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The best credit card perks for summer travel

Cards that offer free hotel room nights and TSA Precheck can save you time and money

Summary

While a big sign-up bonus can help you cover the cost of your trip, some of the best travel credit cards also provide incredible benefits that can help you save money.

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Summer is a busy time for travelers, and the higher demand generally translates into higher prices.

While a big credit card sign-up bonus can help you cover the cost of your trip, some of the best travel credit cards also provide some incredible benefits that can help you save money.

“These perks can be worth far more than the sign-up bonus or rewards earned when spending on the card,” says Lee Huffman, author of the travel blog BaldThoughts.com.

With the right card, you could save hundreds of dollars on one trip alone. Here are some of our favorite money-saving credit card perks for summer.

Free fourth-night award

If you’re planning a long trip, your hotel stay could end up the most expensive element. Cards like the IHG Rewards Club Premier Credit Card and the Citi Prestige card give you a complimentary fourth night if your hotel stay is four or more nights total. Depending on the card, you can use your rewards to book the hotel room or charge it to the account.

Either way, this benefit could save you hundreds of dollars, depending on where you’re planning to stay.

See related: Resort cards vs. travel credit cards for all-inclusive getaways

Extra checked bags

Checking bags for a flight at $30 one-way can get pricey fast, especially if you’re traveling with kids.

“When I fly with my family, I love being able to check our bags for free when I have that airline’s credit card,” says Huffman. “It’s hard enough to keep tabs on my kids and their goodies without having to lug around our suitcases as well.”

Most airline credit cards allow you to check your first bag free, but some will also give you a free checked bag for one or more others on your reservation.

The Gold Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, for instance, offers up to nine complimentary first checked bags on one reservation.

Airport lounge access

For some, the airport is the most stressful part of a vacation. The food is expensive, the terminal is noisy and it’s not always easy to find a seat at the gate.

With some travel credit cards, you’ll get complimentary access to one or more airport lounge networks. Once you’re there, you can often expect a quieter environment, free snacks and drinks and potentially even a full menu of food and cocktails.

Mike Pearson, founder of Credit Takeoff, and his wife are planning to use the Chase Sapphire Reserve this summer to get airport lounge access in New York and London.

“You’re able to escape that chaos completely, even if it’s just for 30 to 60 minutes,” he says. “You feel like you’re traveling in style, even if in reality it only means free Wi-Fi, beer and a cheese plate.”

Plus, if the lounge is managed by your chosen airline for that day, you may be able to get more immediate service if there’s a problem with your flight than if you were to seek help at the gate.

Depending on the card, you may get a limited number of complimentary passes or a full-blown membership. Keep in mind, though, that some cards that offer complimentary airport lounge access charge annual fees in the hundreds of dollars. So you’ll want to make sure the card’s benefits are worth it before you apply.

See related: These rewards cards can help you book a free summer vacation

Expedited security access

Even with airport lounge access, few people want to spend more time in an airport than they have to. Yet the standard rule of thumb is to get to the airport at least two hours before your flight is scheduled to depart.

Part of the reason for that long lead time is airport security. Depending on the date and time you get in line, it could be blissfully quick or painfully slow.

If you’re traveling internationally, you can wait upwards of an hour to get through customs when you return to the U.S.

The good news is that several travel credit cards can help speed up the security process and allow you to head to the airport later. They do this by offering a fee credit of up to $100 to cover your application fee for either Global Entry or TSA Precheck.

Global Entry is primarily to expedite the customs process, but it automatically includes TSA Precheck, which is for domestic flights only. So if you’re considering an international trip at any point in the future, opt for Global Entry.

Pearson and his wife are planning to take advantage of this benefit to save them some time.

“Since we each have our own Reserve card, we’ll be saving $200 [on the application fees] and –much more importantly – skipping to the front of the line at the airport,” he says.

To give you an idea of how much time it could save on domestic flights, 94 percent of TSA Precheck members waited less than five minutes in January 2019.

Even if you still manage to get a long line, Adam Sterling, author at The Sterling Traveler, recommends remaining patient, even if you’re feeling rushed.

“They’ll get through the line along with everyone else, and the employee is doing everything they can to help the situation,” he adds. “Getting riled up won’t help anything.”

See related: Need a new travel card in 2019? Try these 5 perennial favorites

Points and miles rebates

If you’re going to use a lot of points or miles to book your summer vacation, it can pay to have a card that will give you some back every time you redeem.

One example is the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard, which rebates 5 percent of your miles every time you redeem. If you own a business, The Business Platinum® Card from American Express offers a whopping 35 percent of your points back when you redeem them for airfare through American Express Travel.

Regardless of how much you redeem, getting some rewards back can help you get a head start on getting your next trip covered.

A companion airfare ticket

If you think getting a free checked bag is nice, some credit cards will cover some or all of the cost of your travel companion’s flight.

The value of the companion ticket benefit can vary by card, and some are restricted to certain types of fares and destinations. With the Hawaiian Airlines World Elite Mastercard, for example, you’ll get just a one-time 50 percent discount on a companion ticket on a roundtrip flight between Hawaii and North America, then a $100 discount on a companion fare each year for the same type of flight.

With the Platinum Delta SkyMiles® Credit Card from American Express, on the other hand, you’ll get a domestic roundtrip companion certificate each year for any main cabin ticket.

But if your trip lines up just right, you could save yourself or your travel partner a pretty penny.

If you’re feeling ambitious, you can receive the Southwest Companion Pass by earning 110,000 Rapid Rewards points or flying on 100 qualifying flights during the calendar year. Once you earn it, a companion will fly free with you for the remainder of that year plus the entire next calendar year.

Finding the right credit card for your summer plans

If you’re starting to think about what you want to do for a summer vacation or your plans are already in the works, look for ways a credit card can help you save money.

Whether it’s these perks or others you’ve come across in your search, get the card that will give you the most bang for your buck.

At the same time, keep an eye on the card’s costs, especially the annual fee. When Huffman’s trying to consider if a card’s benefits are worth its fee, he starts by looking at guaranteed benefits like a free anniversary hotel night.

“Next, I look at perks that I can use per trip, like priority boarding, free checked bags and airport lounge access,” he adds. “If I feel that I’ll be traveling enough that those perks are worthwhile, I’ll renew the card.”

Sterling also suggests looking for cards with travel credits, “which can more than make up for an annual fee.”

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