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April 30, 2019 8:00 AM PT

Southwest Airlines Early Bird Check-In Worth It?

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Unlike other airlines, Southwest uses a first-come, first-serve basis for getting a seat. That means Southwest passengers can't choose their seat ahead of time.

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With Early Bird Check-In, however, you can boost your odds of getting the seat you want. Read on to see if Southwest's Early Bird Check-In is worth the cost.

How It Works

Passengers who purchase the Early Bird Check-In receive several benefits, including automatic check-in and a better boarding position. Your ticket is instantly upgraded after you purchase Early Bird Check-In.

Automatic Check-In means you don't need to check in for your flight 24 hours before departure. Early Bird passengers receive an email with their boarding position 36 hours before the flight

You can print their boarding pass at home up to 24 hours before departure. Or, you can have a ticket agent print it for you at an airport check-in kiosk or Skycap counter.

Paying for Early Bird Check-In does not guarantee that you'll receive the first A boarding slot. Keep reading to see how Southwest handles the boarding process.

Understanding Southwest's Boarding Groups

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At exactly 24 hours before departure, every Southwest ticketed passenger can check in online through the Southwest website or app. They then receive their boarding group and position.

Southwest divides incoming passengers into three different boarding groups: A, B, and C. You are assigned a number within that group from 1 to 60. So, for example, if your boarding pass shows B24, that means you're in boarding group B, position 24.

How do I get priority boarding on Southwest?
Southwest does not offer First or Business class, but they do sell Business Select fares. These generally cost more but give the passenger guaranteed boarding group A, positions 1 through 15.

You can also upgrade the day of your flight to get one of these priority spots. The price varies from $30 to $50, depending on the flight length and final destination. Talk to the ticket or gate agent to see if these upgrades are available for your flight.

Upgrading to Business Select the day of the flight will NOT get amenities like a free premium drink or extra Rapid Rewards points for the trip.

After Business Select passengers have been assigned an A boarding position, the next A boarding slots go to any Rapid Rewards A-List members.

A-List members must complete 25 qualifying one-way flights or earn 35,000 tier-qualifying points in a calendar year. You can gain A-List Preferred status after 50 one-way flights and 70,000 tier-qualifying points. Both statuses receive priority boarding benefits.

Each Southwest gate has numbered signs. When the gate agent calls your boarding group, you'll line up under the number that corresponds with the position number on your boarding pass. You can also check the monitors to see the current boarding group.

Once your group has lined up, the gate agent starts the boarding process. Southwest divvies out seats on a first-come, first-serve basis. The first one on the plane gets first choice and everyone who boards after picks from the remaining open seats.

You Should Know: Families traveling with children under the age of six can board after the A group regardless of the grouping on their boarding pass.

Those needing extra assistance or have mobility issues can also board at this time.

Sometimes, checking in right at the 24-hour mark can snag you a higher position by pure luck. If a passenger with priority boarding or Early Bird Check-In cancels their flight, that boarding position goes to the masses.

This gives some lucky passenger without priority boarding or Early Bird a higher boarding position without paying a premium.

You'll also want to take through-passengers into consideration. Some passengers stay on the plane because they have a stopover but don't have to change planes.

Cost

The cost of Early Bird Check-In varies from $15 to $25, depending on the length of the flight and the demand for that route.

This cost is per passenger, per leg of the flight. You can only purchase Early Birds with a credit card. These can be for each leg of your trip or just one or two.

You'll receive an email of your receipt. Keep it handy just in case you encounter problems with the Early Bird Check-In process.

Early Bird Check-In purchases are non-refundable. If you cancel your flight, you'll forfeit the Early Bird benefits.

The only exception is when Southwest cancels a flight. In these cases, you'll receive a full refund for your Early Bird Check-In purchase. Refunds typically process within seven days of the flight cancellation.

Who Can Get Early Bird Check-In and How to Purchase

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Anyone who buys a:

  • Wanna Get Away Fare
  • Anytime Fare
  • Senior Fare

can purchase Early Bird Check-In along with their ticket. Business Select Fare passengers can also purchase it, though it's not worth their money (more on that below).

There are three ways to buy Early Bird Check-In:

  1. When you buy your ticket online: You'll have the option to add Early Bird Check-In to your reservation.

  2. By accessing your reservation later: You'll need your reservation confirmation number and the first/last name on the ticket to find your flight online. Or look up your flight through the Southwest mobile app.

  3. By calling the Southwest reservation line: Add Early Bird Check-In by speaking with a Southwest ticket agent.

You Should Know: Passengers who buy Early Bird Check-in when they make a flight reservation must purchase it for ALL passengers on that reservation.

If you add Early Bird later, just one person on that reservation can get Early Bird. You can also purchase for just one leg of your trip.

Check-In and Mobile Boarding Passes

Like most airlines, Southwest now allows passengers to do more online and through their phones. You can check-in for a flight online via the Southwest.com website, as well as through the Southwest app on your smartphone.

Early Bird customers do not need to check in at all - Southwest checks them in automatically. They are, however, responsible for printing out their own boarding passes.

These can be printed at home or at one of the check-in kiosks at the airport. Any ticketing agent can also print boarding passes for you. See below for information on checking bags and getting through security.

Remember, you need to be at your gate at least 10 minutes before departure. Southwest recommends arriving at the gate at least 30 minutes before departure.

Can I check in online without a printer?
Yes. If you don't have access to a printer, you can still check in online. Print at the airport using the check-in kiosks or a ticket counter. Or use Southwest's mobile boarding pass.

Mobile boarding passes can cut down on the paper you need to keep track of during their trip.

Learn more below.

Mobile Boarding Passes

Passengers can use mobile boarding passes for any United States flight. (Currently, they are not available for international flights.)

You can view your mobile pass through:

  • The Southwest app.
  • A web browser on your phone.
  • Over email.
  • Through text message.

Save your mobile pass as a screen shot. This will allow you to easily access it, especially if you don't have a signal or Wi-Fi.

iOS users can also save it to their Apple Wallet. Android users can save the boarding pass to Google Pay.

Is Early Bird Check-In Worth It?

The short answer: It depends on who you're traveling with and whether getting a "good" seat is important to you. Before deciding, let's take a closer look at the pros and cons.

Early Bird Check-In Benefits

Automatic Check-In
Early Bird means no more setting a phone alert for 24 hours before your flight.

Southwest automatically checks you in and assigns you a boarding position 36 hours before your flight, a full 12 hours before anyone else can check in. That means you don't have race to claim a boarding position on your phone or computer.

Can you pick your seats on Southwest Airlines?
Southwest does not allow passengers to choose their seat ahead of time. When they board the plane in their assigned group, they choose from the available empty seats.

Better Chance at Good Seat
Southwest seating is first-come, first-serve, so purchasing Early Bird can save you from the dreaded middle seat.

With a longer flight, seat selection becomes even more important - you want to be comfortable. You also have a better chance of getting overhead bin space when traveling with a carry-on.

Early Bird Check-In Drawbacks

No Guarantees
Even if you pay for the benefit, you won't necessarily get an A position boarding slot.

Early Bird passengers receive boarding positions AFTER Business Select and Rapid Rewards A-List passengers. If several such passengers are also on your flight, your boarding slot may be lower than expected.

You Should Know: Southwest does not limit the number of passengers who can purchase Early Bird Check-In. If many passengers opt-in and purchase Early Bird, your chances of a better boarding spot decrease.

Some Ticket Types are Preferred
Southwest assigns boarding positions first based on the fare class and then the timestamp of the Early Bird purchase. In other words, passengers with an Anytime Fare have a boarding advantage over those with Wanna Get Away or Senior Fares.

Early Bird tickets purchased early also have priority. If you buy at the last minute, it might not be worth the money.

You Should Know: Your Early Bird Check-In purchase transfers to a new reservation if you make a change (unless the change comes within 25 hours of departure, in which case you will lose the benefit).

Who Benefits Most from Early Bird Check-In

Early Bird Check-In is worth considering for:

Passengers with Some Ticket Types
People who buy Wanna Get Away, Anytime, or Senior Fares benefit the most from Early Bird Check-In.

These tickets do not come with any priority boarding privileges. So if getting a good seat or overhead bin space is important, you'll want to get Early Bird Check-In.

Families with Older Children
Parents with kids under six get priority boarding after Group A. But those with older children might also consider Early Bird to help improve the chances of getting seats together.

If you're traveling to a destination during a typical family vacation time (spring break, winter break, summer, etc.), Early Bird could be beneficial. Same goes for traveling to family-friendly destinations like Orlando.

Busy/Anxious Travelers
If you don't have time to check in right at the 24-hour mark, Early Bird Check-In checks you in automatically - and with a higher position.

This can also help if you're anxious or nervous - it's one less thing to worry about on the big day.

Who Can Skip Early Bird Check-In

Not every passenger benefits from Early Bird Check-In. These groups and individuals get priority boarding automatically:

  • Business Select fares.
  • Members of Southwest's Rapid Rewards A-List.
  • Unaccompanied minors.
  • Families with kids under age 6.

Passengers with a disability or mobility issues also receive priority boarding after the A group. Early Bird Check-In would only be beneficial if they wanted an A boarding spot. But remember: A Boarding is NOT guaranteed with Early Bird Check-In.

You Should Know: Passengers who need a specific seat or help getting on board can request pre-boarding. This allows you to get on the plane before any other passengers.

Passengers with disabilities are also allowed one person to accompany them for pre-boarding and priority boarding. All other members of their travel party must board during their group and position.

While it is discouraged, passengers with priority boarding can technically save seats for others traveling in their group.

If you're traveling with someone who has a Business Select fare, Rapid Rewards A-List status, or a higher position than Early Bird, you might not need Early Bird. Just be sure they're willing to save a seat for you.

Getting Early Bird Check-In for Free

Like baggage fees and other travel expenses, you can find ways to avoid paying for Early Bird Check-In. Or, you can at least get some extra points on your travel card for purchasing.

Several cards come with travel credits that help cover the costs of Early Bird Check-In. Our favorite is Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Rules: At the Airport

With Southwest's Early Bird Check-In, the check-in process is essentially the same as for regular passengers.

Checking Bags
Head to a self-service kiosk to print the luggage tags and drop off with a ticketing agent. You can check bags as soon as four hours before your departure time. Any ticketing agent can also print the luggage tags for you and take your bags.

Some airports also have curbside check-in so you don't have to drag your luggage inside. Check the Southwest website to see if your airport offers curbside check-in.

Any bags checked less than 45 minutes before the flight are given a late check-in tag. These bags are not guaranteed to make it on the plane but will follow on the next available flight.

Getting Through TSA
You'll need your boarding pass and a form of picture ID, such as a driver's license or passport.

Once you get to your gate, simply wait for the gate agent to call your boarding group (A, B, or C), and line up during that time under the number that corresponds with your boarding position.

Bottom Line

Early Bird Check-In can help give you a better boarding position. But it won't guarantee you a spot in the coveted A boarding group.

You should weigh the cost and potential benefits to see if it's worth it for you.

Editorial Note: Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any card issuer. This site may be compensated through the Advertiser's affiliate programs.

Editorial Note: This content is not provided by Chase. Any opinions, analyses, reviews or recommendations expressed in this article are those of the author's alone, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by Chase. This site may be compensated through the Advertiser's affiliate programs.

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