To board an American Airlines flight before any other passenger, you’ll have to spend at least $45,000—at least, that’s the rumor surrounding the airline’s highest elite status of “Concierge Key” members, who are brought in on a secret, invitation-only basis. (With the status, passengers also earn perks like access to lounges and expedited security screenings, in addition to a Cadillac escort from the tarmac.)
But if you’re in a rush to board—and are concerned about space in the overhead compartment bins for your carry-on—you don’t have to spend $45,000 or even have a first-class ticket to board early. If you’re willing to pay a little extra and avoid basic economy seats, you might easily score a better boarding group.
Make Sure Your Flight Reservation Is Ticketed Before You Travel
Buy a priority boarding pass or premium access
The easiest way to board a plane earlier is to purchase your way toward the front of the line; most airlines sell priority boarding passes for just this reason. Several airlines also sell larger, premium bundle passes, which include faster boarding, in addition to privileges like expedited security or access to the lounge. Below are several airlines’ passes and the cost to purchase them. You can usually buy these options on the airline’s website or at check-in:
A priority boarding pass starts at $9 and comes with access to priority lines at check-in. You’ll be placed in group four, ahead of five other general boarding groups.
A priority boarding pass costs $15. You’ll be placed in the first main cabin class, ahead of three other general boarding groups.
An “EarlyBird Check-In” pass costs between $15 and $25. You’ll receive a better boarding group, though it’s not guaranteed you’ll be in the “A” group. The airline also offers upgraded boarding for anywhere between $30 and $50 which does guarantee an “A” boarding group. Unlike most other airlines, Southwest seating operates on a first-come, first-serve basis, meaning upgraded boarding will also allow you to pick a seat first.
A priority boarding pass starts at $9 (and is not available for those with Basic Economy seats). A “Premier Access” pass starts at $15 and also includes expedited security lines. Both passes will place you in the second boarding group, ahead of three other general boarding groups.
Have elite member status or an airline co-branded credit card
Buying a priority boarding pass will get you close to the front of the line, but not quite to the front. With the exceptions for those who require extra assistance, like parents with children, these early boarding groups are usually reserved for passengers with elite status. If you’re a regular flier, it might be worth looking into an airline’s loyalty program to see what benefits you might earn.
Delta, for example, has a multi-tiered loyalty program. To qualify for status, Delta takes into account your distance flown and your fare class or the number of flights you take, in addition to your annual spending with that airline (or any partner airline) in a given year. If you earn Delta status, you also get priority access benefits on partner airlines like Virgin Atlantic and vice versa.
Alternatively, the next best thing is to consider an airline co-branded credit card, as we’ve written before. You might earn other benefits like checking your first bag for free or a discount off in-flight food and beverages. This might be something to consider if you’re a regular flier or prefer to travel with one airline in particular, as you can only use miles you earn with that airline (or partner airlines).
Or just find a credit card with travel perks that’ll pay for benefits like priority boarding passes. Chase Sapphire, for instance, offers $300 in travel credit which you can use at your disposal; they also offer a priority pass which earns you access to airport lounges for free.
How to Get a Refund on Non-Refundable Flights
Book a main cabin extra seat and don’t fly basic economy
If you want to board a little sooner, your next option is to book a main cabin extra seat, which is named differently depending on the airline. You can buy these seats online or at the check-in counter. American Airlines’ main cabin extra seat, for example, starts at $20 but comes with early boarding (in the fifth group), in addition to a free checked bag, wifi, and snacks. If you value extra legroom, it might be worth it. JetBlue sells “Even More Space” seats which place you in the “A” boarding group and gives you access to expedited security lines; the cost depends on your exact flight.
Another important thing to note if you prioritize quick boarding: Don’t buy a basic economy seat. On United and American, you are automatically placed in the very last boarding group (unless you have status with the airline), meaning you’ll have what’s left of the overhead compartment bins to squeeze in your carry-on. And, of course, if you didn’t book a basic economy seat, you’re guaranteed a boarding group ahead of those who did.
Here’s another factor that distinguishes Southwest from most other airlines, too. The low-cost airline also determines its boarding order based on how early you check-in. “The earlier you check in, beginning 24 hours before your departure, the lower your boarding group and position will be,” Southwest’s website reads. In this particular instance, you should definitely check in the moment are you given the opportunity to.
And if you just want to guarantee your flight will have overhead space for your bag without paying extra, try asking the attendant at the check-in counter or your gate agent if your flight’s full (or contact the airline by phone). At least you’ll know what to expect by the time you board your flight and whether gate-checking your bag might be the best solution.
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