Priority Boarding Promises: They’re not what you think

Priority boarding on planes is becoming the new normal. Sometimes it seems as if you’re the only person who doesn’t have some sort of priority when you fly, and you’re stuck with no room for your bag when it’s your turn to get on. Many airlines don’t allow families with small children to board first anymore, so this becomes an even bigger problem.

Want to know why?

It’s not because everyone else is flying a lot more than you, or paying a lot more than you.

It’s because of the credit cards in their wallet.

Over the last three years most of the major airlines have added priority boarding as a benefit for their travel credit cards. But what they mean when they say ‘priority’ rarely means you’re the first to get on the plane.

It can just mean you’re not the very last to board.

How-Travel-Agencies-Can-Manage-Credit-Card-RiskTake Delta for example. It started the priority boarding charge by offering ‘Zone 1’ boarding for all Delta SkyMiles credit card holders. Sounds cool right? Just for holding a credit card that already earns you miles and gives you a free checked bag, you get to board first.

Not quite. ‘Zone 1’ is actually the THIRD zone to board Delta flights. You board after First Class, then after its most frequent flyers. So basically if you don’t have ‘Zone 1’ priority you’re almost last to board. Shouldn’t ‘Zone 1’ be FIRST?

United is a little better. With United credit cards like the MileagePlus Explorer Card you get ‘Group 2’ boarding, which is the second group to board, and puts you in company with some of its most frequent fliers – people who travel 50,000 or more miles a year.  That might be worth the $95 annual fee on the card.

American Airlines is just as confusing as Delta. With American Advantage credit cards you get to board with ‘Group 1’ but that’s really the third group, behind first class and very frequent fliers.

It’s merging with US Airways who is a little more honest. If you hold its US Airways MasterCard you get to board in ‘Group 2,’ which truly is the second group of passengers to board. But don’t expect that to last through the merger.

Of course there is always Southwest. But a Southwest Rapid Rewards credit card won’t do you any good with priority boarding because it doesn’t offer that feature. Though do you really need priority boarding on Southwest? Your bags fly free with them, so you don’t have as many people clamoring to carry bags on board. But if you really want to board early, just pay for ‘Early Bird Check-In’ when it matters to you. For a small fee you’re generally somewhere in the ‘A’ boarding group, putting you well ahead of most people on the plane. JetBlue also lets you buy early boarding, but only as part of buying an ‘Even More Space’ seat closer to the front that has extra legroom.

Which can be good peace of mind if you’re trying to get your family settled.