I thought I got free checked bags — reader mistake story
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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Bob, who missed an important stipulation of one of his credit card benefits:
In June, I used my United Explorer Card to book two one-way trips for October travel on United (San Francisco to Nashville and New Orleans back to San Francisco). In September, I received a renewal notice for the card, and since my wife also has the same card, I decided to cancel mine and save the $95 annual fee.
Upon checking in online for my flight to Nashville, I was unable to access the free checked bag benefit, and United wanted to charge me $30 per bag. The boarding pass did indicate priority boarding in group 2, which is another perk of the Explorer card. I went to the check-in counter at SFO to resolve the issue with my flight confirmation that clearly indicated no charge for the first checked bag. The agent asked to see the credit card I used to book the flight, and when I explained that I had canceled the card, she indicated that she couldn't waive the baggage fee without it.
I asked for a supervisor, and about 15 minutes later one appeared. We went through the story again, and I showed her my confirmation that showed no charge for the first checked bag. She gave me a series of excuses, including that basic economy never qualifies for free baggage, which isn't true. She also admitted she could easily override the baggage charge but that she wasn't going to do it. I decided to just pay the fee and deal with customer service when I returned.
I had a very different experience on the return flight from New Orleans. I went to an agent and showed him my confirmation indicating the free checked bag. He asked to see the card and I told him that I didn't have it, so he typed for a few minutes and then printed our baggage tags with no charge.
One easy way to avoid checked baggage fees is to get an airline credit card, since many of them waive fees for the primary cardholder and traveling companions on the same reservation. With the Explorer card (and other cobranded United cards), that benefit only applies if you use your card to purchase your ticket, which Bob did. However, he missed another requirement, which is that your account must be open at the time of check-in, not just when you book — that's standard among other airline cards as well. If your account is closed, then you're no longer eligible, so Bob was fortunate to get the fee waived on his return flight regardless of what was indicated in his confirmation.
Before you cancel a credit card, consider how closing your account and losing its benefits will impact your travel plans and recent purchases. Bob opted not to renew his card in order to save the $95 annual fee, but that decision put him on the hook for $60 in bag fees, which should have been $120 if not for a friendly agent in New Orleans. Since he and his wife both had the Explorer card, dropping one of them may have made sense to avoid redundancy in their portfolio. However, closing his wife's card would have been preferable (assuming it hadn't also been used to purchase airfare for upcoming travel on United).
Related: Critical Points: The case for checking bags while flying
I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. In appreciation for sharing this experience (and for allowing us to post it online), I’m sending Bob a gift card to enjoy on future travels, and I'd like to do the same for you. Please email your own travel mistake stories to email@example.com, and put "Reader Mistake Story" in the subject line. Tell us how things went wrong, and (where applicable) how you made them right. Offer any wisdom you gained from the experience, and explain what the rest of us can do to avoid the same pitfalls.
Feel free to also submit your best travel success stories. If your story is published in either case, I’ll send you a gift to jump-start your next adventure. Due to the volume of submissions, we can't respond to each story individually, but we'll be in touch if yours is selected. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!