Edited by: Stella Shon
& Keri Stooksbury
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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 EarlyBird Check-In comes into play.
So what is EarlyBird Check-In, and do you really need it? Let’s take a look…
EarlyBird 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, EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird Check-In on each specific route.
To realize how EarlyBird Check-In can be a plus, we need to take a look at 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 EarlyBird 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.
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.
Southwest’s boarding positions are assigned based on a few factors:
Hot Tip: In general, the earlier you check-in, the better your boarding position will be when flying Southwest (cue EarlyBird Check-In light bulb!).
Southwest Pre-Boarding: SWA states that pre-boarding 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 pre-board 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 pre-board, agents may ask the passenger “fact-finding questions”. Those who meet the qualifications will receive a new boarding pass with a pre-board 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 pre-board passenger is that only one “travel companion” acting as an attendant may pre-board alongside them. Any other family/friend is required to board with by their assigned boarding group and number.
A small detail to note: Pre-board 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 EarlyBird 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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Southwest doesn’t limit the number of passengers who can purchase Early-Bird Check-In.
This means that purchasing EarlyBird Check-In won’t necessarily guarantee you an A boarding position.
Does that mean there’s a boarding order within the EarlyBirders? The short answer is yes.
Southwest states EarlyBird customers who purchased an Anytime fare will receive priority over those who purchased other fare types (such as Wanna Get Away or Wanna Get Away plus). After that delineation, “boarding positions are assigned based on the timestamp 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 EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird Check-In to a flight after purchase up to 36 hours before a flight’s scheduled local departure time.
EarlyBird Check-In is nonrefundable.
If a customer cancels his or her flight, the EarlyBird Check-In fee for that particular flight is not refunded. However, if the flight is canceled by Southwest, the fee will be refunded.
Technically, no one needs EarlyBird Check-In. On the other hand, whether or not you want it depends largely on your personal preferences.
If you’re purchasing a ticket on Southwest.com or via the mobile app, there’s no doubt you’ll be prompted with a pop-up or other notification asking if you’d like to add EarlyBird Check-In to your ticket.
If the answer is yes, simply select it at that time and continue with your purchase.
If you’re making a reservation over the phone with an agent, they will ask if you’d like to purchase EarlyBird before completing your transaction.
If you don’t’ select EarlyBird Check-In with your original ticket purchase, you can still add it to your itinerary up to 36 hours prior to your flight’s scheduled local departure time.
You can do this by accessing your reservation:
If you’re opting for adding the perk online, you simply need to enter your confirmation number, first, and last name. Southwest will then bring up your itinerary and the proposed pricing at which point you choose “Continue”.
You will then be directed to a payment page where you enter your preferred method of payment and select “Purchase”.
And that’s it – EarlyBird Check-In has been added to your itinerary! You should receive an e-mail confirmation of this addition.
Technically, yes, but you have to go a slightly round-about way to do so.
If you’re purchasing a group of tickets together but want to add EarlyBird Check-In for just one person, do not purchase EarlyBird Check-In with your original ticket purchase. (At the original purchase point, you’ll only have the option to add it to all passengers on the itinerary.)
If you want to add EarlyBird for just one person, you have to add early-bird to an existing itinerary. You can do this in the same way we explained in the “After Your Original Ticket Purchase” section just above this.
If you have the right credit card in your wallet, your EarlyBird Check-In fee can be paid for by using your miles to pay off those expenses. Each Capital One card mentioned below allows you to redeem miles for 1 cent each as a statement credit for previous travel purchases (within 90 days).
The table below outlines some of our preferred cards:
The Capital One Venture X card is an excellent option for travelers looking for an all-in-one premium credit card.
The Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card is the premium Capital One travel rewards card on the block.
Points and miles fans will be surprised to see that the Capital One Venture X card packs quite the punch when it comes to bookings made through Capital One, all while offering the lowest annual fee among premium credit cards.
Depending on your travel goals and preferences, the Capital One Venture X card could very well end up being your go-to card in your wallet.
Get 2x miles plus some of the most flexible redemptions offered by a travel credit card!
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is one of the most popular rewards cards on the market. It’s perfect for anyone in search of a great welcome offer, high rewards rates, and flexible redemption options.
Frequent travelers with excellent credit may benefit from this credit card that offers a lot of bells and whistles. And it offers easy-to-understand rewards earning and redemption.
The card offers unlimited miles at 1.25x per $1 and no annual fee. When you consider the flexible rewards, frequent travelers come out on top.
Interested in a travel rewards credit card without one of those pesky annual fees? Then say hello to the Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card, the no-annual-fee version of the more popular Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card.
In addition to no annual fee, the Capital One VentureOne card offers no foreign transaction fees.
But is this card worth its salt, or is it merely a shell of the more popular Capital One Venture card?
EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird Check-In is basically free!
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As of February 5, 2018, EarlyBird Check-In costs $15 per one-way ticket. Southwest notes that a credit card must be used to purchase this add-on.
Southwest EarlyBird Check-In is an automatic check-in process. Passengers who have purchased EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird.
Southwest determines boarding order as follows:
No. EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird fee (see table above).
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 EarlyBird.
If you’re in conflict, remember you’re saving cash on checked bags – the $15 per ticket for EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird Check-In is basically free!
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