Some credit card travel perks were once the umbrella on top of that fruity drink that tasted better because you were on vacation. That drink is still refreshing today, but you may have to forfeit the umbrella or sip a watered-down version as travel benefits lose some value.
As travel credit cards have grown in popularity, so have the perks they tout. Generally, the higher the annual fee a travel credit card has, the longer the list of benefits. And these perks can be quite valuable, 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 actuality, some of these travel benefits may not be as luxurious or as easy to use as they appear. Here’s the skinny on four popular credit card perks that still offer value for travelers but may no longer taste quite as sweet.
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1. Airport lounge access
Your credit card may offer a one-time or ongoing pass to an airport lounge network, but finding a place to sit down may be a challenge. In recent years, airport lounges have become more popular —and more crowded — leading to restrictions and changing terms on credit cards that offer lounge access.
“It’s really hard to find an empty seat in the lounge, especially if you want to have a meal,” says Roman Efimov, a California-based engineer and co-creator of the blog On Points With Kids.
Still, Efimov and his wife, Irina Gaysina, use their lounge access to save money on food at the airport. The couple estimates that the perk 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 free guest access to its lounge network, so they will have to pay a fee for one adult and each child. The only exception will be for those who spend $75,000 in the previous calendar year and every year after to qualify for complimentary guest access. Otherwise, a $50 fee will be required for adult guests to enter; $30 for children.
If lounge access is the credit card perk your family values the most, you may need to reassess its value. “We’re kind of not even sure if it’s going to be worth it,” Gaysina says. “You’ve got to anticipate how much traveling you’re going to do next year or in two years. You have to do the math on all of the times you would go there, how many times you would save money.”
Capacity controls have also dampened the airport lounge experience. Before 2019, some airline credit cards provided access to a lounge regardless of the carrier on your itinerary. Today, those airlines might accept a same-day boarding pass when flying with them or an eligible partner only. Some airport lounges have also limited the number of hours you can spend in a lounge or excluded entry upon arrival. And, even if you’re trying to visit within the right hours with the right kind of pass, you may arrive to find the lounge full and closed to new visitors.
Read: Four strategies for finding cheaper flights
2. Rental car insurance
Rental car insurance from a credit card can be a valuable benefit, offering coverage if the vehicle is damaged or stolen. To qualify, you typically have to pay for the rental with the credit card that offers the benefit and decline the rental company’s collision damage waiver (terms vary depending on the card).
What some credit card holders may not realize, though, is that this benefit is often secondary to your personal auto insurance. That means it can’t be tapped until after your insurer covers costs. Make sure you read the terms carefully to know what your card does and doesn’t cover. Even some premium travel cards with pricey annual fees don’t offer primary auto collision damage waiver coverage, so don’t make any assumptions.
3. Free hotel night certificates
The promise of a free hotel night certificate each year you carry a credit card is exciting. But before you start dreaming of your luxurious free room at a lavish resort, there’s an unfortunate reality you’ll need to know. That certificate has its limits, and in recent years, it has become less valuable at many major hotel chains.
Some hotel brands that once offered unrestricted certificates have imposed caps, making it more difficult to snag a stay at a top-category hotel. Depending on the hotel, you might be able to top up a free night certificate with points, up to a certain amount, but then your free night costs more.
And even those capped certificates could have less buying power than they used to. Many hotel chains that previously had fixed award charts have changed to dynamic pricing. That means the number of points you’ll need to book a free room can fluctuate in correlation with the cash rate. When once you could feel confident that your certificate worth up to 40,000 points could get you a room anytime at your favorite hotel because the award chart said so, that room could now be out of reach thanks to dynamic pricing. In turn, it could render your free certificate unusable when and where you’d like to use it.
“It’s just making it more and more difficult to plan for hotel stays or to plan how many points you need for a specific award night’s stay,” says Max Do, a California-based travel content creator at the YouTube channel Max Miles Points.
For Do, the value provided by his hotel credit card is still worth it, even though it’s harder to use. By combining his free night certificate from the credit card with points from his account, he is saving $400 or more on a stay in Germany.
“The $95 annual fee is pretty low and I usually can redeem that 35,000-point certificate for more than $95 in value,” he says. “You have to look at the cash price and the points price and kind of determine whether it’s worth it to redeem the points or just pay the cash for it.”
4. Credits for airport security screening programs
Travel credit cards may offer a statement credit for the application or renewal fees for airport screening programs like TSA PreCheck, Global Entry or Clear. These programs differ but they all shave time spent in lines at the airport. Trusted traveler programs like TSA PreCheck for domestic travel or Global Entry for international travel can speed you through security lines by bypassing the screening of shoes, belts, laptops and other items. Clear allows you to skip the review of travel documents before entering a security line.
Unlike Clear, TSA PreCheck and Global Entry require more effort upfront in the form of a background check, biometrics and an interview with a U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer. And while you’ll get to skip the wait at the airport, you won’t get to skip the time required for approval.
Also see: How to choose the best seat on a plane
TSA PreCheck applicants for domestic travel can typically get an appointment on the books within two weeks as of August 2022, but Global Entry applications for international travel may take several months. As more travelers are using these programs, it’s possible to find yourself practicing the art of patience through the application process or a TSA PreCheck or Global Entry line. Still, if you’re approved the wait will be much less compared with a regular security line.
With Clear, the value can be less if it’s not available at your local airport or go-to terminal. It has over 50 locations (including airports, stadiums and venues), far fewer than TSA PreCheck or Global Entry programs.
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When considering a travel credit card or determining whether one is worth keeping, it’s important to weigh how much use you’ll get out of the benefits 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 have to determine if the rest of the card’s offerings can make up for the value lost from unused benefits.
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Melissa Lambarena writes for NerdWallet. Email: email@example.com. Twitter: @LissaLambarena.