Southwest is a no-frills airline that doesn’t offer traditional luxuries like a first-class cabin, or even more standard options like reserved seating. If you want to get on the plane early enough to grab a good seat, you can pay extra for early boarding.
But is Southwest’s Early Bird Check-In worth it? Here’s what you need to know to decide.
What is Early Bird Check-In?
Early Bird Check-In guarantees that you will be one of the first passengers to board the plane — for a fee. The cost ranges from $15 to $25 per person, per flight; if you have a round-trip ticket and want this add-on both ways, you would need to buy it for each leg.
If you pay for Early Bird Check-In, you likely won’t be the very first to board the plane. Why? Southwest guarantees the first 15 boarding spots to flyers who purchase Business Select tickets. The number of Business Select tickets purchased on your flight determines where in the boarding line you'll get with Early Bird Check-In. Even so, you’ll still board earlier than you would likely have otherwise, with enough time to find a better seat and room in the overhead bins.
Nerd tip: Another benefit of Early Bird Check-In is that you'll be automatically checked in for your flight, so after you buy the ticket, you can just show up at the airport and print out the boarding pass at the terminal.
» Learn more: Southwest Rapid Rewards Program: The complete guide
How you’ll board a Southwest flight without Early Bird Check-In
Southwest has a unique boarding procedure that differs from almost every other major airline. Rather than reserving a specific seat when booking a flight, you are placed into one of three boarding groups: A, B or C.
Then, you’re assigned a number within the boarding group that determines your place in line. This means that A1 will be the first to board, followed by A2 and so on.
Without paying for early check-in, it’s usually the case that the earlier you check in for a Southwest flight, the better your boarding spot will be. That’s why many passengers check in at the earliest possible moment: precisely 24 hours before the flight’s scheduled departure.
Most passengers try to be in either group A or B so that they can get better seats, have enough bin space and be sure they won’t be separated from their travel companions. Without Early Bird Check-In, you could be stuck with a middle seat, rows away from your family or friends and without space for a carry-on if you're late to check in.
Who needs Early Bird Check-In
If you won't be available to check in to your flight at the 24-hour mark and you have travel companions you want to sit with or you don't want a middle seat, you should strongly consider paying for the early check-in.
Who doesn’t need it
If you’re traveling with small children, Early Bird Check-In may not be necessary because of Southwest’s family boarding policy. Parents traveling with children six or younger are allowed on the plane after the A group has boarded, but before the B group does. In most cases, this should let you get at least two seats together.
Many people fly Southwest because they want to save money with low fares and don’t mind the trade-offs that come with them. If you’d rather have money in your pocket than the seat of your choice, it’s probably worth it to skip early check-in.
Also, while $15 to $25 may not seem like much to pay for early boarding, it can quickly add up if you’re traveling with a group. A family of four paying for this perk on a round-trip flight could easily spend up to $200 for the privilege.
Other ways to board early
Besides Early Bird Check-In, there are a few other strategic ways to board your Southwest flight earlier than the bulk of passengers.
Fly on a Business Select ticket: A Southwest Business Select ticket is more expensive but comes with its own suite of perks besides early boarding, including a complimentary drink and bonus Rapid Rewards points.
Purchase Upgraded Boarding: If you decide on the day of travel that you’re willing to pay to board early, there’s Upgraded Boarding. For $30 to $50 each way, can buy a spot in the A1 to A15 boarding group. You’ll have to ask a customer service agent at the gate or at the ticket counter if Upgraded Boarding is available.
Sign-up for a Southwest credit card: The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card ($149 annual fee) and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card ($199 annual fee) get you up to four priority boardings per year (when available), as well as other bonuses and perks.
» Learn more: Guide to earning Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards points
So is it worth it?
The best way to know if Early Bird Check-In is worth it is to determine what you value more — money or convenience?
There’s a lot to be said for sitting next to a travel companion in your favorite seat, with your carry-on tucked above you. However, if you can check in at the 24-hour mark, you'll usually be just fine getting seats together or avoiding a middle seat. Plus, you'll have more money to spend when you arrive at your destination.
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