Why Checking In For Your Flight Early Isn't Always The Best Method

Traveling by plane can be a stressful experience, even if you enjoy the actual flight part. Most people agree that it's everything that happens before and after that is most nerve-wracking, including traveling to the airport. (Our tip? Use a ride-share.) Checking in for your flight online can also be irksome — have you entered the correct passport details? Are all of the kids checked in or are you leaving Kevin behind? These worries are often why people check in for their flight as soon as they can.

Many U.S. airlines open online check-in 24 hours before departure. The cutoff time for checking in online varies by airline and departure destination but is often 90 minutes before the flight for international travelers and 45 minutes before departure for domestic travelers. That means you have a 22- to 23-hour window to get checked in. But what if checking in as soon as possible is putting you at a disadvantage? What's the best time to make your move?

Advantages of waiting to check in

We want to put a disclaimer here: The internet isn't failsafe (shocker!) so we are not recommending waiting to check in for your flight until 91 minutes before an international departure. That being said, there could be an advantage to waiting to check in until a few hours before your flight, and it's the seat allocation.

If you're traveling in basic economy, most airlines don't allow you to choose a seat during check-in for free. If you wait to check in, there is a chance that you will be assigned an extra legroom seat or even bumped up a class if those better seats haven't been assigned already. If you check in first, there's a higher chance of getting squished into the middle seat or being near the bathrooms (ahh, the smells, the sounds, the foot traffic).

For those planning to travel in Europe on a low-cost airline like Ryanair, there is a definite advantage to checking in later. All passengers who want to choose a seat have to pay for the privilege, while everyone else is allocated a seat. The airline holds onto the "good" seats for as long as possible in the hopes of selling them, so those loathsome middle seats are often allocated first. If you don't want to pay, you have a better chance of getting a seat with extra legroom if you check in later.

Advantages of checking in early

If you're able to choose your seat for free at check-in, the earlier, the better is usually the advice, especially if you want to be seated together with your family. Similarly, for first- and business-class passengers, all of the seats are great, so why wait? If you have elite status with an airline, you may also benefit from checking in early. American Airlines, for example, sets aside a number of preferred seats for those with AAdvantage® status, so you should check in fast to grab one.

Certain airlines also reward customers who check in as soon as possible with faster boarding. With Southwest, check-in opens 24 hours before departure, and boarding order is assigned based on check-in time. Southwest's open seating policy means the earlier you board, the better seat you can get and the more chance you have of getting your luggage in the overhead bin (no one wants to play "Tetris" with their suitcase on an airplane).

Checking in for a flight early or late comes down to more personal preference than anything else. As long as you check in before the window closes, you'll (most likely) get a seat on the aircraft. But, being strategic, one way or the other, might bag you a better one.