4 Ways To Get A Free Empty Seat Next To You On Southwest Airlines

An empty seat is the best thing you can do to have a better flight. On most airlines it is luck. On Southwest it is strategy.

On most airlines you can reserve an aisle and window if you’re traveling with someone, and hope the flight isn’t full. Traveling solo in back, I recently switched seats the morning of my flight to improve the odds of an empty middle and it worked. I went from an otherwise empty exit row to an aisle seat across the way where the exit row window was already taken.

Southwest doesn’t pre-assign seats, but if you board early and get the one you want and the flight isn’t sold out, you can improve your odds that the seat next to you stays vacant – by making it unappealing for someone to choose to sit down next to you. Always ask if the flight is full when you board!

Here are (4) ways to make sure the middle seat stays open next to you when flying Southwest Airlines:

  1. Crumpled tissues. Act sick, crumple of tissues and put them in the seat next to you. No one wants to sit next to someone they see is sick (or pick up your used tissues to do so).

  2. Take a window seat and a aisle seat if you’re traveling with someone, or conspire with the other person who was in your row when you sat down. Act like you’re fighting. No one is going to want to sit in the middle seat if there are any other options available.

  3. Seat spreader. You want to extend into the seat next to you. If you’re a larger passenger, then they’ll have less room. A middle is bad enough. Not getting the entire middle seat is worse.

    You can also spread your stuff into the middle seat, which makes the seat look occupied.

    Another version of seat spreading is seat saving. Some people put their stuff on the open seat beside them, making it “look like” the seat is saved so that (hopefully) no one asks about it.

    Pretend someone else is sitting there, tell people who come by that you’re saving the seat. If you have a better boarding position than the person you’re traveling with, or they need to go to the bathroom, you can board first on your own and save a seat for them. There’s no rule for or against this, so you just need to tell other passengers that the seat belongs to someone else – even if it isn’t true.

  4. Too eager seatmate. The trick is to make eye contact and pat the middle seat to welcome them to snuggle up. This approach has to come across as creepy. Nearly any man can pull it off. Fewer women could.

    @mikewdavis

    How to keep seats open next to you on a flight 😂

    ♬ original sound – mikewdavis

    Or, as someone looks like they might sit down beside you, reach out and offer them hard boiled eggs out of a plastic bag. Do it with an impish grin, like you might eat them or at least creep on them. And what if those eggs are.. rotten?

Some people don’t like the way Southwest Airlines seats are divvied out on a first-come, first-served basis but I find it’s great for people who book last minute (good seats may not be available anymore on other airlines) and for those that are strategic. But even if you don’t get an extra seat empty next to you, Southwest offers an inch or two more legroom than other airlines do in their standard seats. So it’s a better coach experience than on other U.S. carriers.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. On a recent SW flight, the middle seat on the first row was empty. I used my best John Candy greeting (Plane, Trains, and Automobiles) to enquire if the seat was empty. You could read the dismay on the face of the two ladies, but I made myself comfortable.
    Turns out, they were sisters who were passing snacks back and fort which I availed myself to.
    They were a hell of a lot better than the SW snacks!!!!!!

  2. It is boorish behavior

    Funny, I once created the “egg” incident inadvertently, felt horrible and did something about it.

    Flying coast to coast to coast the WN hop, skip and jump way hungover after a long party weekend, I grabbed some concierge lounge hard boiled and eggs and yogurt for a meal sometime enroute.

    Got the best seat in the house, exit row window with the unlimited legroom and a nice young, pregnant couple took the other seats eventually, the small pregnant woman in the middle. Sweet.

    Somewhere during the long leg, I took out the eggs and began to eat. A few minutes later, without a word, the couple switched seats. Only then did it dawn on me that the egg smell might be making her nauseous and I called for the FA to take them away.

    Of course you’ll never see this on Instacrap, Twatter, et al..

    We’re all in this together people…

  3. @Gary Leff, It’s helpful to inform inexperienced travelers about these selfish and annoying “strategies” so that they might be more prepared for such encounters. But putting it in the guise of “helpful tips” makes it seem that this is considered normal, rather than a contribution to the degradation of an already stressful experience. Someone might mistake it for civilized behavior. You certainly spared no scorn for foot-on-tray-table-guy yesterday. (Yes, he’s also a contributor-to-degradation)
    You know you are better than this, and frankly I’m growing weary of this new tactic of yours.

  4. Saving seats for 9 family members (let alone 2!). C’mon folks, like the Nike people say “Just do it”. In other words. Take one of the seats. If Southwest doesn’t want to deter this saving seat behavior then we as as travel members have to start taking the bull by the horns and politely say “I am sorry, but Southwest has a no reserve policy they announce before every flight by the gate. I am sitting here. You may use the call button and explain to the crew that you do not wish to follow their policy.”
    Southwest is leaving the matter to us. You do not have to be polite and go elsewhere.

  5. The thing I don’t like about Southwest seating is that the bigger jerk you are, the more likely you are to come out ahead. I know this piece was tongue in cheek, but it describes things a lot of people do.

  6. @SouthwestAir
    We regret any disappointment during the boarding process today. As you may know, all Southwest flights are open seating, and we don’t have a specific policy for or against saving seats. We apologize for any frustration, and hope for smoother sailing in the future. -Hannah

    @ Tim M, your strategy is sound but the logic and explanation are flawed.

    Read the above, the “official” policy is there is NO policy AGAINST or FOR saving a seat. Nor is there any announcement beyond “please take any available seat”

    Then this begets the debate about what constitutes “available”. Butt in seat, jacket or bag on seat, the bimbo waving you away, etc…

    As @nsx at Flyer Talk has said many times, the dispute is going to go to the strongest personality.

    Outside of a very few extra legroom seats that are worth your battle, all the seats are the same and arrive at the same time. As long as you get one of those, or your window/aisle anywhere, is it worth the effort to deny people from sitting together? Perhaps one day the favor will be returned to you.

    This is a battle generally imagined on paper, I’ve flown 100’s of WN flights and never witnessed an incident.

  7. Steven I am happy to accept the criticism from you about the flawed nature of my note. I would imagine people would still be making cell phone calls in movie theatres unless there had not been a rapid response to just how inconsiderate that behavior was (is). If people are polite to me I do not recall ever not moving on to a different row to help them out. Perhaps the person exaggerated a bit about the 3 row saving passenger. Maybe it was two which is still beyond my tolerance and yes I have experienced that on Southwest. I scan Gary’s columns almost every day and have never read a column with a decent response to the issue. Hopefully we can make the legal experts less rich and keep them out of this interpretation of an available seat. I, like you, have flown almost a hundred flights with WN and not witnessed an actual physical confrontation. I do think it is time for the pendulum to swing back. Nothing new in this response, just do it.

  8. Sigh… Now we have journalists not only teaching us how to be uncivil to our neighbors, they’re actually encouraging it.
    No wonder it seems like everyone in this country hates each other, or there are stories of road rage and shootings practically everyday.

  9. I like the passive-aggressive move of sitting on an aisle seat when the window is occupied and opening a newspaper so it shields the middle seat. Not as common these days but it used to work pretty well in the old days.
    With most flights full you are better to sit about 2/3’s of the way back and hope to get lucky. Most people will fill in the front 1/3 of the plane or go past you to the back 1/3 and not be able to turn around. The middle 1/3 will fill the exit rows first.

  10. Some of these strategies cross the line. . If everyone acted this way boarding would be a nightmare. Consider others in your choices.

  11. As a person who has medical issues, I really appreciate the help that I get from every crew member that I have flown with. I have to use a wheelchair to board. The 737-800 is perfect. I like to sit 2 rows behind the wing on the Captains side of the plane. Getting off is a problem. I am not allowed the privilege of getting off first. Everyone is already in the aisle and makes it very difficult to deplane. I have one carry on and my portable oxygenator.

  12. This is not humor, it’s just taking seat saving behavior one step further. The saving for family and leaving bags on empty seats happens all the time, and is main reason I have abandoned SW after many many flights with them. Irresponsible article only worsens the situation.

  13. @Leland: you need a wheelchair to board, which means you can pre board and get on the plane first. You also have an oxygenator. You also complain about how difficult it is to deplane.

    But since you pre-board, why aren’t you sitting as close to the front as possible? You know, ao so you can deplane without issue. Makes ZERO sense that you would pre-board and then go take a seat two rows behind the wing.

  14. I totally agree to save seats , my fiance does this with me every flight ✈️, I’m a big talk guy and most people try and avoid seating next to me, I always take the isle seats ,my fiance window, I’m going to try the napkin ides next time, it’s complicated because nearly all Southwest flights are full

  15. Recently flew on an not full flight and asked to sit in the middle seat. Boorish passenger told me he had the right to keep it empty and to “Move on!” in a very entitled, angry tone. Hope he reads this.

  16. It’s people like this who cause forced rules for everybody. Not impressed with the mentality.

  17. When my wife and I travel and it’s not a full flight, we always go back to the last 3 or 4 rows of seats. She takes the aisle and I take the window. The last seat anyone wants is the middle seat in the back of the plane.

  18. So your whole “strategy” is to either lie or be an a-hole. Well done. If I see you in a plane I will deliberately sit next to you and blow my nose constantly.

  19. Passengers practice all these things because SW attendants do the same thing! My wife was made to move from her window seat to allow a minority to move from their middle seat to her window – . so how do think that made everyone “feel”???? The attendant said she “had been ‘saving’ that seat for him” ?! So “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander”

    But hey, the easiest way to save middle seat is put a Holy Bible in it or start reading one while murmuring ‘praise Jesus’ – you will likely end up saving both the middle and window seat! LOL

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