Have you ever taken Southwest Airlines? When you book, you don’t get a seat assignment – instead they using a unique process. Here are our tips for understanding the boarding process, including Southwest boarding groups, family boarding on Southwest, and Southwest boarding order.
When Southwest Airlines started flying out of Boston, I knew that I wanted to book a flight. I’ve always heard great things about their flights and customer service. It did take awhile to happen though, because they initially didn’t fly to many destinations. Eventually, I traveled on Southwest Airlines a few times for business trips – usually going on one per year or so. I knew a little bit about the unique Southwest Airlines boarding process, but didn’t get too concerned about it because I was flying solo and wasn’t picky about the seat that I would end up with.
Last month, for our spring break vacation, we booked a Southwest Vacations trip to San Antonio, Texas. It was the first time traveling on Southwest Airlines as a family, and so I spent a lot of time learning more about the Southwest Airlines boarding process. Are you traveling on Southwest soon? Here’s what you need to know about the Southwest Airlines boarding procedure (including the answer to the question – when does Southwest board families? – hint, it’s not first).
Understanding the Southwest Airlines Boarding Process
Purchasing a Ticket on Southwest Airlines
You can definitely get great rates on Southwest Airlines, and your ticket comes with two free checked bags which is almost unheard of in the airline industry. However, when you purchase a ticket, you won’t be given the option of choosing a seat. In fact, no one on the plane will have a seating assignment printed on their ticket. The Southwest boarding process is pretty unique – with Southwest, boarding order is determined by these numbers on your ticket. You’ll be given a boarding number when you check in to your flight (24 hours in advance). Those that check in right at the 24-hour mark are given better boarding numbers – if you care where you sit, you absolutely need to check in right on time, and by right on time, I mean EXACTLY 24 hours in advance. The longer you wait, the worse your boarding number will be.
If you can’t check in at the 24-hour point for some reason (after all, you’ll want to enjoy your vacation!), or you have a strong preference as to where you’ll want to sit, you can choose to get the early bird option on your tickets. Those with Southwest EarlyBird check-in with have their boarding number reserved in advance (Southwest says that it’s 36 hours in advance of the departure time), and can access the boarding pass 24 hours in advance. Because of that, you’ll have an earlier boarding number than those who check-in exactly 24-hours in advance. The EarlyBird option is currently $15 per person, per leg of your flight (prices are always subject to change). Note that it does not guarantee an A boarding group, although we did have A boarding positions for our flights during our trip (we purchased EarlyBird for this trip – it didn’t come with our vacation package).
Those with early bird can get boarding passes with numbers as low as A-16. To get boarding number A 1-15, you have the option to upgrade on your travel day. The cost for this varies – you’ll need to talk to Southwest staff at the airport to find out costs and availability for your flight. You can also get boarding group A 1-15 if you have a Business Select ticket.
Lining Up in the A,B,C Southwest Boarding Groups
When they are ready to board the aircraft, they will start with preboarding. Those guests will have a preboarding document in addition to their boarding pass. According to Southwest, “preboarding is available for Customers who have specific seating needs to accommodate a disability, and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft, and/or need to stow an assistive device”.
They’ll also tell A to line up. If you are in the A group, you’ll find the sign near where you need to stand, and make sure that you are in the correct order. Travelers board the aircraft in the order assigned to them. If part of your group has a lower number and you want to board together, you’ll need to board with the later boarding positions. They look at the boarding number as they scan the boarding pass, so you definitely need to be in the correct spot.
Southwest Boarding Order and Southwest Airlines Family Boarding Process
The Southwest Airlines family boarding process is different than other airlines. After group A boards the aircraft, the airline will board families with young (6 years or younger) children for family boarding (Southwest doesn’t have any special boarding for families with kids over 6). While that is happening, the B group lines up in the boarding spots that were just vacated by the A group. After the B group enters the aircraft, the C group lines up.
If you are traveling with a family (with kids older than 6), you’ll probably want to get EarlyBird if you all want to sit together. The plane definitely does start to fill up once it gets to the B and C boarding groups, and it can be more difficult to get seats together. Although it was an expensive add-on for all of us, I think it was worth it to pay extra for the peace of mind. I don’t like to stress about where we are seated on a plane, and my kids don’t like sitting separately.
In some cases, you may have a flight that makes a stop, where you don’t get off the flight. This happens quite a bit with Southwest. On our trip to San Antonio, we had a stop in Nashville. We were supposed to stay on the plane, but there was an aircraft change and we had to switch. In that case, they had us board right after pre-boarding, and before the A group. Things like this can make the aircraft fill up a bit, even before the official Southwest boarding process has started.
While this whole boarding process may seem a bit complicated if you aren’t familiar with it, it’s quick to get used to. Most of the people flying Southwest are familiar with the process because they’ve been through it before, so it runs pretty smoothly. The actual boarding of the plane seems quick – probably because everyone knows exactly when they’ll be getting on the plane, and people take the first available seat that they want, rather than searching for a specific seat.
Just keep in mind that the plane does get filled up, if it’s a full flight. Most of the people in the early boarding groups take the exit rows, then the aisle and window seats. If you have a late B or C boarding group, you have a good chance that you’ll be sitting in the middle row, unless the plane isn’t full. Because Southwest does offer two free checked bags with each ticket, overhead space isn’t as much of an issue as seat location is. Don’t take the risk that the flight won’t be full, because that doesn’t happen much anymore. Most flights usually are full.
Have you ever flown on Southwest Airlines? What do you think about the Southwest Airlines boarding process?
Get Our 7 Travel Tips
Subscribe to get 7 essential family travel tips and our weekly newsletter filled with tips, tricks, and info for family travelers.