What Is Southwest Early Bird Check-In® & Do I Really Need It?

Southwest Airlines Early Bird Check-In

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Southwest Airlines is an extremely popular U.S. low-cost carrier for a number of reasons. They regularly offer cheaper fares compared to other airlines, and they’re very transparent about their fees. Southwest doesn’t charge for most of your luggage (your carry-on and first 2 bags fly free), and they don’t issue change or cancellation fees.

Additionally, Southwest gets pretty great customer satisfaction ratings and provides a fairly comfortable inflight experience with some freebies along the way.

However, when it comes to seat assignments and boarding, Southwest does things a little differently — that’s where their Early Bird Check-In® comes into play.

So what is Early Bird Check-In, and do you really need it? Let’s take a look…

What Is Early Bird Check-In?

Southwest Early Bird Check-In Updated Fees
Image courtesy of southwest.com.

Early Bird Check-In is an optional Southwest Airlines add-on that provides the ticket holder with automatic check-in starting at 36 hours prior to the flight’s scheduled departure time.

For $15-$25 one-way, Early Bird Check-In customers are automatically checked in and assigned a boarding number before the general 24-hour self-check-in period. Pricing depends on the length of the route and the popularity or demand for Early Bird Check-In on each specific route.

To realize how Early Bird Check-In can be a plus, we need to take a look at Southwest’s boarding process.

Southwest Airlines Boarding Groups & Process

If you’ve never flown Southwest, their boarding process can be slightly confusing. If you’re familiar, you’ll instantly see the benefits of Early Bird Check-In.

Southwest Airlines doesn’t assign seats. Instead, passengers line up at the gate according to boarding position; once called, they are free to sit in any available seat on the plane.

So how does Southwest decide who boards first?

Boarding numbers are assigned by Group (A, B, or C) and Boarding Position (1-60). Boarding flows in order from A1 through C60. Again, once you board the plane, you may sit in any available seat.

Boarding positions are assigned based on a few factors:

  • Fare type purchased (Business vs. Anytime vs. Wanna Get Away)
  • Status with the airline
  • Whether you’re traveling with a family
  • Time at which you check in
  • “Preboarding” qualifications

Hot Tip: In general, the earlier you check in, the better your boarding position (cue Early Bird Check-In light bulb!).

Preboarding: SWA states that preboarding is reserved for customers that have a “specific seating need”. This need may be considered to accommodate a disability and/or need for assistance in boarding or stowing an assistive device.

All passengers requesting a preboard designation should notify a Southwest Airlines employee either at the ticket counter or at the departure gate, prior to boarding. In order to verify a passenger’s necessity to preboard, agents may ask the passenger “factfinding questions”. Those who meet the qualifications will receive a new boarding pass with a preboard designation.

Southwest also states that if a customer with a disability simply needs a little extra time to board, they will be permitted between Group A and Group B, before Family Boarding. These individuals should also speak with a gate agent and will likely be reissued a boarding pass with an extra time designation.

SWA’s general policy for those traveling with a preboard passenger is that only one “travel companion” acting as an attendant may preboard alongside them. Any other family/friend is required to board with by their assigned boarding group and number.

A small detail to note: Preboard individuals may not occupy an exit seat.

Positions A1-A15: Reserved for Business Select customers

This doesn’t mean A16 is always the sixteenth person to board — there aren’t always 15 people who purchased a business fare. If there are open A1-A15 positions (i.e., 15 business fares haven’t been sold), then the gate attendant may give passengers an option of upgrading their position just before the boarding process begins for $30, $40, or $50 per segment depending on the itinerary.

The best positions following A1-A15: Usually assigned to A-List Preferred/A-List Members and passengers with EarlyBird Check-In.

Southwest states that these distinctions in and of themselves do not guarantee an A boarding position, but they do ensure that you will receive the earliest position available.

Family Boarding: Families traveling with children 6 years of age or younger are allowed to board together between A and B groups.

Non-priority positions: General positions are distributed after all Business fare, status, and Early Bird Check-In passengers have been assigned.

The remaining boarding positions are assigned in order of the time a passenger checks in. For this reason, you’ll find many Southwest passengers set reminders to ensure they’re checking in at the very moment check-in opens.

This can be a huge pain if you’re busy at that time or you simply forget the 24-hour policy. Earlier boarding positions usually go in a matter of minutes.

Additionally, if the flight is pretty full and you’re the last to board, there’s a chance that your carry-on may not fit in the overhead compartments, meaning it will have to be checked. Southwest doesn’t charge extra for this, but if you’ve only packed a carry-on to expedite your airport process, you’ll probably be disappointed having to wait at baggage claim.

Remember, even if there are quite a few families (flights to Orlando for example), they all get to board between A and B groups.

A note about boarding “direct flights”: A direct flight is where a plane flies from an initial destination to a final destination via one or more intermediate airports. In the case of a direct flight, the flight number does not change and passengers already onboard that are flying straight through to the route’s final destination do not have to disembark.

This is a consideration in regards to boarding as these passengers will be on the plane, occupying seats, prior to new passengers boarding.

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Additional Notes on Early Bird Check-In & Boarding

Southwest doesn’t limit the number of passengers who can purchase Early-Bird Check-In.

This means that purchasing Early Bird Check-In won’t necessarily guarantee you an A boarding position.

Does that mean there’s a boarding order within the early birders? The short answer is yes.

Southwest states Early Bird customers who purchased an Anytime fare will receive priority over those who purchased other fare types (such as Wanna Get Away). After that delineation, “boarding positions are assigned based on the time stamp of the EarlyBird Check-In purchase relative to passengers within the same fare class.” (source)

Basically, the earlier you purchase your ticket with the Early-Bird add-on, the higher your boarding number will be.

When can Early Bird Check-In be purchased?

Customers usually purchase EarlyBird Check-In as part of their original flight purchase. However, if not purchased with the initial ticket, customers can add Early Bird Check-In to a flight after purchase up to 36 hours before a flight’s scheduled local departure time.

Early Bird Check-In is nonrefundable. 

If a customer cancels his or her flight, the Early Bird Check-In fee for that particular flight is not refunded. However, if the flight is canceled by Southwest, the fee will be refunded.

So, Do I Need Early Bird Check-In?

Technically, no one needs Early Bird Check-In. On the other hand, whether or not you want it depends largely on your personal preferences.

You’ll Probably Want Early Bird Check-In If…

  • You can’t check in exactly 24hrs before departure and do care about where you sit
  • You may not remember to check in 24hrs before departure and do care about where you sit
  • You prefer to sit near the front of the plane (turbulence is generally less severe for passengers toward the front)
  • You prefer an aisle seat, window seat, bulkhead seat, or exit row (or just despise the middle seat)
  • You’re not traveling with children, but you’re on a flight to a destination that’s family-friendly (e.g., Orlando/Disney)

You Don’t Need Early Bird Check-In If…

  • You bought a Business Select fare
  • You have A-List preferred or A-List status
  • You have family boarding (traveling with children 6 years old and under)
  • You need “extra time” or assistance boarding the plane
  • You’re buying a ticket for an unaccompanied minor (preboard included in fare type)

You Probably Don’t Really Need Early Bird Check-In If…

  • You’re uber confident in your 24hr check-in skills
  • You don’t really care where you sit or what type of seat you sit in
    • Keep in mind boarding positions go fast, and you never know how many other passengers have opted for this add-on.
  • You’re traveling with a friend or partner who has a Business Fare, status on Southwest, or Early Bird Check-In
    • Technically, “saving seats” is discouraged, but it’s rarely reprimanded.
  • Your flight is at an obscure time on an unpopular day or route

You Might Be On The Fence About Early Bird Check-In If…

  • You might have to cancel your flight — remember Early-Bird is nonrefundable!
    • You can always wait a little while and add it later, as long as you purchase before the 36hr deadline
  • Your family is traveling together, but your children are over 7 years old
    • Family boarding between A and B groups only applies to those traveling with children 6 and under
  • You’re traveling with friends and don’t want to be split up
  • Your flight has come from another city, and passengers already on board are passing through to your destination with no plane change

Bottom Line: In our opinion, if the up-charge isn’t a huge financial strain and you don’t want the stress of boarding toward the end of the pack, go ahead and add it.

How to Get Early Bird Check-In For “Free”

If you have the right credit card in your wallet, your Early Bird Check-In fee can be reimbursed as a part of your yearly travel credit.

The table below outlines which cards allow for this great little travel hack.

Final Thoughts

Early Bird Check-In can be useful if you don’t want to deal with the stress of Southwest’s self-check-in policy, which requires action exactly 24 hours before departure. Additionally, you should strongly consider Early Bird Check-In if you’re pretty particular about your seat; while it doesn’t guarantee A Group boarding, it certainly gives you a much better chance of nabbing your desired spot.

However, if you’ve already got priority boarding through your business class fare or status, you won’t need this add-on. Similarly, if you’re traveling with kids under 6, you’ll already board right after A Group and likely won’t need it either.

Lastly, you could be on the fence. If you’re going back and forth about it and you’re worried about the added cost, remember you’re already saving on baggage fees (which are usually ~$25-$40 a piece on other airlines), so $15 per ticket doesn’t seem all that bad. Alternatively, if you’re on a route where the fee is $25 per ticket, the decision could be a bit more difficult.

As a last note, remember – if you’ve optimized your purchase by using a credit card that covers the fee, your Early Bird Check-In is basically free!


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Southwest Early Bird Check-In Explained

FAQ

How much does Southwest charge for Early Bird Check-In?

As of February 5, 2018, Early Bird Check-In costs $15 per one-way ticket. Southwest notes that a credit card must be used to purchase this add-on.

Do you have to check in with Southwest Early Bird?

Southwest Early Bird Check-In is an automatic check-in process. Passengers who have purchased Early Bird Check-In are automatically checked in for their flight starting at 36 hours before departure. Passengers do NOT have to perform self-check-in at 24 hours if they purchase Early Bird.

How does Southwest determine boarding order?

Southwest determines boarding order as follows:

  1. Business Select Fare ticket holders (guaranteed A1-A15)
  2. A-List preferred & A-List status members
  3. Early Bird Check-In (Anytime Fare), by timestamp of purchase
  4. Early Bird Check-In (Other Fares), by timestamp of purchase
  5. General ticket holders in order of 24-hour check-in

Exceptions:

  • Unaccompanied minors: pre-board
  • Individuals with a disability and others requiring boarding assistance: pre-board
  • Family Boarding (those traveling with children ages 6 and under): board between A and B groups
  • Passengers who paid to upgrade boarding position (when available with gate agent): pre-board

Can I pay for Early Bird Check-In with points?

No. Early Bird Check-In can only be paid for with a credit card.

However, some credit cards offer a travel credit that will reimburse you for this Early Bird fee (see table above).

Is Southwest Early Bird Check-In Worth It?

The answer really depends on your travel preferences.  If you don’t want the stress of 24hr self-check-in and you’re particular about which seat you get (aisle vs window, front vs back) then it could definitely be worth it.

If you’re a business traveler and already have priority boarding (or any other traveler with priority boarding – i.e. you have status, you’re a family with kids under 6) then you won’t need Early Bird.

If you’re in conflict, remember you’re saving cash on checked bags – the $15 per ticket for Early Bird is quite a bit less than the typical baggage fees on other airlines. AND, if you use the right rewards-based credit card this fee could be covered – your Early Bird Check-In is basically free!

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23 comments

  1. evelyn duchay · September 7, 2018 · Reply

    my phone tells me the price is $25 not $15.00 for each way! Pretty bad to have to pay $50.00 for this.

    • Hi Evelyn – yes, we recently learned about this too and are about to update the piece. Thank you for the nudge.

      $50, as you say, is pretty hefty and I’m sure it’ll turn away a lot of people who were previously buying Early-Bird. $15 e/w was fine, $25 is not fun.

      Airlines can be generous (e.g. Southwest don’t charge for seat selection or baggage) but then as you can see, it is made up in other areas!

  2. Cindy Mayers · September 22, 2018 · Reply

    My daughter and friend are travelling from Las Vegas to Denver, then to New York on Southwest. They have a early check in ticket and Wanna Get Away.
    If they log on 24 hours before will it show they have checked in if it normally does it 36 hours before? Just want to make sure it will all be ok for them.
    They will also have 2 bags to check will they have to do at the airport?
    Sorry I’m from Australia and your airlines are different then ours. Thank you so much.

  3. Ptrombetta · September 29, 2018 · Reply

    I paid for upgrade at the airport in Baltimore and received A5 to board however the gate attendant let on first not only people reboarding but also families and allegedly, people with “ medical conditions” one of those were a couple not much older than me with clear B passes and a very fit woman with her dog. We were told they had medical conditions when we questioned the gate attendant. Apparently, that gate attendant did not read this article and needs to be retrained. I want a refund!

  4. Cynthia · October 7, 2018 · Reply

    I purchased the Early Bird Check In. When and how do I get my boarding pass? Do I automatically receive an email of the boarding pass when they automatically check me in?

    • Stephen Au · October 8, 2018 · Reply

      Hey Cynthia, you will receive an e-mail of the boarding pass and you will be automatically checked in if you purchase Early Bird check-in.

  5. Is there any advantage to purchasing your tickets in advance at the southwest ticket counter?

    • Hi Bill, I don’t totally follow. The boarding number that you get when buying Early Bird depends on the number of other passengers who have also bought an Early Bird, as well as A-list members on the flight. In other words, the sooner you buy your ticket with early-bird, the lower your boarding number will be. It’s almost always an “A” number when buying Early Bird. For quiet flights that we’ve booked early on, we’ve been allocated A11 or A12 (from memory) but usually you’re in the A20’s.

  6. I purchased the early-bird check-in. Will I have to print out a boarding pass before heading to the airport, or can I just show SWA employees the email on my phone indicating the boarding pass? I won’t have access to a printer. Thanks.

    • Hi Carol, if you download the actual boarding pass on your phone you will be able to board with that. I usually snap a screenshot of it and keep it in my photos so I don’t have to go through the process of logging into my e-mail, etc when time is tight like at security and when boarding. Have it pulled up and ready or the lovely passengers in line behind you will likely get a bit agitated.

      Alternatively, Southwest has self-check-in kiosks at most airports, where even though you’ll already technically be checked in thanks to your early-bird status, you can print your boarding pass if you want a paper copy.

  7. Mile Horan · October 16, 2018 · Reply

    I paid 25,00 for me and my wife round trip, What is the difference between 15.00 and 25.00. For 2 people round trip it is 100.00 on my end vs 60.00…Also so how can I find out if I’m an A list preferred

    • Hi Mile,

      The difference in pricing is according to the length of the flight and the popularity of early bird check-in on the route in question – it’s determined by Southwest & subject to change at any time.

      In terms of A-list and A-list preferred status, here is the criteria set forth by SWA:

      “To qualify for A-List status, you will need to fly 25 Southwest Airlines® one-way qualifying flights or earn 35,000 tier qualifying points per calendar year. To qualify for A-List Preferred status, you will need to fly 50 Southwest Airlines one-way qualifying flights or earn 70,000 tier qualifying points per calendar year. A one-way qualifying flight is defined as a one-way revenue trip on Southwest Airlines from an origin city to a destination city, including any intermediate stops and/or connections on Southwest Airlines. Points must be earned and posted to your Rapid Rewards® account prior to the end of the calendar year in order to count toward A-List or A-List Preferred status qualification.”

      You can find more details here.

  8. Nancy Jewell · October 24, 2018 · Reply

    I am a novice flyer and need to clarify what I need to do with Early Bird Check In which I purchased. Will SWA automatically notify me by email that I am checked in 36 hours in advance of my flight? Will they email me the actual boarding pass that I could print out or do I need to go to a kiosk at the airport to print one?

    • Katie Seemann · October 25, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Nancy,
      Yes, if you purchase Early Bird Check In you will receive and email from Southwest with your boarding pass. You can keep it on your phone to scan or you can print it out. If for any reason you don’t get the email or if you can’t find it, you will also be able to print out a boarding pass at the Southwest kiosk in the airport. Hope this helps!

  9. Anne DeGroff · November 7, 2018 · Reply

    I am flying to Baltimore, MD from Albany, NY on 11/21. My son made the arrangements with a SW gift card he bought me. I want to purchase Early Bird check in. Do I do that 36 hours before the flight? And what would be the charge for that since I am flying Albany NY -Baltimore, MD?

    • Hi Anne, do NOT wait until 36 hours before your flight – you will want to purchase Early Bird Check-In as soon as you know you would like to add it to your ticket. 36 hours is the time at which Southwest checks in anyone that has purchased early-bird check-in so you’ll be too late if you wait!

      This is what Southwest has to say: “EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased on Southwest.com, over the phone with one of our Reservation Agents, our mobile site, and apps, up to 36 hours prior to a flight’s scheduled local departure time.”

      You can log in here with your confirmation number and your name to find out the price.

  10. The app is charging $40.00 for the entire trip not $30. How do I get the Early Bird for $15.00?

    • Hi Jackie, Southwest’s new policy on Early Bird Check-In states the price is “starting from 15” and can be anywhere from $15 to $25 (one way). According to Southwest, the difference in pricing correlates to the length of the flight and the popularity of early bird check-in on the route in question – it’s determined by Southwest & subject to change at any time.

      Therefore, it’s likely that each leg of your trip is priced at $20, not the low end of $15. Hope this helps…

  11. I purchased a ticket for me and my son and added the Early Bird. I understand I will get an email with my boarding pass. Will I also get an email for my son’s boarding pass. I did not give SWA his email information.

    • Stephen Au · November 27, 2018 · Reply

      Hey John,

      You should receive both boarding passes for you and your son, assuming you bough the tickets together and you’re both on the same reservation.

  12. If we have 3 on our reservation, can we purchase early for 1 passenger and have them “hold” seats?

    • Christine Krzyszton · December 10, 2018 · Reply

      Hi Angie. Technically, you can do this as Southwest does not have a policy against holding seats for others. However, if other passengers have paid for Early Bird, they would be entitled to sit in those seats if they choose to. The other 2 travelers in your party did not pay. So, the answer is yes you can do it but other passengers might be upset.

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