Southwest Introducing Dynamic Pricing for Early Bird Check-in: Here’s Your Strategy

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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.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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Comments

  1. I like Southwest’s friendly lightheartedness, but the boarding process always feels stressful for me due to the uncertainty and mobbing of the gate. As an aside, I’m getting tired of all the blatant actions by airlines to monetize every single thing they can to wring more money out of their customers.

  2. Why aren’t we considering Southwest to be a legacy carrier? There’s very few differences these days.

  3. Out of EWR, I find they’re not the best value price-wise compared to some of their competitors.
    I prefer having an assigned seat. Do the FA’s get involved in seat-saving situations (particularly rude ones)?
    Since many people check in at 24hrs and/or use Early Bird, couldn’t the SW Priority cc perk of early boarding result in not always being able to use it?

  4. @Ed have you not been on any other airline recently? Gate lice are a thing for every airline. No mobbing at the gate, just stand in line. Pretty simple…

  5. @Ed I imagine that you will be pleased to know that “mobbing at the gate” no longer happens on Southwest flights. It’s a very civilized seating process, with no mob and no gate lice.

  6. I’m actually a bit surprised that I’ve never seen an “incident” involving seat-saving on WN. I imagine they do happen.

    Personally, I never pay for Early Bird. Frankly, it seems silly to do so. If I check in at the 24-hour mark (which seems VERY popular to do), I can get a decent seat in the middle to 2/3ds section of the aircraft (and I go to the back if I think it will gain me an empty middle seat). So Early Bird seems like a VERY modest benefit to me and can be expensive, especially if you’re travelling with others. I’d certainly never pay $25.

  7. Saving seats?

    What happens when someone who has actually paid for Early Boarding want one of the seats that you are saving

    Don’t be a jerk.

    It is only a matter of time until WN gets hit with a nasty lawsuit concerning a seat saving assault

  8. Ironically, dynamic pricing has a perverse outcome. People buying it later pay more more for a worse number and worse seat. Of course I guess it’s good for WN because it encourages purchase when the reservation is made.

  9. Too bad they won’t realize that the way to make more money off of this is to say “No you can’t hold seats, you get the ONE seat you paid for” All this is going to do is encourage people to pay for EB for one person and try to reserve seats for his/her entire family! Cue the fights!

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