Are you wondering how exactly Southwest boarding groups work?
This article will show you everything you need to know about the Southwest boarding process.
I’ll also show you different ways that you can get priority boarding and cover things like family boarding and military boarding. I’ll also give you some details about Southwest seating (charts, maps, etc.) and some tips for getting the best seats.
Table of Contents
How many boarding groups does Southwest have?
Southwest has three main boarding groups:
- Boarding group A
- Boarding group B
- Boarding group C
If you want to understand the Southwest boarding process though, you’ll need to understand much more than the three boarding groups. Keep reading below for more info on the boarding process!
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How does Southwest boarding work?
When you check-in for your flight, you’ll be assigned a boarding group (A, B, or C) and within that boarding group you’ll be assigned a number (1 through 60).
So for example, you might be assigned A50, which means you’ll be the 50th person to board within Group A.
It could vary depending on the airport, but generally, you’ll see monitors or signs showing you where to stand for your group. The signs will typically say something like “A 1-30” or “A 31-60.”
An “A 1-30” sign would mean that if you have an A boarding pass and your boarding number is 30 or under (e.g., A25), that is where you need to go to line up.
You should also see some silver posts marked with numbers which will tell you where to stand. These numbers are usually marked in increments of five.
So if you have A50, you’ll locate the post that might have something like “50 to 55” marked and that is where you will need to go.
You will then stand in that space and as the other four passengers start to accumulate in that area you will usually sort yourselves out by asking each other what boarding spot they have.
If you have A50, you will be in front of that little “50 to 55” section but if you had something like A53 you would be in the middle. Not all passengers care about getting in the exact order but some do.
Once you find where you need to stand, you’ll simply wait for them to start boarding and proceed to make your way to the plane. Once you’re inside the plane, you can choose any seat since seats are not assigned with Southwest.
As unconventional as it might sound from other airlines like United, the boarding procedures are usually pretty smooth.
What order does Southwest board its planes?
Although there are only three boarding groups, the actual boarding pass issuance process is actually more complex.
Below is the order that boarding passes will be issued, which also determines the order that you will board the plane.
Note that Southwest will usually not call for people to board by these categories. For example, they are not going to ask for all the “A-List” or “EarlyBird” members to board.
Instead, they will call groups up by boarding pass group number. You will hear something like, “now boarding all passengers with Group A boarding passes numbered one through 30.”
So below is the order that you can expect boarding passes to be issued/the order boarding will go.
Passengers already on the plane
Some passengers may already be on the plane depending on the origin of the flight. But if some passengers got off the plane for a layover, they might be among the first to board.
This means that you could have a Business Select ticket, and still have several people board before you depending on the size of the crowds.
Preboarding is available for “customers who have a specific seating need to accommodate their disability and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device.”
(Those with service animals will usually be included in this group as well.)
This is also when unaccompanied minors board the plane.
Other passengers who might board at this time are those with large camera equipment, instruments, and certain other select people like those who need an extra seat.
This group will be able to board before anybody else despite whatever boarding group or boarding number they are issued.
Because of the open seat policy for Southwest, passengers using preboarding may come under more scrutiny than other airlines.
So if you want to use preboarding with Southwest, it’s a good idea to inquire at the check-in counter about getting that on your boarding pass. In addition, you can also add a special service request to your booking.
The next individuals to board are those who purchased Business Select fares. (This will be the first group to be issued boarding passes beginning with Group A.)
Southwest doesn’t offer a traditional first class but they do offer Business Select fares, which offer you the highest earning rate for Rapid Rewards. (More on those tickets below).
After passengers who have purchased Business Select fares, those who were upgraded to Business Select will be issued boarding passes.
The next to get boarding passes will be A-List Preferred, which is the top-tier elite status offered by Southwest.
You can qualify for A-List Preferred by flying 50 one-way qualifying segments or earning 70,000 qualifying points.
Once you qualify for A-List Preferred, you’ll receive a 100% bonus on Rapid Rewards earned, priority check-in, and security lane access. You’ll also get free in-flight wifi (on planes equipped with wifi) and the ability to get on earlier flights for free.
A-list is the bottom-tier elite status just below A-List Preferred and so they get boarding passes right after A-List Preferred.
A-List can be achieved by flying 25 one-way qualifying segments or earning 35,000 qualifying points.
Once you qualify for A-List, you’ll receive a 25% bonus on Rapid Rewards earned, priority check-in, and security lane access.
The next passengers to get boarding passes will be those with EarlyBird.
Southwest EarlyBird automatically checks you in 36 hours prior to departure and while it does not guarantee an A boarding spot, it will offer you a much better chance of getting a window or aisle seat. Be aware that recently, Southwest Airlines made a change so that Early Bird Check-in is not available on all flights.
Boarding Group A/B
After EarlyBird passengers are issued boarding passes then boarding passes are issued based on the number of slots left over for Group A.
As mentioned, it is possible that there are no Group A boarding spots left for some EarlyBird passengers so the next boarding passes issued could be for Group B.
Also, some people falling into certain categories below might always be able to board right after Group A.
Need extra time
Something interesting about Southwest is that they state that if “a Customer with a disability simply needs a little extra time to board, we will permit the Customer to board before Family Boarding, between the “A” and “B” groups.”
Technically, this goes against the rules for preboarding because even people who only need a little extra time during boarding should qualify for preboarding.
If you are traveling with a kid 6 or under, you should be able to board in between Group A and Group B (this is the family boarding time).
A-List (last minute)
Also, if you’re A-List and you purchased a last minute ticket you’ll be able to board between Group A and Group B.
And finally, military members (usually in uniform but not always) can board between Group A and Group B. If you’re not traveling in your uniform, consider showing your military ID to a gate agent and inquiring about priority boarding.
Boarding Group B
Once boarding Group A is filled up, then boarding Group B boarding passes will be issued.
If you’re in boarding Group B, you can still get a decent seat if you’re in B1 to B30, but the closer you get to boarding Group C, the tougher it’s going to be to get your desired seat.
However, if you’re okay with sitting in the rear of the plane, it will be easier to find desirable seats or seats together.
Boarding Group C
Once boarding Group B is filled up, then boarding Group C boarding passes will be issued.
Most of the time if you’re in Group C, it’s going to be very difficult to get a window seat or aisle seat. Head towards the back for your best odds.
Standbys will be the last to board.
Companion Pass Boarding
The Southwest Companion Pass allows a partner to fly for free with you for up to two full calendar years and it’s one of the most valuable travel perks sought by many.
When you utilize the Companion Pass you and your partner will not necessarily get boarding passes right next to each other. Southwest did run a trial allowing companions to board next to each other but I’m unaware of the results of the trial.
Why do boarding groups matter?
Besides just being able to board the plane quicker and choose your desired seat (window or aisle), there are two specific reasons why you’d want a higher boarding pass.
Southwest has a generous baggage policy where they allow you to check two bags for free.
As for carry-ons, it’s the same baggage policy that most other major airlines have for their standard tickets: 1 personal item and 1 carry-on.
So by getting a better boarding position, you’ll be able to guarantee that you’ll have overhead storage for your bags.
Emergency row seats
Emergency exit rows on Southwest planes have extra legroom and/or have rows with only two seats which are great for couples.
By securing a higher boarding pass, your flight can become a lot more enjoyable as you’ll have more room.
Southwest usually flies 737-700s and 737-800s and the 737-800s have more emergency exit rows with only two seats, so it’s a good idea to check ahead of time (if possible) to see which type of aircraft you are flying on.
Southwest seating details (seating chart)
If you’re flying Southwest, chances are you’ll be flying on a 737-700 or a 737-800.
You might be wondering about how much room you’ll have with your Southwest seating and here’s what you can expect:
- 737-700 — Pitch (leg room): 31 inches; width 17 inches
- 737-800 — Pitch (leg room): 32 to 33 inches; width 17 inches
- 737-800MAX — Pitch (leg room): 32 to 33 inches; width 17.8 inches
So as you can see, when it comes to Southwest seating, you’ll get more leg room with the 737-800 according to SeatGuru and you’ll have a wider seat with the 737-800 Max.
.8 inches might now sound like that much but every little bit helps when you’re flying. You can view the Southwest seating charts here.
Get the best seat selection (Southwest priority boarding)
There are a few ways that you can secure “priority boarding” with Southwest.
I put that in quotations because there aren’t true priority boarding groups but there are some ways you can effectively get priority boarding and get the best seat selection.
If you purchase a Business Select fare, you’ll be guaranteed a boarding position A1 to A15.
Business Select fares are usually just a little bit more expensive than Anytime fares but they allow you to earn more points and also offer the following benefits:
- Guaranteed A1-A15 boarding
- Fly By lane access
- Free premium drink
- 12 Rapid Rewards per dollar spent
- Fully refundable fare
You can read more on whether or not Business Select fares are worth it here.
Upgrade to Business Select
Instead of purchasing Business Select fares you can also upgrade.
The cost to upgrade to Business Select varies from $30 to $50 per segment, depending on the route.
To upgrade, simply approach the ticket counter or desk at the departure gate and inquire about the upgrade.
Sometimes they make you upgrade at the gate reserved for your flight but other times you can do it at check-in or at another Southwest gate.
Southwest should be able to tell you exactly what boarding number you’d receive before you upgrade so you can see if it’s worth it.
Update: you can now upgrade online at the time of check-in!
The Southwest Priority Credit Card offers up to four upgrades to priority boarding (A1 to A15) based on availability per year.
Among other benefits, it also offers a $75 annual credit, 20% back on in-flight drinks, WiFi, messaging, and movies, and 20% back on in-flight drinks, WiFi, messaging, and movies. It’s not a bad way to cover those upgrades to Business Select if you only need to cover a few of those a year.
Another option to secure a priority boarding position is to go with Southwest EarlyBird.
This will automatically check you in 36 hours prior to departure.
EarlyBird does not guarantee an A boarding pass but it will almost always get you a boarding pass that will allow you to get an aisle or window seat.
For the most part, you should be able to get a window seat or aisle seat just by checking in yourself 24 hours before your flight. (It’s often possible to get an A boarding pass checking in on your own.)
However, if you won’t be available to check in 24 hours prior or you don’t think that you’ll remember then EarlyBird could be worth it.
EarlyBird used to cost $10 each way and then it was increased to $15 each way. But recently, the pricing was changed to dynamic pricing so it could cost up to $25.
Good News: The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card now offers two annual credits for Southwest EarlyBird!
You can read more about whether or not Southwest EarlyBird is worth it here.
Can you save seats on Southwest?
There’s a lot of debate as to whether or not its acceptable to save seats on Southwest flights.
For the most part it does seem to be frowned upon but you can usually save seats within reason.
Generally, saving seats at the rear of the plane is not an issue, especially if you’re trying to keep your family together.
With that said, if you have a very large group, you might be inviting some issues since saving multiple rows can get a little messy at times.
Also, you don’t want to save seats in the front of the plane, as that might lead to confrontations. In addition, it’s usually not a good idea to save seats in the emergency exit rows as those are usually in high demand.
Tip: One trick I’ve done in the past is to get the flight attendant to occupy a seat as people board and people will usually pass over that seat.
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Can groups board together?
Southwest will allow you to board in groups even if your boarding passes are not directly before or after each other.
The catch is that they want you to board with the member who has the lowest boarding pass.
So for example, let’s say there are three of you and you have the following boarding passes:
Southwest will ask that A25 and A60 board with B30.
This is to preserve the “integrity” of the boarding process since it actually doesn’t affect the boarding waiting time of any of the other passengers.
How to print a Southwest boarding pass?
You can easily print your boarding pass by checking in online.
You can print your boarding pass online at Southwest.com or at the airport using a self-service kiosk on the day of departure.
Southwest also allows you to board with a electronic or mobile boarding passes. You can request a mobile boarding pass at the time of check-in on Southwest.com, the Southwest.com mobile site, or the Southwest mobile app for iPhone or Android.
But note that mobile boarding passes are not currently available to passengers traveling on international flights.
If you want to learn more tips about flying for Southwest click here.
Also, if you want to earn more Rapid Rewards, be sure to check out the Southwest Shopping Portal.
Southwest boarding FAQ
You can get the best boarding group on Southwest by purchasing or upgrading to Business Select. Upgrading will cost you $30-$50 per segment.
You can also get a better boarding position by having A-List status.
By purchasing EarlyBird, you can also increase your odds of getting in the first boarding group although it is not guaranteed.
Southwest does not allow you to select your seat prior to the flight.
Opinions are mixed on saving seats with Southwest Airlines. The best advice is to save seats in the back of the plane if you must and try to avoid saving multiple rows at a time when flying with a large group.
A-List will board directly after Business Select. First, A-List Preferred will board and then following them A-List will board.
Family boarding (which is offered to families traveling with a kid 6 or under), allows you to board between Group A and Group B.
Typically, if you have a boarding position under B30 you should be able to find a window or aisle seat. The further back in the plane you decide to sit, the more likely you will find a window or aisle seat.
Standby passengers will be the last to board.
You generally will have 31 to 32 inches of legroom.
No, Southwest stopped doing the special boarding process in March 2021.
Southwest boarding policies are pretty straight forward.
There are a few ways that you can get priority boarding though they all come with different degrees of assurance.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.