How Exactly Does Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In Work?

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The Amex EveryDay® Credit Card from American ExpressI am personally a huge Southwest person. I love the free checked bags, the no change/cancellation fees, and above all my Southwest Companion Pass! Yes, I will never be upgraded to a first class seat (there aren’t any) and cannot be guaranteed my beloved window seat. With that being said, I do not care and that does not sway me away from Southwest.

Southwest has an extremely different seating and boarding policy then every other domestic airline. There are no pre-assigned seats and you board based on your boarding number. When you check into your flight (24 hours prior to the flights departure time), you’ll receive your boarding number. The boarding numbers go in order based on check in time, so checking in the minute that 24 hour mark hits is pretty critical.

However, for those that do not want to manually check in and worry about not getting a good boarding number, Southwest will do it for you – for a fee of $15 per passenger. This EarlyBird Check-In will get you a better boarding number then the passengers that manually check in themselves.

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While typically this will get you an A boarding pass (boarding passes range from A1 through C60), there is no guarantee. There are a few additional factors that determine your boarding number. Those that pay for the business select seats will be the first passengers to be assigned a boarding pass. Then, those with status will be granted a boarding number. A-List and A-List Preferred members will also get a boarding number before those that pay for EarlyBird Check-In.

The next group to get their boarding numbers are those that paid for the EarlyBird Check-In. This gives you automatic check-in and ideally a good boarding number. Remember though, if you are on a flight with a bunch of business travelers and frequent Southwest fliers that have status, your boarding number might not be as good as you thought it would be. As I mentioned above, there is no guarantee you’ll be in group A, but you have a much better shot then if you didn’t purchase the extra Check-In fee.

While many people love this EarlyBird Check-In option, there is one thing to keep in mind. The EarlyBird Check-In fee of $15 is non-refundable! So if you purchase your flight, add on this extra charge, and have to cancel your flight, you are out the $15. You have up until 36 hours prior to your flights departure time to purchase the EarlyBird Check-In, so you absolutely do not have to purchase it when initially booking your flight. Keep in mind though that the boarding numbers are given out based on when you purchased the EarlyBird Check-In option. So someone that purchased it 6 months out will get a better number then someone who purchased in 4 days in advance. But if there is a slight chance you’ll need to cancel your flight, I suggest holding off for a little bit to actually pay the extra $15.

Now, if you are simply looking to just change your flight (and not fully cancel) the EarlyBird Check-In will stay in tact. The fee paid is tied to your reservation number, so as long as your reservation number doesn’t change you are good. The only restriction is that you must change the flight at least 25 hours prior to the original flights departure time, and the new flight must be more then 25 hours from when the change it made.

I personally have never paid for EarlyBird Check-In and do not think it is worth it. When I am flying with my family we allowed to board during Family Boarding which is between the A and B boarding group. And if I am not traveling with my kids, then I really do not care what seat I get. I am actually extremely on top of checking in for my flight and will make sure to be on my phone or computer exactly 24 hours in advance.

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  1. If you are going to a kid-heavy destination (Orlando), I think it’s worth it because half the flight will be utilizing family boarding.

    Also, you are only allowed to use family boarding for kids 6 and under which is rather young still, if you ask me. I’m not okay with the possibility of being separated from 9 year old. I would think 10 and under is more reasonable.

    BTW…we’ve gotten B boarding passes several times (going to Orlando) despite Early Bird Check In, which is very frustrating.

  2. There’s one other group that seems to also beat the 24 hour window–connecting passengers. The 24-hour window starts from your first flight, but this also gets you a boarding number for subsequent flights in the reservation. I’m not sure how these rank in priority, but they are often quite low in the A group.

  3. Flying WN for the first time next month and purchased EB. Looking forward to the experience to at the very least say I have done it. Thanks for confirming what I have read about EB.

  4. SW is my primary airline right now due to the SW Companion Pass. Now that my youngest is 7, we can’t utilize family boarding. My plan was always to check myself and my husband in first, then my kids. That has been my strategy because a SW agent once said that kids board with their parents. The last time I flew, my 10 and 7 year old were denied boarding in the A group. They had to wait in the B boarding group. From now on, I’ll check in 24 hours prior, me first, then the kids, then my husband. I just don’t think it’s worth the $75 for our family of 5 to pay for early boarding.

  5. EB is often a stinger in that ANYone who boards before you for whatever reason they have for boarding before you can save seats for their buddies…buddies who have much later boarding privileges. i’ve written to wn about this and they say that’s not against policy.

  6. I’m still using Southwest miles we received for getting 2x 50,000 mile bonuses and companion pass. The $15 is a small price to pay for a better seat.

  7. I just booked WN from ALB to MCO, and though I am traveling alone, I chose early bird on purpose. I am on the larger side of fitting in a seat with the arm rests down but I can fit. I always want a window seat so I can bend by body towards the fuselage and hopefully make the ride a tad more comfortable for the passenger in the middle seat. I may be a little sore by the end of the flight, but its better than spilling into another passengers space. Plus, I like watching the landscape. I’m hoping that the routing I chose, and being a Tuesday morning, might mean a flight that isn’t full. The flight back is on a Tuesday night nonstop – I’m not so optimistic of having a free middle seat on that one.

  8. One time I have $15 left over from travel credit from Chase credit card so I used it to buy ED. My wife did not have it but she got much better than me. I believe she got A1X and I got B1. I stopped the front desk and asked why and the SW person there was possible, someone just canceled the flight and my wife got it. In my case, I bought it too late may be not much left and since I bought it, I was locked in with the number.

  9. If I pay for an earlyboard check in, seated in my seat and on a full flight then someone more important than me needs to get on the plane, can they bash my face in and drag me off if I refuse?

    • Laura where were you going? That has never happened to me..I always get early bird and in A section, but i have never achieved A15, usually anywhere between A 25 to A30…i check in on the dot..

    • Laura, You did not take advantage of the upgrade. By paying the upgrade you can check in 36 hours ahead of departure increasing your chance at an early boarding group. By checking in at 24 hours you were vying for position with everyone that did not purchase Early Bird.

      • That’s not correct. Regardless of EB you cannot get your boarding pass or check in before 24 hours. If you bought EB your position is locked in 36 hours ahead. Your check in does not affect your boarding position with EB. You can check in up to an hour before your flight and you still will have your position that was assigned 36 hours ahead of time.

  10. I have opted for early bird check in for our next flight. Do I have to still print out my boarding pass or do I pick it up when checking my baggage? I may not have access to a printer at the time…

  11. Thank you for this helpful article! Our family usually flies Delta, but I just booked my fist flight with Southwest!

    I had no idea what early bird check in was, and the mobile site didn’t give the option to click anywhere for an explanation.

    I opted out because for this trip, I am traveling alone. I don’t really care where My seat is. With kids in tow it would be tough though, knowing that you might not sit together.

  12. I am finding that EB is somewhat of a scam. In a number of occasions a fellow passenger on the flight without EB got an earlier boarding position. When I asked SW about it they said someone must have cancelled their flight and it just so happened they got that position. I find the odds of that nearly impossible. Their software should move all the EB passengers up a position when that happen until the 24 hour check in. Very frustrating.

  13. Good article. However, you incorrectly used the word “then”‘instead of “than” more THAN once in this article.

  14. Booked flight from Austin to Denver 1 week out. Purchased EB 2 1/2 days from departure. My boarding pass is C36.

    Why doesn’t the booking web site tell me there’s 100+ people ahead of me? Oh yeah, $. Nice one Southwest. Hope some greasy VP is happy about the $15.

  15. Does Southwest have a preboard for seniors 80 years and older? We are traveling in September and will definitely want to preboard. It sounds like early bird is not sufficient especially when early bird can easliy be in the mid Cs. Thank you

    • @RoseMarie Knight – Southwest does not have a specific age for preboarding, but they state: “Prior to general boarding, preboarding is available for Customers who have specific seating needs to accommodate a disability, and/or need assistance in boarding the aircraft, and/or need to stow an assistive device. If you have a disability and require preboarding, you should request a Preboarding Document from the Customer Service Agent at your departure gate.”

  16. I used our reward points to purchase our round trip tickets to Orlando next month. We’re traveling with our daughter who will turn 6 the day before the flight. I opted out of Early Bird Check-in because I read about family boarding, so the extra expense didn’t seem worth it to me. But now I can’t remember if my daughter’s birth date was required info when booking with our rewards, and there isn’t a child fare option when using rewards (“Adult” tickets are ages 2+, so we have 3 adult tickets).

    I really want us to all be seated together. Should I just bite the bullet and add EB while I can or will we still get family boarding even without a specific child fare?

    Thanks in advance!

    • @John – You can purchase it to try to get an emergency exit row, but there is no guarantee on what will be available once you board the plane.

        • @John – You cannot purchase exit row seats. Southwest does not give out seat assignments, instead it is first come, first serve. Boarding the plane is based on your boarding pass #. Those #’s are given based on how early you check in, the earlier you check in for your flight, the better your boarding number. With Early Bird check in, Southwest will automatically check you into your flight at exactly 24 hours prior to the flights departure time. You will receive a better boarding number than those who manually check-in (unless they have status).

    • @Candance – When you purchase EB you do not physically check in online, Southwest does it for you. You cannot purchase EB within 36 hours of your flight. So Southwest will check you in prior to the 24 hour mark and then at the 24 hour mark everyone else on the flight can check in themselves.

  17. Informative article. Might be worth clarifying that Southwest has now raised the price of this feature to $25. (No fees on bags, but, drip, drip, drip with their other fees getting more costly and/or restrictive … )

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