Yes, Boarding Early Matters (to me) & How to Get It

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For the last few weeks I have been paying close attention to my United flights since they have officially stopped allowing families with young children to board early. I posted about this development here, and not surprisingly there are those on both sides of the aisle regarding this debate.  In particular, my friend, Seth (Wandering Aramean), and I have gone back and forth a bit on Twitter, Milepoint, etc. about this issue.

He asserted that no longer allowing families with young children to board early wasn’t a big deal since it was already supposed to come after elites had boarded the plane anyway, so it wasn’t really helpful to begin with.  My opinion is that boarding after a few elites who are mostly situated in first class or the front of economy is much better than boarding with your young kid and their gear along with a herd of other people who are sitting at the back of the plane.  While my instinct was that boarding right after elites was still pretty helpful for families with young children, I decided to pay very close attention on my multiple United flights over the past few weeks.

I don’t currently have status with United, so I board with Group 4 after the elites and first class because I have the MileagePlus Explorer card.  Having the United MileagePlus Explorer card allows you to board with Group 4. I fly into and out of Houston Intercontinental Airport on almost all of my flights, and IAH is a good sized United hub.  This makes it fairly likely that there will be decent numbers of elites, and people with the co-branded credit card.  My flights in the last couple weeks were to and from Reagan National Airport and LaGuardia, and most were either completely full or mostly full flights.  Of course, this is not a scientific study (though that would be super cool), but I did my best to document my experiences of boarding with Group 4 – which is roughly when United would have boarded families with small children.

What I found was that boarding at this point in the boarding process makes a huge difference.  Here are a few shots of these flights and what the boarding process looked like when boarding with Group 4.  Just a few minutes later, the aisle would be clogged, and people would be seated in their seats – thus meaning you might have to climb over them with your kiddo and their gear.  In my opinion, if you are trying get on with young kids and a car seat this can be a real issue.






As you can see, there are some people already on the flights, but the planes are still mostly empty – especially toward the back of the plane.  The aisle is also not yet clogged at this point in the boarding process, or at least it wasn’t on all of my recent flights.  However, just a couple minutes after Group 4 boarding, the aisle does completely clog with the subsequent boarding groups.  In my opinion, boarding with a young child when the plane looks like the above photos is much easier than when the line is clogged and many of the seats are full as is demonstrated in the photo below.

In fairness, on several of these flights I saw the gate agent go over to families and see if they wanted to board early.  Of course, this will vary from gate agent to gate agent and is certainly not a guaranteed occurrence.  Many young families would accept the early boarding offer, but I did see one family turn down the opportunity, and I think they are actually onto the best strategy.  What that family did was have the elite dad board early with the car seat and bags, and the mom and toddler boarded toward the end of the boarding process to limit the time the toddler had on board.  The dad was able to get on early and get everything set-up, and once the mom and toddler came on boarding, everything was already ready to go.  Clearly this only works if you are traveling with a partner, but it is a great strategy if aren’t traveling alone with your kiddo.

So what can you do if you aren’t an elite?  How can you board early without relying on the kindness of the gate agent to “bend the rules”?  Of course, you don’t have to have a young kid to want to board early and secure a spot for your carry-on luggage, so let’s look at a few different airlines and see what it takes to board early without having status, or booking a first class ticket.


The United MileagePlus Explorer card will get you into boarding group 4 (of 7) and the United Club Card will get you into boarding group 3 (or so I’m told – I don’t yet have that card).  The United MileagePlus Explorer card is fee-free the first year and then is $95 per year.  The Club card is $395 per year with a $95 statement credit the first year.  Clearly you would only select the Club card over the Explorer card if you want United Club access, but you should also be aware that only the more expensive card comes with priority security screening.  Which is something I really wished I had the other day when I encountered this massive security line at IAH.  You can’t totally tell from the photo, but the roped waiting line for security ended right where that man on the left was standing, and then the line continued to go all the way down the hall and eventually around the corner.  It took quite a long time to get through the line.

If you are interested in the Explorer card, you can read this thread to make sure you are getting the best sign-up offer.


American Airlines

As of a couple months ago, the American Airlines Citi AAdvantage credit card now comes with priority boarding.  This is only valid for tickets booked after April 2, 2012, and is valid for up to four people on the reservation.  You can also purchase “Your Choice” priority boarding at airport check-in kiosks that will allow you to access Zone 1 boarding for that particular flight. Go here for info on the best un-official Citi AAdvantage card offer.

US Airways

The Barclays US Airways MasterCard comes with Zone 2 boarding.  You can also pay per person for PreferredAccess during the check-in process starting at $10 per person, and this will secure you priority check-in, priority screening, priority boarding.

Southwest Airlines

Southwest does allow for families to board after the A group (the first 60 boarding positions), but you can also purchase Early Bird Check-in that will have a boarding pass reserved for you 36 hours before check-in.  That will ensure that you are one of the first on the plane.  They charge $10 per one-way ticket for this service. Southwest is unique since you don’t have assigned seats ahead of time, so when you get on the plane determines which seats you can choose from.


The Delta Gold, Platinum, and Reserve credit cards all provide early boarding for up to eight people on the reservation.  There seem to be several different Delta credit card offers available, so I recommend comparing offers here, here, and here to see what works best for you.  Delta also offers “Trip Extras” and one extra you can purchase is early boarding.  However, this option is only available at a specific number of airports.

This is not an exhaustive list, but it does give some examples of how you can access early boarding without having elite status or relying on the airline to allow you to board early with your child out of the goodness of their hearts.  Do you have other tips or ways to board early? Does boarding early make a difference to your young family, or does it work just as well for you to boarding in the middle or at the end of the boarding process?  I think this is one topic where my fellow BoardingArea blogger and I will have to agree to disagree. 😉

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  1. […] Family Boarding:  When Foodie Baby was born (way back in 2011), airlines allowed families travelling with small children to “pre-board” immediately after the priority/elite travelers.  Although it meant extra time in the confined space of the plane, it allowed us extra time to situate all the gear (link to travel essentials) we had to lug on board.  Unfortunately, in addition to charging for checked bags, most airlines have discontinued family boarding in the past few years.  One stalwart remains that allows family boarding AND doesn’t charge for checked bags—my FAVORITE airline, Southwest!  If you aren’t flying Southwest, you will not have the benefit of family boarding.  However, this blog post gives some tips for boarding earlier which primarily consists of buying credit cards associated with various airlines that give you priority boarding status as a perk.  You can also purchase early boarding on most airlines.… […]


  1. I very much agree that early boarding matters when traveling with small children. I usually don’t fly with a car seat and just rent one upon arrival, though we have done it once or twice. So that’s not my concern. In my family it’s a cardinal sin to check luggage, so I’m mostly concerned about balancing kid and luggage demands. My FIL always gifts me gold status with Delta, so I board in zone 1 and that was always a huge plus when traveling with my daughter.

    We flew Frontier a few times too and it’s pretty cheap to upgrade to nicer, roomier, guaranteed seats with early boarding.

  2. Right around the transition from elite to general boarding is my favorite time to board anyway – the big perk of elite boarding is being able to board at my leisure much more than it is being able to board first.

  3. Do you get the early boarding with the United Explorer card only if you bought the plane tickets with that card or do you get it regardless?

  4. @Emily, that is awesome of your FIL!
    @matt, that is a sweet spot of boarding for sure.
    @KWu, you get it regardless of what card you used to purchase the tickets….just like the free checked bag benefit.

  5. Giving you a hollar from right here @IAH. Passing through on my way to SEA. Thanks to points and miles flying business class for almost free.

  6. Time to go for Star Alliance Gold with Aegean to move kiddo up to the front of the line on United?

    Diverting some of your United flight credits would do the trick, although USAirways credits might run up Aegean status faster.

  7. When using BA Avios points to obtain my American tickets, I have been given Priority boarding even though I had no status (or current credit card) for either of those programs. This might be helpful for some.

  8. Interesting…I just happened to be on the phone with Chase support and they said the free checked bag/priority boarding only applies if you purchase the United ticket on, with your FF number on the ticket, and using the United Explorer card then. Well, I recently purchased a United ticket through Travelocity with my Chase Sapphire, so I’ll see what happens when I get on that flight!

  9. We always send one parent with the carseats early while the other stays with the kids in the boarding area as long as possible – it is my goal to be the absolute last person on the plane so we can just strap the kids in and go.

    On our last United flight (April ’11) DH tried to board during family boarding with just the carseats, no kids, and the gate agent stopped him. He explained our strategy and the agent smiled and let him through.

    Have just gotten the Explorer card – last week DH tried to use the card he got as my authorized user (for free checked bag and priority boarding) on a flight he purchased with his old United Visa, and was denied. Said the ticket had to be purchased on the Explorer card.

  10. @Maury, just missed you by a couple hours! Enjoy!
    @AlohaDaveKennedy, I have a status plan well in effect. 😉 Will post more about it soon I’m sure.
    @Linda, that is absolutely correct – though I heard rumors is stopped working recently for new tickets. I know it worked for a long time though. Hope the rumor was wrong.
    @KWu, my experience has been that it has worked for me just fine as it is information that is linked to your MP account. I fly on both UA purchased tickets and Travelocity purchased tickets and have noticed no difference.
    @goheerow, I’ll have to check that article out! The early boarding benefit is for the primary cardholder and anyone else on the same reservation.
    @Susan, it is a great strategy as long as you aren’t the only adult. 😉 Authorized users on the card don’t have the same benefits as the primary user. They don’t technically have a free bag or boarding when traveling without the primary user. So, his problem was not that he didn’t use the card to purchase that ticket, it was he wasn’t the primary user on the card – that has happened to my husband as well.

  11. @mommypoints

    United website clearly says one needs to use the UMP card to purchase the ticket for the first check bag free. Did you use the card or other card worked as well? The theory that united not only look at if your MP number tied to a credit card but also know if you paid youlr fare with this UMP card is that, you got you companion first bag free as well if you pay with that card. Check in agent should have the ability to access that info. Please tell me I’m wrong. I do want to use other cards but enjoy the benifits. 🙂

    • @Max, I virtually never use this card these days to purchase my ticket (I usually use the Amex PRG for 3x points) and I have never had an issue getting the free bag benefit. However, you are correct that it does say you need to use the card in the terms and conditions. All I know is I flew as recently as yesterday with a checked bag for free on a ticket that I bought using a different card. Who knows if that will continue forever, but it seems to work just fine for now.

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