Southwest Airlines has always sported a unique boarding style. There are no assigned seats on Southwest flights. Rather, you get a numbered boarding pass and you pick your seat from what’s available when you board. That doesn’t mean you can’t get a better seat. There are a handful of ways.
How To Get A Better Seat On Southwest
- You can buy a Business Select fare to secure yourself a seat in the A1-A15 range. That means you’ll be one of the very first people on the plane.
- You can take advantage of Southwest’s Upgraded Boarding to purchase a boarding pass on the A group.
- Elite members of the A-List and A-List Preferred program earn better boarding passes.
- You can buy Early Bird Boarding for $15 per flight.
Which brings us back to the title of the post. Is Southwest Airlines Early Bird Check-in worth it?
I fly Southwest a handful of times a year. For years, I’ve always clicked the little box to buy Early Bird without even really thinking about it. The $15 per person just seemed like a set add-on. It wasn’t until I saw a post from my good friend Summer who writes the Mommy Points blog. She asked this exact same question.
Summer put it to the test and found that there were times the made sense to buy Early Bird and other times where they could get away without buying it.
That post by Summer made me think about Early Bird in a different way. Did I really need to spend $60 for our family of 4 to have early bird boarding? That’s $120 round-trip. I decided to put it to the test on two trips.
The first was a trip back from Disney World. We were flying from Orlando International Airport to Washington-Dulles. By virtue of a status much to Southwest A-List, I had an A 24 boarding pass. In order to get the best boarding passes possible for the family, I’d need to be ready right at the 24-hour mark to check-in.
I set an alarm and found a quiet spot in Disney. I was working with the Southwest mobile app. It took me a bit longer than I thought to get checked in, about a minute after the check-in window open. The family ended up with B29, B30 and B31. The plane was a 737-800, so plenty of rows to get one to ourselves.
I boarded first and grabbed an aisle seat a few rows behind the exit rows. Southwest Airlines has a policy of open seating and doesn’t allow folks to save seats. In practice, though, most people boarding are looking for an open row to sit in. So, nobody tried to sit in the open middle and window seat next to me. 5-10 minutes later my family showed up and everything was fine. The worst part of the experience for me was waiting for my family to board. While it’s unlikely something goes wrong, I really didn’t like separating the family.
The second test didn’t go as well as the first one. This was a midweek, late morning flight from BWI to Denver. Honestly, I felt pretty good about the decision not to purchase Early Bird on this one. Wanna Get Away fares were available until fairly close to departure and seats were still available for purchase 2 days prior when I checked. I was sitting in front of my computer, trigger finger ready to check us in. We had two separate reservations with 2 of us on each.
In two separate browsers, I hit the check-in button pretty much right at 24 hours on both. Here’s what Michelle and my daughter ended up with:
Yikes. When I checked in my son and I, the results weren’t much better. A34 seemed pretty high for an A-List member. Admittedly, I don’t have a ton of experience with A-List. My son’s C10 boarding pass was problematic as we obviously weren’t going to let him board that late.
I approached the counter to ask about purchasing a better boarding pass for Charlie. I figured if he and I boarded near the end of the A group that we’d find a row open. We’d hope to hold two seats for Michell and Cat. If not, there was still a reasonable chance we could find 2 sets of 2 seats together. The agent asked me how old our son was. I told him he was 7. She said family boarding was generally only for kids age 6 and under, but she was fine with us boarding as a family after the A group. While I was thankful for that answer, it’s not one I would count on for the future.
The Final Two Pennies
I counted people getting on the plane and kept an eye on open seats. I think we would have been able to get two seats together at B59 and B60, but the plane was pretty full at that point. There were definitely no empty rows of 3 seats at that point. Neither of our kids is really wild about sitting next to a stranger on an airplane. That means splitting up into groups of 2 would mean a parent in the middle seat. On a 4-hour flight, that’s not my idea of a good time.
The moral of the story for our family is that I’m fairly convinced I’ll continue to buy Early Bird check-in for all of our flights. I’m still thankful for the experiment. It made me remember that those $15 charges add up in the total price of a trip, and that I should be sure to include them when comparing fares in the future. It’s unlikely I’d personally make a decision based on that $15 charge. But, it helps keep my mind focused on finding the best deals for families when they travel.
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