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Guide To Understanding the Southwest Boarding Groups and Process

Have you ever taken Southwest Airlines? When you book, you don’t get a seat assignment – instead, they use a unique process. Here are our tips for understanding the boarding process, including Southwest boarding groups, family boarding on Southwest, and the Southwest boarding order.

When Southwest Airlines started flying out of Boston, I knew that I wanted to book a flight and try them out. I’ve always heard great things about their flights and customer service. It did take a while to happen though because they initially didn’t fly to many destinations from Boston.

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.

It wasn’t until a few years later that, for our spring break vacation, we booked a Southwest Vacations trip to San Antonio, Texas. It was my 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 with Southwest Airlines soon? Or perhaps you aren’t sure if you want to try them out? 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, which is important to know).

Southwest Airlines boarding line up at airport

Understanding the Southwest Airlines Boarding Process – Including Southwest Boarding Groups

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, as there are no assigned seats.

The Southwest boarding process is pretty unique – with Southwest, the boarding order is determined by the numbers on your ticket. You’ll be given a boarding number when you check in to your flight (24 hours before your flight).

Those who 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. What does early bird check-in get you?

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. It’s an automatic check-in, which is great if you don’t want to worry about things.

Because of that, you’ll have an earlier boarding number than those who check in exactly 24 hours in advance. The EarlyBird option currently starts at $15 per person, per leg of your flight (prices are always subject to change). However, pricing varies by the popularity and length of your flight.

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 Southwest vacation package).

Those with the early bird can get boarding passes with numbers as low as A-16. To get boarding numbers A 1-15, you have the option to upgrade from 24 hours in advance to 30 minutes before departure.

The cost for this varies, and you’ll be able to add this when you check in online. You can also get boarding group A 1-15 if you have a Business Select ticket.

I always hate spending extra money after already paying quite a bit for my flight, and $15 per leg per person can add up. So you’ll want to think about that added cost when you are evaluating what flights to purchase.

Only you will know if Southwest Early Bird is worth it, but it really may be the only way to ensure a better shot at sitting together – especially when traveling with a child who won’t want to sit alone.

In recent years, I’ve found that many guests do choose to purchase the early bird option, making it more essential for a good boarding number.

Lining Up in the A, B, and 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”. If you need preboarding, you’ll want to talk to the airline in advance.

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. There’s no way to skip ahead.

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 age 6). Two adults traveling with a child 6 years or younger can board with the child.

While that family boarding 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. So even if you have those A 1-15 spots, some people may be on the plane before you.

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.

I also love the fact that people aren’t hovering by the plane entrance, waiting for their zone to be called. Because everyone has a specific spot to stand in, the entrance to the boarding area doesn’t get cluttered.

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.

Southwest has a consistent fleet of planes, so most flights will seem familiar. If you have a seat that you typically like, you can find it on most flights.

Southwest Airlines jet

Southwest Amenities

You may be interested in Southwest’s customer of size policy, in addition to their seating policy. There are other things to know about Southwest airlines as well.

While you aren’t getting a seat assignment on Southwest, you will be getting other amenities. The two free checked bags is a big benefit and one you won’t find on other airlines. You’ll also have a generous cancellation/change policy, which is great if your vacation plans change. I’ve had to add days to our vacation and was so pleased with how simple it is.

Once onboard, you’ll have access to the in-flight entertainment system. Rather than the seatback screens, you may find on other airlines, Southwest’s entertainment system allows you to use your own electronic device. Bring your own, and make sure it’s fully charged!

Southwest Airlines flights now offer WiFi for a flat fee (free for their preferred members). In addition, they are currently working on adding USB-A and USB-C outlets for guests to use.

Have you ever flown on Southwest Airlines? What do you think about the Southwest Airlines boarding process?

Southwest boarding area with seats and columns with boarding numbers

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Joann Reid

Thursday 13th of April 2023

in this article you mentioned early bird is $15.00, correction, it $50.00 round trip and is non refundable if you have to cancel. I wish it were $15.00 a flight? Ive been flying Southwest over twenty years. I fly 5 times a year on South West, and it becomes very expensive for a 83 year old senior. Unfortunately flying is the only way to see my grandchildren. I wish they had a special rate for seniors. Unfortunately, making money is number one for the airlines, and the flyers are paying the price.

Jodi Grundig

Thursday 13th of April 2023

Hi - thanks for reading! I mention in the article that it starts at $15 but varies based on the route, etc. You can find the details of that directly on Southwest's website here:

It definitely can add up. I wish they had a special rate too. I can imagine it can become expensive.


Sunday 5th of May 2019


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