Airline cards get you free checked bags, with exceptions

Short international flights to a handful of destinations often aren't covered

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I went to Jamaica on vacation last week and was surprised that American Airlines charged me for my checked bag. I have the Citi AAdvantage card and the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red card. Plus, I thought international flights came with a free bag. Did they make a mistake? – Stephanie

Answer Dear Justin,
One of the perks you hear most about with an airline card is free checked bags. The credit cards associated with United, American and Delta all come with that perk. Southwest already offers two free checked bags for everyone.

However, when you hear that a credit card comes with “free checked bags,” you should read the fine print. It does not mean free checked bags to any destination. It usually means one free checked bag per person on flights within the U.S.

Others travelers on your same reservation usually receive their first bags checked for free, too, up to a limit of a certain number of travelers that varies by airline.

International flights sometimes have different rules

You are correct that many international flights come with one free checked bag, too. However, in recent years, airlines have found that they can make money by charging fees. That means that for luggage, some of the longer routes include a free checked bag but shorter international routes don’t.

In your case, that places you in a no man’s land on some flights. Your credit card gets you a free checked bag for flights within the United States and any flights to Europe, South America or Asia..

But on American, you will still be charged a baggage fee for your first checked bag if you fly to Mexico or the Caribbean, or to certain cities in Central and South American during peak tourist season. The fee is $25 each way. Other major U.S. airlines have similar policies.

How you may be able to avoid baggage fees

Unfortunately, there aren’t many good ways to dodge these baggage fees that you are unaccustomed to paying.

Airlines do waive baggage fees for some people, such as their elite-level flyers, first-class passengers, and active U.S. military. But if you’re a civilian flying coach who lacks elite status, you are probably out of luck.

Some premium cards give you a credit toward airline fees, and this can be used to cover your baggage fees.

For example, the American Express Platinum card (annual fee: $550) comes with an annual $200 airline fee credit, which you could use toward airline bag fees. How this travel credit works: You have to designate an airline once a year, then you receive credits for charges with that airline.

The Citi Prestige card (annual fee: $450) comes with a $250 credit for charges at any airline (including airfare). The Citi Expedia+ Voyager card (annual fee: $95) comes with a $100 annual fee credit on any airline.

Most likely, though, you’re just going to have to bite the bullet and pay these fees.

See related: 9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free, 5 money-saving credit card tips for savvy family travelers

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Updated: 11-24-2017