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Southwest Airlines doesn’t have fancy onboard offerings such as first class or economy plus seats, but they do have a unique boarding process where you are assigned a specific boarding number that determines when you can get on the plane. How quickly you get on the plane will directly correlate to whether or not you can claim your desired first-come, first-served seats. Your Southwest boarding assignment will fall in group A, B, or C, and you will be assigned a number ranging from 1-60 within that group. Yes, it feels a bit like you are lining up as cattle in order to board the plane, but once you get the hang of it, it isn’t that terrible. Or at least, it isn’t that terrible if you have a good boarding group number.
Checking in for a Southwest flight 24 hours in advance still won’t get you the best boarding pass number
At the heart of the Southwest boarding system, is the concept that you want to check-in for your flight exactly at 24 hours before departure as the boarding assignments are given in the order you check-in. However, like with almost everything in the airline industry, it isn’t truly quite that simple.
The coveted first A 1-15 spots go to those who purchase pricier Business Select Fares or who upgrade to one of those boarding spots on the day of travel at a price of $30 – $50 per person. This same-day buy-up option is only available shortly before departure if the A 1-15 slots aren’t already all spoken for by BusinessSelect customers, so you can’t fully count on this working.
Next, there are those who have Southwest A-List or A-List Preferred elite status who are automatically assigned a boarding number before the T-24 hour mark, so simply checking in exactly at 24 hours before your flight also won’t get you ahead of them. There is also the issue of those who are already on the plane from a previous segment on a direct routing to their final destination. This is where that subtle but distinct difference between direct and nonstop flights comes into play. Direct simply means you don’t change planes, not that the plane doesn’t stop somewhere along the way. Unless you are on the first flight of the day, there is a reasonable chance some seats on the plane are spoken for by through-passengers before A1 even gets a chance to board.
What is Southwest EarlyBird Check-in
Now that you understand that even checking in at 24 hours before your first Southwest flight won’t score you one of the very best boarding pass assignments, let’s talk about Southwest EarlyBird Check-in. Southwest offers the EarlyBird Check-in service to automatically check you in 36 hours before your flight, instead of you manually remembering to check-in at 24 hours out.
This serves two obvious purposes. First, it takes out the human element of being too busy or forgetting to check-in exactly 24 hours before your first flight. Second, it scores you a boarding assignment that should be better than those still available at 24 hours out. The closer the boarding pass assignment is to A1, the earlier you board. The earlier you board, the better selection of seats and overhead bins you will have.
This EarlyBird Check-In option now costs $15 per person per direction. Originally this was only $10, but it now represents a real investment if you have multiple people traveling. For our family of four, we would be out $120 to use EarlyBrid Check-in on a round trip Southwest journey.
Also know that while Southwest has flexible policies when it comes to changing your flight or even canceling to use the credit in the future, the money you spend on EarlyBird Check-in (EBCI) is not refundable. If you cancel your flight, Southwest doesn’t refund your EBCI purchase. If you change your flight at least 25 hours prior to the original flight’s scheduled departure and you are changing to a flight that doesn’t depart for at least 25 hours, then the EBCI should transfer as long as the confirmation number remains the same.
Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-in worth It
So, is Southwest EarlyBird Check-in worth it? For some people this answer will always be no, either because the exact boarding position isn’t that important to them, it is outside the budget, or because they are okay with the Family Boarding timeframe. Family Boarding is available for those with kids ages 6 and under and takes place between the A and B groups. If your family meets that criteria, then you are only helped by having an A boarding pass, but not hurt by having a B or C boarding pass since you will board before then anyway.
If you have the budget to consider EBCI, it might be worth it in a few cases. First, EarlyBird Check-in might be worth it if the flight you are taking is especially long, making seat selection more valuable. Second, if it is crucial for your family or group to sit all together, and either you don’t qualify for Family Boarding, or you are worried there won’t be seats for all of you still left together at that time, it could be worth it. It may also be worth it if you know you will be too busy at T-24 to check yourself in on time. Last but not least, if having EarlyBird Check-in reduces your stress or anxiety about the flight, then that by itself can be worth the cost.
For our upcoming Southwest flight, which will be the first Southwest flight for the whole family in years, we purchased EarlyBird Check-in on the outbound segment primarily because it eased our (ahem, Josh’s) anxiety about the boarding process. Having not flown Southwest together in years, he is just not looking forward to the lack of seat assignments. Additionally, I’m not available at exactly T-24 to check us in due to some other commitments. If paying the $15 x 4 people reduces stress and streamlines logistics, then it makes sense for us.
You can select Southwest EarlyBird Check-in for certain people or flights
On the return, we have opted to not spend the $60 to purchase EBCI because we are flying on a less popular day and I should be able to check us in 24 hours in advance. Frankly, the end of the trip also just doesn’t matter as much to me as the beginning. We could always change our minds and secure it before our trip, but at this juncture, EarlyBird Check-in felt worth it for the outbound, but not on the return. You can choose to purchase EBCI just for a portion of your trip, or even just for certain travelers on the journey.
At $15 per person, Southwest EarlyBIrd Check-in certainly can be worth the cost, but it won’t always be a slamdunk deal. If you fly Southwest with your family, I’d love to hear how you decide if and when Southwest EarlyBird Check-in is worth it for you.
Editorial Note: The opinions expressed here are mine and not provided, reviewed, by any bank, card issuer, or other company unless otherwise stated.