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Can you upgrade on Southwest Airlines?

July 24, 2022
8 min read
Southwest Boeing 737 LAX
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated to reflect that upgraded boardings may be purchased both online and at the airport.

Southwest Airlines doesn't offer your traditional upgrade options. That's because the airline doesn't have a first class cabin, and unlike ultra-low-cost competitor Spirit Airlines, Southwest doesn't have any first-class-sized seats, either.

If you're looking to fly lavishly in lie-flat seats, you're not going to find those on Southwest. There are some steps you can take before and during your trip, though, to try and set yourself up for the most pleasant flight possible.

Southwest only operates a few different aircraft types, with all planes offering very similar seating regardless of where you sit on the aircraft. And since Southwest operates with an open seating policy where there are no advance seat assignments, perhaps the best way you can upgrade your experience on the airline is to get a chance to board first. This allows you to pick a seat in a location that fits your personal preferences.

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How does Southwest's open seating policy work

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Unlike other airlines, when booking your Southwest flight, there's no option to select a seat in advance — even for a fee. Instead, Southwest has an open seating policy where passengers can select any open seat they desire upon boarding.

Because of that, being one of the first passengers to board is incredibly important if you care where you sit on the plane.

Related: How to get seats together as a family on Southwest Airlines

The boarding process on Southwest looks quite different than any other U.S. airline. It's a process that largely begins the moment you check in for your flight. Once checked in, you'll receive a boarding pass that lets you know your boarding group for your upcoming Southwest flight. Your boarding pass will be either Group A, B or C, with a numerical value between 1 and 60. This position tells you when you can board the plane; it is not your seat assignment.

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The earlier you check in, the better your boarding position will be, which is why it's of critical importance to check in as soon as you're allowed to, exactly 24 hours before a flight's scheduled departure time.

TPG Reporter Sean Cudahy swears by setting a reminder on his phone 24 hours and 1 minute before his flight's departure when he flies Southwest, so he gets the best spot in line at check-in time. Seconds can make a big difference in what your boarding assignment is.

When you arrive for your flight, you'll line up for boarding in the following order:

  • Preboarding (passengers who have a specific seating need to accommodate a disability or need assistance boarding the aircraft or stowing an assistive device).
  • Group A 1 to 60 (in numerical order).
  • Family boarding (families with at least one child aged 6 or under), activity-duty military, A-List members and A-List Preferred members.
  • Group B 1 to 60 (in numerical order).
  • Group C 1 to 60 (in numerical order).

However, there are a few ways to get a better boarding position — either by having Southwest status or paying for a better spot in line.

How to score a better seat

With no first- or business-class cabins on its flights, you can only upgrade your experience on Southwest by getting an earlier boarding position. And your boarding order can mean you'll end up with only a choice of middle seats near the back of the plane, as opposed to a window or aisle seat closer to the front.

If you purchased a Business Select fare (the most expensive ticket), you'll automatically receive an A1 through A15 boarding position, making you among the first passengers on board.

There are a few other options for how you can improve your boarding order, and thus your experience.

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

EarlyBird Check-In

When reserving your flight — or at any point up to 36 hours in advance of the scheduled departure time — you can purchase EarlyBird Check-In for your reservation. The cost is between $15 and $25 per passenger (pricing varies for each flight).

If you purchase EarlyBird Check-In, Southwest will automatically check you in for your flight before the traditional 24-hour check-in mark. This will generally give you a better boarding position, though it doesn't guarantee a spot in the "A" group. Since EarlyBird Check-In is already an included benefit for passengers purchasing Anytime fares, this fee is only something for passengers to consider if they've booked Wanna Get Away and Wanna Get Away Plus fares.

Related: Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?

Since there's no limit to the number of passengers on a single flight who can purchase EarlyBird Check-In, you'll want to add it to your flight as early as possible, because the boarding positions are allocated based on when EarlyBird Check-In is purchased. Additionally, passengers who have purchased an Anytime fare will get priority over those who have purchased a Wanna Get Away or Wanna Get Away Plus fare.

While the EarlyBird Check-In fee is nonrefundable, if you change your Southwest flight — instead of canceling and re-booking — this benefit can still follow you to your new flight, though there are some important parameters to know. In order to retain the benefit, the new flight must depart more than 25 hours or more from the point you made the change. If the new flight departs in less than 25 hours, you'll lose your nonrefundable EarlyBird Check-In fee. You'll have to contact Southwest Airlines about transferring your EarlyBird Check-In if your new itinerary includes a new departure or arrival city.

Upgraded Boarding

Upgraded Boarding is an alternative to EarlyBird Check-In that provides a more guaranteed boarding position. Upgraded Boarding costs $30 to $50 per segment (depending on the flight). As of August 2022, you can now purchase upgraded boardings online, through the app or at the airport.

Upgraded Boarding is a first-come, first-served option that isn't always available. But when it is, if you're willing you spend the extra money, you'll be one of the first to board as it provides an A1 to A15 boarding position.

Other ways to get early boarding

(Photo by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy)

Receiving a better boarding position can be expensive. But fortunately, there are a few ways to bypass this cost.

Southwest A-List or A-List Preferred status

Southwest Rapid Reward members that have earned A-List or A-List Preferred status will receive priority boarding as a benefit. This upgrade means that Southwest will automatically assign you — and any additional passengers on the same reservation — a boarding position 36 hours before departure. This works similarly to EarlyBird Check-In, but you'll still have to check in for your flight — Southwest won't automatically check you in. And similar to EarlyBird Check-In, being on the Southwest upgrade list for priority boarding doesn't necessarily mean you'll receive an "A" boarding position.

The only caveat is that this upgrade is only valid for reservations booked more than 36 hours before scheduled departure. If you're booking a last-minute flight or traveling on standby, you will not receive the same priority boarding benefit.

Related: What is Southwest Airlines elite status worth?

Southwest credit card

Five Southwest credit cards can get you a better boarding position for free.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card and Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card each offer two EarlyBird Check-Ins per anniversary year. Pay the EarlyBird Check-In fee with your Southwest credit card to use this benefit. Then, you'll be automatically reimbursed for the purchase.

The Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card and the Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card each provide four Upgraded Boarding each anniversary year. You'll need to pay the fee on your Southwest credit card to use this perk and then be reimbursed the purchase price.

Related: The best Southwest Airlines credit cards

Bottom line

Although Southwest doesn't have first class, there are still many ways to enhance your inflight experience by boarding earlier than other passengers.

A better boarding position will allow you to pick a preferable seat, such as a window or aisle in the front of the plane. It will help ensure that you sit with your traveling companions and allow you more time to get comfortable in your seat. You'll also have a better chance of getting nearby space in the overhead storage bins for your luggage.

Featured image by (Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.