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Lyn blogs about Southwest at Go To Travel Gal and offers a free guide on how to quickly earn the Southwest Companion Pass, which Emily and I believe is the best deal in travel.
Because Southwest does NOT assign seats, the check-in process helps determine when you board and thus where you sit! So I’ve asked Lyn to give us some tips for checking-in on Southwest.
Lyn: Checking-in online for your Southwest flight can be stressful, especially if you’re new to the airline or traveling with young kids.
You may be afraid your children will not get to sit with you or you’ll get stuck in a middle seat in the bumpy back of the plane.
With a little practice and planning, checking-in on Southwest can go smoothly, and you’ll be a pro in no time at scoring the best seat possible.
How Southwest Check-In Works
Southwest does NOT assign seats. Instead, folks board according to “zone” and choose their own seats onboard.
The zones are A, B, and C with each divided into 2 groups: 1 to 30 and 31 to 60.
You are assigned a zone based on:
- The type of ticket you purchased
- Whether you have Southwest elite status
- When you checked in for your flight
- If you have children 6 years old or younger
1. Type of Ticket
a. Fare Type
If you purchase a Business Select ticket (Southwest’s business fare), you are guaranteed to be in the A 1 to 15 boarding zone, which improves your seat selection since you will be boarding nearly first (after pre-boarding).
Guests may check-in up to 24 hours ahead of their flight’s departure time.
b. Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
Another option for those who hold Wanna Get Away fares is to buy “EarlyBird Check-In,” which automatically checks you in 36 hours ahead of your flight’s departure in the order that travelers purchased the service.
EarlyBird costs $15 per person per direction, so it can add up quickly for families. EarlyBird does NOT guarantee you the A boarding zone, only that Southwest will check you in before those who did not purchase EarlyBird.
But this is a good option if you absolutely must sit in a certain area of the plane, like near a bathroom by the aisle. Or if you’re in a group and sitting together is very important to you.
2. Elite Status
Regular Southwest passengers can earn A-List or A-List Preferred elite status after a certain number of flights or qualifying Southwest points.
If you hold an elite status with Southwest, similar to EarlyBird Check-In, the airline will automatically check you in for your flight 36 hours in advance, putting you ahead of other passengers.
Southwest automatically checks in Business Select first, followed by A-List Preferred, A-List and then EarlyBird — all in the order in which they booked.
If you need to switch flights or book a flight within 36 hours of the departure time and end up with a B or C boarding zone, as an A-List Preferred or A-List member, you can still board between the A and B boarding groups.
3. When You Checked-In for Your Flight
If you purchased a cheaper fare, such as Wanna Get Away fares, and you do NOT have Southwest elite status, the airline assigns you a zone based on when you check-in.
Guests may check-in up to 24 hours ahead of their flight’s departure time.
So it’s very important to check-in as soon as online check-in opens up to get a good boarding position!
4. Traveling With Small Children
Families with children ages 6 and younger may board between the A and B zones. The entire family is allowed to board, not just the child and one parent.
Note: Southwest allows folks who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability, need assistance in boarding the aircraft, and / or who need to stow an assistive device to board the plane first – even before Business Select and the A boarding group.
How to Get the Best Possible Boarding Zone
1. Set Alarms!
If you did not buy EarlyBird or Business Select and don’t have kids ages 6 or younger, you will need to check in as close to 24 hours ahead of your flight as possible.
That means you can NOT forget! Believe me, I’ve been guilty of forgetting many times, so I’ve instituted a system to reduce the chances that it will slip my mind.
On my packing list is a reminder to set alarms to check-in on Southwest for both our outgoing flight AND our return flight.
I set multiple alarms on my phone for 15 minutes, 5 minutes and 1 minute ahead of the check-in time. I am notorious for getting side-tracked even after the 5-minute alarm and missing it! It doesn’t hurt to set alarms on a companion’s phone as well, in case you are not near your phone.
It’s even more important to set the alarms for your return flight. At this point, you are in your destination, probably having fun sightseeing, at the beach, hiking, who knows? You’re probably NOT thinking about checking-in for your flight. So be prepared!
One final note: Check your time zones. I once checked my Google calendar, which showed our flight times in the Eastern Time zone (where we were returning) and NOT the Mountain Time zone from which we were leaving. Needless to say, we were 2 hours late checking-in and ended up in Zone C. 🙁
2. Have Multiple Devices Ready
Link: Southwest Mobile Apps
If you booked everyone traveling with you using Southwest points and / or with the Southwest Companion Pass, you will have to check each person in separately.
That means you’ll need to have multiple devices ready to check-in simultaneously if you want to board together! You’ll need each passenger’s name and confirmation number.
You’ll ideally need 1 device per person that needs to be checked-in. You’ll find the “Check In” button on the main menu of the Southwest website, or under your itinerary in the “Manage Trips” section of the mobile app.
Make sure you have a good Wi-Fi connection, because slow Wi-Fi can make the check-in take longer, giving you a later boarding position.
Have everyone’s flight confirmation numbers handy, so you can enter them in ahead of time and refer to them should you accidentally type it in wrong during the check-in process.
3. Move Quickly!
Watch the time and AS SOON as it is 24 hours prior to departure, hit “Check In” as quickly as possible. The website or app may ask you how you want to receive your boarding pass — email, text, or print — so have a plan to quickly make a selection and finalize your check in.
My husband and I typically take 2 devices each: 1 to check-in ourselves and 1 to each check-in a child (we have 2 children). Then we check the kids in right after we check ourselves in.
If you follow this process, you’ll usually end up in the B boarding zone, or if you get lucky (as we have on occasion), the A boarding zone. If you forget or are slow to check-in, you’ll likely end up in zone C.
We have ended up in zone C, but have never had a problem with 1 parent and 1 child sitting together over at least 7 different flights. The flight attendants are also helpful if you end up separated from a child, as they will ask over the speaker if someone is willing to switch seats. It always gets resolved.
4. EarlyBird Check-In
If you spring for EarlyBird Check-In, you should do it when you purchase your ticket.
EarlyBird boarding positions are assigned in the order in which they are purchased, so if you are buying your ticket at the last minute, your EarlyBird may be toward the back of A, depending on how many other passengers also purchased EarlyBird and how many Business Select fares there are, as well.
After a couple of missed check-ins, my family has decided to purchase EarlyBird for my husband, who is 6′ 3″ and NOT a happy camper if he does not have enough legroom. This has reduced a lot of stress and only costs us $30 per trip.
We nearly always fly using Southwest points, so $30 seems to be a reasonable spend on a nearly free flight.
5. Seat Selection
Typically, the first seats to fill up are at the front and aisle or window seats.
If you want to sit with the person with whom you are flying, you’ll need to be willing to sit in the middle seat and possibly toward the back unless you are in the A boarding zone.
You are NOT supposed to save seats, though sometimes people are understanding if it involves a child, but be prepared for people to get aggravated if you say you are saving it. Typically, no one wants the middle seat, so if you need a friend or family member to sit there, it is usually a non-issue.
If the flight isn’t full and you’re hoping for an empty seat between you and your companion, you’ll have the best luck if you sit near the back of the plane. A family of 4 could take the aisle and window seats on each side of the row, leaving the middle seats empty. We, however, rarely fly on a plane that is not completely full.
Most folks won’t choose a middle seat at the back if there are seats further forward. And if they do, you or your companion can slide into the middle seat and let the other passenger sit in the aisle or window.
6. Business Select
Even Business Select does not guarantee you the front row.
Once when flying Business Select (because we were able to write-off the cost as a business expense and earn significantly more points), we ended up in Row 5 even with A1 and A2 tickets. It was a flight to Florida, and there were many senior citizens who boarded the plane in wheelchairs who took the first few rows. So never assume you’ll get the front row — even if you hold A1 boarding order!
Getting the best seat possible on Southwest requires advance planning! Southwest does NOT assign seats. So the earlier you check-in, the sooner you’ll board, which means more seat choices.
You’ll get a better boarding position if you check-in as close to 24 hours ahead of departure as possible. And if you have some flexibility in where you sit, you’ll have better luck sitting together as a group or family.
If you adopt a relaxed attitude and follow these strategies, your next flight on Southwest should be smooth sailing.
Let me know if you have any other good tips for checking-in and getting a better seat on Southwest!