On the Dollar

This Credit Card Hack Can Save You $50 Every Time You Fly

flying
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Airlines are constantly inventing ways to squeeze your wallet. In 2017, the shady innovation was "Basic Economy," a boring name for a seriously unpleasant affliction. Essentially the Big Three airlines (American Airlines, Delta Air Lines, and United Airlines) started selling bargain-priced tickets with a bunch of restrictions: your seat is assigned at check-in; you board in the last group; and on American and United, you don't get to carry on any luggage for the overhead bin.

If you didn't feel like a groundling as you trudged past First Class before, they've made sure you do now. Normally with these tickets, you'll have to pay $25 to bring a carry-on bigger than a single backpack or purse. If you try to get cute and get caught with a full-size carry-on without paying, tack another $25 on to that.

Instead of cursing Spirit Airlines for the nickel-and-dime race to the bottom of airplane seats, you can fight back. And it turns out, it’s not even much of a fight. Just get the right credit card, and you can buy Basic Economy tickets without ever paying a bag fee.

suitcases highway airport
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The airline cards that come with a free checked bag

American's explainer page about Basic Economy spells it out: If you have elite status or hold one of the airline's co-branded credit cards, you're exempt from Basic Economy's baggage restrictions. That means you can bring a carry-on AND check a bag at no extra cost -- nominally, a $50 value. And through the card, you'll get priority boarding, to boot. Those cards include:

  • Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
  • CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select American Express Card
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select Visa Signature
  • AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard
  • AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard
  • AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard

Yes, it sucks to let an airline back you into a corner. But it’s great to be able to pack like you’re back in the 1990s again.

As an example: I recently bought two one-way tickets from LaGuardia Airport to Miami International Airport for $36 each on an American card. Cheap, right? Well, that’s why they get to treat us like human cargo. We're flying back on Delta Basic Economy -- which doesn't charge for carry-on bags -- for $80 apiece. So for about the price of two Knicks tickets and beers, my girlfriend and I will be flying to Miami in the dead of winter. If there are two things New Yorkers can rely on in February, it's the weather being better in Miami and the Knicks being irrelevant.

United manages to bury the information even better than American does, but a terms and conditions page explains "MileagePlus Premier members, primary cardmembers of a qualifying MileagePlus credit card and Star Alliance Gold members are still allowed a full-sized carry-on bag." In short: if you don't have elite status, sign up for a United credit card and you can bring a carry-on bag for no extra charge on Basic Economy flights. As with American, you can check your first bag for free, too, and you get priority boarding.

plane baggage
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Yes, those cards come with fees, but you can dodge those, too

Keep in mind, most of these cards charge a $95 annual fee, including the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, and the United MileagePlus Explorer Card from Chase. But all of them currently waive the annual fee the first year, so you get a full 12 months to figure out if you're saving yourself money. And if you can't figure that out in 12 months, God help you.

Three more bits of info: Southwest Airlines doesn't charge for carry-on bags or your first two checked bags, so don't worry about getting that card to save on baggage. Delta doesn't charge for carry-ons in its Basic Economy, but if you find the need to check baggage regularly, well, its credit cards let you check one for free. Lastly, the Big Three all offer premium credit cards that cost around $450 a year -- but those are for when you're playing on hard mode and really locked in on flying one airline.

For most people, the simplest way to save is to pick the airline from your home airport that flies your favorite routes for business or family trips, whatever’s your bag. Grab its credit card, and set some alerts. Next thing you know, you'll be flying for less than the cost of your cab ride to the terminal -- and carrying along a proper suitcase, like a full-fledged person.

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Ryan Craggs is a former content king and current content emperor living in Brooklyn. He writes mostly about travel and personal finance. Follow him @ryanrcraggs.