Dropping your bags at the airline check-in counter without worrying about paying hundreds of dollars in fees. Speeding through airport security thanks to your TSA PreCheck. Popping into a swanky club lounge for a free pre-flight glass of champagne — after all, you’ve got an extra few minutes since you’re entitled to priority boarding anyway. Arriving at your luxury hotel to find you’ve been upgraded to a suite, and they’re throwing in breakfast for free. All these perks and more can be yours if you carry the right travel rewards cards.
You might have signed up for a credit card thanks to bonuses topping 100,000 points in some cases. But beyond the points or miles you can earn with everyday spending, many of these credit cards offer dozens of other potentially valuable benefits that can enrich your travels while saving you money… or even get you out of a scrape if things go wrong. Here are the top 18 benefits to consider — and the cards that offer them.
1. Annual travel statement credits (aka free money)
Though they carry annual fees that run up to hundreds of dollars, premium travel cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Platinum Card from American Express tend to offer cardholders annual travel credits that you can put toward airfare and other purchases. For example, the Citi Prestige, which has a $450 annual fee, comes with a $250 airline credit each calendar year. That credit can be put toward tickets, but also other incidentals like checked bags or ticket change fees. It’s basically like your annual fee is a prepayment of airfare you’ll purchase throughout the year. The Amex Platinum card comes with a $200 annual credit toward airline incidentals with a specific carrier the cardholder designates. But now, cardholders also receive $200 in Uber credits each year — $15 per month January through November, and $35 in December. All told, that’s $400 worth of various credits compared to the card’s $550 annual fee.
2. Free Global Entry and/or TSA PreCheck
Many of the premium cards in the travel rewards space, including the three above as well as the Citi/ AAdvantage Executive card, automatically reimburse you for the $85 TSA PreCheck application fee, or the $100 application fee for Global Entry. My pro tip: Go for Global Entry since you’ll get TSA PreCheck along with it if approved. You’ll be speeding through security lines and immigration in no time.
3. Airport lounge access
Another top-shelf benefit that comes with the more expensive cards out there is access to airport lounges when you’re traveling. The Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Citi Prestige all offer access to Priority Pass lounges around the world, while the Amex Platinum will also get you into Delta SkyClubs and Amex’s own expanding family of swanky Centurion Lounges.
The three major US legacy carriers — American Airlines, Delta and United — all partner with banks on cards that offer access to their own lounges. For example, the Delta Reserve card will get you into the airline’s SkyClubs, the United Club card comes with access to, well, United Clubs, and the Citi/AAdvantage Executive card will open the door to American’s Admirals Clubs. Unfortunately, all come with high annual fees of several hundred dollars, but that could be worth it just for the club membership, and you do get other perks such as…
4. Free checked bags
It seems like airlines nickel and dime passengers for every little amenity these days. If you don’t have elite status, you could end up paying a fortune just for checking a couple bags on a family trip. Luckily, many airline credit cards come with a free checked bag benefit. Just beware that this benefit can vary widely from card to card. Among the most generous, however, the Gold Delta SkyMiles credit card from Amex waives the checked bag fee for primary cardholders and up to eight companions on the same reservation. If you maxed it out with nine people and a checked bag each, that would add up to $450 in value on a round-trip itinerary in the U.S.
5. Priority boarding
Even if you do have a card that lets you check a bag for free, sometimes you’ve got to carry on as well, and we all know how fast those overhead bins fill up. That’s why getting on the plane first can make such a difference. Some airline cards like the United Explorer come with priority boarding as a benefit that gets you on the plane ahead of the hoi polloi.
6. In-flight discounts
They say there’s no such thing as a free lunch, and nowhere is that truer than on airlines. It seems like you have to pay for everything, including meals and in-flight entertainment, on most domestic flights. While it’s easy enough to pick up a sandwich at the airport and stock up your iPad with Netflix downloads, sometimes you just don’t have time. Then you’re stuck on the plane, hungry and bored. Luckily, many airline credit cards offer discounts on in-flight purchases. For example, the AAdvantage Aviator Red MasterCard gets you 25 percent off such purchases on American, while JetBlue cardholders enjoy a whopping 50 percent discount on in-flight purchases including food and cocktails.
7. Free anniversary nights
Several hotel credit cards give you a free night every year you remain a cardholder. While you generally have to pay your annual fee in order for the free night to be added to your account, the value of that night can be worth much more than it costs you to keep the card. For example, the IHG Rewards Club Select credit card costs $49 per year, but you get a free night at any IHG property — which include expensive Intercontinentals as well as brands like Hotel Indigo, Holiday Inn, and Crowne Plaza — every year you’re a cardmember. That can add up to hundreds of dollars in value.
8. Automatic hotel elite status
Many hotel credit cards also confer automatic elite status upon cardholders. Some of the best examples are the Hilton co-branded credit cards like the Hilton HHonors Reserve from Citibank or its competitor, the Hilton HHonors Surpass card from American Express (just note that because of recent changes to Hilton’s loyalty program, HHonors might soon be noted as Honors with these cards). Both come with Gold status in Hilton’s loyalty program, which includes perks like room upgrades, free high-speed internet, free breakfast at many Hilton properties (which can be expensive otherwise) and more. Some cards which do not offer hotel elite status outright, such as the Starwood Preferred Guest credit card from American Express, still offer cardholders some stays or nights of credit toward achieving elite status as part of their benefits packages, which can put elite status within that much closer reach.
9. Discounted awards and rebates
There are both airline and hotel credit cards that offer discounted rates on award tickets and award nights to their cardholders, and they’re worth hanging onto. The Citi/AAdvantage Platinum Select card gives you access not only to reduced-price awards on domestic travel (the list of eligible cities changes every two months) but also refunds you 10 percent of the miles you redeem on airline awards up to 10,000 miles per year. On the hotel side of things, cardholders with the IHG Rewards Club Select card receive 10 percent of the points they use to book awards back as a refund, up to 100,000 points each year. All that helps you stretch your points and miles even further and rack up future awards faster.
10. Waived foreign-exchange fees
Remember that these are… travel credit cards! So their benefits tend to be predicated on the fact that you’ll use them while, in fact, traveling. That’s good news for those of you who go abroad, because many travel rewards cards waive foreign transaction fees. Those are the pesky one to three percent surcharges some cards will charge you for making purchases in other countries. It might not sound like a lot, but depending on how much money you spend on things like hotels, attractions, shopping and more, it can really add up to a chunk of change.
11. Companion tickets
Sort of like a buy-one-get-one-(almost)-free incentive, a few airline credit cards include discounted companion fares. For example, the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature comes with an annual companion ticket each year where you end up paying just $121 to bring another person along on a round-trip on Alaska or Virgin America. Yes, it’s only good on coach tickets and it’s still over $100, but considering you could use it on an expensive itinerary to Hawaii, it could still end up saving you hundreds of dollars each year.
12. Hotel-booking benefits
Though not co-branded with a specific hotel chain, the Amex Platinum, Citi Prestige, and Chase Sapphire Reserve all have hotel-booking benefits of their own. Amex Platinum cardholders can book stays through Amex’s Fine Hotels & Resorts portal and enjoy perks like room upgrades and spa or dining credits. Folks with the Citi Prestige, meanwhile, get the fourth night free on hotel stays booked through Citi’s concierge service. You can take advantage of this as many times as you want, and it can equate to thousands of dollars in value each year depending on how much you use it. Visa Signature cards like the Capital One Venture allow you to book properties through the Visa Signature Hotels portal and maximize perks like free Internet, complimentary breakfast, overnight parking, and more at participating properties.
And now for some of the more brass-tacks benefits you might not be taking advantage of…
13. Trip cancellation
Bad things happen and trips can be called off at the last minute for any number of reasons. You might think you’re out the money, but many credit cards offer trip cancellation insurance when you use them to purchase all or part of your itinerary. Coverage ranges up to $10,000 depending on your card, though be sure to read through the list of exclusions to be sure you’re covered for whatever claim you have to submit.
14. Travel accident insurance
Let’s not think about this one too long, but if you do get injured or even killed (gasp) during a trip, many credit cards extend insurance policies that range between $250,000 to $500,000 for things like medical expenses during your trip. There are a lot of exclusions, though, so you might not be covered if there’s political unrest… or if that bungee-jumping excursion goes terribly wrong.
15. Trip delay
A freak thunderstorm, mechanical issues, a medical emergency…so many things can go wrong and delay your trip. At those times, it’s helpful to be able to invoke your credit card’s trip-delay coverage. It usually kicks in between three to 12 hours, and can cover things like a hotel, meals, and incidentals. Just beware: There are caps that usually range from $300 to $500 per person, and it typically only covers you after you’ve exhausted benefits from the airline you’re flying.
16. Lost and delayed bags
There’s nothing more frustrating than standing at the baggage carousel watching everyone else pick their luggage off the belt while you stand there waiting… and waiting… until the belt stops and your bag is nowhere to be found. Luckily, credit cards tend to cover such events and will reimburse you both for things you need to purchase if your bags are delayed, or for the bags and their contents if they are lost altogether. This type of protection kicks in after you’ve exhausted any reimbursement from your airline, though.
17. Rental car insurance
Most travel credit cards offer secondary insurance on rental cards that only applies after your own personal insurance or a policy you purchase from the rental agency runs out. However, some cards also offer primary coverage, which means you don’t have to pay for an expensive collision damage waiver on top of your rental fees. As with all insurance policies, though, see what’s covered since cards tend to exclude things like luxury vehicles, and even certain countries like Italy, from their policies.
18. Purchase protection
Among the least-used benefits of many credit cards is purchase protection. If something you buy with your card is lost, stolen, or damaged within a set period (usually 90 to 120 days) after you purchase it, your credit card might reimburse you for it. There are payout caps per occurrence and per year, though, so read the fine print before submitting your claim.
The points and miles you can earn with your travel rewards cards are nice and all, but these products offer so many other perks — all of which can add a ton of value (and pleasure) to your travel plans. Go over your card’s benefits package to make sure you’re maximizing them, and we'll see you in the lounge before your next flight!
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