Tips for flying Southwest

One of these airplanes is not like the other
“Um, excuse me, this is the one that doesn’t crash and kill everyone on board, right?”

After the unfortunate sunsetting of Virgin America I’ve found a new favorite airline for inexpensive travel throughout the United States: Southwest.

It’s a quirky budget airline that has some unusual tradeoffs. Most famously you can change your flight for no extra fee if you pay the price difference. However there’s a lot more to it than that which I’ll get into in far more detail.

This is all based on a combination of research and personal experience. The more you know ahead of your flight the less stressed out you’ll be. Trust me, you want to know all this in advance instead of asking gate agents or Googling “how to board Southwest” in a last minute panic at the airport.

Without further ado here’s what you need to know when flying Southwest.

Aircraft, seats, and entertainment

Southwest only flies 737’s, and they’re all arranged with 3×3 seating arrangements — in other words a single aisle with three seats on either side. All seats are effectively the same, though you will get more legroom in the emergency exit row.

I’ll explain this in much more detail below, but there’s no assigned seating on any Southwest flight.

Unlike most airlines where there’s an in-flight entertainment system built into the back of the seat in front of you, on Southwest it’s strictly a bring your own device affair. They do have a few free movies and TV shows to watch on their in-flight wifi so bring headphones and a fully charged device (there are no outlets.)

To be clear the onboard wifi does not provide general internet access unless you pay an additional fee. All you get for free are the entertainment options, a neat little flight tracker page, and the option to purchase alcoholic beverages.


All Southwest tickets include two checked bags, one normal sized carry on, and one small personal carry on like a purse or laptop.

What you chose to bring as a carry on may be important; be prepared to have it converted to a checked bag at the last possible second, so in other words bring anything you’ll need onboard like snacks or medication by stuffing them in your pockets.

I’ve observed they don’t count bringing a bottle of water on board as a “small personal carry on.”

In flight food and beverage

All Southwest flights include light snacks and beverages. Depending on the length of the flight you may be offered multiple snacks and beverages. For very short flights they may just have pretzels.

For around six to eight dollars extra you can order alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and extremely tiny bottles of hard liquor. Some of the included beverages are actually cocktail mixers, though you don’t have to order liquor to enjoy a virgin cocktail.

Obviously if you’re a picky eater or have dietary restrictions, bring your own. The only restriction is you’re not allowed to bring alcohol and drink it during the flight.

Boarding system and checking in

Last and definitely not least is how you board on Southwest. Unlike other airlines, it’s all open seating. (Side note: remember when movie theaters had open seating?) So what’s important to keep track of here is when you get to board the aircraft.

There are four distinct boarding groups which board in the following order: A, families with small children, B, and C. If you’re not in a family with small children, you line up next to the metal poles in the boarding area when your group is called. Next is the number on your boarding pass: 1-30 lines up on one side, 31-60 lines up on the other. Passengers are supposed to work out the ordering among themselves by comparing the numbers on their boarding passes.

Families with small children do not line up in this system, but instead form a separate line in an ad-hoc manner. The only restriction is they cannot use the emergency exit row, which for safety reasons is limited to able-bodied adults.

Since it’s open seating if you’re picky about your seat — especially on longer flights — it’s to your advantage to board as early as possible.

There’s also a second perk to boarding early: remember what I said about carry on luggage? If you’re like me and prefer to travel light with a carry on bag, you might be required to check your bag if there’s no space in the overhead bins. It’s not the end of the world, but it means you’ll have to wait at the baggage claim instead of walking out of the airport.

So how do you get into the earliest boarding group?

If you fly Southwest a lot, you’ll get bumped up to what’s called “A-list.” This means you not only get the first slots in the A boarding group, but you also get to skip to the front of the TSA security check line. It’s a neat loyalty perk that most of us will never achieve. You can also buy “Business Select” tickets which cost significantly more but also get you into the A boarding group. It’s not a true business class since you’ll share the same seats as everyone else.

I don’t think it’s supposed to work this way, but in practice if you’re anywhere in the A boarding group TSA might wave you to the front of the security check line when you show them your boarding pass.

Two other factors determine your place in line: when you check in to your flight, and if you purchase the “Early Bird” add-on. You can check in 24 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure online or in the Southwest app. The sooner you check in, the better your boarding position. If you purchase Early Bird you’ll automatically get checked in before the rest of the plebes who didn’t buy business select or have A-list.

Lastly here’s a clip from stand up comic Beth Hoyt explaining how not to fly Southwest. If the embedded time code doesn’t work the bit about her bad experience is from approximately 1:44 to 3:25.