Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In Worth It? (Maybe)

Southwest EarlyBird Check-In could be worth it if you want to get on the plane quicker, but you’re still not guaranteed to board first.
Last updated June 20, 2022 | By Ben Walker, CEPF | Edited By Melinda Sineriz
Southwest plane

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EarlyBird Check-In is an optional paid service from Southwest Airlines that offers the opportunity to receive an earlier boarding position than general boarding. Because Southwest seating works on a first-come, first-served basis, getting early boarding could help you get a better seat and access overhead bins quicker.

But at $15 to $25 per one-way flight, the cost might not always make sense. Especially because you’re not guaranteed to board first.

See how Southwest boarding works and in what situations Southwest EarlyBird Check-In might be worth it.

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In this article

Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?

Southwest EarlyBird Check-In could be worth it in certain situations, but it might not always make sense. In general, it depends on your travel preferences and whether you think this optional cost is worth paying.

Passengers who already have access to some sort of priority boarding, including family boarding, might not find EarlyBird Check-In to be worth the additional $15 to $25 expense. They already know they’ll be boarding earlier than some of the other passengers, so there’s likely not a huge reason to get EarlyBird Check-In.

The cost itself could also be off-putting. Paying $15 for some peace of mind doesn’t sound too bad, but what if the price jumps to $25 and you want it for your entire group for a round-trip flight? A relatively small fee may become $200 for a group of four.

Keep in mind that EarlyBird Check-In is nonrefundable in certain circumstances. This means if you choose to cancel your flight, don’t expect to be refunded the EarlyBird Check-In cost. If you change your flight and the new flight departs in less than 25 hours, you’ll lose EarlyBird Check-In and it won’t be refunded.

If Southwest cancels your flight, it will typically refund the cost. You should also have EarlyBird Check-In transferred to a changed flight if the new flight departs more than 25 hours from the time of the change.

In many situations, EarlyBird Check-In could definitely be worth it if you want to help ensure your group sits together, or that you get preferred seating. If it’s as simple as avoiding Southwest’s competitive standard check-in process, EarlyBird Check-In has its benefits.

How Southwest boarding works

The boarding process varies by airline, but many airlines share similarities with how they get passengers onto planes. It’s common to be separated into different zones or groups and each group is allowed to board once they’re called. Even if you’re in a later zone, you typically still have an assigned seat.

The Southwest check-in and boarding process is different. With Southwest, there are no seat assignments. All Southwest flights work according to an open seating plan, which means you get to choose between any open seat once you get onto the plane.

This can be slightly different and confusing if you’ve never flown Southwest before, but the process isn’t complicated once you get the hang of it. Where the complication occurs is knowing who gets to board first.

Southwest has three boarding groups (A, B, and C) and numbers (1 to 60) within each group. The general rule is that the A boarding position group boards first, then B, then C. And within each group, the lower numbers board first. So A1 would board before A30, B1 before B30, and C1 before C30.

Gate agents announce when it’s time to board and who will board next. Each group, starting with A, assembles in a specified boarding area according to numerical order.

You typically receive a boarding assignment, including a group and boarding number, when you complete Southwest check-in for your flight. Your position shows up on your boarding pass. Standard check-in starts 24 hours before flight departure. The quicker you check in, the higher your chances of getting an earlier boarding position.

However, here are a few variables to keep in mind that could affect boarding positions or seat selection:

  • Business Select fare: Purchasing a Business Select fare guarantees an A1 to A15 boarding position.
  • Rapid Rewards elite status: Passengers with Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List status receive automatic check-in 36 hours before flight departure.
  • EarlyBird Check-In: Purchasing EarlyBird Check-In provides automatic check-in 36 hours before flight departure. EarlyBird Check-In is automatically included with the purchase of an Anytime fare.
  • Upgraded Boardings: If available, you could have an option to purchase Upgraded Boarding for $30 to $50 on the day of travel. This guarantees an A1 to A15 boarding position.
  • Credit cards: Select Southwest credit cards offer a certain number of complimentary EarlyBird Check-Ins or Upgraded Boardings each year.
  • Through passengers: Southwest frequently books tickets where you might have a stop on the way to your final destination, but you don’t disembark to change planes on the layover. If you find yourself in this situation, you’re what’s called a “through passenger.”
  • Family boarding: Families with at least one child age 6 or younger get to board between A and B groups. Technically, only two adults are allowed in this option, but the policy isn’t always strictly enforced.

With the different variables involved in Southwest boarding positions, it’s not unexpected to be put into groups B or C when checking into your flight. This is even if you check in right at the standard 24-hour pre-departure mark.

This is because other passengers may have purchased a Business Select fare, EarlyBird Check-In, or an Upgraded Boarding. They could have also had elite status or used a credit card perk.

And through passengers could already be on the plane before anyone else has boarded on certain flights.

How Southwest EarlyBird Check-In works

Southwest EarlyBird Check-In is an optional paid service that costs between $15 and $25. It’s typically available to purchase for all eligible Southwest passengers, but might make the most sense on Wanna Get Away fares. Business Select and Anytime fares already provide early boarding benefits.

EarlyBird Check-In provides two main benefits:

  • You get to check in 36 hours before flight departure
  • Your early check-in is automatic

Checking in 36 hours before departure is helpful because it’s 12 hours before standard check-in. This means you would likely get an earlier boarding position than anyone checking in at the 24-hour mark.

The automatic check-in component is important because it takes a lot of the stress out of the process. It’s not necessarily difficult to complete check-in — it’s typically not anything more than a few button clicks — but you still need to remember to do it. And because the passengers who check in quickest get the better boarding spots, there’s a bit of competition involved.

And who knows if the time that check-in opens will be convenient for you. If your flight departs at 5:30 a.m., that means standard check-in would typically open at 5:30 a.m. the previous day. With automatic check-in, you don’t have to worry about inconvenient check-in times.

Keep in mind that EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t guarantee an A boarding pass. You would still compete for boarding positions with Business Select, elite status, upgraded boardings, family boarding, and other EarlyBird Check-In passengers.

Additionally, EarlyBird Check-In costs are per passenger per one-way flight. So if you want EarlyBird Check-In for a group on a round-trip itinerary, you would have to purchase the service for each passenger in the group twice (once for each one-way flight).

EarlyBird Check-In can only be purchased using a credit card. See our dedicated page to compare credit cards and credit card offers.

Who should get EarlyBird Check-In

EarlyBird Check-In might make sense for:

  • Group travel: Southwest’s open seating policy can make family or group travel a bit of a hassle, especially if you don’t qualify for family boarding. Finding available seats together isn’t always a sure thing if other passengers are spreading out hoping to get their own row or avoiding a middle seat. EarlyBird Check-In could help your group get on the plane quicker before the good seats are taken.
  • Storing carry-on luggage: Ever get on your flight only to find that the overhead bins are full or there’s no space left near any open seat? This happens frequently, but your chances of avoiding this situation are likely better if you get on the plane earlier.
  • Avoiding Southwest standard check-in: There’s nothing quite as frustrating as getting up early in the morning to check into your flight, only to find your boarding position is less than ideal. Lose this unique stress with an automatic check-in that’s 12 hours before standard check-in.
  • Long flights: If you’re in for a long flight, it could be worth paying a little extra to get a seat you prefer. This could mean getting a window or aisle seat, sitting in a row that’s close (but not too close) to a bathroom, or sitting closer to the front of the plane so you can get off quicker.

Who may not need EarlyBird Check-In

Here are a few situations where EarlyBird Check-In might not make sense:

  • You have family boarding. If your family travel group has a child under 6, you’re guaranteed to board after group A. That’s still around 60 passengers ahead of you, but it’s likely good enough in many cases.
  • You can preboard. Apart from eligible families, certain customers with disabilities or other needs could have access to preboarding. These passengers likely wouldn’t need EarlyBird Check-In if they already have an accelerated boarding position.
  • You have a Business Select fare: Business Select travelers are already guaranteed an A1 to A15 boarding position.
  • You have elite status. A-List status members receive the same automatic check-in 36 hours before departure as EarlyBird Check-In.
  • You have credit card perks. It wouldn’t make sense to purchase EarlyBird Check-In if you’re already using a credit card perk that offers it for free.
  • You want to save money. If EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t seem cost-effective to you, there’s no reason to buy it. Because it’s an optional service, there’s no obligation to purchase it. Budget travelers and passengers who have no seat preference would likely be better served to skip buying EarlyBird Check-In.

How to buy Southwest EarlyBird Check-In

Southwest EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased up to 36 hours before a flight’s departure time. You have the option to purchase EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest.com, over the phone, or on the Southwest app.

Follow these steps to purchase EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest.com:

  1. Open your web browser and navigate to www.southwest.com/early-bird
  2. Southwest EarlyBird website

  3. Enter the required information (confirmation number, first name, and last name) and then click “Continue”
  4. Southwest EarlyBird enter information

  5. Proceed with purchasing EarlyBird Check-In using a credit card

To purchase EarlyBird Check-In over the phone, call 1-800-435-9792.

FAQs

Do you still need to check in with EarlyBird Check-In?

No, you don’t need to check in for your Southwest flight if you have EarlyBird Check-In. You’ll automatically be checked in and have a reserved boarding position 36 hours before your flight’s scheduled departure. Standard self-check-in is typically 24 hours prior to departure.

How much is EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest?

EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest costs $15 to $25 per passenger on one-way flights. The pricing could vary depending on the popularity of specific routes and the length of the flight. EarlyBird Check-In is an optional charge that must be paid with a credit card.

When does the EarlyBird Check-In expire?

EarlyBird Check-In doesn’t expire, but it’s only valid for one-way flights. This means purchasing EarlyBird Check-In for the first segment of a round-trip Southwest flight would only give you its benefits for that first flight. You would need to purchase EarlyBird Check-In again if you want its benefits for the return flight as well.

Bottom line

Southwest EarlyBird Check-In could be worth it if you’re traveling with a group or you simply want to get on the plane quicker. But it might not be worth it if you already have access to accelerated boarding, including family boarding. It also might not be worth the cost if you want to save money.

EarlyBird Check-In and other types of travel benefits could help enhance your journeys, potentially lowering your stress levels and making trips more enjoyable. For more travel perks, check out our page on the best travel credit cards.


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Author Details

Ben Walker, CEPF Ben Walker, CEPF, is a credit cards and travel writer at FinanceBuzz who loves helping others achieve their travel goals through financially sound decisions. For over a decade, he has been using credit card points and miles for the sole purpose of traveling the world. Ben is a Certified Educator of Personal Finance and has been featured in The Washington Post, MSN, Debt.com, and Finder.com.