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Travel perk: Credit card emergency travel assistance

A little-known credit card service can smooth out travel hazards

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You hit a travel snafu, big or small. Maybe you need advice on which shoes to wear for a tour of Athens. Your luggage gets lost in Lithuania. Or you get attacked by a shark in Zanzibar. If you have a credit card with emergency travel assistance, you can summon help with a phone call.

However, many cardholders don't know about this benefit, have no idea whether their card offers it (see chart below) or aren't clear on how it works, says Vladimir Poletaev, vice president of business development for VIPdesk, an International SOS Company, which runs travel assistance programs for several credit card issuers.

"There's so much involved in understanding what's actually offered," he says.

Credit card emergency travel assistance plans

Ins and outs of emergency travel assistance
One reason the perk can leave some cardholders confused is that the service is marketed in different ways by credit card companies, and it can overlap with other benefits, such as travel accident insurance, trip cancellation insurance or lost baggage insurance, that might be offered on the same card. The simple explanation is that travel emergency assistance is a concierge service for travelers, according to Poletaev. It usually covers these main areas:

  • Trip planning -- If you need weather reports for Aruba, hotel reservations in Helsinki, information on visas and vaccinations for Vietnam or even tips on what to pack in your suitcase, you can call the travel assistance number for help. Poletaev says, "Someone might call and say, 'I'm going to China. Do I need to bring a jacket?'"
  • Help with travel mishaps -- After you arrive, the service can help fix travel fiascos, experts say. For example, American Express Manager for Public Affairs Melanie Backs says one cardholder, who was traveling to a conference, left her luggage in the trunk of a taxi three hours before she was to fly home. The woman called AmEx's Global Assist hotline, and a representative called the cab company, tracked down the bags and got them returned in time for the traveler to catch her flight.
  • Aid for illness and injury -- Emergency travel assistance can offer help for anything from the sniffles to a stroke. For example, Linda Dickerhoof Sperling, director of marketing communications for VIPdesk, was on her honeymoon in Barcelona when her husband caught a cold. Nearby corner stores and groceries did not sell cold medicine. "All I wanted was a Sudafed, DayQuil, NyQuil, anything," she says. The couple called the travel assistance number for their credit card and a representative pointed them to a nearby pharmacy with English-speaking staff. The services also help with more serious cases. For example, Poletaev says a bank executive had to be hospitalized on a trip and got a nurse escort for a flight home. Experts point out, though, that such services will cost you unless they happen to be covered by an insurance benefit on the card or other insurance you've purchased. "The help is free, but you're responsible for any charges for third-party services," Backs says.
  • Legal assistance -- If you get in trouble while traveling, you can call for legal referrals and other help. One student traveler got arrested and thrown in jail in Egypt for snapping photos of soldiers and military equipment, Poletaev says. He called the emergency travel assistance number for his credit card, and the representative found him a lawyer and had bail money sent. The student had a separate travel insurance policy that paid for those costs, and he got back home safely, Poletaev says.
  • Security and safety advice -- A young woman was visiting friends in Kenya when riots broke out, Poletaev says. She called emergency travel assistance and got routed to a security expert, who assessed the situation and advised her she'd be in more danger if she tried to leave than if she stayed put. "They said, 'We could send people to escort you, but it's not covered, so you'd have to pay the cost,'" Poletaev says. The student stayed in her friend's apartment, and the situation settled down in a few days, he says.

What to know before you go
There are some important things travelers should know about emergency travel assistance and other related benefits that might be offered on their credit card, experts say:

  1. You must be on a trip to use the service. Travel assistance services usually are available to any cardholder who has a card with the benefit and is traveling a certain distance from home, according to Poletaev. "It usually kicks in when you are 100 miles or more from home," he says. "You can't call for translation help from your living room."
  2. Use your card to pay for your travel. In order to be eligible for some of the other card benefits that can work in tandem with emergency travel assistance, such as travel accident insurance, you must pay for your trip with that card, Poletaev says. For example, American Express travel accident insurance and baggage insurance require that the entire fare for the trip be purchased with the card that offers the benefit. In that case, AmEx baggage insurance provides up to $500 for checked baggage and up to $1,250 for lost, stolen or damaged carry-on luggage. If you have a similar benefit, your travel assistance representative could make sure you get the money to replace some toiletries and clothes while they hunt down your luggage, Poletaev says.
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  3. Don't expect too much. Most of the concierge services are conducted over the phone, Poletaev says. So, when your credit card company says they'll help you find a lost item, they don't mean they'll send a representative over to crawl around in the grass with you in the park in Paris where you lost your engagement ring. "No," Poletaev says. "But we could help you locate a ring of the same good quality."
  4. Consider buying additional coverage. Some cardholders see that emergency travel assistance is offered with their card and assume it includes travel accident insurance, lost baggage insurance and trip cancellation and interruption insurance that will cover everything, says Damian Tysdal, founder of TravelInsuranceReview.net. That might not be the case and, if some coverage is included on your credit card as an additional benefit, the dollar limit might be too low for your situation. There could be other limits or exclusions, too, such as for pre-existing medical conditions or participating in hazardous sports, he says. "If you're going on a trip and want to look into travel insurance, don't assume your credit card is going to cover it."
  5. Be prepared to pay for added services. Emergency travel assistance representatives can help you locate just about any type of service you need, but you'll have to come up with the money to pay the doctor who is sent to your room in Denmark, the lawyer who shows up to help get you out of jail in Singapore or, in a worst-case scenario, the air ambulance that rescues you from a mountaintop in Tibet. "You can usually just put it on your card," AmEx's Backs says of the charges for third-party services. "That's the easiest way to go."

Even though it doesn't cover your costs for extra services, emergency travel assistance can be a big help, Tysdal says: "It's a huge benefit. If you're going abroad, especially if there's a language issue, it can be really intimidating to get through an issue that would be really simple to take care of at home."

COMPARE CREDIT CARD EMERGENCY TRAVEL ASSISTANCE PLANS
 
American Express MasterCard Discover Visa
Cards covered All cards issued by American Express, including Platinum Card from American Express, American Express Gold Card, American Express Green Card and others. Gold MasterCard, Platinum MasterCard, MasterCard World Elite, and may be available on other MasterCard cards Discover More Credit Card, Discover Motiva Card, Discover Open Road Card, Miles by Discover Card Visa Signature cards, Visa TravelMoney cards and may be available on other Visa card products
What they call it
Global Assist MasterAssist Travel Assistance Services /MasterCard Global Services /MasterCard Global Premium (depending on the card) 24/7 Travel Assistance Visa Travel and Emergency Assistance
Services offered
A range of services including trip planning (customs information, cultural inquiries, vaccination information, passport/visa information, weather reports), lost passport replacement assistance, translation services (conferencing in an interpreter over the phone or referral to a local service provider), emergency cash wire service, lost luggage assistance, lost item search, urgent message relay, emergency medical and legal referrals, bail bond assistance, prescription replacement assistance, emergency medical transportation assistance, repatriation of mortal remains of a cardholder or covered family member. Trip planning (visa /passport requirements, immunization information), help with lost or stolen documents or luggage, emergency card replacement, cash advances, assistance in finding an ATM, physician referrals, hospital transfer arrangements, referrals to attorneys or local embassies or consulates A range of services, including lost baggage tracking, emergency cash transfer, assistance locating ATMs, help with passport and travel document replacement, embassy or consulate referral, flight rebooking, help replacing lost or stolen airline tickets, legal referrals, document delivery arrangement, local police station referral, security or political evacuation assistance.
A variety of services including trip planning, emergency message relay, medical referral assistance with monitoring and follow-up, legal referrals, emergency transportation assistance, emergency airline ticket replacement help, lost luggage locator service, emergency translation help, prescription and valuable document delivery arrangements. Visa says it will make every effort to help in an emergency, even beyond listed services.
Limitations
Available only to cardholders traveling more than 100 miles from home. Assistance cannot be in violation of U.S. economic or trade sanctions. Cardholders are responsible for charges from third-party service providers. Must be cardholder traveling more than 100 miles from home. Cardholders are responsible for charges from third-party service providers. Certain services might not be available in all destinations. Cardholders can call to ask about a specific destination. To use the service, you must be a cardholder whose account is in good standing, a spouse or dependent child traveling with the cardholder or an authorized user in good standing.  This is not an insurance product, and cardholder is responsible for paying fees for any third-party service providers. The service is available only to eligible Visa cardholders whose accounts are in good standing, along with their spouses or dependent children under age 22. Cardholders are responsible for charges from third-party service providers.
Other benefits
Travel accident insurance, roadside assistance and baggage insurance available on some cards. Additional benefits available on some cards include roadside assistance, lost or damaged luggage insurance, travel accident insurance, trip cancellation insurance, baggage delay insurance and hotel/motel burglary insurance. Separate benefits available on some cards include emergency roadside assistance and flight accident insurance. Lost luggage reimbursement available on Visa TravelMoney cards and might be available on some other Visa card products.
Source: CreditCards.com research, October 2012

See related: 6 budget-blowing international travel mistakes to avoid, Credit card insurance perks: Does your card have you covered?

Published: October 26, 2012


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