9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free

Yes, there's the free bag, but some of your rewards card perks may be less well-known

Anne Field
Personal Finance Writer
Freelance writer based in New Rochelle, N.Y.

9 travel-related fees, perks your rewards card may cover for free

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Amassing points is the name of the game for most travelers using rewards cards. But there are additional benefits too – for example, the opportunity to avoid paying all manner of fees. And while some are familiar, such as providing free access to airport lounges or waiving foreign transaction fees, others are less well-known. 

Still, as with anything, there’s no free lunch. If your card has an annual fee, you’ll want to figure out if you can avoid enough charges to make the card worthwhile. That requires evaluating your priorities, from first-class travel to a preference for certain hotels.

“Your travel habits should determine what type of card works best for you and what fees you want to avoid,” says Jessica Bisesto, senior editor of TravelPirates. 

Here’s a look at some notable fees you can avoid, along with what you should watch out for.

9 TRAVEL-RELATED FEES, PERKS YOUR REWARDS CARD MAY COVER FOR FREE
  1. Free Wi-Fi
  2. Room upgrades
  3. Late check-in or checkout
  4. Statement credit to offset miscellaneous travel costs
  5. Credit toward elite status
  6. Close-in booking fee
  7. Baggage fees for cardholder guest travelers
  8. Global Entry ot TSA PreCheck applications
  9. Car rental insurance

1. Free Wi-Fi.
Most major airlines now have aircraft with Wi-Fi capabilities. With some, that may include the entire fleet; with others, the frew Wi-Fi is available only on certain routes or planes.

In any case, the cost for in-flight Wi-Fi varies from $5-$15 a day or $30-$50 a month. But several premium travel rewards cards offer free Wi-Fi through Gogo, an in-flight Internet provider.

American Express Business Platinum cardholders, for example, receive 10 Gogo complimentary passes each calendar year, while the UBS Visa Infinite card offers free Gogo in-flight Wi-Fi on 12 flight segments per year. 

While many hotels now offer free Wi-Fi, some still charge for the service. With certain cards, however, you can get hotel internet access for free. With some hotels, there’s a basic, complimentary service, but you have to pay for “premium,” higher-speed access.

What to watch out for: With the Starwood Preferred Guest card (for Starwood hotels), you get complimentary premium internet access, but you need to book directly with your SPG card.

What’s more, when Julian Kheel, a senior writer for The Points Guy, tried the upgrade, he didn’t notice a big difference in speed.

The Hilton HHonors card also offers free hotel Wi-Fi, but only at certain properties.

2. Room upgrades.
Want a room with a view? Or on a higher floor? Switching to better digs can cost you. However, many hotel cards, such as the SPG card, provide free upgrades at check-in.

Bonus: If you have SPG Platinum status (which is the second tier after Gold status in the Starwood Preferred guest program and is earned after 25 stays or 50 nights) you get access at no extra charge to health clubs and the club lounge, even if you aren’t upgraded to a club room.

With the Luxury Hotels & Resort Collection, a network of more than 900 hotels, resorts and spas, Chase’s United MileagePlus Explorer card gives you a room upgrade, along with golf green fee waivers and other freebies.

What to watch out for: The space has to be available. Otherwise, you’re out of luck. And the benefit isn’t always offered at all properties.

3. Late-check in and checkout.  
Hate scrambling to pack up and exit your hotel room to avoid a late check-out fee? The Platinum card from American Express or SPG Preferred card, among others, allow you to check in earlier or check out later than usual, for free. 

What to watch out for: This benefit generally is available only at certain properties, so check ahead of time whether your hotel offers it.

4. Credit that can be used toward miscellaneous travel costs.
Some travel rewards cards give you a credit for a certain amount of money, usually $100 to $300, that can be applied toward various travel-related fees and expenses. 

For example, the Chase Sapphire Reserve reimburses cardholders up to $300 a year in travel credit for expenses such as cabs, rental cars, baggage fees, etc.  “You hardly have to leave town to make the card worth it,” says credit card and travel blogger Jason Steele.

“Your travel habits should determine what type of card works best for you and what fees you want to avoid.”

What to watch out for: Some programs are more restrictive than others.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve, for example, reimburses you $300 to use for just about any travel-related purchase you can think of, from hotel rooms and bridge tolls to taxis and limousines.

On the other hand, with the JetBlue Plus Mastercard, you receive a $100 credit per year that can only be used when you book a vacation package through that airline.

5. Credit toward elite status.
While this isn’t technically a fee, some cards may help you accrue enough credits to jump-start your path to getting elite status.

Once you achieve that level, you may be eligible for benefits such as free flight changes/cancellations or hotel room upgrades.

“You can end up with a lot of freebies,” says Holly Johnson, a travel expert who runs the website Club Thrifty.

To receive SPG gold status, you need 10 stays or 25 nights at a Starwood hotel property in one year; for platinum status, you must have 25 stays or 50 nights annually. But with the SPG card by AmEx, for example, you get two stays and five nights that count toward the total number you need to reach elite status.

What to watch out for: Cards affiliated with hotels will help you work toward elite status as long as you stay at one of their properties. So, a Hyatt card helps you only at Hyatt hotels.

“You want to use cards from hotels you like to stay in,” says Robert Glaze, a travel blogger at Globalphile.com.

At some chains, such as Starwood and Marriott, you get elite credits for awarded nights even when you redeem points, but that’s not true for all hotels.

6. Close-in booking fee.
Some airlines charge a fee, typically $75, if you try to redeem points for airfare purchased too close to the departure dates, which is not so great if you tend to make arrangements at the last minute.

For travelers who have elite or upper elite membership status with certain airlines’ frequent-flyer programs – for example, American and United – the fee will be waived. But also, with the United MileagePlus Club credit card, you don’t have to pay a fee within three weeks of booking a flight.

What to watch out for: Don’t assume this is the norm for pricey cards other than United MileagePlus Club card, which has a $450 annual fee.

“It’s an unusual benefit,” says Ariana Arghandewal, a blogger with PointChaser.com.

7. Baggage fees.
It’s probably not news to you that some cards allow you free checked bags, but what you may not know some cards offer free checked baggage for families or large parties. In some cases, that can mean no charge for one bag for as many as eight fellow travelers.

With an eligible Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from American Express, for example, a total of nine passengers get their first checked bag free on Delta. You don’t have to use your Delta AmEx card to pay for the ticket, nor do you need to book directly with Delta, as long as you use the same SkyMiles account number.

Similarly, the Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard also allows one bag free for up to nine travelers. At $25 or so for your first bag and $30-$35 for a second one, that can really add up.

What to watch out for: Make sure your travel companions are listed on your reservation.

Also, keep an eye on the size of your luggage. With the SkyMiles card, the benefit can only be used with bags that are not overweight or oversized under Delta’s rules.

8. Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fee.
Travel is much easier when you don’t have to deal with long security or Customs lines.

Several premium travel cards, such as the Platinum Card from American Express and Citi Prestige, will reimburse you in the form of a statement credit for the $100 application fee for Global Entry, which expedites going through Customs when returning from a foreign country, and the $85 charge for TSA Precheck, so you’re directed to a speedy line at airport security.

“The programs are becoming more popular as an increasing number of people are traveling internationally,” says Bisesto of TravelPirates.

What to watch out for: You’re the only one covered. But, if you’ve already used your statement credit to pay for your own application for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck, some cards allow you to cover someone else’s application fee by making them an authorized user on your account, according to Bisesto.

Be careful to read your card’s terms and conditions first, because not all of the premium rewards cards offer this feature. The bottom line: You and your authorized user should apply separately.

9. Primary car rental insurance.  
Most credit cards cover rentals, of course, but as secondary coverage. That means your personal auto insurance gets dinged first, most probably causing your rates to go up.

But in a few cases, such as with the Chase Sapphire Reserve card, you receive coverage as the primary insurer. (Most secondary policies on credit cards automatically become primary coverage if you’re renting a car outside the U.S. and your personal car insurance policy doesn’t cover you in that country or you don’t own a car).

What to watch out for: Coverage is generally for collision, not liability. You’ll use your own auto insurance or coverage from the auto rental company for the latter.

Also, most policies will exclude many specialty classes of cars, such as large passenger vans, pickup trucks, antique vehicles and motorcycles.

The bottom line: Rewards cards can help you bypass a wide assortment of fees. Just make sure those are ones you’re likely to encounter in your travels.

See related: Which cards are best for renting a car, Luxury rewards perks: What you get for paying a big annual fee, Hidden card benefit: Save money and sanity in airport lounges


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Updated: 11-22-2017