The Game Theory Of Choosing 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. I see people making comments about pre boarding. I’m sure some people do abuse it, but not all people that use it have obvious issues. I pre board because I have crippling claustrophobia, which will then send me into a panic attack if I don’t take medication, so I try to get in that front row. It sucks. Since pre boarding and sitting in front, I haven’t had to medicate. I’m so grateful for that. I have had a passenger in line make a comment to another person that I overheard, (granted I do have other disabilities, but I don’t have to walk with a cane yet), and it made me uncomfortable. I went up to her, told her why, and asked if she’d like to see my bottle of meds. I always feel uncomfortable pre boarding because I don’t have any outward looking issues, but if I didn’t get to sit in the front it would be a sh!t show for me.

  2. @Lindsey: You said you are a flight attendant for said airlines, and since this article discusses Southwest Airlines and their seating arrangements, your comments are very distressing. As a Southwest Airlines flight attendant, you wrote you “will go out of my way to see that someone sit RIGHT next to you….and the bigger the better..If you want a seat open next to you, I would suggest sitting quietly and hoping you get lucky. Most of my fellow FA coworkers will do the same.its NOT your seat unless you buy it, so don’t be greedy w what’s not yours.”

    Thank you for sharing your unreserved comments that Southwest Airlines flight attendants intentionally attempt to make a passenger’s flight experience uncomfortable by deliberately cramming passengers into the same row just because you like to make Southwest Airlines passengers experience physical pain to get customers to pay more for a better seat. You also write, “Your fellow FA coworkers will do the same. Its NOT your seat unless you buy it.” I appreciate Lindsey’s honesty and sincerity as a Southwest Airlines flight crew member.

    Until Gary Leff wrote this article, I never knew your entire Southwest Airlines flight crew followed an unpublished scheme to make passengers suffer when flying on Southwest Airlines unless they pay more.

  3. I’ve actually never had a problem with the other flyers or the attendants on any flight. I don’t mind sitting in a cramp place because I have short legs anyway, and when I traveled with my infants they were always well behaved and entertained. But it helps to have a gracious attitude and try to be friendly. I will be saving seats as discussed though now that my children are a bit older I want them to have a good experience but I won’t start an unreasonable confrontation if not needed.

  4. I believe all those “preboarders who don’t need wheelchairs they needed getting on should be getting off after everyone else for their “OWN SAFETY” who wants to risk their new found healing experience by rushing out 1st

  5. I am disabled and usually ask to preboard. I’m brought to the gate and then down the ramp in a wheelchair and then I somehow manage with my crutches on the plane. Preboarding keeps me out of everyone’s way and allows me to stow my crutches and get in my seat before everyone else comes on board. At the end of the flight however, I remain in my seat until the last person has past my row of seats before I get up to get my things and leave the plane.

  6. My hack is this. If you get stuck in C, and there are no aisles or windows, look for a male/female in the aisle/windiw that appear to be communicating. Fair chance they are a couple and will want to sit next to each other and the aisle person will move to the middle.

  7. Southwest personnel have always been very professional They make flights entertaining and they are very friendly.
    I agree if you didn’t pay for a seat , it’s not yours. That’s aren’t saying anything you don’t already know.
    Thank you Lindsey. People should realize they are on a plane not their couch.

  8. I’m fine with saving seats within reason. But decades ago, on Morris Air (fortunately now defunct) I remember boarding and a lady saying she was saving her roe and the 3 rows behind her for her friends.

    It seems there’s always someone trying to game the system.

  9. Your points are all valid. But you missed the one that I think is most useful. I do think of this process as Game Theory. If the flight is full or nearly full, you really do want to choose the size and general cleanliness of the person you’re sitting next to. Which means that if you’re flying alone, going in on A 1-30 is a bad idea. Because you have no control, other than that kinds of options you mentioned is being distasteful. The way to do it is even if you have an A priority. Instead join the line halfway through B boarding. That way you’ll find rows that have two people with an aisle or window open. You can choose a seat know who you’ll be sitting next to. If it is a continuing flight with a fair number of passengers already on board, adjust accordingly.

  10. Hard pass. If I can’t choose my seat before the flight, I’m not flying with your airline.

  11. Assigning seats is the only logical thing to do and doesn’t bring out the mad rush, selfishness in people’s behavior. I won’t fly SWA.

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