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When most people think about credit cards, they think of the basics — a way to pay for things without cash and get conveniently billed for all your charges once a month, all while earning rewards in the process. Credit cards also offer the option to pay for your purchases over time, but we don’t recommend using a credit card that way, because the interest rates are generally exorbitant.
However, many credit cards also come with extra perks, many of which you might not even know about. Some of the benefits may excite and delight you, and even make it worth paying an annual fee for a card. So let’s dive into our list of our favorite credit card perks, many of which you may not know about, and others that you might even already have on your current credit card.
1. Free money from statement credits
Needless to say, this is where our list starts, because there’s no better perk than free money! As credit cards have gotten more expensive over the years, issuers have added monthly and yearly credits to many cards as a benefit to justify the cost to customers. Not only are these credits widely available, but in many cases, they’ve been expanded during the pandemic.
Let’s take the popular Chase Sapphire Reserve as an example. Many people have heard about this card’s $300 annual travel credit, which you can use on a wide variety of travel expenses, including ride-shares, commuter trains and even parking.
But due to the pandemic, Chase has temporarily expanded the credit so that it can also be used for gas and grocery purchases through December 31, 2021. That means if you use the Chase Sapphire Reserve to buy groceries right now, you can get up to $300 in statement credits to offset the bill.
Similarly, the $250 annual travel credit on the Citi Prestige® Card can also be used for supermarkets and restaurants during the pandemic, and this expansion is available for an even longer time — all throughout 2021.
If you’re looking for a card with lots of these sorts of annual credits, you may want to take a good look at The Platinum Card® from American Express. It comes with up to $200 in annual airline fee credits, up to $200 in annual Uber Cash and up to $100 in annual Saks Fifth Avenue credits ($50 to use from January 1 to June 30 and another $50 to use from July 1 to December 31). Use them all each year and those $500 in credits practically pay for this $550 annual fee (see rates and fees) luxury card with all its other VIP benefits.
Now, you’re probably thinking the Amex Platinum sounds like a super-expensive card, and it is. But if $550 a year is well outside of your price range, how about the American Express® Gold Card? It costs less than half with a $250 annual fee (see rates and fees) but still includes up to $120 in annual dining credits and $120 in annual Uber Cash. Again, use up those credits each year and you’re looking at a high-end card that’s nearly free.
Still too much money to spend on an annual fee? Then let’s go back to the classic Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. At just $95 a year, it’s a great starter travel credit card that allows you to earn points that can be redeemed for cash back or travel, or even transferred to 13 airline and hotel partners.
But in addition, Chase Sapphire Preferred card holders have access to up to $60 in statement credits for Peloton memberships until the end of 2021, as well as a free DashPass membership — which gives you discounts on DoorDash food deliveries — for at least one year if you activate it by December 31, 2021.
2. Shopping discounts
Saving money on the things you buy every day is only slightly behind free money as a perk in our book, and shopping discount programs are available as a free benefit on literally dozens of credit cards, including many with no annual fee.
What are shopping discount programs? Well, they’re a curated set of discounts that can be used at preselected merchants, and they typically offer either a set discount or percentage off when you shop at one of those merchants and use your credit card to pay for your purchase.
A typical discount offer might be “Save $15 when you spend $100 at Best Buy” or “Get 15% back when shopping at Staples, up to $50 off in total.” Then, when you make a purchase with your card at that merchant, you’ll see a credit for the discount appear on your credit card statement a short time later.
The most popular and well-known credit card shopping discount program is probably Amex Offers, as it’s arguably the most robust of all the programs. You can access Amex Offers with literally any credit card issued by American Express, even the ones with no annual fee.
If you have an Amex card, sign into your account on the Amex website or through the Amex app, click on “Amex Offers,” choose the offers you want to add to your card and then use the card to pay at that merchant. There’s no limit on how many offers you can add to your card, but the one downside of Amex Offers is if you have more than one Amex card, you can only choose one of them to use for each offer.
That’s not the case with Chase Offers, which often provides similar or even identical offers that you can add to multiple cards if you have more than one Chase card. Bank of America also has a shopping discounts program that’s similar to Chase’s and works the same, while Capital One recently introduced its own shopping offers program. You’ll find each of these programs at your credit card issuer’s website.
All these programs can save you a ton of cash, plus they’re super easy to use and cost absolutely nothing extra. The only trick is you have to go online or into the app and add each shopping offer to your card before you make your purchases — you can’t do it retroactively. But if you have a card from any of these issuers and haven’t done this yet, do it now so you aren’t leaving money on the table!
3. Cell phone protection
This is a perk that wasn’t common until recently, but we’re now seeing it on more and more cards. And with nearly everyone using their cell phone as a lifeline to the world, it’s great to be able to protect yourself from the cost of a huge repair or replacement if the worst unexpectedly happens to your phone.
Cell phone protection is exactly what it sounds like — if your phone is stolen or damaged, your credit card will reimburse you for the cost of repairing or replacing it. In order to be covered when something happens, you generally must have paid your monthly cell phone bill the previous month with a card that offers this benefit.
Not all cell phone protection coverage is the same. Each card has its own coverage maximums, ranging between $600 and $1,000 per claim depending on the card. There’s also always a deductible that ranges between $25 and $100, and most cards have a maximum number of claims you can make every 12 months.
And while not every credit card offers cell phone protection, there are more and more cards adding it all the time. In fact, at the start of March, American Express announced it would be adding cell phone protection to a dozen of its cards.
But the Amex cards with cell phone protection are expensive, and if you do your research, you can get this benefit on some cards that don’t have any annual fee at all. One of our favorites is the Chase Freedom Flex, which provides up to $800 per claim and $1,000 per year against covered theft or damage, with a $50 deductible per claim and a maximum of two claims in a 12-month period.
Not only does the Freedom Flex have no annual fee, it also earns 5% cash back on travel booked through Chase, earns 3% cash back on dining and at drugstores and has another set of bonus categories that rotate every quarter and earn 5% cash back, up to $1,500 in purchases each year.
4. Free checked bags
As vaccines roll out across the world and travel begins to grind back to life, people are starting to think about booking flights again. And while airlines have done away with a number of annoying fees during the pandemic — no more change fees! — the checked bag fee has stubbornly remained with us.
Fortunately, if you fly even once or twice a year, it’s relatively easy to avoid these checked bag fees. That’s because every major airline offers at least one — and usually several — credit cards that waive the fee on your first checked bag when flying that airline.
A prime example is the United Explorer Card, which gives you and a companion on the same reservation a free checked bag anytime you fly on United and pay for your flight with the card. The card has an annual fee of just $95, but even that fee is waived for the first year, so you’re literally paying nothing to check a bag on United for an entire year.
The same is true of the Citi® / AAdvantage® Platinum Select® World Elite Mastercard®, which comes with a free checked bag for you and up to four companions on the same reservations whenever you fly American Airlines. The card carries a $99 annual fee, but waives it for the first 12 months you have it.
American typically charges $30 per bag in each direction, so even if you pay the annual fee to keep the card after the first year, you’re more than making up for it if you check a bag on just two round-trip flights a year.
And while the Delta SkyMiles® Gold American Express Card has a $99 annual fee, although waived for the first year (see rates and fees) it has the broadest checked bag benefit of all the airline credit cards. Not only do you get a free checked bag when flying Delta, but so do up to eight companions on the same reservation. So if you have a large family and each member tends to check their own bag, you could save more money with the Delta option, even after paying the annual fee.
5. Airport lounge access
As airport terminals begin to fill again, it’s highly likely that airport lounges will be even more popular than they were before the pandemic as a place to get away from the crowds and sink into an elite oasis. If that sounds enticing, the best way to access an airport lounge is by having the right credit card.
Many people agree that the American Express Centurion Lounges are the best airport lounges in the country. Amex recently opened new lounges in Denver and JFK, and announced new lounges to come at London’s Heathrow and Washington’s National airports. Centurion Lounges offer complimentary food, beverages (including a full bar), business amenities like Wi-Fi and much more.
If you have an Amex Platinum card or The Business Platinum® Card from American Express, you can get into an Amex Centurion Lounge for free whenever you have a flight on the same day. You can also use a Delta SkyMiles® Reserve American Express Card or Delta SkyMiles® Reserve Business American Express Card to get in if you’re flying on a Delta flight that day.
The problem with the Amex Centurion Lounges is there aren’t a lot of them — in fact, there are only 12 in the world right now. So if you want a larger choice of lounges, you may want a card with a Priority Pass membership. Priority Pass is a network of over 1,200 airport lounges and restaurants around the planet, meaning you’ll likely have at least one option no matter where you go.
An unlimited Priority Pass membership is included on cards like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and other high-end cards. But if you don’t travel much, you can also get a more limited Priority Pass membership on much cheaper cards, such as the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card, which has a $95 annual fee. It provides only 10 free visits a year, but that may be all that many leisure travelers need.
And if you don’t know what kind of lounges you may want to visit, you should take a look at the American Express® Green Card. It comes with up to $100 in annual LoungeBuddy credits, which you can use to choose what lounges you want to visit on an à la carte basis by booking them online or through the LoungeBuddy app.
All information about the Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card and American Express® Green Card has been collected independently by CNN. The Hilton Honors American Express Surpass® Card and American Express® Green Card is no longer available through CNN.
6. Travel insurance
While we’re on the subject of travel, a lot of people are worried about booking trips and then potentially not being able to go due to the pandemic. But many credit cards offer free travel insurance that can protect you from losing your money if you have to cancel, or cover you if your trip is delayed or interrupted.
Unlike traditional travel insurance, credit cards offer specific protections that vary greatly from card to card. As far as the pandemic goes, the most important of these is trip cancellation and interruption insurance. If your credit card has this coverage and you fall ill with coronavirus and need to cancel your trip or cut it short as a result, you’ll be covered for your lost travel expenses.
The same coverage also applies if a quarantine is imposed by a physician due to coronavirus, or if an authoritative power imposes unexpected travel restrictions. But you’re not covered if you voluntarily decide you don’t want to go on your trip because of the pandemic. In that case, you’re on your own.
Other types of travel insurance offered by credit cards include trip delay coverage, which will cover your unexpected expenses if your trip is delayed in the middle for an extended time, such as from a canceled flight. There’s also baggage delay reimbursement, which will pay for the cost of temporary supplies like clothing and toiletries if your bag doesn’t show up where you do.
And in an extreme case, some credit cards come with emergency evacuation insurance, which will pay for medical services and transportation if you get sick or injured in a place far away from home.
If your credit card offers one or more of these travel protections, you’ll need to use that card to pay for at least a portion of your trip — and in some cases, the entire trip — in order to be covered. So if you’re worried about booking a trip and then having to cancel it, make sure you’re paying for your trip with a card that offers the right type of travel insurance, and check the terms of your card so you know all the rules.
7. Rental car insurance
One of the most annoying parts of renting a car is the cost of insurance. Most rental car companies want to charge you as much as an extra $20 a day or more just to protect yourself from the various mishaps that can happen when you’re driving a car.
Fortunately, many credit cards now offer auto rental coverage as an included benefit when you use the card to rent a car, which can save you a ton of money. But it’s important to keep in mind a few key conditions if you’re planning to take advantage of this protection.
First, the rental car coverage offered on almost all credit cards is for damage to the vehicle only. That means you’re not covered for liability in an accident, or for damage to someone else’s vehicle or property. If you’re concerned about those types of incidents, you may want to get coverage for them from the rental car company, or check if your personal auto policy will cover you for those events.
Second, many credit cards only offer what’s known as secondary auto rental coverage. This means if you have an accident, you’ll need to first file a claim with your own auto insurer. Then, if there’s still money owed to the car rental company for damage from the accident, your credit card will cover it.
A few credit cards do offer primary auto rental coverage, meaning that you can file a claim with them first and not involve your own auto insurance company. These include the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the Chase Sapphire Preferred, among a few others. Secondary coverage is more common, but you can check with your own credit card company to confirm which type of coverage you have, if any.
Finally, most credit cards have a few exclusions to their auto rental coverage, which may mean it won’t cover luxury vehicles like high-end sports cars, or in some cases the protection doesn’t apply when you rent in certain parts of the world. So while your credit card can be an excellent travel companion when you’re renting a car on the road, make sure you know exactly what it covers before you rely on it.
8. Free credit scores
They may seem mysterious, but knowing your credit score is the first step to understanding what it means and how it can help or hurt you when you’re applying for a credit card, a mortgage or many other types of loans. And with many credit cards — even those with no annual fee — it’s now easy to get your score for free.
Almost all of the major credit card issuers — Chase, Citibank, American Express, Discover and Capital One, just to name a few — now offer the ability to check your credit score at no cost. Simply log in to your credit card issuer’s website or app and look for a link to your free credit score. It’s usually somewhere prominent on the main account page.
Of course, once you know what your credit score is, you’ll undoubtedly have some follow-up questions. Is my credit score good? And how can I improve it? For the answers, check out our series on “Myths about credit” and learn how credit scores are calculated, what’s considered a good credit score and how you can make yours even better.
9. Foreign currency conversion
When it comes to paying for items overseas, there’s no better way to get a reasonable exchange rate than by using a credit card. But it’s important that you use the right card to make sure you aren’t charged extra for the privilege.
Normally, when you exchange US dollars for a foreign currency, a bank or exchange agent will charge you a substantial fee, and likely provide a less than ideal exchange rate on top. But when you use a credit card to pay for an item instead of cash, your credit card company makes the exchange at a relatively reasonable rate. In many cases, it’s the best exchange rate you’re likely to get as a consumer.
However, you’ll want to be careful to use a credit card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. Those that do tack on a fee of up to 3% for making the exchange. Fortunately, there are many cards that don’t charge these fees, and a few that don’t have annual fees either. The Capital One VentureOne Rewards Credit Card is an option we like that ticks all the boxes.
And while it’ll probably be a while before people are traveling internationally again, even when you’re at home, you may find yourself occasionally having to pay for an online purchase in a foreign currency. So if you do, make sure you’re using the right credit card for the transaction, and get the best deal you can without handing over more money than you have to.
Find out which cards CNN Underscored chose as its best credit cards of 2021.