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What Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In & Do I Really Need It?

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Erin Miller

Erin Miller

Content Contributor

Countries Visited: 26U.S. States Visited: 28

An experienced points hacker, Erin is Alex’s partner-in-crime and contributes to Upgraded Points with in-depth guides and relationship management. Erin’s work has been cited in multiple major publicat...
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& Keri Stooksbury

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…

What Is EarlyBird Check-In?

Image Credit: Southwest

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.

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 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.

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.

Southwest’s boarding positions are assigned based on a few factors:

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

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.

love southwest? Why not boost your points balance?! We can help. Check out our article on how to earn a stack of Southwest points (without even flying!)

Additional Notes on EarlyBird Check-In & Boarding

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.

So, Do I Need EarlyBird Check-In?

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

You’ll Probably Want EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird 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 (pre-board included in fare type)

You Probably Don’t Really Need EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird 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 Add EarlyBird Check-In

Alongside Your Original Ticket Purchase

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.

After Your Original Ticket Purchase

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:

Tips for Online Purchase: It’s really easy!

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”.

Image Credit: Southwest

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.

Adding EarlyBird for Just One Person

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.

How To Get EarlyBird Check-In For “Free”

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:

TOP PICK
Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit CardTerms Apply / Rates & Fees

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

U.P. Rating
The rating for this card has been determined by our own industry experts who know the in's and out's of credit card products. Bonuses, rewards as well as rates and fees are all taken into account. Compensation from the issuer does not affect our rating. We only recommend products we either use ourselves or endorse.

The Capital One Venture X card is an excellent option for travelers looking for an all-in-one premium credit card.

Learn More(at Capital One's secure site)

Capital One Venture X Rewards Credit Card

The Capital One Venture X card is an excellent option for travelers looking for an all-in-one premium credit card.
Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.
75,000 miles
$1,350
$395
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
Upgraded Points credit ranges are a variation of FICO®Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit cardapplication.
Excellent (740-840)

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.

 

Pros

  • 10x miles per $1 on hotels and rental cars purchased through Capital One Travel
  • 5x miles per $1 on flights purchased through Capital One Travel
  • 2x miles per $1 on all other purchases
  • $300 annual travel credit on bookings made through Capital One Travel
  • Unlimited complimentary access for cardholder and 2 guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • 10,000 bonus miles awarded on your account anniversary each year
  • Global Entry/TSA PreCheck credit
  • Add authorized users for no additional annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fees

 

Cons

  • $395 annual fee
  • Does not offer bonus categories for flights or hotel purchases made directly with the airline or hotel group, the preferred booking method for those looking to earn elite status

 

  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive a $300 annual credit for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,300+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and the Partner Lounge Network
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Elevate every hotel stay from the Premier or Lifestyle Collections with a suite of cardholder benefits, like an experience credit, room upgrades, and more
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®

Financial Snapshot

  • APR: 19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: None

Card Categories

Rewards Center

Capital One Miles

 

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit CardTerms Apply / Rates & Fees

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

U.P. Rating
The rating for this card has been determined by our own industry experts who know the in's and out's of credit card products. Bonuses, rewards as well as rates and fees are all taken into account. Compensation from the issuer does not affect our rating. We only recommend products we either use ourselves or endorse.

Get 2x miles plus some of the most flexible redemptions offered by a travel credit card!

Learn More(at Capital One's secure site)

Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card

Get 2x miles plus some of the most flexible redemptions offered by a travel credit card!
Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel.
75,000 miles
$1,350
$95
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
Upgraded Points credit ranges are a variation of FICO®Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit cardapplication.
Good to Excellent Credit (670-850)

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.

Pros

  • 5x miles per $1 on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
  • 2x miles per $1 on all other purchases
  • 2 complimentary visits to a Capital One Lounge or Plaza Premium Lounges each year
  • Global Entry or TSA PreCheck credit
  • No foreign transaction fees (rates & fees)
  • Access to Capital One transfer partners

Cons

  • Enjoy a one-time bonus of 75,000 miles once you spend $4,000 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you’ll get Capital One’s best prices on thousands of trip options
  • Miles won’t expire for the life of the account and there’s no limit to how many you can earn
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Enjoy two complimentary visits per year to Capital One Lounges or to 100+ Plaza Premium Lounges through the Partner Lounge Network
  • Use your miles to get reimbursed for any travel purchase – or redeem by booking a trip through Capital One Travel
  • Enrich every hotel stay from the Lifestyle Collection with a suite of cardholder benefits, like a $50 experience credit, room upgrades, and more
  • Transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs

Financial Snapshot

  • APR: 19.99% - 29.99% (Variable)
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: None

Card Categories

Rewards Center

Capital One Miles

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit CardTerms Apply / Rates & Fees

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

U.P. Rating
The rating for this card has been determined by our own industry experts who know the in's and out's of credit card products. Bonuses, rewards as well as rates and fees are all taken into account. Compensation from the issuer does not affect our rating. We only recommend products we either use ourselves or endorse.

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.

Learn More(at Capital One's secure site)

Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card

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.
Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel.
20,000 miles
$360
$0
19.99% - 29.99% (Variable),0% intro on purchases for 15 months
Upgraded Points credit ranges are a variation of FICO®Score 8, one of many types of credit scores lenders may use when considering your credit cardapplication.
Good to Excellent (670-850)

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?

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Ability to use transfer partners
  • Access to Capital One Dining

Cons

  • Weak earn rate at 1.25x miles per $1 spent on all purchases
  • No luxury travel or elite benefits
  • $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fees
  • Earn a bonus of 20,000 miles once you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening, equal to $200 in travel
  • Earn unlimited 1.25X miles on every purchase, every day
  • Miles won't expire for the life of the account and there's no limit to how many you can earn
  • Earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of trip options
  • Use your miles to get reimbursed for any travel purchase—or redeem by booking a trip through Capital One Travel
  • Transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Enjoy 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 15 months; 19.99% - 29.99% variable APR after that; 3% fee on the amounts transferred within the first 15 months

Financial Snapshot

  • APR: 19.99% - 29.99% (Variable),0% intro on purchases for 15 months
  • Foreign Transaction Fees: None

Card Categories

Rewards Center

Capital One Miles

Final Thoughts

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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Frequently Asked Questions

How much does Southwest charge for EarlyBird Check-In?

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.

Do you have to check in with Southwest EarlyBird?

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.

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. EarlyBird Check-In (Anytime Fare), by timestamp of purchase
  4. EarlyBird 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 EarlyBird Check-In with points?

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).

Is Southwest EarlyBird 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 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!

About Erin Miller

An experienced points hacker, Erin is Alex’s partner-in-crime and contributes to Upgraded Points with in-depth guides and relationship management. Erin’s work has been cited in multiple major publications.

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