Does Your Credit Card Include Hidden Travel Perks?

Flickr user 410(K) 2013

Millions of travelers are holding discounts to thousands of museums, concerts and airline rewards in their pocket without realizing it.

Credit-card companies offer hundreds of perks that most holders never use. How good are some of these perks? It depends on the card.

The great
The American Express Platinum cardholders can receive unlimited access to several airport lounges, including those run by the Delta, US Airways and American. According to MSN Money, those memberships would cost well over $1,000 if purchased individually.

Airline credit cards carry perks beyond earned miles. Some airlines, including American and Delta, allow cardholders to check their bags for free.

The pretty good
Bank of America credit cards entitle users to one free general admission to select museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, on the first full weekend of every month. A great way to save an easy $10 or more, but not worth getting a card solely for that reason.

Many cards include a small amount of travel insurance when you purchase your trip, although it’s likely only to accentuate the travel insurance you purchase. A much better perk is the free crash insurance for rental cars that comes standard with many cards.

The so-so
Citi’s Easy Deals allows you to cash in earned points for travel perks, including slightly discounted gift cards for cruises, rental cards and hotels. The hotel and rental car deals featured on the site aren’t much better than offers you can find on Travelocity or Expedia. You can also book tickets to popular attractions, but again, the discounts are virtually nil. Tickets to the Kennedy Space Center are $50 on its website, while Citi offers the same ticket for $48 and five of your earned points.

My wife had her iPhone stolen in the Paris Metro earlier this year. Had we used a Wells Fargo credit card, we may have been eligible for $600 replacement coverage. But, of course, there are caveats. First, we would have had to pay our monthly cellular bill with the card. Also, after the phone was stolen, we would have first had to file a claim against our homeowners insurance before Wells Fargo would have paid the difference.

Before making any travel plans, check your monthly credit card bill for any potential offers, visit your bank’s website or call the toll-free number on the back of the card to find out what perks are available to you.

*This post was updated from its original version to remove reference to a credit card offered by Continental.

Best Ways to Use Airline Miles

Flickr user dasnake

Few things are as frustrating to travelers as a huge bank of frequent-flier points and not being able to use them. With fewer seats and routes available, airlines are making it more difficult to trade miles for free flights, knowing they can sell more tickets at a premium price. They’re gambling that customers with large banks of points will stay continue to stay loyal for fear of losing the miles they’ve worked so hard to accumulate.

So if you can’t cash in your points for flights, what can you do with them?

Donate Them
At a former job years ago, a colleague needed to fly home for a family emergency but didn’t have the money. A few employees quickly pooled frequent-flier points that allowed him to make the trip. Another time, some extended family members used their combined miles to send a cousin and her new husband on a honeymoon.

If you don’t have a needy co-worker or family member, you can always give them to an organization that will use them to help others. The Fisher House Foundation’s “Hero Miles” program has provided more than 40,000 tickets to wounded, injured and ill service members and their families over the years, while Mercy Medical Airlift provided almost 10,000 free airline tickets to patients in need, thanks to generous mileage donations. The Make-A-Wish Foundation has need of more than 2.5 billion miles in order to send kids and their families to their desired destinations around the world.

Trade Them
On Points.com, you can either trade your miles from one airline for another carrier’s points or even exchange them all together for various products or gift cards from retailers like Amazon or Starbucks. But the exchange rates for miles are fairly high in many cases, and should only be used if you have a large block of miles that are going to expire soon. My friend Tim Wozniak exchanges expiring miles for magazine and newspaper subscriptions.

Use Them For Other Travel Needs
The Wall Street Journal’s Scott McCartney posted an excellent piece this week on redeeming airline miles for hotel rooms, rental cars and more. Not surprisingly, the elite-level traveler is going to score much better deals than your average flier — the amount of American Airlines miles needed for hotel stays and car rentals is 40 percent less for platinum-level frequent fliers than the rank-and-file. A penny per mile is the typical exchange for domestic flights, car rentals and hotels for most higher-level loyalty programs. One travel expert McCartney spoke to believes mileage programs will eventually evolve into package deals, encompassing flights, hotels, cars and travel insurance.

Has Airline Consolidation Really Been a Boon For Travelers?

Flickr user HappyRelm

During a recent conversation with Charlie Rose, United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek spoke on the benefits of consolidation in the airline industry.

Smisek opines the corporations’ increased profits means greater investments in the airline’s fleets, including new planes and global WiFi.

“That costs a lot of money,” Smisek said. “And to do that, you’ve got to make money to be able to make those sorts of investments.”

A proposed merger between the bankrupt American Airlines and US Airways is currently under review by the Justice Department. Last month, antitrust lawyer Joseph Alioto filed suit seeking to block the merger, claiming consumers would be negatively impacted. Although attorneys for both airlines decried the suit as baseless, the Government Accountability Office reported that nearly 1,700 routes between would lose a competitor as a result of the merger, affecting more than 53 million passengers.

When United and Continental merged in 2010, competition was decreased across more than 1,100 routes, according to the GAO.

Just how many airlines have caught merger fever? Take a look at this list.

While consolidation has undoubtedly helped the airline’s bottom line, how has it affected the passengers? With fewer airlines vying for your business and fewer flights to and from your destinations, passengers are at the mercy of increasingly large monolithic airlines that, like major banking institutions, are rapidly becoming “too big to fail.”

William McGee, a travel expert with the non-profit Consumers Union (publishes Consumer Reports magazine) raised those and several other issues when testifying about in front of a US Senate Judiciary meeting regarding United’s merger with Continental. McGee testified the airline mergers meant loss of service for many cities, higher fares, reductions in service quality and the threat of widespread service disruptions.

Air Travel Is Actually Really Cheap Now, Compared To The 1950s

Photo by Chalmers Butterfield, Wikimedia Commons

A lot has changed since the Golden Age of Flying. Air travel in the 1950s came with roomy seats and a stylish flight crew, and without security hassles and add-on fees. But truth be told, it was a glamorous luxury few could afford: over the years, ticket prices have dropped approximately 40 percent, making it much more reasonable for an average Joe to take to the skies. In fact, approximately 38 million people flew in 1958 compared to 809 million 50 years later.

Paleofuture found an ad from the 1950s and looked into how much it cost for to travel by plane in the 1950s, and what the relative value would be in today’s dollars, accounting for inflation. Here are some sample one-way fares:

  • New York to Paris, France: $310 in 1955, $2,622 adjusted for inflation
  • New York to Rome, Italy: $360.20 in 1955, $3,046 adjusted for inflation
  • Pittsburgh to San Francisco: $96 in 1955, $812 adjusted for inflation
  • San Francisco to Chicago: $76 in 1955, $643 adjusted for inflation
  • Phoenix to Chicago: $69 in 1955, $584 adjusted for inflation

Sure, we have to deal with fewer amenities and less legroom than they did in the 1950s, but in the grand scheme of things we can get from point A to point B for a fraction of the cost. We might not get there comfortably, but at least we get to save our money for when we get there.

Think Twice Before Buying In-Flight Snacks

Hyougushi, Flickr

As airlines continue to squeeze all the add-on fees they possibly can out of travelers, it isn’t in-flight Wi-Fi or extra legroom that is bringing in the most money. The fastest-growing moneymaker for airlines comes from in-flight meal purchases, and passengers are eating the fees up. Shockingly, airlines have been known to charge up to 2,600 percent more than supermarkets for drinks and snacks — such as $4 for a bottle of water. Here are some examples:

  • Blueberry muffin on easyJet: $3.83. In store: $2.25.
  • Check Mix on US Airways: $3.49. In store: $2.19.
  • Clif Bar on American Airlines: $2.89. In store: $1.50.
  • Kit Kat Bar on Aer Lingus: $2. In store: $0.79.
  • Peanut M&Ms on Delta Air Lines: $3.00. In Store: $0.79.
  • Starburst on United Airlines: $2.99. In store: $0.79.
  • Water bottle on RyanAir: $4. In store: $1.49.

Travelers, don’t let the airlines nickel and dime you. Avoid a la carte fees by packing snacks in your carry-on luggage or scooping them up at the airport before boarding.

Please note: all in-store prices are taken from Target.