Southwest Airlines has a lot of great perks, like two free checked bags, no change fees, and low prices. There’s just one catch: no seat assignments. If you’re flying alone, it’s not the end of the world, but if you’d planned on sitting with a friend or family member, especially with younger kids, not knowing where you’ll sit can be stressful.
Southwest assigns you a boarding order based on when you check in. You’re put in one of three zones (A, B, and C) and given a number assignment between one and 60 within each zone. For example, A1 boards first, while C60 boards last. Seats are first come, first serve, so the first passengers on the plane get the widest selection.
S,o how do you snag the best seat? Here are three Southwest seating strategies to help:
1. Pay for better boarding order
Your first option is to pay to improve your boarding order. Instead of choosing Southwest’s cheapest Wanna Get Away fare, you can opt for the more expensive Business Select fare, which guarantees you a spot between A1 and A15.
If you don’t hold a business fare, but Southwest did not sell all 15 spots, they often allow you to pay $30 to $50 at the gate for upgraded boarding to A1–A15. Alternately, when you purchase your ticket, you can pay $15 per person per way for Early Bird check-in, which automatically checks you in before everyone else. Early Bird buyers are checked in based on the order in which they purchased the service.
2. Check in exactly 24 hours ahead
If you don’t want to shell out additional cash for a better seat, your best strategy is to check in (either online or via the Southwest mobile app) as soon as the airline allows, which is exactly 24 hours ahead of your departure time. Checking in as close as possible to the 24-hour mark will improve your order and, thus, your seat selection.
Nancy McLaughlin of Denver, Colorado, who flies the airline frequently, says she sets the alarm on her phone for 10 minutes ahead of Southwest check-in and also adds it to her Google calendar so she doesn’t forget.
3. Choose your seats wisely
Once you have boarded the plane, choosing the correct seat is important if you want to sit next to someone specific. When flying with her family of three, McLaughlin says, “Sometimes two of us will buy Early Bird and sit in the window and aisle. Usually by the time the third person gets on, the middle seat is still open.”
Trying to find seats for two people is much easier than three or four, of course, and you can nearly always find two seats together at the back of the plane, even with a C boarding order. For example, when my family of four flies, we split into pairs of one parent and one child. Passengers are usually understanding if you’re holding a middle seat for a child. We even once heard a flight attendant request over the loudspeaker that someone switch seats with a child who was sitting alone, “unless they wanted to babysit the entire flight.” Needless to say, the problem was solved quickly!
That said, certain seats do tend to be better than others, whether you’re traveling with kids or just need more elbow room. These are the best airplane seats for every type of need.