You either fall into one of two camps. The people who get to the airport early with the aim of getting on to their flight before other people, knowing you can secure cabin space for storing your luggage above your seat. On the flipside, others like to arrive last, as there’s not much you can do on a plane, so prefer to spend as little time as possible at an airport.
With Southwest, you have less choice as the company issues you a boarding place depending on when you check-in for your flight. This has some advantages. You can get on the plane and sit anywhere there’s space. Without paying any extra, we’ve managed to bag the ‘extra leg space’ exit seats on a couple of occasions.
Boarding is based on A, B and C zones. If you manage to secure an A-zone boarding location, you can often secure the best seats, close to the front and with guaranteed space for your bags. If you’re in C-zone, you board last and we’ve seen people struggle to find a seat, forced to sit in the middle seat between people they don’t know and, worse, cannot find anywhere to store their luggage.
There are ways around this. If you are a Southwest Business Select customer, you are guaranteed an early A-zone (A1 through A15) boarding and always board first. But, even Business Select is not on every Southwest flight, so be warned.
Alternatively, you can plump for EarlyBird check-in, which debuted in 2009, and offers you an extra 12 hours before regular check-in, making it more likely you’ll be within the latter A-zone or, more likely an early B-zone. EarlyBird offers no guarantees (if the entire plane purchased EarlyBird check-in, then it improves little), but just makes it more likely you’re earlier to board. EarlyBird costs $15 for a return flight and is a well worth purchasing.
In addition, Southwest has a last-minute priority boarding option. This enables someone who has a terrible C-zone boarding pass to receive a boarding upgrade before boarding starts. This was a reasonably fair $30 per flight, per person. However, Southwest has just moved this up to $50, each way, per person, making us think twice before considering this option.
If you have older kids, forgot to add EarlyBird, are stuck in a low C-zone boarding location, then it might make sense, despite the extra expense. Our advice would be to remember to add EarlyBird booking option for each person and also remember to check-in in advance to secure a top boarding position.