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The myths of Priority Boarding with credit cards. When Zone 1 is really Zone 3.

by on Mon December 16, 2013 • 1 Comment

American, Delta, United, and US Airways each offer credit cards that offer Priority Boarding when you enroll.  Of course we all want to be on the plane early, because no one wants to check a bag even if it’s free.

Priority boarding should let you join the ranks of first class fliers and be the very first to board the plane, right?

Not really.

In fact, there are so many people ahead of you on many flights that the Priority Boarding you get may not even guarantee space for your bags in the overhead bins.

The view from Zone 1 on Delta /

The view from Delta’s Zone 1 on a busy Los Angeles to Atlanta flight via

Delta is the worst offender. Here’s how it describes the priority boarding benefit for Delta credit cards like the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express:

“Card Members are entitled to receive Zone 1 Priority Boarding on Delta flights.”

And when you print out your boarding pass that’s exactly what you get, a big ‘1’ showing your boarding zone. Which makes you think you’ll be the first to board the plane. So Delta is delivering on what it promises. Or is it?

In reality Zone 1 isn’t  the 1st zone to board.

In fact, it’s the THIRD zone to board flights.

But Delta does little to tell you that Zone 1 is preceded by Zone ‘PREM’ (First Class), then Zone ‘SKY’ which is for its elite level fliers who fly 50,000 miles or more per year. And there a lot of them.

Which leads to confusion at the gate for everyone involved.

You, with your new SkyMiles credit card think you’re the first to board, so you confidently walk up to the gate when the agent starts making announcements.

And you’re disappointed when the gate agent tells you the cold fact that Zone 1 isn’t really the first zone, and you’ll have to wait for two groups to board. You also learn your Zone 1 isn’t just for you as a credit card holder. It also includes all of Delta’s Silver Medallion fliers who fly 25,000 or more miles a year, as well as anyone who bought priority boarding that day.

So by the time you get on the plane there’s a good chance there will be no overhead bin space left. Which means most Zone 1 fliers learn to crush the gate early, making for a miserable experience.

How about other airlines?

Don't we wish boarding was like this? (via

Don’t we wish boarding was like this? (via

United is a straighter shooter with its United MileagePlus® Explorer Card. It says:

“Enjoy priority boarding privileges. Primary card members and their companions on the same reservation will board United-operated flights after Premier members and prior to general boarding.”

Which is more accurate. And when you get your boarding pass it doesn’t say ‘Group 1’ on it. It says ‘Group 2’.

United is also a lot more clear with signs at the gate telling you exactly where Group 2 should line up.

American is more like Delta with room for disappointment if you’re a Citi AAdvantage® Platinum Select cardholder, saying:

“Group 1 Boarding: Enjoy an enhanced boarding experience, and use the extra time to prepare for your flight.”

You’re actually in the third group to board, behind First Class and its most elite frequent fliers. At least its website is clear about this. Delta doesn’t even talk about all of its boarding groups on its website unless you look at a special section for its elite ‘Medallion’ fliers.

US Airways is the most straight forward, with the US Airways Dividend Miles Premier World MasterCard saying you get:

“Zone 2 Boarding on US Airways flights”

It’s really the third Zone – there is a ‘PreferredAccess’ Zone before Zone 1. But at least it doesn’t promise any ‘Priority’ and you’re not left expecting you’ll be the very first to board, which makes things easier for everyone.

If we had our way, the advertising for these cards would say something like “Get Priority Boarding in Group 3 of 6.”  That’s the reality, and it is still  valuable, because making sure you’re not in the last half of the plane to board definitely reduces some headaches and checked bags. But it’s not a sexy headline.

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One thought on “The myths of Priority Boarding with credit cards. When Zone 1 is really Zone 3.

  1. dian singh

    We bought Delta Priority 1 boarding, and then no zones were used, and they went by back rows. No refund given as not guaranteed; so why were we charged for a service we didn’t get?


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