Common Benefits on Travel Reward Cards

Silhouette of Woman With Luggage Standing In Airport


Kiattisak Lamchan / EyeEm/ Getty Images 

If you travel frequently or just want a good deal on your next big vacation, you may want a credit card that rewards you with miles or points for the dollars you spend. But choosing a travel card can be complex, and many charge an annual fee (and higher interest rates than non-reward cards.) Besides unraveling how the reward systems work, you’ll want to look carefully at the benefits you’d receive. Here’s a guide to some of the most common benefits:

There are two types of travel reward cards: general and co-branded. If you don’t travel very often, a general travel card is often best, but if you’re an avid and loyal customer of a particular airline or hotel chain, a co-branded one may be the most lucrative.

Waived Baggage Fees

Some travel rewards cards will waive the fee on one (sometimes two) checked bags for the cardholder and a limited number of others traveling under the same reservation. Since this fee might be $30 per bag, having a travel card is often worth it, even if there is a modest annual fee.

Global Entry and TSA Pre-Check Reimbursement

Travel cards that cater to international travelers will often reimburse either the $100 application fee for Global Entry, a government program that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved travelers coming back to the U.S., or the $85 application fee for TSA Pre-check, which can speed you through security lines at the airport.

The Global Entry fee is charged just once, while TSA Pre-check enrollment must be renewed every five years. Depending on which benefit you choose, you’ll get a one-time statement credit of $100 or a renewing statement credit of $85. You can find this feature on cards with annual fees as low as $95. 

Free Airport Lounge Access

If you frequently have long layovers, you may want a travel rewards card just for the exclusive airport lounges. As a general rule, cards with free lounge access have steep annual fees of $450 to $550 or more, though you may be able to get a card with a $95 annual fee that limits your number of visits.

Even at the high end, if it’s important for you to have a quiet place away from the hubbub (and free WiFi and cocktails), these cards can more than pay for themselves, since membership to the lounges usually cost more than the annual fee. You’ll often be allowed to bring your immediate family or two guests in at no cost too, but not always.

(Airport lounges are often affiliated with a particular airline, but some travel cards—like certain American Express cards—give access to independent lounges as well as those operated by select airline partners.)

Lost Luggage Reimbursement

This insurance is provided by many travel rewards cards, perhaps even some without an annual fee. It’s secondary coverage, meaning it kicks in after any insurance offered by the airline or travel provider has been exhausted. In other words, it would pick up the remainder of the reimbursement cost, up to a limit. (It might be $1,250 for carry-on and $500 for checked baggage, for example.)

You should read the fine print to determine whether some contents are excluded from the coverage. These might include cash, travel documents, medical items, and rare coins.

Most issuers will only provide lost luggage coverage if you have paid the entire cost of your trip on their card.

Trip Insurance

If your trip is canceled or cut short due to illness, severe weather, or another unexpected event, you can be reimbursed if you’ve got a travel rewards card with travel cancellation or interruption insurance. This is something to pay attention to when selecting your card, since anything can happen, and you don’t want to lose money or the reward points you spent a long time saving up.

The trick is to read the details of the insurance policy carefully. For instance, if you cancel your trip because of a change in financial circumstances or a pre-existing medical condition, the coverage may not apply.

Like any coverage, there will be a limit on how much your issuer will reimburse. (You might see maximums anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000 per trip.) Consider buying a separate travel insurance policy if you don’t think that will be enough. 

Airline Fee Credit

You often incur incidental costs when flying, including drink or entertainment charges on board, baggage fees, pet fees, and more. Some travel rewards cards—often with high fees—will credit your statement for these expenses, up to a limit of $100, $200 or even more, each calendar year.

Keep in mind that you may have to choose the qualifying airline ahead of time, and some types of expenses are likely to be excluded. (Seat upgrades qualify on some cards, but not on others, for instance.)

Points Boost for Booking Through Card Portal 

You’ll almost always get the most bang for your buck by redeeming your rewards for travel. Some cards do this by giving you a rewards boost if you book your travel through their portal rather than redeeming them for cash. For example, if they offered a 25% boost on travel booked with them, 60,000 points could be worth $750 rather than $600. This is not as common as some other benefits, but may be found on cards with a modest or non-existent annual fee.