Tricks or treats: A look at rewards card perks

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Travel credit cards offer delicious signup bonuses like 70,000 travel points and low introductory interest rates. But what’s behind the bonuses? It’s like reaching for the Snickers Bar in the Halloween candy bag and pulling out an eyeball or a worm. 

It’s easy to get caught up in the main rewards that credit cards advertise to lure you in, but hard to figure out if the subsurface perks (like free checked bags or price protection) are a treat—or a trick. Let’s dig deeper…

Rewards vs. perks

There are differences between rewards vs. perks. You’ll earn rewards for every dollar you spend that can be redeemed for travel, entertainment, cash back and more. Perks are special services that come included with your card and don’t normally need to be earned but may have rules and exceptions. 

Most people focus on the rewards because they have to be earned and feel like a prize. Credit cards tend to advertise rewards to attract new customers because they’re more exciting than perks like travel insurance. But the right perks can be more useful than rewards by saving you time and money. 

Trick or treating for perks

Cards with more perks usually have a higher annual fee. In many cases, the perks aren’t useful enough to make the high annual fee worth paying. Let’s analyze some of the most popular credit card perks to decide if they’re a trick—or a treat.

Perk – purchase protection:

This type of perk covers the items you purchased on your card against damage or theft by reimbursing you for the cost of repairing or replacing the item.

Trick or treat?:

Tricky treat. You’re likely to get reimbursed for lost, stolen or damaged items but you’ll have to jump through several hoops. Not all items are eligible, most cards will only cover up to $500 of the purchase price and the claim must be filed between 60 to 120 days of purchase. But if you check all the boxes, it’s good to know you’ll get back the funds to repair or replace the item, at least partially.

To get more treat than trick, go with American Express or Citi® cards, both offering between $1,000 and $10,000 per occurrence, depending on the card.

Perk – price protection:

This perk reimburses you the difference in price if an item you bought is found cheaper later.

Trick or treat?:

Trick. Getting reimbursed takes a lot of work. You’ll have to register the item first. The price drop must occur within 60 to 120 days of purchase and is limited to a range of products and a maximum difference of $200. You have to file a claim and submit the advertisement showing the model number and model year of the sale item, which may be hard to find.

Few cards offer this perk. The cards offering at least $200 per price difference are the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card and the Citi® Double Cash Card.

Perk – free lounge access:

Instead of waiting at your gate or a crowded airport bar, you can check in to a private lounge and enjoy free drinks, comfy chairs, computer access and meals. 

Trick or treat?:

Depends. If you’re a business traveler and make regular connections where you have a three-hour layover or longer, lounge access is a treat. But if you’re an occasional traveler, lounge access may not be available at all airports or even worth it if you have a direct flight or a short connection. 

If you’re big on lounge access, the American Express Platinum provides the best perk with free admission to Centurion lounges, which are often equipped with amenities like wine-tasting stations and showers rooms.

Perk – free checked bag:

Many travel rewards cards will offer you a free checked bag. 

Trick or treat?:

Treat. Considering a checked bag costs $25 or more each way, you’re getting a free $50 treat roundtrip. 

To get the most out of this travel perk, the Gold Delta SkyMiles® Card from American Express gives you free checked bags for you and up to four travel companions.

Perk – a year or more of 0% interest:

Some cards offer an introductory no-interest period to get you to sign up.

Trick or treat?:

Trick unless you want to transfer a high balance from another credit card. This perk is designed for balance transfers and usually comes with a 3% transfer fee. It may be worthwhile if you’re paying off a high balance at interest rates hovering at 20% APR, just make sure you pay off the balance or transfer it to another balance transfer card offer before the promotional period ends to save on high interest.

Two cards give you the longest promotional period to pay off your debt. The Citi Simplicity® Card offers a 0% interest rate for 21 months and the Discover it® Balance Transfer has 0% interest for 18 months.

Assess your haul

Now that you know how to dig around in the goody bag of perks and rewards cards, you’re less likely to come out with a candy dud. Several cards offer valuable perks that are hidden below the surface. But if you don’t know what you want and what you’re looking at, you might miss out on the best treats.