Nothing is worse than realizing that you’re going to be one of the last people to board your plane, especially when you don’t have assigned seats. You’ll likely be stuck in the middle seat (between God knows who) and may not even have space to store your carry on.
Luckily, you can help avoid situations like this on Southwest if you know how the Southwest check-in process works. I’ve checked in to dozens and dozens of Southwest flights and in this article, I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Southwest check-in process.
I’ll cover things like how to do check-in online and in the app, best tips and practices, and how to deal with mobile boarding passes. I’ll also talk a little about other options like Southwest EarlyBird.
When does Southwest check-in begin?
The check in process will begin exactly 24 hours prior to your departure time.
So the first thing that you need to do is to find out exactly what time your departure time is. Once you find that out you need to be aware that the check in process will begin exactly 24 hours prior to that time.
Note that you will be going by the local time zone. So let’s say you are flying out of Houston at 3:05 PM. Your check in time will open up at 3:05 PM central standard time the day before.
Once you know what time check-in opens you need to try to check in at exactly 24 hours. The reason is that Southwest Airlines does not have assigned seating.
Instead, you are assigned a boarding group and position within that group in the order you checked-in. There are three groups (Group A, Group B, and Group C) and there are 60 positions within each group.
You will be called to line up with your boarding group in the order of your boarding position and then you can choose any open seats you would like once you board the plane. (Read more about the Southwest boarding policy here.)
This means that if you wait a long time to check in you will be assigned a boarding position in the back and you will not be able to choose some of the best seats. You might be stuck in the middle seat and you might not even have enough room to store your carry-on. This can make your flight much less enjoyable and that is why it is a good idea to check in as close to 24 hours prior to departure as possible.
What about Southwest EarlyBird?
Southwest EarlyBird is a special perk that allows you to automatically check in 36 hours prior to departure. This allows you to avoid counting down the seconds to check in and is extremely convenient if you are not going to have access to your computer or the internet 24 hours prior to checkout.
For example, there have been times when we were out and about doing something like scuba diving and there just was no practical way for us to check-in. But because we purchased Southwest Early Bird, we still secured good boarding positions.
Note: You will not be guaranteed an “A” boarding position with EarlyBird. However a lot of times you will get an “A” boarding position or a lower “B” spot. These spots are generally good enough for you to get a window or aisle seat so in a lot of cases it can be worth it to purchase EarlyBird.
The price for EarlyBird ranges from $15-$25 per one way and the price just depends on your route. You can read more about Southwest Airlines EarlyBird here.
I’ve also heard about a Google Chrome extension that you can use to automatically check in. I have never used this Chrome extension before so I cannot comment on how reliable it is but it certainly is something interesting to think about. It does call for a little bit of technical knowledge (it deals with scripts), so not everyone will probably feel comfortable using it. Read how it’s done here.
Check in online or on the app
The easiest ways to check in are checking in online on the Southwest website or on the Southwest app. You can find online check-in here. All you will need to enter is your confirmation number, first name, and last name. I recommend that you have all of the different fields already filled out so that once check-in opens you can just check-in instantly.
If you really want to maximize your our odds of getting an A boarding group, you could always open up a few tabs and have the information filled out on those tabs. Then you can start hitting the check in button a minute or so before check in opens. The reason for doing that is that sometimes your web browser could be a little bit delayed once you click the check in button.
If you are using the app, you should see a button for check-in at the bottom of the app on the main page. Once you click that button you will be prompted to enter your confirmation number and your first and last name.
After your checked in, you can opt to print out your boarding pass or send your boarding pass via email or text.
If you experience any errors when you try to check-in then you can call Southwest customer service at: 1-800-I-FLY-SWA. You can also hit them up on Twitter.
Getting your boarding pass
There are several different ways that you can get your boarding pass. If you check-in online you will have the option to immediately print out a copy of your boarding pass. But you don’t have to print it out so if you don’t have a printer don’t worry.
Southwest mobile boarding pass
You can seek out a Southwest mobile boarding pass so you won’t have to print out your boarding pass and can head directly to security (if you don’t have checked baggage).
You can get these by requesting them at the time of check-in on Southwest.com, the Southwest.com mobile site, or the Southwest mobile app for iPhone, iPad, or Android. You can have the mobile boarding pass sent to you via email or even text message (or just view it in browser).
Tip: Save your mobile boarding pass to your mobile device for easy retrieval just in case you can’t access the internet at a later time.
Mobile boarding passes aren’t available for everyone, though. For example, they won’t be available for:
- Unaccompanied minors
- Individuals traveling on Senior Fares that need to be age verified
- Nonrevenue passengers
- Military Fares
- Passengers traveling on international flights
Also, you’ll need to check-in as an individual in order to take advantage of a mobile boarding pass. Read more about the mobile boarding pass here.
Business Select drink coupon
If you’re flying Business Select you might be wondering how your free drink coupon will work. Well, if you have a Business Select ticket, your drink coupon eligibility will be noted on the mobile boarding pass. To receive your drink during your flight, just show the drink coupon portion of your mobile boarding pass to the flight attendant.
Printing the boarding pass out at the airport
Another method is just too wait until you arrive at the airport to print out your boarding pass. At the airport, there are several different places where you can get your boarding pass.
You can use the Southwest Airlines kiosks that you can find at select airports and quickly print out a boarding pass without having to deal with an agent.
To begin the check-in process at a kiosk you can do any of the following:
- Enter your confirmation number
- Enter your Rapid Rewards number
- Swipe your Rapid Rewards A-List Membership Card
- Swipe a major credit card with your name on it
These kiosks are great if you don’t have to check in baggage because you can simply input your information and grab your boarding pass and then head off to security. However, you can also take care of some additional tasks at the kiosks, such as:
- Add a Rapid Rewards number to a reservation
- Upgrade to Business Select
- Change your flight
- Add your name to the standby list
- Print an itinerary receipt
Upgrading to Business Select can be worth it, especially whenever you are one of the only people flying Business Select. That is because you can lock down some of the best seats with extra leg room or potentially snag a row of seats with only two seats which is perfect for traveling.
If you are traveling to a leisure or vacation destination, there likely will not be many people flying Business Select so this could be a great time to upgrade. But even if you can’t get one of those seats, you’ll be able to board the plane before the vast majority of people and get a seat at the front of the plane.
The cost to upgrade to Business Select varies from $30 to $50 per segment, depending on the route. To find out more about Southwest business select click here.
If you find yourself at one of the Southwest kiosks you might want to take a look around to see if anybody has dropped any free drink coupons. If you want to find out more about how to get free drinks on Southwest you can do that here.
Keep in mind that certain types of passengers will not be able to use the check-in kiosks. These include the following:
- Unaccompanied Minors
- Customers traveling with pets
- Customers traveling on age-qualifying fares (Infant, Child, and Senior Fares) that have NOT already been age verified
- Customers traveling on a Military Fare
- Customers traveling with paper tickets
You can also simply head to the ticket counter to get your boarding pass. There may or may not be a long line so this will be more time-consuming. However, if you have A-List or A-List Preferred then you can use the exclusive check-in line and won’t have to deal with the long lines. Those are the elite status levels for Southwest and they come with additional perks like:
- Priority boarding
- Priority security and check-in lanes
- 25% bonus earning
- Free same day standby
- Dedicated A-List phone number
If you need to check baggage you can simply go to the baggage check-in desk and get your boarding pass printed out as you check in your baggage. By the way in case you were not aware Southwest allows you to fly with two checked bags for free. Most other airlines will charge you something like $30 for your first checked bag and even more for additional bags so this is a great way to save money. Read more about the Southwest baggage policy here.
Southwest Airlines group travel check-in
The check-in process is a little bit different for Southwest Group Travel and the exact process for check in would depend on if you are flying on a domestic flight or international flight. Basically if your flight is a domestic flight you can check in the group or specific passengers but if you’re checking in for an international flight you will need to check in each passenger one at a time. Click here to read more about Southwest Airlines group travel.
The Southwest check-in process is easy to do but it is very important that you try to check in as close to 24 hours prior to departure as possible. Unless you purchase Southwest EarlyBird or a Business Select fare you could end up with some pretty bad seats.
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Daniel Gillaspia is the Founder of UponArriving.com and creator of the credit card app, WalletFlo. He is a former attorney turned full-time credit card rewards/travel expert and has earned and redeemed millions of miles to travel the globe. Since 2014, his content has been featured in major publications such as National Geographic, Smithsonian Magazine, Forbes, CNBC, US News, and Business Insider. Find his full bio here.