Why I wish I had a card with better travel protections

It took being stranded in the wee hours to realize my cards' protections weren't up to snuff

Wealth and Wants with Ted Rossman

Ted Rossman has seven years of experience in the credit card and personal finance industries as a member of the award-winning communications department at CreditCards.com and its sister sites The Points Guy and Bankrate.

Earlier this month, my (supposedly) direct flight from Chicago to New York took an unexpected turn. Thanks to thunderstorms, low fuel and airline crew work limits, I ended up stranded at Washington Dulles International Airport in the wee hours of the morning. Could the right credit card have helped me out of this jam?

To recap: Once our flight unexpectedly landed at Dulles, Kelly Anne, a coworker traveling with me on Delta Flight 2338, called the airline. She was told that we might be able to get on an early afternoon flight back to New York, but that wasn’t guaranteed, and we might need to connect in Detroit. That was roughly 12 hours later and potentially 500 miles out of our way!

We also didn’t have anywhere to stay, and Delta refused to give hotel vouchers. While I’m sure our company would have paid for our lodging, we would have needed to find a hotel in the middle of the night and without a confirmed flight for the next day, it would have been a sleepless night locating accommodations and sorting out our next takeoff.

Feeling like this wasn’t much of a backup plan and anxious to get home, I decided to rent a car and drive all night. I felt this was a more productive option than idling in Washington. If I wasn’t going to sleep much anyway, I might as well get home for my trouble.

See related: 11 credit card travel insurance benefits

Credit card travel protections would have come in handy

Some credit cards provide travel protections that would have been useful in this situation. Unfortunately, my corporate American Express card that I paid with wasn’t one of them. I called the customer service line a couple days after my ordeal to ask if they would reimburse my company for the rental car, gas and tolls (about $300). No dice.

A different coworker recently had a much better experience with his Chase Freedom card. He was supposed to go to North Carolina for a long weekend in September, but when Hurricane Florence entered the picture, he elected to reschedule. Chase reimbursed his flight change fees ($450) as part of the Freedom’s trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance benefit, which covers up to $1,500 per passenger and $6,000 per trip.

These are very generous perks that are unusual on a card that does not charge an annual fee. Covered reasons include injury, illness and severe weather. I actually have the Freedom card, but because I didn’t use it to book the flight that got diverted to Washington, it couldn’t help me that time.

If I had used the Freedom card, it would have paid for my rental car, gas and tolls. Had I elected to spend the night in the Washington area, it would have paid for a hotel room. I could also have booked a new flight with a different airline (at a more convenient time and without connecting in Detroit) and reimbursed for that.

The Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred Card are even more generous, covering up to $10,000 per canceled or interrupted trip. They chip in up to $500 in meals and lodging per ticket for flight delays (more than six hours for the Sapphire Reserve; 12 hours for the Sapphire Preferred) and $100 per day for luggage delayed more than six hours. The Sapphire Reserve has a $450 annual fee ($150 after subtracting the $300 annual travel credit) and the Sapphire Preferred charges $95, waived the first year.

See related: Compare cards' trip cancellation, trip interruption policies

Time to reconsider what's in my wallet

Besides paying with the wrong credit card, would I have done anything else different? I later discovered Amtrak had a 3:10 a.m. train from Washington that arrived in New York at 6:45 a.m. Given the benefit of hindsight, I probably would have taken a taxi or Uber from Dulles to Union Station, gotten on that Amtrak train and tried to sleep a few hours en route to New York.

For future personal trips, I’m reconsidering the wisdom of recently signing up for the Wells Fargo Propel American Express® Card. I chose it because it offers 3 percent back on travel and dining with no annual fee. I’ll also get a sign-up bonus of 30,000 points after spending $3,000 in the first three months, which I can turn into a $300 cash redemption. But its travel protections are lacking, especially compared with to the Sapphire cards.

While I’ve never had a credit card with an annual fee, this travel nightmare opened my eyes to a different side of premium cards. I thought I was approximating the Sapphire Reserve with the Wells Fargo Propel (at least in terms of 3 points per dollar on travel and dining with a solid sign-up bonus), but now I have a new aspect to consider. When you’re stranded somewhere at 2 a.m., peace of mind can be the most rewarding perk of all.


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Updated: 11-15-2018