Rules for baggage perks might have exceptions

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

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Question Dear Cashing In,
I occasionally buy plane tickets for my father to come visit me. I have several rewards cards that come with free checked bag privileges (United MileagePlus Explorer MasterCard, American Airlines Platinum World MasterCard and American's Executive MasterCard). Will my father be able to get his bags checked for free if I use one of these cards to pay for his ticket? -- Chris

Answer Dear Chris,
When looking at the perks that come with reward credit cards, there are two worlds: the realm of rules, and the realm of reality. Another way of saying this is that there is fine print that covers precisely what benefits you have, but when it comes to enforcing that fine print, there might be some wiggle room -- particularly when humans are involved.

The rules on free checked bag privileges are straightforward: Only cardholders and a certain number of traveling companions on the same reservation are entitled to have their bags checked for free. (With Chase's United MileagePlus cards, it's two free bags for you and one companion. With Citi's AAdvantage Executive card, it's one free bag for you and up to eight companions.) In addition, you have to buy the ticket with the card, provide your frequent flier number and not cancel the card before your trip. So say the rules. You and your dad would appear to be out of luck. 

However, don't assume that all the reservation agents, ticket agents or gate personnel know every detail of every rule. Yes, airlines are increasingly relying on technology, and buying a ticket with the appropriate card should automatically tell the reservations system that your first bag is free. But it is possible you could score a free bag through the intervention of a kind agent at the airport.

Three years ago, heading out of town on a family vacation, I had recently applied for a Citi AAdvantage card that came with a free checked bag. At the time, I was unsure how that worked. As it turned out, I had bought the plane tickets before signing up for the card, so I was ineligible for the free bags under the rules. But I showed the credit card to the agent at check-in, and she agreed not to charge for the bags. On the way home at the end of the trip, I did the same thing -- but the agent handed me a slip of paper that said only tickets purchased with the card were eligible for a free bag. I paid the baggage fee. 

Incidentally, one trick you can use to avoid baggage fees is to take your bag to the gate and check it there. Since airlines started charging for checked bags, more people carry bags onto planes and use up all of the overhead bin space. If your flight is full or close to full, those bins will fill up, and airlines will often allow you to check your bag free of charge. This probably works best with small or medium-sized roller suitcases. I wouldn't try it with your skis or cello.

Chris, you shouldn't expect that your father's bag should be free -- unless you're traveling with him on the same reservation and paid with a credit card that offers that perk. That's what the rules say. 

But who knows? You might get lucky.

See related: Avoid companions' checked-bag fees with wise card use, Do United's frequent-flier changes devalue its travel card?

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Updated: 02-18-2019