Is there a secret to picking the best seat on a Southwest flight? Read on and we break it all down for our readers including sharing tips and tricks for landing the best seats on a Southwest plane.
As a longtime fan of Southwest Airlines I’ve spent more time that I can remember boarding Southwest flights and picking seats. Southwest is a truly a great airline with a quirky attitude, outstanding customer service and a definite “go-it-our-own-way” approach to air travel.
For example, bags fly free on Southwest. That’s radically different than other airlines which happily charge most passengers to check a bag.
Southwest also has a very unusual seat assignment policy: YOU DON’T GET ONE!
In a Hunger Games style race, you get to compete with your fellow travelers for the best seat you can stuff your body into. There’s got to be a better way, right? There is! Here are 14 Tips for Picking the Best Seat on Southwest Airlines.
Note: This article was previously published in the fall of 2018. It’s been updated and republished here in late fall 2019.
Pre-Step: First…learn the Southwest system
Southwest has a unique boarding process that is like no other airline. It’s pretty straightforward actually, but can be a little disorienting at first – especially if you are used to flying other airlines.
You can read my article on Flying Southwest for the First Time for a lot more details on what to expect on a Southwest Flight but here’s some of the highlights:
- No Assigned Seats
- Travelers are assigned a Boarding Group (A, B or C) and a number based that is based on several factors. Your boarding pass might read something like this: B21 or A37.
- Your boarding group letter is based on several factors including if you have status (e.g. A-List) or how fast you checked in online within the 24 hour window from your flight departure
- When it’s time to board, Southwest boards by group…in alphabetical order. A first, then B group, then C group.
- Note that they actually board pre-boards first, then Business Select, then A15-A60, then A-List’rs who don’t actually have an A-List boarding pass but have status, then Family/Military Boarding, then B1-B60 and finally C1-C60
- Near your gate there will be stanchions spaced a few feet apart from each oher with range of numbers (in groups of 5): 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc.
- When your boarding group is called, do your best to line up in numerical order with the other passengers. It doesn’t have to be perfect…just close.
- When you get on the plane…pick any open seat you want. Yep…literally any seat without a butt in it is yours.
That’s pretty much it. It’s a surprisingly efficient system that moves pretty well. At first this can seem like a real hassle and at times it is.
However, this policy has sort of helped build Southwest’s mystique among travelers. They are known for good service, friendly staff, cheap prices, free checked bags…and cattle-call boarding.
But that cattle-call boarding is actually quite efficient. The lines move fast and while it might feel like hunger games when you get on the plane…it’s really not (unless you are in the C Boarding Group…).
The truth is, Southwest is a great airline. I’ve flown them for years, and like many fellow business travelers, you actually come to sort of appreciate their no frills approach. They don’t screw you on fees and they treat their customers pretty darn well. And, when you get a little status w/ them, the whole seat boarding/picking process is pretty easy.
And that’s a key factor to making sure you get the best seat on a Southwest flight.
Yet, for those who don’t have that status or aren’t paying attention it can be a bit frustrating. I usually see the fate of the “C” Boarding Group folks fall to college students, older couples or folks who really don’t travel much. It’s middle seats, separate seating, and a bag under the seat for them (I did see a couple once who was in the middle of quite a spat. They were both quite literally thrilled to NOT have to sit w/ each other for the 3 hour flight to Dallas).
Picking the Best Seat on a Southwest Flight
Here are a few tips I use when picking the best seat on a Southwest flight. These tips apply to most levels of travelers from the business travel pro, to the college student, to the couple taking their annual Vegas trip from Kansas.
What’s a bad seat on a Southwest Flight Look like?
Before we dig in though, it’s worth considering what’s a “bad seat” on a flight so we can understand the motivations for getting the best seat on a Southwest flight. Here’s what bad looks like:
- A middle seat…
- Having to stow your bags behind where you sit
- Having to stow your bags under your seat (less ideal than using that cavernous overhead bin above your head)
- A window when you wanted an aisle (or vice versa)
- Sitting next to a less than ideal passenger (e.g. obese, smelly, noisy, etc)
Bad is a subjective term and the length of the flight comes into play too. I’ve taken a middle seat near the front of a plane on a 50 minute flight from Vegas to Ontario because I didn’t want to have to wait 30 extra minutes to deplane when we got home. So it’s all relative…
Ok…let’s get to the tips on picking a good seat on Southwest.
Check in early.
This is honestly the best strategy for getting a decent seat (or at least NOT getting a middle seat). With Southwest you have to check in almost immediately at the 24 hour window for your flight to get (if you are lucky) a high A boarding pass.
You can skip all of this if you earn status with the Airline. For example, if you are a traveler w/ A-List status you are in good shape and checking in precisely 24 hours before your flight leaves is less important.
Note: if you are “business select” – meaning you booked a higher class of ticket you will always be somewhere in A1 – A15 and you will have the pick of the litter in terms of seats.
Also…you can always spend the $15.00 to upgrade your ticket to an early bird check in which doesn’t guarantee an A boarding pass, but most likely you will get one.
Probably the 2nd most important tip of them all is to fly enough on Southwest to get A-List status. This will remove a key ingredient of your seat picking problems and make that business trip a little smoother.
Know where your boarding pass group/number is likely going to place you.
Knowledge is power. And knowing where you might land and under what conditions based on on boarding pass group and number is half the battle.
If you are in boarding Group A, you are assured just about any seat you want including an aisle (if you want one) especially if you are in A1-A30. Beyond that it starts to get a little dicey on whether those exit row seats are still available (the best seats on the plane, usually).
If you are in the B1-B30 Boarding group? You are probably ok in terms of the type of seat (e.g. you want an aisle you will probably get one), but likely you will be at the back of the plane. B31-60? It’s gonna be dicey. You could get stuck with a seat you didn’t really want and it might start getting a little tougher to find a slot for your bag in the overhead bin.
Got a C Boarding Pass? Get comfortable being uncomfortable and see my post on surviving the middle seat because that’s where you are heading.
- Bonus Pro tip: See if you can determine if the plane you are boarding is carrying passengers that are not getting off the plane. This is one of the weird things that Southwest does on some flights – they are called “through passengers.” If that’s the case, a bunch of seats are already occupied so you may have to reset your expectations on snagging that exit row as someone may have already grabbed it.
Skip the very front of the airplane seats (also known as the bulkhead).
The first row of the airplane might seem attractive, but honestly, you won’t have as much legroom as you might think and it’s almost always full in all six seats. Worst of all, the flight attendants stow their bags (or other supplies) in the overhead bins right above that seat. That means you have to stow YOUR bags a few rows back. Seems benign. Yet…when you deplane…you have to wade upstream. UGH! If you can, pick the 3rd row in. Perfect spot.
Never store your bags BEHIND your seat.
Like to swim upstream? Like waiting an extra 10 minutes to get off the plane? Then store your bags upstream. This is simple physics really. People deplaning go one way. You have to go the other way.
If you are in the late stages of the “B” Boarding Group, don’t pass up overhead space.
By the time you get to your seat, it’s likely you will not have good bin space. So don’t pass anything up! And the benefit of this is that you will have it stored in FRONT of where you are sitting. See previous tip…
Grab that Aisle.
Some people prefer the Window. I don’t know why. For me, it’s cramped (the window curves into your space ever so slightly, and the overhead bin is, well, over your head). And you have to ask two other people to get up if you need to use the bathroom. My money is on the aisle seat. I can get easily reach my stowed bag if I need to, or stand up and stretch for a minute.
Find a big guy in the window seat to avoid a middle seat companion.
This is a trick I’ve used in the past to avoid a middle seat companion. Often a “Customer of Size” as Southwest refers to them, will board early and they often choose a Window seat. If I grab the aisle, there’s a good chance no one will sit in between us.
This will totally backfire if the plane is totally full (which happens more these days, and definitely in the summer) so be careful. Then everyone is cramped and hating life.
Pick a grouchy looking window seater.
Sometimes I will find some surly looking fella (it’s always a guy) sitting in a window and snag the aisle. He looks so grumpy that no one will want to sit in the middle (I hope!). Also…he won’t talk to me which is a plus. 🙂
The flight-attendant-in-the-middle-of-the-plane seat trick.
On every Southwest flight I’ve ever been on, there is a flight attendant stationed in an Aisle seat just past the middle Exit row seats. He/she is holding the fort down for passengers in the middle of the plane. For some weird reason, people won’t ask them to move (and thus claim that seat).
I’ve boarded in Boarding Group B w/ a pass of B45-ish before and that seat is still there. It’s a good location too. Near an exit, and not too far back in the plane. Just ask them if you can have the seat and they will move! I always tell them “Thanks for saving it for me!”
The front vs. the back (don’t forget your connection time).
There are studies that suggest that sitting at the back of the plane increases your chance of surviving a plane crash. That’s probably true, but I figure if we crash, we are all probably going to die.
When’s the last time you really heard of anyone walking away from a plane crash!? Ok..Sully…you are the exception.
With that in mind, there’s sort of two theories here.
- Sit near the front to get off quicker at your destination. This is an attractive option. Being able to get off quicker (especially when you are coming home and ready to BE HOME) is a very nice feature. If you sit in the front you could shave 10-15 minutes off your deplaning time. You can be in the rental car shuttle before the last passenger gets off.
- Sit near the back and take the chance you might not have a middle seat companion. Often those middle seats at the front of the plane fill up pretty quickly. So, while you luck out w/ an aisle and earlier deplaning, your chances of getting a companion increase. Really depends on what’s important to you here. Sitting in the back also means easier access to the lavatory (and usually there’s two in the back…less waiting and you can stand in line while you wait which you cannot do in the front lav).
Pick a seat relative to where you will get served by flight attendant earlier – if that matters to you.
The FA’s on Southwest break the airline up into sections (3, I believe) and depending on where you sit on the flight you might be the first people served by the FA or the last people served.
This may not matter to you, but if it’s say a short flight and you want to make sure you get that nasty cup of coffee or it’s important you get coffee quickly…sit in the front of these sections.
Those rows are: 1, 9, and 17 (or close to that).
Avoid the families w/ little kids.
No 2 year old kid likes to travel. I have kids. I’ve traveled w/ them. It’s rough. And I am ALWAYS compassionate and understanding to families or moms w/ kids losing their minds on a flight. I get it. That said, it doesn’t mean I need to sit next to them.
This is one thing I don’t like about Southwest’s boarding process. They let the business travelers get on first…then family boarding.
Which means you might get a family plop down next to you. I wish they let them board first and made them sit to the rear of the exit row. On the plus side, most families migrate to the back (to be near the bathroom) so might be ok anyway. If it does happen, don’t be a dick about it. It’s not going to last forever.
- Bonus pro tip for families traveling w/ kids: Don’t do it.
“Pick” your middle seat companion.
This is where the pro travelers really make their money. I’ve seen all kinds of tricks here. Folks will put a bag in the seat next to them and say that the person is in the bathroom. Or toss papers/folders/headphones in the middle seat next to them in hopes that people will just move along. I’ve seen people look grouchy (thus being not a great companion for your 4 hour flight). I’ve seen people make themselves look bigger (broad shoulders) to make that seat less attractive.
People will use the “no eye contact” approach (if I make eye contact w/ someone they might interpret is an invitation to sit!). People will put their headphones in and close their eyes.
I’ve even seen folks suddenly move those things out of the way or toss a smile on their face when an attractive, slim woman boards.
Sitting next to someone small is the ideal middle companion.
A fit young college lacrosse athlete or tiny grandma. And someone who won’t talk to you is even better (be careful w/ the grandma’s — they like to talk). The worst is getting some burly guy. I won’t disclose my personal tricks from the list above, but feel free to employ whatever you feel works best! Or…don’t be a dick and just let someone sit next to you. There’s always that…
Seatguru.com is a cool site that you can use to pick the best seat on a particular airline and airplane. It can help you avoid seats that don’t recline, or don’t have full access to window or weird idiosyncrasies that might make your trip less pleasant. That said, w/ Southwest, with the exception of the Exit row seats, they are all pretty much the same. Still not a bad idea to check.
Final Thoughts on Picking your seat on Southwest
I hope these travel tips on picking a seat on a Southwest flight were helpful to you. If you have your own tips share them w/ us! And don’t forget to check out my 147 Business Travel Tips post and level up your business travel life!
PS…I didn’t (and don’t) receive any compensation from Southwest or Seatguru for this article (although I really should! LOL). I do receive a few shekels from Amazon if you purchase through my other affiliate links. So thank you!
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