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Aside from a free first checked bag, one of the big perks of airline branded credit cards is priority boarding.
Priority boarding sounds great on paper and sounds like you’ll be among the very first to board.
But the reality is pretty jarring once you get to the airport.
That’s because while airlines assign numbers to boarding groups, like ‘Group 1,’ ‘Group 2,’ and so on, those numbers don’t match the actual order in the boarding announcements. Group 1 isn’t really the first group to board most of the time.
Instead, all of the airlines with priority boarding for credit card holders have an un-numbered group ahead of the first numbered group, usually for the airline’s top tier of frequent fliers, that pushes groups further down the real boarding priority.
Here’s how priority boarding for credit card holders stacks up for American, Delta, and United:
Cardholders board with Group 4 out of 9 numbered groups. There is an unnumbered ‘Concierge Key’ group that boards before Group 1, so Group 4 can be the 5th group to board. Boarding is in the same group as American’s 25,000 mile a year Gold elite level fliers.
Cardholders board with Group 5 out of 9 numbered groups. There is an unnumbered ‘Concierge Key’ group that boards before Group 1, so Group 5 can be the 6th group to board. Boarding is in the same group as Premium Economy / extra legroom seat passengers.
Zone 1 boarding out of 3 numbered groups. But Zone 1 is the 4th group to board, when you include Delta’s ‘Premium,’ ‘SkyPriority,’ and ‘Pre-Boarding’ groups, so credit card holders are in the 4th out of 6 groups to board.
Zone 1 includes Delta’s 25,000 mile a year Silver Medallion fliers and many partner elite fliers.
United MileagePlus Explorer, Club, Presidential Plus, and Awards
United’s card holders board in Group 2 out of 5 numbered groups. But there’s an unnumbered group for its Global Services level fliers, so Group 2 is really the third group to get announced for boarding.
Group 2 includes both United’s 50,000 mile level Premier Gold fliers, as well as its 25,000 mile a year Premier Silver fliers, so with United’s credit card priority boarding you have a shot to be further up the priority chain than with American or Delta’s credit cards.
No credit card will give you the privilege to board any sooner than the 3rd group of passengers, and it can be as bad as the 6th group. Essentially what credit card priority boarding does is put you ahead of everyone in Economy class who doesn’t have some sort of other status or privilege with the airline.
That gives you at least a chance at getting your bags in the overhead bins before they’re full.
But there’s another advantage that’s going to be more important.
American and United are both adding restrictions to their very cheapest fares this year. These ‘Basic Economy‘ fares won’t let you bring a full sized carryon aboard.
But if you hold a credit card with boarding priority, you can still bring a full sized carryon, even when you’re on a Basic Economy fare.
It’s hardly an upgrade. They’re taking away something that was included for everyone in the cost of a ticket, and letting credit cardholders keep it. But if the alternative is paying a higher fare for the right to bring a full sized carryon, then holding a card with priority boarding is getting a little more useful, at least on American and United.
On Delta, if you’re flying on Basic Economy ticket you can still bring on a full sized carryon, but since you board in the last group, chances are slim there will be space for you bag by the time you get on the plane.
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