Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines flights?

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Southwest Airlines offers great value and service and they don't charge for bags. I enjoy flying with them but one thing that makes Southwest Airlines a little different is their no assigned seating rule. There are pros and cons but there's one question people ask that there's not really an answer to: Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines flights?

Can you (and should you) save seats on Southwest Airlines? Photo: Stephen M. Keller, Southwest Airlines Co.

So…Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines flights?

“Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines” sounds like a simple question. While Southwest's open seating policy seems to work for them, it only works for the passengers if they understand how they policy works when they book and before they fly. That makes the difference between a great experience and a frustrating one. 

Can you save seats on southwest airlines – the short answer

Southwest doesn't have a policy against saving seats on their flights so you can technically save seats on Southwest Airlines flights and not get ejected from the plane. I've only had one mildly negative experience with seat saving but if you read the passenger forums on Southwest Airlines, there have been plenty of travelers who've expressed their displeasure on the subject and shared their “seat saving horror stories.”

The responses from Southwest are polite, courteous, and sympathetic, but they hold to the policy of not having a policy and say they don't disallow it unless it disrupts the boarding process. I have never seen that happen but I get how that could turn ugly.  

Read more: Want to better understand Southwest Airlines change policy? 

Breaking down Southwest Airlines' seating policies

Since Southwest doesn't assign seats, your boarding position (where you are in line to get on the plane) becomes all-important. Southwest flights have three boarding groups: A, B, and C. If you're in the low A group, you're on the plane first and have your pick of seats. If you're in the late C group, well…enjoy your middle seat.  

Getting in the early boarding groups can happen several ways.

Buy a business select ticket

This is Southwest's highest fare category. In addition to priority boarding you'll get accelerated Rapid Rewards points. Business Select fare is also refundable. 

check in at the 24-hour mark

You up your chances at getting an A or low B boarding position if you check in right at the 24-hour mark. And, I mean right at the 24-hour mark, not 22-hour or 23 and a half. 

Buy early bird check in

Purchasing Early Bird Check In when you book your flight allows Southwest to check you in automatically. This usually results in an A or low B boarding position. This is what we usually do when flying as a family of four. It's between $15 and $25 per passenger each way. It slaps an extra $120-$200 on to the price of our flights. Southwest fares are generally reasonable and they don't charge for checked baggage. We've made our peace with paying this and accept it as part of flying Southwest. 

upgrade your boarding position at the gate

When you get to your gate you might see signs offering an upgraded boarding position for a fee, $30-$50 depending on route. This guarantees you a spot the A group in positions 1-15. 

I did this once as a solo traveler. I'd forgotten to check in until it was time to leave for the airport so my oversight was was rewarded with being put into C group. I didn't feel like sitting on a three-hour flight in a middle seat in the back of the plane so I coughed up the extra $20 to board first. Although I thought it was worth it, I could have saved myself the money by remembering to check in 24-hours before the flight. 

travel with younger kids

Two adults traveling with a child six or under can board during Family Boarding, which happens between A and B boarding. If your boarding pass says A boarding group, the family should board during their assigned boarding position but if they have B or C boarding, they get a little bit of a jump the line break.

If you have a larger group with many adults, don't count on your entire group getting to board during family boarding. I have seen gate agents stick to the two adult rule when families were traveling with grandparents. 

No one loves that middle seat, but that's probably where you'll be sitting on a full flight if you're in the C boarding group.
Photo: Stephen Keller, Southwest Airlines

So…what's up with savings seats?

As you've seen in the breakdown above, getting on board early and having your pick of seating usually involves paying more money. 

But, what if just one person in the travel party bought the Business Select fare or the upgraded boarding position? By boarding early, that person could save seats for their whole family in the C boarding group. That can save money gets your back of the line travel partners seated together in a good seat versus scavenging for those middle seats and splitting up. 

But what if you're the person who bought a Business Select  ticket or paid for upgraded boarding? It's probably frustrating to be told you can't sit in an empty seat because someone is saving it for someone who didn't pay the upcharge you did. While I haven't  experienced exactly this, I once had a women approach me (I was already seated and she was boarding) and ask if the two seats next to me were occupied. I smiled and said no, thinking the lady was going to sit there. 

Instead, she tossed two blankets in the seat and moved on to the back of the plane. An elderly couple (I assumed these were her parents) boarded the plane at the tail end of the C group, recognized the blankets and sat down. It was an annoying situation for me because I was asked about six times if I was saving those seats by passengers that wanted to sit there. I wasn't saving the seats so this resulted in several awkward explanations of “Some lady threw these blankets here and I have no idea.” 

It didn't ruin my flight but I thought it was a lousy thing to do. I always wondered why the lady didn't save them seats closer to her – they seemed like very nice people. 

saving seats on Southwest – the airline's Policy

Southwest's policy is that they don't have a policy. In the situation I just described, I'm not sure what a flight attendant would have done if I'd have moved those blankets and allowed someone who wanted that seat to sit there. I don't know what a flight attendant's reaction would be if someone had insisted on sitting there.   

When I fly Southwest for business, I buy Early Bird Check In and go carry on only. I like to be one of the first on and off the airplane and I want to snag one of those coveted overhead spaces for my bags. If I were told I couldn't sit where I wanted to sit by a person who was saving space for a passenger who didn't pay for the same perks I did, I would be irritated. 

Takeaways – Is it OK to save seats on a Southwest Airlines flight?

I think it's sketchy and gaming the system. I love a good freebie but taking a perk you didn't pay for from someone who did pay for it isn't okay. Southwest Airlines needs to pick a side. It would be easy enough for them to make a policy and be flexible if seat saving weren't disrupting boarding. 

I'd like to know the crew had my back if I challenged a seat-saver.

Related: Southwest Airlines has lots of options for flights to and from Vegas. Here's what you need to pack for Vegas and what to leave at home. 



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  1. Thanks for sharing a ton of detail about Southwest. They DO offer some of the best prices around without sacrificing good and timely service.

    1. Thank you for putting this out there. I always pay for early bird when flying southwest, at times up to 8 family members. Last year my husband and I were on a flight where two people were “saving” 6 rows of seats near the back of the plan. For health reasons I need an aisle and they had the last ones saved. I did challenge it and the flight attendant didn’t intervene until boarding had stalled. I agree with your comment that they are basically stealing.

    1. You should be able to qualify for pre-boarding. Good luck! I love Southwest…have hardly ever had an issue with their boarding process.

      1. I’ve flown SW for years. Best airline, great people, good stock to own, super frequnt flyer program! I am A list, so I board pretty early. First on the plane. I sit in a primo exit row aisle or window seat when possible and the give it to my larger brother or hubby when they arrive. I then switch to a middle seat next to them or an aisle if available. Win win. E