Dear Cashing In,
I fly maybe once a month for business. I carry on one bag and my purse. And I care about one perk and one perk only: I want to get on the plane early. Which card/cards can I get that has decent points, but gets me and my one carry-on aboard first so I can claim my overhead space, settle in and zone out for the flight? -- Early Boyd
Dear Early Boyd,
Generally, airlines reserve the earliest boarding for the highest-paying or most loyal customers, which means first- and business-class passengers and higher level elite status fliers.
Bear that in mind when you review perks for reward cards. Many of them list "priority boarding" as a perk, but that may not mean what you think. That is, you will board after premium seat holders and elites, but before the masses. Points awarded by airline cards and annual fees are also pretty much the same.
Having a MileagePlus Explorer card, for example, lets you board with Group 2, United's designation for after high-level elites and premium seat holders, but before general boarding. In January 2013, United reduced its boarding groups from seven to five. The Explorer card still gets you onboard before the final three groups, usually before mobs clog the aisles and with time to stash your carry-on while there's plenty of overhead bin space. The United Club Card allows you to board with Group 1, but that card comes with a $395 annual fee (minus a $95 statement credit after your first purchase), as opposed to Explorer's $95 annual fee (waived the first year).
Until recently, I would have recommended the AAdvantage card to someone looking primarily for boarding perks. American Airlines was the one major airline that boarded cardholders at the same time as first-class seat holders. But as of mid-November 2012, tickets purchased with that card are now marked "Group 1," equivalent to the boarding status of most co-branded airline cards. You can purchase upgrades at airport check-in kiosks for your particular American flight.
Delta American Express cards offer "Zone 1 boarding," but beware: that does not mean "first to board." Delta still boards premium seat holders and elites before their co-branded cardholders.
US Airways MasterCard ($89 annual fee) comes with Zone 2 boarding. You can also pay for Preferred Access during the check-in process starting at $10 per person, but first-class passengers and elites will still board before you. How this card and its benefits will change with the recent merger of US Airways and American remains to be seen.
Usually, the boarding status that comes with a standard co-branded airline card puts you onboard early enough to avoid gate-checking your bags. Later-boarding passengers often get stuck checking carry-on bags at the gate because overhead bins have filled up by the time they board. You're not charged for this, but it means you have to wait for your bag with the rest of the hordes at baggage claim instead of heading out of the airport from the gate.
As you can see, if your goal is simply to get onto a plane before general boarding begins, most co-branded cards will get you that. There is no clear advantage any more. All offer 2 points per dollar spent on the airline and 1 point per dollar on everything else. They also get you a free checked bag (if you ever decide to expand beyond that carry-on). For a $95 annual fee (waived the first year), Gold Delta SkyMiles card from American Express, Citi Platinum Select/AAdvantage and United MileagePlus Explorer offer similar boarding privileges.
So, if those are your only concerns, I would go with the airline you fly most frequently and build loyalty there. If you can get to mid-level elite status on an airline, you begin to get the premium boarding treatment. Cardholders tend to get the boarding status of a base-level elite member.