Here’s How to Get Yourself in the Best Boarding Group Possible

Why do some people get to board the plane before others? It’s not personal—it’s business. Here’s how airlines make their boarding group strategies, and what you can do about it.

Line of passengers with roller carry-on bags, shown from shoulders to feet

Credit cards, loyalty programs, cabin class, and ticket spend can all dictate when you get on the plane.

Photo by - Yuri A/Shutterstock

It’s an all-too-familiar scene: 40 minutes before departure, a throng of anxious passengers is crowding the gate. An airline agent attempts to wrangle the masses as they wait to cross the threshold, group by group, into a metal tube set to jet across the globe.

While boarding processes have been studied by researchers over the years, it may feel like airlines take the most stratified (and sometimes undignified) approach. “The reason airlines have a lot of different boarding groups is because they want to segment out customers,” says Alex Miller, a travel expert and founder of the site Upgraded Points. “Every so often airlines will simplify their boarding processes, but in the end, having a lot of different options to board recognizes loyalty and provides an opportunity for increased revenue.”

Each carrier has its own nuances for boarding, but in the United States, there’s one group that always gets priority. The Air Carrier Access Act requires airlines to let travelers with disabilities board “before all other passengers, including first-class passengers, elite-level passengers, members of the military, and passengers with small children.” However, that’s where government mandates for boarding both begin and end.

Be loyal

Airlines will typically assign the earliest boarding groups to passengers who are the most loyal. Previously, this was dictated by how many miles one flew, but nowadays, it’s usually how much one spends on tickets. For full-service carriers—like American, Delta, and United—further segmentation can include elite members of the airline’s partner programs, airline credit card holders, business-class guests, premium economy guests, economy guests, and so on. Currently, both American and Delta have 10 different boarding groups (or zones as Delta calls them). United pares it down with five distinct groups. There are, of course, airlines that are outliers, like Southwest, which base the majority of the boarding order on one factor: check-in time.

Spend smartly

Naturally, airlines’ hierarchical approach to boarding isn’t about efficiency. As explained by Miller, apart from rewarding the most frequent fliers, boarding segmentation is one way to boost an airline’s bottom line, either directly or indirectly. “Most airlines offer some way to pay for priority boarding on a per-flight basis, so if passengers aren’t otherwise eligible, they can usually buy their way up,” he says.

On American, for instance, an extra-legroom economy seat called “Main Cabin Extra,” not only includes a few inches of coveted legroom but also an earlier boarding group and a comped alcoholic beverage. The upcharge can be as little as $30, much less than purchasing a business-class ticket, let alone becoming a frequent flier of the airline. Both Delta and United offer something similar.

Get the right credit card

Finally, there’s one way to grab a higher boarding position that doesn’t involve paying more for your ticket or having some form of status. “If you’re looking for priority boarding opportunities, co-brand cards directly affiliated with the airline are an underlooked opportunity,” Miller says. However, while you likely won’t be fighting for a spot in the overhead bin with that kind of credit card, don’t expect to be the first one to step on the plane. American only offers Group 4 boarding for select credit cardholders—a far cry from the Group 1 passengers who paid for business-class tickets.

Chris Dong is a freelance travel writer and editor with a focus on timely travel trends, points and miles, hot new hotels, and all things that go (he’s a proud aviation geek and transit nerd).
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