How does the Southwest Airlines boarding process work?

Southwest Airlines has a unique boarding process in which seats are not assigned. Instead,  you are assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and a boarding position (1-60) on your boarding pass, which will determine when you board the flight. Passengers in the “A” group board first, then “B”, then “C”. Within each group, passengers will also board based on their numbers; for example, A1 will board before A20.  Upon boarding the flight, you may choose any open seat.  

How to ensure you get a good seat:

Check-in for Southwest flights opens 24 hours before the scheduled departure time, so the best way to get your first choice in seating is to check-in on exactly 24 hours prior to your departure. The earlier you check in, the earlier your spot in line will be. Many other passengers will also be checking in on the 24-hour mark, so it may help to set an alarm 24-hours before your flight and check in as soon as the clock hits the right time. If you check in later, there is a lower likelihood that you will be placed in an early group and get your preferred seating.

Typically, an “A” group or early “B” group is good enough placement to have several open seats and overhead bin space to choose from, but this is always dependent on how full the flight is. Placement in the “C” group typically means you’ll be in a center seat and may need to gate check your overhead bags.

What if I am unable to check in 24 hours prior to my flight, or I need a specific seat for medical reasons?

Southwest offers Early Bird check-in for the cost of $15-25 each way (regardless of connections or non-stop). This option can check you in automatically 36 hours prior to departure, which does not guarantee you an “A” boarding position, but will at least secure an earlier boarding position than if you were to wait until the 24-hour mark. This option is also recommended for anyone who needs a specific seat for medical reasons, as Southwest cannot guarantee exact seating or an aisle seat for them.

One last tip: Arrive to the gate early

There is no reason to go through the trouble of having an “A” or “B” boarding group if you show up to your flight right before departure. There is a queue for each boarding time – meaning each group starts to form lines. If you arrive late and are at the back of the “A” line, it’s not much better than being in the “B” line. If you want your choice of window/aisle seat and overhead space, it’s essential to arrive on time to board with your assigned group.

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