I’m a huge fan of Southwest. Like many of our favorite brands at Team Clark, it offers no frills but is a great value and has customer-friendly policies. It’s the only U.S. airline that gives everyone two free checked bags and has no change fees.
Personally, I happen to like its unique open seating policy, which allows me to get a good seat on any flight — even if I book it just a few days out. Ironically, other airlines will typically have the worst seats left for those who paid the most for last-minute flights.
But some other travelers I’ve spoken to don’t like open seating because it stresses them out not having a seat assignment.
What you need to know before you pay for Southwest EarlyBird Check-In
There are people who don’t have the time or inclination to check in exactly 24 hours before departure in order to get the best seat assignment. For these people, Southwest offers its EarlyBird Check-In option for $15-$25 per one-way passenger.
Depending on how many people you’re traveling with, this could seem like a good deal or a large expense. So, should you buy it? Read on to find out…
You should buy EarlyBird Check-In if…
You’re unable to check in 24 hours before your flight and hate middle seats. If Southwest’s check-in policy sounds like a pain or you’re just unable to check in at the right time for any reason, you might want to buy EarlyBird.
You don’t qualify for family boarding but still need to sit together. If you don’t trust yourself to check in exactly on time and you’re not traveling with small children, you should probably buy EarlyBird if you want to sit together.
Your time is worth more than $100 an hour. If you are going to spend $15-$25 to save a few minutes getting off of a plane, you should only do so if your time is extremely valuable. As someone who routinely parks a few blocks from my destination in order to save a similar amount in parking charges, I know that that’s not me. Admittedly, there are probably very few people who value their time that highly but fly Southwest rather than purchasing a first class ticket on another airline.
You should NOT buy EarlyBird Check-In if…
You have A-List or A-List Preferred status on Southwest. If you hold elite status with Southwest, you automatically get a boarding position that’s ahead of those who bought EarlyBird. Southwest is still happy to take your money if you have elite status, but it’s a waste.
You are traveling with children under the age of six. One of the reasons Southwest is my favorite airline for family travel is that families with kids under six can board together between the A and B groups. On Southwest, you are assigned a boarding group (A, B or C) and position (1-60) when you check in. When we travel as a family, we jokingly refer to our boarding position as A-61 or B-0. When we board, our family of five always get seats together. They’re usually about half-way down the aisle, right behind the exit rows.
You have some physical impairment and need extra time or assistance boarding. Southwest offers these passengers priority pre-boarding upon request. While you do need to request priority boarding at the gate, you aren’t required to show any documentation. For example, I’ve used this option when traveling with a broken shoulder, a (very) pregnant wife and with my elderly grandmother.
You check in exactly 24 hours before departure. When you check in at precisely 24 hours before departure, you’re likely to get a decent boarding position. This is usually good enough to get a window seat in the front of the plane (my favorite) or an aisle seat toward the middle.
You don’t mind the middle seat. There probably aren’t many of you, but there are more of these people than you might imagine. When my wife and I travel together, one of us sits by the window and the other is in the middle. If one of us boards early and gets to pick a window seat, nobody minds if the adjacent middle seat is saved until the other one of us boards.
You have the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Priority Credit Card from Chase. One of the perks of this card is four upgraded early boardings per year. These upgraded positions sold at the gate are even better than EarlyBird, as you get to board between A1 and A15.
If you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m not a big fan of EarlyBird Check-In.
Every seat on a Southwest aircraft is exactly the same and it’s not that hard to get an early enough boarding position for free that’s good enough to ensure that you receive your choice of an aisle or a window, or even several seats together.
I do understand that there are some situations where buying EarlyBird can be worth it, but before you offer Southwest an additional $15-$25 per person, per flight, be sure that it really makes sense for you.