Can Airline Subscription Plans Save You Money?

Barbara Peterson

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

Consumer Reports has no financial relationship with advertisers on this site.

As airline fees keep rising, so do the number of creative ways to get around them. Some of these strategies come courtesy of the airlines themselves.

In recent years, several major lines have concocted ways to induce customers to pay upfront for a month’s or a year’s worth of services that are usually sold separately, such as unlimited inflight WiFi or checked bags.

One airline, United, offers the option of paying for these packages in miles instead of cash, an attractive alternative for fliers who might want to burn some of their unused loyalty points.

But while it might seem tempting to pay one lump sum for the convenience of not worrying about, say, bag fees for a year, a close look at these plans shows that they make sense only for certain types of travelers, in certain situations.

“It really needs to be considered on a case-by-case basis,” says Scott Mayerowitz, executive editorial director of The Points Guy, a travel and credit card review site. “If you are traveling a lot and you don’t have preferred status with a particular airline, then you might want to buy these [plans], but only until you do get elite status,” which often includes perks like a free checked bag.

Keep in mind that each airline does things differently, and that the subscription concept works best if you can plan to travel almost exclusively on one airline. That includes low-cost carriers like Frontier and Spirit Airlines, which offer an annual discount club subscription.

“If you are traveling so much that you think you need a subscription plan, you either need to focus more on flying one airline or get a better credit card,” says The Points Guy’s Mayerowitz. “Most of the airline credit cards that allow one free bag have an annual fee of around $95. If you take two trips, you come out ahead.”

Here, a look at some pricing plans offered in three categories: WiFi, baggage, and fare discounts.

WiFi Access

One bright spot for passengers in recent years has been the ability to access the internet at 30,000 feet. Not only is it widely available but it is also getting faster and more reliable.

And with the exception of JetBlue, most airlines charge a fee to log on. The cost can range from $7 an hour or up to around $19 for a day pass. Most use inflight internet provider Gogo, which has recently pledged to upgrade speed and bandwidth so that you may eventually be able to stream Netflix or download video content.

Under subscription plans offered by Alaska, American, and Delta airlines, unlimited access for a month costs $49.95 for flights anywhere in North America (on United it’s a flat $49). Each airline also offers a year-long subscription for $599.99.

When does it make sense? If you are taking at least two roundtrips on one airline during a one-month period, a monthly pass might save you some money, although the annual subscription doesn’t offer any benefit over the monthly plan.

If you pay in United miles, it’s 7,500 miles a month, but at 1.4 cents a mile—how most experts peg the value—you’ll end up ahead if you pay cash, unless you have a large balance in your mileage account that you’d like to draw down.

And keep in mind that several credit cards include Gogo inflight WiFi passes as a benefit, according to The Points Guy.

Baggage Plans

United has a baggage subscription plan that starts at $349, good for one traveler, checking one standard-sized bag, on an unlimited number of flights for a year.

With the charge for the first checked bag now $30 one-way (on virtually all domestic airlines except Southwest), that price would make sense for someone traveling very frequently (more than six roundtrips a year).

However, the benefits rise with the size of the group that is traveling. Under United’s plan, an additional traveler on the subscription costs $100, bringing the per-person charge down to $239. There’s also an option that allows up to nine people on a reservation to check bags for an extra charge of $300.

Rick Ardis, president of Ardis Travel in East Rutherford, N.J., near United's hub at Newark airport, says that the carrier's bag subscription plan makes the most sense "for people who for some reason don't want to get the airline's branded credit card," which does offer a bag check perk. 

And if you aren't a regular United customer, it won't make sense either, given that airline's two main competitors—American and Delta—have yet to offer a similar product. 

That said, other airlines offer different ways to get a reduced rate on a checked bag.

JetBlue, for example, rolls the cost of the first checked bag into its “Blue Plus” fare, which is generally around $15 more than the lowest fare category—which doesn’t include a bag. It also has a higher priced “Blue Flex” fare that gives fliers two free checked bags and is fully refundable (and, unsurprisingly, is significantly higher than the basic fare).

Discount Fare Clubs

Frontier Airlines, which follows the ultra-low-cost airline model of charging for everything—including a carry-on bag—also offers a dizzying array of packages to mute the impact.

That includes a “Discount Den” plan, which for an annual subscription of $59.99 promises access to promotional fares and other benefits. It also has two other bundled plans that, like JetBlue’s tiered fares, lump in some added services, like priority boarding and checked and carry-on bags.

Spirit, another dirt-cheap champ, has a “$9 fare club” that costs $59.99 a year and, as its name suggests, gives access to steep discounts, depending on availability.  



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