Saving Seats On Southwest: Yea Or Nay?

Southwest Airlines has ‘open seating’. You line up to board based on your ticket type (“business select” fares are first), elite status, whether or not you purchased a spot in the queue (early bird) and check-in time.

There’s no assigned seats. People may already be on the plane from an earlier flight segment, but otherwise it’s open season – the earlier you board the better your selection of seats. Savvy travelers early in line head for the exit row window with no seat in front of them, but otherwise it’s usually an aisle seat towards the front.

I ask at the gate how full the flight is. If it’s not booked to capacity I’ll take an aisle closer to the back and lay out some of my stuff in the middle seat. I hope to get a that middle seat next to me empty, though I do not go as far as some people who crumple up tissues and stick those in the empty middle.

There’s an exception to ‘first come, first served’ though with seat choice: saving seats. Some people will board and save seats for others in their travel party with lower boarding numbers than they have. When my wife’s parents fly Southwest I have one of them pay for Early Bird check-in, and then save a seat for the other one. There’s no reason for them both to pay.

Southwest Airlines has no policy on the practice of saving seats one way or the other. It’s entirely up to social customers, and always struck me as something that could lead to conflict. Although most people saving seats are successful, and most people just skip on by the seat when they’re told it’s saved for someone else.

Still, the practice of saving seats can be taken to extremes. How about saving three rows of seats for a travel party? That actually takes some skill, almost like a boxer – ‘float like a butterfly, sting like a bee’ moving around and covering a large area of blockage.

It seems to me that it is one thing to save a seat or even a row, and other thing entirely to save multiple rows. Still it is not against Southwest’s rules. I’m not sure how a passenger trying to save a row behind them would block a passenger from sitting there, but social custom seems to make it a plausible strategy.

Is saving multiple rows of seats going overboard? Would you honor someone’s claim that they’re saving seats in a row they aren’t physically in?

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, 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. No saving seats. Period. Not for your spouse,. Not for your kids. Not for your extended family. If you want to all sit together in the best seats possible pay the d*mn fare. It’s should not be a case of a single flyer paying the full amount, or a couple essentially paying half the differential each so ONE gets on board and grabs the two best seats. Or a family of five essentially paying one-fifth of the differential each so that ONE gets on board and grabs a row of the best seats. You want it for both of you or for the whole family, then pay for it.

    “When my wife’s parents fly Southwest I have one of them pay for Early Bird check-in, and then save a seat for the other one. There’s no reason for them both to pay.”

    So Gary, you’re wrong, there IS a reason for them both to pay: They want to get the best seats possible sitting next to each other. Pay for it.

  2. Ooh, this comment section’s gonna be lit. Good for you, Gary — racking up those clicks, pageviews, and engagement on a Saturday where gas is $8 and mask mandates are back in CA. What better to do than to watch anonymous internet trolls get all high and mighty, spewing their dogma of etiquette to the rest of us?

    Here’s some facts:

    – The airline doesn’t want to get involved in this, as you mentioned, and this is a very smart move on the part of Southwest.

    – If you save a seat, you’re kind of a dick, but if you take a seat that someone else has saved, you’re a much bigger dick. Obviously, there are exceptions to either of these rules. There are just too many individual circumstances, hence Southwest smartly saying they are not going to put anything down in policy.

    – If you are particular about seats, then you should fly a different airline, period. Southwest isn’t much of a low cost carrier anymore, and comparable fares are available on airlines with assigned seating.

  3. I would’ve sat my ass right on down in whichever seat I wanted that didn’t have a body in it. But then again I don’t fly Southwest.

  4. Flying While High Again, you are clearly a socially well-adjusted kindred spirit who beams kindness and empathy for other people! I can tell! The world needs more human beings like you! Bravo!

  5. Saving “a” seat is fine. Saving multiple rows is a joke. I wouldn’t honor that.

  6. Save a seat. Sure. Save 2 seats? Even for this New Yorker, that’s pretty nervy. Save more than that? That’s not a nice thing to do.

  7. Exactly why status on WN is a joke as is paying for Early Bird. Saving seats is a sure sign of a bottom feeding kettle.

  8. That is why I do not fly SWA. I think their boarding process is demeaning, Grown people groveling over seats. It is no better than riding the Greyhound Bus.
    In fact, I prefer JetBlue as it is Southwest absent the insane seating policy.

  9. Anyone who saves a single seat or “lay out some of my stuff in the middle seat” is an effing a-hole.

  10. @earl, I also find Southwest to be juvenile, but to be demeaned by it? That suggests you don’t have a lot going on in your life that you actually care whether a faceless corporate entity demeans you. Try to engage with something meaningful. Take cooking, pottery, or gardening classes. Volunteer at your local fire department. Become a paramedic. Join a hiking group. If you care about something as trifling as whether an airline’s boarding process demeans you, then the bar is low to get started. Get out there!

    You also have no idea what you’re talking about in regards to the Greyhound bus, which I rode all the time as a college student. I was probably the only person on most of my trips who was sober and not a convicted felon.

  11. Oh, wow.

    Special place in hell for people who save a seat – steal – from someone who has either paid to board early or played the game and checked in t-24. Shows the entitlement to something someone didn’t earn or buy to think it’s OK to save their family a seat or seats. This isn’t the elementary lunch table. Grow up.

  12. Ying
    BTW, my golf game is going well, played twice this week already. And I too rode the Greyhound bus as a college student and now I can afford to purchase a first class seat on any airline I desire which are currently Delta or American but as I stated a I like JetBlue, especially when flying here on the eastern seaboard,

  13. I don’t mind someone saving a seat or two in non-exit rows but multiple rows or blocking off an exit row seat is dicky. Feel free to choose between legroom and sitting next to your party.

  14. On a similar topic about boarding. Is anyone checking in exactly 24hrs and 0 seconds in advance and getting B 8 and 9 on a half empty 50 min flight (BUR-RNO). I think someone knows of a hack most of us don’t know about. SWA is racing to the bottom with the other domestic carriers- screw the customer- the American business culture.

  15. @Paul. the problem is, here are all the folks that can be ahead of you
    – Biz select
    – A-list
    – Early bird
    AND …
    anyone that comes from an earlier connecting flight. if someone flies say SAN-BUR-RNO they get to check into the BUR-RNO flight ahead of you. Thats an obvious, but perhaps not well known fact. In fact, anytime I check in at T-24 into my flight and it has more than one segment, the second segment is oftentimes A-40s or 50s because I am checking in ahead of everyone else.

  16. During spring break, eight college fraternity students boarded a Southwest Airlines flight and blocked out (reserved) the other two seats in their row. They learned that eight students could block out 24 seats. The upset passengers were seated in the back of the aircraft. After the boarding door closed, the students laughed, high-fived, and mocked the pissed-off passengers seated behind them. Flight attendants gave them a dirty look like this was normal behavior during spring break.

  17. When I first started flying Southwest I’d get annoyed at the seat-savers but now I’m used to it. Worst case I have to sit a row or two farther back than I otherwise would have. I simply ask “is that window seat available?”

    I actually think laying stuff out in a middle seat is more of a d*ck move because it essentially punishes others who aren’t doing that.

  18. It’s super irritating when one person pays for a low A position and saves seats for another person that is a C because they are too cheap to pony up and board together. Even though there is no policy against it doesn’t mean you aren’t a jerk to do it. For some reason, old couples are the worst about this. All it does is piss people off at you so don’t be part of the problem.

  19. How about getting into the business of selling seats? You take orders at the gate and then save the seats? Ha!

  20. I think the people who are having multiple rows saved for them should learn how to get pre-boarding injury ticket! That solves the entire problem! LOL!

  21. I haven’t flown Southwest in quite some time as they’re priced like Delta from my city, but I don’t recall the seat-saving behavior back when I did, so this must be a fairly recent phenomenon. However, if I ever ran into someone saving nine seats, you can be sure my bottle Aquafina Holy Water would be blessing several of those seats in hope of a safe flight.

  22. Last week, I was on a flight on Southwest where I remember the flight attendant telling someone he could not save a seat in an exit row. Based upon this tweet, it seems that the flight attendant was incorrect. I wonder what would have happened if someone would show that flight attendant the tweet as rebuttal.

  23. First, I would wonder why (e.g.) the husband and wife didn’t have consecutive boarding numbers…

    I have no problem honoring the request that “I’m saving this seat for my _______,” AS LONG AS THAT SEAT IS NEXT TO THE INDIVIDUAL MAKING THE REQUEST. But — seriously — multiple rows??? Unless I’m on a charter flight where one group took over the entire plane…hell, no, I wouldn’t honor their request!

    [NOTE: the earlier I board, the more amenable I am to any request as there are more “alternative” seats…unless we’re talking about a seat in the Exit Row.]. ;^)

  24. I was boarding right behind a female road warrior and we had early low A boarding positions. she bee lined it for the EXIT row and there was some guy already there saving a seat for a friend. She was having any of that and proceeded to sit herself down next to Mr Saver. He got huffy and got up and headed further back. OK by me as I got to sit in the exit row.
    Save a seat but NEVER and exit row. My .02.

  25. That was a weasel apology tweet by Southwest and their “our policy is no policy” is also a weasel move…..

  26. I can agree with saving a single seat, especially if it is a middle seat. Saving an exit row seat is pushing it though. Saving mere than seat might br acceptable in the back of the plane, but nowhere else.

  27. And how many people saying they’re saving seats are really just out to have an empty seat beside them?

  28. I pay for Early Bird but exit rows usually full so unless tight connection where I’ll sit up front in middle if no aisle, I go to the next to last row in aisle.In May I had 2 almost full flights with the one empty seat next to me.

  29. I was in boarding group A 1-30, my wife in group A 31-60. So, I took my seat, and saved one next to me for my wife by putting my laptop case there. A woman and her husband wanted to sit in my row (though there were many other empty rows behind me), so she said, “is this seat taken?” I said, “yes, that’s my wife.” She said, “that’s not your wife.”
    I told her my wife was boarding in the next group, that I was saving the seat for her, and that Southwest had no policy against saving seats. The flight attendant told me that Southwest DID have a policy against saving seats. Eventually she checked with her supervisor and stated that I was right, there was no such policy. By then, my wife had boarded and she took the seat. Who was the dick? I don’t think it was me.

  30. My wife is A-list, i make sure that we book on her reservation, then we all get A boarding. Sure, some seats are saved but we’re not going for the exit row so we really don’t care at all.

    As for Southwest, it’s a decent airline. Free bags is great, we always check rather than fight for overhead space. We flew Delta the other day, first time in years, and my wife told me she prefers Southwest. Du there’s that

  31. General rule: saving seats is OK, as long as seats of equivalent or better “value” are still available. So saving a middle seat in the back half of the airplane – fine in almost all circumstances. Saving a window/aisle when there are only middles available – bad form.

  32. And to think people pay a similar rate as other carriers to go thru this dance. I hated when they began and I tried them. Never went back.

  33. Saving a seat is OK if it’s a middle seat. You want people who have to take a middle pick another one because someone else will be sitting by you, OK. All the other games are unethical

  34. Passengers can feel free to try to save a seat, and I can feel free to ignore that request. That said, better to avoid the airline all together (it’s almost never cheaper anyway).

  35. Southwest, the National Airline of Texas, is a decent airline – all those haters can just go fly Spirit!

  36. This is one of the reasons that I will drive before I fly SWA again.

    If I have to fly with them, however, I’ll point to this policy as justification for why I can and will sit where somebody has “saved” a seat. If there’s no policy, I also don’t have to honor their “saved” seat.

  37. I dislike SW for these reasons. The crew is typically great and friendly. Open seating socks which is like I prefer JB or Delta. AA is a close 3rd.

  38. In 30+ years of travel i have never had the pleasure. One day, a long time from now when i meet my maker, i hope that to still be a true statement :D.

  39. Agree or disagree, with the premise of saving seats on SW, Yin Jing has clearly offered the most mature & true perspective on this question. I’m not a fan of saving seats , however, I do understand the occasional circumstance where this practice may be acceptable .for – regardless, overreacting like a complete antisocial ass is less acceptable.

  40. My absolute biggest issue with Southwest is that I fly a lot and have a companion pass for my wife. Why can’t she board with me? I am the type of customer that SW loves, business select most times and flying 8+ times a month. They sure don’t treat me like that.

  41. If the flight isn’t full, I gag myself until I vomit on the middle seat next to me. Generally, it won’t be cleaned up until everyone has been seated. ¡Entonces viajo con comodidad!

  42. @Yin “ Try to engage with something meaningful.” I agree! There are plenty of things that you can do right in your own community. You can visit a dairy and see how milk is handled and prepared for delivery. Or plan a series of window displays on home safety. Or help start a library. Or discuss with your dentist what you can do to make your teeth more attractive.

  43. @The Real Jorge Paez is on to something. There is surely a market for “fake stain” products you can put on a seat next to you to keep people from sitting there. Planes. Subways. Movie theaters. I want in o this valuable consumer product !

  44. I am a seat saver. I usually pay for myself for upgraded boarding and have the person or persons traveling with me come in on their normal assigned numbers. I go way to the back of the plane, usually about 4-6 rows up from the back, because it is not right to take the “good seats” when my co-travelers didn’t pay or are fast enough to check in early. There are always plenty of seats back there to choose from by the time my fellow passengers arrive.
    I only do this when there are 2 or 3 of us, if there are more, I just board normally. If I am by myself, I try to get the exit row since I am 6’6″. so if I saw someone trying to hold the exit row, I would take it. Don’t hold premium seats for people that aren’t on the plane.

    Many times when I have flown alone, or I’m the 4th wheel, I will voluntarily give up my seat if I see a family or couple that want to sit together and there are only middle seats left.

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