Credit card scam? Your checked bag is ‘free,’ and so is everyone else’s


If you’re tired of the loyalty program apologists who breathlessly tout the benefits of their high-fee, high-interest rate credit cards, then meet Charles Morris.

Like many travelers, he fell for an airline card — and lived to regret it.

Here’s the set-up: The card in question offered a “free” checked bag on flights. So he applied and paid an annual fee and started obediently collecting miles. Morris couldn’t wait to flash his card on an upcoming transatlantic flight, because it gave him (groan) the first checked bag “free.”

Now, in the good old days of air travel, everyone could check two bags on a transatlantic flight. Then airlines took that “privilege” away and returned it only to the lemmings who applied for their toxic plastic cards.

Thanks for nothing, guys.

Anyway, Morris was thinking he’d saved himself a lot of money by applying for this card. Then he realized that everyone gets the first bag “free” on a transatlantic flight.

“The second bag is $100 more,” he says.

No problem.

“I’m entitled to the benefit of a free bag,” he says. “So I can take two bags for free, right?”

Wrong.

“The airline told me that my free bag is the first bag, even though it is already free for everyone.”

He says the scam cost him $200 on top of a $1,600 ticket. Never mind the mindless spending he engaged in to accrue more points. You know, spend more, get more.


Some of you are probably saying to yourselves: “He should have read the fine print before he signed up for the card.”

Related story:   Six months later, Dollar wants me to pay $808

Yeah, whatever.

The real consumer advocates out there are thinking: How deceptive and dishonest of the airline to do something like this!

Which airline? Which card? Doesn’t really matter, because they pretty much all do it. They insert fine print into the cardmember agreement that any contract lawyer would admire. Then they quietly congratulate themselves while watching their customers fall for it.

“I’ve been flying 30 years,” says Morris. “I’m not surprised at the loads of fine print.”

Neither am I, but still — this shouldn’t be allowed.

I know, I know. Airlines are private companies, not charities. But this just doesn’t seem right.

Is it a scam? Morris thinks so, and I’m inclined to agree. Not only did his airline convince him to sign up for a high-fee credit card, but it then cleverly removed some of the benefits it implied he had. In my book, that’s a scam.

These evil credit cards are being pushed by slick TV ads, by flight attendants patrolling the aisles of your next flight, and online, by credit card shills posing as travel “experts.” You’re being promised the benefits every passenger should get, and often not even getting what you think was promised.

Are cards that promise "free" checked bags a scam?

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Christopher Elliott

Christopher Elliott is an author, journalist and consumer advocate. You can read more about him on his personal website or check out his adventures on his family adventure travel site. Contact him at chris@elliott.org.

  • Realitoes

    “Only a halfwit corporate apologist could love these credit card schemes.
    Only a halfwit consumer would continue participating in them.”

    Chris, this was a very good article until the end. Can’t believe you lower yourself down to name calling, especially since I’m sure a good many of your readership probably carries one of these cards.

  • AAGK

    So his argument is that he spent $1800 as result of a “scam” to screw him out of $100? If didn’t have to pay 100 then his theory is credit card was worthwhile? Meanwhile, he was down with paying $100 for his second bag until he learned that his status was in his own mind. This is not a scammed consumer. He got what he was promised. There is no fine print involved. A reasonable person wouldn’t think a $100 benefit was worth paying $1800 so clearly there were other reasons he wanted the card.

  • Bill___A

    Credit cards are like anything else, Chris. You look at the offer and evaluate whether it is beneficial to you or not. I don’t understand why the constant slamming of them. It would be better to tell people how to spend their money wisely than to extract obscure examples to illustrate a “scam”. How many people fly domestically (The United States has about half of the world’s airports) and actually do benefit from a “free bag”? I’m sure it is of benefit to them. Just about every business has something they do to entice customers, it is called marketing. You generally do get a free bag and free meals on international flights, but not on domestic ones. What’s the point?

  • Mark

    I get these offers all the time. They are pretty clear about what they offer and what they don’t. If I flew every month or so, domestically, on one airline, I’d probably get their credit card to receive free bag checks. But most of my flights are international, and I figured out pretty fast that the credit card offer wasn’t worth much to me. I never thought for a moment that a “free” checked bag would apply to a second bag on a international flight, and I don’t see how a smart consumer advocate like yourself can make that case. There are a lot of scams in the travel business and I salute you for taking them on, but this is no scam. I’m sorry that your correspondent isn’t satisfied with the the deal he signed up for, but that doesn’t mean the airline owes him some other perk they never offered in the first place.

  • backprop

    ?????

    Why is he worried about what other people got?

  • Matt

    Advice to read the terms and conditions (i.e., the fine print) seems to be a reasonable recommendation for all kinds of travel stuff from frequent flyer cards to travel insurance. From this sites FAQ of travel insurance “there may be exclusions, so read the fine print”.

    Things could always be clearer but I’m not sure why this shouldn’t be allowed. Perhaps the site could do a FAQ for frequent flyer programs/cards/etc. akin to the one for travel insurance to highlight common issues and help consumers make sensible decisions.

  • sirwired

    I’ll agree he didn’t get what he expected, but I think it’s more than a bit of hyperbole to call this a “scam”. He got a free checked bag, just like it said in print both big and small.

    And Chris, while I am not personally a point-hound, nor do I have any airline cards, I think it’s more than a bit contemptuous to call those that do sign up for these cards “lemmings”. If you want people to come around to your point of view, you might want to lay off the contempt, bitterness, and scorn.

  • Fishplate

    “Are cards that promise “free” checked bags a scam?”

    Depends.

    What percentage of travelers use the benefit domestically, vs. the number that use it internationally?

    I would say that the “scam” is in the annual fee to get a benefit that may cost you less than that fee you paid for the card.

  • HRTraveler

    is it ironic or pathetic that the ads appearing alongside this article on my computer are for a credit card? Specifically a low intro fee (later to be jacked up) AND a travel rewards Amex card?

  • Don Spilky

    Just for grins and giggles, I checked a “random” airline cc offer to see what it says about “free” checked bags. What I saw was:

    “Your first checked bag is free for you and up to 4 traveling companions on domestic itineraries†”

    This wasn’t in the “fine print”, it was displayed with the list of all the “benefits” of having this card.

    Seems pretty clear to me that international flights might be different.

  • Asiansm Dan

    Asian Airlines on North American routes, 2 first bags are free. On some routes on promotion ANA give 3 bags free.

  • Joe_D_Messina

    What gets me isn’t that Christopher doesn’t like the programs–some of his points are valid and he’s entitled to his opinion–it’s how toxic he is to people who do see benefit to the programs. In this article he calls them lemmings and apologists, and in general insinuates that everybody taking part in the programs is either stupid or somehow in cahoots with the airlines to hide the truth. It gets tiresome.

  • bodega3

    1000+

  • bodega3

    Yawn………….how many times are you going to write the same old article?

  • Melinda

    I am in agreement here. Industry wide, the first checked bag on an international flight is almost always free. It’s the domestic baggage charges that come in to play. I have an airline credit card. Since I don’t run a balance, the high interest rate doesn’t mean much to me. And my $95 annual fee entitles me to up to 4 complimentary checked bags if all passengers are ticketed on the same reservation and the reservation was charged by the *airline* using the credit card. If I booked my flights through a cruise line or a vacation package, they would not be charged by the airline, and I would not be getting my free bag. Why is this? Because when a cruise line or vacation package is booked, the airline payment is made by the cruise line/tour operator, so the airline has no idea if you used their card or not. Anyway, it’s just my husband and I who travel so typically, if we travel domestic, we save $50 each way ($100 r/t) on the baggage. Add on to that yearly passes to the airline’s lounge at the airport ($50 per person if purchasing), with one trip in a year, I’m ahead by $105. So for me and my husband, this card works and provides value. But we did our due diligence on deciding on this card – would it really provide value for the money? This is a piece of common sense that should be used when making decisions about anything.

  • Maxwell Smart

    what do you mean high fee credit card ? Are you talking annual fee or interest rate ? Most of my cards are either fee free or have a small annual fee if you don’t use it & get up to 55 days interest free. Always pay on time, automatically from bank a/c & so no interest ever.

  • Charles Owen

    I don’t buy it. The story is that he “applied and paid an annual fee and started obediently collecting miles.” You don’t mention the card, but I looked at Delta, United, and American Airlines. All of them waive the annual fee for the first year. I’d be surprised if any airline card charges an annual fee for the first year, so I suspect this story was made up. If he held the card for more than a year based without flying, well that’s just not too bright.

    You’ll call me an apologist, but I have the Delta and United cards. It’s a very simple economic decision: will you pay more for bag fees than you do for the annual fee? I don’t accumulate many miles on those cards, so I’m not hoping to “rack up the miles”. Those airlines get zilch “loyalty” out of me, other than the simple fact they are the only airlines in town and the main ones in our area (I don’t count Spirit). Don’t get me wrong. I don’t turn down the miles and have used them for flights many times with great success, but those miles mostly came for actually flying.

    I don’t like to pay bag fees. I also don’t like paying annual fees (these cards are the only ones we have that charge annual fees). It’s just a question of which one is less. Beyond that, priority boarding in this cattle car era certainly has some worth as well. But, a single trip with two people can pay for the annual fee.

    As for the international flight, would you prefer that they instated the $25 bag fee so he would not feel so ripped off? Frankly, I’m very happy that international flights do still allow you a free bag. Keep in mind that “international” is rather loosely defined. Flights to Jamaica are “domestic” and do charge the bag fee.

  • AAGK

    I loved a post you did recently featuring this finance guy who wrote about the standards he would use to go for a new card. He had an excellent and conservative take on their utility, I wish I remembered his name. He had a couple books on Amazon. I remember making note of the rule he said we should use if pursuing new credit.

  • Paul Heymont

    Many cards do have first-year free, but others do not. The ones that do not include some with fees up as far as $450 (both Citi and Amex have cards at that level) that include more perks (lounge access, etc.)

    You takes your choices and pays your price…

  • BMG4ME

    In this scenario it seems to be a scam, but then again I’d like to read the offer in detail and see whether it’s really a scam. I know that my car has more than paid for itself in terms of the many things it’s given me, for example a level one higher than it would have been otherwise, spending money that I was going to spend anyway, win-win for both airline and me because it’s ensured that I don’t go back to my old alrline where I also have elite status.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Hi AA,
    I searched the Elliott.org archives for “credit cards,” and got several hundred hits. Here’s a link to the results: http://elliott.org/?s=credit+cards. The search engine is accessed (at least by me) by clicking the little magnifying glass in the upper right hand of the page, but I don’t know if I only see it there because I’m a moderator. Could you let me know if you see it in the same place? Thanks.

  • tomg63

    Yep. That is the AA-Citi offer which is the most clear. Both the United-Chase and Delta-Amex offers say your “first” checked bag free. There is no language whatsoever that implies that you get an extra bag on top of whatever allowance you already have. I can see how the LW would make an incorrect assumption, but it is solely because they read what they wanted to hear rather than what was actually there.

  • judyserienagy

    Those of us who enjoy our perks wish that people would just read the rules and regs of loyalty programs before “getting scammed”.

  • Carchar

    I was just surprised to find that QANTAS allows citizens of Australia one free bag on domestic flights, but foreign visitors are allowed two.

  • Mel65

    Sigh. I don’t FEEL like a lemming. I’m not sure what one looks like or smells like, but I’ll wager I don’t qualify on those characteristics either. Hubby and I travel as gov contractors, a LOT. Especially him. And for whatever reason it seems that MOST of the time the cheapest fares are on United. So we have a United Mileage Plus card. On his, since getting the card last December, he has 140K miles. Mine, significantly fewer, but we’ll be using those miles for a vacation soon. Did nothing special. Sometimes we flew AA or Delta if it was cheaper since we are required by policy to take the cheapest flight, but did no contortion of our schedules and paid for most of my daughter’s wedding with the card(s) and then paid it off. Using ANY credit wisely will benefit you, using ANY credit UNwisely will work to your detriment. Period. Please don’t call me names and I’ll show the same respect to you.

  • Grant Ritchie

    Ha! I’D never call you a lemming… or anything else. Your avatar keeps me on my BEST behavior. :-)

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