What is Southwest Early Bird Check In and Is It Worth It?

by Shelli Stein

Southwest Airlines is an airline that does things differently. The best examples of these differences might be when it comes to seat assignments and boarding. I do have strategies for getting the best seat possible. However, one way to really ensure a good seat on Southwest Airlines is to pay for Early Bird Check In.  Nobody likes to spend more money than they need to. That leads to the question, “When is Southwest Early Bird Check In worth it, and when isn’t it worth it?”

So what is Early Bird Check In, why might you buy it, and do you really need it?

What Exactly is Early Bird Check In For Southwest?

Southwest Early Bird Check In is an optional Southwest add-on. When you purchase Early Bird Check In, within 36 hours of your flight departure time Southwest automatically checks you in and assigns your boarding position. Since check in opens 24 hours before flight departure time, passengers who purchase Early Bird Check In receive a better boarding position than passengers without Early Bird Check In.

Southwest Early Bird Check In doesn’t guarantee an “A” boarding group position, but more often than not, you will be in the “A” or early “B” group.

If you are not familiar with Southwest check in and boarding process, see this post for how the Southwest boarding process works and tips on how to get a good seat.

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When Can You Buy Southwest Early Bird Check In and How Much Does it Cost?

Southwest Air seating

The cost of Southwest Early Bird Check In ranges from $15 – $25 one-way per passenger. Pricing depends on the length of the route. Pricing also depends on the popularity or demand for Early Bird Check In on each specific route.

You can buy Southwest Early Bird Check In either when you first make your flight reservation OR buy it later, up to 36 hours prior to a flight’s scheduled departure time.

If your reservation is for multiple passengers, and you purchase Southwest Early Bird Check In when you purchase the flight, everyone on the reservation must purchase Early Bird Check In. If you purchase Early Bird Check In later and add it to an existing itinerary, you can purchase Early Bird Check In even if others booked on the same reservation do not.

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Is Southwest Early Bird Check In Worth It?

The short answer is that it depends on a whole host of factors. Here are some reason to consider purchasing this add-on as well as reasons to save yourself the expense.

You DO NOT Need Southwest Early Bird Check In If:

1. You are eligible for Southwest Family Boarding.

An adult traveling with a child six years or younger is eligible to board during Family Boarding. Family Boarding on Southwest is after the “A” group but before the “B” group. Remember that you are not guaranteed an “A” boarding group position by purchasing Early Bird Check In, so you will be better off with family boarding.

2. You purchased a Business Select Fare.

Passengers who purchase Business Select fares receive a boarding position before passengers who purchase Early Bird Check In. The only way to guarantee a group A,  boarding position A1-A15, on Southwest is to purchase a Business Select fare.

Learn more about Southwest ‘Wanna Get Away’ Fare, Southwest’s least expensive fare!

3. You are on the Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List.

Priority boarding privileges are one benefit of being on the Southwest Rapid Rewards A-List. Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards members with A-List and A-List Preferred status are automatically assigned boarding positions ahead of general boarding.

4. The passenger is an Unaccompanied Minor.

There is no need to purchase Southwest Early Bird Check In for unaccompanied minors since they preboard the flight.

When Is Southwest Early Bird Check In NOT Worth It?

Southwest Airlines emotional support animal policy change

1. You think you might cancel your flight.

One of the benefits of flying Southwest is the ability to cancel your flight without paying a fee. If it is likely that you might cancel your flight, you probably do not want to purchase Early Bird Check In at the same time you book your flight.

Southwest Early Bird Check In is NOT refundable. You can always add Early Bird Check In to a flight later on. This add-on can be added to an itinerary up to 36 hours prior to a flight’s scheduled departure time.

2. You’re okay with the middle seat or checking your luggage.

Do you mind sitting in a middle seat? If not, and your flight is short, paying $15 to $25 for Southwest Early Bird Check In isn’t really necessary.

Same thing can be said for not minding if Southwest decides to gate check your bag. If the flight is pretty full and you’re the last to board, there’s a chance your carry-on may not fit in the overhead bin. It will have to be checked.

Southwest doesn’t charge extra for this, but if you’ve only packed a carry-on bag, having to claim baggage is an extra hassle you might want to avoid.  If you’re okay with that, though, and don’t mind boarding in the B or C group, save some money and forgo Southwest Early Bird Check In.

3. You can check in EXACTLY 24 hours prior to your flight.

If you remember and are able to check in exactly 24 hours before boarding, you might want to skip purchasing Southwest Early Bird Check In. Even though your boarding group and position will not be as good as those with Southwest Early Bird Check In, there’s still a good chance you’ll get a good seat from your A or B group boarding position.

4. You have a sense your flight will not be fully booked.

When you fly a certain route over and over again, you get a sense of demand. If you know a flight is usually not full, saving a few dollars by forgoing Early Bird Check In makes sense.

5. Your travel companion has a good boarding position.

If your travel companion has a great boarding position, you might skip paying for Early Bird Check In if they are saving a seat for you. Please remember that although many Southwest passengers engage in this practice, boarding is not really supposed to include saving seats for those who board after you. Saving seats is frowned upon by fellow passengers.

When Is Southwest Early Bird Check In WORTH It?

1. If you might forget or not be able to check in exactly 24 hours prior to your flight.

If you do not fall into one of the descriptions above and are unsure whether you will be able to check-in exactly 24 hours prior to your flight, purchasing Early Bird Check In might work for you.

2. There are passengers on your flight that will have already boarded from another city.

Since general check-in opens 24 hours before your flight departure time, if you are booking a direct flight (rather than a non-stop flight) that you know will already have passengers from another city, you might consider Early Bird Check In.

A direct flight is where a plane flies from an initial destination to a final destination via an intermediate airport. In the case of a direct flight, the flight number does not change and passengers already onboard that are flying straight through to the route’s final destination do not have to disembark.

This affects boarding because these passengers will be on the plane, occupying seats, prior to new passengers boarding. The passengers from the originating city will be able to check in earlier than you. Even if you check in exactly the 24 hours before your flight departure time, you might still end up with a “C” boarding group and position within that group.

2. You have a strong seat preference. 

If you prefer to sit near the front of the plane or if you prefer an aisle seat, window seat, bulkhead seat, or exit row, Early Bird Check In can be worth it. Many people will do anything to avoid that dreaded middle seat!

More Tips on Early Bird Check In and Boarding

1. Southwest doesn’t limit the number of passengers who can purchase Early Bird Check In.

This means that purchasing Early Bird Check In won’t necessarily guarantee you an A boarding position. Does that mean there’s a boarding order within the list of early bird purchasers?  YES.

Southwest states Early Bird customers who purchased an Anytime fare will receive priority over those who purchased other fare types (such as Wanna Get Away). After that distinction, “boarding positions are assigned based on the time stamp of the Early Bird Check In purchase relative to passengers within the same fare class.” Basically, the earlier you purchase your ticket with the Early Bird add-on, the higher your boarding number will be.

Here’s How To Purchase Early Bird Check In Online 

a screenshot of a web page

If you’re buying this option online, enter your ticket confirmation number, first, and last name. Southwest will then bring up your itinerary and the proposed pricing at which point you choose “Continue.”

You will then be directed to a payment page where you enter your preferred method of payment and select “Purchase.”

Voila……. Your itinerary now includes Early Bird Check In! You should receive an e-mail confirmation.

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How to Get Early Bird Check In For “Free”

Southwest Early Bird Check In fee can be reimbursed as a part of your yearly travel credit when you have the right credit cards. The American Express Gold card, Platinum Card by American Express, and Chase Sapphire Reserve all come with yearly allotment of travel credits as part of their annual fees. (AMEX’s version is much more restrictive than Chase but early boarding is one of the criteria that gets reimbursed.)

Of course, Southwest’s own lineup of cards including the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier card can help fast track you to A-list status which comes with priority boarding as a perk.

Learn Which Southwest Credit Card Is Best For You!

Final Thoughts

It’s up to you to decide whether paying $15 to $25 for Southwest Early Bird Check In is worth it for your particular situation. Each flight is different, so the add-on fee may need to be considered on a flight-by-flight basis.

For some, the Southwest check in and boarding process is stressful. If you’re undecided and worried about the added cost, remember you’re already saving on baggage fees . The savings on baggage fees might help to offset the fees for Early Bird Check In.

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knick1959 May 1, 2019 - 7:59 pm

Purchasing Early Bird checkin can be great but it can also fail. We had a case where checking in for a 2 part flight home would be tricky. We were on the road a busy so trying to check 2 reservations in right at 24 hours wasn’t practical (companion passes require companion on a separate reservation). Our first flight left late and we barely made the second, longer flight. 3 seats were left for the 2 of us to pick from. We did not sit together, one middle seat offered two huge book-end guys and the 2 remaining were terrible. I do not like SW’s system at all.

Shelli May 1, 2019 - 8:40 pm

I understand your frustration, knick. When SWA works, it works well. In your case though, I can see why it left you with a negative impression. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Boonie May 2, 2019 - 6:20 pm

The SW Premier cc says 4 boarding passes when available but not sure what that means and I just got the card couple months ago. I would think the seating positions would be assigned by time we get to the airport.

Shelli May 3, 2019 - 9:07 pm

Hi Boonie, Good question. It’s my understanding that the four upgraded boardings each year are valid for paying up to A1-A15 boarding, which is something you can do at the gate before your flight. It is based on availability. This could work well if you’ve forgotten to check in 24 hours ahead for your flight. Normally, upgraded boarding costs $30-$40 per segment (based on distance, but almost always $40). The upgrades can be used for multiple people on a single flight or over separate flights. You pay at the gate and get reimbursed as a statement credit. Hope this helps, and thanks for reading.

Daniel Albers February 12, 2021 - 1:09 pm

On a recent flight I purchased as alway Early Bird Check-in… typically I able to receive a seat from A20 to A30. In January I had EBC and at the exact 24 hours before flight entered the check-in procedure. To my surprise received a C12. Found this to be weird. At the gate several people around me said they checked-in without using the EBC and received A Seating… Only 6 passengers were from a previous flight and there were 12 people pre-boarding and so boarding continued with family boarding 30+ so when finally getting on the plane was all-the-way in the back of the plane. Contacted customer service and they did refund the price of EBC but did no provide why I was assigned in the C-Section. From my understanding I felt I should of been in the A-Section?

Shelli February 12, 2021 - 3:55 pm

This does sound like a weird experience especially because you had indeed purchased EBC. I understand your frustration, Daniel. Good thing that Southwest did issue you a refund. Hoping next time your EBC goes more smoothly!

Geoffrey May 26, 2022 - 9:26 pm

Flying from Los Angeles to Kansas City shortly and change South West Airlines flight at Las Vegas before boarding another plan to Kansas City .
Do I purchase 2 early bird check in vouchers or as the will one voucher be sufficient for the second leg of the flight .
Also does one have the same arrangement when being allocated a boarding position .

Shelli May 26, 2022 - 10:01 pm

Hi Geoffrey, You didn’t mention if the two legs of the flight were on the same ticket. If it’s just a change of planes and not two separate flights, you should be good to go with the one early-bird voucher. The issue of boarding positions is different. Not sure what you mean by same arrangement. Early bird check-in does generally get you a good boarding position. You can also buy a good boarding position at the gate if it’s available. Hope this helps. Safe travels and thanks for reading!

Diane Shea June 5, 2022 - 8:26 am

Thanks for all the info. This is the first time we are flying Southwest & wanted to completely understand their process.

Shelli June 5, 2022 - 9:42 am

Happy to help, Diane. Good idea to figure out SWA ahead of time! Safe travels, and thanks for reading!

Walt Atyeo September 17, 2022 - 1:16 pm

I say no it isn’t worth it. I will not buy it again, because if they have to rebook you on another flight SW Airlines doesn’t refund you the early bird payment and they change your boarding to C. and you receive nothing for the extra money.

Shelli September 17, 2022 - 2:47 pm

Thanks for your comment, Walt. It helps others make a choice for themselves when they hear from traveler’s experiences.

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