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 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. In a city that is a hub of no one and Southwest has the most nonstop flights, I still take connectings with the others because I don’t hate myself enough to ever fly Southwest.

  2. I generally love SW – it’s very convenient for me and the flight attendants are mainly friendly. The saving seats in general is fine ( obviously 3 rows is excessive), but if you try to save an exit row, a) you’re a jerk, and b) I’m sitting down. I’m surprised at the lack of comments because usually this topic creates hundreds of responses.

  3. Why save only one? I would save the entire row for myself and have a great time stretching out during the flight. Heck, I’ll save the seats in front of me so I don’t get people moving their seatbacks into my space. Rockin’!

  4. If you’re saving a middle seat, who cares. An entire row or rows, nope.

  5. Save a seat, perhaps. An entire row: pushing it. Multiple rows — nope. I’m sitting down.

    Just because your friend is too cheap to buy Early Bird.

  6. The significant phrase on SWA.flights is “open seating”. Which means that anyone that purchased a ticket on a given flight, is “open” to occupy “any seat” that is not yet occupied by another person. “Saving a seat or seats or rows of seats” is not an option and extremely SELFISH and/or CHEAP! These are the same people that continually punch the back of your seat if you wish to recline a bit. All seats on all commercial airlines are constructed to recline (except emergency) for relaxation on flights for those that choose to do so. That is an option provided by the airlines industry for everyone whether others prefer “not to relax”. The above mentioned are socially-inept individuals that grew up with a “lack of social training or failed kindergarten.” Just my opinion….nobody asked.

  7. I am now sitting on Southwest MSY-TPA having paid $400+ one way for biz select. Even though I had A7 I boarded at the end of A bc went to restroom. I tried to sit in rows 1,3,7,8 and was thwarted by seat savers. Now in row 9. Agree this is a first world problem. But seriously if these people want to save seats for their families or colleagues do they really need to take the best seats on the plane?

    That notwithstanding I am now a convert to Spirit on this route. On the way TPA-MSY, I boarded last and paid for big front seat. Got a much larger seat at the front and no annoyances with seat savers for $100 less than what I just paid Southwest. So tell me why is Spirit so terrible?

  8. For many years I traveled with my daughter, who was in a wheelchair and very physically challenged. I needed 2 caregivers and my husband to travel with us. My daughters legs did not bend 90 degrees so a front row seat was a necessity for us. She was unable to speak or reposition her self so one of us had to sit next to her. If she needed to be moved or go to the bathroom throughout the flight it too at least 2 of us and sometimes 3. Southwest was usually very accommodating to us. We flew with my daughter at least 25 times. Usually to Las Vegas but occasionally Florida or California.
    One time we flew to the Bahamas on Delta and that was an absolute nightmare. With Delta I paid dearly for 1st class seats and we were treated very rudely because I asked for extra time preboarding since it took 3 of us to get my daughter into her seat. I was giving my daughter a drink, she had severe swallowing problems and a lot of the liquid came back out of her mouth. I would pad her up with disposable under pads to keep the mess to a minimum and actually has a flight attendant point at my daughter and say “you aren’t expecting me to clean that up are you”.
    Southwest flight attendants were more than willing to help in any ways they could although I was able to always handle things myself with the help of my flying companions . I rarely had a problem saving seats for my party at southwest. The few times I was questioned about my need for preboarding with extra people another southwest employee would interject and tell us we didn’t need to explain it was very obvious.
    My daughter recently passed away and some of my fondest memories were made on southwest airline one time a pilot even came out to get his picture taken with us!,

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