Extended warranties, purchase protection, insurance, more

Credit card companies are notorious for sticking their customers with hidden fees, but cardholders might be surprised to learn that their cards also could provide an array of hidden perks — from free insurance to free travel services. These perks often are not heavily promoted by the credit card companies and typically are underutilized by cardholders.

Perks tend to be most extensive with “platinum” cards, “gold” cards and American Express cards of all types, but even basic, no-annual-fee cards may offer a few of these benefits. Call your credit card company’s customer service department to ask whether any of the following programs are offered with your card, or scan the company’s Web site or the literature that came with your card.

Among the most valuable, most underused credit card perks…

  • Extended warranties. You may not have to pay a retailer for an extended warranty. Your credit card might provide extended-warranty coverage for free whenever you charge an item. These credit card extended-warranty programs typically add up to one extra year of warranty protection.
  • Example: The American Express Buyer’s Assurance Plan extends warranties of five years or less for up to one additional year and up to $10,000. Restrictions apply. (Cardholders can call 800-225-3750 or go to www.american-express.com/buyersassurance.)

  • Purchase protection. An item you purchased with your credit card is soon broken, lost or stolen. Call your credit card company — it might have a program that will reimburse you even if the damage or loss was your fault. This purchase protection could last for as long as 90 days after the purchase date.
  • Helpful: All credit card providers are legally required to offer their cardholders assistance in merchant disputes. If you believe that you were overcharged, sold a shoddy product or otherwise unfairly treated by a merchant, and this merchant will not refund your money, call the customer service department of the credit card you used to make the purchase, explain the situation and ask it to investigate. If your complaint is valid, your money likely will be refunded to you. You are guaranteed this protection only if the purchase cost more than $50 and occurred within 100 miles of your home, but credit card companies rarely, if ever, enforce these restrictions.

  • Merchandise discount programs. Credit card companies often partner with merchants to offer special savings to their cardholders. Most of these savings are no more attractive than the coupons you would find in the Sunday paper, but some are major money savers.
  • Examples: Citibank’s Citi Cash-Returns MasterCard offers discounts averaging 5% on every purchase when members use their cards at any of more than 400 participating merchants, from Ace Hardware to Zales Jewelers (no annual fee, 800-950-5114, www.citicards.com). Discover Card offers new discount programs every quarter. Through December 2008, the card offers 5% back on charges at grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters and movie rentals, up to $400, for a potential cash rebate of $20 per quarter (no annual fee, 800-347-2683, www.discovercard.com).

  • Accidental death and dismemberment (AD&D) travel insurance. Many credit cards automatically provide $100,000 to $1 million in AD&D insurance when the card is used to buy airline, train, bus or cruise fare. This free insurance pays out if there is an accident during the journey and the cardholder is seriously injured or killed — but only if the cardholder or the cardholder’s survivors are aware of the insurance and file a claim, which most do not.
  • Price protection. An item you recently purchased with your credit card is advertised for a lower price a few weeks or months later at a different store. If your credit card has a price-protection program, you could be compensated for the difference, provided you offer proof, such as a printed ad showing the lower price.
  • Price-protection programs typically last for 30 to 90 days from the date of purchase… cap refunds at a few hundred dollars… and require that the lower price be advertised in print — a lower Internet price probably will not qualify.

  • Car-rental insurance. The insurance sold by car-rental companies can cost $9 to $19 per day or more. That can add up to quite a bit during an extended trip — but you might not need to buy this coverage. Many credit cards automatically provide car-rental insurance when the card is used to pay for the rental. (Your personal automobile insurance or umbrella insurance might include car-rental coverage as well.)
  • Example: Diners Club cards feature excellent rental-car collision insurance. Unlike most credit card car-rental insurance programs, Diners Club offers “primary” insurance, meaning that your personal auto insurance provider need not become involved if you have an accident, so your insurance rates should not increase. Diners Club car-rental coverage is even valid in many foreign countries. (Annual account fees start at $95 depending on which Diners Club card you select. 800-234-6377, www.dinersclubus.com.)

    Important: Some credit card car-rental insurance programs have significant limitations. For example, a card might not provide an adequate amount of coverage… the coverage might not apply to luxury cars or trucks… and/or the coverage might not be valid outside the US. Call your credit card provider, and ask for details in writing before depending on the card company’s coverage.

  • Lost-luggage assistance. An airline loses your luggage. Sorting out the mess could take days and ruin your vacation. Some credit card companies will compensate you for the cost of replacing missing necessities and act as your representative in dealing with the airline until your bags are found.
  • Example: Discover Cards provide free access to a 24-hour “Global Traveler’s Hotline.” Cardholders can call the hotline and ask a representative to handle a lost-luggage problem for them. (Call 800-347-2683 in the US or 801-902-3100, collect, from overseas to access this service.)

  • Concierge services. If you ever have stayed at a high-end hotel, you probably know the value of a good concierge. He/she can supply last-minute reservations to popular restaurants, tickets to sold-out shows, a babysitter or pet sitter on short notice and solutions to a range of problems.
  • Visa Signature cards offer free, worldwide 24-hour access to concierge services. Card members call 800-953-7392 (804-673-1693 from outside the US) and explain what they need. (Cardholders are responsible for the cost of any goods and services provided. Only the concierge’s assistance is free.)

    Examples: Chase Freedom Visa Signature Card (no annual fee, 800-432-3117, www.chasefreedomnow.com)… Capital One No-Hassle Miles Visa Signature Card ($39/yr., 800-695-5500, www.capitalone.com)… Citi Hilton HHonors Visa Signature Card (no annual fee, 800-895-8322, http://hhonorscard.com).