Which airline credit cards offer the best priority boarding perks?
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Airline credit cards offer a variety of flashy perks, including sign-up bonuses of tens of thousands of miles, companion tickets worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, access to airport lounges and free checked bags. One of their most fundamental perks, though, is about saving time rather than money: priority boarding.
Included with many airline credit cards, this benefit can get you out of those long gate lines in time to find overhead space for your carry-on bag before the rest of the passengers trundle aboard.
Given the complex boarding process by which most airlines board their passengers these days, it’s difficult to do a side-by-side comparison of cards from one carrier to the next, but this list should give you a general idea of which airline credit cards you might want to carry for this perk, specifically.
Keep in mind that many airlines have modified their boarding procedures to a good, old-fashioned back-to-front formula for the time being due to COVID-19. For instance, Delta is “Boarding by row, starting from the rear of the aircraft to the front. Delta One, First Class and Diamond Medallion customers may board at any point during the boarding process.” So you probably won’t hear group numbers for credit card holders called out these days.
That said, here’s a look at what boarding privileges come with cobranded airline credit cards during normal times, along with some notes on how this might be affected while COVID-19 protocols remain in place. This table is a snapshot of all the options, but read on for full details. We’re not counting preboarding as a boarding group.
Also note that despite the advertised boarding benefits of some cards, you can expect to be grouped taking into consideration non-numbered designations like preboarding and elite-member boarding.
|Group 4 out of 9 (but more like 6 out of 11)|
|Group 5 out of 9 (but more like 7 out of 11)|
|Delta Air Lines|
|Group 7 out of 10|
|Group 4 out of 6|
|None, unless you spend $50,000 and earn Mosaic status|
|Four upgraded A1-A15 boardings per year based on availability|
|Zone 2 boarding|
|Group 2 out of 6|
*The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum, AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard, AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard, JetBlue Plus, Free Spirit World Elite Mastercard has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Unfortunately, several airlines do not make priority boarding part of their credit cards’ benefits. The notable absentees include the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, the Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®, the JetBlue Card and the no-annual-fee American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp℠ Card, the Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card (see rates and fees) and the United Gateway Card.
Now for some context by airline.
The information for the Hawiian Airlines Maastercard, JetBlue Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
American Airlines’ mind-boggling procedures include nine boarding groups plus special preboarding options, and they haven’t changed much during COVID-19 with the exception of grouping all non-elite, non-credit card holder AAdvantage members into Group 6. The good news is, if you have one of the major American AAdvantage credit cards, it should get you onto the plane early. Here’s how it breaks down.
- Preboarding: Passengers needing special assistance, such as families traveling with small children
- ConciergeKey members
- Group 1: First class, active-duty U.S. military with ID and business class on two-class international planes
- Group 2: AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites, Oneworld Emerald and business class on a three-class plane
- Group 3: AAdvantage Platinum Pro and Platinum elites and Oneworld Sapphire
- Group 4: AAdvantage Gold elites, Oneworld Ruby, AirPass members, premium economy passengers, travelers who bought priority boarding and Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard members
- Group 5 (Preferred boarding): Main Cabin Extra, other AAdvantage credit card holders and eligible corporate travelers
- Group 6: All other AAdvantage members
- Group 7: Non-AAdvantage economy passengers
- Group 8: Group 8 passengers and those in basic economy to/from Europe and South America
- Group 9: Basic economy within the U.S., Canada, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean
The best you can hope for as just an AAdvantage credit card holder is to be in the sixth boarding group out of all 11 groups. As for those who get onto the plane with Group 5 (but really the seventh boarding group called), they include members with the following credit cards:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select Visa Signature
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select American Express
- CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select Mastercard
- Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard
- Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard
- Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard
While most of the AAdvantage credit cards are created equal when it comes to boarding, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard will give you a one-group advantage on the others. That makes sense considering it has a much higher annual fee than any of the others at $450, and also includes other high-end perks like Admirals Club access. Note that you only have to hold one of these cards for the benefit to apply. You don’t have to purchase your ticket with it.
Missing from this list is the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card, which Citi introduced a couple years ago. It offers no priority boarding benefit. Nor do some of the other AAdvantage credit cards offered by Citi and Barclays that are no longer available to new cardholders and will likely be phased out over time, such as the Citi / AAdvantage Gold and the Aviator Mastercard.
Delta Air Lines
For now, Delta is boarding by row number from the back of the plane. The one exception is that Delta One, Delta First and Delta Medallion flyers can board first or at the time of their choosing.
During more typical travel times, Delta uses numbered groups to prioritize boarding. There are now 10 distinct boarding groups, including groups for folks needing assistance or who require extra time. Here’s the order.
- Preboarding: Customers needing assistance or additional time to board and active-duty U.S. military personnel with ID
- Delta One: Delta One customers and Diamond Medallion members
- First Class or Delta Premium Select: First class and Delta Premium Select customers and Diamond Medallion members if aircraft doesn’t have Delta One cabin
- Early boarding for customers with car seats and strollers
- Delta Comfort+: Passengers in Delta Comfort+ seats
- Sky Priority: Platinum and Gold Medallion members, Flying Blue Platinum and Gold members, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold members, Virgin Australia Platinum and Gold members, GOL Smiles Diamond members and SkyTeam Elite Plus members
- Main Cabin 1: Silver Medallion members, Delta Corporate Travelers, passengers who purchased priority boarding, Flying Blue Silver members, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Silver members, Virgin Australia Velocity Silver members, GOL Smiles Gold members, SkyTeam Elite members and cardholders of the Delta SkyMiles Gold, Platinum and Reserve credit cards
- Main Cabin 2: Most main cabin passengers
- Main Cabin 3: Main cabin passengers booked in T, X and V fare codes
- Basic Economy: Those in the E fare class
That’s a lot of groups.
Assuming you don’t have SkyPriority or other elite status and you’re just flying economy, the best you can hope for — no matter which Delta credit card you carry — is to board with the first group in the main cabin. That means you’re in the seventh out of 10 boarding groups. While there will likely be overhead space available at that point, it’s not a sure bet, considering all the passengers that can board before you.
People with the $550-per-year (see rates and fees) Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex don’t get any special treatment above and beyond those with the much less expensive Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex ($250 per year; see rates and fees) and Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99 rates and fees).
For now, Frontier has adopted a back-to-front model for boarding. During normal times, though, this budget carrier has a cobranded credit card with Barclays that will get you onto the aircraft relatively early. Here’s how Frontier’s boarding process goes.
- Preboarding: Passengers requiring special services such as those in a wheelchair or unaccompanied minors
- Zone 1: Passengers who purchase a carry-on bag, the Works bundle or have MyFrontier Miles elite status
- Courtesy Boarding: Available to families traveling with small children or those needing extra time
- Zone 2: Frontier Airlines World Mastercard members and those in the back of the plane
- Zones 3-4: The rest of the cabin
Carrying the Barclays Frontier Airlines World Mastercard will squeeze you in at the start of general boarding, or the fourth group out of six. This lines up with most of the other airlines’ cards, but might end up being slightly better or worse depending on how many other passengers purchase carry-ons or one of the fare-bundling options.
However, there is one unique facet to the Frontier Airlines credit card: In addition to earning 5x miles on purchases at flyfrontier.com, 3x miles on restaurant purchases and 1x miles on everything else, the card actually earns 1 elite-qualifying mile per dollar spent on all purchases.
So you earn bonus miles that are redeemable for awards, but also elite-qualifying miles on all purchases. You can hit the first level of MyFrontier status by earning 20,000 elite-qualifying miles in a year, which is a fairly low threshold. So depending on your spending habits you might make your way to Zone 1 boarding.
JetBlue shifted to a group-based boarding system in 2017 that looks a lot like those of other airlines. Unfortunately, carrying one of JetBlue’s credit cards won’t get you automatic priority boarding. However, you can earn Mosaic elite status by spending $50,000 or more on purchases on the JetBlue Plus Card each calendar year.
In addition to perks like waived change and cancellation fees, two free checked bags, extra bonus points on airfare and priority check-in, earning Mosaic status also gets you priority boarding in the second group out of nine as follows.
- Preboarding: For customers with disabilities
- Mosaic and Mint passengers
- Group A: Even More Space customers
- Courtesy Boarding: For active military members and customers traveling with children in car seats or strollers
- General Boarding: Groups B, C, D and E
- Final Call: All remaining customers
So if you hit Mosaic status through flying or credit card spending, you move up to the second overall boarding group and have overhead space basically guaranteed.
Since Southwest waives most ticket change and cancellation fees and lets passengers bring two checked bags each for free, its credit card benefits are a little different than those of most airlines. The perks focus on earning points toward the Companion Pass, anniversary bonuses and earning qualifying credits toward elite status.
The airline’s boarding process is also a bit different. Passengers board in an ordered number in three main groups, with family boarding thrown in. For most flyers the boarding order is determined by when they check in for the flight, so be sure to do so as close to 24 hours in advance as possible. At the moment, the airline is also only boarding 10 passengers at a time, but still in order of boarding pass number.
- A1-A15: Business Select passengers, those who purchase upgraded boarding and possibly A-List and A-List Preferred elites
- A15-A60: Other passengers who purchase early check-in, check in quickly at the 24-hour mark and possibly A-List and A-List Preferred elites
- Family Boarding: For families with children ages 6 and younger
- B1-B60: The next wave
- C1-C60: Start looking for middle seats
The only Southwest credit card that offers a shot at priority boarding is the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card, which was introduced in mid-2018. Among its benefits are four upgraded boardings per year, based on availability. You just have to use your credit card at the ticket counter or gate to pay for A1-A15 boarding and you will be reimbursed. This can be worth $30-$50 per ticket, so it’s a pretty valuable benefit for a card that costs $149 per year.
Both the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card ($99 annual fee) earn 1,500 tier-qualifying points for every $10,000 spent annually. It takes 35,000 TQPs to earn A-List elite status with Southwest. So depending on your flight and purchase habits, carrying one of these two cards could put you over the top and get you regular priority boarding benefits.
Spirit seems to be sticking to its regular boarding process for now, though more strictly enforcing groups for social distancing based on anecdotal evidence, and also encouraging passengers to scan their own boarding passes.
For an airline that’s known for a no-frills approach and for nickel-and-diming its passengers for seat selection, carry-on bags and printing boarding passes, possessing the cobranded Free Spirit World Elite Mastercard (part of the airline’s recent loyalty overhaul) can take at least some of the pain out of boarding. Here’s how passengers are directed onto an aircraft.
- Preboarding: Passengers who need special assistance
- Zone 1: Passengers who purchased a carry-on bag
- Zone 2: Passengers who purchase Shortcut Boarding, who have VIP or Elite status with Spirit or have the Free Spirit Mastercard
- Family Boarding: For those traveling with small children ages 3 and under
- Zone 3: General boarding of seats at the back of the plane
- Zone 4: General boarding of seats at the front of the plane
Zone 2 is a bit of a misnomer given that preboarding and Zone 1 are before it, so it’s really the third group out of six.
A lot of passengers purchase carry-on bags, so you might have to watch half the plane board before you do. But maybe not, given that checked bags are actually cheaper than carry-ons on Spirit.
If you really do take advantage of the lowest fares on the airline, carrying its credit card will give you a leg up on the rest of the bargain hunters. But if you tend to purchase bundles or even just carry on bags anyway, you might not need this card.
For the time being, United is letting certain passengers preboard, but then filling up the rest of the plane from the back to the front in small groups. If it reverts to its previous procedure, you can expect it to go something like this. Ostensibly there are only six groups as part of United’s boarding procedures, but as you’ll see each includes a lot of possible passengers.
- Preboarding: Unaccompanied minors, passengers needing extra time, families with children ages 2 or under, active military members and United Global Services and Premier 1K elites
- Group 1: Premier Platinum and Gold elites, Star Alliance Gold members, passengers in United Polaris, first class and business class
- Group 2: Premier Silver elites, Star Alliance Silver members and customers who purchase Premier Access or priority boarding, holders of the United Explorer Card, the United Club Infinite Card, United Business Card, United Club Business Card and the United Presidential Plus or the Awards Card (these cards are no longer open to new customers)
- Groups 3-5: Economy Plus, economy and basic economy passengers
Related: The best credit cards for United Airlines flyers
Those with the basic United Gateway Card don’t receive any boarding or baggage privileges. Although the United Club Infinite Card’s annual fee is $525 and the United Club Business Card’s annual fee is $450, while the United Explorer Card has a $95 annual fee (waived for the first year) and the United Business Card’s annual fee of $99, all cardholders get to board at the same time. At least those with the Club versions can hang out in the airline lounge before the flight.
Carrying an airline’s midrange or premium credit card will get you on the plane early. However, in these days of boarding group proliferation and elite-status exacerbation, early is a relative term.
In many cases, you’ll still beat most of the economy cabin passengers onto the plane, though, and secure some overhead space for your bag. This perk alone is probably not worth carrying a credit card, but if you combine it with other benefits like free checked bags and in-flight savings, you can maximize your airline credit card to make the flying experience that much better.
Featured photo by Patrick T. Fallon for The Points Guy.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Blue Card, click here.
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Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $815. As of July 23, 2017 this is the only card that offers Admirals Club lounge access so if you are an AA flyer this card might make sense for you. Aside from lounge access the primary cardholder will receive a Global Entry application fee credit every 5 years, first checked bag free for up to 8 travel companions on domestic itineraries and a 25% discount on eligible in-flight purchases on American Airlines flights.
- Earn 50,000 American Airlines AAdvantage® Bonus Miles after spending $5,000 in purchases within the first 3 months of account opening
- Admirals Club® membership for you and access for up to two guests or immediate family members traveling with you
- No Foreign Transaction Fees on purchases
- Earn 2 AAdvantage® miles for every $1 spent on eligible American Airlines purchases and 1 AAdvantage® mile for every $1 spent on other purchases
- First checked bag is free on domestic American Airlines itineraries for you and up to 8 companions traveling with you on the same reservation
- The standard variable APR for Citi Flex Plan is 15.99% - 24.99%, based on your creditworthiness. Citi Flex Plan offers are made available at Citi’s discretion.