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While big welcome bonuses and earning opportunities often get the lion’s share of attention when it comes to discussing travel rewards cards, many of their benefits go beyond just the opportunity to rack up points and miles. In fact, some of the best reasons to carry an airline credit card are the perks it can get you when you are actually traveling, like free checked bags, priority boarding, lounge access, onboard discounts and more.
Here are seven places in the airport and on the plane where carrying the right card can save you time and money.
1. The Check-In Counter
There’s no more stressful way to start your travel experience than pulling up to the airport to see a huge line at the check-in counters snaking through the terminal. Luckily, several airline co-branded cards earn you the elite-like benefit of priority check-in so you can hop into a shorter line and get formalities over with faster.
Among the cards that confer this perk is the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, whose members can access priority check-in lines at the airport. The United Club Card and United Club Business Card come with United’s Premier Access, which includes entry to designated priority check-in counters.
2. The Baggage Check
If you have an airline credit card, you get a free checked bag, right? This benefit is not quite as simple as it sounds. The policy can vary widely depending on your card, and may include provisions such as having to actually use your card to purchase your ticket, rather than just being a cardholder. Here are a few major airline cards and the specific conditions under which their free checked bag benefit applies.
The Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card is fairly generous when it comes to checked bag fee waivers. The cardholder and up to six other passengers on the same reservation get a free checked bag on Alaska flights.
The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, the CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Mastercard and the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard also save cardholders at the baggage counter. The first two offer a free checked bag to cardholders and up to four companions on the same reservation on American and affiliate flights domestically. The Executive card benefit applies to as many as eight travel companions. Those with the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard and AAdvantage Aviator Silver cards get their first checked bag for free along with up to four companions (eight with the Silver) on domestic itineraries operated by American Airlines.
American Express’s Delta co-branded cards have what is probably the most comprehensive checked baggage fee waiver. The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Gold Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express, Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express and Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Business Credit Card from American Express, and Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express and Delta Reserve for Business Credit Card all get cardholders a free checked bag for themselves and up to eight companions traveling on the same reservation on a Delta or Delta Connection flight.
With the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard, primary cardholders get one complimentary checked bag on domestic Hawaiian Airlines flights on tickets purchased directly from Hawaiian Airlines using their card.
If you have the JetBlue Plus Card, you and up to three travel companions on the same reservation are eligible to check one bag each for free on JetBlue-operated flights if your ticket purchases have been made with your card and include your TrueBlue member number.
The United Explorer Card and United Club cards, as well as their business versions, all come with free checked bags for the primary cardholder and one traveling companion on the same reservation (one bag per person with the Explorer, and two with the Club Card), but you must use your card to purchase the tickets.
3. The Security Line
Some cards that offer priority access, which might also include priority check-in and boarding, take it one step further and even let you access priority security lines — not counting cards that offer a TSA PreCheck application fee waiver, which we’ll discuss below.
Along with up to eight travel companions, Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard members can access priority check-in and security screening (where available).
Delta Reserve and Delta Reserve for Business cardholders and other travelers on the same reservation are entitled to enter the expedited Sky Priority security line with their printed boarding pass at participating airports.
As part of the Premier Access they confer, the United Club Card and United Club Business Card let cardholders and companions on the same reservation use priority security lines. Just note that Premier Access is only available on United and United Express-operated flights, while codeshare partner-operated flights are not eligible.
Delta Reserve and Delta Reserve for Business cardholders are also given access to Sky Priority security lanes at participating airports.
4. The Lounge
All three US legacy carriers field premium credit cards that offer airline lounge access or outright club membership as one of their benefits.
The Citi / AAdvantage Executive Card is the most generous of these. Primary cardholders get full American Airlines Admirals Club membership while authorized users, of which you can add up to 10 for free, receive Admirals Club access. All can bring immediate family members or up to two other guests in along with them for free.
The Delta Reserve and Delta Reserve for Business come with complimentary Delta Sky Club access for the primary cardholder and two guests at a discounted rate of $29 each when traveling on a Delta flight.
The United Club Card and United Club Business Card offer United Club membership (valued at up $550 per year for non-elites) and get the primary cardmember and eligible travel companions into United Club locations and participating Star Alliance lounges.
If your loyalty or travel is spread across several airlines, it might be worth getting a credit card with a more generalized lounge benefit. The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum® Card from American Express will both get you into Delta Sky Clubs when flying Delta, along with Centurion Lounges, Priority Pass lounges and Airspace lounges. The Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card and U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card all come with some version Priority Pass membership and access to over 1,000 lounges worldwide.
5. The Boarding Gate
Even if your card gets you free checked bags, you might still want to carry on because of tight connections, or just not having to wait at the baggage claim when you get to your destination. In those instances, having an airline credit card that gets you onto the plane faster can mean the difference between scoring an overhead space for your bag, or having to gate check it.
While many airline cards offer this benefit, it has been downgraded by some of them lately from “priority boarding” to the innocuous-sounding “preferred boarding,” which comes after all the premium fliers, elites and folks needing extra time, but before the general hoi polloi. That should still be good enough to let you board the aircraft before those overhead bins fill up, though.
The Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, CitiBusiness/AAdvantage Platinum World Mastercard, AAdvantage Aviator Red and AAdvantage Aviator Silver cardholders can board the plane after priority boarding but before the rest of economy boarding along with up to four companions on the same reservation (eight with the Aviator Silver), while Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard cardholders and up to eight travel companions get on at the same time as AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby elites.
All three Delta cards from American Express entitle cardholders and up to eight other passengers traveling in the same reservation to Zone 1 boarding (after first class and elites) on Delta flights.
6. Your Tray Table
Now that many airlines charge for onboard food and beverage service as well as entertainment, they also offer co-branded credit cardholders discounts on such purchases.
Both the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard, its business version, and the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard come with a 25% savings benefit on in-flight purchases of food and beverages, as do Barclaycard’s AAdvantage Aviator cards.
All the Delta Amex cards offer a 20% discount in the form of a statement credit on pre-purchased meals and in-flight purchases of food, alcoholic beverages and audio headsets on Delta-operated flights.
The JetBlue Card and JetBlue Plus Card both offer the highest in-flight savings — a rate of 50% off eligible in-flight purchases including alcoholic beverages, meals and movies on JetBlue flights.
7. Customs and Immigration
Finally, several high-end travel rewards cards offer a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry application fee waiver as part of their perks portfolios. This can save you time not only on the outbound portion of your itinerary, but also on your return if you have to go through customs and immigration.
Among the cards that offer a Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee waiver are the Amex Platinum and Business Platinum cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, Citi Prestige and Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard, the U.S. Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Infinite Card and the Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card.
Carrying the right airline credit card can not only earn you significant mileage bonuses, but also time- and money-saving benefits that make the airport experience that much easier. It pays to know your card’s specific benefits so that you can maximize them on your next trip through the airport.
Featured photo by John Greim/LightRocket via Getty Images.
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