Southwest boarding passes

If you check in as early as possible, why do you still not get a good boarding pass on Southwest? Reader M asks….southwest shamu

Last week I flew Southwest for the first time in years. My company bought the ticket for me, but I knew I had to check in 24 hours in advance to get a good boarding pass. I checked in at exactly 24 hours, but still got “B” boarding pass! Did I do something wrong?

Sigh. No, unfortunately you did nothing wrong. There are so many good things about Southwest, but unless you’re in a specific group the boarding process is not one of them. For those of you who are unfamiliar, Southwest doesn’t assign seats. Instead, based on several factors including check in time you are assigned to a boarding group: A, B, and C. Inside the boarding group you are assigned a number between 1-60. This determines the boarding order inside the group. So boarding pass A1 would go first and C60 would go very last. Make sense?

A regular passenger without status can check in 24 hours ahead of time. However, there are groups of boarding passes reserved for certain groups of passengers, and some people get to check in early. Here’s the breakdown.

Business Select. Business Select is the most expensive type of ticket Southwest offers, and includes priority boarding and a beverage. Boarding spots A1-15 are reserved for this group.

A-List. A-List is a type of status with Southwest. A-List passengers are checked in automatically 36 hours before a flight, and are assigned a boarding pass based on when they purchased their ticket. So if I am A list and I bought my ticket a week in advance, I would get a boarding spot before someone who bought a ticket the day before. It is highly likely (but not guaranteed) we would both get A boarding passes.

Editor’s note: Turns out it’s not totally known what order A-list ticket holders are given their boarding passes. See Stephen’s comment below.

Early Bird. When purchasing your ticket, you can purchase Early Bird check in for $12.50 each way. This will automatically check you in 36 hours in advance, after the A-List group.

Connecting passengers. Connecting passengers get boarding passes for all of the flights in their itinerary, even if it’s prior to 24 hours for some. For example, if I am flying from San Francisco to Nashville, changing planes in Dallas, I would check in 24 hours before my SFO-DAL flight. However, I would still get a boarding pass for my DAL-BNA flight, even though it’s more than 24 hours in advance of that flight.

Family boarding. On Southwest, families with children four and under can board in between the A and B groups. While they don’t get a special boarding pass, it’s still a group that gets a type of priority.

Since all of these groups get their boarding assignments before the 24 hour time period, people who aren’t able to check in until then often get in the B group, and sometimes pretty low in the B group. For business travelers, if you are going to fly Southwest frequently it would certainly be worth it to go for A-List status. Unless your employer will pay for Business Select or Early Bird (or you are) there’s no way to guarantee yourself an A boarding pass.

Readers, what are your thoughts on Southwest for business travel?

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  1. I’ve even paid for Early Bird before and still have gotten a B boarding pass. There is no limit on the number of people who can purchase Early Bird, so everything depends on how many people end up in the virtual queue ahead of you on a particular flight. If you live in a Southwest “hub” like I do (I’m in OAK), there may also be a lot of A Listers on any given flight too, particularly at peak business travel times on certain routes.

    Luckily I have a 7 month old baby at the moment, so I still have 4 more years of boarding between groups A & B until I have to play this game again, at least when I’m traveling with my kids!

  2. What you said above about A-List is not entirely accurate. The A-List order is not set until the 36 hour auto check-in window is reached.

    A-List/A-List+ order is based on a unknown Southwest formula. It is believed that the number of flights flown (in last 3-6 months) and the cost paid for the tickets play into this formula.

    What this means is that someone who flys Southwest a lot can purchase a ticket at 37 hours before the flight and still end up ahead of someone who flys slightly less and purchased their ticket weeks or months ahead.

  3. @Stephen that’s really interesting. I called in sometime (last year maybe?) and the ticket purchase order is what the agent told me. I will update the post to reflect that’s really unknown.

  4. I have actually been told something different entirely about A-List status. I was told that your A-List order is set 36 hours in adavance, and is based on when you earned your A-List status the previous year. So someone who earned it in January last year but purchased the ticket 3 days in advance would still be ahead of someone who purchased a month in advance but didn’t earn A-List until November.

    Early bird has been confirmed to me by several people that it is based purely on when you purchase your ticket.

    Also, if you have A-List status and are re-routed or transferred to a different flight for some reason, the check in agent will mark your boarding pass and allow you to board after A-List, but before family boarding. This isn’t the case with Early Bird. If you purchase EB and miss your connection, you go to the back of the line.

  5. Southwest now also offers purchasing a space in the A1-15 group at the gate for $40 on a space available basis.

  6. One thing that should be pointed out is that many times You’ll see only a few people on the 1-15 or 16-30 A slots so if your A-31 to B-30 you get a decent seat. You just don’t want to be in the C list which is all middles usually. Also use the “newspaper trick”. Get on early sit on the isle toward the middle back and once someone sits in the window seat open up your newspaper fully to shield the obvious middle seat. Another trick on a less than full flight is to find a really large person and sit on that row if your also larger than small. That makes that middle seat less interesting unless near the front. If the plane’s not full you might get lucky. Being a C lister is a little like being the last one picked in dodge ball 🙂

  7. I’ve also noticed that a person flying on a companion pass may get pushed further back by the SW mystery formula. My wife and I flew PHX-BHM last week and checked in only 15 hours before the flight. I was assigned A16, she was assigned C23. We checked in only seconds apart, but she was flying companion pass. We have seen similar disparities to that as well.

  8. One other comment you made is not quite accurate. you said “However, there are groups of seats reserved for certain groups of passengers” No specific seats are reserved…

  9. I like it. I fly carry on only so like an airline that doesn’t charge extra for check-through bags. It means that the carry on people are the ones that actually want to carry on (usually more experienced travelers) because others check their bags.i like that their flights usually leave on time and get there on time. I set a reminder on my smart phone for boarding passes and have never been further down than B15. Works for me!

  10. What happens if you get to the gate after your boarding group has boarded? I am connecting in ATL to LAS and should have the A-List status but only a 37 minute connection in ATL. I’m worried if the gate is far or in another terminal that by the time I get there, they may be boarding B or C groups. I really hate the way this seating process works, especially in scenarios like this.

  11. Mike, you will need all the lucky breaks to catch the connecting flight as SW boards half hour before the flight. You can try to get a more upfront seat on your first flight and talk to the flight attendance to see if you can be first to deplane. The good news is if you get to the gate after your group usually you can walk to the front and be next inline; probably get a few unfriendly stares by the people already waiting.

  12. I am A-List, and so is my boyfriend. I earned my most recent A-List status before he did, but he’s been A-List in the past, and this is my first time. He travels with the “anytime” fare, and I travel with the “wanna get away” fare. I’ve traveled more frequently than he has most recently. When we were on the same flight not too long ago, he received A19, and I received A23. Go figure. So the mystery formula may also be skewed by who had a prior year’s A-List. To clarify, he was not continuous A-List; whereas, I probably will be from this point forward.

  13. The last two SW flights I’ve checked in for (on psycho refresh to be EXACTLY 24 hours), I’ve gotten B38 and B54. This is getting ridiculous!! Couldn’t have been less than 10 seconds after 24hrs, and it wasn’t a connector either. Why even have the regular checkin? It’s dumb now

  14. Same here: the very second that last digit changes to “0,” as in going from 10:59 to 11:00, uisng phone as clock because it’s always exact. B41 and B42. 100 seats pre-assigned? WTF?

  15. Business Select, A-List, and Early Birds are automatically checked in 72 hours in advance. By the time you check in, 24 hours in advance, all the A seats will likely have been distributed to those folks.

  16. Same experience here, checked in within a minute got B34 & B36
    which puts us in the tail of the plane not a fun experience
    rate was not all that great either

  17. Southwest rewards passengers who fly a lot with automatic A passes if you make A-list (25 one way flights per 12 calendar months). But, if you’re not business select, A-list, or early bird, you most likely won’t get an A boarding pass, unless the plane is only half full. You can purchase early bird for $12.50 when you book your seat, but make sure it’s at least 73 hours before takeoff, or it won’t matter. You can upgrade to A boarding (1-15) at the gate for $40 if space is available.

  18. Y’all WAY overthinking this…A benjamin to a gate agent has never failed me (if A-1-15 is full) and still cheaper than business select—works wonders in the standby queue, as well. Apologies to the hundreds and hundreds of people I’ve bribed myself past over the years…

  19. just folliwng up on buying early bird at least 73 hours in advance. i didn’t realize this matters. So anything later than that and you lose the advantage? i just tried to check in 24 hours on the button for my chicago to vegas flight and i kept getting an error message that i was too soon- but on the SW app on my phone and online (me & wife had separate reservations). both kept giving me error messages- by the time i got thru i was B54 and she is C1! She’s a fearful flyer and now i’m worried about our seat selection. Though she prefers the window which dumps me in the middle on a crowded flight! think we’ll be ok? i’m concerned about our return flight too – wed at 445. thanks!

  20. There are several ways to get better seat selection. You can buy Business Select; you can upgrade to A1-15 for
    $40 at the airport; you can be A-list (like me) if you are a frequent flyer, and then you’re always in the A boarding group, so you can get your window seat; or you can purchase 2 seats for 1 person, and then you get to pre-board right after the wheel chairs and before Business Select.

  21. I am flying with my children (both over the age of 11 but minors). We got B32, B33 and B34. Will we get seats together? If not, it may be a long flight for whoever has to sit next to my “talkative” children…lol

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