Southwest Airlines EarlyBird Check-In: Your chance to get seated ahead of the crowd

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Southwest is one of the most popular airlines in the United States in part due to low fares, two free checked bags, and no change or cancellation fees—but the Southwest boarding process is often cause for complaint, with the dreaded “C Boarding Group” assignment meaning you’ll come aboard after all the best seats are taken. But there’s a feature called EarlyBird Check-In, which automatically checks you in, available for purchase that can help. We’ll explain what EarlyBird Check-In is and even how to get it essentially free. 

What is EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest?

Southwest boards its planes in three boarding groups—denoted as A, B, and C. Each boarding group has 60 passengers, and the boarding process starts with pre-board passengers and the A boarding group. A1 through A15 is reserved for Business Select passengers, and subsequent boarding passes are based on when you check in to the flight.

But passengers can find themselves lumped into the C group even if they checked in right when the 24-hour departure window for their flight opened. One reason for this is that you get to check in for all of your flights, including your connections, at the 24-hour mark from the first flight on your itinerary. So if someone has is connecting where your journey begins, they’ll get a head start.

EarlyBird Check-In is an optional add-on feature to your Southwest ticket. When you purchase EarlyBird Check-In, the airline will automatically check you in for your flight 36 hours in advance to secure a better boarding position. This means that you’ll be checked in 12 hours before others departing at the same time as you. While it does not guarantee travelers a boarding pass in the A group, it gives them the best chance at an earlier boarding position.

Is Southwest EarlyBird Check-In worth it?

Southwest has an open seating policy, so available seats are based on your boarding position. For this reason, the earlier you board the plane, the better your chances are of getting the seat you want—and to avoid getting stuck in the dreaded middle seat between other travelers. Travelers flying as a family or in larger groups may find it difficult to sit together when they have a lower boarding priority.

Not only can it be tough to find empty seats, but you may also have trouble finding room for your carry-on luggage in the overhead compartments. You may have to stow your luggage away from your seat because others are already using the space above your seat. If the overhead bins are completely full, you’ll have to gate check your bag.

For these reasons, many Southwest travelers find it worthwhile to pay the extra fees to purchase EarlyBird Check-In for their flight. We’ll explain how much this would cost you normally, plus a way to get it without shelling out every time you fly.

How much is EarlyBird Check-In on Southwest?

The cost for EarlyBird Check-in on Southwest varies based on the distance of your flight. Prices range from $15 to $25 per passenger each way of your flight. So, on a round-trip flight, you’d pay $30 to $50 per person. 

Note that travelers purchase EarlyBird Check-In separately for each direction of their flight, allowing them to choose which flights they purchase the optional add-on for.

For example, if you’re flying round trip from Nashville to Los Angeles, you could purchase EarlyBird Check-In on the departure flight, the return flight, or both.

You can add EarlyBird Check-In during the initial booking process, or you can wait to add it to your flight at a later time. The upgrade is subject to availability, and your boarding position is based on when you purchase it. Other travelers who purchase the upgrade before you will get a better boarding position because they bought it first.

How to get Southwest EarlyBird Check-In without paying extra every time

If you travel on Southwest frequently or travel in a big group, the cost of EarlyBird Check-In can add up quickly. While Southwest is known for low fares, these add-on costs can eat into your travel budget. There are two primary ways to get Southwest EarlyBird Check-In almost for free.

  • Purchase an Anytime ticket. These tickets are fully refundable, provide access to Priority and Express Lanes and include EarlyBird Check-In.
  • Use Southwest credit card benefits. Select Southwest credit cards include reimbursement for two EarlyBird Check-In purchases per anniversary year. More on that shortly.

Other ways to get an earlier boarding position

If you don’t use EarlyBird Check-In, there are still other ways of getting an earlier boarding position on Southwest flights.

  • Purchase a Business Select ticket. Business Select passengers automatically receive a boarding pass in the A1 to A15 group.
  • Upgraded Boarding. Travelers can purchase an Upgraded Boarding, which puts them in the A1 to A15 group. Upgraded Boarding is not available when Business Select tickets are sold out. Prices range from $30 to $80 per passenger for each segment of your flight. However, some Southwest credit cards reimburse the fees up to four times per anniversary year.
  • Qualify for A-List status. When you qualify for A-List or A-List Preferred, you and everyone on your reservation are automatically checked in at 36 hours before departure. (Note that you’ll still need to check in within 24 hours of your flight’s scheduled departure to get your boarding pass.)

Do Southwest credit cards include EarlyBird Check-in?

Of the five consumer and business Southwest credit cards offered in partnership between Southwest and Chase, three include EarlyBird Check-In credits. Here are the cards that include this benefit and details on how many times you can use it per year:

  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card. Two EarlyBird reimbursements per card anniversary year. This card charges a $69 annual fee. 
  • Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card. Get reimbursed up to two times per card anniversary for EarlyBird Check-Ins. This card charges a $99 annual fee.
  • Southwest® Rapid Rewards® Premier Business Credit Card. Use your card to pay for EarlyBird Check-In and get reimbursed up to two times per card anniversary year. This card charges a $99 annual fee.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Premier Credit Card

Intro bonus

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening.

Annual fee $99
Regular APR 21.49%–28.49% variable

While you do have to pay to carry these credit cards, frequent Southwest flyers will likely get enough value from holding one of them to make the annual fee worthwhile—particularly if you’re working toward Southwest’s beloved Companion Pass. 

Even if you don’t have a co-branded Southwest credit card, several other travel credit cards include annual credits for travel purchases or airline fees you may be able to use to cover these costs. Such cards include the Chase Sapphire Reserve® and (when selecting Southwest as your preferred airline).

To view rates and fees of the The Platinum Card® from American Express, see this page.

The Platinum Card® from American Express

See Rates and Fees

Intro bonus

Earn 80,000 Membership Rewards® Points after spending $8,000 on purchases on the Card in your first 6 months of card membership

Annual Fee $695
Purchase APR See Pay Over Time APR
Foreign Transaction Fee None


The takeaway

There are a lot of reasons to “LUV” Southwest Airlines, to borrow from the airline’s branding. However, its boarding process isn’t one of them. Some travelers complain about getting stuck with C Group boarding passes, even when they try to check in exactly 24 hours ahead of their departure time. When you purchase Southwest EarlyBird Check-In, you’re automatically checked in 36 hours before departure. 

While this means an added cost of $15 to $25 per person each way, it can be worthwhile to get a better seat selection and earlier access to the overhead bins. Southwest Anytime fares automatically include EarlyBird Check-In, and select Southwest credit cards reimburse the fees as part of their benefits.

If you’ve gotten this far and think a Southwest card might not be right for you, take a look at our recommendations for best credit cards for earning airline miles instead.

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Please note that card details are accurate as of the publish date, but are subject to change at any time at the discretion of the issuer. Please contact the card issuer to verify rates, fees, and benefits before applying.
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