Seat Savers Beware: How Other Passengers Hijack Your Southwest Airlines Strategy

Southwest Airlines doesn’t pre-assign seats. Once you board you can take any open seat. There’s no rule against saving seats for other passengers. And it’s perfectly acceptable to subtly discourage other passengers from sitting beside you, though if they want to take the empty seat next to you they can. In this Hunger Games world of Southwest Airlines seat selection there’s basic game theory to defend and expand your turf – from saving seats, to boarding early, and figuring out whom you may want to sit next to you (if someone has to).


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

♬ original sound – mikewdavis

Whether it’s placing crumpled up tissues on the middle seat beside you, placing donut bags and jackets on other seats to reserve space for the rest of your traveling party, or asking for a wheelchair to get on board early and grab the best seat, almost all of your tactics can be foiled by the behavior of airline staff – and other passengers.

  • Some people just ignore your seat saving, plop themselves down (moving your stuff), and dare you to challenge them.

    I usually try to sit in the first 5 rows of the plane. The majority of my flights are less than 2 hours so I really don’t care if I’m in a middle seat or not. I would rather sit in the middle of row one instead of window / aisle in row two.

    …[I]f I try to sit in a seat and someone says “this seat is saved,” I sit there anyway. I dont care. If they have a coat or something on the seat I pick it up and hand it to them. If they make a fuss, I turn on my music and ignore them. Eventually they stop and I go on with my life.

  • Others just ignore the better boarding position you’ve gotten for yourself, and cut right in front to get the better seat that would have gone to you.

    I was boarding in St Louis with family in the A1 through 10 area… As I neared the lines a woman (also in the lowest numbers) was asked what her number was and she said she was A26.

    As they made the announcement that boarding was supposed to start, I inquired where she was and what her number was. When she responded I indicated nicely what our numbers were and she was a little off.

    She told me the boarding numbers were just “suggestions.”

Southwest Airlines may or may not enforce boarding position but certainly isn’t going to police the line, or check that every person boarding is doing so in order. They do not have rules about seat saving – it is neither expressly allowed nor against the rules. Bellum omnium contra omnes or, as Hobbes described regarding the state of nature, flying Southwest truly is a “war of all against all.”

For the average coach passenger in the United States Southwest Airlines may offer the most attractive value proposition. They offer the most legroom in regular coach, they don’t charge for two checked bags, and none of their fares are basic economy (which don’t generally allow changes). Their employees don’t seem to mind their jobs, either, which is a plus.

Their boarding process is actually great for business travelers and elites since the best seats on other airlines often get booked out in advance, leaving little decent left for those buying tickets at the last minute or changing flights. But Southwest saves all of their seats until the last minute.

To really make the most of your Southwest experience, since unlike on other airlines you have some measure of control over who sits next to you if anyone does at all, you need to strategize during boarding to give yourself the best flight possible. But there are passengers out there who just ignore all of your strategizing but predicting the response of other passengers to your tactics is, of course, part of the game theory of flying Southwest.

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. When I research prices SW is usually one of the most expensive. I’d rather use my status and get a “free” premium coach seat in the front when booking versus Southwest’s madness. And it’s cheaper.

  2. To Mark M, Alan, Al – All of you are wrong. I have flown Southwest for over 30 years and they are the best airline and have been for decades. You complainers – go ahead and pay for overpriced tickets, pay for your baggage, pay for name change/flight change fees. You must hate money to go along with your obvious arrogance. One other thing – don’t fly on Southwest – we who love Southwest don’t want or need your arrogance, your complaining, your whining.

  3. @David R. Miller. Wait Al is lying? They don’t check flight cost and often find “SW is usually one of the most expensive”? I won’t fly SW for three reasons: their lack of first class, their boarding policy, and, in my market, they always seem to operate nonstops too early or too late to places I’d like to fly. The last point is often the big issue. I would put up with the boarding process to get a nonstop at a slightly better price, if not for their schedule. Does this make me a “complainer” or a rational consumer evaluating options?

  4. Southwest is typically more than first class for me. I price it out because my boss is a huge fan and encourages us to fly them. When the fates were cheaper the flights all had one or more connections to get to my destination or they were at times of day that doesn’t work. (I don’t fly to Hawaii so I can’t speak to those flights)

  5. Southwest is under pressure from outside due to its poor economic performance. It seems obvious that if they are charging extra for early boarding but the best seats are taken by seat savers or line cutters there is no incentive to spend the extra dollars. There is no reason to allow seat saving if you’re charging others for early boarding but denying them the benefit.

  6. Yes, Dave, he is lying. Southwest has sales all of the time and their regular fares, like other airlines, fluctuate daily as occupancy decries. Southwest just concluded their birthday sale and I booked 5 future trips to Vegas, I live in Houston, for as little as $59 one way, – with none of the round trips costing more than $140.00. I understand your comment about what time of the day YOU want to fly. Well, that is why lower pricing is offered at a different times as the time you want to go may be the time most everyone else wants to fly – the bottom line is that you can save money and get where you want to go for less money IF YOU are willing to adjust the time of day you wish to fly. Southwest boarding process is the most time efficient, fair process of any airline, and has been proven so for years. Southwest has never touted or had “first class’ – they are a budget airline that does one thing very well – they get you to your destination cheaply and reliably. If you want “first class”, then go ahead and pay dearly, after all it is your money UNTIL you decide to give it to the airline. Whether what I have posted here qualifies you as being a “complainer”, that is up to you to decide. All I know with certainly is I have saved thousands of dollars, never had a lost bag, never paid for bags and always reached my destination safe and sound flying on Southwest.

  7. David R. Miller – I’m glad you’re happy with WN, nothing wrong with that, and you should keep flying them since they fit your needs. I prefer my free E+ seats at time of booking on UA and the occasional upgrade to F that comes with my status, and I haven’t paid for checked bags in years due to said status. Also WN would have a pretty hard time getting me to Spain, Scotland, Japan, and so on, and taking my kids on trips to see the world is a high priority for me.

    Point being, UA is a better fit for me. WN is a better fit for you. And that’s great! Don’t get yourself so worked up over this stuff.

  8. What was the point of this post? What did Gary say about Southwest’s seating policy that he hasn’t said on a weekly or even daily basis lately, recycling the same anecdotes, photos, and videos? There’s always the same video of the pervert and the same photo of the miracle flight from San Juan, followed by the same battle in the comments between the pro- and anti-Southwest crowds. That must be why they call it click-bait – it works.

  9. To David R
    A little triggered are we.

    Over 40 years flying (4 million miles) I’ve paid for luggage maybe once, and perhaps changed flights a few times with fees. Over the past 3 years I’ve used Google flights, booked a flight at a good price and gone back later when the price drops and got a credit for future flight without any additional change fees. Like I said, when I price out tickets on Southwest they are typical higher than AA, UA and Delta. So I’m paying less, I get an upgraded coach seat up front with free drinks.

    But you keep on being you, please

  10. Why on earth can’t WN just allow passengers to make advance seat selection when they make their reservations and purchase their tickets, just like the legacy carriers did some 40 years ago?

  11. Austin to Sarasota, 3900 points each way. It would 3 to 4 times that to Sarasota or Ft Myers on any other airline. Be flexible and recheck the price of your flight every time they offer a sale.

  12. In the early 80s, I flew Midway Airlines MDW to LGA. When you arrived at the gate, they had a seat map of the plane with removable stickers for each seat. You selected the seat, got the sticker, and attached it to your boarding pass. I’d take that over SW’s currentvsystem.

  13. From what I’ve seen, WN is for the obese, for the wheelchair bound who are often somehow “healed” while on the flight, and for those with too much luggage. Those people pay a premium for that experience.

  14. Occasionally fly SW. Hubby grabs a window seat and I am small and i am fine next to him in the middle seat. Love the incredulous look from solo flyers when they realize they can snag an aisle stay without fighting for it lol.

  15. This article was a waste of time. Offered observations with no real advice and didn’t say anything most of us don’t already know. Time for me to take another 5 years off from this blog.

  16. I find Early Bird (EB) a disappointment and a crap shoot. You pay extra for the privelege, but there’s no limit for EB sales, so it does NOT guarantee you an A boarding pass. You may be assigned a B slot which boards AFTER Family Boarding which is free! Also people have figured out that only one person in a party needs to buy EB and that person saves seats for the remaining members of the party who don’t purchase EB. And if the plane is continuing on, then the onboard passengers are allowed to move to any open seat before boarding the new passengers. Therefore, it is quite likely that many of the premium seats are already taken before the last of the EB passengers are allowed to board. It’s insane.

  17. I don’t play games, I like to fly in a seat I reserve in advance…so I fly AA.

  18. Personally being tall, I prefer SW. I flew a UA that had such a tight pitch that if I hadn’t had an aisle seat I literally would not have fit. Yes, I pay for EB, and the Jesus flights do piss me off, but I actually need to fit in the seat (thin, but 6’3″).

  19. It’s time for WN to convert EB and Business Select into “choose your seat ahead of time” and board them first. Then start the Hunger Games and the “Jetway Jesus” fiasco. (Why is it that one “disabled” person needs to drag along 4+ family members along too?)

    The last several times I’ve flown Southwest and paid for EB, I watch in frustration as 20-30 people pre-board and occupy the first 10 rows of the airplane. My family and I play by the rules and buy EB for each of us since we want four seats together. On our last few trips, we’ve been relegated to row 15+ despite an A30-ish boarding group.

    The price difference is narrowing for many of our routes, and now, if the price difference isn’t too great, I’ll fly a competitor for assigned seats.

  20. On a related note, this gem showed up on BuzzFeed today in an article titled: “19 ‘I Wish I Knew That Sooner’ International Travel Tips That Saved Me So Much Money, Time, And Patience”

    7. Flights are getting so packed nowadays, and overhead storage is never guaranteed – especially on international flights – so one of the gate agents at Heathrow gave me a tip that I will always, always, always use. She said that to avoid being asked to check your carry-on during a full flight, you can (politely!) tell the gate agent that you’re a nervous flyer and that you’d like to board early. As long as you’re super nice and ask ahead of time they’ll almost always say yes and let you pre-board. This way you’ll be guaranteed overhead storage on the plane, and you won’t need to wait an hour (or more!) for your carry-on bag to appear at the gate.

    So as someone who is a low-key nervous flier – I’m better than I used to be, but I went through a very scary flight in my 20’s that made me very aware planes can’t just pull over when things go wrong – I just find this confusing. Boarding the plane ahead of everyone else does NOTHING to allay my fears. And as someone with mobility issues, I’m thrilled that the few times I go actually pre-board – mostly I’m good to board normally since I really can’t fly below “Economy+” levels anymore – I get to share the jetway with yet another someone who just wants overhead bin space.

    But now, I’m sure the plane is going to be half-filled with people afraid of flying…

  21. I was boarding a SW plane and was waiting at the end of the jetway.
    I asked the SW employee what he thought about all the passengers getting on in a wheelchair but walking off.
    He very quickly and matter-of-factly said “Here at Southwest we call it “Cured in the air”
    Well played!

  22. I’ve been flying Southwest for 40 years and the open seating strategy worked in the old days. Not anymore. Let’s hope SW finally ditches this outdated plan and goes with assigned seating. I will gladly pay a few bucks extra to get the seat I want and pay extra $ if they add front cabin premium seating

  23. I flew SW weekly back in the 90s and didn’t have a problem with them (they’d have iced beer in a cooler you could pick up at boarding for short hoppers) but today really avoid them. I’m not sure if it’s more packed planes, the decline in American society or just me becoming a curmudgeon. Maybe some of all.

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