Tips for buying airline tickets with a debit card

You can do it, but there are limits and trade-offs

By Anne Field

Tips for buying airline tickets with a debit card


Tips for buying airline tickets with a debit card


Perhaps you’re trying to break a bad credit card habit. Or maybe you’re determined to live within your means. Whatever your reason, if you’re planning to fly somewhere and don’t want to use your credit card, another alternative is to pay for your ticket with your debit card.

Nearly all airlines allow you to use debit to buy tickets. And you can do so online, over the phone or in person.

However, buying an airline ticket with a debit card involves its own restrictions and requirements. Here’s what you should know.

Not all debit cards will work. Some airlines allow you to buy a ticket using only a debit card affiliated with MasterCard or Visa. Others also accept cards from networks such as Discover or American Express. And there are additional variations. Delta, for example, which allows payment by MasterCard or Visa debit cards, accepts U.S.-issued ATM cards, requiring you to add your PIN number when completing the cardholder and billing information section on the payment page, according to its website.

You must have the cash in your account. The biggest difference between paying with a debit card or credit card, of course, is that with the former, money is withdrawn from your bank account immediately. That means you need to have enough cash in your checking account to cover the cost of the ticket. If you don’t, the transaction will be declined. If not, depending on if you opted into overdrafting, you may be able to make the purchase, but you’ll be charged an overdraft fee. With a median overdraft fee of $34, according to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, that can be a nontrivial charge. “You might figure, if you’re short $10 or so it’s not a big deal,” says Lori Askins, vice president of public relations and marketing for BR Finance Solutions. “But with the overdraft charge, it really adds up.”

There’s a cap on spending. Debit cards usually have a daily limit on how much you can withdraw. The amount, set by the individual bank, generally ranges from $1,000 to $3,000. No matter how much is in your bank account, you’ll still have to deal with a cap. “It’s quite a different situation from just slapping down your credit card and paying for whatever you want,” says Tim Winship, editor at large for Smarter Travel, as credit card limits tend to be much higher.

It’s important to know ahead of time what your daily debit limit is. “If I know one of my clients is using a debit card, I always advise them to check their daily limit first,” says Anthony Klang, a travel agent who runs Cruise Planners, a Beaverton, Oregon, travel agency. “Five or six tickets and you can easily go over.” The information may be on the website, but more likely, you’ll have to ask the bank directly. Or you can check the fine print of your original agreement.

If I know one of my clients is using a debit card, I always advise them to check their daily limit first.

— Anthony Klang
Travel agent, Cruise Planners

Also make sure you don’t get confused: Your ATM cash withdrawal daily limit and your debit card spending limit are different. And while you’re at it, establish whether ATM withdrawals count toward your total daily limit. In other words, if you take out $300 from an ATM and the total daily spending max is $1,000, you’ll only be able to use the debit card for a $700 purchase.

One way around the problem: Banks may increase the limit if you ask ahead of time. Just make sure you find out how long it will take for the new cap to take effect.

You won’t be as protected. Most likely, you won’t receive the same level of protection you would by paying with a credit card. If, for example, the flight is canceled, many credit card companies offer trip cancellation insurance that could reimburse you. The benefits vary widely depending on the issuer. Or if there’s another problem, you can dispute the charge, according to Askins. With a debit card, your recourse usually is to wait to see whether the airline offers a refund. “Otherwise, you’re most likely out of luck,” says Askins.

You don’t get the miles. In most cases, when you pay with a debit card, you don’t build up points or miles – a big consideration for many people. Consider this: Some domestic European and low-cost Asian airlines charge a service fee for using a debit card, according to Klang. This fee for using your debit card, though, is generally less than the fee for paying with a credit card. Even so, especially for frequent travelers, he suggests using a credit card, so you can get the miles.

In rare cases, you can find a debit card that gives you miles, though there often are restrictions. For example, with SunTrust Bank’s Delta SkyMiles World Debit Card, you can earn 2 miles per $1 on tickets and other Delta purchases. But that card is available only to Signature Advantage Checking Account holders.    

Consider a prepaid card. Depending on your situation, especially if you don’t have a checking account, a prepaid card affiliated with one of the major card networks (American Express, Discover, MasterCard or Visa) can be a useful option. Many banks offer such cards, which are usually sold at drugstores or other retailers, or online. Most airlines also sell gift cards that can be redeemed for flights. You can buy the card already loaded for a specific amount with cash, debit or a check, or you can specify how much you’d like on the card when you pay. Just be on the lookout for fees that may be attached to the card.

Of course, you should make sure the loaded amount is sufficient. “The ticket purchase ultimately will be declined if the amount on the prepaid card isn’t enough to cover the cost,” Winship says.

See related: What that ‘free’ airline reward ticket will cost you, How to get a refund if your airfare drops after you buy

Published: September 16, 2016

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Updated: 10-26-2016

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