Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?
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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
Southwest Airlines doesn’t have fancy onboard offerings. 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 is important since Southwest uses first-come, first-served seating. The earlier you board, the better seat options you’ll have.
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. While it feels a bit like you are lining up like cattle to board the plane, once you get the hang of it, it isn’t that terrible – at least if you have a good boarding group number.
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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. After all, Southwest assigns boarding assignments in the order you check in for the flight. However, as with almost everything in the airline industry, it isn’t quite that simple.
The coveted first A 1-15 spots go to those who purchase pricier Business Select fares. You can also sometimes upgrade to an A 1-15 boarding spot on the day of travel – but only if Business Select customers don’t fill the A 1–15 slots.
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 upgraded boardings to A 1-15 slots per year. This perk is part of why these cards are some of our favorite Southwest cards for families.
Next in order come those with Southwest A-List or A-List Preferred elite status, as these travelers are automatically assigned a boarding number before the 24-hour mark. Checking in precisely 24 hours before your flight won’t get you ahead of those travelers, either.
Finally, there is also the issue of passengers who booked a direct but not nonstop flight. 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. After all, Southwest regularly sells tickets that require stops without plane changes.
What is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In
Now, let’s talk about Southwest EarlyBird Check-In itself. EarlyBird Check-In service allows you to automatically reserve your boarding spot starting 36 hours before your flight.
EarlyBird Check-In 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.
EarlyBird Check-In costs $15 to $25 per person per direction of travel. The price 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.
However, note that several Southwest credit cards offer a few EarlyBird Check-Ins on each card anniversary. And 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.
While Southwest has flexible policies for changing your flight, the money you spend on EarlyBird Check-In is not refundable. If you cancel your flight, Southwest doesn’t refund your EarlyBird Check-In purchase. If you change your flight at least 25 hours before the original flight’s scheduled departure and change to a flight that doesn’t depart for at least 25 hours, then the EarlyBird Check-In will 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. For example, the exact boarding position isn’t all that important to some travelers and some passengers may not be able to afford the extra cost. Meanwhile, some family travelers may be OK with family boarding. After all, Southwest allows “two adults traveling with a child six years old or younger” to board during family boarding.
Family boarding takes place between the A and B groups. So, if your family meets the family boarding criteria, you are helped by having an A boarding pass but not hurt by having a B or C boarding pass.
If you have the budget to consider buying EarlyBird Check-In, 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 that allow all of you to sit together by that time, it could be worth it. It also may be worth it if you know you will be too busy at the 24-hour mark 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.
My family occasionally purchases EarlyBird Check-In to make the process of flying Southwest easier, especially on longer segments. However, we don’t always buy it because family boarding is often sufficient for getting seats together.
Finally, know that you can purchase EarlyBird Check-In just for one direction of your trip or just for a few travelers. In short, it doesn’t have to be an all-or-nothing decision. If you only want to purchase EarlyBird Check-In for some travelers, purchase the flights for your entire group and then log in to add EarlyBird Check-In to the existing itinerary for the desired travelers.
At $15 to $25 per person each way, Southwest EarlyBird Check-In can be worth the cost. However, it won’t always be a slam-dunk deal — especially if family boarding is an option for your group.
If you decide to purchase Southwest EarlyBird Check-In, you can earn bonus points from using the right credit card for the purchase. Or, consider picking up a Southwest credit card if your family enjoys traveling the country (and beyond) on Southwest. Here are the links:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card
Each card currently offers 75,000 bonus points after spending $5,000 on purchases in the first three months. Some of these cards offer a few EarlyBird Check-Ins on each card anniversary.
Otherwise, consider putting your EarlyBird Check-In purchase on a card that reimburses miscellaneous airline fees, such as:
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: $300 travel credit each calendar year.
- Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: up to $250 airline fee credit, terms apply.
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: up to $200 airline fee credit, terms apply.
The information for the Hilton Aspire Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Note that you’ll need to enroll before using the airline fee credits on some of these cards.
Featured image by Katie Genter/The Points Guy.
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