Southwest has one of the easiest boarding systems to understand. You line up based on the number on your boarding pass. There are three groups, A, B and C, with passengers numbered 1-60 in each letter group. There’s no assigned seating. When you board, you can pick any available seat. Thus the advantage of getting the lowest boarding group and the lowest number in that group possible, especially now that Southwest is again selling flights to capacity.
If you get lucky enough to have a low number, you may be able to snag this seat on a Southwest plane.
So while there are no assigned seats, Southwest has come up with several ways to sell preferred access to the lower boarding numbers.
Checking In at the 24-hour mark
Boarding assignments are given in the order that you check-in for the flight. Since check-in begins at T-24 Hours from the scheduled departure time, the quicker you are to check-in, the better position you have. I can remember when people who had smartphones with internet were at a huge advantage over those who could only check-in using a desktop computer.
With connectivity everywhere and checking in just a tap away on the Southwest app, everyone has a chance to check in immediately. Getting a boarding position feels like when you’re trying to buy concert tickets or getting a reservation for a COVID vaccine.
There are now ways to get in line ahead of those checking in at exactly 24-hours.
For a fee, Southwest’s EarlyBird Check-In automatically checks you in for your flight before the 24-hour mark. When Southwest launched the service in 2009 the cost was set at $10 per ticket but now costs anywhere from $15 to $25. EarlyBird assignments are determined by when you pay your fee so the earlier you book your ticket (and pay for EarlyBird), the further up in queue you are for a boarding position. EarlyBird needs to be purchased for each direction you’re flying (but you can choose to get the service on one flight but not the other). If you’re on connecting flights, the fee covers both flights.
This is how most passengers purchase a better boarding position, as the service is heavily promoted when booking your flight. Full disclosure: We typically purchase EarlyBird on our Southwest flights.
But buying EarlyBird doesn’t put you first in line.
A-List and A-List Preferred
Southwest’s Frequent Flyers earn A-List status. It’s called that because they always are in the A boarding group. Get it? A-List. A Group.
A-List passengers get checked in at T-36, a full 12 hours before the rest of the flight, ensuring them the best boarding positions. Even if an A-List member buys a ticket at the last minute and has position C-50 on their boarding pass, they’re able to board at the end of the A group.
Business Select Fares
Those crazy high Business Select fares you see when buying your ticket include preferred boarding positions. Better than Early Bird and even better than A-List. Business Select passengers get boarding positions A1-A15.
But there’s another way to get those coveted A1-A15 boarding positions without paying a crazy amount for your ticket.
A less known option with Southwest is paying for Upgraded Boarding. You’re only able to purchase it at the airport on the day of your flight, based on availability.
On one of our last pre-COVID trips on Southwest, I forgot to book EarlyBird check-in with our flights. When we checked in at exactly 24-hours before the flight, we received boarding positions B-12 & B-13. Not horrible and we’d have a solid chance of sitting together and I didn’t have to pay the $40 it would have cost for EarlyBird. But I wanted to try for better.
When we got to the airport, we headed to the gate. We were early so there was no one at the desk. I asked about Upgraded Boarding for our flight. The agent looked up our info and said they had positions A-7 & A-8 and the cost would be $40 each.
We took it.
So instead of paying the $20 for EarlyBird at the last minute and getting a position at the very end of A or possibly the B group, for $40 I was one of the first people on the plane. People who need extra time to pre-board still get on first and that’s OK by me.
Guess which seats Sharon let me pick?
While it’s great to get this perk by paying for it, it’s even better if you can get it for free. People who have the co-brand Southwest Priority Card get reimbursed for 4 Upgraded Boarding fees per year. This single benefit almost pays back the $149 annual fee for the card, plus it has plenty of other benefits for Southwest flyers.
If you’re flying another airline, you’re usually paying between $20-$50 for an exit row seat assignment. If you want the same seat on a Southwest flight, all you have to do is pay $30 to $50 for Priority Boarding at the gate and you’ll be able to pick whatever seat you want, be it the bulkhead, exit row or the legroom for days seat. If you have the right credit cards, you’ll even be able to get a credit for the upgrade fee. The only downside is that the upgrade space is limited by how many business select fares they sell on your flight. They’ll only sell up to A-15 and after that, you’re stuck with whatever place is on your boarding pass.
So if you’re willing to take a small risk about them being sold out and can fork over a few extra dollars, you can have access to the best boarding positions when flying on Southwest.
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This post first appeared on Your Mileage May Vary