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Rewards Cards Can Cut Down on Airline Fees

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Rewards Cards

It’s no secret. Airline fees are up. There are more surcharges today than just a few years ago. And sometimes they cost more than the flight itself. According to a study from USA Today, airline fees have hit a record high. Delta is now charging $400 to change an international flight–a $150 jump from three years ago.

Baggage fees on many airlines have already topped $450 for a single bag if you go over the ever-decreasing size and weight limit. Thankfully for award travelers, one of our favorite ways to rack up free flights—rewards credit cards—can also free us from some of these ever-increasing airline fees.

Bye, Bye Baggage Fees

Flying with two free checked bags was once the norm, but those days are long gone as overstuffed overhead bins attest. If you pick up a co-branded credit card, free checked bags are a pretty standard perk. But what is free can vary from one checked bag for just one person to two bags for everyone in your party.

Here are the main options among the three major domestic airlines:

Hello, Priority Boarding

In yet another effort to extract extra dollars, airlines often charge customers to confirm a seat and throw in priority boarding—and usually security screening—to sweeten the pot. If you have the right rewards credit card, theres no need to pay for this privilege. In the current carry-on bag environment, the last people to board the plane often get stuck checking their bags at the gate and take the risk of losing their luggage. Boarding early can make a difference between a good trip and a disaster.

Here are some co-branded cards that can get you on the plane sooner:

  • On American, the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage comes with early boarding on all flights.
  • United’s MileagePlus Explorer and United Club Card both offer early boarding, with club cardholders boarding right after the upper classes and elites.
  • With Delta, you and a companion can board in group one with any of the co-branded Delta cards from American Express.

Lounges, Here You Come

Though some co-branded credit cards are doing away with lounge access—most notoriously the American Express Platinum Card which no longer comes with access to American Airlines and US Airways lounges—some are actually reinforcing their offerings with included subscriptions to third-party lounge operators, allowing travelers to find a lounge no matter what airline they are traveling on.

United Club, accessed with Priority Pass
United Club, accessed with Priority Pass

Co-branded credit cards in general can be a little stringy with their lounge access. The United MileagePlus Explorer Card comes with two one-time use passes per year, but its sister card the Chase MileagePlus United Club Visa comes with unlimited club access (and a $375 fee). On Delta, the American Express Delta Reserve provides access to all Delta clubs, but not Sky Club partner lounges.

Several high-end cards such as the Fidelity Private Client Amex or the Chase Ritz-Carlton Visa Signature offer unlimited access to a group of lounges like Priority Pass or Lounge Club.

Sayonara, Ticket Change Fees?

One new card from Virgin America, the Virgin America Premium Visa Signature Card has finally achieved the coveted travel perk of overriding ticket change and cancellation fees. Unfortunately, if you’re traveling on an award ticket, you’ll still need to pay a redeposit fee of $100, or the fare difference if you’re traveling on a cash fare. Virgin is pretty good about refunding the difference though if you change to a cash fare that costs less.

So far, no co-branded credit cards from the big three domestic airlines help you skip award ticket change fees, so complement a co-branded card with elite status to fly as comfortably and inexpensively as possible.

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