Based on Southwest‘s convenient flights and ‘transfarency‘ policy, I assumed everyone has flown with them at least once. I was surprised on my last flight from Tampa to Rochester to hear multiple people were very perplexed by the boarding process.
The main difference between Southwest’s boarding process and the typical boarding is that instead of assigned a seat, you are assigned a boarding number. You get on the plane in order of your number and you can take any open seat.
To get the best chance of sitting with your group, or getting the coveted exit row seats, you need to check in exactly 24 hours before your flight. The check in process is the typical process; go to the website, enter your confirmation number and name, and then you’ll be assigned your boarding number. The numbers are divided into three categories, A, B, and C. Each category is numbered one through sixty. They start boarding with A1 and continues on through C60.
If you have a large group or just really don’t want to sit in a middle seat you can add Early Bird Check In for $15 per way, per person. This automatically assigns you a boarding number 36 hours before your flight, which greatly improves your likelihood of getting a good boarding number. If you book more than one person in your reservation, you can either get Early Bird Check In for the whole party or no one. You can’t get it for just one person in your party and the $15 per way can add up quickly.
You can also book Business Select, which automatically gets you A1-15, a free drink, and access to the priority lane. It’s significantly more expensive than most regular fares, but it will give you the peace of mind of getting a good seat.
If you book each person separately, you can upgrade just one person to Early Bird Check In. For our last flight we booked with points, so we had to book separately. I upgraded to Early Bird Check In and I was assigned to A45, meaning I was the 45th person to board (assuming the business class 1-15 were fully booked). I checked The Husband in at the same time as me, but since he didn’t have Early Bird Check In, he ended up with B35.
Your boarding pass. Unlike other airlines you can just hand it to the gate attendant, since it’s open seating.
Luckily, they generally let your party board together with whomever has the better number if it’s not a large party. If not, you can just save the seat by you (which can get you dirty looks).
There are a few exceptions: people with disabilities preboard before general boarding. Just make sure that you request a preboarding document from the agent at the gate.
Families with children six and under can boarding between the A group and the B group, regardless of what number you have. You can find the FAQs here.
There are a few other features that are unique to Southwest. The biggest difference is that your first two checked bags are free! That’s right, no baggage fees! (Unless it’s overweight, of course.) You can also change your flight without paying fees. If you decided to cancel your trip, you can without losing money. You don’t get a refund but instead the money stays on your Southwest account so you can use it the next time. Most flights also come with free live TV that you can watch on your phone, tablet, or laptop. Southwest will also randomly send you free drink coupons to use! That’s right, free drinks on the plane!
I hope this helps clear up the boarding process. Comment below if you have any other questions; Southwest is the only airline that flies nonstop from Tampa to Rochester, NY, so I take it frequently!