First-Time Flyer's Guide To Southwest Airlines' Check-In Process

Southwest Airlines is known for doing things a little differently. Even after the airline's meltdown over the 2022 holiday season, during which 16,700 Southwest flights were canceled, Southwest fans remained pretty loyal. Many travelers simply appreciate the airline's policies and its relatively budget-friendly fares. In today's airline industry, an airline offering free checked bags and no change fees is unicorn-level rare. However, one Southwest policy that receives more mixed opinions is its open-seating boarding process.

Like it or hate it, Southwest's seating policy is definitely unique. Once you're on the plane, the policy is straightforward: find the best available seat and sit. However, if you've never flown Southwest Airlines, the boarding process can seem a bit strange. To the unfamiliar, multiple lines with numbered posts indicating incremental numbers of five can be downright confusing. Fortunately, while Southwest's boarding process is unique, it's not too complicated. And once you understand the relationship between the airline's check-in and boarding policies, you may quickly become a Southwest convert. 

Understanding Southwest's unique boarding process

Once you arrive at a Southwest gate, you'll first notice the signage. Southwest's boarding process typically includes three groups of A, B, and C passengers, which indicates the boarding order. (Group A goes first.) When boarding, these groups are also divided into two lines. For instance, to begin boarding, A 1-30 and A 31-60 lines will form under their corresponding signs.

Once you're in line, whether you're boarding with group A, B, or C, the rows feature markers for every five numbers. In line, you'll stand within the marker of your corresponding number. For instance, if your number is 14, you'll stand by the 11-15 marker.

The boarding order for Southwest flights is as follows: preboarding, the A group, active-duty military, families, and passengers with disabilities, followed by the B and C groups. It's worth noting that Southwest provides Family Boarding, which allows two adults to board with a child 6 years old or younger. Along with your boarding group, your boarding number will determine how quickly you'll board and your available seating options.

How to score a good seat on Southwest

Since Southwest offers open seating, you'll need to strategize a little to score a good seat. While checking in may be an afterthought when flying on other airlines, you should check in ASAP when flying Southwest, which is exactly 24 hours prior to departure. Frequent Southwest flyers typically set an alarm, as your check-in order dictates your boarding order.

When it comes to finding a good seat on Southwest, checking in early translates to better seating options. If you wait until you're at the airport or the gate to check in, don't be surprised if you're in the middle seat by the bathroom or need to sit separately from your flying companion. Simply set an alarm to check in 24 hours prior to flying, and you can probably nab a B group placement.

If you prefer an A group placement, you'll need to purchase a Business Select fare, add an EarlyBird Check-In to your reservation, which automatically checks you in 36 hours prior to departure, or buy an upgrade if available. Passengers with a Southwest elite status also receive priority boarding, but since this is your first time, we assume you haven't earned an elite status yet. To repeat, set your alarm. Your check-in diligence (or lack thereof) may be the difference between loving or loathing Southwest's open-seating policy.