Most major airlines assign people to specific seats before they get on a flight—but that’s not the case for Southwest. This carrier prefers to utilize a more unique approach by allowing passengers to pick their seats when they board the plane. It’s not exactly a free-for-all, however: Before their flight, Southwest travelers are assigned a specific boarding position in Groups A, B, or C, which determines when they’re allowed on the plane—and if any of the preferred seats will be left.
We consulted experts to get their insight on how to game the system. Read on for seven Southwest boarding tips that will help you get the best seat every time.
1. Set an alarm for check-in.
The easiest way to ensure you’re able to get the seat you want on a Southwest flight is by being in the first boarding group. But how does the carrier assign travelers to Group A? As Fahd Khan, director of marketing and technology at JetLevel Aviation, explains to Best Life, Southwest determines your boarding position based on when you check in for your flight.
The earlier you check in, the better chance you have of securing that Group A, according to Khan.
“Check in exactly 24 hours before the scheduled departure time of your trip,” he advises. “If you want to ensure that you receive the greatest seats possible, you should probably set an alarm.”
2. Check the plane’s layout beforehand.
Your idea of the “best seat” on a Southwest flight may depend on different factors. Do you want to be closer to the bathrooms? Do you feel more secure in the middle? No matter what you prefer, Hans Mast, travel agent with Golden Rule Travel, says it is a good idea to prepare yourself by checking the plane’s layout beforehand.
“Southwest has different plane configurations, with varying seat layouts,” he shares. “Knowing the plane configuration helps you target specific seats or sections of the plane that align with your preferences.”
Mast recommends checking Southwest’s website or app for more information on the specific plane type you’ll be flying in.
3. Don’t be afraid to cut the line if you can.
If you have a Group A boarding position but you arrive late to your gate, you don’t have to write it off as a loss. Scott Poniewaz, travel expert and founder of travel benefits company EXEC, says these travelers should not be afraid when it comes to boarding before Group B and Group C passengers—even if there is already a line.
“It’s important to keep this in mind: If you purchased a Group A ticket but somehow missed the boarding phase, remember you’re still entitled to that great seat by cutting in line,” Poniewaz says.
On Southwest’s community website, other travelers have confirmed that Group A passengers are allowed to “cut the line” if they’ve missed their time.
“Just walk up to the agent handling the boarding and show your boarding pass,” one experienced Southwest flyer advised. “I’d walk in from the side—not from where the boarding towers are located.”
4. Be strategic if you have a later boarding position.
There’s no need to panic if you are not in Group A either.
“If you’re not among the first to board, all is not lost,” Justin Albertynas, travel expert and CEO of the travel hacking extension company Ratepunk, says. Instead, he suggests that passengers with a Group B or C boarding positions be strategic when picking their seats.
“When you do board, look for rows that appear full but have a middle seat open. Some passengers may avoid sitting in a row with an open middle seat, hoping for a no-show neighbor,” Albertynas notes.
If you’re willing to sit in the middle, you might be able to secure a spot closer to the front of the plane, if that’s your ideal section.
5. Allow for flexibility with your travel times.
It can be harder to control your experience on a more crowded plane. So if you can be flexible with your travel times, you may have better luck, according to Stephanie Webb, travel guide from See Sight Tours.
“If you have some flexibility in your travel schedule, consider choosing flights during off-peak times or less busy days,” Webb recommends. “Fewer passengers on the flight can mean more seat options.”
6. Consider paying for EarlyBird Check-In.
If you’re willing to pay to potentially get a better seat, Khan suggests using Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In.
“This is a paid add-on service that allows you to check into your flight 36 hours before departure, which is 12 hours before normal check-in opens,” he says.
With this option, you’ll be assigned a boarding position earlier than travelers who have to wait for the regular check-in time.
“Although this does not ensure that you will get the very finest seat available, it will almost certainly put you in a better position than the majority of the other passengers,” Khan says.
7. Or choose a Business Select fare.
Southwest has recently limited the number of EarlyBird Check-In offers it allows for certain trips, however. So if you’re not able to pay an extra fee for that add-on service or you really want to ensure a better seat, Albertynas says you should invest in the carrier’s most expensive fare type, Business Select.
“Purchasing a Business Select fare guarantees a spot in the A1-A15 boarding group,” he explains. “This practically assures you’ll get your choice of seat.”