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For $15 – $25 you can pay Southwest Airlines to check you into your flight 36 hours before departure via their EarlyBird Check-in program. By doing this you will hopefully secure an earlier boarding assignment so you can score a better seat. Here’s a look at how Southwest EarlyBird Check-In works and whether it is worth it…

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 terrible if you have a good boarding group number.

In This Post

Checking In at 24 hours Won’t Get You the Best Boarding Group

At the heart of the Southwest boarding system is the concept that you want to check-in for your flight exactly 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. However, if you have the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card or Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card, know that each of those cards comes with four included A 1–15 slots each year (which is why these are some of our favorite Southwest cards for families).

(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)
(Photo by Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

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 either. 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.

(Marco Garcia/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Marco Garcia/The Points Guy)

What Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In

Now that you understand that even checking in at exactly 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.

(Photo by Jessica Puckett/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Jessica Puckett/The Points Guy)

This EarlyBird Check-In option now costs up to $25 per person per direction of travel. Originally this was only $10, but the price now varies by flight and represents a real investment if you have multiple people traveling. For our family of four, we would be out up to $200 to use EarlyBird 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 completely 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.

(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Yellin / DealsWeLike.com)
(Photo courtesy of Jennifer Yellin / DealsWeLike.com)

Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In Worth It?

Given all that, 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 OK with Family Boarding. Family Boarding is available for children 6 and under, their child siblings and up to two adults. This boarding 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.

Southwest Family Boarding
Southwest Family Boarding after Group A (Summer Hull / The Points Guy)

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 — such as on a Southwest flight to Hawaii. 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 simply reduces your stress or anxiety about the flight, then that by itself can be worth the cost.

My family occasionally purchase EarlyBird Check-In simply to make the whole process of flying Southwest easier, especially on longer segments. However, we don’t always purchase it because family boarding is often a sufficient time to get seats together since we still have a younger child who qualifies.

(Katie Genter / The Points Guy)
(Katie Genter / The Points Guy)

Buy Southwest EarlyBird Check-In for Certain People or Flights

Know that you can also choose to purchase EBCI just for a portion of your trip, or even just for certain travelers on the journey. It doesn’t have to be an all or nothing decision.

Bottom Line

At $15–$25 per person, Southwest EarlyBird Check-In can be worth the cost, but it won’t always be a slam-dunk deal, especially if Family Boarding is an option for your group. 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.

If you do decide to purchase Southwest EarlyBird Check-In, you can earn bonus points from using the right credit card, plus consider picking up a Southwest credit card if your family enjoys traveling the country (and beyond) on Southwest.

Or, you can put the purchase on a card that reimburses miscellaneous airline fees such as:

Featured image by author.

Know before you go.

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Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card

Earn 2 points $1 on Southwest and Rapid Rewards car and hotel purchases and 1 point per $1 on all other purchases. This card also comes with an annual $75 travel credit.

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More Things to Know
  • Earn 40,000 points after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
  • 7,500 bonus points after your Cardmember anniversary.
  • $75 Southwest® travel credit each year.
  • 4 Upgraded Boardings per year when available.
  • 20% back on in-flight drinks and WiFi.
  • 2 points per $1 spent on Southwest® purchases and Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partner purchases.
  • 1 point per $1 spent on all other purchases.
  • No foreign transaction fees.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
18.24% - 25.24% Variable
Annual Fee
$149
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each balance transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

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