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 have 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.
These credit cards charge an annual fee — $95 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.
Airline cards’ baggage benefits
Airline credit cards act like membership cards that help 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 per bag each way.
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, each checking a bag, would typically pay a total of $100 in bag fees on a round-trip flight. But those same checked bags would be free for holders of major airline credit cards, making up the $95 annual fee in a single trip.
- Exemption from cheap-seat limits.
American’s and United’s basic-economy fares prohibit customers from using the overhead storage bins.
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.
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 flier 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-flier 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.
Airline credit cards grant travelers exemption from baggage fees, typically $25 per bag. Delta allows a free checked bag for up to nine people traveling on the same itinerary, potentially offering up to $450 in savings on a single trip. For American Airlines, it’s up to five people; for United, two.