Avoid Airline Fees with Airline Co-Branded Credit Cards

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Most of us are initially attracted to one of the multitude of airline co-branded credit cards out there because of the 30,000-, 50,000-, or sometimes even 100,000-mile sign-up bonuses that are offered. Don’t get me wrong, those miles are very valuable, but many airline credit cards can do more than just earn you frequent-flier miles.

They can also save you money by helping you avoid some pesky airline fees.

This savings can be huge. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Transportation said U.S.-based airlines charged $3.35 billion in baggage fees alone. That doesn’t count the additional fees the airlines charge for changing your flight, early boarding, premium seat assignments, on-board food, and more.

There are some situations where there is nothing you can do to avoid airline fees, but in other cases a simple co-branded airline credit card will protect you from certain fees, such as checked bag fees, or even save you some money on on-board purchases. Here are examples:

Delta Airlines

Let’s start with Delta, which raked in the most in 2013 in checked bag fees, but interestingly enough is one of the easiest airlines where you can avoid checked bag fees via its co-branded credit cards.

Travelers who have the Gold, Platinum or Reserve Delta SkyMiles American Express cards can check the first bag for free for the cardholder and up to eight additional passengers on the same reservation. That’s more generous than what many other co-branded cards offer.

At $25 each, that could save a family of four $100 on checked bags fees in a single trip. The Delta AmEx cards also offer priority boarding and a 20 percent discount on in-flight food and entertainment in the form of a statement credit.

American Airlines

The American Airlines Citi AAdvantage cards save you from the checked bag fee of $25 for the primary cardholder and up to four people on the same reservation.

The card also gives Group One boarding and a 25 percent discount on in-flight purchases of food, beverages and headsets. And while this isn’t protection from a fee, the card also gives 10 percent of your redeemed miles back, up to 10,000 annually, which is a unique feature.

United Airlines

The United MileagePlus Explorer card offers a free checked bag for the primary cardholder and one traveling companion on the same reservation — less generous than some of the other airline co-branded cards.

However, if you travel United with some frequency and want to avoid more fees while having United Club access, the United Club card gives both the first and second checked bag free for the cardholder and one traveling companion on the same reservation. That card also waives the booking fee of $75 for general members who try to book mileage-award tickets within 21 days of departure.

The Club card also gives not just priority boarding, but Premier Access similar to what United elite fliers get. This allows you to use perks such as priority check-in, priority security lanes, and priority boarding and baggage handling. That is something you could pay extra for per ticket if you didn’t have this card.

Hawaiian Airlines

The newly revamped Hawaiian Airlines World Elite MasterCard also gives the first checked bag free, but only to the cardholder when the flight is purchased directly with Hawaiian Airlines. This benefit does not extend to others on the reservation, so pack lightly when deciding which bathing suits to take to the islands.

Don’t avoid airline fees by paying too much in credit card fees

Many of the cards mentioned have $0 annual fee the first year, but will cost from $89 per year to $395 per year in the case of the United Club card. This can be worth it depending on how often you travel on the associated airlines and how frequently you will be able to avoid airline fees or use the other related perks the cards offer. However, you absolutely have to do the math to make sure you are still coming out ahead.

Those with multiple family members on the same reservation who like to check bags, or who fly with one airline several times a year but not quite enough to obtain elite status will be the ones who generally can save the most by having a co-branded airline credit card.