Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In Worth It?

Passengers select their own seats during boarding, but you can pay for EarlyBird Check-In to get ahead of others.
Elina Geller
By Elina Geller 
Updated
Edited by Giselle M. Cancio

Many or all of the products featured here are from our partners who compensate us. This influences which products we write about and where and how the product appears on a page. However, this does not influence our evaluations. Our opinions are our own. Here is a list of our partners and here's how we make money.

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. Prices range from $15 to $25 per segment, depending on how you pay for the privilege to board among the first.

Southwest has a highly unconventional boarding system. Rather than being assigned a seat, you're assigned a boarding position, so folks with an A on their boarding pass board before those with a C. There are many ways to guarantee (or at least improve your chances of getting) an A next to your name. Among them is something called EarlyBird Check-In.

But is Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In worth it? Here’s what you need to know to decide.

What is EarlyBird Check-In?

EarlyBird 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 need to buy it for each leg.

However, even if you pay for EarlyBird Check-In, you still might not be the first to board the plane. Southwest guarantees the first 15 boarding spots to those who purchase Business Select tickets. The number of Business Select tickets purchased on your flight determines your place in the boarding line with EarlyBird Check-In.

🤓Nerdy Tip

Another benefit of EarlyBird 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. If you’d prefer to use a mobile boarding pass, you can retrieve it on Southwest’s app.

How does EarlyBird Check-In work?

As mentioned above, Southwest has a boarding procedure that differs from that of 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 get in group A or B so they can get better seats, have enough overhead bin space and avoid being separated from their travel companions. Without EarlyBird Check-In, you could be stuck with a middle seat, away from family or friends or without space for your carry-on.

How to get free EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest

Here are four ways to board early with Southwest, none of which involve purchasing EarlyBird Check-In.

Purchase a Business Select ticket

Those flying on Business Select fares are the highest on the priority boarding list and get to board in the A1-A15 group.

Southwest offers four types of fares: Business Select, Anytime, Wanna Get Away Plus and Wanna Get Away. Although Business Select tickets are the most expensive, they include several perks in addition to priority boarding, including a full refund up to 10 minutes before departure, a complimentary drink on most flights, a high earn rate on points (12 Rapid Rewards points per $1 spent), priority lane access, same-day changes and standby.

Purchase an Anytime fare

In 2022, Southwest added free EarlyBird Check-In to Anytime fares as long as the ticket is purchased more than 24 hours ahead of departure. Anytime fares offer more flexibility when it comes to refunds (full refund up to 10 minutes before takeoff), a high Rapid Rewards earn rate (10 points per $1 spent), priority lane access, same-day changes and standby.

If you purchase your flight more than 36 hours before departure, you will be automatically checked in to your flight 36 hours before the flight is scheduled to depart. This check-in time is 12 hours earlier than standard check-in, which is 24 hours before departure.

Those who purchase their Anytime tickets between 24 and 36 hours before departure will still get EarlyBird Check-In, but at this point, the boarding position assignment process will already be underway, so you may not get the boarding position you want.

Purchase upgraded boarding

If you want an even higher position than what you'd get with EarlyBird and you don't want to pay more for a Business Select ticket, you can purchase upgraded boarding. For $30 to $80 each way, you can buy a spot in the A1-A15 boarding group. You can purchase it at the gate or at the ticket counter the day of departure (assuming it's available), or you can buy it online from Southwest's website within 24 hours of departure.

Apply for a Southwest credit card

★ LIMITED TIME OFFER

Heads up! For a limited time, select Southwest Airlines credit cards are offering a sign-up bonus for new cardholders that's substantially larger than the standard offer — a bonus that NerdWallet calculates could be worth more than $1,200. The offer is good only through June 26, 2024. Learn more and apply here.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
New! Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card
Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card"
Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card
NerdWallet Rating
Apply now

on Chase's website

Annual fee
$149
$99
$199
$99
Boarding and EarlyBird privileges

• Reimbursement for 4 upgraded boardings, when available, each anniversary year.

• Reimbursement for 2 EarlyBird check-ins each anniversary year.

• Reimbursement for 4 upgraded boardings, when available, each anniversary year.

• Reimbursement for 2 EarlyBird check-ins each anniversary year.

Bonus offer

Earn 85,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earn 85,000 bonus points after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earn 80,000 points after you spend $5,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Earn 60,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.

Horizontal scroll

Who should consider paying for EarlyBird Check-In?

In case none of the methods that offer early boarding apply to you, purchase EarlyBird Check-In if you are worried about:

  • Sufficient overhead bin space. If you’ve got a large or bulky carry-on and in general want to improve your chances of onboard storage.

  • Sitting in a less-than-ideal seat. If you can’t stomach the idea of flying from Los Angeles to New York in a middle seat and you won't be available to check in to your flight at the 24-hour mark.

  • Being separated from your party. Traveling with elderly parents or others whom you’re concerned about can already be stressful and being separated might bring on even more stress. Note that Southwest’s family boarding allows two adults traveling with a child 6 or younger to automatically board after the A group and before the B group.

If any of these three reasons resonate with you, strongly consider paying for EarlyBird Check-In.

Who should skip EarlyBird Check-In?

EarlyBird Check-In isn’t for everyone. We recommend the following travelers opt out of it:

  • Families with small children. If you’re traveling with small children, EarlyBird Check-In may not be necessary because of Southwest’s family boarding policy. Parents traveling with children 6 or younger are allowed on the plane between A group and B group boarding. In most cases, this should let you get at least two seats together.

  • No-frills travelers. 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 landing the seat of your choice, it’s probably worth it to skip EarlyBird Check-In.

  • Budget-minded group travelers. 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.

How to purchase EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest

If you’re booking a new flight

EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased during checkout on Southwest.com. After selecting your flight, seeing the cost summary and potentially adding a rental car to the booking, you will be directed to input passenger information. Before adding your contact information, you’re given the option to add EarlyBird Check-In.

To add it to a flight you’ve already booked

Log in to your Southwest account and navigate to your Trips. Find the flight that you’d like to add the service to, and click Details. From there, select the Add EarlyBird Check-In button and purchase.

🤓Nerdy Tip

EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased on Southwest.com, over the phone with a reservation agent or in the Southwest app up to 36 hours before a flight's scheduled local departure time.

Final thoughts on EarlyBird Check-In with Southwest

The best way to know whether Southwest EarlyBird 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 positioned 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.


How to maximize your rewards

You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are some of the best travel credit cards of 2024:

Travel Cards from our Partners
Chase Sapphire Preferred Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1x-5x

5x on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3x on dining, select streaming services and online groceries, 2x on all other travel purchases, 1x on all other purchases.

Points

Intro offer

60,000

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 when you redeem through Chase Travel℠.

Points
Chase Freedom Unlimited Credit Card

on Chase's website

Chase Freedom Unlimited®
5.0
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

1.5%-5%

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel℠, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

Cashback

Intro offer

Up to $300

Earn an additional 1.5% cash back on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) - worth up to $300 cash back!

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

on Capital One's website

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
4.7
NerdWallet Rating
Rewards rate

2x-5x

Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day. Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options.

Miles

Intro offer

75,000

Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.

Miles
See more Travel cards
Get more smart money moves – straight to your inbox
Sign up and we’ll send you Nerdy articles about the money topics that matter most to you along with other ways to help you get more from your money.