Southwest Boarding Groups: 7 Tips and Tricks to Board Earlier

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INSIDER SECRET: Southwest is a great airline for business travelers and families. Making use of any of the five Southwest credit cards is a smart way to get free points, money back on inflight purchases and even free upgrades for an opportunity at a top-notch seat.

Southwest is one of our favorite airlines. They’ve got a unique seating system, awesome customer service, and low-cost fares.

They also sport some of the best cobranded airline credit cards, and an insanely great way to have someone travel with you for free, the Southwest Companion Pass.

But if you’re a Southwest newbie, the seating system can be confusing, and you end up with a less-than-ideal seat. With a little practice and planning, you can master the Southwest boarding groups, and score the best seat possible.

Southwest Boarding Groups: 7 Tips and Tricks to Board Earlier
Mastering Southwest boarding groups can help you board the plane earlier. (Photo by Matej Kastelic/Shutterstock)

How does Southwest boarding work?

Southwest does not assign seats as other airlines do. Instead, you board according to groups and choose your own seats onboard. 

You’re assigned a group and position based on the type of ticket you have, whether you paid for EarlyBird Check-in, whether you have elite status and when you checked in.

The group and numbered position will be listed on your boarding pass. The groups are A, B, and C and each group has positions 1-60. For example, you could have A1, B22, or C59 listed on your boarding pass.

When you arrive at the gate, there are numbered silver columns located near the window to either side of the gate agent. Each side of the row of columns acts as a lane with one side having numbers 1-30 and the opposite side being 31-60. There is a TV hanging from the ceiling above each row to designate what group should be lining up.

Let’s break down the specifics of each boarding group.

What are Southwest’s boarding groups?

The boarding order is simply:

  • Preboarding
  • Group A (starting with Business Select, A-List, A-List Preferred, Families, Active Military)
  • Group B
  • Group C

Those who need help boarding or require a specific seat to support a disability or assistive device are eligible for preboarding. One person acting as an attendant may board with them. Other family members or attendants have to board as designated on their boarding pass.

Group A is the most detailed because it encapsulates other mini groups. A1-A15 is reserved specifically for Business Select. After that, it’s A-List and A-List preferred members through the Rapid Rewards program. Flyers with disabilities that just need extra time boarding and active military in uniform finish up Group A boarding.

Families with children aged six and younger may board between the A and B groups. Two adults and children ages 6 and under may board together. All other family members must board as designated on their boarding pass, though I’ve never seen a gate agent stop a couple of teenagers who tag along with their parents and younger sibling.

Groups B and C don’t contain the mini groups Group A does. They board normally according to numerical order.

Southwest Boarding Groups: 7 Tips and Tricks to Board Earlier
Kids 6 and under can board during Family Boarding with up to two adults. (Photo by Sharomka/Shutterstock)

Ways to board earlier on Southwest

The good news is that there are multiple ways to board a Southwest flight earlier! 

When you purchase a Wanna Get Away ticket, you can also pay for 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-$25 per person each way. EarlyBird does not guarantee you the A boarding group, only that Southwest will check you in before those who did not purchase EarlyBird. This is a good option if you must sit in a certain area of the plane. 

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 group, as an A-List Preferred or A-List member you can still board between the A and B boarding groups.If you do not have Southwest elite status, the airline assigns you a group based on when you check in. All 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. I set an alarm for a few minutes before check-in so I can check-in promptly. However, you’ll need to check in your companion separately.

Southwest Boarding Groups: 7 Tips and Tricks to Board Earlier
Setting an alarm can help you remember to check in as soon as possible. (Photo by Ko Backpacko/Shutterstock)

If you purchase a Business Select ticket (Southwest’s business fare), you are guaranteed an A 1-15 position, which improves your seat selection since you will be boarding early. Occasionally, there will be unclaimed A1-15 spots available at the gate. The gate agents may or may not advertise this over the loudspeaker, so you may need to ask. The prices for this jump ahead in boarding are higher than EarlyBird and can be $30 to $50, depending on the flight, each way and per person. Having the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card is a great way to secure opportunities to board earlier. You’ll get four upgraded boardings (when available to positions A1 to A15) each account anniversary year (worth $30-$50 each, depending on the flight).

Bottom Line

Scoring the best seat possible isn’t hard when you’ve done your homework. Things like setting an alarm to check in, having Southwest elite status and purchasing EarlyBird check-in can help you board earlier.Let us know your favorite way to get on the plane sooner for a chance at the best seat. And subscribe to our newsletter for more posts like this delivered to your inbox once per day.

Devon O'Rourke is a contributor to Million Mile Secrets, he covers topics on points and miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels, and general travel.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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