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Dodge bag fees with status, credit cards

By Eva Vasquez, Special to CNN
Airlines pulled in $769 million in baggage fees from January to March, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
Airlines pulled in $769 million in baggage fees from January to March, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Most frequent flyer program members who have elite status are exempt from baggage fees
  • Some airlines waive fees just for having airline-branded card
  • Travel experts expect more perks from other airline-branded cards in the future
  • Southwest is only major domestic airline that does not charge to check two bags
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(CNN) -- As airlines continue to rack up checked-bag revenue, it seems like only those fliers who ship their bags or lug their carry-ons through the airport can avoid paying costly baggage fees.

The airline industry pulled in $769 million in baggage fees from January to March alone, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.

But some travelers have been able to avoid contributing to those figures, and more might be able to do the same, thanks to airline loyalty programs and credit cards.

Most frequent flyer program members who have elite status are exempt from baggage fees, for example.

Elite status is reached by earning a designated amount of miles within a frequent flyer program. With the status comes a package of benefits, including upgrades and priority boarding and check-in.

"Free baggage has become a standard benefit associated with attaining elite status," said Tim Winship, editor at large of smartertravel.com and the editor and publisher of frequentflier.com.

Delta SkyMiles is one of these programs.

"All of our SkyMiles Medallion customers can check up to two bags free," Delta spokesman Paul Skrbec said.

But the trend to offer bag waivers to elite status members is for the most part specific to the U.S. travel market, warned Randy Petersen, founder of FlyerTalk.com.

"Members of many international frequent flyer programs don't have the same or equal benefit yet," said Petersen, himself the proud holder of 17 million miles.

The benefits of elite status, like fee-free checked bags, are not handed out to just anyone, but they are certainly possible to attain with the right knowledge and know-how.

More than 80 million people participate in frequent flyer programs, according to frequentflier.com.

"Generally speaking, entry-level elite status is earned after attaining about 25,000 elite qualifying miles in a calendar year. Then it goes up into different tiers," Winship explained.

A coast-to-coast domestic flight is roughly 5,000 miles round-trip. So it would take about five round-trips from New York to California to earn 25,000 elite qualifying miles, he said.

An elite qualifying mile is different from a regular redeemable mile, though both accrue in a frequent flier's account.

"EQMs have become a promotional type of elite earning currency," Petersen said.

A redeemable mile is any mile in your account that can be used for various awards other than status.

In the past, the elite qualifying miles could be earned only by flying on a program's host airline and those of some of its partners, Winship explained.

But Petersen says that is changing.

"While originally one could only become elite by actually flying, today, a trend is to earn elite status by the right choice of a credit card -- buying your way to elite status -- and with some promotions, using partner transactions such as hotel stays, car rentals and even dining to earn elite status," Petersen said.

However, one would have to spend about $25,000 to earn elite status, Petersen said.

"You have to be a good candidate for the credit card," he added.

So if you're just looking to get free checked bags, buying elite status through a card would not be very cost-effective.

But now there are less expensive ways of using a card to get bag fee exemptions. Some airline-branded cards give you the benefit just for being a card-holder, though you have to consider whether it's worth paying the annual fee.

As of June 1, holders of the Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express can check a bag free on every Delta flight. With baggage fees of $25 each way, one would save $50 on a round-trip flight.

On two or three trips a year, travelers' savings would cover the annual cost of a Delta SkyMiles Card: $95 a year for the gold version and $150 for the platinum edition.

"We launched this benefit because we not only wanted to retain card members but also attract new ones," American Express Public Affairs Manager Mona Hemonely said.

This perk is awarded to up to nine people in the same reservation.

Continental Airlines and Chase have been rewarding cardholders with a similar bonus.

"Continental Airlines Chase primary card members have their first checked-bag fees automatically waived," Continental Airlines spokeswoman Christen Davis said. "In addition, our Presidential Plus primary card members have their first and second checked-bag fees automatically waived."

The Continental One Pass Plus card is available for an $85 annual fee and the Presidential Plus card for $395.

The free-checked bags benefit is, of course, helpful only for those who actually check bags.

"You have to look at your own travel behavior," Winship said. "Some people never check their baggage, like lots of business travelers. ... For them, it is a non-event."

Both Winship and Petersen expect more perks like this from other airline-branded cards in the future.

"Almost all are working on new cards that have these and other similar benefits," Petersen said.

Winship believes a major factor is the competition airline-branded cards are facing from unaffiliated flex point cards (such as the Chase Sapphire card) that offer generic miles to be used for a variety of things.

"They are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from unaffiliated cards, and perks like this are exactly that, because they have an intimate relationship with the airlines," he said.

The relationship between airlines and card issuers is a lucrative one, so both parties are willing to offer benefits to keep one another vital, Winship explained.

One last avenue of avoiding bag fees: You could always fly JetBlue, where the first checked bag is free, or Southwest, the only major domestic airline that has not started charging passengers for checking two bags.

Why?

"Simply, we feel that it's what our customers want when they travel," a Southwest representative said. "We do not have any plans to start charging for checked bags."