I fly Southwest Airlines quite a bit and if you know anything about Southwest you know they have an unusual seat assignment policy: you don’t get one (assigned to you that is). In a Hunger Games style race, you get to compete with your fellow travelers for the best seat you can stuff your body into.
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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.
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.
Yet, for those who don’t have that status 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).
Here are a few travel hacks I use when picking a seat on a Southwest flight. These travel tips apply to any level of traveler. From the business travel pro, to the college student, to the couple taking their annual Vegas trip from Kansas.
How to pick a seat on a Southwest Flight
- Know where your boarding pass group/number is likely going to place you. If you are in boarding Group A, you are assured any seat you want including and aisle (if you want one). B 1-30 Boarding group? Probably ok, but likely at the back of the plane. B31-60. It’s gonna be dicey. C? Get comfortable (and see my post on surviving the middle seat).
- 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. If that’s the case, a bunch of seats are already occupied so you may have to reset your expectations.
- Skip the very front of the airplane seats. 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. Stupid.
- 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.
- 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 luck) a high A boarding pass. If you are traveler w/ A-List status you are in good shape. And if you are business select…yeah baby. You will have the pick of the litter.
- 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. 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!).
- 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 B45ish 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!? 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).
- Use Seatguru.com. 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 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.
- 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 (someone who plays a “small” sport) 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!
- Get status! 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.
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 105 Business Travel Tips post and level up your business travel life!