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Southwest’s boarding process is quite…unique. Southwest doesn’t assign seats — rather, the Southwest check-in process helps determine when you board and thus where you sit.
Because of this, 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. But with a little practice and planning (and even the right airline credit card!), checking-in on Southwest is a nonissue. In no time, you’ll be a pro at scoring the best seats possible.
I’ll explain what I mean.
How Southwest check-in works
Southwest doesn’t assign seats. Instead, you’ll board by “zone” and choose your own seats once you’re aboard. The zones are A, B, and C with each divided into two groups: 1 to 30 and 31 to 60.
You can be assigned a zone based on:
- When you check in for your flight
- The type of ticket you purchased
- If you purchase EarlyBird Check-In
- Whether you have Southwest elite status
- If you have a child age six or younger
Let’s take a look.
When you check in for your flight
Guests may check-in up to 24 hours ahead of their flight’s departure time. You’ll receive your seat in the order you check in. In other words, if you wait until the last minute to check in, you could wind up being the last person on the plane (C 60), and you’ll likely have to choose a middle seat next to random strangers instead of your friends or family.
As soon as the clock strikes 24-hours before departure, you’ll want to be check in (more on that later).
Type of ticket
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).
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
An 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 between $15 and $25 per person each way, so it can add up quickly for families. EarlyBird doesn’t guarantee you the A boarding zone, only that Southwest will check you in before those who did not purchase EarlyBird. It’s still 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.
Regular Southwest passengers can earn Southwest 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.
Traveling with small children
Families with children ages six and younger may board between the A and B zones. The entire family is allowed to board, not just the child and one parent.
Southwest also allows those 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
Again, if you did not buy EarlyBird or Business Select and don’t have kids ages six or younger, you will need to check in as close to 24 hours ahead of your flight as possible. You cannot forget!
On my packing list is a reminder to set alarms to check-in on Southwest for both the outgoing flight and the return flight. Some set multiple alarms on their phones for 15 minutes, 5 minutes, and 1 minute ahead of the check-in time.
True story, I completely forgot to check into my flight until I was sitting in front of my gate. I watched as the gate agent announced zones A through C to board the plane. Eventually, I sat completely alone, waiting for my turn. The gate agent then announced “Joseph?” over the P.A. system.
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.
One final note: Check your time zones.
Have multiple devices ready
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 can check-in on the Southwest website or download the Southwest Mobile App to your smartphone or tablet and check-in from the app. You’ll ideally need one device per person that needs to be checked-in. You’ll find the “Check In” button on the main menu of the Southwest site, 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.
Watch the time and AS SOON as it’s 24 hours prior to departure, hit “Check In.” 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.
Even if you end up early in zone C, you’ll probably rarely encounter a problem where two people. 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’ll be resolved.
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. We nearly always fly using Southwest points, so the Early Bird Check-In fee isn’t crippling.
It’s also worth noting that the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card comes with four upgraded boardings each year, guaranteeing you a seat between A1 and A15. These are worth up to $50 each.
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 some push back 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 four could take the aisle and window seats on each side of the row, leaving the middle seats empty.
Most 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.
Even Business Select does not guarantee you the front row.
One MMS writer, when flying Business Select, 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. Never assume you’ll get the front row — even if you hold A1 boarding order.
Southwest credit cards
Opening Southwest credit cards can upgrade your entire Southwest experience in just about every way — not just priority boarding. They can help you achieve the Southwest Companion Pass, provide free alcohol onboard, give you free inflight internet, and more.
|Card name||Bonus||Annual fee||Our review|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card||Earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening||$69||Our Review of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card||Earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening||$99||Our Review of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card||Earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening||$149||Our Review of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card||N/A||$99||Our Review of the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card|
|Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card||Earn up to 100,000 points after meeting tiered spending requirements:|
- 70,000 points after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening
- 30,000 points after spending $25,000 on purchases in the first six months of account opening
|$199||Our review of the Southwest Performance Business Credit Card|
Getting the best seat possible on Southwest requires advance planning. Southwest doesn’t 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. 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 us know if you have any other good tips for checking-in and getting a better seat on Southwest! And subscribe to our newsletter for more travel tips like this delivered to your inbox.