Traveling with a suitcase has become an expensive headache for airline flyers. First, airlines started charging travelers for checking a bag. Now, some big airlines won’t even let passengers use the overhead bin if they booked the cheapest fares.
You can’t change airline rules, but you can get around them with an airline-branded credit card that comes with baggage privileges.
Granted, these credit cards charge an annual fee — near $100 for basic cards from American Airlines, Delta Air Lines and United Airlines, three of the four largest carriers that account for half the U.S. airline market. But a card’s baggage perks alone can more than make up for that fee, allowing infrequent flyers to buy a type of airline elite status.
“I’d call it elite-lite,” said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Atmosphere Research Group. “You get some of the most important benefits — among them, the complimentary checked bag — but you don’t have to fly an airline more than you want to.”
Airlines offer credit card loopholes on baggage restrictions to cultivate flyer loyalty and earn profits by selling frequent-flyer miles to the banks that issue the cards, Harteveldt said. Banks then grant miles to customers as rewards for using their cards.
“They know that free bag check is a great lure,” Harteveldt said.
Airline cards’ baggage benefits
Airline credit cards, which are offered by all major U.S. airlines, can be valuable even if you never use them for everyday spending. Consider it a membership card that helps you avoid baggage fees and restrictions in two main ways:
- Free checked bags. Since 2008, major airlines have charged for checking a bag, typically $25 or $30 per bag each way, with Southwest Airlines the notable exception. Passenger airlines collected baggage fees totaling $4.2 billion in 2016, up nearly 10 percent from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
So bag fees are likely here to stay. But the major airlines’ credit cards waive the fees on the first checked bag for cardholders and others traveling on the same reservation.
A couple traveling together, with each checking a bag, would typically pay a total of $120 in bag fees on a round-trip flight. But those same checked bags would be free for holders of major airline credit cards, more than making up the $95 annual fee in a single trip.
Delta allows a free checked bag for up to nine people traveling on the same itinerary, potentially offering up to $540 in savings on a single trip. For American Airlines, it’s up to five people; for United, two.
Ultimately, the bag benefit can have a more immediate payoff than the frequent-flyer miles or points earned by charging expenses to the card.
- Exemption from cheap-seat limits. American, United and Delta have all introduced “basic economy” fares to compete for price-sensitive flyers who might otherwise book with discounters such as Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant.
American’s and United’s basic-economy fares prohibit customers from using the overhead storage bins. Those flyers can carry on a single item that fits under the seat in front of them — or pay to check it. Delta allows those flyers to stow a standard carry-on bag in the overhead bin.
However, holders of airline credit cards retain the right to a carry-on when booking basic-economy fares and can also check a bag for free. Also, airline cards include earlier boarding privileges, meaning you’re more likely to find room in the overhead bin on crowded flights.
“While the credit card doesn’t exempt you from all of the restrictions of a basic-economy fare, if you can check your bag for free, the airline credit card makes the basic-economy fare all that more valuable,” Harteveldt said.
When a card isn’t worth it
Getting an airline card primarily for bag benefits isn’t a good move if:
- You’re an infrequent flyer who travels alone or doesn’t typically fly a single airline. The key is to travel enough on one airline to get more value than you pay in the card’s annual fee.
- You’re already covered. An airline card might not make a difference if you already get free checked bags through a first-class ticket or elite frequent-flyer status, for example.
- You mostly fly Southwest Airlines. Southwest carries more U.S. passengers than any other airline, but it doesn’t charge for the first two checked bags.
- You have trouble managing credit. If a credit card will tempt you to spend too much, you may end up paying more in interest than you save on bags.
But for travelers who fly an airline a few times a year, that carrier’s credit card could save them hundreds while earning them frequent-flyer miles.