Which Credit Cards Help You Avoid Baggage Fees

Which Credit Cards Help You Avoid Baggage Fees

It might be hard to believe, but there was a time when you could check a bag on any airline for free. These days it will cost you at least $25 per bag on nearly all domestic flights. Each airline has its own policies, and some will even charge you for carry-ons. We have some suggestions for getting around those fees.

The Fees

Most international flights include a free checked bag, but check in advance because some routes on some carriers do not qualify. In general, though, the bag fees we’re covering in this post apply to domestic flights on domestic carriers.

Southwest outdoes the competition in terms of fees. They are the only domestic airline that does not charge for a checked bag. In fact, you can bring two checked bags for free, plus a carry-on. That’s particularly impressive given its status as a budget carrier.

Here’s a summary of baggage fees on the rest of the airlines:

 First checked bagSecond checked bagCarry-on bag
SouthwestFreeFreeFree
Alaska$25$25Free
Virgin America$25$25Free
American$25$35Free
United$25$35Free
Delta$25$35Free
JetBlue$25$35Free
Hawaiian$25$35Free
Sun Country$25$35Free
Spirit$20 to $50$30 to $60$25 to $55
Frontier$20 to $40$30 to $45$25 to $50
Allegiant$15 to $75$15 to $75$10 to $75

The industry standard is $25 for the first bag and $35 for the second. If you fly on the three big domestic legacy carriers, United, Delta and American, as well as Hawaiian, JetBlue and Minneapolis-based Sun Country, you’ll pay that amount. A free carry-on is included in the ticket price.

Alaska Airlines and Virgin America have a slightly better policy. Both the first and second checked bags are $25 each, plus a free carry-on.

As you’d expect, the ultra-budget carriers— Spirit, Frontier and Allegiant—charge the highest fees for checked bags. And while you’re allowed a small personal item for free, like a purse or laptop, you’ll also be charged for a carry-on. In other words, it’s nearly impossible to fly on these airlines without paying extra.

All three of the airlines’ baggage fees vary depending on the date and route of your flight and when and where you pay for your bags. Shorter routes and less busy times are cheaper. It also costs less if you add bags when you book a flight instead of at the airport.

How to Avoid Bag Fees

The good news is that there are ways to avoid baggage fees on most airlines. Depending on the carrier, you can get a free checked bag if you have the right credit card, buy the right fare or achieve elite status.

Get a free checked bad with the right credit card

The easiest and most common tactic is to get a credit card that’s co-branded airline credit card. Let’s look at that option first.

Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards

Every airline on our list above offers a co-branded credit card, but not all of those cards come with a free checked bag as a perk. These are the cards available from the three big domestic legacy carriers: Delta, American and United. They each offer one relatively affordable card with a $95 annual fee that’s waived for the first year.

Delta:

CardChecked BagsAnnual FeeSign-Up BonusNotable Perks
Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit CardFree for cardholder and 8 companions$0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95.30,000 miles$50 statement credit after first Delta purchase
Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit CardFree for cardholder and 8 companionsAnnual Membership Fee of $195.35,000 miles and 5,000 elite qualifying milesAnnual economy companion certificate; 10,000-mile bonus annually
Delta Reserve Credit CardFree for cardholder and 8 companionsAnnual Fee $450.40,000 miles and 10,000 elite qualifying milesFree lounge access; annual first class companion certificate; 15,000-mile bonus annually

American:

CardChecked BagsAnnual FeeSign-Up BonusNotable Perks
Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite™ MasterCard®Free for cardholder and 4 companionsAnnual Fee: $95 (Fee waived for the first 12 months).60,000 miles
Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite™ MasterCard®Free for cardholder and 8 companionsAnnual Fee $450.50,000 milesFree lounge access; earn elite qualifying miles

United:

CardChecked BagsAnnual FeeSign-Up BonusNotable Perks
United MileagePlus® Explorer CardFree for cardholder and 1 companion$95 Annual Fee. 40,000 miles2 free lounge passes annually
United MileagePlus® Club Card2 free bags for cardholder and 1 companion$450 Annual Fee.$100 statement credit Free lounge access; Platinum status with Hyatt

Many of the other airlines also offer cards that include a free checked bag. The following cards include that perk:

CardChecked BagsAnnual FeeSign-Up BonusNotable Perks
Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® Credit CardFree for cardholder and 6 companions$75 for Visa Signature® accounts, or $50 for Platinum Plus® Visa® accounts 30,000 miles$121 annual companion fare
Virgin America Visa SignatureFree for cardholder and 1 companion$4910,000 points$150 discount on a companion ticket annually
Virgin American Premium Visa SignatureFree for cardholder and 1 companion$14915,000 points$150 discount on a companion ticket annually; no change or cancellation fees; 15,000 elite status points
JetBlue Plus CardFree for cardholder and 3 companions$9930,000 points5,000-point anniversary bonus
Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite MasterCard®Free for cardholderAnnual fee is $89/year. 35,000 miles$100 discount on a companion ticket annually; 5,000-mile anniversary bonus
Sun Country Visa SignatureFree for anyone on cardholder’s reservation$69, first year waived30,000 points10,000-point anniversary bonus

All of the cards above have an annual fee, so you’ll have to pay something for the free checked bag perk. You’ll also get other benefits with these cards, though, such as sign-up bonuses and companion fares. Note that JetBlue also offers a no-fee card that does not include a free bag.

The ultra-budget carriers also offer co-branded cards, but none of them include a free bag. Here they are:

CardChecked BagsAnnual FeeSign-Up BonusNotable Perks
Spirit World MasterCardNone$59, first year waived15,000 miles
No-Fee Frontier Airlines World MasterCardNone$010,000 milesAward redemption fee waived
Frontier Airlines World MasterCardNone$6940,000 milesAward redemption fee waived; $100 in-flight purchase voucher
Allegiant World MasterCardNone$5915,000 pointsOnly way to join frequent flyer program; free companion airfare with vacation packages

Travel Rewards Cards

If you’re looking for a little more flexibility, consider a rewards credit card with transferable points that also offers reimbursement for incidental airline charges.

These cards offer statement credits for airline charges, including bag fees:

CardMax Annual Baggage Fee ReimbursementAnnual FeeSign-Up Bonus
Chase Sapphire Reserve℠$300Annual Fee $450.50,000 points
Citi Prestige® Card$250Annual Fee $450.40,000 points
Premier Rewards Gold Card from American Express$100$0 Intro Annual Fee for the first year of Card Membership, then $195.25,000 points
Platinum Card® from American Express$200Annual Fee of $550.60,000 points

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi ThankYou Prestige and American Express Platinum are all premium travel cards. That means they have big annual fees and generous perks, such as free lounge access. Generally speaking, premium cards are best suited for frequent travelers who will take full advantage of the perks. Otherwise, it’s hard to justify the hefty $450 annual fee.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ is an exception to this rule. That’s because its annual travel credit is both generous and broadly defined. You can apply the $300 credit to a wide variety of travel purchases, including everything from parking fees to airfare. In other words, it’s very easy to get the full $300 credit, which brings the card’s annual cost down to just $150.

Chase Sapphire Reserve offers $300 annual travel credit

The other cards allow you to apply their travel credit to much fewer purchases, often excluding even airfare. They’re designed to cover incidentals only.

The American Express cards are the most limited. Cardholders have to designate one preferred airline, and the travel credits will only be applied to purchases from that carrier.

Elite Status

Many airlines will give you a free checked bag if you have elite status.  American, Delta, United, Alaska, JetBlue, Hawaiian Airlines, Virgin America and Sun Country all offer that perk to any elite status holder.

If you reach elite status with Frontier, you’ll get a free carry-on, but you’ll still have to pay for checked bags.

Spirit Airlines does not offer free bags with status, but you can get a discount on bag fees and flights if you join the $9 Fare Club. That costs $69.95 a year.

Allegiant does not have an elite status program.

Book the Right Fares

With the exception of Southwest, you’ll have to pay for your bags whenever you book the cheapest fare. Some airlines, though, will include a checked bag if you book the right fare class. American, Delta, United, Alaska, Hawaiian and Sun Country allow at least one free checked bag if you book a business or first class ticket.

Virgin America gives you a free bag if you book anything above the basic Main Cabin fare. That includes Main Cabin Refundable, Main Cabin Select or First Class.

JetBlue does not have a first class cabin, but Blue Plus and Blue Flex fares include a free bag.

Conclusions

The easiest way to avoid bag fees is to get the right credit card. If you typically fly on one or two carriers, consider their co-branded cards since nearly all of them include a free checked bag.

If you fly on a variety of different carriers, the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ and Citi Prestige® Card are your only options. Both cards include travel statement credits that can reimburse you for baggage fees for any airline.

If you have elite status or fly in premium cabins, you have nothing to worry about. All airlines except the ultra-budget carriers will give you at least one free bag. Speaking of which, it’s virtually impossible to get out of paying some sort of bag fee on Spirit, Allegiant and Frontier.

  • Boonie

    The Ritz credit card has a $300 travel credit