7 Tips for Mastering Southwest Check-In and Boarding

by Shelli Stein

Southwest Airlines is a popular U.S. low-cost carrier for many reasons. Often, Southwest’s fares are lower than other airlines. Southwest is also the only remaining U.S. airline that doesn’t charge extra for your luggage, and there are no change or cancellation fees. And when it comes to seat assignments and Southwest check-in policy, Southwest does things differently.

Here’s probably the most unique aspect of Southwest: it does not assign seats. Passengers line up at the gate according to their boarding position. Once onboard, the plane passengers can sit in any available seat. Therefore, the check-in process is key to when you board and where you’ll sit. These 7 Southwest check-in tips will help you navigate the process and smooth out the whole checking-in experience for your Southwest flights.

How Does The Southwest Check-In Process And Boarding Work?

Passengers board their flights according to “zone” and choose their own seats once on board. The zones or groups are A, B, and C with each zone divided into boarding position groups: 1 to 30, and 31 to 60.

Your zone assignment is based on a few different criteria such as: type of ticket you purchased, whether or not you are a Southwest elite customer, when you checked in for your flight, and if you have children 6-years-old or younger.

Let’s look more closely at those criteria and see how they influence the Southwest check-in policy.

1. Type of Ticket: Fare Type Purchased Matters

Fare Type

If you purchase a Business Select ticket (Southwest’s business fare), you are guaranteed to be in the “A,” 1 to 15 boarding zone. This improves your seat selection options since you will be boarding after pre-boarding.

EarlyBird Check-In

a screenshot of a check-in form

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Another option for those who purchase a Wanna Get Away fare is to buy EarlyBird Check-In. This option automatically checks you in 36 hours ahead of your flight’s departure.

EarlyBird Check-In costs $15-25 per person one-way. Remember, though, that EarlyBird Check-In does NOT guarantee you the “A” boarding zone. However, it does mean that Southwest will check you in and assign a boarding number before those who did not purchase EarlyBird.

This can be worth the extra money and be a good option for you if either sitting in a certain area of the plane is important or you need to sit together with other travelers.

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2. Elite Status Matters

a list of a member

Regular Southwest Airline passengers can earn A-List or A-List Preferred elite status after a certain number of flights or accruing qualifying Southwest Rapid Reward points. As an elite with Southwest, similar to EarlyBird Check-In, the airline automatically checks you in for your flight 36 hours in advance.

The order that Southwest automatically checks in passengers is: Business Select, A-List Preferred, A-List and then EarlyBird.

3. When You Checked-In for Your Flight: Timing Matters

If you purchased a less expensive fare, such as a Wanna Get Away fare, and you do NOT have Southwest elite status, the airline assigns you a zone based on when you check-in. Remember that passengers can check-in up to 24 hours ahead of their flight’s departure time. I repeat this reminder because it’s important to check-in as soon as online check-in opens up. This helps get you a good zone and boarding position.

4. Traveling With Young Children

Families with children ages 6 and younger may board between the “A” and “B” zones. The entire family is allowed to board, not just the child and one parent.

Do You Want To Score The Best Southwest Boarding Zone? Here’s What You Need To Do!

1. Set Alerts For Your Check-In Times

You need to check-in as close to 24 hours ahead of your flight as possible. If you did not buy EarlyBird Check-In or a Business Select fare, and don’t have kids ages 6 or younger, this is your best option for a great boarding zone. I’ll admit to forgetting to set alerts to remind me to check-in. Forgetting never produces a good boarding experience for me!

Don’t forget about your return flight alert reminder either. Don’t forget to take time zones into account when checking-in and setting reminders. Time zones can trip you up.

2. Use More Than One Device For Checking-In Travelers

When traveling with others and using Southwest Rapid Reward points, each person must check-in separately. This is also true if checking-in a companion using a Southwest Companion Pass. Using multiple devices for check-in comes in handy. Have each passenger’s name and confirmation number when you check-in.

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Remember that you can check-in on the Southwest website or by using the Southwest mobile app. On the Southwest website the “Check In” button is on the main menu. Using the Southwest mobile app, locate your itinerary and check-in under the “Manage Trips” section.

a screenshot of a web page

Have your confirmation number ready for check-in at T-24 hours

If you use multiple devices when traveling with others, you can possibly end up in the “A” zone, but more often will be in the “B” boarding zone. That’s better than the “C” group, for sure.

3. Purchase EarlyBird Check-In

EarlyBird boarding zone positions are assigned in the order in which they are purchased. Therefore, if you decide that EarlyBird Check-In benefits you, purchase it when you purchase your ticket, or as early as possible.

4. Seat Selection & Saving Seats Etiquette

Southwest Airlines Seat Assignment

Southwest 737 seating

As you might imagine, the first seats aboard Southwest flights to fill up as people board their flights are at the front and aisle of the plane. Window seats tend to fill up quickly as well. Passengers are not supposed to save seats for people who board later than they do, but this does happen. Boarding passengers do get annoyed when seats are being saved, so it’s good to know this is advance.

Booking Southwest Flights 

If you’re chasing after a Southwest Companion Pass, earning sign up bonuses from cards like the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Plus is a great way to start reaching the 110,000 point requirement. Southwest’s two other personal cards, the Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier and Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Priority,  can even get you towards A-list elite status since they offer 1,500 Tier Qualifying Points for every $10,000 spent.

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Final Thoughts

The key to Southwest check-in and boarding is planning ahead. When airlines have check-in, seating, and boarding policies such as Southwest does, it can be a bit confusing. When not traveling solo, it adds a few layers to the process of getting the best seat possible, and it all starts with the Southwest check-in process.

The early bird definitely gets the worm because the passengers who check in first get the best seat options. Having a few different check in strategies works well for making both checking in and your actual flight a better experience.

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