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

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)

Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or contact him at Got a question or comment? You can post it on the new forum.

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  • Trudi

    If I’m traveling with someone I want to sit with, or a group I want to sit near, then the extra fee is definitely worth it. If I see a family with young children who are already acting out, then I want to find a seat far from them, so the extra fee is worth it. In short, I’m willing to pay it most of the time because I’m picky and I know it. I’ve been generally more pleased with Southwest than I was before they adopted this fee.

  • Spanky_McF


  • TexanPatriot1

    I always get it.   Can’t afford not to, and be crammed in to the middle.   Heck no.

  • TexanPatriot1

    I make it a point of getting there EARLY because of that snarky TSA.

  • TexanPatriot1

    With Southwest…..if you’re getting B45 at 23:59 before the flight, that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are 30 people in A and 45 in B ahead of you….   They set a window of what they might anticipate.   I’ve seen rows and rows in line with very large gapt.  

  • John Bailo

    I wish that Southwest (my favorite airline of all time) would penalize people for bringing on board luggage.   Waiting for people to cram all their egregiously heavy bags into the bins slows down the entering and exiting so much that it’s about as long as waiting by the conveyor belts.

    If they really want to streamline, I would get rid of all the overhead racks entirely (making the seating area much more roomy and light) and only allow people to bring what they can put under the seat in front of them.

    This would also streamline the TSA process which takes too long.

    Southwest passengers with no carry on can speed through a separate line.

  • IGoEverywhere

    If you choose to fly on an airline, you also choose to abide by their rules. Pay / don’t pay the extra seat fee, it’s your choice for inconvenience. You could also pay 10x’s as much and fly first class on United or Ammeican or, or , or.

  • maudr

    I fly Southwest and don’t use this and as long as I check in 24 hours ahead of time I’ve not had a problem with a decent seat. 
    I’m a bit disappointed Southwest is charging for this “perk”.

  • Napi123

    I purchased EB check in for myself and my two sisters and it was ABSOLUTELY USELESS.  Not only did the SW employee never announce boarding in the usual SW manner (i.e, those needing assistance, then A, B, C, etc.) he even announced the WRONG DESTINATION (we were returning to Philadelphia and he announced Chicago several times).  I actually thought the plane at our gate was boarding the last of the passengers heading for Chicago.  I walked a ways down the hall to check the monitor it it said our flight said it was boarding.  I then I asked the man at the gate if the plane was going to Philadelphia and he said yes, and it is boarding now.  We were among the last several on the plane and got lousy seats. Never, ever, ever again.  I wrote Southwest, explained the above and requested a refund and was told that Early Bird check ins were non-refundable. A $30.00 refund request turned down for a service we did not receive.  So I am writing to the BBB and the DOT Aviation Consumer Protection. I really liked this airline until this nonsense.


  • protector7700

    Airlines can go down the tubes as far as I am concerned. None of them are concerned anymore with giving any type of service you might consider “excellent”. The new business model of cramming as many people into a tin can as possible and nickel and dime-ing you to death is part of the problem, not the solution. I will be glad to sink my money into filling my SUV with gas and driving where I need to go.

  • Movin Lady

    I paid for the Early Bird check-in as we are elderly and need the opportunity to board earlier with better choice of seats. No not handicapped. I just went online to check-in at the 24 hr pre-boarding time and what did we get? A52 and 53 so what good is this really?

  • SP

    I had to cancel my Southwest flight and guess what – YOU LOOSE THE EARLY BIRD FEES. Something to keep in mind.

  • AbolishingIgnorance

    ummm…those planes hold 130-150 passengers. 60% would have been boarding AFTER you.

  • ripped off in oregon

    unless you buy the early bird when you buy your ticket, forget it. It means nothing but throwing your money away

  • Johnny Rivera

    I paid for the early check in and could not see, print, or verify it until 24 hrs prior to boarding like everyone else. I think it is a big rip-off.