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Southwest Airlines is apparently going to vary the price of Early Bird check-in by route instead of charging a flat $15. JT Genter says that some routes will go up to $25 starting August 29th, and this will be based on two things: the length of the route (so how much getting a more desirable seat is likely to matter to you) and demand for Early Bird Check-in on the route (how many people are already buying it).
This actually makes some sense to me. They probably should charge less for my Austin – Dallas flights than for Los Angeles – Baltimore. And if the price is too low too many people will take them up on the offer, and some people paying for Early Bird Check-in will wind up with an undesirable boarding position even though they’re paying extra for it.
I also don’t see ‘dynamic pricing’ for Early Bird Check-in as crossing some sort of rubicon for Southwest Airlines since they already sell A1 to A15 boarding positions with dynamic pricing.
How Southwest Airlines Boarding Works
Southwest Airlines doesn’t offer pre-assigned seats. Seating is ‘first come, first served’. You board the plane and choose any open seat. As a result the earlier you board the better selection you have.
As a result passengers line up ready to board when the flight starts boarding. In my ideal world I’d board a plane as late as possible while still getting on early enough to have overhead bin space. Flying Southwest I board as soon as I can.
When you check in you get a boarding position on your boarding pass. It’s a letter (A, B, or C) and a number (1-60). You line up in order, first the A’s and then once they’ve boarded the B’s and then the C’s.
Here’s Southwest’s boarding order:
- Passengers already on the plane. If it’s a through flight, passengers that are continuing stay on the plane while others disembark. Flight attendants then take a count of through passengers. They’re allowed to stay onboard during the connection or get off, and this means through passengers get first choice of seat for the next segment. For instance I flew Southwest Washington National – Austin at the end of the week and the plane continues to San Diego. There were 10 passengers who stayed on for the San Diego flgiht.
- Pre-boarding. Customers who need special assistance are pre-qualfiied for preboarding.
- Business select customers. People paying the highest fare get the best boarding position, the low A numbers. When there aren’t 15 people flying on business select fares on a flight Southwest will sell the remaining positions at the gate for $30 – $50.
- A-List Preferred. This is Southwest’s top tier elite, members get automatically assigned the best available boarding position after A1-15.
- A-List. Southwest elites get assigned a boarding order after A-List Preferreds. By the way Southwest offers a status challenge to A-List status where they’ll give you the status for 3 months and allow you to earn it on an expedited basis beyond that.
- Early Bird Check-in Anyone can pay extra to be assigned a boarding order automatically before online check-in begins.
- Boarding between A and B groups. Early bird check-in customers may have an A boarding group or a B boarding group, but between A and B several people have the opportunity to board. This is where Southwest does family boarding (families with children 6 and under), military boarding, and elites without an A boarding group (usually customers who purchased their tickets close to departure so boarding assignments have already been handed out).
- Boarding order based on check-in time. The closer to checking in the first moment you can the better your boarding order, since boarding is assigned based on check-in time for everyone else. Generally if you have a low to mid-B group number you’ll still be able to get an aisle seat.
Strategy in Southwest Seating
My usual strategy is to find out how full the flight is. If it’s full I’ll head for an exit row aisle if available when I board — and it surprises me that Southwest passengers tend to fill out the front of the plane first eschewing the exit row seats with more legroom.
If the plane isn’t completely full I’ll take an aisle seat in the back half of the aircraft. What I’m angling for is an empty middle seat. If there’s going to be an empty seat left on the plane I’d like it to be next to me.
Plenty of Southwest passengers play games with this. They’ll put their carry on bag on the seat next to them. They’ll lean into that seat. Anything to make the seat look taken (people do unofficially ‘save seats’ for other passengers boarding after them, and elite members do not extend their boarding privileges to other passengers on the same reservation although Southwest has tested doing this for Companion Pass customers). I’ve even seen people put crumpled up tissues on the seat beside them. All is fair, it seems, in the war for Southwest seats.
Making the Most of Early Bird Check-in
If you have elite status or a Business Select fare you don’t need to worry about early bird checkin.
An extra $10 may not entail much teeth gnashing but if you’re traveling with a family the price can really add up — an extra $10 in each direction for a family of 5 would mean an extra $100.
My suggestion there is to pay for it for one passenger only, they board first and save seats for the rest of the family. The more seats you’re saving the more challenging this can be. And this works best when there are two parents traveling if there are several young children involved.
And of course anyone not paying for Early Bird Check-in should check in online as close as possible to 24 hours before flight.