Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines flights?

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Southwest Airlines is a budget airline known for cheap flights, funny flight attendants, and free checked bags.  One of the main differences between Southwest Airlines and other airlines is that Southwest doesn't assign seats. There are pros and cons to the no assigned seating rule but there's one question people ask that there's not really an answer to: Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines flights?

Yes. And also no. Well…maybe. It depends. Clear as mud, right?

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 but it's not. While Southwest's open seating policy seems to work for Southwest Airlines, it only works for passengers who thoroughly understand the seating policy.  

Can you save seats on Southwest Airlines – the short answer

Southwest doesn't have a policy against saving seats on their flights. I've only had one mildly negative experience with seat saving but if you read the passenger forums on Southwest Airlines and various Reddit threads dedicated to the subject, 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? 

Southwest Airlines boarding groups

Southwest Airlines does not assign seats but passengers are assigned a boarding groups. Southwest flights have three boarding groups: A, B, and C. Each group has 60 positions. A passenger with an A20 will board the plane early and have lots of seat choices. A passenger with C55 will board late and gets the leftovers. Late boarders usually get middle seats and groups traveling together usually get split up. Hence, it is easy to see why earlier boarding is best when it comes to Southwest Airlines.

Understanding how boarding groups work is important for anyone traveling on Southwest Airlines, especially families with young children.

How to get into the A Boarding Group

Since the A boarding group gets the first choice of seats, here's how to up your chances of making that happen. 

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 at the 24-hour mark. This usually results in an A or B boarding position, but this is not something the airline promises. The cost is between $15 and $25 per passenger each way, depending on the routes. 

pay for an upgraded boarding position at the gate

When you get to your gate you might see signs offering an upgraded boarding position for a fee, currently $30-$40.  This guarantees you a spot in the A group in positions 1-15, if available. I did this once as a solo traveler when I didn't buy Early Bird Check In and forgot to check in at the 24-hour mark

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 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. 

Southwest's family boarding policy

While Southwest's seating policy might seem unfriendly to families traveling with children, their family boarding policy is pretty fair. Up to two adults traveling with a child six years old or younger may board during Family Boarding, which occurs after the “A” group has boarded and before the “B” group begins boarding. This allows families to board during a time when there are enough open seats for each child to sit next to at least one parent. 

Per their policy, Southwest will endeavor to seat kids ages 7 to 13 next to one accompanying passenger or older to the maximum extent practicable at no additional cost.  

If you have a larger group with many adults, don't count on your entire group getting to board during family boarding just because you're traveling with one child under six. 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

The controversy about saving seats on Southwest Airlines

We've established that getting on the plane earliest gets you the most desirable seats. Southwest doesn't have a premium cabin but if you want seats up front or the coveted exit row seats with more legroom, an A group boarding position helps you meet those goals. We've also established that getting those boarding positions usually involves paying more.  

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 and get your back-of-the-line travel partners seated together in a good seat versus scavenging for those middle seats and splitting up. 

But think of this from the perspective of the passenger who bought a Business Select ticket or paid for upgraded boarding and who is told they can't sit in an empty seat because someone is saving it for someone who didn't pay the upcharge. While I haven't experienced exactly this, I once had a woman 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 who I assumed 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 put into the position as the seat saver and had to answer the “Is someone sitting there?” question about a dozen times. 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 their 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. Seat saving is usually handled by throwing a bag or jacket onto the seat, as described above. This is also a “don't sit next to me” tactic used by passengers who are hoping to deter others from sitting in the seat next to them. A flight attendant may intervene if friction over seating disrupts boarding. 

When I fly Southwest for business, I buy Business Select or 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. It's annoying to be told I can't sit somewhere by someone who is saving space for someone who didn't pay for the perks I've paid for but I've never started an argument over it. I board early enough that finding a second-best seat hasn't been a problem. 

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. I think Southwest Airlines needs to pick a side. It would be easy enough for them to make a policy and be flexible if seat savings weren't disrupting boarding. I'd like to know if the crew had my back if I challenged a seat-saver. 

On the other side of the coin, I understand how the system works and when I fly Southwest with my family, we've built Early Bird Check In into our ticket budget and that usually gets us seats we're happy with and seated near each other. 

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