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Best credit cards that offer free checked bags

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older woman picking up luggage
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Not too long ago checked bags were included in the price of your ticket. Sadly, these times are mostly gone. These days, your choices are packing light (like carry-on light) or paying a fee to have all you need while traveling.

Fortunately, there are credit cards that offer your first checked bag free as a benefit. These cards always carry annual fees, but you’ll still come out ahead in most cases. To ensure we compare oranges to oranges, we’ve picked five co-branded airline cards in the same annual fee range for our roundup. Holding one of these cards will allow you to pack whatever you want on your next trip (well, almost).

Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard*: Best first pick for American Airlines flyers

Why we picked it: American Airlines charges $30 for the first checked bag on domestic trips. As a cardholder of the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, you’ll get your first checked bag free on domestic American flights, among other benefits.

Plus, you don’t have to pay for your plane ticket with the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select card to get your free checked bag. However, your credit card account must be open at least seven days before air travel and the reservation must include your AAdvantage number seven days before air travel.

Pros

  • Earn 50,000 miles after spending $2,500 within the first three months of account opening
  • The first-checked-bag-free benefit is valid for you and up to four traveling companions on the same reservation
  • Earn a $125 American Airlines flight discount after you spend at least $20,000 during your card membership year and renew your card
  • The $99 annual fee is waived the first year
  • You’ll get preferred boarding on American flights
  • Get 25 percent back (as statement credits) on in-flight food and beverages paid with your card
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • $99 annual fee
  • It has mediocre earning rates — 2X miles on eligible American purchases, 2X miles at restaurants and gas stations and 1X miles on all other purchases

Who should apply: If American is your preferred airline and you normally check bags, this card can be a good flight companion — especially since you can try it for free for the first year and see if it works for you.

Who should skip: If American doesn’t work for your travel plans, or if you primarily fly in business or first class (a premium-class ticket includes free checked bags), you don’t need this card’s benefits.

AAdvantage Aviator Red World Elite Mastercard*: Best second pick for American Airlines flyers

Why we picked it: American is unique because it offers two co-branded credit cards from two different banks. The AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard® is issued by Barclays, and it offers an alternative way to earn a first-checked-bag-free benefit and a corresponding welcome bonus.

Pros

  • Earn 50,000 miles after making your first purchase and paying the annual fee in full within the first 90 days
  • The first-checked-bag-free benefit is valid for you and up to four traveling companions on the same reservation on domestic American Airlines itineraries
  • Earn a companion certificate for one guest for $99 (plus taxes and fees) after spending $20,000 during your card membership year and if your account remains open for 45 days after your anniversary date
  • You’ll get preferred boarding on American flights
  • Earn up to $25 back in statement credits on in-flight Wi-Fi purchases
  • Earn 25 percent back (as statement credits) on in-flight food and beverages paid with your card
  • You’ll get 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 15 billing cycles for transfers made in the first 45 days (then a variable APR of 15.99 percent, 19.99 percent or 24.99 percent)
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • $99 annual fee (not waived for the first year)
  • It has mediocre earning rates — 2X miles on eligible American purchases and 1X miles on all other purchases

Who should apply: If you frequently fly on American, you might want to consider this card instead of the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select if you’re looking for an easier-to-earn welcome bonus, companion certificate or 0 percent intro APR for balance transfers.

Who should skip: If you’d prefer a waived annual fee for the first year, an American Airlines flight discount and boosted earning rates on restaurant and gas station purchases, the Citi AAdvantage would be a better choice.

Delta SkyMiles Gold American Express Card: Best for Delta Air Lines flyers

Why we picked it: Delta charges $30 for the first checked bag on domestic flights. However, if you’re a Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card holder, you can check your first bag for free, and you don’t need to use the card to book your seat (but don’t forget to include your Delta SkyMiles number in your reservation).

Pros

  • Earn 40,000 miles after spending $1,000 within your first three months
  • The first-checked-bag-free benefit is valid for you and up to eight traveling companions on the same reservation
  • The $99 annual fee is waived the first year
  • You’ll get priority boarding on Delta flights
  • Earn 20 percent back (as statement credits) on in-flight food, beverages and audio headsets paid for with your card
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • It has mediocre earning rates — 2X miles on eligible Delta purchases, 2X miles at restaurants and U.S. supermarkets and 1X miles on all other purchases
  • $99 annual fee

Who should apply: If you routinely check bags, each round trip on Delta will cost you $60. So anyone who flies Delta domestically even a couple of times a year will benefit from a free checked bag. Plus, the $99 annual fee is waived for the first year anyway, so there is no risk to test drive this card.

Who should skip: Travelers who rarely fly Delta, don’t check bags or fly in business or first class won’t benefit much from the free-checked-bag benefit, although they might still enjoy the welcome bonus.

United Explorer Card*: Best for United Airlines flyers

Why we picked it: United charges $30 to $35 for the first checked bag on a domestic flight. Fortunately, holders of the United℠ Explorer Card can avoid this fee. However, unlike American and Delta cards, you must buy your airfare with the United Explorer Card to use this benefit. In addition, you must include your United MileagePlus number in the reservation.

Pros

  • Earn 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 in the first three months
  • The $95 annual fee is waived the first year
  • You’ll get priority boarding on United flights
  • Earn 25 percent back (as statement credits) on in-flight food, beverages and Wi-Fi paid for with your card
  • Earn up to a $100 credit for Global Entry, TSA PreCheck or NEXUS (every four years)
  • You’ll get two United Club one-time passes each account anniversary
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • It has mediocre earning rates — 2X miles on eligible United purchases, 2X miles on dining and directly-purchased hotel accommodations and 1X miles on all other purchases
  • $95 annual fee
  • The first-checked-bag-free benefit is quite limited compared to other cards — it’s only valid for you and one traveling companion and you must pay with the United Explorer card to use the benefit

Who should apply: Anyone who flies United in economy class at least a couple of times a year and checks their bags will find the United Explorer card useful — especially since it waives the annual fee for the first year.

Who should skip: Consumers who don’t fly United, check bags or fly economy might want to choose another travel credit card.

JetBlue Plus Card*: Best for JetBlue flyers

Why we picked it: JetBlue charges $35 for the first checked bag on domestic flights. To get your first checked bag free with the JetBlue Plus Card, you must pay for tickets with your card and enter your JetBlue TrueBlue number at the time of booking. Besides a free checked bag, the JetBlue Plus Card comes with quite a few benefits like decent earning rates and an elevated welcome bonus. Unfortunately, the card’s annual fee isn’t waived for the first year.

Pros

  • Limited-time offer: Earn 80,000 points after spending $1,000 and paying the annual fee in full within the first 90 days
  • The first-checked-bag-free benefit is valid for you and up to three traveling companions on the same reservation
  • Decent earning rates — 6X points on JetBlue purchases, 2X points at restaurants and eligible grocery stores and 1X points on all other purchases
  • Earn 50 percent back (as statement credits) on eligible in-flight food and beverages paid with your card
  • Earn 10 percent of your points back after you redeem for (and travel on) a JetBlue award flight
  • Earn 5,000 points every account anniversary
  • Get an annual $100 statement credit after purchasing a JetBlue Vacations package of $100 or more with your card
  • It offers 0 percent intro APR on balance transfers for 12 billing cycles on transfers made within 45 days of account opening (then 15.99 percent, 19.99 percent or 24.99 percent variable APR based on your creditworthiness)
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • $99 annual fee (not waived for the first year)
  • There are no preferred or priority boarding benefits

Who should apply: If you fly JetBlue at all, this card offers enough savings and perks to justify the annual fee, especially considering the card’s free-checked-bag benefit. While the JetBlue network currently doesn’t compare to the big three — American, Delta and United — JetBlue’s desired acquisition of Spirit would turn JetBlue into the fifth-largest airline.

Who should skip: Right now JetBlue has a relatively limited network, so if it doesn’t fly from your home airport, there’s no reason to get this card.

Tips for choosing a card that offers free checked bags

  • First, find out what airlines fly from your home airport. Enter the name of your hometown airport into your favorite web search engine and simply head to the airport’s website for a list of its airlines. If you live in a large metropolitan area served by several major airlines, you’ll have more options to choose from.
  • Then, pick your preferred airline. For example, if you fly United most of the time, there are no reasons to apply for non-United cards, no matter how enticing they are. However, if you value a comfortable seat, JetBlue typically has the best legroom in coach.
  • What card or airline benefits do you want? After you identify the airlines that fly from your home airport to destinations you frequent, choosing an airline card with a free-checked-bag benefit becomes as simple as a matter of personal preference. Think about the card or airline benefits you’re looking for, and compare co-branded airline cards to find the best fit for you.

The bottom line

Quite a few airlines offer co-branded credit cards, and many of them offer a first-checked-bag-free benefit. These cards can save you a great deal of money if you have a preferred airline and fly at least a few times a year. However, not everyone checks bags (or checks a bag every time), so consider your travel habits first.

*The information about the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard®, United℠ Explorer Card and JetBlue Plus Card has been collected independently by Bankrate.com. The card details have not been reviewed or approved by the card issuer.

Written by
Andy Shuman
Contributor
Andy Shuman is a contributing writer to Bankrate. He is a New York-based freelance writer with strong expertise in consumer credit and travel loyalty programs.
Edited by
Associate Editor