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The Best Ways to Get Priority Boarding on Your Next Flight

By Julia Hammond
Read time: 4 minutes

Ever since airlines introduced fees for checked baggage, there has been an increase in travelers boarding with carry-on luggage. Overhead bins fill quickly on full flights, and no one wants to run the risk of the crew insisting they gate-check your bags, which brings with it the inconvenience and delay associated with waiting at the luggage carousel at the other end. In such instances, getting on the plane ahead of the pack can be beneficial. Wondering how to board earlier on your next flight? Let’s run through the options for priority boarding below.

Be Part of a Qualifying Group

Mother with toddler in line at airport
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If you’ve been caught in an aisle bottleneck caused by a dawdling toddler or seen how long it takes to settle a baby into an airplane seat, you’ll understand why airlines permit families with small children to board early. Precisely who qualifies depends on the airline. For instance, American Airlines asks that passengers traveling with a child under two years old request assistance if they wish to board first. Similarly, agents for United Airlines flights will call families with children under two for pre-boarding — particularly useful if you need to gate-check a stroller. Meanwhile, Southwest Airlines boards in three groups (A, B, and C) and permits children under six to board with their families after Group A has finished boarding. 

Other passengers who require special assistance, such as those with a disability or travelers with impaired mobility, are also given priority when it comes to boarding. Elderly passengers are invited to make themselves known to gate agents if they require early boarding. The U.S. Department of Transportation recommends that you notify the airline as early as possible if you require assistance at the airport, including pre-boarding, suggesting a minimum of 48 hours’ notice. 

Most U.S. airlines also offer active military personnel priority boarding. How early they are permitted to board varies from airline to airline. For instance, Alaska Airlines, Delta and United allow active military with ID to board first, while American has them in Group 1 behind those qualifying for pre-boarding. Southwest places them ahead of Groups B and C. JetBlue places active military in Group 4 of 10, but also offers a range of privileges including discounted fares and free baggage to serving personnel (and retirees registered with their Veterans Advantage program).

Upgrade to First or Business Class

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When it comes to flying, money talks. If you’ve shelled out the big bucks for a premium seat at the front of the plane, you’ll be among the first to board. Or, you may wish to spend a little extra time in the lounge, if access is included before your flight, and skip to the front of the queue whenever you’re ready to get settled on the plane. Flight attendants serving first and business cabins will also most likely offer their guests a welcome drink while other passengers are boarding. 

Earn Elite Airline Status

Close-up image of passenger handing boarding pass to agent at airport
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Attaining elite status with your preferred airline is another way to secure early boarding. Frequent fliers rack up tens of thousands of miles every year and are rewarded with a number of valuable benefits, one of which is getting on the plane ahead of the pack. How you qualify — and precisely when you are invited to board — varies by airline and elite status level. You can also potentially unlock elite status on multiple airlines with status match promotions, in which you can apply to extend your elite status with one airline across competing airlines, usually for a limited period of time.

Get a Credit Card That Offers Early Boarding Perks

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Don’t fly (or spend) enough to earn elite status? Fortunately, early boarding is a perk for holders of certain airline credit cards. For instance, the Gold Delta Skymiles credit card includes Main Cabin 1 Priority Boarding as part of the perks offered for its $150 annual fee (as of 2024). A similar benefit is available with the United Explorer Card ($95 fee, waived the first year) or the AAdvantage Executive World Elite card, which also offers unlimited lounge access for its $595 annual fee. Similarly, on four flights per year, holders of the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card ($149 annual fee) will be offered the best A1-A15 boarding position available to be one of the first on the plane.

Purchase Priority Boarding Directly From the Airline

Passengers seated on airplane
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If all else fails, some airlines allow customers to purchase priority boarding, either as a standalone option or as part of a package that may include extra perks such as seats with additional legroom. For instance, JetBlue’s Even More Space option gives travelers the chance to pay for priority boarding, starting at $10 each way. It is also possible to purchase Southwest Airlines’ Upgraded Boarding option up to 24 hours before the flight, for a fee of $30 upwards per segment (dependent on availability). Frontier Airlines doesn’t sell priority boarding separately, but instead offers passengers a bundle of add-ons at the time of booking called The Works, costing from $19 per flight.

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