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Are Co-Branded Airline Credit Cards More Valuable Than Ever?

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We've long heralded the power of carrying a co-branded airline credit card as long as you don't make a habit of swiping them everywhere you go. But now, as airlines raise baggage fees and further restrict travelers with basic economy tickets, these airline cards might be getting more valuable than ever.

Each of the major U.S. carriers offers a portfolio of cards ranging from a no-frills, fee-free edition to an ultra-premium (and pricey) card, tailored to business travelers and really frequent flyers. In most cases, you'll need to pay an annual fee to get perks that matter, but that doesn't mean you'll have to break the bank or be on the road constantly to get your money's worth. For most travelers, one or two trips a year with a given airline can be all it takes to justify carrying a co-branded airline card.

From free checked bags to priority boarding and more, here's why having a credit card with your favorite airline's logo on it can pay dividends for your future travels.

Related reading: The Best Credit Cards to Get Started With Travel

 

Free Checked Bags

This is the big one. Airlines love ancillary revenue and there's no bigger source of it than checked bag fees. Consider this: U.S. airlines collected nearly $7 billion (with a b) on bag fees alone in 2022 … and they were on track to shatter that record in 2023.

Bag fees vary (a little) from one airline to another, but at a bare minimum, you can expect to pay $35 to check a bag these days … in each direction. Here's where things currently stand for each of the major U.S. airlines for domestic flights:

  • American Airlines: $35 for your first checked bag when paid online in advance, or $40 at the airport.
  • Delta Air Lines: $35 for your first checked bag.
  • United Airlines$35 for your first checked bag when paid in advance, or $40 at the airport

A single roundtrip flight with a checked bag will cost you at least $70 when flying with one of the big three U.S. airlines. If you're traveling with the whole family, it's even more costly. And that's where having a co-branded airline credit card comes in.

One of the best perks of carrying an airline credit card is getting free checked baggage on domestic flights – and most of the time, this benefit even extends to those traveling with you as long as you're all booked on the same reservation. Considering most of the cards that include a one free checked bag charge an annual fee of between $95 and $150, it's not hard to come out ahead with a couple of flights each year. If you're traveling with friends or family, it might only take one roundtrip for the math to make sense.

 

Checked baggage

 

Over the last few years we've seen airlines widen the gap between what they're charging for a basic economy and main cabin tickets. Along with this price difference, they're also (in many cases) decreasing what comes with a basic economy fare. While American and Delta still allow basic economy travelers to bring a carry-on, that isn't the case for United.

If you're willing to roll the dice and purchase United's lowest fares, paying for your flight with the airline's co-branded card is the only way to avoid paying extra for bringing luggage with you.

 

Priority Boarding

Getting a free checked bag is easily the biggest and most valuable perk for many travelers holding a co-branded airline card … but it's not the only one. All the major U.S. airlines also give their cardholders priority boarding as a benefit. This means that instead of finding one of the last groups on your boarding pass, you're more likely to get on shortly after airline elite members and first class passengers.

For some travelers, this benefit might not mean much; the less time stuck in a metal tube, the better. But for anyone who's had to fight for coveted overhead bin space, getting on before the other passengers in your row can mean the difference between storing your carry-on within arms reach and walking to the back of the plane to find a spot.

Worse yet, if your flight completely runs out of overhead bin space, you could be forced to gate-check your bag and that means waiting for it after de-planing. If you've got a tight connection, even a minor wait can be the difference between making your flight and not. And even if you're not connecting, waiting for a bag is still a hassle.

 

Other Perks and Travel Credits

A free checked bag and priority boarding are standard for all airline cards … at least those that charge an annual fee. From there, each airline further sweetens the deal with additional money-saving perks and benefits, although exactly what you get depends on the airline – and the card.

American's base-level cards come with a discount on in-flight purchases, with one even including an annual rebate for Wi-Fi. United gives cardholders two, one-time guest passes to get into its United Club lounges – and a credit for TSA PreCheck or Global Entry. Delta provides a valuable 15% discount on award tickets for its Gold card and up cardholders and an annual credit for hotel bookings made through its Delta Stays travel portal.

If you're willing to pay for a more mid-tier or premium version of these airline's credit cards, you can expect more perks like annual companion passes, unlimited complimentary lounge access, and even more monthly and annual statement credits. Generally speaking, the higher the fee, the greater the perks.

 

Best Co-Branded Card For Each Airline

There's no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Ultra-frequent flyers, like those traveling for business, might be better off ponying up for a top-of-the-line airline card to take advantage of additional perks like lounge access and a fast track to elite status. But for most leisure travelers, it makes sense to start at (or near) the bottom and pick a card with a more modest annual fee.

While each airline offers a no-annual-fee card, you can generally skip these as they don't offer much in the way of benefits and there are more rewarding ways to earn each airline's miles.

 

American Airlines

American Airlines is unique in the fact that it offers co-branded cards from two different banks: Barclays and Citi. Each bank issues an American Airlines card in the $100 range with similar benefits – regular AA flyers really can't go wrong with either card … or both, for that matter.

The Barclays AAdvantage Red Aviator World Elite Mastercard checks the most important box: Get one free checked bag for the primary cardholder and up to four companions on the same reservation. These savings only apply to domestic flights, though – for most international itineraries, 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. All this for a card with an annual fee of $99 (often waived the first year) and it's easy to see why carrying this card can make good sense.

Read our full review of the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard!

 

barclays aa aviator red credit card

 

Learn more about the Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite MasterCard (Full disclosure, this is not an affiliate link).

 

Then there's the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®: 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 before departure and attach your AAdvantage number to the reservation, you'll get the option to check your bags for free when you 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. Just like the Aviator Red Card, the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select has a $99 annual fee that's usually waived in year one. Still, paying $99 each year for free checked baggage, a discount on inflight purchases, and priority boarding can be a good deal for many travelers.

Read our full review of the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard!

 

citi platinum select american airlines card

 

Learn more about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard® (Full disclosure, this is not an affiliate link).

 

Delta Air Lines

For even the most occasional Delta travelers, the best co-branded card is the *delta skymiles gold card*. With the ability to earn SkyMiles and get added benefits, like free checked bags for you and up to eight companions on the same itinerary, holding this card can be a no-brainer.

Right now, with the Delta SkyMiles Gold card you can currently bonus_miles_full As part of the initial welcome offer, it also has a $0 introductory annual fee and it's just $150 per year thereafter (see rates & fees).

In addition to the card's welcome offer and generous checked baggage allowance, you'll get an annual $100 hotel credit when booked through Delta Stays, a 20% savings on inflight purchases, priority boarding, and 15% off award bookings simply for being a card member.

By starting with the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card, you'll also be eligible for additional new card welcome offers down the road if you decide a more premium version of the card is a better fit for you and your travels.

Read our full review of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card!

 

*delta gold*

 

Learn more about the *delta skymiles gold card*.

 

United Airlines

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*.

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. But 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.

The United Explorer Card currently allows you to bonus_miles_full 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.

 

*united explorer*

 

Learn more about the *united explorer*.

 

Bottom Line

As airlines raise baggage fees and strip away benefits for many travelers, having a co-branded airline credit card in your wallet can be a sneaky way to beat the airlines at their own game. From free checked bags to priority boarding, annual statement credits, and more, having a card with your favorite airline's logo on it can make up for paying a modest fee each year.

 

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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