Early birds, rejoice (sometimes).

By Brittany Loggins
August 21, 2019
Isabel Pavia/Getty Images

Traveling by plane can sometimes be stressful and difficult—as anyone faced with frequent flight cancellations can attest—but in this day and age, it’s a bit of a necessary evil. Some people love flying, actually, but others are stressed out by (or even fearful of) the process. Running through a pre-flight checklist and studying up on carry-on luggage rules can help smooth the bumps of flying (both on and off the plane), but some smart flying tricks aren’t that straightforward.

I’ve always been the type of person who likes to check into my flight as soon as possible. I download the airline app (if I don’t already have it), and I subscribe to the push notifications so that I’m sure to check in as soon as the option becomes available. That’s why I was so shocked when a friend of mine questioned this method. She explained that, while it typically makes sense to check in as soon as the app or website allows it, there are times when it’s smarter to check in later.

If the timing of checking in to a flight could make traveling easier, I wanted to learn more, so I reached out to Zach Honig, editor-at-large at The Points Guy, to find out if it really matters when you check in to your flight.

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If you’re like me and have the airline’s mobile app—and you should—remote check-in typically opens 24 hours before a scheduled flight’s departure. In certain cases, having the app downloaded, already being logged in, and otherwise being ready to check in can pay off.

“There are a few occasions where it does make sense to check in as early as possible,” Honig says. “One is if you’re flying Southwest, because they have open seating, and you have a better chance of getting the seat that you want when it’s time to board the aircraft.”

If you’re not a Southwest loyalist, it can still make sense to check in early, especially if you typically fly in regular economy class. Lately, more airlines have been charging customers who want to choose their seats extra fees when they book flights. Luckily, according to Honig, many airlines waive that fee if you choose your seat during check-in—just make sure you check in as early as possible to snatch up a good seat, especially if you’re looking at a long flight.

“If you’ve got a long flight, you don’t want to leave it up to the airline to assign a seat,” Honig says. “If you don’t have a seat assignment and the flight is overbooked, there’s a bigger chance that you may end up getting bumped.”

While checking in early typically makes sense, Honig shared one instance during which it might make more sense to wait.

“My strategy is, if you’re traveling in basic economy—those deeply discounted, restricted tickets—it could make sense to wait to check in,” Honig says. “If you wait until all of the seats are assigned, the airline could end up assigning you an extra leg room seat.” And while Honig admits that he hasn’t seen it happen very often, it’s even possible that waiting could result in an upgrade to a first-class seat.

While waiting a few hours to check in to your flight is certainly an option, waiting until the very last minute to check in is a huge no-no. First, check-in closes an hour or two before flight departure; if you’re not checked in by then, either through the app, online, or in person at the airport, you may not be able to get a boarding pass to get through security and will likely miss your flight. If you’re strategically waiting to check in for your flight, do it at least a few hours before your flight leaves to save your flight reservation.

Honig also suggests that you consider checking in early if you have elite status with an airline. “Sometimes they require you to be checked in in order to be eligible for upgrades,” he says.

Overall, if you’re the type of person who wants to save money by refraining from paying for a seat assignment, early check-in is your best bet for a not-awful seat. Otherwise, certain airlines (namely, Southwest) reward early birds; with the rest, it may not matter too much either way.

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