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.
We regret any disappointment during the boarding process today. As you may know, all Southwest flights are open seating, and we don't have a specific policy for or against saving seats. We apologize for any frustration, and hope for smoother sailing in the future. -Hannah
— Southwest Airlines (@SouthwestAir) March 28, 2022
- 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.
— Tamz Gibson (@1TamzG) May 1, 2023
- 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 😂
- 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.
— gary leff (@garyleff) April 22, 2022
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.