Some credit card travel perks used to be the umbrella over that fruity drink that tasted better because you were on vacation. This drink is still refreshing today, but you may have to forego the umbrella or sip on a watered down version as the travel benefits lose value.
As travel credit cards have grown in popularity, so have the benefits they tout. Generally, the higher the annual fee for a travel credit card, the longer the list of benefits. And those perks can be invaluable, saving travelers time and money, and even giving them a little red carpet treatment. Depending on the credit card, you might have options like airport lounge access, free hotel rooms and more.
But, in reality, some of these travel perks may not be as luxurious or as easy to use as they seem. Here’s the skinny on four popular credit card perks that still offer value to travelers, but may not taste as sweet anymore.
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1. Access to the airport lounge
Your credit card can offer a one-time or continuous pass to a network of airport lounges, but finding a place to sit can be a challenge. In recent years, airport lounges have become more popular – and more crowded – leading to restrictions and changes to the terms of credit cards offering lounge access.
“It’s really hard to find a free seat in the living room, especially if you want to have a meal,” says Roman Efimov, a California-based engineer and co-creator of the On Points With Kids blog.
Still, Efimov and his wife, Irina Gaysina, use their lounge access to save money on food at the airport. The couple estimates that this benefit saves them around $120 per visit for a family of four, but that will soon change. In February 2023, their credit card issuer plans to cut off free guest access to its network of lounges, so they will have to pay a fee for one adult and each child. The only exception will be for those who have spent $75,000 in the previous calendar year and each subsequent year to qualify for free guest access. Otherwise, a $50 fee will be charged for adult guest entry; $30 for children.
If lounge access is the credit card perk your family values the most, you may need to reevaluate its value. “We don’t even know if it will be worth it,” says Gaysina. “You have to anticipate how many trips you’re going to make next year or two years from now. You have to do the math on all the times you would go there, how many times you would save money.
Capacity checks have also dampened the airport lounge experience. Prior to 2019, some airline credit cards provided access to a lounge regardless of the carrier on your itinerary. Today, these airlines can accept a same-day boarding pass when traveling with them or an eligible partner only. Some airport lounges have also limited the number of hours you can spend in a lounge or have excluded entry upon arrival. And, even if you try to visit at the right times with the right type of pass, you may find the lounge full and closed to new visitors.
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2. Rental car insurance
Rental car insurance from a credit card can be a valuable benefit, providing coverage if the vehicle is damaged or stolen. To qualify, you must generally pay for the rental with the credit card that provides the benefit and decline the rental company’s collision damage waiver (terms vary by card).
What some credit card holders may not realize, however, is that this benefit is often secondary to your personal auto insurance. This means it cannot be operated until your insurer has covered the costs. Be sure to read the terms carefully to find out what your card does and does not cover. Even some premium travel cards with expensive annual fees don’t offer primary collision damage waiver coverage, so don’t make any assumptions.
3. Free Hotel Night Certificates
The promise of a free hotel night certificate every year you carry a credit card is exciting. But before you start daydreaming about your luxurious free room in a lavish resort, there’s a sad reality you need to know. This certificate has its limits, and in recent years it has become less valuable in many large hotel chains.
Some hotel brands that once offered unrestricted certificates have imposed caps, making it harder to get a stay at a premier hotel. Depending on the hotel, you may be able to top up a free night certificate with points, up to a certain amount, but your free night will cost more.
And even these capped certificates might have less purchasing power than before. Many hotel chains that previously had fixed reward tables have moved to dynamic pricing. This means that the number of points you will need to book a free room can fluctuate in correlation with the cash rate. It used to be that you could be sure that your certificate worth up to 40,000 points could get you a room at any time in your favorite hotel, because the reward board said, now that room could be out of reach with dynamic pricing. In turn, this could render your free certificate unusable when and where you want to use it.
“It’s just getting harder and harder to plan hotel stays or plan how many points you need for a specific reward night stay,” says travel content creator Max Do. based in California on YouTube channel Max Miles Points.
For Do, the value provided by her hotel credit card is still worth it, even if it’s harder to use. By combining his free night certificate from the credit card with the points in his account, he saves $400 or more on a stay in Germany.
“The $95 annual fee is pretty low, and I can usually redeem that 35,000 point certificate for more than $95,” he says. “You have to look at the cash price and the price of the points and sort of figure out whether it’s worth redeeming the points or just paying cash.”
4. Credits for airport security screening programs
Travel credit cards may offer statement credit for application or renewal fees for airport screening programs such as TSA PreCheck, Global Entry, or Clear. These programs differ but they all reduce the time spent in queues at the airport. Trusted traveler programs like TSA PreCheck for domestic travel or Global Entry for international travel can speed you through security lines bypassing screening for shoes, belts, laptops and other items. Clear allows you to skip reviewing travel documents before entering a security line.
Unlike Clear, TSA PreCheck and Global Entry require more upfront effort in the form of a background check, biometrics, and an interview with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. And while you’ll avoid waiting at the airport, you can’t ignore the time required for approval.
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TSA PreCheck applicants for domestic travel can typically get an appointment on the books within two weeks of August 2022, but Global Entry applications for international travel can take several months. As more and more travelers use these programs, it is possible to practice the art of patience through the application process or a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry line. However, if you are approved, the wait will be much less compared to a regular security line.
With Clear, the value may be lower if it is not available at your local airport or destination terminal. It has over 50 locations (including airports, stadiums, and venues), far fewer than the TSA PreCheck or Global Entry programs.
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When considering buying a travel credit card or determining if it’s worth keeping, it’s important to weigh the usage benefits you’ll get to offset the cost of the annual fee. If the perks save money with certain brands or companies that you rarely use or aren’t available in your area, you’ll need to consider whether the rest of the card’s offerings can offset the lost value of unused perks.
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Melissa Lambarena writes for NerdWallet. Email: [email protected] Twitter: @LissaLambarena.