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.
That’s where the priority boarding benefit comes in. It’s included with many airline credit cards and can get you out of some of those long lines at the gate, which can help you find overhead space for your carry-on bag before the rest of the passengers board.
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.
Here’s a look at what boarding privileges comes with cobranded airline credit cards. 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.
|· Citi® / AAdvantage® Executive World Elite Mastercard®||Group 4 out of 9|
|· Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard*
· Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard
· Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard
· Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard
|Group 5 out of 9|
|· Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express
· Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
· Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express
|Group 4 out of 7|
|· Barclays Frontier Airlines World Mastercard||Group 4 out of 6|
|· JetBlue Plus Card||None, unless you spend $50,000 and earn Mosaic status|
|· Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card||Four upgraded boardings A1-A15 per year based on availability|
|· Spirit Airlines World Mastercard||Group 3 out of 6|
|· United Explorer Card||Group 2 out of 6|
*The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum, CitiBusiness AAdvantage Platinum card, United TravelBank, United Club 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 Mastercard and the new no annual fee cards from American, Delta and United.
Now for some context by airline.
It may be a while before American Airlines rolls out its experimental biometric boarding process. Until then, the airline’s mind-boggling procedures include 9 boarding groups plus special preboarding options. The good news is, if you have one of the major American AAdvantage credit cards, it should get you onto the jet 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 US military 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.
- Groups 6-7: Passengers with this listed on their boarding pass
- Group 8: Group 8 passengers and those in Basic Economy to/from Europe
- Group 9: Basic Economy within the US, Canada, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean
So 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
So 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 no annual fee American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp Card, which Citi introduced last July. 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 card holders and will likely be phased out over time, like the Citi / AAdvantage Gold and the Aviator Mastercard.
Delta recently overhauled its boarding procedures and color-coded them. Instead of six boarding groups, there are now eight, excluding preboarding. 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 Medallions, Delta Corporate Travelers, passengers who purchased priority boarding, Flying Blue Silver members, Virgin Australia Velocity Silver members, GOL Smiles Gold members and SkyTeam Elite members and cardholders of the Gold, Platinum and Reserve Delta SkyMiles 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 Sky Priority 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 $450-per-year ($550 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020) (see rates & fees) Delta Reserve Credit Card from American Express don’t get any special treatment above and beyond those with the much less expensive Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($195 per year, $250 if application is received on or after 1/30/2020; see rates & fees) and Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express ($95, waived the first year; see rates & fees).
Travelers who have the relatively new no annual fee Blue Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express (see rates & fees) do not get any priority boarding privileges (or free checked bags for that matter).
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, theWORKS 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 group 4 out of 6. 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 one 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 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.
- A1-A15: Business Select passengers, those who purchase Upgraded Boarding and possibly A-List and A-List Preferred elites
- A15-60: 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 six 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 relatively new 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 (TQPs) for every $10,000 spent, up to a maximum of 15,000 per year. 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.
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, carrying its co-branded credit card can at least take 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 Spirit Airlines World Mastercard
- Family Boarding: For those traveling with small children age 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.
United updated its boarding process in September and even printed new signage to boot. Ostensibly there are only six groups, but as you’ll see each includes a lot of possible passengers.
- Preboarding: Unaccompanied minors, passengers needing extra time, families with children age 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 Card and the United Presidential Plus or the Awards Card
- Groups 3 – 5: Economy Plus, United Economy and Basic Economy passengers
Those with the United TravelBank Card, which launched last year, don’t receive any boarding or baggage privileges. Though the United Club Card’s annual fee is $450 versus the United Explorer Card’s $95 (which is waived the first year), all cardholders get to board at the same time. At least those with the Club Card can hang out in the airline lounge before the flight.
Carrying an airline’s mid-range or premium credit card will get you on the plane early. However, in these days of boarding group proliferation, color-coded confusion and elite-status exacerbation, early is a relative term. In many cases, you’ll beat most of the economy cabin passengers onto the plane, and secure some overhead space for your bag. So 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 image by Patrick T. Fallon for TPG.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Gold Delta SkyMiles Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Platinum Delta SkyMiles Card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Delta SkyMiles Card, click here.
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Based on TPG’s most recent valuations, the 50,000 miles are worth $700. In addition, you can earn 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) toward elite status after spending $40,000 in a calendar year. 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
- Earn 10,000 AAdvantage® Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs) after you spend $40,000 in purchases within the year
- 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.