Southwest Airlines has a very different seat assignment policy than probably every other airline out there. Typically, with most airlines, when you book your flight you select a seat at the same time. Of course, some airlines now make you pay for this seat assignment and if you opt to not pay you are given a seat while checking in for your flight. But nonetheless, you have a seat assigned to you prior to boarding the plane. With Southwest, there is no such thing as a seat assignment.
Southwest has a open seating policy where you pick a seat that is available once you actually get on the airplane. There is no guarantee you are going to get the exact seat you want, whether it is in the front or back of the plane, window or aisle. And there is always a chance you will be surprised with that dreaded middle seat. When families are flying together, they also like to know in advance that they’ll all be able to sit together. This means, the earlier you board the plane in the boarding process, the better seat you will get.
With Southwest, you are assigned a boarding number which will be A1-60, B1-60, or C1-60. Assuming a full flight with 180 passengers, A1 will board first and C60 will board last (those with A-List status, however, board prior to the A group). Although they save A1-A15 to buy those boarding passes at the gate. Ideally, people love to be in that “A” group when it comes to being able to pick their seat. Although in my opinion, boarding with the B group is fine as well. All Southwest planes have the exact same configuration, 3 seats on the right of the aisle and 3 seats on the left of the aisle. So a 180 passenger plane, for example, will have 60 aisle seats, 60 middle seats, and 60 window seats. As long as you board in group A or B, you are almost guaranteed to not have to sit in a middle seat (unless there are a massive amount of folks boarding with A-List status) and since people have different preferences on whether they want window vs. aisle, you should be able to get your preference.
Southwest starts to give out their boarding passes 24-hours prior to check-in and your boarding number is based on when you check in. However, Southwest also has an EarlyBird check-in option which you can purchase as an add-on. With EarlyBird Check-In, Southwest will automatically check you in for your flight three days prior your flights departure time. This means you will get get a higher boarding number than a person who doesn’t add on EarlyBird Check-In and manually checks in 24 hours prior to their flight. EarlyBird Check-In can be purchased at any point from when you book your flight to 72 hours prior to your flights departure time. Boarding passes given to those whom purchase EarlyBird Check-In are given based on when you purchased it. The earlier you purchase EarlyBird Check-In, the better your boarding number will be.
Of course, EarlyBird Check-In comes at a steep price and will cost you anywhere between $15 and $25 per one-way flight per passenger. So let’s say you are a family of four traveling, this could cost you an extra $60-$100 each way, or $120-$200 for your roundtrip flight! This is not a small amount of money to spend on your already purchased ticket, so it really needs to be worth it. Below are some situations when you should and should not purchase EarlyBird Check-In
Reasons Why You Should Purchase EarlyBird Check-In
- If you are flying during peak travel dates. During peak dates, such as the day school vacation starts, the chances of the flight being full is extremely high and a time where you might see that dreaded C boarding pass when manually checking in yourself.
- If you know that you will not be able to or will forget to check into your flight exactly 24 hours beforehand. In this situation, paying the fee for convenience and having someone else automatically check-you in might be worth it.
- Peace of mind. This is the closest thing you’ll get to having an assigned seat and if it will reduce any anxiety and make you feel better about your upcoming trip, then the money spent could be well worth it.
Reasons Why You Should Not Purchase Early Bird Check-In
- If you are flying with kids 6 or younger. Families who have at least one child in their group 6 or under can board during the Family Boarding process. Family boarding takes place between boarding groups A and boarding groups B. This means you are guaranteed to board after those with an A boarding pass and A-List status. For a family traveling, as long as the entire flight isn’t family with young children, you should always be able to find seats together. Of course if you are flying down to Orlando, your experience might be different with a ton of families flying. I always try to get in the family boarding line as early as possible.
- If it is an off-peak flight where you are pretty certain it will not be a full flight. If you are flying during a random day, let’s say a Wednesday at 10am, for example, the chances of your flight being full is significantly less then a Friday 6pm flight.
- If there is a high probability that you might need to cancel your flight. EarlyBird Check-In is NOT refundable, so if you cancel your flight you will also lose the amount spent. However, if you change your flight to a different day or time or city pairs, the EarlyBird Check-In will stay in-tact since your confirmation number is not changing.
- If you have A-List status. Having A-List status allows you to board prior to Boarding Group A so you are guaranteed to board the plane early.
Keep in mind though that purchasing EarlyBird Check-In does not guarantee you a Boarding Group A. You also do not have to purchase EarlyBird Check-In for all passengers on your itinerary. This can save you some money if you only need one parent to sit with the children, and the other parent can press their luck and hope to get a seat with the rest of the family, or is okay sitting elsewhere. You also do not need to purchase it for your entire roundtrip flight and can purchase it for just one-way if you want.
I personally have never purchased EarlyBird Check-In. It is an extremely expensive cost to my trip, but I am also fortunate to have a 5 and 2 year old so I can always board with Family Boarding. In all my (many) flights on Southwest with my family, I have personally never had a situation where we weren’t able to sit together. And we have flown on very peak days as well when flights were sold out.
If you are one to purchase EarlyBird Check-In often, you might want to consider the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card. This credit card comes with 4 complimentary Upgraded Boarding positions a year where you can get boarding pass A1-A15 (if available) when you check in at the gate. This is even better then EarlyBird Check-In! You can read more about this card, the welcome bonus, and the other benefits here. You are also now in the “safe” zone for having the bonus points from the welcome offer count towards getting the Southwest Companion Pass for 2019 and 2020!