Credit card tips for getting free checked bags while traveling
Co-branded credit cards, travel credits can help you offset checked-bag fees
No one wants to pay for checked bags.
The average fee is $25 for the first checked bag and $35 for additional bags, according to a 2016 survey from Money magazine. That means if you book a fun family vacation with round-trip tickets for a family of four, those checked bags will drain at least another $200 from your wallet.
That amounts to a couple of hotel nights, memorable meals or exciting excursions you won’t be enjoying on your vacation.
Want to keep that money in your pocket – or at least spend it where you want? Here are four ways to save on checked bag fees, along with some of the best credit cards to help:
See related: Best credit card for travel insurance
Free checked bags credit card tips
- Use a co-branded credit card from your favorite airline.
- Carry credit cards that offer travel credits.
- Investigate cards that 'erase' fees with points.
- Travel smart(er): Don't check your bags.
1. Use a co-branded card from your favorite airline
Many airline affinity cards include free checked bags. “You need the card of the airline you fly,” says Gary Leff, travel blogger and founder of View from the Wing.
“If you fly frequently, but not enough to get elite status, apply for a card from the airline you fly the most,” he says. That will often give you early boarding, too, which can help you find available overhead space if you also have a carry-on bag.
But not all airline credit cards are created equal, says Lee Huffman, travel blogger and founder of Bald Thoughts.
Some, like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Card from American Express, will green-light free bags for you and up to four companions. Others, like the Citi/AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, offer free checked bags for up to eight travelers – although this card comes with a $450 annual fee.
Other cards that offer at least one free check bag include:
- Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Credit Card
- United Explorer Card
- Alaska Airlines Visa Signature Credit Card
“You want to make sure you have a card that offers free checked bags for multiple people,” says John DiScala, editor-in-chief and founder of Johnny Jet.
“And make sure you pay for your flight with that card.”
See related: Best airline credit cards
2. Carry credit cards that offer travel credits
A number of premium travel cards will offer to reimburse cardholders for travel expenses or checked-bag fees in the form of travel credits that can be applied toward your baggage fees. And these can be a good deal if you’re looking for a card to pick up the cost of a few checked bags, but the annual fees can be high.
Here are a few:
- Premier Rewards Gold® card from American Express gives cardholders up to $100 per year at the airline of your choice. But you can only change airlines once per year. Annual fee: $195 (waived first year).
- The Platinum Card® from American Express gives an airline fee credit of $200 per year. Annual fee: $550.
- Citi Prestige provides an annual travel credit of $250, and you can use it to offset airfare or fees. Annual fee: $450.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve will let you offset up to $300 in travel expenses or fees annually. Annual fee: $450.
“When you look at the premium cards, you want to think about what other benefits you’re getting,” says Huffman. “It brings the [annual] fee out of the stratosphere and it doesn’t always have to be used for checked bags.”
3. Investigate credit cards that ‘erase’ fees with points
Some credit cards, such as the Barclays Arrival cards or the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card card, “let you build up a fund that you can use for all your travel expenses,” says Huffman.
See related: Best travel credit cards
4. Travel smart(er): Don’t check your bags
Veteran fliers will tell you: Skip checking bags.
Leff flies enough to have elite status with several airlines, and that guarantees him free checked bags. Still, “I avoid checked bags whenever I can,” he admits.
If you have a card that offers priority boarding, you shouldn't have a problem finding space for a carry-on on the cabin's overhead space.
Huffman agrees. “If you’re going to check a bag, at some point in your life, the bag’s not going to make it.” His advice: If you’re interested in checking bags, look for cards that reimburse you for lost or delayed bags.
Cards that offer lost/delayed bags benefits include:
His advice for travelers who check bags: “Get familiar with all the benefits of the card,” says Huffman. “You may not use them everyday or they may not be as sexy as a sign-up bonus, but they’re incredibly valuable when needed.”
DiScala and his wife flew around the world for years without checking a bag. But they discovered that children (and car seats and diaper bags) change things.
Tip: JohnnyJet founder John DiScala packs half his clothes in his wife’s bag, while she puts half of her things in his. He explains, “That way, if they lose one of the bags, one of us isn’t walking around naked.”
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