It's no secret that airlines try to squeeze extra revenue out of their customers at every turn. With a few exceptions, you generally have to pay up for checked bags, seat selection, inflight Wi-Fi, and any substantial snacks or alcoholic beverages that you order, which can all make a cheap flight suddenly feel … not so cheap. It gets even more expensive (and restrictive) if you're flying on a basic economy fare.
Luckily, you can avoid the largest of these fees – paying to check a bag – by having the right credit card.
All of the major U.S. carriers offer co-branded credit cards that come with a variety of perks for travelers from free lounge access to discounts on inflight purchases. But there's one benefit that's consistent across most of these cards: Free checked bags. Even if you only travel once per year, this single benefit is often enough to justify the card's annual fee – and better yet, many of these cards waive the fee altogether in the first year.
But remember: Credit cards are serious business. If you're unable to pay your statement balance in full each month, you'll be better off coughing up the extra dough to check a bag than paying interest to the banks. No perks or points are worth the burden of credit card debt.
Let's take a closer look at which credit cards can help you avoid paying baggage fees on whichever airline you're flying.
Best Card for Free Checked Bags on American
Checking a bag with American Airlines will cost you, but where you're headed and what class of service you're in will play a big role in determining just how much that cost will be. You can generally expect to pay $30 to $75 for your first checked bag and if you plan to bring any additional luggage, it only goes up from there.
Read more: Everything You Need to Know About American Baggage Fees
Having an American Airlines card in your wallet can take some of the stings out of those sky-high bag fees. American is unique in that they offer co-branded credit cards from two different banks – Barclays and Citi – giving travelers additional opportunities to quickly earn a bunch of AAdvantage miles and capitalize on the unique perks of each bank's credit cards, including free checked bags.
First, there's the Barclays AAdvantage Red Aviator World Elite Mastercard. Few cards make earning a welcome offer as simple as this one. Just by opening the card and making a single purchase, you will earn 50,000 American Airlines miles. The card's $99 annual fee is even waived in your first year of card membership. It's as painless as that!
Beyond the welcome offer, this card comes with a very important benefit: One free checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to four companions on the same reservation. And unlike some airline cards, you don't even need to purchase your flights with the card to get free bags. These savings only apply to domestic flights, though. For some international flights, you may still have to pay to check a bag.
The Barclays Aviator Red Card also comes with additional benefits for American flyers like priority boarding, a 25% discount on inflight purchases, and a $25 statement credit each year for onboard Wi-Fi
Read our full review of the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard!
Learn more about the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard (Full disclosure: this is not an affiliate link).
But you can't go wrong with Citi's American Airlines co-branded credit card, either. Similar to the Barclays card, it too comes with a slew of benefits for AA travelers, including free checked bags.
With the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, you can earn 50,000 AAdvantage Miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of opening your card. To sweeten the deal, the card's $99 annual fee is waived for the first year of card membership.
Just like with the Barclays card, you'll get one free checked bag for the main cardholder and up to four companions traveling on the same domestic itinerary, simply for being a card member. Even if you've already booked your flight, it's not too late to take advantage of this benefit. As long as you open your card seven days prior to departure and attach your AAdvantage number to the reservation, you'll get the option to check your bags for free when you go to check in for your flight.
This card also includes priority boarding and a 25% savings on inflight purchases, although it lacks the annual credit for Wi-Fi that you'd get with the Barclays version.
Read our full review of the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard!
Learn more about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®
Best Card for Free Checked Bags on Delta
With Delta, you can expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $75 for your first checked bag, depending on which ticket you purchased and the route you're flying. While $30 might not seem like much, that amounts to $60 roundtrip, which can add up fast if you're flying with a family.
It's easy to avoid paying these baggage fees altogether by having one of Delta's co-branded credit cards – and there are several to choose from. All but the no-annual-fee Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card will get you a free 50-pound checked bag on any Delta-operated flight simply for having the card in your wallet; even if you don't pay for the flights with it. What's more, you'll also get a free checked bag for up to eight additional passengers booked on your same reservation.
Read our guide to Delta baggage fees (and how to avoid them!)
Perhaps the best Delta card for getting free checked bags is the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card. Even for occasional Delta flyers, the ability to earn SkyMiles and get added benefits, like free checked bags, makes holding this card a no-brainer.
Right now, the Delta SkyMiles Gold card comes with a welcome offer of 40,000 bonus miles after spending $2,000 in the first six months of opening the card. As part of the initial welcome offer, it also has a $0 introductory annual fee and it's just $99 per year thereafter (see rates & fees.)
In addition to the card's welcome offer and generous checked baggage allowance, you'll also get 20% savings on inflight purchases, priority boarding, and 15% off award bookings simply for being a card member.
Read our full review of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card!
Learn more about the Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card.
At $30 or more per bag each way, it would only take two roundtrip flights on Delta to come out ahead on the annual fee. Flying with a companion – or even a whole family? You could easily recoup the annual fee with just one flight.
Thrifty Tip: Checking a bag with Delta could score you some extra SkyMiles, thanks to Delta's bag guarantee. Here's how it works: If you check a bag with Delta and it isn't on the baggage carousel within 20 minutes from the time the boarding door opens, you'll earn an additional 2,500 SkyMiles for your troubles.
Read more: Which Delta Credit Card is Right for You?
Best Card for Free Checked Bags on United
When flying United, checked bags start at $30 one-way on a domestic itinerary and go all the way up to $75 for some international routes. To make matters worse, if you're traveling on a United basic economy ticket, you'll also have to pay for a carry-on bag.
Just like with American and Delta, the easiest way to beat these bag fees is by holding one of United's co-branded credit cards like the United℠ Explorer card. Sadly, United's free checked bag allowance for cardholders isn't nearly as generous as its competitors. By holding the United Explorer card, the primary cardholder and one companion traveling on the same reservation will each receive their first standard checked bag free. That means at most, you're getting two free checked bags as a benefit of being a United Explorer card member.
And unlike other airline cards, there's a catch with this one: You have to pay for your ticket with the United Explorer card in order to get those benefits.
If you're traveling for an extended period of time or just want to be sure you have an outfit for every occasion, consider the United Quest℠ Card or the premium United Club℠ Infinite Card instead. These cards come with higher annual fees – $250 per year for the United Quest Card and $525 per year for the United Club Infinite Card – but also give you and a companion your first and second checked bag for free, amongst many other perks and benefits.
Read more on United Airlines baggage fees!
The United Explorer Card currently comes with a welcome offer of 50,000 United miles after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months. Plus, the card's annual $95 fee is waived in the first year, making it a great card to have even if you only have one or two trips upcoming trips on United.
In addition to free checked bags, with this card you'll also all get priority boarding, two one-time United Club passes per year, and up to $100 in statement credits when you apply for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry.
Learn more about the United Explorer Card.
Best Card for Free Checked Bags on Any Airline
So what if you're not loyal to one particular airline and just let the best price determine who you're flying with? Don't worry, there's a card for you too!
The Platinum Card® from American Express includes an annual airline incidental credit for situations just like this. Each year you hold the Platinum Card, you get up to a $200 credit to use with one selected airline. The credit is intended to be used for things like checked bags, change or cancelation fees, seat assignments, lounge access, and more, making it the perfect fit for covering baggage fees, no matter the airline you choose to fly with.
If you have never had an American Express credit card, you may be targeted for a welcome offer for up to 150,000 points via CardMatch! Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for bigger bonuses via personal referral links … or just try searching for the Platinum Card in an incognito browser to see if you can beat the standard 80,000-point bonus.
Read up on how you can snag a bonus of 150,000 points on the Amex Platinum Card!
Learn more about The Platinum Card® from American Express.
In order to take advantage of the card's $200 airline incidental credit you'll need to first ensure that the airline you're paying for bags on is listed as your designated airline in your Amex account, which can be found under “Rewards & Benefits.”
If you already have the Amex Platinum Card, your designated airline will default to whichever one you chose the year prior unless you already updated it. Updates to your designated airline can only be made online in January, but it's also possible to change this at any time throughout the year by calling American Express or messaging a representative through the app.
These days, paying a fee to check a bag is the norm on most airlines.
Baggage fees can be a pain, but there's an easy way to avoid them (and get some additional perks) simply by holding the right credit card.
Thank you Jackson. Would you know if paying the taxes and fees on a United award flight with one of the above mentioned United credit cards would be considered payment and qualify for the respective free bags?