Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This may influence which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.
Table of Contents
- How does Southwest boarding work?
- What is the Southwest boarding order?
- How to get your Southwest boarding position
- How to get the best seat on Southwest Airlines
- Southwest Family Boarding: How to sit together
- Other ways to get get a good seat on Southwest
- Southwest seating chart
- When you're not happy with your Southwest boarding number
- Southwest boarding groups, recapped
The Southwest Airlines boarding process is a practice perhaps more polarizing than whether pineapple belongs on pizza. But one thing’s for sure: The Southwest boarding process is certainly unique.
There are no assigned seats. There’s no guarantee you’ll get that coveted window seat behind the exit row (which means no seat directly in front of you). There’s no guarantee you’ll end up seated next to your bestie.
Yet it also means you get to pick your seat from whatever is available once on the plane. If the guy in row three has already whipped out his tuna sandwich, maybe you opt for a seat at least a few rows back.
The Southwest boarding process is also theoretically more efficient (at least according to MythBusters) than most boarding systems with assigned seats. So how does the process work? We unpack Southwest’s boarding method to help you get the best seat on your flight.
How does Southwest boarding work?
Rather than assigning seats to passengers, Southwest has an open seating style. As far as determining who gets to pick their seats in which order, here’s how it works:
A Southwest boarding group (either A, B, or C) and position (1-60) will be assigned to you at check-in and it'll be printed on your boarding pass. Group A boards first, then group B, and afterwards group C.
If you end up with A1, then it’s your lucky day — you’ll likely get to be the first passenger on the plane. There may be some exceptions for people with certain disabilities, pre-boarders or people on an earlier connecting flight.
Here’s what a boarding pass with the boarding position looks like. This passenger will board with group A and has a boarding position of 40.
If you like to be the first on the plane, aiming for boarding group A is a good idea. If you end up with C60, well, hopefully, you’re fine with the middle seat near the bathroom.
As the gate agent prepares the plane for boarding, they’ll call boarding groups (e.g., Group A, 1-30). From there, you’ll have to head to one of the numbered posts at the gate area, broken up into smaller blocks (e.g., position 1-5). Stand between the corresponding posts based on your boarding position.
Once onboard, pick any open seat, stow your stuff in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you, and get ready for takeoff.
What is the Southwest boarding order?
Here’s the order of Southwest's boarding groups, from first to last:
1. The A group
The first set of people to board Southwest flights are people with seats in A1-A15, which is typically filled with Southwest elite flyers, people who purchased Southwest Business Select fares and those who paid extra for their tickets before boarding (you can purchase any leftover upgraded boarding positions in the A1-A15 category either online through Southwest's upgraded boarding portal within 24 hours of departure, or at the gate).
The rest of the A group follows with A16-60.
Southwest allows people who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability, who need boarding help, extra time, or who need help stowing an assistive device to board first. To be a part of that group, you’ll have to request preboarding from a Southwest customer service agent at the ticket desk or departure gate.
Expect to be asked what Southwest calls "fact-finding questions" to decide if you meet the qualifications for pre-boarding. If you do, you’ll receive a boarding pass with a specific preboarding designation, and you’ll be allowed to preboard with one companion. If you’re traveling with more than one other person, they’ll typically have to board with their original group.
People who are preboarding are not allowed to occupy an exit row seat.
3. Families and active-duty military in uniform
If you’re traveling with a child 6 years old or younger, you and up to one other adult can board during Family Boarding, which occurs before the B group. Active military traveling in uniform may also board during this time.
4. Groups B and C
Everyone else now gets to board, with the B group going next. And for large and full flights, there’s a C group. Both groups board in numerical order starting with position 1 and moving to position 60.
How to get your Southwest boarding position
There are a few ways to get an early Southwest boarding position, but many of them come at an extra cost. If you don’t want to pay anything more than what the Wanna Get Away, Wanna Get Away Plus or Anytime fares already cost, your boarding position will be decided based on the order you’ve checked in.
You can check in online at Southwest.com or on the app beginning 24 hours before your flight's scheduled departure time. Or, you can check in at the airport or with an agent at the airport. But, the longer you wait, the worse the boarding position you’ll have.
Set a calendar reminder or phone timer for that 24-hour mark (maybe even a few minutes early to get the webpage loaded and logged in) to make sure you get as early a boarding position as possible.
How to get the best seat on Southwest Airlines
Everyone has a different favorite seat on an airplane, but the easiest way to get the best seat on Southwest is to have an A1-15 boarding group position. Since this is the first group to board, you’ll have your pick of nearly any seat on the plane. Here are three ways to guarantee an A1-15 group position on Southwest, but it’s going to cost you:
Buy a Business Select fare
Business Select fares come with many perks including Fly By priority lane access, a complimentary premium drink, and yes, guaranteed receipt of an A1-A15 boarding position.
Business Select fares are not cheap. They can often be multiple times more expensive than Wanna Get Away fares, but they tend to be a better deal than Southwest’s middle tier called Anytime fares.
If you’re willing to pay for a seat upgrade, it’s almost always better to opt for Business Select over Anytime fares because you’ll get benefits like elevated points earning and the guarantee of a good seat.
Buy upgraded boarding when available
While not quite a guarantee, Southwest allows you to buy any remaining A1-A15 boarding position on for an extra fee. You can purchase that either on the day of travel at the ticket desk or gate, or within 24 hours of takeoff on Southwest's website.
It’s $30, $40, or $50 per segment depending on your itinerary. These positions are not assigned to regular ticket customers once the 24-hour check-in window begins, so if the flight is low on elite flyers or Business Select passengers, there may be some available for purchase.
Some cards, such as the The Platinum Card® from American Express, The Business Platinum Card® from American Express and the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, can offset the cost of upgraded boarding by offering a $200 airline incidental credit, which is an annual statement credits toward incidental air travel fees with one qualifying airline of your choice.
Use a Southwest credit card to get complimentary upgraded boarding (when available)
As a benefit of having the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card or the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card, you’ll be reimbursed for up to four upgraded boardings to positions A1-A15 every anniversary year.
The process is the same as anyone else purchasing upgraded boarding. You’ll have to buy it on the day of travel at the ticket desk or gate, and it’s only for sale if seats are available. But no matter the cost — whether $30 or $50 — you’ll get that four times a year in the form of a credit reimbursement.
Those boardings can be purchased all at once or for different flights, so you could opt to upgrade your posse once or give yourself the VIP treatment a few times throughout the year.
Southwest Family Boarding: How to sit together
As mentioned above, families (two adults traveling with a child six years or younger) will board after Group A but before Group B. If the child and adult both have Group A assigned on their boarding pass, they can board along with Group A in their allocated boarding position.
However, this still doesn’t guarantee you’ll sit together, especially if your boarding position is A50. The best way to ensure you sit together and where you want, is to buy a Business Select fare, upgrade your boarding pass or have the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card or the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card.
Other ways to get get a good seat on Southwest
These choices won’t guarantee an A boarding position like the recommendations above, but they’ll still put you ahead of others who try to check in online 24 hours out or at the airport ahead of their flight:
Have Southwest status
Customers with Rapid Rewards A-List Preferred or A-List Member status get their boarding position automatically reserved 36 hours before departure. That's before normal check-in begins, putting them ahead of everyone else who has to wait for that 24-hour window. The benefit also applies to other travelers on the same reservation as A-List Preferred or A-List Members.
While holding Southwest status is not a guarantee of an A position (e.g., if everyone else on the flight also had A-List Preferred or A-List status), it will get you the earliest position available and most often lands you in the A1-A15 positions.
Buy EarlyBird Check-In
EarlyBird Check-In is an add-on to your ticket that automatically checks you in 36 hours before the flight's scheduled departure time. That puts you in the running for the best boarding position next to the folks with Southwest status or Anyime and Business Select fares, and ahead of everyone else who has to wait for the 24-hour window.
EarlyBird Check-In typically costs $15-$25 one-way per passenger on top of your fare price.
As far as how the order of EarlyBird Check-In is decided amongst everyone who pays for it: Boarding positions are assigned based on the time that EarlyBird Check-In was bought relative to passengers within the same fare class. So Wanna Get Away Plus passengers will be checked in ahead of Wanna Get Away passengers with EarlyBird.
EarlyBird does not guarantee a boarding position, but it does increase your odds of getting in a better boarding position. Often, you’ll find yourself in A20 or better with EarlyBird check-in.
Southwest seating chart
If you’re trying to decide what’s a good seat on your Southwest flight, head over to Seatguru. Once there, type in your travel date and flight number to choose your flight.
Oftentimes, Seatguru will show several aircraft configurations for a specific flight. For Southwest, Seatguru features three aircraft seating charts: Boeing 737 MAX 8, Boeing 737-700 and Boeing 737-800. Make sure the aircraft type you’re on matches the result provided by Seatguru.
After you’ve confirmed that, take a look at the seat reviews. The seats on the plane will either be green, yellow, red or white. Green means it's a great seat (usually with extra legroom), yellow means there is some drawback (like limited recline), red shows several drawbacks (such as a misaligned window and near the bathroom).
Seats that are white have no pros and no cons, they are just regular seats for the cabin.
When you're not happy with your Southwest boarding number
If you’re cool with checking your luggage should the overhead bins get too stuffed, and your life isn’t over if you get the middle seat, then don’t panic if you get in the C group.
But if you need to be among the first to board, and you checked in late enough that you ended up with a bad boarding position, your best bet is to pay the $30-$50 for an A1-15 boarding position, either in-person at the airport or online.
If Business Select is sold out, you’re probably out of luck on purchasing upgraded boarding. Next time, consider purchasing EarlyBird Check-In or booking a higher fare class to begin with. Or, keep it simple and accept that the middle seat isn’t all that bad.
On the bright side, it’s one less person you have to bug when you need a bathroom break than if you had taken the window seat anyway.
Southwest boarding groups, recapped
Southwest offers three boarding groups (A, B or C), and a position 1-60+, which get assigned at check-in. While the Southwest boarding process can be confusing at first glance, remember this: Check in exactly 24 hours before your flight, and most of the time you’ll be OK.
Or, be prepared to pony up some extra cash for expensive tickets or upgraded boarding passes. Know which of your credit cards may offer airline credits to offset these fees, as they can get you out of a jam when you miss the check-in deadline.
If you’re traveling with a larger group with multiple reservation numbers, everyone needs to handle their business and check in separately if you want any shot at getting boarding positions near each other.
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card