Boarding Southwest Airlines: A Complete Guide to the Chaos

by | Jul 25, 2023

Southwest Airlines is known for its unique, free-for-all boarding process that might be more reminiscent of the Hunger Games than what passengers are used to on other airlines. Instead of assigned seats, Southwest Airlines divide passengers into zones A, B, or C, split into boarding positions 1-30 and 31-60.

The unique boarding process involves passengers lining up by boarding position at the gate, then scrambling for any available seat once they’re on the plane.

For travelers who value flexibility and a more personalized in-flight experience, Southwest’s boarding process can be an attractive option. However, the process can be confusing and overwhelming for those who are unfamiliar with it. This guide will help you understand Southwest’s boarding order, how Southwest’s boarding process works, how to secure a favorable boarding position, and the logistics of the process so you can get the best seat even if you booked a Wanna Get Away fare.

How Does Boarding on Southwest Airlines Work?

Unlike other airlines, Southwest does not assign seats to passengers at the time of booking.

Instead, passengers are assigned a boarding position when they check-in for their flight. During check-in for Southwest Airlines, you will receive a designated boarding group and position, ranging from A to C and 1 to 60 respectively. This information will be printed on your boarding pass.

The boarding process will start with Group A, followed by Group B, and then Group C. Each category has a range of numbers, and passengers are assigned a specific number within their category. This boarding position determines the order in which passengers board the aircraft and select their seats. 

Southwest Boarding Pass edited - Southwest

During the boarding process, the gate agent will announce the boarding groups and their corresponding positions (e.g., Group A, positions 1-30). You should head to the gate area and stand between the numbered posts, or “boarding columns” as Southwest terms them, that correspond to your assigned boarding position.

Southwest Boarding Columns - Southwest
New Boarding.

Then, you board with your group when you’re called. Once you’re on the plane, you can choose any available seat and store your belongings in the overhead bin or under the seat in front of you. Prepare for takeoff!

Of course, if your goal is to board the plane first, it’s smart to aim for boarding group A. However, if you end up boarding group C and position 60, you might have to settle for a middle seat in the back next to the toilet.

Pro-tip: Be ready to board when your group is called! Pay attention to the boarding announcements and be ready to board when your group is called. Unlike on other airlines, if you show up to board last minute, you will lose your boarding position and it’s unlikely your preferred seat will still be available when you’re on board.

What Is the Southwest Boarding Order

Southwest’s boarding order is based on the boarding positions assigned to passengers. The boarding order is as follows:

Pre-boarding: This is for passengers who need extra assistance, such as those with disabilities, unaccompanied minors, and families with young children.

Business Select: This is for passengers who have purchased a Business Select fare. These passengers are assigned the first boarding positions in the A group (A1-A15).

Upgraded Boarding: Passengers flying with Anytime, Wanna Get Away, or Wanna Get Away Plus fares have the ability to purchase Upgraded Boarding starting at $30 per segment based on availability. This will allow them to board A1-A15 as well.

Group A: After Business Select & Upgraded Boarding complete boarding, other passengers in Group A will have the opportunity to board (positions A16-A60).

Group B: Passengers with boarding positions B1-B60.

Group C: Passengers with boarding positions C1-C60.

Southwest Airlines aircraft

How to Get Your Southwest Boarding Position

To get your Southwest boarding position, you can check in online or using the Southwest app starting exactly 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time.

You can use a mobile boarding pass, print your boarding pass at home, or get a boarding pass at the airport. If you forget to check in ahead of time, you will be assigned a boarding position at airport check-in.

How to Get the Best Seat on Southwest Airlines

Securing the prime seat on a Southwest flight boils down to nabbing a spot in the A1-15 boarding group. With this coveted position, passengers get first picks on seating. Southwest Airlines organizes passengers into boarding ‘zones’. These zones, labeled A, B, and C, are further split into two groups: positions 1 to 30 and 31 to 60. Once on board, passengers choose their seats. The allocation to a particular zone hinges on a variety of factors.

Ticket Type

Fare type impacts your boarding zone. Buying a Business Select fare gets you a spot in the ‘A’ zone, positions 1 to 15, allowing you to choose from more seat options. Purchasing EarlyBird Check-In with a Wanna Get Away fare auto-checks you in 36 hours before departure, but doesn’t guarantee an ‘A’ zone.

Elite Status

Regular passengers can earn A-List or A-List Preferred elite status by taking a certain number of flights or earning qualifying Southwest Rapid Reward points. Like EarlyBird Check-In, elite status holders auto-check-in 36 hours before the flight. The check-in sequence is Business Select, A-List Preferred, A-List, and then EarlyBird.

Southwest will automatically reserve boarding positions for all elite members of its Rapid Rewards frequent flyer program and their travel companions 36 hours prior to departure. See the complete terms for details.

Check-In Time

For less expensive fares like Wanna Get Away and for non-elite status passengers, zone assignment depends on check-in time. You can check-in up to 24 hours before departure. Earlier check-in usually means a better zone and position.

Traveling with Young Children

Families with children aged 6 or younger may board between the ‘A’ and ‘B’ zones. The policy applies to the whole family.

Get A Southwest Credit Card

Get a complimentary upgraded boarding position on Southwest by having the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card or the Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card. This benefit allows you to receive up to four upgraded boardings to positions A1-A15 every year on your anniversary. The process for getting upgraded boarding is the same as for any other customer, requiring you to buy it at the ticket desk or gate on the day of travel, and it’s subject to availability.

You’ll receive a credit reimbursement for the cost, whether it’s $30 or $50. You can purchase all four upgraded boardings at once or for different flights, giving you the option to upgrade your seat once or enjoy the VIP treatment multiple times throughout the year.

Other Ways To Secure Better Seats On Southwest

If getting an A1-A15 boarding position is not necessarily your goal or isn’t feasible, you still have options to improve your chances in Southwest’s seating Hunger Games. Here are some tips on how to get your preferred seat on Southwest Airlines.

While purchasing EarlyBird Check-In or a Business Select fare is the easiest way to ensure you have a high Southwest boarding zone, if you don’t want to spend the money, there are other things you can do to improve your odds of boarding early and getting a blood seat.

Check-In Early (Set An Alert)

The earlier you check in for your flight, the better your chances of getting a good boarding position. Check in online or using the Southwest app exactly 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time.

For a good boarding zone, check in as close to 24 hours before your flight as possible. This is important if you didn’t opt for EarlyBird Check-In, a Business Select fare, or aren’t traveling with kids aged 6 or younger. Set alerts as reminders. Don’t forget return flight alerts and consider time zones when setting reminders.

Multiple Devices for Check-In

Traveling with others using Southwest Rapid Reward points means each person must check in separately. Have each passenger’s name and confirmation number ready. This also applies if checking in a companion using a Southwest Companion Pass. Use multiple devices for check-in. Keep personal information private. Check in on the Southwest website or by using the Southwest mobile app.

EarlyBird Check-In

EarlyBird boarding positions are assigned in the order of purchase. For an additional fee, you can purchase EarlyBird Check-In from Southwest and they’ll automatically check you in 36 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure time. While it might not get you into A1-A15, you’ll still have a great chance of having a higher boarding position.

Upgraded boarding can be purchased on the day of travel at the ticket desk or gate, or up to 24 hours before takeoff through Southwest’s website.

The cost of upgraded boarding varies depending on your itinerary, typically ranging from $30 to $50 per segment. Once the 24-hour check-in window begins, these positions are not assigned to regular ticket customers. Therefore, if there is a low number of elite flyers or Business Select passengers on the flight, there may be some A1-A15 positions available for purchase.

Seat Selection & Saving Seats

The first seats to fill up are usually at the front and aisle. While Southwest Airlines doesn’t have a policy on saving seats for passengers who board later, it can be controversial with other passengers. You’ll want to be considerate of this when selecting seats.

Southwest Airlines boarding mobile pass - Southwest

The Logistics of Boarding Southwest Flights

Boarding a Southwest flight can be a little chaotic, but there are some things you can do to make the process smoother for everyone on board. Your passengers and crew will thank you.

  • Know which seats to choose: The best seats on Southwest Airlines are typically the exit rows and bulkhead seats. These seats offer more legroom and are located at the front of the aircraft.
  • Move quickly down the aisle: Once you board the aircraft, move quickly down the aisle to find a seat. This will help keep the boarding process moving smoothly.
  • Store your luggage quickly: If you have a carry-on bag, try to store it quickly to avoid blocking the aisle. 

Bottom Line

Southwest’s boarding process is different from other airlines and requires passengers to be aware of their assigned boarding position and boarding groups. While this process can provide passengers with the opportunity to select their desired seat and potentially improve their overall travel experience, its enjoyableness may vary depending on the individual traveler’s preferences and circumstances.

Some passengers may find Southwest’s boarding process stressful or chaotic, particularly if they are not familiar with the process or have specific seating requirements. Others may appreciate the flexibility and convenience that the process provides. Factors such as travel purpose, route, and time of day can also impact how Southwest’s boarding process goes.

Regardless of how you feel about Southwest’s boarding process, if you find yourself flying the Luv carrier, understanding how boarding works and following the tips provided can help ensure a smoother boarding experience — and help you get the seat you want.

Amanda e1683856242962 - Southwest
Amanda Slutzky

Amanda Slutzky is a contributor to Travel Spill. After growing up in Boston, Amanda always had the travel bug but became a full-time digital nomad during the pandemic. When she's not exploring her newest destination, she's busy helping brands tell their stories online.

Amanda Slutzky is a contributor to Travel Spill. After growing up in Boston, Amanda always had the travel bug but became a full-time digital nomad during the pandemic. When she's not exploring her newest destination, she's busy helping brands tell their stories online.
All posts by Amanda Slutzky


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