Southwest Hikes Cost Of Upgraded Boarding, EarlyBird Check-In

Southwest Hikes Cost Of Upgraded Boarding, EarlyBird Check-In

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Southwest Airlines has quietly adjusted the cost of its Upgraded Boarding and EarlyBird Check-In, and in some cases this is now outrageously expensive (thanks to Danny the Deal Guru for flagging this).

Southwest increases cost of early boarding options

Southwest Airlines is known for its unique boarding process, which is because the airline has an open seating policy. You can’t assign seats on Southwest flights, so rather your boarding priority determines what kind of a seat you’ll likely end up in.

Boarding priority is based on three things:

  • The first 15 boarding positions are for those who purchase Business Select fares, which are Southwest’s premium fares; if 15 Business Select fares aren’t sold, the airline sells Upgraded Boarding, which get you that boarding priority
  • Southwest then sells EarlyBird Check-In, whereby you’ll automatically be checked in ahead of other passengers, and will get a boarding priority that corresponds to this; there’s no limit to how many of these Southwest will sell
  • Lastly, after the above, boarding priority is determined based on when you check-in, so you want to check-in as close to 24 hours in advance as possible

Per Southwest’s page for travel fees, the airline has just changed the cost of its options that can help you snag a favorable boarding option:

  • Upgraded Boarding now costs $30-149 per passenger per segment; previously that cost $30-80, so on the high end, that represents a significant increase
  • Early Bird Check-In now costs $15-99 per passenger per segment; previously that cost $15-25, so once again, that’s a huge increase on the high end
Southwest Airlines’ new fee range

I should mention that some co-branded Southwest credit cards offer four complimentary Upgraded Boarding purchases per year as a perk. Depending on how you look at it, the value of that has just increased, as each of those boardings could save you a maximum of $149 now, rather than a maximum of $80.

For what it’s worth, Southwest last increased the cost of Upgraded Boarding a year ago, in May 2023, so this represents quite the consistent price hike.

Southwest has increased the cost of ancillary options

My take on these Southwest fee changes

In general, I think it’s fair that Southwest’s fees for Upgraded Boarding and EarlyBird Check-In are dynamic, and reflect the demand on a particular flight. After all, there’s a finite number of Upgraded Boarding positions that can be sold, so the airline wants to match supply with demand.

Understandably, some people greatly value early boarding on Southwest, since that can be the difference between snagging an exit row and not. Now, I do have to say, the high end of the new pricing scheme is truly shocking.

$149 is a lot to pay for an Upgraded Boarding position. However, at least you’re guaranteed that you’ll be one of the first 15 passengers to board (well, excluding wheelchair passengers, and excluding those on a “direct” flight who are still onboard).

I think what’s much more shocking is charging up to $99 for EarlyBird Check-In. Paying up to $25 is reasonable, but up to $99 for something that doesn’t even give you a guaranteed position? I mean, keep in mind that in theory, everyone on a flight could buy that, so you could buy this and be among the last to board.

It reminds me of the “Come Fly With Me” scene about “Speedy Boarding.”

I’m not surprised to see Southwest trying to generate more ancillary revenue. The airline isn’t doing as well financially as it used to. There are even rumors that the airline may completely transform its passenger experience, perhaps introducing assigned seating, and even an extra legroom section. In the meantime, it looks like the airline is seeing if there’s any other way to squeeze more money out of passengers.

Up to $149 is a lot to spend for a shot at an exit row!

Bottom line

Southwest Airlines has increased the price range for its options that get you a better boarding position. Upgraded Boarding now costs $15-99, rather than $15-25. The high end of that pricing really is quite shocking, especially for EarlyBird Check-In, since it doesn’t guarantee you anything.

What do you make of Southwest’s new priority boarding options?

Conversations (36)
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  1. Sarthak Majithia Guest

    I think they also nerfed using multiple flight credits towards a booking. I was trying it out this morning, and I can no longer combine a dozen of $5.6 flight credits that I have (thanks for to all the aspire/platinum credits and cancelations). To be clear, I am only trying to combine 2 credits at a time, even though I have a dozen unique PNRs.

    Forget using multiple flight credits, I can't even combine a gift card + flight credit or voucher + flight credit.

    1. Sarthak Guest

      my bad, seems like that is only with award bookings. I was looking at an international flight that had higher taxes and fees.

  2. Exit Row Seat Guest

    Assigned seating would mitigate this mess!!
    Southwest is 50+ years old, yet it acts like a bad ass freshman with no adult in the room.
    Time to wake up before you alienate a large portion of your customer base.
    With AA in turmoil, nows a chance to grab business PAX who pay a premium and expect such service.
    Make a move now before Spirit, Frontier, & JetBlue get their act together and leave SW with the bums and crumbs.

  3. Brian W Guest

    I sense more wheelchairs and preboarders as a result

  4. John Smith Guest

    I think this really is a nothing burger. I suspect Southwest executives observed (among other factors) that a portion of their passengers who paid for these upgrades were disappointed by their resulting boarding position. I think the increase in price, and the ability to make it dynamic will maintain the quality of the upgrade, such that (due to the increased cost) not as many people buy it, and those that do will be better rewarded...

    I think this really is a nothing burger. I suspect Southwest executives observed (among other factors) that a portion of their passengers who paid for these upgrades were disappointed by their resulting boarding position. I think the increase in price, and the ability to make it dynamic will maintain the quality of the upgrade, such that (due to the increased cost) not as many people buy it, and those that do will be better rewarded with a boarding position that is in-line with their expectations.

    I still concerned that they have gone to Google Flights... I believe it may be paving the way for them to do away with the free 2-checked baggage policy, as it would be insane to do away with that benefit WITHOUT being on google flights.

  5. Andy 11235 Guest

    Yeah, $15-25 felt reasonable to get a preferred seat before too many people board. However, I'd be pissed as h3ll to pay $100 and watch the 50 "wheelchair" passengers snag all the good seats with their families. It's time they simply switch to assigned seating and install some Big Front Seats and extra legroom if they are that desperate for buy-ups.

  6. jotlaptop Member

    Assigning seats requires a sophisticated computer system. Charging separately for checked luggage requires a sophisticated computer system. The manager who nixed those "unnecessary" updates thirty years ago probably got a bonus for saving money, making a feature out of focusing on the lipstick rather than the pig.

    1. ConcordeBoy Diamond

      Southwest spent millions in 2017, switching its I.T. to Amadeus Altea.
      It's had the capability to do all of those things mentioned, for years now.

      Despite anomalies like the 2022 holidays: inadequate tech isn't what's holding Southwest back, anymore... implementing new tech capabilities into their labor agreements and culture however, is.

  7. Eric Guest

    Stating that the value of the cobrand cards has increased is an example of miles+points brainworms

    The value (seating selection) is unchanged

    The financial cost being offset by the credits to achieve the value is increased

  8. Nat Guest

    Super interesting. Not a huge sample size here but the couple times I tried using the Upgraded Boarding credits from the card, they were never available and this felt like a worthless benefit. I remember the days when checking in 24hr on the dot would at least get you in the first half of B, which is what you need before the gate agent starts forcibly checking bags.

    1. Darin Guest

      Re: 24 hour check-in, it still does, or at least can secure B30 or better. I guess it depends on more factors now and is less certain.

  9. Avi8Tor Guest

    REVENUE GRAB! So SWA can’t fix their failing revenue so lets FEE the passenger to death? ABSURD strategy. I think it’d go over better to “compete” cuz SWA you’re really not an LCC anymore & definitely not like the majors to the likes of UAL, AA OR DL!

  10. iamhere Guest

    I'm waiting for Ben's review of Southwest without paying for all of the extras....and I agree with the comments that Southwest needs to start assigning seats. It's not as cheap as people make it out to be.

  11. iamhere Guest

    Airlines like Southwest and others that people say offer very low fares are great if you do not care about anything and have no extra fees and are bringing few things with you. If you need to start paying fees, you might as well fly a legacy or full service airline for the same money or less.

    1. splane21 Member

      Southwest is the only airline in the US to offer everyone 2 free checked bags, everyone no change fees, and has vouchers that never expire if you cancel even on the cheapest fare. Seems like the opposite of airlines you’re trying to compare them to

  12. RF Diamond

    SW should stop pretending it's still a LCC and get with the times. Start with assigned seating and put in first class seats.

  13. betterbub Diamond

    Is the wheelchair thing really that common? I honestly don't recall seeing more than 1 or 2 wheelchairs on the flights I took

  14. Capo Guest

    Open seating sucks. Assign seats like everyone else and stop this jetway jesus nonsense.

  15. Regis Guest

    How about charging a fee for pre-boarding?

  16. JOE Guest

    SW just needs to start assigning seats like other airlines. Charge a reasonable fee for the seat you pick at the time you make the reservation.
    It's becoming more stressful everytime one flies wondering where you'll end up on the plane...especially if you are with a family with younger kids.

  17. Never In Doubt Guest

    I feel the need for a wheel chair all of a sudden.

  18. Luke Guest

    I'll just continue making sure to check in exactly 24 hours before the flight which has always got me in the first half of group B which has always been early enough to find 3 seats together in a row towards back of plane

  19. Retired Gambler Guest

    Couple of comments -

    1. While I used to fly SW a lot I go out of my way to avoid them now (burned last FF miles on a half price promotion last summer).
    2. As @bitterproffit states - Early Bird fees are non-refundable in most cases. One thing when $25 a flight but totally different at $99
    3. It would be one thing if Early Bird actually guaranteed anything but I have...

    Couple of comments -

    1. While I used to fly SW a lot I go out of my way to avoid them now (burned last FF miles on a half price promotion last summer).
    2. As @bitterproffit states - Early Bird fees are non-refundable in most cases. One thing when $25 a flight but totally different at $99
    3. It would be one thing if Early Bird actually guaranteed anything but I have had it (or A list via status match which gives you same boarding advantage) and still ended up in Group B. Understand not only do you have through passengers on some flights but then all the "disabled" and other priority boarding, then all of Group A and then passengers with children (who board between A and B) before someone who paid for Early Bird gets to board. That IMHO is unacceptable.
    4. Only way I will fly SW in the future is if they have assigned seats. Until then plenty of other options out there (and don't give me the "bags fly free" BS - I am lifetime elite on AA, DL and UA so don't pay for bags and buy J or F international so no fee there either). IMHO the whole "bags fly free" is only marketing and appeals only to very infrequent fliers since anyone that flies much can easily get around it.

    1. Darin Guest

      While it’s great you’re a lifetime elite on THREE airlines, most people are infrequent travelers and thus the bag fee is a real differentiator. Maybe recognize that your lived experience may not translate to everyone and thus be their baseline.

  20. Evan Guest

    IME, Early Boarding rarely makes "the difference between snagging an exit row and not." There is such rampant abuse of preboarding, as well as through passengers who can move around the plane and select choice seats before new passengers board. And there is inevitably a Golden Retriever sitting in the bulkhead road by the time A1-A15 board. Early Boarding just ensures you get an aisle or window seat in the front half of the plane. That's it.

    1. Robert Fahr Guest

      My experience has been quite different than yours. 100% of the time I get an exit row and often one of the two seats without a seat in front of mine. I have noticed the price creep and have paid $50. I might feel differently if I see $149.

    2. Rose Guest

      Same, Robert. In fact, I've gotten one of the seats without a seat in front of it 100% of the time I've paid for Upgraded Boarding. (And the FAs stand in the exit rows during pre-boarding to ensure that none of the pre-boards try to take the exit rows, so I'm not sure what Evan is referring to.)

    3. Evan Guest

      It may depend on your departure city. Airports like MDW and STL are not exactly "hubs" for the airline, but they are midpoints in the country that have a lot of through passengers. All it takes is a handful of people staying on board and moving to those exit row seats.

      My biggest problem with SWA's entire approach to boarding is that you are tethered to the gate. You cannot risk staying in the lounge...

      It may depend on your departure city. Airports like MDW and STL are not exactly "hubs" for the airline, but they are midpoints in the country that have a lot of through passengers. All it takes is a handful of people staying on board and moving to those exit row seats.

      My biggest problem with SWA's entire approach to boarding is that you are tethered to the gate. You cannot risk staying in the lounge too long or even being stuck in the Starbucks line when boarding starts. As soon as that happens, your money goes up in smoke. This is what makes SWA's "business" fares and upgraded boarding add-ons much less valuable than first class on other airlines.

  21. bitterproffit Guest

    I am not sure if its still the case, but I thought Early Bird was non-refundable even if you cancel. I am also not sue if it transfers if you change flights. It definitely is a huge cost increase.

    1. Robert J Fahr Guest

      You are correct on both accounts. Non refundable and non transferable.

    2. Randy Guest

      Incorrect about the transfer. It does pass if you change flights, though I believe the time will reset as if you bought the EB at the time of the transfer and not when you actually bought it.

  22. eaci Guest

    $149 is often sufficient to snag (domestic) first class on other airlines.

    1. B S Guest

      Ha that's a good one. My last flight LAX-ATL on Delta it was $800 to upgrade to 1st class. Even on AA flying ATL-LAX it was around $150 to upgrade to comfort plus or whatever there's is called.

    2. eaci Guest

      I've done it, including on long-ish (4h) flights, and quite recently. Caveats apply: flexibility on timing matters, to be sure, and long flights cost more than short ones (and it's fair to point out that WN has a cap at $149). But I've seen the difference between coach and first on ~4h flights be ~$100 more times than I can remember.

    3. Darin Guest

      LAX-ATL is not representative of systemwide DL offers. Anywhere ATL on DL is only representative of the crazy pricing flex of DL. AA LAX-ATL is often not that much more in F over Main Cabin.

Featured Comments Most helpful comments ( as chosen by the OMAAT community ).

The comments on this page have not been provided, reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any advertiser, and it is not an advertiser's responsibility to ensure posts and/or questions are answered.

eaci Guest

$149 is often sufficient to snag (domestic) first class on other airlines.

2
David Guest

You beat me to it.

1
JOE Guest

SW just needs to start assigning seats like other airlines. Charge a reasonable fee for the seat you pick at the time you make the reservation. It's becoming more stressful everytime one flies wondering where you'll end up on the plane...especially if you are with a family with younger kids.

1
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