Flying Southwest Airlines Like a Boss

Southwest logo
© Southwest Airlines Co.

Many of you are close enough to Orlando to drive down when you visit Walt Disney World or Universal Studios Orlando, but for the rest of us, flying is the only viable option. Southwest Airlines is Orlando International Airport’s largest carrier, and between that and the traffic I often see on Disney trip planning forums and Facebook groups, I know that many of you will be using Southwest to get to Orlando. As you may be aware,  however, Southwest operates a little differently than other airlines, and that can make flying with them a bit confusing to the uninitiated. I happen to fly on Southwest a ton — I am at their highest loyalty tier, in fact — and wanted to share some of my thoughts and experiences about Southwest and how to get the most out of your travel experience with them.

Booking

First, the basics: Southwest fares fall into three categories:

  • Wanna Get Away? Fares are the cheapest fares, and they are more likely to be available the earlier you book. You can sometimes find them close to your travel date, but if your goal is to pay as little as possible, booking at the earliest possible opportunity is going to get you the best prices as even the price of these fares tends to rise as you get closer to your departure date. They are nonrefundable, but you can cancel them and get a credit for a future flight or switch to another flight just by paying the difference in fare. These fares tend to be at most approximately 50% less than the refundable fares, but they can be even cheaper, particularly during fare sales.
  • Anytime fares are fares that can be refunded for cash if your plans change and you need to cancel your flights. They are significantly more expensive than Wanna Get Away fares, and are the cheapest fares you are most likely to see if you’re booking within a week or so of departure.
  • Business Select fares are the most expensive fares, and they tend to be $20 or so more expensive than an Anytime fare. They are also fully refundable, and they additionally entitle you to one free drink and allow you to be one of the first 15 people on the plane. This early boarding perk is far more important on a Southwest flight because of their open seating policy, which I’ll explain in a bit more detail below.

The easiest way to book is on Southwest’s web site. The booking screen looks like this:

Booking on southwest.com is easy, and provides several options for sorting and comparing flights
Booking on southwest.com is easy, and provides several options for sorting and comparing flights

Additional verbiage you need to know when booking: understand the difference between “direct” and “nonstop” flights. “Nonstop” flights are just that, nonstop. Get on the plane, it flies to your destination, and you get off. “Direct” flights are the next best option — you will stay on the same plane for the duration of the trip, but you’ll have to stop one or more places along the way to drop off and pick up other passengers. Any other flight will require you to change planes to get to your destination, and the more planes you have to fly, the more opportunities there are for something to go wrong. Accordingly, nonstop and direct flights are usually preferable; you can sort the available flights from your search results to include only these flights by checking the box at the top of the result list.

It bears mention (and this goes for most airlines, not just Southwest) that you can see significant differences in price depending upon what day and time you fly. Southwest makes it easy to see how things would change by shifting your day of travel in one direction or another — just click on the tab for the alternate day you’re considering, and you’ll see what the cost would be for you to fly in the day before or after. Sometimes, it can be so much cheaper that you can justify coming in a day earlier. For example, on a flight I recently booked, there was such a significant difference in price between flying in on Friday morning (our intended day) and Thursday night (the day we switched to) that it covered an extra hotel night and then some. Start your vacation earlier, for less cost. Tough to beat that!  

Note: when booking, you’ll also be offered the option to purchase “Early Bird Check-in” for $15 per leg of your journey. I’ll explain that in more detail below, because it comes into play when talking about Southwest’s unique seating and check-in policies.

Changes and Cancellations

What if your plans change after you book?  As I mentioned above, Southwest will let you change to any other flight, without change fees or penalties, you’ll just need to pay the difference in fare. If the new flight is cheaper, you’ll get a cash refund if you booked a refundable ticket, or a credit for a future Southwest flight if not. For that reason, it usually makes sense to check back from time to time after you’ve booked your flight (especially during Southwest’s fare sales), and see if there have been any price drops that help you. My personal practice is to go ahead and book at the earliest possible opportunity, because there is absolutely no upside to waiting to see if the fare drops — if it does, I’ll just get a credit that I will inevitably use at some point, because I fly Southwest so frequently. If you expect this to be your only occasion to fly Southwest, however, a credit might not help you, so that’s something to keep in mind when deciding when to book.

If you need to cancel entirely, what happens will be based upon what sort of ticket you purchased. If you have a Wanna Get Away ticket, you’ll get a credit to be used on a future Southwest flight. Any other ticket will give you the option of a credit or a cash refund.

Boarding and Flying

Check-In and Seating

Choose any seat! © Southwest Airlines Co.
Choose any seat! © Southwest Airlines Co.

Unlike most airlines that assign you a seat for your flight, Southwest has open seating, which means that you can choose any open seat you like. Of course, this is subject to availability, so the earlier you get on the plane, the more selection you’re going to have. That’s part of the reason that the ability to be one of the first 15 people on the plane by virtue of buying a Business Select ticket is valuable — you will more or less have your choice of seats, and you won’t have to worry about overhead bin space running out for your carry-on baggage.

There was a time when Southwest was known for its “cattle call” approach to seating, where the right to get on the plane first was awarded on a first come, first served basis, which in turn resulted in people lining up literally hours prior to their flight to make sure they got a decent seat. Thankfully, those days are gone. Now, you are given a boarding number when you check in, and that number determines when you get to board. You will be assigned a group — A, B or C — and a number one through sixty, and when your group is called, everyone lines up in order and that’s the order in which you board the flight. It’s slightly reminiscent of elementary school, but it actually works pretty well.

Boarding Priority

The letter and number on your boarding pass determines when you board. A1, baby!
The letter and number on your boarding pass determines when you board. A1, baby!

The boarding number you get is determined by when you check in. You are allowed to check in 24 hours prior to your flight time and boarding numbers are distributed in order starting at that time, so it is common that people will literally check in at the specific moment the clock switches and they are eligible to check-in to get the best number possible. The longer you wait after that check-in time, the higher your number and the later you’re going to get on the plane.

It’s a very egalitarian system, but the reality is that not everyone wants to — or is even in a position to — stop what they are doing to check-in 24 hours on the nose before their flight, especially when you’re supposed to be on vacation having fun. Southwest has attempted to solve this quandary by offering Early Bird Check-In. For $15 per flight (from one destination to another, regardless of how many planes you have to board), you will be automatically checked in at the 24 hour mark, and will be in front of all of the people that are manually checking in at that time. Priority among Early Bird Check-In travelers appears to be determined based upon when you bought your ticket, with earlier purchasers getting better numbers.

There are three other groups of travelers that board at a specific time — pre-board, families and A-list members. Pre-board passengers are travelers who need extra time and/or assistance to board the plane. They board before everyone else, but they are prohibited from sitting in the exit row seats, so don’t think you can pretend to need the extra time just so you can snag a prime seat — I see people try all the time, and it’s generally pretty awkward when they get bounced.

Families are defined as any group including a child 6 or younger, and they board between the A & B groups (although if you all have A boarding passes, there is no need to wait to board, you can board as you normally would). My understanding is that there is some restriction upon how many people can board as a family, but in practice, I don’t think I’ve ever seen it enforced. I routinely see mammoth groups of people boarding during family boarding, especially on the family-heavy Orlando flights.  

A-list members are members of Southwest’s Rapid Rewards (read: frequent flyer) program that have flown enough to achieve status. Once you hit a certain level, you get complimentary Early Bird Check-In as an A-List member; if that Early Bird Check-in doesn’t get you an A Group boarding pass, you’re permitted to board along with Family Boarding between the A & B Group.

To summarize, here’s the boarding priority:

  1. Pre-Boarding
  2. Business Select Customers
  3. Early-Bird Check-in Customers (including A-List Members)
  4. Family Boarding and any A-List Members that did not get an “A” boarding pass
  5. Any remaining Early-Bird Check-In Customers
  6. Everyone else, in order of check-in

A question I often see asked is “should I get Early Bird Check-in?” The answer, as is usually the case, is “it depends.” If you have a member of your party that is under the age of 6, there is little reason to pay for Early Bird Check-in — regardless of what your boarding number is, you’re only going to have 60-ish people in front of you, and you’ll still have no trouble finding seating together even for fairly large groups of people. If not and you care about sitting together, it’s probably worth considering if you can swing it financially. There are a large number of families on Orlando flights, and there is a very good chance that you’ll be behind every single one of them if you don’t have Early Bird.

Good and Bad Seats

If a tray table isn't important to you, this exit row seat provides ample legroom
If a tray table isn’t important to you, this exit row seat provides ample legroom

Most of the seats on Southwest flights are essentially the same, so there isn’t a huge difference from one part of the plane to another apart from personal preference. There are, however, a few that are worthy of special note. On the positive side, the traditional exit row seating gives you the most legroom you can get without sacrificing a proper tray table; in my view, they are the prime seats in the plane, and I’m stunned that people don’t universally rush to them. Also in the exit row, Southwest planes have one (older planes) or two (newer planes) seats that have no seat in front of them at all. They offer more legroom than most people could ever need, but they come at the expense of a real tray table (your tray table instead flips out of the arm rest). Note that neither children under the age of 16 nor adults with mobility issues are permitted to sit in the exit rows.

If legroom is the only thing you care about, the bulkhead (i.e., front) rows provide lots of legroom but you lose the real tray table AND the ability to store your stuff under the seat in front of you (because there is no seat in front of you). Realistically, however, the bulkhead seating tends to be occupied by pre-board passengers.

Are you the sort of person that likes to get your drink on as quickly as possible? Southwest divides the cabin into 3 zones for drink service — rows 1 to 8, 9 to 16, and 17 to the back of the plane.  Flight attendants will start taking drink orders at the lowest row in their zone, and then work towards the rear of the plane, and drinks are distributed in the same order.  Accordingly, sitting in rows 1, 9 and 17 will ensure that you are served first!

On the opposite end of the spectrum, I often see families rush to the very last row because it puts them close to the bathroom, and there is some logical appeal to that plan, but those are, by a wide margin, the absolute worst seats in the plane. In addition to getting served last, the seats in the last row do not recline at all but the seats in front of it do.  As a result, you could spend the entire flight gnawing on the headrest of the seat in front of you back there. If you want to be in the back of the plane for easy bathroom access, mazel tov, but pick the second or third row from the back — you’ll still be plenty close, but it won’t be as cramped. Also worthy of note are the seats in the middle of the plane just in front of the exit row — they do not recline either. They aren’t quite as jammed up as the last row, but they are still less than ideal and inferior to just about every other seat on the plane.

There are no other differences between seats on Southwest planes that really matter, so it is just a matter of personal preference, like whether you care about having a wing obstructing your view or not. Yes, there are seats that some people would consider marginally better or worse — Seatguru.com is a great site to visit to thoroughly map out the pros and cons of every seat on a plane — but in my opinion, everything that will really move the needle for you on a Southwest plane is referenced above.  

The In-Flight Experience

Once upon a time, airlines presented themselves as more than just a place to get from point A to point B. You were served a meal, there were in-flight movies, blankets, pillows, and the experience as a whole was far more posh. During that time, Southwest distinguished itself by eschewing any pretense and bragged about the fact that it was a no-frills experience in exchange for lower fares. You got a drink and a bag of peanuts, and that was it.

© Southwest Airlines Co.
© Southwest Airlines Co.

As other carriers have stepped away from these old-school offerings and moved more towards a no-frills approach, Southwest has actually upped its game a bit. It’s still presented with little or no pomp and circumstance, but you’re now offered a grab bag (or box, actually) of different snacks on most flights (rather than strictly being limited to a single bag of peanuts), in addition to your beverages. Alcoholic beverages are available for sale for $5/each and can only be purchased using a credit card, so have that ready when they come around to take the order. Tipping is not expected, and you will be politely refused if you try to tip. 

The bigger change, however, is that most Southwest planes are equipped with WiFi (for a fee), and in addition to allowing you to get email and surf the web, it also allows Southwest to offer free television shows (including both live and on-demand offerings) and movies for rent, all of which is accessed through your own mobile device. It’s a great way to pass the time and/or keep your little ones occupied during the flight. Note, however, that to watch TV, you’ll need to have the Airtime Player app (iOSAndroid) already on your phone or tablet, so make sure you add the app before you get on the plane. The in-flight WiFi is adequate for routine web surfing and email, but you should not expect it to work for data-intensive applications like Netflix or Pandora that stream large amounts of data.  

Finally, while there are certainly no guarantees on this front, Southwest tends to have a more jovial, celebratory approach to flying, particularly on flights coming into Orlando that are full of people heading on vacation. Flight attendants have been know to try out their stand-up routines while delivering the safety information, and I’ve heard the Mickey Mouse theme song sung more than a few times during landing. Just run with it, you’re on vacation!

Pro Tips

Air travel is a heavily regulated activity, so the number of hacks and tricks available to you are somewhat limited. Nevertheless, I do want to close out with a couple of quick tips that I’ve adopted from several years of flying extensively on Southwest.  Without further ado:

Make Yourself An Unattractive Seatmate

Nowadays, flights tend to be pretty full, but you will occasionally be on a flight that has empty seats, and your best case scenario is having one of those empty seats be next to you.  When trying to pick out a seats, every person getting on the plane is making an assessment of whether or not they want to spend the next couple of hours or so with you, so to the extent that you can dissuade them from joining you, the better your chances of having some breathing room on your flight.

I’m not suggesting that you should make yourself a complete pariah, but there are plenty of little things that will encourage others to just move on rather than join you.  Setting your stuff on the seat next to you, others might assume someone else is there or even just be uncomfortable enough with the prospect of asking you to move your gear that they’ll move on to a less confrontational seat.  This is also not the time to showcase the pearly whites — cold and aloof will do well for you. Boarding time is also not a bad time to come down with a hacking (but ultimately harmless) cough that miraculously clears up after the plane takes off. Holding a motion sickness bag can also help deter would-be seatmates from joining you.

You Don’t Need to Buy Early Bird Boarding For Everyone

With that said — and I say this as a parent myself, so no offense intended to anyone out there — there are few things that will make you less likely to have a seatmate like having a child with you. Accordingly, if you have a child that is over the age of 6 (such that you can’t use family boarding), you might consider buying Early Bird boarding for just a portion of your party.  They will board first, armed with the powerful deterrent effect that only a child can bring, and you can be rest assured that no one is going to take the other seat in a row with your kid, and you’ll be able to join them without paying the premium for Early Bird boarding.

The same thing works fine for adults — just have some in the party do the Early Bird, and they’ll save seats for the rest of the party. I do want you to advise you to be considerate and not have one person try to save several rows worth of seats, but you can save a seat or two per person without a lot of grief. I have no idea if Southwest has an official policy on this, but frankly, if you advise someone that you’re holding the seat for a family member or friend and they insist upon sitting in it anyway, it’s going to make for a pretty awkward flight; it’s therefore very unlikely that you’ll be unsuccessful when saving a seat.

So, what other tips and tricks have you all picked up from flying Southwest?  Got any other questions?  Let me know in the comments!

James Rosemergy

When not planning for or traveling to Walt Disney World with his beautiful wife and impossibly adorable daughter, James practices law in St. Louis. He also really likes cheese. He can be found on twitter at @jrtoastyman.

24 thoughts on “Flying Southwest Airlines Like a Boss

  • October 31, 2016 at 7:21 am
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    Great article. The only thing I’d note is that Family Boarding is between the A Group and the B Group.

    Also, parents with children a little over 6 should politely ask the employee taking tickets if they can use family boarding. Often they will let one parent accompany a slightly older child, especially not in Orlando. (Orlando is usually strict due to the large number of children they see.)

    • October 31, 2016 at 10:58 am
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      Yeah, this is one of those “it can’t hurt to ask” sort of things. You might get turned down, but nothing ventured, nothing gained…

  • October 31, 2016 at 8:14 am
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    One thing that is important to note if you are able to get a lower fare and receive a credit- it must be used by the person the reservation was originally for. I would up saving $150 on our flights to Orlando last year, ($50 pp) but since I was the only one who traveled again in the window we had to use the credit, we wound up losing the other $100. I originally thought that it just went into MY account since I bought the tickets. I was bummed that wasn’t the case.

    • October 31, 2016 at 9:15 am
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      Or…you end up booking a budget four-day weekend trip to WDW that you would never normally have considered, just because you feel like you’ve absolutely *got* to take advantage of those travel funds before they expire. 🙂

  • October 31, 2016 at 9:00 am
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    I know some people want to fly Southwest because they are cheap, but we never will as long as they allow people to take their pets in the areas where people sit (or is the other way around now?). And not crazy about the seat dash aspect either. We’ll opt for some of the more pleasant airlines.

  • October 31, 2016 at 9:27 am
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    Booked our first ever visit to USA from Canada via Buffalo / Southwest airlines for Dec 2016. Thanks for the tips.

    • November 1, 2016 at 11:30 am
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      We went to Orlando on Southwest from Buffalo last March. With the exchange rate and a night in a Buffalo motel it ended up not saving us that much money, but it was totally worth it for the convenience. We sprang for Early Bird Check-in and were about 4th on the plane on the way down, maybe 12th on the way back (due to a ridiculously large and inconsiderate pre-boarding group). The experience at the Buffalo airport was much superior to the last time we flew out of Toronto.

  • October 31, 2016 at 9:51 am
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    Important to note that any credit (Travel Funds) must be used for travel within one year from ORIGINAL booking date. (travel must be COMPLETED by expiration date) Also, if you use several unused travel funds to book a new flight and then have to cancel, all of the funds revert back to the oldest one used (soonest expiration date)

  • October 31, 2016 at 10:06 am
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    Last time I flew Southwest to and from Orlando, they only let families with kids 4 and under board first. Personally, I hated the whole experience and would not fly Southwest again with kids because you don’t get to pick your seat. If you pay for the “board first” privilege and pack light, there is not much of a difference between the cost of the ticket with other airlines.

    • October 31, 2016 at 10:16 am
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      Going up to 6 is a relatively recent change. I recall that we lost, and then regained, the ability to use family boarding, so it had to be within the last 2 years that they made this change.

  • October 31, 2016 at 12:15 pm
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    Great tips. I wouldn’t fly Southwest for many years due to the “cattle call” boarding process, then a few years ago I experienced the “new way” they do it of assigning groups and numbers and realized I didn’t have to wait in line for an hour to get a decent seat. The overall experience is really great, especially, as you said since the legacy airlines have downgraded their service. A couple of notes I’ve experienced flying SW several times recently:

    The two free checked bags are great, especially when flying with my family of 6! This saves us a huge amount of money and makes traversing airports so much easier because we don’t all have to trundle around carry-on bags.

    Non-stop flights (if available) are nearly always the cheapest option. This is the opposite of other airlines in my experience. Flying my family to Orlando, I’d much rather fly non-stop and not deal with all of us in another airport waiting for our connecting flight (or missing it!).

    Prices can sometimes change daily with SW (and really any airline) so keep checking back on a regular basis. Last year I was watching prices and getting ready to buy and that day they went up by $30. Again, for a large family that adds up. I called SW to beg for the lower price I had seen the day before and she said “sorry, there was nothing she could do.” She then quietly recommended I wait a day or two as they “might” go back down, and they did…!

    We fly out of Denver, and the several times a day non-stop flights to Orlando are almost always the best price, couple that with free bags and its a true winner. I add on Early Bird just to get good seats and make sure we’re all together, but this still ends up making the flight cheaper (especially with free bags).

    You didn’t discuss the Companion Pass. I’ve not gotten it, but am going to try hard to this next year with their credit card promotions. With it, I should be able to get my entire family to Orlando in January 2018 for around $50 total!

    Southwest FTW!

    • October 31, 2016 at 12:27 pm
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      yeah, it always makes sense to keep an eye on prices, even after you’ve booked in case they go down. In general, it tends to be the case that the earlier you book, the lower the price, but it’s still worth watching, for sure.

      I didn’t mention the Companion Pass because it seemed outside of the scope of the article, but it is an awesome, awesome perk. I have had it for a few years now and will earn my next one on a flight this week, and it’s as good a deal as there is in the industry in my opinion. For those unfamiliar with it, if you fly 100 flights or accumulate 110,000 points in a calendar year, you can name someone to be your companion and they can fly wherever you go for free. Notably, it applies regardless of whether you book using cash or points (which is great, because if you have it, you probably also have lots of reward points). It has saved us an enormous amount of money over the years. Maybe I’ll do a follow-up on the ins and outs of the Rapid Rewards program at some point, because it’s a great program for people that fly Southwest a lot.

      • October 31, 2016 at 12:46 pm
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        I’d love to hear your take on Rapid Rewards! Flown free with American, Delta and United, but with our family travel habits SW is making more and more sense for vacation travel. BTW, great article!

  • October 31, 2016 at 4:52 pm
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    Saving seats is not allowed and should not be promoted. It is $15 for Early Bird. Be considerate of others and pay the extra $15 if you must have seats for everyone in your party together.

    • November 8, 2016 at 10:43 pm
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      Alex, I couldn’t agree more. My husband is an A lister and we still buy EB for me and my daughter. So, James you should not be advising people that it is okay because it definitely is not. Many of us follow the rules and pay to get the seats we have.

  • October 31, 2016 at 8:08 pm
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    Re family boarding, on our last trip to MCO, family boarding was limited to children & parents only. All grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins were directed to their own boarding spots. Some extended families pushed hard on this but flight attendant stood firm.

    • November 1, 2016 at 6:04 am
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      Please. No one here posts willy-nilly, it all goes through me. It is my fault because I accidentally approved two similar posts, but both James and Liz got approval for–and worked very hard on–Southwest posts. It would’ve been unfair to discard one, so I spaced them out a few weeks.

  • October 31, 2016 at 11:31 pm
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    While I found some of the information in the article very useful I thought the style was significantly different than the usual articles here.

    A lot of the info seems very similar to the Flying Southwest Airlines article a month ago and some of the “tips” at the end about saving seats or making yourself a poor companion were distasteful. Anyone inclined to use those tactics will already use them and those that don’t may be offended by their inclusion.

  • November 1, 2016 at 12:56 am
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    Let me, let you in on little secret that not everyone is aware of, yet.
    If Business Select is not sold out, you can upgrade to Business Select, for only $40.00.
    This has to done day of travel and only at the airport ticket counter.
    Let me also mention, you will not earn the double points in your Rapid Rewards account since you did not pay full price.
    And you are correct, when you purchase Early Bird Check-in, you want to do this as early as possible.
    Those passengers that purchase EBCI will all be checked in 36 hours before their flight giving them a 12 hour head start. This will definitely help get a better boarding position. And, they are assigned in order from the purchase date.

  • November 1, 2016 at 12:57 am
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    The flight attendants will give out a free alcoholic drink on certain holidays – the list is in the magazine, but I know St. Patrick’s day is one, and I think New Year’s Eve is another.

    You mentioned it in passing, but if you know you’re in boarding group B, and especially B16 or higher, I wouldn’t even bother trying to carry on your carry on luggage – gate check that puppy if you can and save everybody the hassle and delay.

  • November 2, 2016 at 7:55 am
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    Are the people who save seats and pretend to have a hacking cough the same ones that push a stroller through parade crowds or lay down a huge blanket? If you really must sit together, just go ahead and buy everyone early-bird or fly another airline. It’s rude to the people behind you who did spend the extra money. I found the tips in this article extremely distasteful. Touring plans doesn’t generally promoting skirting policy for one’s advantage.

    • November 2, 2016 at 4:44 pm
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      For whatever it’s worth, the “hacking cough” and “motion sickness” things are both old jokes amongst frequent flyers, and I expected they would be taken in jest. Apparently, I wrote it a bit too dryly and that didn’t come through.

      On the seat saving side of things, though, I think there is an enormous difference between two people sitting in a row and making it clear that they would prefer the other seat — most likely a highly undesirable center seat anyway — be occupied by someone in particular on the one hand, and having one person get EBCI and spread their stuff over two or more rows to save it for their whole party on the other. I am most definitely not suggesting that anyone do the latter. Also, 95% of the seats of SWA planes are substantively identical, so I’m not sure why someone would care that they were denied a particular center seat and forced to sit in a different one. The only seats that anyone should really be upset about are the exit row seats, and those are generally gone well before someone without EBCI would be boarding anyway.

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