Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In Worth It?

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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.

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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.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

Comments

  1. Disappointed that SWA does not allow us to use Gift Cards for EBCI. I guess that’s similar to United and American not allowing gift cards to be used for the taxes on award flights. Why is that? They received cash for the gift card, but only allow gift cards to be used on fares, not extras? I would think they would want people to purchase EBCI, since it is 100% profit. Any ideas?

  2. I like flying Southwest a lot, but the cattle call boarding gives me anxiety too. I didn’t like it when my kids were little and found it stressful even with family boarding. However, I found it to be even more stressful after my kids were over 6 because I don’t think that anyone is comfortable with the idea of possibly being separated from their 7 year old on a flight. I don’t understand why they can’t go the way of Jet Blue with seat assignments.

    We do typically spring for Early Bird Check In, at least for part of our family, but even that doesn’t necessarily secure you an A group boarding pass. We’ve had a couple of times where we have gotten B boarding passes (or even split between A and B with just 1 parent and 1 child traveling!) and that is the worst. You fork out the money and still have to cross your fingers for seats together.

      • Too bad for the complainers. Have one parent buy early bird if you definitely want an A boarding pass, then the rest family board with the kiddos during family boarding. Not enough people will have boarded to worry about the savings seat issue as that doesn’t really come into play until after B30 and C1-60 because everyone should be able to choose whatever type of seat they want.

        With family boarding though, I don’t see the need for early bird.

        Incidentally, my last 2 flights had family boarding before A boarding.

      • I think that saving seats is generally viewed as OK if you’re saving non-premium seats in the middle/back of the plane. Be prepared for some unpleasant glances if you’re reserving the bulkhead rows for your family that has a “C” boarding position, though!

        We’ve had good luck finding a row of seats together when we board with Family Boarding. When our youngest turns 7 in a couple of years, we may have to reconsider.

    • I encountered a couple doing this once when I was with my 3 kids and husband. I asked the lady to move the things she’d placed on the aisle seat, which would have allowed my daughter to sit across the aisle from her dad. The lady claimed that her companion was in the bathroom but that was clearly a lie. I stood there and argued with her and tried to get the flight attendants’ attention, but eventually I had to give up because people were piling up behind us and my daughter was getting too embarrassed. It really seemed unfair to me for her to try to save a seat for someone who wasn’t on the plane yet.

  3. We frequently travel with our daughter (under 6) on Southwest because my husband has a companion pass. We never purchase EBCI with her because family boarding is so much easier. You get your own little area to wait in and you get on right after the A group so there are always plenty of seats still available.

  4. Any reason why you’re shelling out $$ for Early Bird when you have a child under 5? FREE FAMILY BOARDING between A and B groups!!! :D:D:D:D You probably moved up only 5 spots by paying $60.

    • Yep. And your spot is based on fare class. So if you book on points you’re at the back of the EBCI pack. Last time I paid for it I got A50…waste of money.

      • Are you sure? Your spot is based on the fare class (Anytime ranks higher than Wanna Get Away), but I’ve never read anything to indicate points vs cash makes a difference.

        • They’re not sure, because it’s not true. EBCI is based on fare class, then time-of-EBCI-purchase. They got A-50 because 35 other people either had a higher fare class or bought EBCI before they did.

    • There is one six foot three reason I shelled out the money. He feels better with us having it since he hasn’t flown Southwest in years, so that is worth $60 to me. I didn’t book it on the return in part because he hopefully will feel better about the whole process once he does it once. He does not like uncertainty and herds when it comes to travel, so this was the way to go this time.

  5. > If you change or cancel your flight, Southwest still keeps that cash, and does not apply EBCI to your new flight.

    This is not entirely true. If your flight is changed more than 36 hours before your original flight to a different flight more than 36 hours from the time of change, the EBCI will transfer. If it’s less than 36 hours, it would have already been applied to the original flight and so won’t transfer. But if you just change your flight (or even rebook to the original one, as you can do if you want to take advantage of a lower fare), EBCI will transfer.

    • Jason, thanks for that, just flushed out that section a bit to give more info on when it does and does not transfer.

  6. I always get it for our family of 3, it makes the round trip $90 but we are always flying on points so that is relatively affordable. Of course the points have a cost and opportunity cost, but we like getting 3 together up front and enjoy the flights more.

  7. I mean, you can always just pay for one person and then “save seats”, which literally everyone does.

    But anyways, on my recent full flight (Denver – Seattle), we had B50 (a pretty low number) and were still able to find 2 empty seats together in row 20. And the girl right in front of me (B49) actually got first-row-window seat (because some earlier couple had snagged window-aisle in first row, and then waited till this B49er came along to sit in first-row-middle). There’s actually TONS of couples who do the window-aisle trick, and then move if someone comes for the middle, so low number folks can actually luck out that way also.

  8. “If you change or cancel your flight, Southwest doesn’t refund your EBCI purchase…”

    Unless something has changed in the past few of months, I don’t think this is accurate. EBCI carried over to my new flights when I changed them. I believe it may be forfeited if you change your departure or destination airports, but if you’re only changing times, dates, or rebooking for a lower fare EBCI should stay intact. At least it did for me in late January.

    • I flushed out that section to make it more clear when it does and does not transfer. Hope it makes sense now!

  9. For me it is really about leaving the plan asap. I hate to seat in the back and see people have no rush at all in leaving the plane and they take their time to get their stuff and look around as they were the only ones there. Seriously, if the plane has landed and opened the door I am ready to get out of the place. Thus, being able to sit in the front makes a huge difference.

  10. I am a little upset after reading this, didn’t know about family boarding. We are flying out tomorrow, which will be our 7th trip within the past 12 months, and 2 more planned for later this year. We mostly fly on Delta and AA. I have only flown Southwest once in my life which was ~2yrs ago and was not a fan of the boarding process. Tomorrow’s flight is on JetBlue but we’re coming back on Southwest, couldn’t pass up only 7k pts/pp on the holiday. Same for a flight back from CUN in August, and for both I purchased the EBCI for all 4 of us. The kids are 2 and 9. Waste of money?

    • Shon, no way to know, but flying on a holiday weekend, it seems reasonable to secure EBCI to me. No guarantee that it will get you on before family boarding, but it certainly might.

    • I think it’s worth it to a more common vacation destination. We flew our family if 5 to Cancun (with early bird purchased months out) and still ended up barely sitting together in the last two rows of the plane. The saving of seats and everyone boarding together as families really limits options certain times of the year.

  11. MP
    One consideration is how far in advance you buy your ticket. We sometimes buy our ticket like 7 or 8 months in advance, which helps early bird seating if using “Want to get away fares”. We always get A group.
    If you are buying your ticket 1 month in advance, then early bird may not help as much to get A group, with “Want to get away fares”.

    Wayne and Terri

    • +1. In an experiment, I bought EBCI even though I had family boarding just to see if it would be any better and in my case it was not.

      I had purchased my ticket for Christmas time travel about 40 days prior and got a ~B15 with EBCI, so not better than family boarding.

      The annual travel credit on my card was about to expire for the year so the check in fee (and drinks) were covered anyway.

  12. After some miserable boarding experiences, we purchased the early bird for our cross country flights. Still just made it very far down in the Bs. At least the three of us could sit together and no worries about a stranger encroaching in our personal space.
    An aspect of this boarding that I truly despise is that it seems to penalize people for being what I consider honorable. An early bird pass is sold individually, not as buy one, save two or three seats. Also, six is young to not sit with a parent, and from my observations, some parents are boarding with children MANY years older during the family boarding time.
    I just try to tell myself that if it’s a relatively short flight I can manage with any seat.
    I’m almost looking forward to my companion pass expiring at the end of the year!

    • Absolutely agree with despising the dishonorable people that abuse earlybird “buy 1, reserve several seats” self entitlement. Similarly as bad as a whole herd of “family” boarding early with grandma and her wheel chair.
      Have you people no shame?

  13. At 6’10” I’m a legal giant. I claim my disability at the gate and I’m first to board, so I can get the appropriate legroom. I physically can’t fit in a normal seat because my legs are so long. I get ugly looks on every flight, but again what can I do unless they provide more legroom on flights. Just letting the tall folks know of this option. You must be over 6’6″ according to the American Disability website.

  14. I’ve heard multiple stories about people *trying* to save seats and being forced to give them up by the flight attendants. I find the line up by numbers nicer than the mad crush of American when group boarding announcements are made. And for us, Early Bird is worth it more for finding a spot for our bags.

    • I’ve never seen this (though I wish they would!). Since SWA doesn’t have an official saving seat policy they cannot and don’t enforce not saving seats. It’s pretty frustrating to stress even when we have early bird if I can sit by my 7,10,12 year olds. If someone else wants to catch their vomit on turbulent fights, fine but if not, don’t save a bazillion seats.

  15. We traveled as a group of 6 to MCO, because this is a family destination the family boarding is sometimes restricted to 1 parent per child under 6 , not the whole family. Since we were traveling with others that were more worried about flying I bought 4 EBCI tickets and my son and I boarded with family boarding. Both trips were full planes so it worked out well. Other trips or by myself it’s not really worth it to me.

  16. Hi, I quickly scanned the above messages for this answer: how does the lottery work when you buy EB? I mean as far as timing? Does your EB purchase get the same consideration whether purchasing it a month ahead or at the latest possible moment, or do you get a higher slot the later you buy EB?

    • The answer is…complicated.

      My understanding is that those on Anytime Fares will get higher EBCI numbers than those on Wanna Get Away fares. Within fare type, when you bought your ticket determines EBCI order. So, advance bookers receive the perk there. The caveat to all this that throws people is that if you check in at say 20 hours before the flight without EBCI, and someone who had the A-20 slot cancels their ticket, that person checking themselves in at T-20 may luck into a better boarding pass position than even EBCI customers.

  17. When we flew Southwest, I always purchased EB for fear of not being able to get decent seats together, but even then I couldn’t stand their boarding process. People like to cheat their boarding number standing where they don’t belong and that drives me bonkers.
    We mainly fly United and Alaska out of Austin now where we, family of five, can be the last ones to board, yet still have our assigned seating waiting for us,. This minimizes the kids getting a little stir crazy while fellow pax take obscene lengths of time to cram their over-sized luggage in the overhead bin.

  18. If you’re not an A lister, IMHO it’s worth the $15. And if a person boards early and saves a single seat, all good. But those who abuse EBCI and then try to save 3 or more seats, nope, sorry. It’s first come first served. Like so much about travel, it’s all how you value your comfort and time. YMMV.

    • So true – there isn’t a yes or no answer to if it is worth it, just some things to think through to help determine the right call for your situation.

  19. An additional point worth considering: it may be especially worth it for those who live in a hub city. It’s not just a distinction between “direct” and “nonstop” that matters — it’s the inherent disadvantage in originating in a city where people connect. For example, if BWI is your home base, you are unlikely to ever get an “A” boarding group without EBCI. The reason for that is because all of the people who are connecting to that flight from other east coast cities were able to check in T-24 before their originating flight. Your 10am flight from BWI to LAX might be nonstop, but the passengers who leave Boston or Albany or Manchester NH or Charleston SC at 6am to connect to the BWI-LAX flight were able to check in 28 hours before the BWI-LAX flight. You’re still not going to get ahead of those connectors who buy EBCI, but you can at least put yourself in front of the T-24 check-in-ers from those connecting cities.

  20. We normally fly SW Air if at all possible because they have, in our experience, the best record of arriving more or less on time and rarely cancelling flights. We always pay for Early Bird, although admittedly this no longer guarantees you even an A boarding group. It does, however, pretty much guarantee that there will be bin space for an appropriately sized carry-on bag. Having just traveled on some other carriers to destinations that SW does not serve, however, I would note that SW’s “cattle car” loading system is much more orderly and civilized than United’s free-for-all rugby scrum loading system to get to your assigned seat. We got in line 20 minutes before boarding and were still far back in Group 4. Bin space is precious on United, because they charge for checked baggage. For two people, SW is the only way to travel for short flights.

  21. And this is why a lot of us refer to SWA as South Worst Airline. Even if you check in, get a decent boarding number and then have the misfortune to not arrive at the airport early enough, you’re still screwed with a seat in the middle. And watching people line up in the airport according to their numbers is just so amusing. Not. I will fly any airline over SWA as long as they give a pre-assigned seat that is mine until up to 10 minutes before flight time.

  22. I’m confuse a little. I/we paid for EBCi, flying from LAS TO BWI, and our boarding pass assignments were great (A18 & A19), and we checked in exactly 24 hours to the minute prior of departure. When it was time to return, (again had paid for our EBCi when originally bought tickets), we checked in again 24 hours prior to departure, and this time our boarding pass assignment was awful (A32 & A33). Our tickets were purchased back in February. So I had to cough up $100 for us to upgrade our boarding assignments, which turned out to be great (A3 & A4). Outside of us both are seniors, we love the exit row, w/ 2 seats.

  23. It’s not worth it to me. I have usually been able to get A group by checking in T-24. When my kids were little, family boarding was fine, and now that they are bigger, I don’t really care that much if they can’t sit by me. They’ll just be on their iPads the whole flight anyway. Once I was seated many rows behind my two daughters, and when disembarking I passed their row and saw they had dropped a LOT of crumbs and wrappers on the floor. I had to chuckle because if the flight attendants had made people move so we could sit together, I would have made them pick up their own mess, but since we were forced to sit apart, it was not my problem.

  24. ENCI does not to guarantee you an A Boarding group. I just purchased early bird recently and ended up in the B group both times. To me, if you are carrying on baggage, it is still better than possibly getting stuck in the C group. What would be more fair and I am shocked Southwest Airlines has not thought of this, is to process all of the EBCI purchases first. For rexample, if the last early bird is B14, THEN let families with kids board. I realize that requires a tiny bit more effort at the gate, but even a third grader could figure that out. “Folks, our last early bird is B14. As soon as that individual boards, we will allow our families traveling with children to board. Following are family boarding, we will proceed with the rest of the B group and then with those in the C grouo.

    Come on SW, this is easy. A least then, those that do choose to pay the 15 extra dollars at least get some perk out of the deal.

    By the way, you can use my patented idea for free. Just use it. 🙂

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