When it comes to your credit card, "Read the fine print" is usually code for "Warning: you're about to get some very bad news."
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But your card's terms and agreements aren't always out to get you. In fact, hidden in there is often a range of perks, from car rental collision insurance to return protection to concierge services, that can save you both time and cash.
Years ago, card issuers introduced such bonus perks to prove their value in the face of a hefty annual fee and to differentiate themselves in a sea of competitors. Over the years, the extra benefits stayed tacked onto cards but were mostly forgotten in the sea of fine print. But now, "financial institutions have decided to highlight these benefits more at certain times during the marketing cycle," rebranding or re-emphasizing existing features, says Chuck Christianson, group vice president of Connexions Loyalty, a division of Affinion Group.
For instance, in November 2012, Citi launched a marketing blitz to tout its Price Rewind feature, a price protection service, even though the benefit has been on millions of cards for 20 to 30 years. "These type of products are not yet in the mainstream," says Christianson. "Not everyone knows about them, but they're certainly more visible."
While credit card companies slowly aim to make card benefits more transparent and easily accessible, for now you may have to sift through your card agreement or request a list of benefits from your issuer before you know what you're entitled to. But if you ever need to take advantage of one of the perks, you'll consider it time well spent.
That's how it played out for Harry Campbell, a San Diego-based personal finance blogger at YourPFPro.com. A month after buying a new iPhone, he dropped it at a gas station, shattering its screen. Faced with ponying up $200 for a replacement, he remembered reading something about damage coverage offered by his American Express Gold card. He called up, filed a quick claim with a third-party insurer contracted by American Express, sent in the broken phone and the receipt for his new one, and was quickly reimbursed in full. "AmEx is one of the best companies in offering perks and rewards," says Campbell. "It was actually a really simple process."
Now Campbell says he usually charges all his big purchases to his American Express card or a Visa Signature card with similar benefits, just in case. "I wouldn't sign up for a credit card based on any of those specific fringe benefits," he says. "The odds of [needing them] are pretty unlikely. But it's definitely a nice added benefit."
When you scour your own card's fine print, here are some perks to look for, how much they could save you and how to take advantage.
Perk 1: First crack at concert tickets
How it works: Don't have a prayer of scoring great seats at the Jason Mraz concert? Some card issuers offer presale or preferred seating tickets to hard-to-get-into concerts and sporting events; others offer super-cheap seats. When Citi rolled out its Private Pass feature, it sold select concert tickets to cardholders for $5 a pop.
What it's worth: While it may simply save you the stress of trying to nab tickets when they go on sale to the general public, a $100 ticket through your credit card could save you a scalper's $100 to $200 markup.
What's in the fine print: The deals come through a third party such as Ticketmaster, so you'll still have to pay their service fees. Plus, don't expect a discount, just a chance to buy tickets before your friends do.
Perk 2: Rental car insurance coverage
How it works: According to a 2007 survey, one-third of drivers spring for extra collision insurance when they rent a car, and 56% either don't think their credit card would cover it or don't know for sure. But most credit cards offer collision insurance for rentals, covering whatever your primary auto insurance won't.
What it's worth: Prices vary, but a loss-damage waiver when you rent a car usually costs between $10 and $20 a day. Taking a pass on a one-week rental could save you up to $140.
What's in the fine print: You may not be covered for long-term rentals or rentals in some foreign countries, such Israel or Ireland. Certain kinds of cars -- including trucks, campers and often SUVs -- are excluded. Plus, while your credit card may cover damage, you may be on your own for "loss-of-use" fees while the rental is out of commission.
Perk 3: Guaranteed returns
How it works: If you're feeling serious buyer's remorse but it's too late to return an item to the store, some cards will refund your purchase.
What it's worth: Card issuers put their own dollar cap on the perk: Discover cardholders can get back up to $500 per item; $250 for Visa. With American Express, it's $300 per item up to $1,000 a year.
What's in the fine print: No broken stuff. The item has to be in tiptop shape and you'll need the original packaging and receipt.
Perk 4: Extended warranty coverage
How it works: When you drop your new gadget three days after the manufacturer's warranty expired, your credit card will cover the cost of replacing or repairing it.
What it's worth: Because spendy appliances and electronics -- refrigerators, laptops, big-screen TVs -- are usually covered, the savings can be big: up to a maximum of $10,000 for repair or replacement for most card issuers.
What's in the fine print: You'll need to fill out some extensive paperwork to provide proof that what you bought got destroyed. Plus, card issuers maintain a long list of products that aren't covered, everything from antiques and jewelry to DVDs and computer software. And don't expect instant turnaround. Even with cellphones and laptops, you'll likely have to wait a few weeks.
Perk 5: Cellphone replacement insurance
How it works: If your phone gets damaged or stolen, your credit card will buy you a new one.
What it's worth: Up to $250 for some cardholders; that's the amount that Citi will pay for your new phone. But you'll have to kick in a $50 co-pay, so unless you're using a high-end phone, it may not be worth it.
What's in the fine print: To be covered, you have to pay your monthly cellphone bill with your credit card and you'll have to file a police report or other paperwork to prove that your phone is gone. Plus, loss isn't included, so if you left it behind at the movie theater, you're out of luck.
Perk 6: Trip cancellation coverage
How it works: While only 15% of cards offer it, travel cancellation insurance reimburses you the cost of nonrefundable flights if an emergency or illness derails your travel plans. A handful of cards offer protection against travel delays, too.
What it's worth: You can get back up to $2,500 from Discover if illness forces you to cancel your trip and $125 per day if your trip is delayed. American Express, meanwhile, gives you up to $250 to cover your meals and hotel while you were stranded during a snowstorm, but you'll first have to pay a $9.95 fee per person, per trip.
What's in the fine print: Only a few reasons are considered just cause to cancel: the death of an immediate family member, a serious illness or an injury. You won't be covered if a pre-existing condition flares up or if your destination turns into a war zone. You'll also have to provide a doctor's note to prove your case.Perk 7: Cash without an ATM
How it works: Discover's Cash-Over program lets cardholders essentially use their credit card as a debit card. You can add an additional $40 (or whatever amount you choose) to your purchase, then pocket the difference in cash. It's not a cash advance, so there are no fees.
What it's worth: While it's mostly a time-saver, you could avoid a few bucks in ATM fees.
What's in the fine print: It feels like a debit card, but it's not. Your cash will still be subject to the same APR you're paying on other card purchases and the service is only available at certain stores.
Perk 8: Emergency travel assistance
How it works: If you get into a bind while out of the country, some credit cards will step into the fray, whether you need help finding an American doctor or replacing a stolen passport. Discover even offers 24-7 translation services in more than 60 different languages over the phone.
What it's worth: An on-the-ground guide could run you $75 an hour or more, depending on where you are, and Discover, for instance, promises to help you with things a local couldn't, such as political or medical evacuation. What's in the fine print: Some services, such as translation, are free, but this isn't insurance. You'll be charged for costs involved in, say, getting you a new passport or finding an international hospital.
Perk 9: A low price on a car
How it works: With American Express's car-buying program, you use an online interface to build your dream car, then get a target price based on what others have paid, plus a list of certified dealers -- before you even enter your contact info. What it's worth: According to American Express, customers save an average of $2,678 off the suggested retail price, without the stress of negotiating. Some used car dealers have even agreed to a money-back guarantee, which takes away the potential stress of getting a lemon.
What's in the fine print: That special cardholder price doesn't include tax, title, licensing or processing fees, a loophole that dealers could use to jack up the price. And the number you have is a "target price," not a guaranteed price. The dealer you contact doesn't have to honor it.
Perk 10: Price protection
How it works: If you use your credit card to buy anything from a stereo to a sweater, then find the same thing for a lower price elsewhere within 30 to 60 days, your credit card will refund the difference. No more shopping anxiety! What it's worth: Your credit card sets the limit, but with Citi's Price Rewind feature, you can get back up to $250 a pop, or $1,000 a year.
What's in the fine print: Most credit cards have a list of excluded items, such as cellphones, cars and refurbished items. With most cards you'll have to provide the ad proving that the exact item you bought is on sale for a lower price. (With Citi's cards, you can track purchases and monitor sales prices online.) Some cards exclude online sales, seasonal sales and close-outs, and eBay is out.
Perk 11: Roadside assistance
How it works: If your car breaks down, simply call your card's customer service line and it will arrange to send a tow truck your way. Jump-starts, tire changes and locksmith services are usually included too.
What it's worth: Depending on what help you need, roadside assistance could save you $50 to $100 by charging you only a flat fee for the service call; with a Visa Signature, it's $59.95, or $69.95 with Discover. Others charge a pre-negotiated price for each service you use, which could save you more hassle than cash.
What's in the fine print: With many cards, you're merely getting an over-the-phone tow truck referral, not any discount on services.