I Paid $200 for “Free” Checked Bags — Reader Mistake Story

Jul 23, 2018

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Today, I want to share a story from TPG reader Nick, who learned a costly lesson after misunderstanding his credit card benefits. Here’s what he had to say:

Recently, I flew on American Airlines with my family of four to Nassau, Bahamas for a week-long vacation. We could have packed all of our belongings in carry-on bags, but since I have both the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard and the AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard, we went ahead and used larger bags so we would have more room for clothing and souvenirs.

I assumed I would get complimentary checked bags for myself and my three traveling companions from my card benefits. However, when I got to the airport, the ticketing agent said it would be $100 to check all four bags to Nassau. I explained that I had the AAdvantage co-branded cards, but she informed me that the checked baggage benefit only applies to domestic itineraries, and bags are not complimentary in economy on international trips to Mexico and the Caribbean. Thus, I was stuck in an awkward middle ground between domestic and long-haul international, and ended up having to pay $200 round-trip for bags that we could’ve easily switched out for carry-ons.

My biggest mistake here was making assumptions (that turned out to be incorrect) about my credit card benefits. I almost never travel out of the country, so I’ve never had issues with baggage fees. I also should have checked on the American Airlines website to see whether baggage fees would be charged on our trip, since it wasn’t a long-haul international flight. We’ll certainly pack lighter next time!

Baggage fees have been a boon for domestic airlines in recent years, totaling over $4.5 billion in 2017. One way to avoid those fees is by carrying a co-branded airline credit card, many of which offer a free checked bag to the cardholder and (usually) some number of companions on the same itinerary. However, baggage benefits come with a variety of stipulations like the one that tripped up Nick. As he suggests, it’s worth taking the time to get familiar with your card benefits so you can plan accordingly.

A few common terms to watch out for are exclusions for overweight or oversized bags, and a requirement that your frequent flyer number be attached to your reservation. In some cases (like with the United Explorer Card), the free checked bag is only offered when you use the card to purchase your ticket. Finally, keep in mind that these benefits may not stack with other cards or with elite status. For example, Nick would only be eligible for one complimentary checked bag on an American Airlines domestic flight even though he has two co-branded cards that offer it.

I appreciate this story, and I hope it can help other readers avoid making the same mistake. To thank Nick for sharing his experience (and for allowing me to post it online), I’m sending him a $200 airline 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 info@thepointsguy.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. I look forward to hearing from you, and until then, I wish you a safe and mistake-free journey!

Feature image by PhotoAlto/Thierry Foulon/Getty Images.

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