Home Airlines How To Get The Best Boarding Position On Southwest. Hint: It’s Not Early Bird

How To Get The Best Boarding Position On Southwest. Hint: It’s Not Early Bird

by joeheg

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.

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.

There are now ways to get in line ahead of those checking in at exactly 24-hours.

Early Bird

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 the 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.

Upgraded Boarding

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 Southwest flights, I forgot to book EarlyBird check-in with our flights. When we checked in 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.

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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?

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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.

Final Thoughts

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. If all of the business select fares sold out, you’re stuck with the boarding place you got at check-in.

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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34 comments

B July 8, 2019 - 4:53 pm

Except I recently had B40 or so, and was still able t get exit row seating (because typically the southwest flight attendant stands in exit row as folks are boarding and people skip taking it

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Paul January 1, 2022 - 2:16 pm

Sooo….what’s the “hack?” These are all the standard, published, known ways to improve your boarding position. Seriously, this Arthrocare cle sucks. There is no described hack.

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Bruce Johnson May 9, 2022 - 10:00 pm

Buy one early bird, have that person save the seat, two flights from Austin, SOP.

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Sharon May 13, 2022 - 12:20 pm

I have been doing this for years.
It did not initially occur to me, but eventually it did!

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dan July 8, 2019 - 5:09 pm

thx for the info; after my a-list status expires, will use the sw priority cc for pb credit

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George July 9, 2019 - 8:44 am

“LUV” that you are willing to fork over these extra boarding costs. I own Southwest stock.

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Mike July 9, 2019 - 10:44 am

One caveat… if it’s a continuing flight there may be people already on the aircraft sitting in the preferred seats

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swoopest March 13, 2021 - 12:59 pm

One caveat about buying up: It only works on one flight segment, not an entire multi-segment flight like Early Bird.

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joeheg March 14, 2021 - 9:09 pm

TRUE and a worthwhile thing to remember.

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Boraxo March 14, 2021 - 1:55 am

Why would you pay for 2 people? 1 person can board early and save the seat for the other person.

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joeheg March 14, 2021 - 9:09 pm

Mainly because Southwest has a rather ambiguous policy towards seat saving. While they do not prevent saving seats for passengers, they also will not stop someone from sitting in a seat that someone says is “Saved.” By saving seats, you’re hoping that someone doesn’t call your bluff and sit down. If they do, Southwest employees won’t do anything about it because there’s an open seating policy. Since we had the credit card to reimburse us for the charge, why not use it and prevent any potential problems.

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DaninMCI May 9, 2022 - 5:56 am

Because the other passengers will hate you. Don’t be “that” couple.

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La Flama Blanca May 9, 2022 - 7:41 am

Your are the perfect reason why I don’t fly southwest. I like the airline and they provide excellent service. But putting me in a position to tell you that you are being rude and selfish, I just am never in the mood to calling your bluff or calling you out for being rude. The tactics people use on the airline to make it look like someone is there is just hilarious to watch. From putting down the tray table, or of course the most typical let’s stick a bunch of crap in the seat and let 40 to 50 passengers take a lesser seat because you are more important then them.

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19N May 14, 2022 - 8:00 pm

I do even better than that and I’m sure it will make people like you lose their mind. My wife and I always fly together. I get an extra seat as a ‘person of size’ for FREE. We board very first, always take the front seats and we put an actual boarding pass on the middle seat so no one can take it. Better than first class. Last summer we did 20 flights like this. It was so easy and we didn’t have to pay a nickel extra. You keep doing your tricks that cost $40 a seat extra. We will watch you board from the comfort of our front row with the middle seat vacant. It’s comfy.

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Dennis Whiteside March 19, 2021 - 1:53 pm

I was a boarding agent for SWA for 40 yrs.
First article I ever read that actually explains the boarding process correctly. Thank you.
You broke down all versions perfectly.

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Chris H March 19, 2021 - 5:10 pm

The entire idea of paying for early boarding can and will eventually backfire horribly. I paid big bucks for two early bird seat numbers only to get a seat crammed into the back of the plane. This happens when your Southwest flight does not ORIGINATE at the airport you board. Southwest does not tell you this and I’ve been burned. Shame on Southwest for selling priority boarding positions on planes that are almost full when you first get on.

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Rick March 20, 2021 - 11:29 am

Just think where you would be without the early bird seating

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Gregory May 9, 2022 - 5:49 pm

I always buy Early Bird and 90% of the time I sit in a “saved” seat and the jerk saving it moves on to try to scam another seat and customer. I’ve even taken a middle seat to prove my point.

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Rick January 1, 2022 - 2:08 pm

I’ve had as high as B36 and STILL got the exit row. In other cases I just go to the back and get an entire row to myself.

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Christian May 8, 2022 - 8:23 pm

Not going with the “Miracle Flight” approach where you need a wheelchair for early boarding but become miraculously cured while aboard and walk off just fine? My pride and basic honesty wouldn’t allow me to do that but some people feel differently.

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Jerry May 10, 2022 - 12:57 am

A lot of people feel different. I am A-List Preferred and my employer often allows me to upgrade to business select.. In many cases I get A1-A5.

I believe that it is the right thing to do to allow those with a true need to preboard but more often than not, those wheelchair bound at boarding walk off the plane without any assistance.

On a recent flight I even overheard the wheelchair bound person seated in front of me call a friend and thank them,. “It worked perfectly” she said. And of course she didn’t need any help deplaning. I can’t wait for SWA to finally crack down on this despicable abuse of the system.

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Asdf1234 May 9, 2022 - 4:49 pm

You have to purchase Upgraded Boarding with an agent at the counter or the gate. At the self check in kiosks, the only product available is an upgrade to Business Select which is deceptively marketed on the kiosk as how you upgrade your boarding. My wife fell for this twice and paid $160 x 2 instead of $40 that would be $0 (reimbursed by Chase). I contested the charge and Southwest didn’t fight it, allowing Chase to reverse it.

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joeheg May 9, 2022 - 10:49 pm

I noticed this as well when checking in for our flight.

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Jerry Taylor May 9, 2022 - 6:19 pm

We (wife and I) buy one early bird, shes further back in line, but we always get a good row, and sit together, for 1/2 the price.

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Winnie Abbott May 15, 2022 - 7:43 pm

Flight attendant at southwest needs to disallow A group coming on and holding on rows and rows of seats for friends and families on coming on B And C lists. We all wait our turn and played by the rules. This continues and you will have fights on planes that has nothing to do with masks.

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Doug B May 9, 2022 - 9:56 pm

The real issue is “pre-boarders” who take many of the good seats. Many board early via wheel chairs and walk off the plane. Fly out of PBI or ISP and there are dozens of them on some flights. Southwest claims ADA prevents any regulation. Easy solution: pre-boarders are the last off when they land.

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Jerry May 10, 2022 - 1:07 am

In and out of BUF and BWI as well. This is by far my single biggest complaint about the SWA boarding process. My solution, like yours includes deplaning last as well as requiring them to fill all seats in row 1, then 2, etc in order. Under no circumstances should a preboard be permitted to sit in the exit row. I mean seriously, if you are truly in need of assistance boarding then how are you going to open the door in the event of and emergency.

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John Doe May 9, 2022 - 11:31 pm

If you’re larger than average, or really just average for an American you can utilize the southwest “passenger of size” policy. It states that if you in any way overhang the armrests then you can or may be required to utilize an extra seat. They say they will assign you one at the gate upon request free of charge but I’ve never actually seen them stop someone and require it. Anyone deemed needing an extra seat is allowed to board BEFORE A group, after people in wheel chairs, and is allowed to take 1 companion with them. The only limitation is you’re not allowed to sit in the exit rows. Best of all you can guarantee getting an extra seat by purchasing when you book, then call after the flight and get a full refund.

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Richard Sachs May 10, 2022 - 12:36 pm

Exit Row access also depends on if the plane is continuing to your final destination or not, where you can change seats during the stopover, unless of course you must change planes. If you’re boarding at an intermediate stop and not an end point, you may be out of luck….but that depends on the knowledge of the “professional” SWA flyer or “amateur” SWA passenger.

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erika abbott May 10, 2022 - 4:37 pm

There may be a good reason for the pre-boarders. They’re called invisible disabilities.

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Karmen Pierce May 12, 2022 - 6:04 pm

It is frustrating to see the pre-boarders load the plane first because of disabilities and/or wheelchairs but when we land at least half or more of them walk off the plane without assistance or wheelchairs. Since they get to preboard, they should be made to be the LAST ones off the plane.

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Sharon May 13, 2022 - 12:34 pm

I have experienced this unfortunately.
Having purchased Early Bird months in advance, yet still being issued a high B number boarding pass.
I wish they would allow passengers to purchase upgrades during online check in rather than at the gate.

“The only downside is that the upgrade space is limited by how many business select fares they sell on your flight. If all of the business select fares sold out, you’re stuck with the boarding place you got at check-in.”

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Shannon May 13, 2022 - 8:27 pm

I completely agree that some people abuse the preboarding policy, however, it’s important for everyone to remember that not ALL disabilities are seen with the naked eye. Obviously if you board on a wheel chair and walk off that’s a problem. But there are other reasons people may need to board early to sit in specific seats (NO! Not all front of plane) but it can be for other reasons.

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David M Hoffman May 15, 2022 - 2:15 am

Yeah, like I want to deal with SWA boarding after a delayed connecting flight and getting to the gate at the last minute after running through the airport’s 2 mile long terminals.
Nope, I want an assigned seat, selected by me during the reservation-purchase process, so if I do end up in a last minute sprint I know exactly where I am going on the airliner.

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