Which airline credit cards offer the best priority boarding perks?
Airline credit cards offer a variety of flashy perks, including sign-up bonuses of tens of thousands of miles, companion tickets worth hundreds or even thousands of dollars, access to airport lounges and free checked bags. One of their most fundamental perks, though, is about saving time rather than money: priority boarding.
Included with many airline credit cards, this benefit can get you out of those long gate lines in time to find overhead space for your carry-on bag before the rest of the passengers trundle aboard.
Given the complex boarding process by which most airlines board their passengers these days, it's difficult to do a side-by-side comparison of cards from one carrier to the next. Still, this list should give you a general idea of which airline credit cards you might want to carry for this specific perk.
Here's a look at what boarding privileges come with cobranded airline credit cards, followed by details on each airline to help you understand the nuances.
Airline boarding groups overview
|Airline and credit card||Boarding privileges|
|Group 3 out of 6.|
|Officially, 4 out of 9; effectively, 6 out of 11.|
|Officially, 4 out of 9; effectively, 6 out of 11.|
|Delta Air Lines|
|Group 7 out of 10.|
|Group 4 out of 6.|
|Group A boarding (JetBlue Business).|
|Four upgraded A1-A15 boardings per year based on availability.|
|Zone 2 boarding.|
|Group 2 out of 6.|
*The information for these cards has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Unfortunately, several airlines do not make priority boarding part of their credit cards benefits. The notable absentees include the Hawaiian Airlines® World Elite Mastercard®, JetBlue Card, American Airlines AAdvantage® MileUp®, Delta SkyMiles® Blue American Express Card and United Gateway Card.
The information for the JetBlue Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
Let's look at the details for each airline now.
Alaska Airlines uses six boarding groups plus preboarding for a total of seven different announcements for people to board the plane.
- Preboarding: Passengers needing special assistance, families with small children and active-duty military members.
- First class: Passengers traveling in the first-class cabin.
- Group A: Mileage Plan Million Miler, MVP Gold 75K and MVP Gold elite members.
- Group B: Mileage Plan MVP members, guests in premium class seats and those with Alaska Airlines credit cards.
- Group C: Guests in economy seats in the back half of the plane.
- Group D: Guests in economy seats in the front half of the plane.
- Group E: Guests in basic economy (saver) seats.
American Airlines' mind-boggling procedures include nine boarding groups plus special preboarding options. The good news: If you have one of the major American AAdvantage credit cards, it should get you onto the plane early.
- Preboarding: Passengers needing special assistance, such as families traveling with small children.
- ConciergeKey members.
- Group 1: First class, active-duty U.S. military with ID, AAdvantage Executive Platinum elites, and business class on two-class international planes.
- Group 2: AAdvantage Platinum Pro and Oneworld Emerald elites, and business class on three-class international planes.
- Group 3: AAdvantage Platinum and Oneworld Sapphire elites.
- Group 4: AAdvantage Gold and Oneworld Ruby elites, AirPass members, premium-economy passengers, travelers who bought priority boarding, eligible corporate travelers and Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard members.
- Group 5 (Preferred boarding): Main Cabin Extra and other AAdvantage credit cardholders.
- Group 6: All other AAdvantage members.
- Group 7: Non-AAdvantage economy passengers.
- Group 8: Basic economy to/from Europe and South America.
- Group 9: Basic economy within the U.S., Canada, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean.
The best you can hope for as just an AAdvantage credit cardholder is to be in the sixth boarding group out of all 11 groups. As for those who get onto the plane with Group 5 (but really the seventh boarding group called), they include members with the following credit cards:
- Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.
- CitiBusiness / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® American Express® Card.
- Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® Visa Signature.
- AAdvantage Aviator Silver Mastercard.
- AAdvantage Aviator Red Mastercard.
- AAdvantage Aviator Business Mastercard.
While most AAdvantage credit cards are created equal when it comes to boarding, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard will give you a one-group advantage over the others. That makes sense, considering it has a much higher annual fee than any of the others (at $595) and also includes other high-end perks like Admirals Club access. Note that you only have to hold one of these travel cards for the benefit to apply — you don't have to purchase your ticket with it.
Missing from this list is the American Airlines AAdvantage MileUp, offered by Citi. It has no annual fee and offers no priority boarding benefit. Nor do some of the other AAdvantage credit cards offered by Citi and Barclays that are no longer available to new cardholders and will likely be phased out over time, such as the Citi / AAdvantage Gold and the Aviator Mastercard.
Delta Air Lines
Delta has 10 boarding groups when including preboarding, which can seem confusing. However, a Delta cobranded credit card can help you move into the seventh group.
- Preboarding: Customers needing assistance or additional time to board and active-duty U.S. military personnel with ID.
- Delta One or first class: Passengers flying in these cabins.
- Diamond Medallion members.
- Delta Premium Select customers.
- Early boarding for customers with car seats and strollers.
- Delta Comfort+: Passengers in Delta Comfort+ seats
- Sky Priority: Platinum and Gold Medallion members, Flying Blue Platinum and Gold members, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Gold members, SkyTeam Elite Plus members, LATAM Pass Black Signature, Black and Platinum Elite members and WestJet Rewards Platinum and Gold Elite members.
- Main Cabin 1: Silver Medallion members, Delta Corporate Travelers, Flying Blue Silver members, Virgin Atlantic Flying Club Silver members, SkyTeam Elite members, SkyMiles Select members, LATAM Pass Gold+ Elite, WestJet Rewards Silver Elite and cardholders of the Delta SkyMiles Gold, Platinum and Reserve credit cards.
- Main Cabin 2: Most main cabin passengers.
- Main Cabin 3: Main cabin passengers booked in T, X and V fare codes.
- Basic Economy: Those in the E fare class.
That's a lot of groups.
Assuming you don't have SkyPriority or other elite status and you're just flying economy, the best you can hope for — no matter which Delta credit card you carry — is to board with the first group in the main cabin. That means you're in the seventh out of 10 boarding groups. While there will likely be overhead space available at that point, it's not a sure bet, considering all the passengers who can board before you.
People with the $550-per-year (see rates and fees) Delta SkyMiles Reserve Amex don't board any earlier than those with the far-cheaper Delta SkyMiles Platinum Amex ($250 per year; see rates and fees) and Delta SkyMiles Gold Amex ($0 introductory annual fee for the first year, then $99; see rates and fees).
Travelers who have the no-annual-fee Delta SkyMiles Blue Amex (see rates and fees) do not get any priority boarding privileges (or free checked bags for that matter).
This budget carrier has a cobranded credit card with Barclays that will get you onto the aircraft relatively early.
Here's how Frontier's boarding process goes.
- Preboarding: Passengers requiring special services, such as those in a wheelchair or unaccompanied minors.
- Zone 1: Passengers who purchase a carry-on bag or the Works bundle, or have MyFrontier Miles elite status.
- Courtesy Boarding: Available to families traveling with small children or those needing extra time.
- Zone 2: Frontier Airlines World Mastercard members and those in the back of the plane.
- Zones 3-4: The rest of the cabin.
Carrying the Frontier Airlines World Mastercard from Barclays will squeeze you in at the start of general boarding — or the fourth group out of six. This lines up with most of the other airlines' cards but might end up being slightly better or worse, depending on how many other passengers purchase carry-ons or one of the fare-bundling options.
However, there is one unique facet to the Frontier Airlines credit card: In addition to earning 5 miles per dollar on purchases at flyfrontier.com, 3 miles per dollar on restaurant purchases and 1 mile per dollar on everything else, the card actually earns 1 elite-qualifying mile per dollar spent on all purchases.
So you earn bonus miles that are redeemable for awards but also earn elite-qualifying miles on all purchases. You can hit the first level of MyFrontier status by earning 20,000 elite-qualifying miles in a year, which is a fairly low threshold. Depending on your spending habits, you might make your way to Zone 1 boarding by swiping your credit card throughout the year.
With the JetBlue Business Card, you'll enjoy Group A boarding on all JetBlue-operated flights.
Here are JetBlue's boarding groups:
- Preboarding: For customers with mobility restrictions.
- Mosaic and Mint passengers.
- Group A: Even More Space customers.
- Courtesy Boarding: For active military members and customers traveling with small children.
- General Boarding: Groups B, C, D and E.
- Final Call: All remaining customers.
And if you hit Mosaic status through flying or credit card spending, you move up to the second overall boarding group and have overhead space basically guaranteed.
Since Southwest waives most ticket change and cancellation fees and lets passengers bring two checked bags each for free, its credit card benefits are slightly different than most airlines. The perks focus on earning points toward the Companion Pass, anniversary bonuses and earning qualifying credits toward A-List elite status.
The airline's boarding process is also a bit different. Passengers board in an ordered number in three main groups, plus family boarding thrown in. For most flyers, the boarding order is determined by when they check in for the flight, so it's important to do so as close to 24 hours in advance as possible.
Here's how the boarding process works:
- A1-A15: Business Select passengers, those who purchase upgraded boarding and possibly A-List and A-List Preferred elites.
- A15-A60: Other passengers who purchase early check-in, check in quickly at the 24-hour mark and possibly A-List and A-List Preferred elites.
- Family Boarding: For families with children ages 6 and under.
- B1-B60: The next wave.
- C1-C60: Take whatever seats are left when you get on the plane.
Two of Southwest's four credit cards offer a shot at priority boarding. They are the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards® Performance Business Credit Card. Among their benefits are four upgraded boardings per year, based on availability.
Upgraded boardings may be purchased via the Southwest app or website beginning 24 hours before departure, or at the departure gate or ticket counter on the day of travel only. This can be worth $30-$50 per ticket, so it's a pretty valuable benefit for cards that costs $149 and $199 per year, respectively.
Both the Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Credit Card and the Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Credit Card earn 1,500 tier-qualifying points for every $10,000 spent annually. It takes 35,000 TQPs to earn A-List elite status with Southwest. Depending on your flying and spending habits, carrying one of these two cards could put you over the top and get you regular priority boarding benefits.
For an airline that's known for a no-frills approach to seat selection, carry-on bags and printing boarding passes, possessing the Free Spirit World Elite Mastercard can take at least some of the pain out of boarding.
- Preboarding: Passengers who need special assistance.
- Zone 1: Passengers who purchased a carry-on bag.
- Zone 2: Passengers who purchase Shortcut Boarding, who have Free Spirit Gold or Silver status or have the Free Spirit Mastercard.
- Family Boarding: For those traveling with small children ages 3 and under.
- Zone 3: General boarding of seats at the back of the plane.
- Zone 4: General boarding of seats at the front of the plane.
Zone 2 is a bit of a misnomer, given that preboarding and Zone 1 are before it, so it's really the third group out of six.
Purchasing carry-on bags is not uncommon, so you might have to watch half the plane board before you do. Remember that checked bags are cheaper than carry-on bags with Spirit so it's difficult to predict how many passengers may be in Zone 1 on any given flight.
If you really do take advantage of the lowest fares on the airline, carrying its credit card will give you a leg up on the rest of the bargain hunters. But if you tend to purchase bundles or carry-on bags, you might not need this card.
Ostensibly there are seven groups as part of United's boarding procedures. You'll see each group includes a lot of possible passengers and takes a unique approach to boarding.
- Preboarding: Unaccompanied minors, customers with disabilities, families with children ages 2 or under, active military members and United Global Services and Premier 1K elites.
- Group 1: Premier Platinum and Gold elites, Star Alliance Gold members, and passengers in United Polaris, first class and business class.
- Group 2: Premier Silver elites, Star Alliance Silver members, customers who purchase Premier Access or priority boarding, holders of the United Explorer Card, United Club Infinite Card, United Business Card, United Club Business Card, United Quest Card, the United Presidential Plus or the Awards Card (these last two cards are no longer open to new customers).
- Groups 3: Window row seats, exit row seats and nonrevenue travelers
- Group 4: Middle seats
- Group 5: Aisle seats
- Group 6: Basic economy passengers (in eligible markets only)
If there are multiple passengers on the same reservation seated in economy, each traveler will get the highest applicable boarding group given to any of the travelers within the reservation, except basic economy, which will always be Group 6.
Those with the basic United Gateway Card don't receive any boarding or baggage privileges. United's credit cards run the gamut of annual fees, such as the United Club Infinite Card's annual fee of $525 and the United Club Business Card's annual fee of $450 at the top and the United Explorer Card's $95 annual fee (waived for the first year) and the United Business Card's $99 annual fee (also waived the first year). However, all cardholders get to board at the same time.
Carrying an airline's midrange or premium credit card will get you on the plane early. However, in these days of elite status bloating, "early" is a relative term.
In many cases, you'll still beat most of the economy cabin passengers onto the plane, helping you secure overhead space for your bag. This perk alone is probably not worth carrying a credit card.
Still, combining it with other benefits like free checked bags and discounts on inflight purchases, you can maximize your airline credit card to make the flying experience that much better.
Additional reporting by Ryan Smith.
For rates and fees of the Delta Reserve card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Platinum card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Gold card, click here.
For rates and fees of the Delta SkyMiles Blue card, click here.