On a recent trip to California, I had the opportunity to compare the traditional online (24 hours pre-departure) check-in on the way there, and the new Early Bird check-in (up to 25 hours pre-departure) on the way home.
I chose the Early Bird check-in for my return flight because I did not want to be tied to a computer on my last day of vacation. It was much easier to just pay the $10 per person fee and let Southwest check me in automatically.
So, for my $40 fee (for four people), what did I get? Basically, a little less stress. It did not get me any further ahead in the boarding order (in both cases — traditional and early bird — we were in the A group, in about the 35-45 range), but it did free me from having to rush back to my computer in the middle of the day to check in.
It will be interesting to see if this new service catches on. If a lot of people start using Early Bird, and the regular travellers can no longer get into the “A” boarding group when checking themselves in online, we may see some backlash.
For now, I’ll probably continue to use it for the return leg of a vacation as a convenience. Air travel is stressful enough these days!