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
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 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.

To realize why this is a plus, we need to take a look at Southwest’s boarding process.

An Explanation of Southwest’s Boarding 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

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

Positions A1-A15 (the first to board): 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.

Hot Tip: Looking to boost your Southwest points balance? Well, here are the 17 best ways you can earn more Southwest points!

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

In our opinion, if the upcharge 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.

Credit CardCard & Fee Reimbursement Details
Barclays Arrival® Premier World Elite MasterCard®

Barclays Arrival® Premier World Elite Mastercard®
  • Use your miles to cover any qualifying travel purchases of $100 or more, including baggage fees.
  • Earn 2X miles on every purchase made with the card.
  • Plus, EACH YEAR earn up to 25,000 loyalty bonus miles
  • Annual Fee: $150 (waived first year)
  • Rates & Fees
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express

Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express
  • $100 Airline Fee Credit. Up to $100 a calendar year for baggage fees at one airline. Terms Apply.
  • Earn 25,000 points after you use your new Card to make $2,000 in purchases within the first 3 months.
  • 3x points for flights booked directly with airlines.
  • 2X points at US restaurants, US gas stations, and at US supermarkets.
  • Annual Fee: $0 for the first year, then $195
The Platinum Card® from American Express

The Platinum Card® from American Express
  • $200 airline fee credit per calendar year on your previously designated airline. Terms Apply.
  • Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® points after you use your new Card to make $5,000 in purchases in your first 3 months.
  • 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel.
  • Access more than 1,100 airport lounges across 120 countries and counting, including the amazing Centurion® lounges.
  • Up to $200 Uber Savings Annually.
  • $200 Airline Fee Credit. Terms Apply.
  • Annual Fee: $550
The Business Platinum Card® from American Express OPEN

The Business Platinum® Card from American Express OPEN
  • $200 airline fee credit per calendar year on your previously designated airline. Terms Apply.
  • Welcome Offer: Earn up to 75,000 Membership Rewards® Points.
  • Earn 50,000 Membership Rewards® points after you spend $10,000 & an extra 25,000 points after you spend an additional $10,000 all on qualifying purchases within your first 3 months of Card Membership.
  • Get 5X Membership Rewards® points on flights and prepaid hotels on amextravel.com.
  • Access more than 1,200 airport lounges across 130 countries and counting, including the amazing Centurion® lounges. Terms Apply.
  • Annual Fee: $450

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 the $15 per ticket doesn’t seem all that bad.

Plus, 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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