Southwest’s EarlyBird check-in is a tempting add-on for many people when flying with them. Some swear by it and others swear it’s a sham designed to incentivize you to spend more than what’s necessary. It’s supposed to help your boarding process and seat selection be a lot smoother and convenient, but is it worth the extra cost?
Here’s my take on whether or not Southwest EarlyBird check-in is worth it.
For more tips on flying Southwest Airlines, click here.
Southwest’s boarding policy
Southwest Airlines embraces an “open seating” policy that most people either love or hate. This means that you can’t reserve your exact seats before your flight. Instead, you are lumped into different boarding groups, such as Group A, Group B, or Group C.
You’ll be given a position within each group ranging from 1 to 60 and then you will board the aircraft according to that that order. It’s a surprisingly efficient process when it comes to lining up for boarding but it comes with the stress of not knowing exactly where you’ll be sitting on the plane.
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How are you given your boarding position?
Typically, you are assigned your boarding group and position when you check in, which begins 24 hours before your flight, although international flights sometimes are a bit different.
What is EarlyBird?
Early bird costs $15 each way (increased from $12.50 in March 2016) and presumably helps to make sure that you receive a better boarding position and therefore seat.
Specifically, EarlyBird provides you with an automatic check in within 36 hours before your flight. This means that you don’t have to worry about going online and checking in right at 24 hours before your departure.
Does EarlyBird guarantee you’ll be in Group A?
Early bird check in does not guarantee that you will receive boarding in Group A.
Instead, you’ll likely receive boarding in Group A or low to mid Group B, depending on several factors. As a point of reference, anything lower than mid Group B, is typically good enough for a window or aisle seat and should provide you with room for your overhead, although YMMV.
Some things to know about EarlyBird check in
- EarlyBird check in Customers will receive boarding positions after Business Select and A-List Customers.
- Customers who have purchased Anytime Fares will receive priority over Customer’s who purchase Early Bird with other fare types. So for example, if you purchase a “Wanna Get Away” fare you’ll automatically be put after someone who purchased a more expensive “Anytime” fare.
- Boarding positions are assigned based on the time stamp of the EarlyBird check in purchase relative to passengers within the same fare class. So if you purchased your Wanna Get Away fare before 10 other people purchased their Wanna Get Away fare, you should be positioned before them.
- There’s no limit on the number of passengers that can purchase EarlyBird check in.
- You can add EarlyBird check in to an existing itinerary, so long as you do so 36 hours before your departure time. This is often recommended if you’re using an airline credit to make the purchase. Just keep in mind that if you have multiple passengers on your itinerary, everyone must purchase EarlyBird check in.
- There are no refunds for EarlyBird if you cancel your flight, but if your flight is canceled by Southwest they will refund the fee.
- You cannot use gift cards for EarlyBird check in.
So with all of those factors in mind, you might be wondering is EarlyBird check in worth it?
Is EarlyBird check in worth it?
I think that for most passengers, EarlyBird check in is not necessary and thus often not worth it, except for certain circumstances.
Let me first explain why it would not be worth it for certain passengers.
Business Select or A-List
I’m not even sure if Southwest allows Business Select passengers to purchase EarlyBird check in (hopefully they don’t or they flag your transaction or something). However, since you’re automatically given priority boarding there’s no need for EarlyBird check in. The same reasoning goes for A-List members.
- To find out more about Business Select, click here.
If you’re traveling solo you will almost always still be able to access an aisle or window seat by checking in 24 hours before your flight. Thus, in most cases, if you just want to get an aisle or window seat, I don’t think that you would need EarlyBird check in.
I think the same reasoning often applies to couples. In the majority of cases you will not need early bird to ensure that you get aisle or window seats and since one of you will likely be sitting in the middle, you should be fine.
Large families with kids 6 or under
I don’t think large families need EarlyBird in many cases. For example, if you are traveling with a kid 6 or under, you should be able to board in between Group A and Group B so you should have plenty of options for picking your seats.
For other families with kids over 6 or large groups not using EarlyBird check in, the situation can vary depending on factors listed below.
When it’s worth it to get EarlyBird check in
I think there are four reasons it might be worth it to get Early Bird check-in.
You’re flying a known busy route or connecting flight
If you have a lot of connecting passengers on your flight, it’s possible that they will be boarding before you since they were able to check-in before you.
If that flight also has quite a few A-List, Business Select, family boarding groups, and EarlyBird check ins, it’s possible that checking in without EarlyBird could land you pretty far down the line even if you attempt to check in right when the 24 hours window pops up. In that case, you might just feel better about your flight if your purchase EarlyBird check in.
You stress over where you’ll sit and store luggage
Let’s face it, many people get very stressed out about getting a decent seat and having space to store their carry-on. If you’re one of “those people,” then EarlyBird check in is basically designed (whether rightly or wrongly) for you.
If your preference is to avoid the middle seat at all costs and you know you will be worrying about this until you’re finally sitting comfortably in your seat with your carry on stored above you, then it might be worth it to go with EarlyBird check in for the peace of mind.
You won’t be available to check in
This is the most legitimate reason for getting EarlyBird check in — when you know you’re not going to be available to check in on line.
For example, I’ve taken trips down to the Caribbean on Southwest where I’ve been in the ocean scuba diving when my check in window opens up. Obviously, that’s a case where EarlyBird check in comes in handy because if you wait for hours after your window opens, you’ll probably get stuck with Group C and getting window or aisle seats becomes much more difficult.
Other times you might be in a meeting, some place without service, or you might just be super forgetful and don’t want to worry about checking in. In those cases, I think it’s worth it to shell out $15 for EarlyBird check in.
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You’re a dag-blasted seat saver
If you’re a seat saver, you can get away without purchasing Early Bird Check in for everyone and just have one person save a few seats. Personally, I don’t mind if people save seats within reason, especially because sometimes Southwest has spit out vastly different boarding positions to people on my same itinerary. However, many people really hate when you save seats and think it’s poor etiquette.
Tip: To minimize confrontations, I recommend you stick to saving seats near the rear of the plane, where people are a little more laid back about seats.
Why I almost never pay for EarlyBird check in
Brad and I fly everywhere together and he is built like a collegiate nose tackle. Also, I’m not exactly “petite.” Therefore, we really enjoy flying with no other passengers in our section of our row and always go for the exit row. To ensure that we get that exit row, we simply upgrade our tickets to Business Select for $30 or $40, depending on this distance of the flight.
This is well worth it to us, and I often see people do the same thing to get the exit row seats with extra leg room. On very short flights, this isn’t a big deal to use since we can manage without it, but on flights of 3 or 4 hours, we like to do it. This might not be practical on routes with heavy business travelers but because we’re often flying to places like Mexico or elsewhere in the Caribbean on Southwest, we’re usually A1 and A2 or very close to it.
We use travel credits like those on the Ritz-Carlton card to cover the cost of the upgrades, too.
Overall, I don’t think EarlyBird check in is necessary for most people.
Unless you’re the type of person who just needs peace of mind about your seating position and/or know it will be impossible or inconvenient for you to check in manually, you probably don’t need it. However, for people with specific preferences for their seating, the $15 is well worth it.
Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned travel expert covering destinations along with TSA, airline, and hotel policies. Since 2014, his content has been featured in publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, and CNBC. Read my bio.