Credit card travel perks make them good vacation partners
Benefits vary widely, so shop for a card that fits your travel plans
Rental car insurance. Hotel breakfasts. Roadside assistance. All can be quite costly, but you may be able to get these and myriad other travel benefits for free simply by reading the fine print on your credit card agreements before you hit the road or take to the air.
If you didn't realize that your card had some great freebies, you're not alone, says Cate Williams, vice president of financial literacy for Money Management International, a large credit counseling firm. "People aren't typically aware of travel perks that their credit cards offer because they're not very well promoted," she says. "And most of us who travel are pretty optimistic that we won't need the coverage."
While the benefits vary greatly from card to card, American Express, Visa, MasterCard and Discover all offer cardholders various travel perks if they use their card to pay for travel arrangements.
What's the best card for you? That depends on your traveling habits and your lifestyle. Here are some of your choices.
Travel perks for big spenders
Benefits may differ based on the cost of the card. As you might expect, the best perks come with premium cards -- and those willing to spend big on those cards, says Liz Pulliam Weston, author of "Your Credit Score."
A platinum card from American Express, for example, carries a $450 annual fee, and cardholders can get perks such as access to airport clubs and hundreds of dollars in benefits when booking at particular hotels and resorts, says Mona Hamouly, a spokeswoman for American Express.
Those who spend $20,000 annually on a Hilton Honors American Express card enjoy room upgrades, complimentary Internet access, free breakfast and access to the executive lounge during their Hilton stay. (If you don't want to make those kinds of charges, the card will still provide privileges such as early check-in and late checkout, free weekday newspapers and complimentary health club access.) Similar perks exist for holders of the Starwood American Express Card. "There are all sorts of niceties with these cards, especially as you move up to advanced elite status levels," Weston says.
Those willing to fork over the $75 annual fee for the Citi PremierPass Elite can take advantage of the card's complimentary companion travel program, in which cardholders who buy an airline ticket through the card's reservation system will receive a free second ticket for a companion. While there are a number of restrictions that apply to the program, including minimum stays and advance purchase requirements, it can be a fantastic perk.
Perks for the rest of us
Even if you're not a big spender, you can still get some worthwhile benefits from your card. For example, American Express cardholders are eligible for the Destination Family program if they book their trip through American Express Travel. They can receive perks such as a free car seat or milk and cookies delivered to the room.
The program was launched last year, according to Hamouly, because the company realizes "travel as a family is very cumbersome."
In comparison, a Chase Sapphire card with no annual fee includes things such as refunds if trips are canceled, and reimbursement for lodging and meals if trips are delayed, says Laura Rossi, vice president of external affairs for Chase Card Services.
Those holding a Continental Airlines card from Chase can fly on the airline without having to pay for their first checked bag, if you purchase the ticket with your Chase card.
MasterCard's perks include pre-trip assistance, such as providing information on visa, passport and immunization requirements when traveling abroad.
And Discover is among the credit card providers offering services such as delivery of a replacement passport if yours is lost or stolen, and a Global Traveler's Hotline to assist if an emergency arises, says spokeswoman Mai Lee Ua.
Citi MasterCards, meanwhile, offer a lost-wallet service, which replaces a customer's card within 24 hours if it's been lost and will even provide emergency cash to tide customers over while they wait.
And while you can always hope you'll never have to take advantage of it, many cards -- including Visa and Mastercard -- offer up to $1 million in travel accident insurance when you pay your fare with your credit card. "It's one of those things that consumer advocates will tell you not to buy because it's often so overpriced," says Weston. "But if you already have it on your card, it can be useful for you if you get injured -- or if your heirs want to make a claim."
Is your rental covered?
Ed Perkins, a contributing editor at SmarterTraveler.com, says that for most credit cardholders, "the most important (benefit) is collision coverage on rental cars."
Dan Ferber, a writer from Indianapolis, found that out after he backed out of a hotel parking garage while on a trip to Maryland. He caught the front end of the rental car on one of the garage pillars. The car "was toast. It did a lot of damage considering I was going 10 mph. I was kind of worried because it did not look like a cheap repair."
Ferber had declined the collision insurance offered by the car rental agency, so he called his automobile insurance company when the accident occurred. His insurer directed him to contact MasterCard, which he'd used to pay for the rental car. He submitted paperwork to MasterCard regarding the damage and never paid a penny out of his pocket for repairs.
However, Perkins cautions there can be issues when using a credit card to cover collision insurance. "The main problem is that it's secondary," Perkins says, so travelers have to file a claim with their own insurer first, before the credit company picks up the remainder of the bill.
But if you have a corporate Visa or MasterCard, the cards serve as primary insurance, Perkins says, and an American Express cardholder can upgrade to primary insurance for a flat fee per rental.
If a traveler has an accident with a rental car, "the rental car companies pile on the charges," Perkins says. The company dings customers not only for the damage, but for the loss of use when the car is in the shop being repaired.
If you don't own a car and thus don't have car insurance -- not uncommon for residents of big cities, such as New York or San Francisco -- the credit cards automatically serves as the primary insurance provider, says Carolyn Paddock, who worked as a flight attendant for 18 years before starting the website In-flight Insider.
Before traveling, Paddock recommends checking with your credit card company to find out exactly what benefits it offers. Cardholders can do that by reading the information booklet that came with their credit card, checking the benefits online or calling their provider's toll-free number.
Perks that might not be worth the hassle
While some cards offer benefits like lost luggage insurance or even pay for lost or stolen items, they might not be worth the time and inconvenience required to get the cash.
American Express, for example, offers up to $250 per person for the loss of high-risk items like jewelry, cameras or sporting equipment. "It's certainly something," Weston notes "But it's not a lot, given what we're talking about."
Similarly, if you bought a new gadget on your travels only to have it stolen from your hotel room, you might be tempted to use the purchase protection you've got on your card. It's a fine program, says Williams, but know that you may spend hours getting your documents together and filling out forms to get your money back. "Oftentimes, you've got to have a charge record, receipts and even police reports," she says. Plus, you'll have a limited time to file the claim. The claim may make financial sense, but don't expect the process to be quick or easy.
'Why not take advantage?'
Travelers aren't likely to use all the travel perks offered by their card, but knowing about them can help prevent you from paying extra for things you don't need.
"Traveling is incredibly stressful," she adds. Knowing in advance what your credit card offers "certainly would make life easier."
See related: Credit cards' coverage varies on rental car insurance, Avoid headaches with this 5-step plan for taveling with credit cards, The greatest gift of all: free travel, Have card, will travel: A guide to traveling with a credit card
Updated: November 15, 2010