks I see are a window or isle seat, free internet and free booze.

Again, in no way is this rant about the elderly or people with disabilities.

Hey,

I think you bring up some valid things to think about. And even if there are no disabled people, if you are changing planes (let’s say in Denver) and there are already 15 people on the plane, from its previous destination, you are in the same situation. For me, being B28 in Denver, the math would say I can still get a window or aisle, on a 737-800, but I don’t know how many passengers are already on the plane. That is the extra stress that I do not enjoy.

David | AirlineReporter

The best way to determine how many Through Customers are on a given flight is to ask. The same when you want to know how many Customers are on the flight in total, ask. I have always responded with those numbers. Nor have I misled someone by giving them the wrong number. We have that info on our gate reader screen and can tell you at a glance in most cases without having to type anything.

People who preboard on SWA on NOT permitted to sit in the exit rows. So the only way those seats would be taken is by a Through passenger. The bulkhead seats are generally taken with preboarders. The best way to avoid SWA Seat Anxiety is simply to buy Business Select. End of discussion.

I feel your frustration 410 but I deeply appreciate Southwest’s policy of allowing those of us with physical handicaps to board first. I have Crohn’s Disease and one of the lovely side-effects is hypercoagulability, which mans I am at high risk for blood clots. I was once seriously ill on a flight from Anchorage to Atlanta. I wound up in the hospital with multiple pulmonary emboli. They caught it just in time, so I survived the experience. Since that time I experience swelling in both legs, especially when I have to sit for long periods. Needless to say, I would gladly trade places with you and let you take my Crohn’s Disease in return for your good health. In no way is this rant about young people or people without disabilities who are able to wait a few minutes to board. Pray to whatever you hold to be sacred that you have a long wait before you qualify to board first on Southwest.

Being a lowly A-Lister for a few years now, I’m always in the A group no matter what. However, I would recommend the EarlyBird for non A-Listers. If you don’t want pay the $12.50, then for sure set an alarm, use the SWA App on your phone, and stop whatever you are doing and check-in when the alarm goes off. That should get you in the early B’s.

You have to remember that Business Select gets first dibs. Then A-List Preferred. Then Early Bird and/or A-List not sure of the order there. And if an A-Lister gets bumped by everyone ahead of them out of the A group, or if the A-Lister has to change his flight at last minute and gets put in the B or C group, the A-Lister will always be able to board in between group A and B. Probably the biggest perk of frequent flier status is seat selection.

So the rest of the folks almost always start in the A50s, through early Bs no matter if you check in 23:59 before your flight….

Thanks Alex for setting up the priorities of what status will board when. I get that Southwest needs to attract the business travelers, and give people priority — but it lessens the value of EarlyBird. However, if I ended up in the middle seats, flying across the country, I would surely say that $12.50 is MORE than worth it!

David | AirlineReporter

James Burke

I’ve only done the early bird check-on once. early flight from DAL to LGA during a busy few days of travel. I wasn’t going to be close to be able to check in 24 hrs in advance, and I wanted to be one of the first off to get to the ball game I had tix to. Normally I don’t care, but getting to the stadium up to 20 earlier was worth it for me. 3A was my home for three hours. It was a beautiful day for flying and I had a great view. Worth the bux that time!

Hey James,

Thanks for sharing your experience. Really, I thought EarlyBird would be a waste, but after thinking (and almost) having a middle seat for hours, that $12.50 seems to be a better and better deal :).

David | AirlineReporter

Hey James,

Thanks for sharing your experience. Really, I thought EarlyBird would be a waste, but after thinking (and almost) having a middle seat for hours, that $12.50 seems to be a better and better deal :).

David | AirlineReporter

My husband and I fly several times a year from BWI and nearly always on Southwest. Since BWI is one of its focus cities, we usually have a number of nonstop options and usually take them. We pay for EarlyBird Check-In and ask at the gate if the flight is full. If it isn’t, we head for the back of the plane and take a window and aisle seat in the same row, leaving the middle seat open. We are both fairly tall and reasonably attractive, but almost never have anyone ask if they can sit between us. If someone did, we would probably give up the window or aisle seat to them and sit together.

For us, the EarlyBird Check-In option is worth the extra cost for the automatic check-in and relatively early boarding position so that we can sit together and, more often than not, in window and aisle seats with no one between us. This is especially desirable when we fly cross-country. We also like to sit in the back since we typically have a good selection of seats to choose from, plenty of overhead bin space, and are near a lavatory. And flying nonstop most of the time means that we do not have to worry about getting off the plane in a hurry to make a connecting flight.

jl johnson

Happy A-Lister here, it’s great not having to worry about checking in since they take care of it for me, and I’m typically in the A-30s. Prior to securing my status I always went for early bird. Too much stress in not knowing, I totally understand that. But I never got anything other than A when paying for early bird. I’m sure it happens, but it isn’t common, I don’t think.

One angle that isn’t mentioned here, or in ANY of the conversations about Southwest’s boarding is the freedom to move about the cabin. This is a big selling point for me. There have been MANY times that as an early boarder I’ve chosen the perfect seat but the environment around me changed. Being boxed in by crying babies boarding between groups A and B for example, or loud, bouncy college sports kids in the row in front of me. With any other airline I’d be stuck with the surroundings. With Southwest’s open seating I can easily abandon my seat for a better environment a few rows back. Hallelujah!

PS: WN gets a few letters a year from newly married couples saying they would likely not have met had it not been for the open seating policy. See your future husband/wife? Grab the seat next to them and find LUV at 38,000 ft. Heck yes!

I fly WN almost 2x monthly but I use my credit card points aggressively and haven’t been able to secure A-list. Lucky for me, many airports and gate agents still allow boarding for active duty military with ID between A and B when family boarding goes. I can usually get this since I’m Denver based but have been turned down at BWI and a few other airports. It’s a nice perk for wearing the uniform but I always make sure I check in at exactly T-24:00 to departure and usually wind up with <B10 on the routes I fly. The new app that they pushed makes that whole experience much nicer.

I believe you can only accumulate 15K points towards your status via credit card spend. And that is awarded 1K points per 10K spend, up to 150K in spend. In order to get to 35K status points needed for AList, you either have to make 25 flights or accumulate 35K status points based on how much you spend on your airline tickets. If you buy nothing but Business Select, you can get to 35k much quicker than 25 flights. If you buy nothing but want to get away, you’ll have to make 25 flight.

Are those seats in the Max picture above, the same as the ones found on Alaska Airlines new 737 -8 / 7airplanes?

They look the same to me and that only means very uncomfortable seats. I forget the name of the manufacture, but the flight I took on Alaska was the most irritating seats I have ever sat in.

I like SW seats now, as I think they are pretty comfy compared to most.

One thing I’d like to point out about SW is I do a lot of last minute flying and I’m getting tired of going online and looking for flights only to see all that is left is “prefered seats”. AA comes to mind here. I recently was looking to get up north somewhere at the last minute and they had a flight from MCO to CLT for the first leg. It was a A-330, so I thought sweet, a wide body for a change. On the 330 they have two main cabins that is divided by a wall and bathrooms. I kid you not, they had the entire first section blocked off just for “prefered seats” including a few for the comfort seating thing and was charging something like $15 for everyone of those seats. So everyone who had already purchased tickets, all sat in the back of the plane and there was very few seats left. I would say 80% full. the front half was about 5% full.

Unreal and this why even thought I have 939K lifetime with AA, that I’m going to chuck them aside. I could careless about lifetime gold. Not much there for benefits anyway.

BUT with SW, you have a chance to get what you want anyway, and if worse comes to worse and you get the C lane, most times if you are alone you can find a middle seat in an exit row. I much rather deal with SW, then get hosed with the others.

I’ve had enough.

When I fly WN, which is once or twice a year I always get the Early Bird check-in. Well worth it, always get a Low A or High B boarding number. No problem getting my cherished window seat, though not always toward the front. In which case I high tail it towards the back of the plane unless I have a tight connection. Not a huge fan of the process but have never had a problem except once when we circled DEN for over an hour due to weather and by the time I got to my connecting flight (which WN held, last flight back to STL) I ended up in a middle seat. But it sure as hell beat not getting home that night.

As a 4-year running Companion Pass holder, A16 is my boarding number. Rarely do I see anything else. Then it is A17.

The order is:

Thrus
Pre-Board (No exit row)
Business Select
Companion Pass Holders
A-List Preferred
A-List
Early Bird
Unwashed Masses

An A listers that are not in A group, board before Families between A and B group, then Families, and then the B group.

When I travel with my family, I always go Early Bird, so my kids get in the A group with me and we board together at A16.

It is different, that is for sure. I do all my international travel on AA, which is an entirely different horse.

What’s the best way to check in for the flight with the app? There’s the checkin button, it you have to manually enter your confirmation #, which then has to look up your flight and then checkin. alternatively you could go to “my flights” and refresh until the checkin button appears. Or do the web. I’m always to nervous to try it out different options as my flights have always been full and don’t want to risk getting B group. Any suggestions would be appreciated.

In the end, there really isn t a foolproof way of guaranteeing yourself the “best seats”. However, these are your best options. Not just for here but for concerts in general.

Angela Lukehart

We nearly always fly Southwest when we travel because 1) They have great rates 2) You can bring a carry-bag and check two additional bags at no extra cost, and 3) Their flights are nearly always on time. I’d never purchased the Early Bird option until I actually forgot to check in 24 hours in advance once. In my defense, I was at Disney World with my husband and four children. Thus, you can imagine how it might have slipped my mind! We ended up having all sort of boarding positions and my kids were not young enough for Family Boarding (my youngest was 6, and we were told age 5 or under). Honestly, we were squeezing in the very back and all of were sitting in the middle of complete strangers. Plus, it was a nonstop flight, so that was fun. Anyway, after that, I starting forking out the extra money for Early Bird. We usually get in Boarding Group A; occasionally in Group B. But I am not longer sending my kids off to various parts of the plane for strangers to care for them, so I guess that is a good thing!

how does the seating process (ABC) work when you change planes in another city for a connecting flight?

Your entire day’s itinerary checks in 36 hours before the first flight of the day with Early Bird Check-in. Its been my experience that the second leg of the journey has a better boarding number than the first. Well worth the $12.50 if you want a particular seat on the flight.

Just say no and fly another airline.

Refreshing and hovering over the check-in button while waiting for the 24 hour mark is something I’m quite used to with Southwest. The problem is, when flying out of BWI, this doesn’t seem to matter. Not ready yet, not ready yet, ok check in now. Bang! Congratulations! You just got B38. I actually just did this a few minutes ago and got B49.

I don’t know if BWI has a lot of A-listers or a lot of folks buy Early Bird boarding, but when flying to locations like Buffalo or Portland, Maine, you wouldn’t think all the As and most of the Bs would go in a split second. Every time.

that’s because BWI is a major hub so a lot of people connect through it. Those people connecting get to check-in 24 hours before their 1st flight to BWI. so a couple hours ahead of all of us who call BWI home.

Ah, that makes sense. That’s the price we pay for the convenience of living near a major airport. Thanks for e quick reply!

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