Is Southwest’s EarlyBird check-in worth $10? The answer is …

by Christopher Elliott on September 22, 2009

swplane1Yes. Sure, Southwest’s decision to begin charging for early boarding is taking it down a slippery slope toward a la carte fees, but what a ride it is, according to passengers like Jennifer Rigdon.

What is EarlyBird? Southwest describes it as follows:

With EarlyBird Check-in, you’ll receive a better boarding position that is confirmed for your trip. Since you’re boarding earlier, there will be more open seats and overhead bin space from which to choose. Then you can sit back and relax as the other passengers board.

Rigdon emailed me shortly after Southwest’s announcement to let me know she wanted to try it. I asked her to report back.

For $20, it’s not a huge loss if it’s not a benefit. I signed up, paid and will know when I print my boarding pass on Saturday whether it was worth it.

Before getting to Rigdon’s experience, a little context: Southwest has always been the most egalitarian domestic airline. There’s no first class section, no seat assignments. In fact, until it revised its boarding procedures in 2007, getting on a Southwest flight was pretty much a free-for-all — you got there first, you boarded first.

It was clear that Southwest wanted to go with assigned seating, but it stopped short of that, maybe because assigned seats ran contrary to its corporate culture.

But the airline still wanted to segment its customers, giving business travelers first crack at the best seats, so it compromised. Its revised policies allowed business travelers paying the most for their tickets to board first. EarlyBird is a natural outgrowth of that decision, turned upside-down. Instead of paying more money for your ticket and getting on the plane early, you’re paying a fee after you’ve bought a less expensive ticket. (Either way, Southwest makes money.)

AirTran, Spirit and Allegiant already offer a comparable fee. You pay an extra $15 or more for a confirmed reservation. Somehow, EarlyBird doesn’t feel as bad, though.

Here’s what Rigdon told me about being an EarlyBird:

I did the Southwest early bird check-in for both legs of my trip to Tempe, Ariz. The order of check-in priority is: Business Select, A-Listers and then those of us who paid the up-charge as early birds. Both flights were full. I was A-28 there and A-25 on the return. There are few Business Select passengers, leaving a gap in the numbering to begin with.

I think the hard part is there is nothing to compare it to. I print my boarding pass as soon as it’s available, so it is hard to know what would happen if I printed it later. Next time I’m going to wait a while and then print the pass – Early Bird doesn’t guarantee an A group boarding pass, but I’m thinking that it wouldn’t/shouldn’t be a C group pass.

I’ll definitely do it again – it’s more reasonable than the upgrade to Business Select, and for $20 I think it’s worth it.

Would you pay an extra $10 to get on the plane early? Under the right circumstances, I might.

The better question is: Should I have to?

(Photo: flygraphix/Flickr Creative Commons)

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  • Amy

    I think back to the cattle-call days of Aloha inter-island flights. The memories of people stampeding to the gate to get their preferred seats were miserable, and then when you were at the tail end of the line, you got death stares from couples who would take window-aisle seats and dare you to make them move, or sit in the middle of them. It was a miserable boarding experience. To avoid all of that, I would pay the $10. I would think it was worth it, especially if the flight was full.

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  • Aaron

    I paid for early bird check-in for my upcoming flights for my honeymoon trip this coming October. This way, for my departure trip, I don’t need to worry about hiding away during my reception to get on my mobile phone to process a check-in at the 24 hour mark and for my return trip, I don’t need to worry that someone else will check us in given the fact that I will be on a cruise ship somewhere without access.

    To me, I think it will be worth it.

  • Frank

    Change the airline name to…:::insert Legacy carrier here:::…. and this article would of been another rant about nickle and diming. Suddenly, a “CHARGE TO BOARD” is acceptable. Too funny.

  • Jerry

    I am flying tomorrow -Sept 24 from Orlando to BWI-on SW
    I did not pay the extra $ 10.00 and checked in this morning as soon as i was able to-Received A 24- maybe the flight is not full but i doubt that. I will see what happens on my return flight next week.

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  • warped

    So the Early Bird Check-In boards AFTER the A group? Nope not worth it. Even if I’m on a cruise, I’ll pay the money to check in onboard and get the A group – the onboard internet access would be less than paying the $10 early bird fee.

  • harold Weller

    I just checked over the phone with Southwest reservations and they are telling me that the order of assignment of boarding numbers is the Pre-Boarders(handicapped), Business Select, next are Rapid AWard passengers(these are passengers who fly Southwest a great deal) and your Early Board Check in. These goups are assigned number automatically about 36 hours prior to departure. Then when you get to 24 hours prior to departure, the rest can go on line to get assignments.
    All the groups can print their boarding pass 24 hours prior to departure. For your $10, you have a boarding number pre assigned and it will be before those passengers who have to wait until 24 ours prior to departure. I am not sure if you buy a ticket in the last 24 hours prior to departure whether you can pay the $10 to get Early Bird.

  • harold Weller

    Southwest says you can only purchase Early Bird up to 25 hours prior to departure.

  • Robert

    The advantage to me is that if I know that I will not be in a convenient place to check in and get my boarding number 24 hours ahead, (like on a cruise) then the $10.00 becomes well worth it.

  • Carol

    I used the $10 fee for my last trip, as I knew I wouldn’t be able to get to a computer for early check-in. I ended up with A14 and A21, so in this particular case, I felt it was worth it. Would I use it on a trip when I can get to the computer 24 hrs in advance? Probably not, unless it was a really long flight.

  • Wolf

    I think that this $10 fee that allows early-bird check in is stupid. It disrupts the well understood check-in process, makes it more of a financial class-system, and attempts to raise another $10. If the airline is so short on cash, they could charge for checking in the 2nd bag.
    This is a very stupid and anti-democratic idea.

  • Nobody

    The good (?) news is that the fee is for all scheduled plane changes through to the final destination. You can encounter many stops and plance changes flying SWA. Get delayed on outbound flight and you’re stuck back with the cattle on standby on the (available) later flights instead of walking up to the front of the line at the next gate.

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  • Plet39

    warped: Early Bird does not “check in after the A group,” but after “A listers” — super-frequent fliers, like my boss, who have been getting automatic “A” boarding for some time now. With Early Bird, SW automatically sets your seat position 36 hours prior to your flight. You can print your boarding pass any time after the 24-hour mark. It doesn’t matter when you actually print your boarding pass, your position (probably A group, but not guaranteed) has already been confirmed by SW 12 hours before you can go online and do it yourself. Problem is, there is currently no limit to the number of passengers who can pay for Early Bird; theoretically, the entire plane could be full-fare, A-listers, and Early Birds, meaning that you paid your $10 and still got a “C” boarding. The more Early Bird passengers on a flight, the greater the chance that those who wait to pounce at the 24-hour mark will end up with B or even C. I made sure I read through everything carefully before deciding to sign up for my next trip to D.C.

  • Plet39

    harold Weller: That 25-hour mark is the LATEST you can purchase Early Bird, and the later you purchase, the lower you are on the priority list. I signed up 2 weeks ago for a flight in December.

  • Lisa Eyer

    I just checked in online myself on the second it passed the 24 hrs before flight and got A55-57, sucks, used to get A15-20 before Early bird started as I always check in on the second it flips over to 24 hrs before flight. I just bought the EB for our return next week and will see what the difference will be :-)

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  • Jay

    4 of us just went on a cruise and booked the flight 3 month in advance with EB.
    On the way to LA we got A18,19, 20, 21, Then 2 weeks later on the way back home we got A59 and 60, ( maybe I am off but we were the last 2 of the A’s)
    Our friends got B1 and B2 .
    They boarded a family between A and B . Sure makes you wonder if it is worth seems like everyone else is getting EB and soon we will be lucky to get a B pass with EB.

  • Kungfu08

    My wife, son & I booked a direct flight to & fr Vegas on-line, when I printed the confirmation I notice that we could not print boarding passes until 24 hrs prior to flight time. My concern was that we would have a full flight, so I contacted SW airlines, at this point I realize the best route was take the Earlybird option so our seats would be assigned 36 hrs prior to flight at the 24 hrs prior they were there, A15, A16, A-17, all we did was go to the airport on the day of departure & turned our bags in & to the gate we went. Oh, we got the same block & seats coming home. Both flights were full, I was glad I paid the $10 each to include return. It was the best flight we have had, glad we flew SOUTHWEST!

  • Kungfu08

    My wife, son & I booked a direct flight to & fr Vegas on-line, when I printed the confirmation I notice that we could not print boarding passes until 24 hrs prior to flight time. My concern was that we would have a full flight, so I contacted SW airlines, at this point I realize the best route was take the Earlybird option so our seats would be assigned 36 hrs prior to flight at the 24 hrs prior they were there, A15, A16, A-17, all we did was go to the airport on the day of departure & turned our bags in & to the gate we went. Oh, we got the same block & seats coming home. Both flights were full, I was glad I paid the $10 each to include return. It was the best flight we have had, glad we flew SOUTHWEST!

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