Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?
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To The Point
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…
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Southwest Airlines doesn’t have fancy onboard offerings such as first class or extra legroom economy plus seats, but it does have a unique boarding process where you are assigned a specific boarding number that determines when you can board 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 to board the plane. However, 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.
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, if available, for $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).
Official application links: Don’t miss out on these 40,000-point offers on the Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card, Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card, and Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. (Earn 40,000 points after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months of account opening.)
Next, come 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. All this means that simply checking in exactly at 24 hours before your flight won’t get you ahead of those travelers, either. There is also the issue of those who are already on the plane from a previous segment on a routing that makes stops on the way 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 since Southwest regularly sells tickets that require stops without plane changes.
What Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-in
Now that you understand that even checking in for your Southwest flight at exactly 24 hours out won’t score you one of the very best boarding pass assignments, let’s talk about Southwest EarlyBird Check-In itself. 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 24 hours before departure. 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 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 monetary 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 before 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?
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.
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 your family or group must 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. Note that EarlyBird Check-In should trigger The Platinum Card® from American Express annual airline fee credit if you have selected Southwest as your airline for the year.
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.
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 for the purchase. Plus, consider picking up a Southwest credit card if your family enjoys traveling the country (and beyond) on Southwest.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express (5x Membership Rewards on airfare booked directly with airlines or through Amex Travel)
- Citi Premier® Card (3x ThankYou points)
- Chase Sapphire Reserve (3x Ultimate Rewards points; excluding $300 travel credit)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Performance Business Credit Card (3x Southwest points)
- Chase Sapphire Preferred Card (2x Ultimate Rewards points)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card (2x Southwest points)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card (2x Southwest points)
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Credit Card (2x Southwest points)
Or, you can put the purchase on a card that reimburses miscellaneous airline fees such as (enrollment required):
- Chase Sapphire Reserve ($300 travel credit each calendar year)
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card (up to $250 airline incidentals credit). Terms apply.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express (up to $200 airline fee reimbursement). Terms apply.
Featured image by author.
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