The Game Theory Of Picking Seats On Southwest Airlines

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.

  • Save seats. 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.

  • So only one person needs early boarding. You can pay for a Business Select fare which means boarding in the first 15 passengers, or you can pay for ‘Early Bird’ check-in which assigns you a boarding position before other passengers can get one for free when they check in starting 24 hours prior to scheduled departure. But only one passenger needs this because of the ability to save seats. Don’t travel on the same reservation, either book separately or split the record, in order to leverage early boarding for multiple passengers via seat saving.

    Some passengers will even board together despite only one having the low boarding number, but this is aggressive in my opinion and someone – another passenger if they see the out of order boarding pass, or a gate agent – might object.

  • You can’t really save seats if you’re not traveling with someone else, but you can defend an open seat. 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. If the plane is sold out this doesn’t work. You want to ask if it’s full when you board! Another tactic some people use is spreading out over the seat next to them, making it look like anyone who takes a middle seat next to you will be uncomfortable. Or crumpling up tissues and placing them on the seat to make it look like you’re sick. Or a combination of the above. These are all squirrelly tactics, guerilla strategy in a way, but people do them all the time.

  • Little reason to buy an extra seat for a child under age 2 since if the flight isn’t full, who will want to sit next to you with a baby? You effectively get the extra seat for free, since the baby often works better than crumpled tissues.

  • Strategically choose your seat mate. At a minimum you want someone small next to you, whether you’re large or small. That way you’ll have more room if someone is seated beside you. Some people spread out on their seat and then make room as they see a desirable seatmate approach. The problem is that I often see (1) men doing this, (2) as an attractive woman approaches, and that’s creepy. The woman has to make a judgment – sit next to the creep, or head further back in the aircraft? Don’t be a creep if you use this technique.


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

    ♬ original sound – mikewdavis

  • Go for the exit row? You may want to go for the ‘unlimited legroom’ exit row window seat, but someone will wind up taking the middle seat next to you – since it’s a more desirable middle seat than others, too. On a full flight I’ll take this seat, but on a flight were there are going to be some seats open I want to strategize for an empty seat next to me.

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.

And 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.

But 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.

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. Yeah, I’m taking any seat I want. You’re not saving anything.

    Buy in the same Rez and group if you want to sit together.

  2. That Mikewdavis video is the gift that keeps on giving lol

    I usually do the 24 hour check-in and on average get between A50-B10 depending on the flight. Haven’t personally experienced a flight with rampart pre-board abuse, knock on wood, so I usually have my choice of empty rows. Empirically I’ve found aisles 21-24 for the 800/Max is a good sweet spot to increase your chances of not having a full row (I think 21 also gets drinks first? I forgot) Plenty of potential confounding factors though like maybe people find me ugly and repulsive and don’t want to sit next to me (in that case, no game theory needed!)

  3. Sure, WN has the best REGULAR ECONOMY legroom. And for the person who flies just every so often that’s great. But for anyone who flies with any frequency and has any sort of status on UA, AA, or DL, those 31-32 inches don’t begin to compare to E+. I’m a regular UA flyer, and can’t remember the last time I had less than 34-35 inches of pitch in economy (plus). So saying WN has the best economy pitch should have a real asterisk by it.

  4. Fly business select and I’ve never not gotten the exit row seat with no one in front of you. You’ll never get a bulkhead or seat near the front. They are taken by the 37 (I counted them one day) pre-boarders who are usually cured by arrival time.

  5. Never flown them, never will. I need to know my seat before boarding. And often their fares are higher that legacy airlines economy. So why go through the hassle?

  6. Another factor—where service starts. FAs assigned to different blocks of rows for service. Difference between rows in the middle of plane can be first to get a drink or last.

  7. Over 50 years in business with the same boarding process, and people still make it way more than what it is. Walk on > pop a squat > keep it moving.

  8. I got the companion pass for me and my wife, which expires right when my baby turns 23 months. I have been able to pay for 1 seat and get the entire row for the 3 of us on flights as long as LAS-OGG thanks to the Family Boarding between A&B and asking the gate agent if there will be seats free after boarding.

  9. Sometimes, for…reasons, I end up flying Southwest for short distance non-stops. I hate their boarding scheme. Other than that Southwest is pretty decent. Usually friendly, efficient, FA’s. Decent legroom. Free bags.

    I either I get Early Bird boarding or check-in at 24 hours (within 3 seconds). Flying around the holidays I have gotten mid B group boarding positions even when using Early Bird check-in. 24 hour check-in frequently gets me a B boarding pass which sucks since they funnel a sometimes big group on between A and B (not counting the Jetway Jesus’s of which there can be many). With 24 hour on the dot check-in the best positions I get are at the tail end of A. Even with a B group I usually end up near the back of the plane, but have not been stuck in a middle yet. If it comes to the point where I get a middle seat I might have to give up on Southwest.

  10. Avoid them these days, the miles aren’t worth the squeeze on top of all the seating and lining up issues.

  11. I fly Southwest occasionally because “I have to”, not because I “want to”. Until they get their pre-boarding issues fixed, improve some of their gate situations (I’m talking to you MIA G-gates), and stop allowing people to hold seats it will never be my first choice to fly.

  12. Best to obtain boarding pass as soon as possible, (@ 23 hrs and 58 seconds and counting before departure). Usually end up in back half of “A” or early “B”.
    If a short hop, not afraid to take middle seat if near front of jet. I’ll pull my John Candy, “Hey, is that seat taken?” in a slightly boisterous voice (Planes, Trains, and Automobiles). You should see the chagrin on their faces, but sitting near the front is priceless!!

  13. I am always happy to see people adamantly state that they won’t fly Southwest because of the seating policy.

  14. I get very upset when I’ve paid for early bird booking and someone tells me the seat I want is “taken”. It’s enough to make me avoid the airline. They need to stop the “saving seats”.

  15. There was a comment about never being able to get an exit row seat because of all the early boarders on Southwest. Someone that’s a pre-boarder on Southwest can’t sit in an exit row. But…yes…one some flights…I see it more on longer flights…the pre-boarder situation is sometimes out of control. I recall once hearing a Southwest flight attendant say upon arrival that it was a miracle that all the pre-boarders just got up and walked off…with none of them needing a wheelchair.

  16. I fly Southwest exclusively domestically…and have been A-list or A-list preferred for many years at this point. When my wife flies with me…I save a seat for her and it’s never been a problem.

  17. It didn’t take me long to develop a routine to get the exact seat I like most (window, beside the front of an engine) on about 2 out of every 3 flights. Another Southwest perk is the on-time reliability. My secondary airline, Delta, has notoriously plagued me with outbound flight delays. The one time my Southwest flight left late, only 15 minutes, the flight attendants coincidentally weren’t charging anyone who ordered drinks. I also don’t mind hearing people say they won’t fly Southwest, I don’t want them on my flights anyway. Have fun paying for checked bags and seat fees.

  18. Southwest has been my favorite airline for many years and I have flown nearly two million miles commercially. The seating system works fine for me, but the positive attitude of staff is what really makes it enjoyable for me (plus the fact that when I buy a Southwest ticket I won’t be paying extra for bags, seats, or oxygen)!

  19. I usually fly every other week and I always fly SWA.
    Yes, the Miracle Pre-boarders are an issue, but the Flight Attendants are always pleasant and will usually not charge for drinks if the flight is a little late taking off.
    The savings for 2 free checked bags cannot be matched.
    I am also A list preferred, but I had to earn that status, and having a companion pass is the best perk that SWA has !!

  20. I fly almost ever other week. Best U.S. Airline, by far. Employee attitudes are great. Service is wonderful. Always get the seat I want. However, I was disappointed when they discontinued the peanuts in favor of the mixed bag of pretzels + ???? (I loved the honey-coated peanuts… always got an extra bag when I asked for it). Seriously, I’ve been flying Southwest since 1976. At that time they were a Texas-only airline. Still the best value for your money!

  21. Southwest is the airline I always use due to it having the hub in Dallas Love field. Never have any problems and always have good flights. Their boarding policy I think is a breeze.

  22. We love Southwest! We either pay for early bird or use our 4 free with the credit card. We can usually manage who sits next to us just by being polite. If we board later, we get to choose to sit close to or far away from babies or families or larger folks or loud groups by moving on. Why would you pick your seat on other airlines off an online airplane grid and then find out you are in the middle of a high school traveling band or a family of unmanagables??? Try and move then!

  23. Obviously the seat savers haven’t been on a flight with me. Why? Because I don’t allow it. I sit where I want and especially when I buy Early Bird. I had a person hit my shoulder twice and I told her once more and I’ll break your wrist. Case closed. She moved.

  24. Flying with Southwest is a love-hate relationship for me. I love the included 2 checked bags, but despise the boarding process. Even when checking in right at the 24-hour mark I usually get a mid-B boarding position lately. The last time we purchased early bird check-in, it was a waste of money as we still got to board after those that needed more assistance. The only sure way to get a good boarding position is to either purchase Business Select or upgrade to A 1-15, or whatever that number is, and those have not been available much either. It’s one thing to save ***seat*** for a loved one, but *** three rows*** , that’s ridiculous!. Just try and hold those three rows by yourself.

  25. If I’m forced to fly someone besides Southwest, I just keep saying to myself, “they’re doing it wrong!” I love SWA and I always check-in exactly 24 hours before my flight. I always check both bags for free. It’s great. Long Live Southwest!!!

  26. This saving seats just shows how rude and clueless the people of the US have become.SW has taken a cowardly stance on seat saving and people saying they need assistance. Sad to see a once good airline fall this very far.

  27. Seat saving and the unn⅝⅚⅝essary need for assistance reflects the rudeness and lack of class by todays travelers.

    SWA stance on these on these issues just makes the situation worse. Sad to see a good airline fall so far.

  28. Love South West!!!! Been flying it for years! Seating is never a problem, two free checked bags and no cost to change reservations! What’s not to like????

  29. I am A-List Preferred with Companion Pass. I will board before my wife (the CP holder) and hold ONE (1) seat for her. You should not be encouraging the saving of seats, especially multiple seats. I once encountered a woman in the Exit Row who was “saving” 3 other Exit Row seats. That should not be allowed. I would be pleased if Southwest would institute a policy on seat-saving. Making the rules clear, and the same for everyone would be a win for everyone (other than the FA’s who would now have one more duty).

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