How Southwest Determines Your Boarding Card Number, and How You Can Now Jump the Line for $40

In the wake of Southwest announcing that you can now jump to the head of the line for $40 a person if there is room, I’ve received a lot of questions about just exactly how the Southwest boarding process works. I think my favorite was from someone in New York who is used to flying AirTran but just had her first experience on Southwest.

I forgot to do the 24 hour checkin yesterday, but remembered about 4 hours prior and did so from my phone figuring I’d still be OK by beating the airport checkin people. I was peeved to be B48, but figured that we’d be ok. I was surprised in line to see that there were only 3 people behind us for the entire plane. The flight was about 2/3 full. Is it really possible that the entire plane (less 3 people) checked in >4 hours prior?

Oh yes, it is possible. Long time Southwest loyalists might smirk a little at this, but keep in mind that in places like New York and Atlanta, flying Southwest is still a somewhat foreign concept. That’s going to be changing quickly as AirTran gets converted over. So, I thought it was time to break down how Southwest handles boarding. Let’s start with a graphic.

Southwest Boarding Process

Before I start explaining this little picture, I might need to back up a little further. Southwest does not assign seats. At all. It used to be back in the day that you could only check in at the gate. When you got there, it was common to find lines snaking out into the concourse. Plastic boarding cards were handed out beginning 1 hour prior to departure, and boarding was in groups of 30. Those in the first 30 could board in whatever order they lined up in. So you would get camps of homeless-looking people staking their spots. It sucked.

Eventually, this changed to the point where you could check in at the ticket counter and then online. The time limit backed up until it was 24 hours in advance. People were ready at 24 hours out to make sure they got the coveted boarding pass in the first group. But Southwest decided to make a change, so it created an entirely new system. And now it has added more and more to that system to get to the point where it is today. It’s pretty confusing.

The idea is that you get an alphanumeric pass that allows you to board in order. First it’s A1-60, then B1-60, and then C1- whatever is needed depending upon how many people there are. The first people on the plane get the first pick of seats. But there is a wrench here. If the airplane came from somewhere else before, then there could be people already onboard connecting through. They don’t have to get off. This happens a lot if you go to Dallas, because Southwest currently can’t fly nonstop to most cities in the US from there. (This changes in a year or so.) So your boarding number doesn’t give you a perfectly accurate count of what you’re going to find when you walk onboard. But you can be reasonably assured that you’ll get a decent seat if you’re in the A group. B group is iffy, depending upon how many people are with you and how many are already onboard. And C group? You’re screwed.

Now, let’s go through the order.

Big Money (Business Select)
Southwest’s fully refundable rack rate is called the Anytime fare. For $16 to $28 above that fare, you can buy Business Select. (It’s obviously a much bigger buy-up, sometimes hundreds of dollars, if you’re upgrading from a cheap Wanna Get Away fare.) This includes priority check-in and security, a free drink, and bonus points in the Rapid Rewards program. Most importantly, it gives you true priority boarding. They only sell 15 of these on each flight, so you are guaranteed to get something between A1 and A15 (exact number is determined by who checks in first), and that means you’ll get a good seat.

Today, if not all 15 are sold in advance, then those spots just remain empty. Southwest has now decided to change that. If the spots are open when you get to the gate, you can pay $40 to get one. You don’t get any of the other perks that come with Business Select, but you do get on early. This is the first time Southwest has allowed people to buy up to a better number after they know their position. So you can assume that people at the back are going to buy up regularly on this and A1-15 will now be full almost every time.

Kings (A-List Preferred) and Princes (A-List)
Those people who fly Southwest way too much are top tier elites, called A-List Preferred. If you earn 70,000 tier qualifying points or fly 50 one way flights, then you’re in. Those who fly slightly less (35,000 tier qualifying points or 25 one way flights), get A-List. The best you can get as an A-List Preferred is A16, and it will go as high as needed to accommodate them all. After all the Preferred people, then the regular A-List people get their passes. How the order is determined within each group is somewhat of a mystery. According to Southwest spokesperson Whitney Eichinger, “It varies from flight to flight and the exact science behind it is not something we share.”

EarlyBirds
After all the elites get on, then the EarlyBird people get their boarding passes. It used to be $10 each way above any fare you purchased, but it’s going up to $12.50 in a couple weeks. If you buy this, then you are automatically checked in 36 hours in advance and assigned a boarding pass. You have no idea what that will be in advance. If there are a ton of elite members onboard, you could easily find yourself in the B group. Heck, if everyone buys EarlyBird, you could be the last person on the airplane. How do they determine the order? Well, those buy the full Anytime fare get priority. Then all the other fares are put behind. Within each group, it’s determined by when EarlyBird was purchased. So if you buy it way in advance, you’ll have a better number than someone who buys it 2 days before the flight.

Eager Beavers (24 hours)
Once the EarlyBirds are done, then it’s time for the people who don’t want to pay but are sitting at their computer exactly 24 hours in advance to get the best number left. If nobody purchases EarlyBird and there are no elites onboard, that could theoretically be A16. But in reality, you’re really lucky if you get any kind of A boarding pass at all.

Swee’ Pea (Families)
Next up: families, although it’s not odd for the familes and Eager Beavers to switch. Southwest allows family boarding with small kids after the A group. So it’s even possible that with enough elite members, some of them will fall into the B group, behind families. It doesn’t matter what boarding pass the family has – they can board after the A group.

Slackers
After all this, we have the end of the line, the people who didn’t pay for anything extra but also didn’t try to check in online early. In this group, you can also find people who had to make a last minute change, so not exactly slackers. Even if you’re an elite member, if you make a last minute change you’re going to be stuck getting on last. But primarily, it’s people who just didn’t really care or didn’t know how the system worked.

It’s somewhat amazing to me that a primer like this is necessary considering how simple Southwest’s system used to be. But clearly things are different these days. Any questions?

169 Responses to How Southwest Determines Your Boarding Card Number, and How You Can Now Jump the Line for $40

  1. Dave says:

    I believe even that though they don’t acknowledge it, Southwest also gives SW credit card customers slightly better boarding positions than non-cardholders. I just checked in to a flight leaving tomorrow 15 minutes ahead of my friend who has a SW premier rewards card, and he got 10 positions earlier in line than I did on both connections. Neither of us are A-list or A-preferred, but both have RR accounts. The same thing happened on our flight earlier this week, so I’m pretty sure this is not an anomaly.

  2. Angela says:

    I wasn’t a slacker. I checked in 23 hours before my flight and still was issued a B 29 boarding.

  3. Stephanie says:

    This is a stupid airline that doesn’t realize we are a mobile society and we are long past the print-your-boarding pass days. Spent 1 and a 1/2 hrs getting here, another 50 mins in line to check a bag, now I’m position A54 ($12.50), and I have every expectation of going on with the Lacrosse sticks and bathroom supplies. Here’s my take: DONE with these people.

  4. Tess Rusch says:

    I printed (and called)22 hours ahead and got a C 13….are we screwed? It’s also last day of the Fourth of July weekend.

  5. Ernesto says:

    A02 I’m so lucky

  6. Nikki says:

    I was a slacker. With a want to get away fare and not A list. I arrived at the airport 1.5 hours before my flight and was assigned A25 on a completely sold out flight. I find it hard to believe everyone else slacked off too.

    • Patrick says:

      Fun fact: When boarding slots are given up (say, when A-list preferred guy jumps on an earlier standby flight), it gets put back into the assignable pile (instead of everyone moving up one). That means that sometimes the people who signup late get really good slots, but it’s PURE luck.

      I traveled with my colleague once and we jumped an early flight home that we purchased that day. I got A19. He got C6. We purchased the tickets about 2 minutes apart. I guess just one guy moved flights.

  7. Ryan says:

    You forgot the blue card people. Old, handicapped, obese, and kids flying alone get on before everyone. Sometimes this is 0 people but other times it can be 10+.

  8. Matt says:

    I’m an A-list member and buy Business Select every time I fly, but when I use my points for free flights I get the cheapest available fare in order to stretch my points- I’m convinced being an A-list member dos t do shit. I was B2 yesterday and checked in 22 hours prior to my flight. However, before boarding the “B” group, the staff asked if there were anymore A-list members to board- that’s the first time I have ever heard them ask that. I think it’s a matter of the employees not knowing about the rules and regulations. Everybody tells me something different when I ask for clarification.

    • Kevin says:

      I am calling you out here. If you truly are an a-list member then the first time you have heard that all a-list members can board after all of the A group would have been one of the countless hours you spend in the Southwest terminal, not the first time you ever received a B boarding pass.

  9. Chris says:

    My flight leaves in 23 hours, I just checked in. C-16 and C-13. I thought I was being so pro-active. This sucks!

  10. JLA says:

    Checked-in exactly at 24 hours for BWI-SJU and got B-6 and B-7. This is the second time in a row that I get low Bs. Before, I would always get A30s when checking in 23-24 hours before flight. What gives???

    • tw says:

      Got in right at the 24 hr buzzer and got B10. I don’t think they give A’s out that way anymore regardless. Strictly reserved for a-listers and up now.

  11. So I pay for a flight and then have to play EBay style bidding games or pay even more to try and get a seat next to another whom I’m traveling with?????? Absurd in the year 2013. See you on another carrier.

  12. JLA says:

    Even worse on the return flight. Checked-in exactly at 24 hours for SJU–SJU and got B-43 and B-44. What gives???

  13. VX says:

    I love AirTran….but the minute that they fully convert to the SouthWest ponzi scheme of checkin and boarding I will be done with them.

  14. Jelo says:

    I have been flying SW with my wife and three kids for over 10 years and it’s different on every flight… depending on how full the flight is and whether there are lots of business travelers vs less knowing leisure travelers. Often we have different confirmation numbers because of points and rewards. Sometimes I buy the EB and get A-20 and then check my family in at the 24 hr mark and they are A-27,28,29 and 30. Could have saved myself $10 if I had known. Other times, like this morning (Seattle to Chicago), I checked one kid in at the 24-hr mark and received a B-13 and within 3 seconds I checked in another (multiple browser windows all queued up in advance) and they get B-20. My guess for the numbers is probably because fewer families are flying with the kids going back to school this week… mostly business travelers… and more people reading good articles like this one and becoming informed.

  15. Position is based on your level and when you bought your tix. Not when you check in.

  16. Bill says:

    I understand the alphabet, but if they do not assign seats: what is the number for?

  17. JLA says:

    The leetr is your boarding group number and the number is your place in line within each group.

  18. Tom says:

    I just checked in exactly 24 hours ahead of time to the minute for a flight to Chicago from San Diego, and got a B37. Very frustrating, to say the least. I use SWA a lot for short haul trips up and down the coast of California, but will rethink the airline I use for longer flights. Too many people vying for two few good seats, which makes the process suck. I hate UA, but at least I can pick a seat when I buy tickets weeks in advance.

  19. DJM says:

    Didn’t do any of the extra cost or early check in. Was second to last person to get on plane and ended up in a middle seat, row 3. Not bad.

    • BloughMee says:

      No, BAD. Have fun with 2 strangers’ elbows in your ribs. ps – the middle seat is exactly what we all try to AVOID. It’s the DOG TURD not something to brag about

      • Jemile says:

        Uh – actually some of us like the opportunity to meet to strangers, and some of us really like to be up front (your flight is shorter — you get off 5 minutes earlier!) Southwest is great – its cheep, and you get to sit where you want. You just have to know how to play the system (I never have paid for “early bird checkin” or been on any list).

  20. Dan says:

    I purchased 2 Wanna Get Away fares on same reservation. I forgot to checkin online yesterday, and just did so now (3 hours before my flight leaves). What’s puzzling is my position is A32 and theirs is B49. I’m not A-list nor did I buy Early Bird. I checked us in together, not separately.

  21. JW says:

    Hate to see all the griping here about the seating system. Try flying Delta and figuring out their elitist method of pricing and assigning seats if you think THIS is confusing. I’ve been flying SWA since the old “line up early” days, and while I preferred that old method (it sure made for people getting to the gate on time!), this new one is ok given that I’m not paying an arm and leg for checked bags, huge change fees (or losing the entire fare) for the crime of needing flexibility, and extras that I really don’t need or want. Also, the ability to use a simple online calendar to find the cheapest seats yourself is phenomenal compared to the mysterious methods used by other carriers. I do wish they had never converted the frequent flyer system though…that used to be much simpler to track.

  22. BFM says:

    I am A-List Preferred. I frequently get done with my business much earlier than the return ticket I’ve booked and make a change as soon as I get to the airport. Last week something new happened: On a completely full flight, as a standby I was issued boarding position B-2. Then, in a completely surprise move, as soon as the last member of the A group boarded, the gate agent called for all A-List members (not only preferred, but all A-List) who were holding B and C group boarding passes to board next. Don’t know if this was a fluke or if it’s permanent, but there were probably a dozen or so people who qualified for that. That’s good news for A-Listers who frequently make same-day changes, but obviously everyone else is not going to be happy.

    • Kevin says:

      I utilize this often as well. Typically end up with a c pass when I fly standby but always get a good seat after boarding following the A group.

  23. Matthew says:

    OAK to ONT. Checked in exactly 24 hours prior. Got A55.

  24. Michael T says:

    EWR to STL… bought Early Bird Check In for me and my son. Still got A52 and A53. Can’t imagine what non-elite, non-upgraders got.

  25. JP says:

    I was recently told by someone that your boarding line position on a SWA flight is predetermined by the date you bought the ticket not when you check-in. So you can all throw that little tidbit into the boarding position equation too!

  26. Mike P says:

    Thanx for your January 2013 unravelling of the Southwest early-bird and boarding pass mysteries.
    To me, the pick-your-own-seat policy that Jet Blue and other airlines have is still the best.

  27. Kate H says:

    Thanks for the breakdown, I wasn’t sure where I’d fall when I finally made A-List at the end of this year. I can certainly tell this is a cranky flier writing this article though because, as a super-commuter relying on Southwest to get to work each week, I am bothered by the statement “people who fly Southwest way too much”. *sigh*

  28. Stephen says:

    Well, I haven’t flown Southwest in a while (I fly weekly for business and normally avoid SW since they’re not that great for business travelers). However, there really weren’t any decent alternatives, so I chose to go with SW on a TPA-STL flight. I paid the additional small fee for the EarlyBird, but still ended up with a B boarding pass! What’s the point of paying for EarlyBird if you still end up with a poor boarding number? I guess it’s back to the regular airlines, since at least with the normal airlines, if I’m travelling weekly, I can get status and get upgraded to first class, which is something SW doesn’t even have.

  29. K D Miller says:

    Business preferred, A-list preferred, A-list, Early bird??? No wonder after checking in right on the second 24 hrs before I got an A-52. I am going to fly some other airlines from now on. This is really stupid.

  30. Dan says:

    Man you really do have some Cranky Ass Fliers.

    Look people, I don’t care if you are A1 or B47, keep in mind that if the flight is full or nearly full, all the damn seats are getting taken anyway.

    There is, just like any carrier really, no way to know if your A1 won’t get you the exact seat you want, only to find the 350lb Smelly guy who boards with a nice big Tupperware full of Curry or something you find utterly disgusting won’t plop down right beside you.

    I just checked in for BUR to OAK, 1 hour flight, at about 23.5 hours and got B11. Am I miffed I didn’t get an A, yeah sure. BUT

    Southwest still sends me free drink coupons a couple times a year if I fly enough.
    They still do free bag checks as far as I know (I almost always carry on)
    They still give out a small snack with their drinks for free
    And best of all? Their staff still seems like they WANT to work there.

    Have any of you flown AA or United lately? Holy crap those people are mostly angry, charge you for everything under the sun, and you still get treated like cattle and shoved into a plans jam packed with people for popular routes.

    Sack up and quit your crying or buy a First class ticket on another carrier.

    PS: Can anyone explain to me how to check in for a 2nd flight in less then 24 hours? I am flying into OAK and then back out 12 hours later. My return flight is now less than 24 hours away but I can’t seem to find a way to Check in for that one. It keeps only showing me the morning flight to OAK as my only check in option.

    PPS: IF you are changing planes as part of a one way ticket / leg of a round trip, you also get an automatic early check in for your 2nd leg of the trip. I recently did BUR to OAK to SLC. BUR to OAK I was in the B group but it also let me print a ticket for OAK to SLC that was like A12 or something and based on the time at which I checked in, that 2nd leg of the flight was >24 horus away.

  31. Joe says:

    yes, it can be a little frustrating to get a high boarding pass designation, but southwest makes up for this with the rapid rewards program.

    1. Earning just a-list gets you into that short security line every time you fly, no matter what. and it doesn’t take that many flights/points to get a-list.
    2. Earning a-list also lets you board between A and B groups, even if you have a B or C boarding pass. This has been the policy/option for as long as I can remember, and I make use of it often (I often get B and C boarding passes). And again…doesn’t take that much to make a-list.
    3. A-list preferred gets you free wifi on every flight (!!!) and double points
    4. Companion pass. I just earned this. What other airline lets you bring a friend on every flight you take FOR FREE?
    5. Combine all of this with no-charge changes and free checked bags…

    …makes me prefer flying SW…

  32. Kevin says:

    Gotta role with Joe here. I am a loyal sw flyer and love the RR program. Seems like I get enough points every 3 flights to book my wife a free ticket.

    I flew Frontier this past summer and I STILL can’t figure out their bag system. If you book online it is free, if you check in online your CARRY ON is $25. If you wait till the gate it is $40. Then you had the gate lady making every person put their carry on in the little “prove it fits” box. Doesn’t fit? Another $50 please. Then you get on the plane…….$3 for soda, $19 for peanuts and $75 to use the bathroom (ok, I made the peanuts and the bathroom part up).

    Just like the commercial says, keep your nickel and your dimes and fly with SW

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  34. Julio Torres says:

    Well this will be my first time flying sw and I do not know what to speckt hope is a good experience but I am a little scare since I am used to seat assigment system

    • Silver Head says:

      I’m with you Julio… I’m scared because I’ve had seat assignments and always sit with my husband, yet I select our seats for a fee and usually fly Delta for the points as well as pay the fees for luggage.

      I’m not going to stress about it because my luggage flies free and their prices are beating Delta from San Diego to Atlanta. Soooo glad because we make that cross country flight lots. Hey the greatest thing for me is I’m retired and I’m not in a hurry to get on or off the plane… Because in the end… We all will be getting to our destination that we paid for so… No big deal!

  35. Chuck says:

    I just wanted add that as far as Early Bird assignments go, it was interesting to see your comment that Anytime fares all get assigned EB numbers before Wanna Get Aways. Why? Because they paid more.

    It would stand to reason that within a group (Anytime, Wanna Get Away), that price would also take precedence.

    So if you book a Wanna Get Away fare at $100, and two months later, I book it at $200, I get a better number than you

  36. Baker says:

    What is with the PREBOARDING??
    I decided to spend extra money to buy our family Business Select and checked in 24 hours ahead so we had the A1, A2, A3 and A4. You’d think we would have gotten good seats for that… but nooooo.

    We had exactly 18 people “preboard”… now mind you, I have no problem if elderly or people with dissabilities are in need of an early board for extra time. The list here was: 2 ladies in their late 20s (no dissabilities); a couple who were spry and in their late 60s; and a number of people in 2 families who were between 18-55ish. I understand fully that one or a few of these people could possibly have a dissability that is not visible. But 18 of them??? Come on.

    I asked the stewardess about this and the response was “we are not allowed to ask about dissabilities, so anyone can get pre-boarding.”

    So apparently you don’t need to pay extra, or check in 24 hours ahead… just claim a dissability and you can preboard.

  37. Bonnie says:

    Forgot to check in until 14 hours before my flight tomorrow. Got a message saying they had reached their maximum for pre-printed boarding passes and to get my position at the gate. The flight is full, am I screwed?

  38. Ciaran says:

    Realistically if you care that much about your boarding position you are the epitome of everything that is wrong with airtravel.

  39. FreeToThink says:

    Other Carriers———> No rat race 24 hours before the flight to maybe get a decent spot.
    Other Carriers———> You know you’re sitting beside your family.(if you choose)
    Other Carriers———> Upgrade costs more but actually gets you an upgraded seat.
    Other Carriers———> Usually what we fly.

  40. Jake says:

    Got a C boarding pass? Spot a cute girl, sit next to her. Problem solved.

  41. Redbirdfan says:

    Earned my a list last year. Flying SAT to TPA tomorrow am for a Valentine Weekend Getaway with my wife. Booked WGA flight in early December. Printed out boarding pass A-17 SAT – HOU. A-18 HOU to TPA. First flight as a A-Lister member. Looking forward to the priority lane and TSA-pre in the am. Wife got A-51 and A-57.

  42. SteveT says:

    I’m flying SW first time in years. Company call me this morning and said be in Las Vegas tomorrow. Got B39. I’m 62 and will try limping. My knees really do hurt.

  43. JanetK says:

    I was planning on flying SW in April with my son, ticket price is really good and the flight is nonstop……but from reading all these comments does this mean that a child and his parent are not assigned seats together?

    • Mark says:

      There are no assigned seats. However, with children can board after the A group. Just let the gate attendant know your situation. Assuming its an empty plane at the start of boarding, there will be plenty of seats for you to sit with your son. I’ve flow SWA my whole life. Folks are mostly concerned with overhead storage. I check everything except my laptop which I store under the seat in front of me. 90% of my travel is from DAL-HRL. This article fails to mention that the staff on the other airlines are usually cranky and clearly don’t enjoy their jobs. I’ve flown the other airlines to the same area and to other places: cranky staff, small planes, and folks carrying on way too much due to the exorbitant baggage fees. I’ve rarely had a cranky SWA staff. I just want to get from point A to point B for less than or just a bit more than it would cost to drive as the drive is a boring bear.

  44. ShellyH says:

    Even though there aren’t assigned seats most families do find seats together easily. It’s one of the reasons families get the option of seating after the A group and before the B group.

  45. alee1406fl says:

    BWI-TPA with 4 family members. Booked back in Oct. w/EarlyBird. A18-A22. Lucky us!

  46. AmyH says:

    I am already not liking the Southwest experience. I want to know what I am getting and I want the ability to buy what I want. Loved AirTran ability to upgrade to first class. I used to fly all the time and now I want comfort and am willing to pay for it. I have read three blogs just to decipher the system for boarding. And I still don’t really know what I am getting after paying the 12.50. Really don’t understand the philosophy of this airline. Probably will find another. But I will try to keep an open mind.

  47. mzkmann says:

    Single flyer. Made reservation 5 weeks in advance using RR points on WannaGetAway fare and purchased Early Bird check in. Checked in online exactly 24 hrs (on the nose) in advance. Got A39 and A47 for each leg of my itinerary. Not bad! Wonder if using RR points helped? Wonder if checking in exactly 24 in advance helped?

  48. T says:

    No guarantee of anything now that one person can buy up to A1-A15 spot at check in for $40 and then the seat hoarder saves entire rows of seats for their friends with C positions!!

  49. Steve says:

    The “Blue” pre-boarding issue is getting out of control. I’m A List and fly SW all the time. Recently I sat next to a young couple (20s) at the gate. They were joking with each other that this was the 4th time they had requested blue sleeves to beat all the other suckers that aren’t willing to “cheat a little.” They don’t even try to fake it. They practically danced down the jet-way.

    As others have said, SW isn’t allowed to ask any questions. This is a big issue and getting bigger and needs to be fixed!

  50. Kelsey says:

    You forgot to mention at the end of A boarding families and other A listers who bought last minute tickets get to board regardless of boarding number.

    Also my company worked a deal with southwest that I’m automatically checked in at 24 hours even when I didn’t have status.

    If you’re a slacker pay the $12.50 and forget about it.

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