How to Get Seats Together as a Family on Southwest Airlines

Mar 8, 2019

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One of my daughter’s first flights, about nine years ago, was on Southwest. She was just a toddler and we were heading to Orlando to experience Disney World. I was able to use some Southwest award flights to get us there, but since it was our first Southwest flight as a family, I was nervous about the open-seating policy and what it would take to get seats together. Thankfully, those nerves were totally unnecessary. There are many ways for families to sit together on Southwest.

My family enjoys our occasional flights on Southwest
My family enjoys our occasional flights on Southwest. Photo by Summer Hull/TPG

While some airlines do make it challenging to get free seat assignments together with your family, Southwest’s approach is quite different. The fact that Southwest does not assign seats in advance at all actually works to the advantage of some young families, especially if you are hoping to score a free open seat for your lap baby.

The Southwest Boarding Process

Before I get into some strategies, here are some basics on how the Southwest boarding process works. When you check in online, you are assigned a boarding pass number in one of three groups: A, B or C. Each of the groups has a corresponding number between 1 and 60. So, you may be A45, which would potentially be the 45th person to board, or C-15 which would potentially be the 135th person to board. (The numbers aren’t exact because some people get a chance to board early in the process, regardless of assigned number).

Boarding occurs based on your boarding group and number, so you'll need to line up in order.
Boarding is done based on your boarding group and number, so you’ll need to line up in order.  Photo by Summer Hull/TPG

If you have Southwest A-List (elite) status or purchase a Business Select fare, then you are automatically reserved a boarding slot even before the 24-hour check-in mark. Otherwise, you are assigned your number based on when you check in for your flight. The highest available boarding slot at your time of check-in will go to you.

When it comes time to board, you will line up in order at signs for your respective boarding groups. There will be an A 1–30 line and an A 31–60 line. Once the A group starts boarding, the B group will start lining up in the spots the A group previously occupied. You do need to (more or less) get in your actual numerical order. For example, if you have B25, you need to be toward the back of the B 1–30 line, or you will at the very least annoy those around you. It isn’t as hard as it sounds, but it is a unique process the first time you experience it. (And yes, you may feel a bit like cattle.)

Southwest offers Family Boarding after the A group, but before the B groups for any families traveling with children 6 and under who are in the B or C groups. (Obviously, if you have an A boarding pass then you will board ahead of this offer.)

Southwest Family Boarding
Southwest Family Boarding after Group A. Photo by Summer Hull/TPG

Once you get on board, you can choose any seats that are still unoccupied. The better your boarding group and number, the larger selection of empty seats you will have to choose from. This is relevant for everyone, but especially relevant if you are trying to get multiple seats together for your family. Also keep in mind that if the flight has through passengers from a previous flight, there will be seats occupied even before the person with the A1 spot gets to board.

How to Make Sure Your Family Sits Together

There are a few things you can do to ensure that your family gets seats together when flying Southwest.

1. Purchase an Early Bird Check-in 

With Early Bird Check-In, you can grab a spot in the boarding process 36 hours before the flight and 12 hours before the normal time frame. Purchasing Early Bird does not guarantee you will be given an A boarding spot, but you have a very good chance.

This is the easiest way to secure a good boarding spot, but it comes with an extra cost that ranges from $15 – $25 per flight, per person. Tip: There is no Southwest rule specifically barring people from saving seats once on board, so it’s possible to buy EBI for one person and extend the benefit to several (though we don’t necessarily condone that approach).

2. Check in exactly 24 hours before departure 

As we have noted, Southwest starts handing out most spots in the boarding process exactly 24 hours before the flight. If your boarding number matters to you, and you don’t want to pay extra to secure a good spot, then it is crucial that you are at a computer exactly 24 hours before departure to check in your whole party. This will be the difference between you getting in the A, B or C group.

3. Board during Family Boarding

If you have a child in your party who is 6 or under, just board during Family Boarding after the A group. In theory, this means just 60 folks are ahead of you, but in reality the plane can already have many passengers on board who are continuing on from an earlier flight, so a whole row together can still be hard to come by if you want to sit in the front of the plane.

4. Have A-List status or fly on a (probably pricier) Business Select ticket 

I don’t think that either of these two solutions are really all that practical for most families who are traveling on Southwest, but technically they would both secure you an A boarding pass. However, right now you can status match your way to Southwest A-List status.

5. Pay for an Upgraded Boarding slot, if available 

If there are unsold A1 to A15 slots (ones that typically go to those who pay higher Business Select fares), Southwest may offer them as Upgraded Boarding slots for $30–$50 each a short time before the boarding process gets underway. This is a newer option that I have never personally seen in action, but it could be a last-ditch way to board on the early side if all other methods have failed. (That said, I would have to be pretty desperate to pay $30–$50 extra per person just to board early.)

It’s worth noting here that Southwest Rapid Rewards®  Priority Credit Card actually provides the cardholder four Upgraded Boardings in the A1–A15 position each year (worth up to $50 each). That makes it my top pick among the Southwest cards for families.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards®  Priority Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards®  Premier Credit Card and Southwest Rapid Rewards®  Plus Credit Card are all offering 40,000 bonus Rapid Rewards points after $1,000 in spending in the first three months. 

6. Book the first flight of the day.

If you are on the first flight for that plane for the day, then you can guarantee you are boarding an empty plane and there won’t be through passengers already occupying seats.

Bottom Line

I personally don’t have any desire to “sweat the small stuff” on family vacations, and for longer flights (like those to Hawaii) would likely pay the extra $15 to $25 for Early Bird Check-In so I could be relatively certain my family would be able to sit together. However, for many families, using Family Boarding or checking in exactly 24 hours before departure should be sufficient.

I know lots of you have Southwest experience, so what are your tips for securing seats together for your family?

Looking for more Southwest intel? Here it is:

Featured image by Alberto Riva/TPG

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