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Southwest Airlines takes a rather unconventional approach to its boarding procedures by not assigning seats, which at first glance might cause confusion and chaos.
However, it’s designed to do the opposite of that. Instead of seat numbers, the airline assigns every passenger a boarding position number that determines their boarding order.
Let’s take a look at how Southwest boarding works and how to get on a Southwest priority boarding list.
How does the Southwest boarding process work?
When you check in for a Southwest flight, you’re assigned a boarding group (A, B or C) and a boarding position (from 1 to 60-plus). This is the alphanumerical order in which you’ll board an aircraft.
The earlier you check in, the better boarding position you’ll get, and the higher chance you’ll have to store a bag in the overhead bin. Typically, window and aisle seats get taken first, which is why having an early boarding position is conducive to avoiding the dreaded middle seat.
We recommend setting a calendar notification on your phone for exactly 24 hours before your upcoming Southwest flight departure time to remind you to check in and receive a higher boarding group.
At the gate, you’ll find numbered posts designed to organize the boarding queue. When the boarding process starts and your group is called up, you will simply line up in order according to your boarding pass and wait for your turn.
When you get onboard, select an open seat and stow your belongings in the overhead compartment above it.
What is Southwest priority boarding?
Southwest priority boarding allows you to snag a more favorable boarding position. There are two ways you can onboard a Southwest plane earlier than others: EarlyBird Check-In and Upgraded Boarding.
» Learn more: How to upgrade your Southwest flight
EarlyBird Check-In automatically reserves a boarding position for you 36 hours before departure, so you don’t have to be stressed about getting a good boarding position. Note that you still have to check in for your flight within 24 hours of departure, and you still might end up in groups B or C if many passengers on your flight also purchased EarlyBird Check-In.
Upgraded Boarding. For a fee, passengers can purchase Upgraded Boarding. Upgraded Boarding guarantees an A1 through A15 boarding position on a Southwest flight (if available).
» Learn more: Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?
SOUTHWEST CREDIT CARDS WITH BOARDING BENEFITS
Unlike some credit cards offered by other major airlines, Southwest cards don't automatically get you priority boarding. But they do cover some of your costs when you pay to get a better boarding position:
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card
Annual fee: $149.
Benefit: Reimbursement for 4 upgraded boardings, when available, each anniversary year.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card
Annual fee: $99.
Benefit: Reimbursement for 2 EarlyBird check-ins each anniversary year.
Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card
Annual fee: $69.
Benefit: Reimbursement for 2 EarlyBird check-ins each anniversary year.
» Learn more: Best Southwest Airlines credit cards
How to get Southwest priority boarding
Southwest planes aren’t equipped with first class or premium economy cabins, which means every seat is the same, and there are no priority boarding opportunities based on the class you fly. However, there are other ways to get priority boarding and ensure you get a preferred seat on a Southwest flight.
Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
One of the ways to get an earlier boarding position when flying Southwest is to pay for EarlyBird Check-In for your upcoming flight. This option comes in handy when your flight is early in the morning and you’d rather stay asleep the day before or you know you’ll be in a meeting and won’t be able to check in at the 24-hour mark yourself.
Note that EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee that boarding group A would show up on your boarding pass, but it increases your chances at a higher group.
The cost of EarlyBird Check-In starts at $15 and goes up depending on your flight. It applies only to one-way flights, and you’ll have the option to pay for EarlyBird Check-In per each one-way trip individually if you have a round-trip itinerary.
Purchase Upgraded Boarding
You can purchase a Southwest Upgraded Boarding — and guarantee an A1 through A15 boarding position — starting 24 hours before departure. The cost is variable and starts at $30 per flight segment, reaching as high as $80 per segment.
Book the right fare class
If you purchase a Southwest Anytime fare, an EarlyBird Check-In is included. You’ll be assigned a boarding position 36 hours prior to departure.
Passengers who book or upgrade their Southwest ticket to a Business Select fare are guaranteed an Upgraded Boarding position in the A1 through A15 group.
Carry select Southwest Rapid Rewards credit cards
One option to get complimentary EarlyBird Check-In is by holding select co-branded Rapid Rewards credit cards. For example, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card members receive two EarlyBird Check-Ins per year.
Meanwhile, the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card and the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card do one better: Cardholders receive four Upgraded Boardings per year (based on availability), so you can improve your boarding position that way.
» Learn more: The best airline credit cards right now
Reach elite status with Southwest
A-List and A-List Preferred members receive priority boarding for everyone booked on the same reservation as boarding positions get assigned to elite Rapid Rewards members 36 hours before departure — so you don’t have to purchase EarlyBird Check-In separately.
» Learn more: The guide to Southwest A-List status
Travel as a family
If you’re traveling as a family, then you’re eligible for Southwest priority boarding. One or two adults traveling with a child 6 years or younger can board after the A group is boarded, but before the B group is called. This applies only if both parents are assigned boarding positions in groups B or C.
If you have an A group boarding position, you don’t need to wait for family boarding.
» Learn more: How to hack Southwest’s boarding groups
Use your military benefits
Similar to families, U.S. military members who carry a valid military ID can board between the A and B groups as well.
» Learn more: Military travel discounts to bookmark
Southwest priority boarding, recapped
The Southwest boarding process isn’t for the faint of heart, but if you know what to do, you can position yourself in a higher boarding group than your fellow passengers.
Although Southwest priority boarding isn’t based on the cabin class you fly, you can get the perk by:
Purchasing EarlyBird Check-In or Upgraded Boarding.
Carrying a credit card that offers priority boarding benefits.
Purchasing a higher fare ticket.
Being an elite member.
Using perks extended to families and military members.
If none of these apply to you and you don’t want to pay for an improved boarding position, make sure to check in at the 24-hour mark to give yourself the best possible chance to avoid boarding a Southwest plane last.
(Top photo courtesy of Southwest Airlines)
How to maximize your rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2023, including those best for:
Flexibility, point transfers and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Flat-rate travel rewards: Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
Bonus travel rewards and high-end perks: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card