How to improve your airplane boarding experience

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People boarding airplane
Image Credit: Dreamstime

When it comes to boarding a flight, it seems that airlines, in general, want to make us as miserable as possible so that we’ll never forget the experience and shell out extra dollars to be seated earlier on our future flights.

Legacy airlines want their most elite and loyal passengers to feel extra special during the boarding process. The rest of us? We’re all going to the same place, but being one of the last to board a flight can turn us into a bag of nerves…Will I find space for my carry-on bag in the overhead?

If getting aboard the flight early is a big deal for you, here are some ways to move up in the ranks on most domestic airlines.

How to board earlier on the major domestic airlines

For starters, if you want to board earlier, never just pay for a basic economy ticket. You’ll be last to board (but richer!). Another thing to do is to become a card-carrying member of your preferred airline.

Clark Howard boarding airplane
Why is money expert Clark Howard at a Delta Air Lines terminal all by himself? Because this cheapo was the only person on the flight who bought a basic economy ticket.

Here are the various boarding methods used on our domestic airlines.

Allegiant

If you forgo the purchase for an advance seat assignment, you will still be randomly assigned a seat and a corresponding boarding zone at 24-hour in advance of check-in. However, you cannot expect to be seated with your friends or family.

Here’s an overview of who boards in each group:

  • Passengers who have purchased Priority Access Allegiant World Mastercard holders
  • Zone 1: Exit rows
  • Zone 2: No carry-on bags (rows 25-40)
  • Zone 3: Passengers without carry-on bags seated in rows 1-24
  • Zone 4: With carry-on bags (rows 25-40)
  • Zone 5: With carry-on bags (rows 10-24)
  • Zone 6: With carry-on bags (rows 1-9)

Allegiant’s Priority Access is priced from $4 to $12 per segment.

Alaska Airlines

Passengers can view the boarding process in action on video monitors at the gate (so you don’t have to ask a stranger if you’re late to the gate). Here’s the straightforward boarding plan:

  • First Class
  • Group A:
    • Mileage Plan Million Miler
    • MVP Gold 75K
    • MVP Gold members
  • Group B:
    • Mileage Plan MVP members
    • Premium class
  • Group C: Remaining passengers (rear of aircraft)
  • Group D: Remaining passengers (front of aircraft)

Premium Class seats can be purchased when you book your flights or while checking in online, at a kiosk, on the app, or at the airport. Prices start from $29 per segment (450 miles or less) and up to $199 for a flight of 2,101 miles or more.

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American Airlines

American officially has 9 boarding groups with each assigned a number (there are actually 11, but who’s counting?). If you have an American AAdvantage number, make sure it appears on your boarding pass. American requires that all travelers wanting to pre-board must make the request by phone or during the ticket purchase. Boarding groups may also be subject to change based on airport and/or aircraft size.

  • Concierge Key elite AAdvantage Members
  • Group 1:
    • First class passengers
    • Business class passengers (only on a 2-class international plane)
  • Group 2:
    • Executive Platinum AAdvantage members
    • Oneworld Emerald members
    • Business class passengers (only on a 3-class plane)
  • Group 3:
    • Platinum Pro AAdvantage members
    • Platinum AAdvantage members
    • Oneworld Sapphire members
  • Group 4:
    • Gold AAdvantage members
    • Oneworld Ruby members
    • AirPass members
    • Premium economy class passengers
    • Citi/AAdvantage Executive cardmembers
    • Passengers who have purchased priority boarding (not available on Basic Economy fares)
  • Group 5 (Preferred boarding):
    • Basic Economy Extra passengers (excluding basic economy tickets)
    • Eligible AAdvantage credit card members
    • Eligible corporate travelers
  • Groups 6-9: General boarding for Basic Economy ticket holders

All American Airlines AAdvantage credit cards board with group 5 boarding. These include:

  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
  • CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select American Express Card
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select
  • AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard
  • AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard
  • AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard

TIP: If you are tempted to enroll in one of the credit cards pitched while in flight, remember that it will only give you preferred group 5 boarding.

Delta Air Lines

Here in living color is the boarding group plan for legacy carrier Delta Air Lines. If you think Zone 1 printed on your boarding pass is heady, remember that six other preferred groups will board before you get to.

Exceptions: Delta SkyMiles credit cardholders (Blue, Gold, Platinum and Reserve) may also board with Zone 1 with up to 9 traveling with the cardholder and booked on the same reservation. Be prepared to show that eligible card.

Here are the groups called in order to board:

  • Delta One (available on long-haul international flights and in select long-haul domestic markets)
  • Diamond Medallion members
  • First Class or Delta Premium Select
  • Delta Premium Select customers
  • Diamond Medallion Members (when no Delta One cabin)
  • Early boarding for families and those needing assistance
  • Delta Comfort+
  • Sky Priority (Diamond, Platinum, and Gold Medallion members with First Class, Premium Select or Business Class ticket)
  • Platinum Medallion Members
  • Gold Medallion Members
  • Flying Blue Platinum and Gold members
  • Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold members
  • Virgin Australia Platinum and Gold members
  • GOL Smiles Diamond members
  • SkyTeam Elite Plus members
  • Main Cabin 1:
    • Silver Medallion Members
    • Delta Corporate travelers
    • Priority Boarding Trip Extra customers ($15 extra each way)
    • Gold, Platinum, and Reserve Delta SkyMiles credit card holders
    • Flying Blue Silver members
    • Virgin Australia Velocity Silver members
    • GOL Smiles Gold members
    • Sky Team Elite members
  • Main Cabin 2:
    • Main cabin passengers
  • Main Cabin 3:
    • Main cabin passengers with T, X, and V fare codes
    • Basic Economy and Basic economy passengers with E fare code

Frontier Airlines

Frontier randomly assigns seats when you check-in, but you can pay a fee (per segment) to choose your own. Those who pony up for extras also get on board first.

  • Zone 1:
    • Passengers who pay for a carry-on bag
    • Passengers who purchase the WORKS
    • Elite members of myFRONTIER Miles
  • General Boarding: All other passengers

Hawaiian Airlines

  • Zone 1:
    • First Class
    • Business Class
    • Pualani Platinum Members
  • Zone 2:
    • Extra Comfort seats
    • Preferred Seats
    • Pualani Gold Members
    • Premier Club Members
  • Zones 3, 4, 5:
    • General boarding (from rear to front)

If you want to sit in a Preferred seat or an Extra Comfort seat, you will need to pay more with prices depending on routes within the, to the islands, Australia or New Zealand (also available on Tahiti and Asia routes).

Jetblue

Following most other airlines, JetBlue uses a numbered and named process to board passengers. Passengers board by groups, which will be noted on your boarding pass above or next to your seat number.

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Here’s the boarding order:

  • Mosaic and Mint Customers
  • Even More Space Customers
  • Group A: Courtesy Boarding
  • Followed by general boarding for Groups B-E

Passengers board by group and then choose any available seat. Travelers buying Even More Space seats board with group A.

A purchased Even More Space seat provides not only early boarding but extra legroom and early access to overhead bin space. Prices for an upgraded seat are based on distance of flight, but you can expect to pay $15 to $65 per segment in addition to standard fares.

Southwest Airlines

One positive about the Southwest experience is that every seat on every plane is exactly the same. And the airline’s no assigned seating isn’t the most popular method with travelers, but it works and has for decades.

During check-in, you’ll be assigned an A, B or C boarding group with a number from 1-60. Line up at the numbered posts and choose any open seat once onboard. The earlier you check in, beginning 24 hours before your departure, the lower your boarding group and position will be.

Optional is EarlyBird check-in where you’ll automatically have a reserved boarding position any time prior to departure (mostly in the A1-A15 area). This also applies to Rapid Rewards A-List Preferred or A-List Members. EarlyBird can be purchased in advance with the original booking, at the ticket counter or gate for $30, $40 or $50 per segment (varies by itinerary).

Spirit Airlines

Just as straightforward as the biggie airlines, Spirit assigns a seat number when you check-in (24-hours or less in advance of departure) along with a boarding zone letter.

  • Zone 1: Passengers who paid for a carry-on bag
  • Zone 2:
    • Passengers with purchased Shortcut Boarding (and early access to the overhead bins)
    • Spirit’s VIP or Elite status passengers
    • Spirit Airlines World Mastercard cardholders
    • Family Boarding
    • Families with children ages 3 and under
  • Zone 3:
    • General boarding (back of the plane)
  • Zone 4: General boarding (front)

If you don’t opt to pay more for a seat assignment, Spirit will randomly assign you a seat at check-in free, but the airline cannot guarantee that you’ll be able to sit with family members or friends.

Depending on the route, seat type and location, and when you purchase, upgraded seats cost upwards of $50. Spirit’s Big Front Seats cost $12 to $150 when purchased in advance and from $25 to $175 when purchased onboard.

Keep in mind that all Spirit seats are locked and do not recline.

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The Thrills Combo comes with lots of perks and the price varies by route. You’ll see the option to buy the combo package during your initial ticket purchase. Included is a checked bag (up to 50 lbs.), one standard carry-on bag, choice of a standard or exit row seat, early boarding, extra mileage earnings and Flight Flex: no change fees until 24 hours before departure (plus any difference in airfare).

United Airlines

United uses two color-coded lanes, with Group 1 boarding through the blue lane and Group 2 through the green lane. The remaining Groups 3-5 will then board through the green lane when called, and Groups 1 and 2 can continue to board through the blue lane.

Here’s how the boarding groups are called (after families, military, etc.):

  • United Global Services members (invitation only for big spenders, corporations)
  • Premier 1K members (flyers spending $12k+ annually)
  • Group 1:
    • Premier Platinum members
    • Premier Gold members
    • Star Alliance Gold members
    • Customers seated in premium cabins: United Polaris, United First and United Business
  • Group 2:
    • Premier Silver members
    • Star Alliance Silver members
    • Customers who have purchased Premier Access or Priority Boarding
    • United Explorer, Club, Presidential Plus and Awards Cardmembers
  • Groups 3 – 5:
    • Economy Plus
    • United Economy
    • Basic Economy

Download the United app before departure day. You’ll get a push notice when it’s time for your boarding group.

United’s Explorer credit card comes with perks such as free checked bag, priority boarding, two club lounge passes, up to $100 to apply to TSA Precheck or Global Entry and earned Star Alliance miles for hotels, restaurants and United purchases.

More tips for scoring a good boarding zone:

  • AirlineCheckIns.com is a Lufthansa-supported website, but open to all airline travelers. The free service manages your flight check-in and secures your favorite seat for more than 400 airlines (even Southwest!) the moment the flight opens. This is key especially when check-in is at stupid o’clock or when you know it will be an inconvenience to check-in exactly 24 hours in advance. You simply forward your confirmation email to your account (free) which will resemble something like this: [email protected]airlinecheckins.com
  • Remember that each airline has varied rules on when the boarding doors will close before a departure. Most cut off boarding 10 minutes before departure, but if you’re flying Frontier it’s 15 minutes. Know before you go!

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