Can You Purchase Airline Tickets With a Debit Card?

Article Summary:

Can you book a flight with your debit card? Yes, you can. This article will tell you things to keep in mind when buying plane tickets with debit cards. It will also tell you why you might want to consider credit cards instead if you fly often.

Table of contents:

The first credit cards came on the scene in the 1950s. The first debit cards arrived in the 1970s. And the first prepaid cards, aka prepaid debit cards, arose in the 1980s. By 2019, 22.8 billion credit, debit, and prepaid cards were said to be in circulation.

That’s a lot of plastic!

Cash still has its uses, of course. If you want to buy and sell incognito offline, cash may be your payment medium of choice. But for growing numbers of people, plastic is the preferred medium for most payments. Airlines share this preference.

Choose your plastic: credit cards vs. debit cards

Most debit cards these days bear a MasterCard or Visa logo. This means you can use them almost anywhere you can use a credit card. Even so, among plastic payment options, credit cards get recommended the most because, among other things, they offer better protection should your card or information get stolen.

If most experts think credit cards are safer, why do some people prefer debit cards?

Credit cards make it easy to spend money you don’t have

To some users, credit cards carry a risk that outweighs the safety features of credit cards. What might that risk be? They just make it too easy to spend money you don’t have. Sure, learning to use them while resisting the temptation to overspend might be beneficial. It might build your willpower and teach you impulse control. But it also might unleash your inner spendthrift and land you in bankruptcy court. Or in the local homeless shelter.

“Thanks, but no thanks!” you say.

But just because you’re averse to credit cards doesn’t mean you don’t like to take a trip now and then. Nor does it mean you never need to travel for business. So, you want to know, “Can I use a debit card to buy airline tickets?”

You can — if you have the right debit card.

Debit cards will work (mostly)

Most airlines will accept payment using MasterCard- and Visa-branded debit cards.

“I’ve heard there are prepaid debit cards affiliated with American Express or Discover. What if I have one of those?”

Interesting question. As of August 2021, our list of the best prepaid cards recommended only MasterCard and Visa cards.

Even so, airlines taking American Express and Discover credit cards will typically take debit cards with the same branding.

If you’ve somehow acquired a debit card without the logo of any major credit card company, your options will be more limited. When you set up a checking account, most banks issue you a MasterCard or Visa debit card as a matter of course. A few people worry that a lost MasterCard or Visa debit card will be easier for a dishonest person to misuse than the old ATM card. If you request to receive an old-school ATM card instead, some banks will honor that request.

An ATM card is still a “debit card.” It still debits from your bank account. But its only branding is that of your bank. As far as most airlines are concerned, this branding doesn’t cut it. Most airlines will not accept ATM cards for payment. Delta is a noteworthy exception. That airline provides a way to pay for your airline ticket with an ATM card, provided you don’t mind entering your PIN on the payment page.

On the subject of Delta, here’s something to consider if you overcome your aversion to credit. If you expect to do a lot of your air travel via Delta, this Delta-optimized American Express card could be worth looking into.

If you’re determined to order airlines tickets with no plastic but that old ATM card, you do have options beyond switching to Delta. Online travel agencies may be one of them. These agencies may take a greater variety of payments than some airlines. While most of these won’t be set up to take payment using your ATM card, they may allow payment by check or e-check. (To pay by e-check, aka electronic check, you enter your bank’s routing number and your account number. You might also enter a check number.) They may also allow you to use third-party payment services like PayPal and Stripe.

To be fair to the airlines, some of their online ordering systems do permit options that won’t make you get a MasterCard or Visa credit or debit card. Notably, American Airlines’ system allows e-check ticket purchases.

You could also visit your airline’s nearest travel center or its ticket office at the nearest airport. Booking your flight in person could open up additional payment options like cash.

Debit cards won’t cost you more in fees

“I’ve heard that airlines and third-party sellers charge extra fees for debit card ticket purchases. Is this true?”

Emphatically not. In certain instances, in fact, using your debit card may mean paying lower fees.

Now, some low-cost Asian airlines do charge service fees for debit and credit card purchases. In addition, some domestic European airlines do the same. In general, however, the fee for debit is lower than the fee for credit.

Small fees at such alternative airlines don’t prove debit superior to credit. Partisans of credit cards don’t recommend switching to debit to avoid these fees. Still, savings are savings.

Purchase airline tickets with a debit card: can you cover the charge?

Do you have a debit card with the Visa or MasterCard logo? If so, the only thing that will keep you from using the card to buy your plane ticket is not having enough money. Make sure the associated bank account, probably your checking account, has enough cash. If you have a prepaid card, the same rule applies.

You’ll also need to make sure the ticket cost is within your debit card’s daily limit. If you have a prepaid card, this shouldn’t be an issue.

Do you have enough money in the bank account?

Have you opted in to debit card overdrafts? If not, insufficient funds will mean your transaction gets declined. If you have opted in, your transaction might clear, but you’ll owe a fee. In 2014, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) found that the median overdraft fee was $34.

Keep in mind that your bank account must have funds to cover your airline ticket and other payments. So when you check your balance, also ask yourself if outstanding checks have all cleared. And make sure you take pending automatic payments into account. If you use a paper check register or financial app to keep track of these things, make sure you use it consistently.

Prepaid debit cards are just like debit cards tied to checking accounts, but simpler. You won’t have outstanding checks to worry about, for instance. Only buy a plane ticket your account balance can cover, and you’ll be OK. Prepaid cards can have fees that other cards don’t so be sure to shop around for a prepaid card that keeps these to a minimum.

Is the ticket less than your daily limit?

Your account balance typically isn’t the only constraint on your debit card purchases. Banks set daily limits on debit card expenditures. Limits in the $1,000 to $3,000 range are common. Whenever making large purchases with your debit card, make sure you know your daily limit. The limit will be noted somewhere in all the paperwork you signed when you set up your account.

An easier way to find out your limit might be to call your bank. Banks vary in how easy they make it to get past automated call routing to a real person. This makes some of us very reluctant to call today’s support lines. Still, you can do more than find out your limit once you have someone on the line. You can also ask to have it increased. The limit is a security feature, though. If you have it raised to facilitate a large purchase, consider calling back to lower it when you’re done.

By the way, the daily debit card limit is not the same as the ATM cash withdrawal limit. As it happens, cash withdrawals might count toward both limits. So, let’s say you withdraw $200 cash from an ATM before trying to buy a set of plane tickets. Let’s also say your bank counts ATM withdrawals toward both limits. Let’s finally say your debit card daily limit is $1,000. Knowing that limit, you think buying a set of flight tickets for $900 will be no problem. But you’ve forgotten your ATM withdrawal. You’ve tried to run $1,100 in debit card transactions using a debit card limited to $1,000 daily. Your transaction will be declined.

Bottom line

As long as you’re a careful record keeper and know your accounts’ limits, using your debit card to buy airline tickets should be simple and safe. But if you’re someone who tends to lose track of things, you should work hard to overcome your aversion to credit. Credit can be perilous, no doubt about it. But debit cards are no improvement over credit if you use them badly. If you find you can’t keep track of debit accounts like you need to, get a good credit card and use that instead.

Will your checking account be safe?

“Simple and safe,” you reply. “Are you sure about that? I’ve heard stories.”

If you carry and use a debit card, there’s always the possibility you’ll lose it, and someone else will find it. Well, almost always. What if you only place debit card orders online from your home computer? And what if you keep your debit card by your computer and never take it with you anywhere? In that case, your physical card probably won’t get into someone else’s hands.

Even so, your debit card information might get stolen. Malware hidden in one of your mobile apps could forward the information to a criminal. The airline or agency where you buy your tickets could suffer a data breach. Or your information might get stolen by the “skimmer” some criminal has embedded in the site where you buy your tickets.

This is concerning. As noted earlier, credit cards can have better safety features than debit cards. At least that’s what most experts think.

Fortunately, this doesn’t mean debit cards don’t have safety features of their own.

Debit cards and safety

If your debit card gets lost or stolen, how much money might you lose? Does losing your card mean losing all the money in your checking account? What are the rules? How much in fraudulent charges might you have to pay?

Different rules apply to credit cards and debit cards. For credit cards, the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA) determines your liability. For debit cards, the Electronic Fund Transfer Act (EFTA) does so.

The EFTA limits your liability for unauthorized debit card charges. All debit cards fall under the EFTA. This includes cards with or without the Visa or MasterCard logo. It also includes ATM cards and prepaid cards. Under these rules, what determines your liability for unauthorized charges? How quickly you report your discovery of an unauthorized charge or missing card.

Here are the specifics:

If you:Your maximum liability is:
Report an unauthorized charge to a card still in your possession within 60 days of the bank statement showing the charge$0
Report your card missing before any unauthorized charges$0
Report within 2 business days of learning your card is missing$50
Report more than 2 business days after learning your card is missing but fewer than 60 calendar days after the applicable bank statement$500
Report more than 60 calendar days after the applicable bank statementAll money in the linked account and, possibly, money in accounts linked to that account

(Data source: Federal Trade Commission)

Will you regret using debit instead of credit?

So you generally prefer not to use credit cards. If you fly rarely, you needn’t consider getting a credit card to buy airline tickets. If you fly a great deal, though, sticking to your anti-credit-card principles could cost you. Before buying airline tickets with your debit, make sure you won’t regret it.

More difficult refunds

With the right credit card, you may be insured in case your flight gets canceled. The right credit card might also make getting a refund easier if other problems mess up your flight. If you instead buy your ticket with debit, you may get stuck in a lengthy negotiation over the airline’s refund policies. Risking this kind of hassle once in a while may be tolerable. Risking it frequently probably won’t be.

No bonus miles (most likely)

Among the benefits of credit cards tailored to air travel are bonus miles or points. Using these cards may accumulate points toward travel benefits or miles toward free flights.

There are rare debit cards that offer bonus miles. For instance, SunTrust Bank offers a debit card providing bonus miles on Delta airlines.

Key takeaways

  • If you fly infrequently, buying tickets with your debit card is no problem.
  • If you fly a lot, there are good reasons to consider using a credit card instead. Cards with flight-focused perks and protections are a big part of this.
  • Make sure the account linked to your debit card has enough money.
  • Debit cards have a daily limit. If you try to make a purchase over this amount without making prior arrangements with your bank, your purchase will be declined. So make sure you know the daily limit before booking your flight.
  • “Enough money” means enough for the ticket(s) plus any pending payments on the account. Outstanding checks and automatic checking account deductions are among these.
  • A prepaid debit card will work as well as one linked to your checking account. As long as it has the MasterCard or Visa logo and sufficient funds, you’re good to go.
  • If you have a debit card without Visa or MasterCard branding, acceptance will vary. It depends on the airline or agent. If you have a plain ATM card, you won’t be able to use it in most cases.
  • Using a debit card may make refunds more difficult. Make sure you’ve read the fine print. This means the fine print from the airline or travel agent, as well as from your card issuer.
  • What if airlines’ and travel agents’ websites don’t support the payment method you want to use? Visit in person. An airline’s ticket window might support payment methods you can’t use online. So might a travel agent’s office.

Conclusion: flight and credit go together, but debit will work

The writer of this article doesn’t like credit cards any more than you do. He thinks they can bring out the worst in people, like alcohol and narcotics. But even he has to admit that flight and credit just seem to go together.

Everything about today’s system for booking and paying for flights is designed with credit cards in mind. Buying flight tickets is easiest and fastest with a MasterCard or Visa credit card. If something goes wrong with a flight or airline, refunds are easiest if you’ve booked with credit.

Avoiding credit cards if you fly rarely is a viable option. But avoiding credit cards while being a frequent flyer probably isn’t a great idea. If you like to fly, you should probably learn to like credit. Or, at least, you should learn how to use it responsibly for flying, if for nothing else.

If you fly a lot, you should consider getting a credit card specifically tailored to air travel. Cards of this sort may offer travel insurance. They may waive foreign transaction fees. And they may have other benefits valuable to travelers. Read about the best airline credit cards here.

All that said, if you really are determined to use your debit card to purchase all your flight tickets, you can do so. Doing so won’t always be as convenient as using credit. And if something goes wrong and you need a refund, you may suffer for using debit. You also won’t rack up credit card points for future flights. But, most of the time, your experience won’t be noticeably different than if you’d used credit.

However, you end up paying for your flight, happy flying!

Article Sources & Additional Reading
  1. At what age can you get a debit card — SuperMoney
  2. Can You Book a Hotel with a Debit Card? — SuperMoney
  3. CFPB Finds Small Debit Purchases Lead to Expensive Overdraft Charges — Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB)
  4. Debit cards that help you build credit — SuperMoney
  5. Lost or Stolen Credit, ATM, and Debit Cards — Federal Trade Commission
  6. Money-saving travel trips — SuperMoney
  7. New web skimmer steals credit card data, sends to crooks via Telegram — Malwarebytes Labs
  8. Number of credit, debit, and prepaid cards in circulation worldwide from 2017 to 2019, with forecasts for 2023 and 2025 — Statista
  9. Purchasing a Plane Ticket With a Debit Card — AZCentral.com
  10. The History of Payments: The rise of Prepaid Cards — Moorwand
  11. What Are the Advantages of a Debit Card? — SuperMoney