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Plastic preferred: These airlines won't let you pay with cash

July 06, 2021
8 min read
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Although it still shocks me when I find myself in a cash-only establishment, it does make some sense, particularly if it's a small shop where the owner doesn't want the hassle of dealing with credit card machines, fees or other related headaches.

But what surprises me more are businesses that, on the other side of the coin (monetary pun totally intended), don't accept cash. As legal tender, cash has long been stalwart for most purchases, but airlines have largely shied away from it, even for in-person expenditures like upgrades, checked bags and inflight food and drinks.

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Cash is uncommon

(Photo by Tetra Images/Getty Images)

It goes without saying that I, a TPG employee, use plastic for just about everything I buy. Because I haven't ever used cash for an air travel-related purchase, it didn't occur to me until recently that credit cards are now often the only way to do flight-related business.

On the last day of a recent cruise, I checked my email and found a message from JetBlue, the airline that was flying me home from St. Maarten after disembarkation.

"As of May 24, several JetBlue international cities will no longer accept cash as a form of payment," it said. "Please come prepared with a major credit or debit card as we move to a cashless lobby."

What I didn't realize is that JetBlue started its cashless system across the U.S. years ago -- in 2015, according to Frommer's -- long before the coronavirus pandemic caused both businesses and consumers to rethink the handling of physical currency. And many other airlines have done the same thing.

(Photo by Igor Golovniov/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Most airlines stopped accepting cash because a good portion of the cash never made it off the plane (at least not in the envelope it should have been in), former flight attendant Joshua Zweighaft explained during a discussion about cashless flights in the TPG Lounge on Facebook. "Theft was a major issue. When cobrand credit cards started offering to waive their fees for inflight purchases, that's when airlines really jumped onto the trend."

This likely isn't news to many of you, but for some -- including a handful of TPG employees until recently -- it is a notable development.

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Here, we'll tell you which airlines no longer let you pay with cash.

Cashless airlines

(Photo courtesy of Allegiant Air)

Allegiant Air

Allegiant does not allow travelers to pay with cash, checks or money orders for fares, for inflight purchases or at any airport location. The airline does not accept Apple Pay or PayPal, but it does take credit cards, points, vouchers and Uplift (for select flights).

For more information, search "forms of payment" on the airline's FAQ page.

American Airlines

Credit cards, gift cards, PayPal and travel credit are just some of the ways passengers can make payments to American Airlines. It does say travelers can pay with cash or a check at certain airports, but none of the ones we checked allow it.

(Photo by Philip Pilosian/Shutterstock.com)

Delta Air Lines

Delta has designated more than 80 airports as cashless, meaning that the airline won't accept paper money as a form of payment if you're flying from those locations.

For payment, Delta accepts credit and debit cards (including prepaid debit cards via airport lobby kiosks), Delta eCredits for online purchases or purchases made at ticketing locations, PayPal for flights from the U.S. booked online, Alipay for flights departing the U.S. or China, and instant bank transfers for flights to select European countries.

More information can be found on Delta's "Booking a Flight Online" page, under "Paying for Your Ticket."

Frontier Airlines

For payment, Frontier accepts major credit cards, as well as Uplift and vouchers, but it doesn't take Apple Pay or PayPal. Effective in 2015, the airline also does not accept cash, checks or money orders for fares or inflight purchases.

(Photo by wundervisuals/Getty Images)

JetBlue Airways

JetBlue does not allow cash to be used at any of the U.S. airports from which it flies, and it has made a considerable effort to convert several of the non-U.S. gateways it serves to cashless operations, as well. At airport ticket offices that do accept cash, payments must be made in local currency.

More widely accepted forms of payment include credit and debit cards (including prepaid debit cards from ReadyStation kiosks); digital wallet services such as PayPal, Apple Pay and MasterPass (not for purchases over the phone or in the app); travel credits; gift cards; and Western Union (for domestic flights purchased over the phone only).

Southwest Airlines

As of 2020, Southwest no longer accepts cash at its ticketing locations, formerly the only place where it did allow physical currency.

Now, acceptable forms of payment include credit cards, ticketless travel funds and gift cards at ticketing locations; LUV vouchers; PayPal and Apple Pay for purchases online and via the airline's mobile app and inflight entertainment system; and Uplift Pay Monthly for flight expenditures originated online through Uplift.

(Photo by EQRoy/Shutterstock.com)

Spirit Airlines

Spirit says on its website that it will not accept cash, traveler's checks, certified/cashier's checks or money orders at most of its airports, and it won't accept any of those forms of payment at any gate area.

What the airline will accept are credit and debit cards, gift cards, vouchers, credits and PayPal (for certain purchases). Spirit does not take Apple Pay. At more than 50 airports it serves, Spirit will only accept credit and debit cards (including prepaid ones that convert cash into cards).

Read this if you're thinking about buying a Spirit Airlines ticket at the airport to save money.

United Airlines

On its website, United says it will not accept cash as a form of payment at many of the airports it serves. It does, however, take cash at ticket offices outside of airports and other select ticket counters.

What you can pay with for online and in-app purchases are credit cards, Apple Pay, PayPal, Uplift and services like Alipay and UnionPay for specific non-U.S. transactions.

Fine for some, a problem for others

(Photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy)

No-cash policies might be annoying for some travelers, but, unsurprisingly, TPG readers don't seem fazed. In the TPG Lounge group, most people who commented on a discussion about the issue said they've helped out other passengers who only had cash but hadn't personally tried to pay using actual paper money.

"While it hasn't ever been an issue for me, I have used my card to pay for a neighbor's food or drink and taken their cash because they didn't have a card," said Lem Wheeles. "I get the miles, (and) they get their goodies. We both win!"

Dillon Guyer shared a similar story. "Several times I've taken cash from strangers and ran my card for them as they were in a panic needing a drink, snack, whatever," he said. "I walk away with a free drink or snack from them usually."

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

However, this doesn't mean the system is devoid of drawbacks. For example, some cards won't work on international flights, and several readers pointed out that children traveling alone wouldn't be able to purchase snacks onboard unless they had a credit card (or were entrusted with one of their parents' cards).

"Chaperoning a high school cheer team did make it hard for girls," said Karen Hammersmith. "Basically I ended up buying everything for the girls, then collecting from poor students."

Plus, there's the fact that credit card membership is often out of reach for certain socioeconomic groups, meaning systems that are cashless effectively exclude many people within those groups from flying or make it hard for them to do so.

(Photo by Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

While some airlines, such as JetBlue, offer ReadyStation kiosks in airport lobbies, allowing passengers to convert cash to prepaid debit cards for purchases, there's a $5 fee to use the service, further penalizing already marginalized groups.

And it's not just passengers who find a card-only system problematic.

"The no-cash thing was occasionally an issue," Zweighaft admitted. "Usually I would just tell the passenger to enjoy the drink or item on me and remind them to bring a card next time. ... Once I had a guy start a tab and drink about $40 worth of scotch. He couldn't pay, and I ended up having corporate security meet the flight to figure it out."

Featured image by Bloomberg via Getty Images
Editorial disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airline or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

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TPG Editor‘s Rating
Card Rating is based on the opinion of TPG‘s editors and is not influenced by the card issuer.
4 / 5
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10XEarn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel
5X5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel.
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Why We Chose It

The Capital One Venture X card is one of the best all-round travel credit cards ever launched. Not only is it offering a tremendous welcome bonus, but cardholders can earn tons of miles on everyday spending and receive a 10,000-mile anniversary bonus to boot. Its annual fee is $395, but cardholders can count on up to $300 in statement credits toward travel booked through Capital One Travel each year and other valuable benefits like access to Priority Pass lounges and Capital One’s own growing family of airport lounges.

Pros

  • Excellent welcome offer worth 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months.
  • Up to $300 in annual travel statement credits toward bookings make through Capital One Travel.
  • 10,000 bonus miles (worth $100 toward travel) each account anniversary.

Cons

  • The $395 annual fee might be expensive for some, but this card’s benefits provide much more value than that.
  • If you don’t travel frequently, this might not be the best card for you.
  • Earn 75,000 bonus miles when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, equal to $750 in travel
  • Receive up to $300 back annually as statement credits for bookings through Capital One Travel, where you'll get Capital One's best prices on thousands of options
  • Get 10,000 bonus miles (equal to $100 towards travel) every year, starting on your first anniversary
  • Earn unlimited 10X miles on hotels and rental cars booked through Capital One Travel and 5X miles on flights booked through Capital One Travel
  • Earn unlimited 2X miles on all other purchases
  • Unlimited complimentary access for you and two guests to 1,400+ lounges, including Capital One Lounges and our Partner Lounge Network
  • Receive up to a $100 credit for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck®
  • Use your Venture X miles to easily cover travel expenses, including flights, hotels, rental cars and more—you can even transfer your miles to your choice of 15+ travel loyalty programs
  • Named editors' choice for "Best New Credit Card of 2021" by The Points Guy
  • Earn 10 miles per dollar when you book on Turo, the world's largest car sharing marketplace, through May 16, 2023