Southwest is unique amongst airlines in the US with its open-seating policy. Instead of picking a seat, Southwest assigns passengers a boarding position. Divided into three-letter groups (A, B & C) of 60 passengers each, planes are boarded in number order.
Southwest frequent flyers (A-List) and those who buy the most expensive tickets (Business Select) are given the prime boarding spots in the A group. Passengers who pay for Early Bird seating are next in line to get assignments. For everyone else, your boarding position is based on when you check in for your flight, which opens 24 hours before the departure time.
For flights to New Orleans, I didn’t purchase Early Bird. I planned on using our Upgraded Boarding credits from the Southwest Priority card to purchase spots at the front of the A group. To cover our bases, I also checked in 24 hours before our first flight and received places B-15 and B-16.
We arrived at the airport very early, and 90 minutes before the flight I went to the gate and asked about Upgraded Boarding and paid $40 each (which will be refunded as a statement credit) for spaces A-2 and A-3 in line.
I got to pick whichever seat I wanted, so I went for the forever-legroom seat.
Since this is considered an exit row (and Sharon doesn’t feel comfortable about being able to do the tasks expected of passengers sitting in those seats), she sat in the window seat of the row behind me.
I checked in at 24 hours for our flight home and received spaces B-9 and B-10. When we got to the airport, I headed to the gate about 45 minutes before the flight was set to leave.
I asked if any Upgraded Boarding positions were available (since the sign advertising them was still out.) She apologized and said that there were only 3 spaces open for the flight, and a group came up and purchased them just a few minutes before me.
When we boarded, I expected to quickly find two seats together, as you typically can at the beginning of the B group. However, the plane was already over 1/2 full. It turns out this was a flight that started in Indianapolis and stopped in Houston before getting to New Orleans on the way to Orlando. Many passengers boarded in Houston and never deplaned, leaving only limited seats for passengers boarding in New Orleans.
I was glad I made sure to check in exactly 24 hours on the day before the flight, even though I was planning on purchasing the better boarding spots. If I was counting on Upgraded Boarding, I might have not worried about checking in early and ended up in the C group.
If you’re using this method to get a better seat, have a backup plan, or you might end up in the worst seat on the plane.
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