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My Credit Card Cautionary Tale

distressed woman holding up three credit cardsI’ve been writing about credit cards for years. I’ve read the fine print on dozens of offers that I’ve deciphered for consumers, and I always read the fine print before I apply for a card myself.

I ought to be the last person to think I was eligible for a credit card perk when I really wasn’t. But the fine print of some cards makes it easy for even savvy consumers to slip up.

So consider this a cautionary tale about the loopholes those offering rewards build for themselves, exceptions that make me think maybe they don’t want me to actually receive the perks they offer.

In September, I came across a nice sign-up bonus for the Citi Platinum Select AAdvantage World Mastercard: 30,000 American Airlines miles after spending $1,000 in your first 90 days as a cardholder. Other perks included a free checked bag for you and up to four travel companions, and no annual fee for the first year.

The typical cost to check a bag is $25, so I knew this perk would save me $100 on holiday travel, since there’s almost no way to exchange Christmas presents without either paying to check a bag or paying to ship them (which costs even more).

Add that $100 to the $300 worth of miles I’d be getting from the sign-up bonus, and this card seemed worth it. I applied and was approved.

So imagine my surprise when I went to check bags for my husband and myself before a recent outbound flight and I was charged $50.

I told the attendant we were supposed to get a free checked bag. The airline told me I had to contact the credit card company about getting a refund. Perhaps this was a perk that forces you to pay first only to get the statement credit later.

Turns out, I goofed up, or so I thought.

I didn’t use my American Airlines frequent-flyer number with my reservation.

American has numerous code share partners, so I used my British Airways frequent-flyer number because I had tons of BA miles and almost no AA miles. It made more sense to add to my BA miles stockpile, where I’d have a better chance of redeeming all my miles.

To get the free checked bags, the fine print said, all I needed to do was change my frequent-flyer number seven days prior to flying. It was too late to do that, even for our return flight.

Not one to be easily dissuaded from receiving a perk I felt I was being tricked out of, I emailed Citibank to request a statement credit for the baggage fees, but they said it was up to the airline. So I contacted American.

The response wasn’t at all what I was expecting. It had nothing to do with which frequent-flyer number I’d used.

The response: “The waived baggage fee only applies on American-marketed and -operated flights.”

I reread the fine print. Sure enough, the loophole was there. I had, in fact, purchased my ticket through Alaska Airlines, a partner airline not covered.

American credited my account with 2,500 frequent-flyer miles instead. At a penny per mile, that’s worth about $25.

I appreciated the gesture, but it didn’t make up for the $100 cash I had to pay, especially since I doubt I’ll ever use those additional miles.

The way American’s award chart is structured, having 34,500 miles instead of the 32,000 I had previously doesn’t give me more options.

The gesture is worthless in my case.

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