Airline cards can get you extra perks, even in the cheap seats


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Personal finance writer
Rewards expert who writes the “Cashing In” reader Q&A column for

Best strategies for rewards cards

Flying in coach is usually not an experience most people
enjoy. Seats seem small, leg room is minimal, beverage carts block the aisles.

Yet in pursuit of money, airlines have found a way to make
the time in the air less enjoyable, by instituting a new fare class called
basic economy. It offers the same experience as flying regular coach, and the
fare is cheaper. But it comes with even less: no advance seat assignment, no
room for overhead bags, and you’re one of the last ones on the plane.

With the the best airline credit cards, you can
counteract some of those basic economy restrictions. That means you can save
money by buying a rock-bottom fare while avoiding most (but not all) of the
basic economy limitations.

The hassles of basic economy are going to become a bigger
issue as U.S. airlines expand economy class. American and United launched the fares in
February 2017 and have been slowly rolling them out to new destinations. Delta
has offered them since 2015. 

Check the perks of your current cards

I had the occasion to fly basic economy recently, and here’s
how I fared. 

With about a month’s notice, I booked a flight from
Charlotte, North Carolina, to San Diego on American through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal so
I could use my Chase points.

The basic economy fare was $50 or about 3,300
points cheaper round-trip, so I booked that, knowing that a couple of my cards,
the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Red card and the Citi AAdvantage Executive
come with perks that counteract some of the downsides of basic economy.

Some cards come with baggage perks, even if your fare doesn’t

With basic economy on American, the airline says you may
carry on one personal item, like a purse or small backpack, and that you have “no
access to overhead bins.” That means you would have to check any larger
luggage, for a fee. But my American credit cards come with priority boarding
and include a free checked bag. I was interested to see if I could use the
overhead space for a small roller suitcase.

American has nine boarding zones, and usually, basic economy
customers would board last, in Zone 9, and overhead space would probably be
gone. But the Citi AAdvantage Executive card allows boarding in Zone 4, and
that was printed on my boarding pass.

I boarded with Zone 4, wheeled my roller
suitcase past the gate agent, and put it in the empty overhead bin, no problem.
That helped me leave the airport quickly upon landing in San Diego, instead of
waiting for my luggage at baggage claim. Nobody polices use of overhead storage
bins. They probably say basic economy customers can’t use them because in most
cases, without the right card, there will simply be no space.

Seats still cost money

Another rule with basic economy fares is that you cannot
select a seat ahead of time – at least not without paying for it. American
tells you that your seat will be assigned at check-in, unless you pay to
reserve one ahead of time. Credit cards can get you priority boarding but not

The day before my trip, I logged in and hoped to be able to
select a window or an aisle seat. But the only ones available to me for no
additional cost were middle seats toward the back of the plane. There were
aisle seats available for $39 each and a few exit row seats for $81 apiece.

When I passed on those, the computer assigned me to 29E, the available middle
seat farthest to the back. When I showed up at the airport, I had no luck
changing it, not at the kiosk and neither with the helpful agent at the American
airport lounge (another Citi AAdvantage Executive perk). 

I boarded the plane, resigned to a long flight in the middle
seat. But I got lucky: The people on the aisle and window were traveling
together and wanted to sit next to each other and asked if I would mind sitting
on the aisle. Not at all, I said. (On my return flight, I was also assigned the
worst available seat possible, the middle seat farthest to the back.)

Having the right credit card can negate some of the
restrictions on boarding and baggage, but not on seat assignments. You can save
some money by buying basic economy – but be prepared to sit in the middle.

Another disadvantage: American’s basic economy fares do not allow you to change the ticket or
even fly standby on an earlier flight. Credit cards cannot help with this.

So, while you can get some perks even when buying the cheapest ticket if you have the right card, be prepared to give up some of the little luxuries to which you’ve come to expect. 

See related: Are airline cards worth the annual fee?, How do airline credit cards work?  

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