If you have an airline- or hotel-branded Visa card, it’s probably a Visa Signature, which also entitles you to a long list of travel benefits beyond what the airline or hotel offers. And most likely, this is the first time you’re hearing about them. Why? Because these cards are promoted by the airline or hotel whose name appears on the card, not Visa, and they tend to emphasize the perks related directly to them. The same is true of World MasterCard and American Express reward cards. We’ve done the investigating for you to uncover the hidden benefits of these three credit cards—here’s how they stack up in terms of add-on travel perks.
You may not know it, but if the word "signature" appears on your Visa card, you’re automatically entitled to concierge service and emergency assistance, as well as rental car insurance. The 24-hour concierge service can assist you with restaurant recommendations, reservations, and even vacation-planning assistance. If you pay for a trip with your Visa Signature card, you’ll also get travel accident insurance and lost luggage reimbursement thrown in. And, if your rental car breaks down or runs out of gas, your card will also get you a referral dispatch for towing or fuel delivery.
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For high-end hotels, you can also score serious perks by booking one of the 800 hotels listed in the "Luxury Collection" (such as The Standard and St. Regis in New York City) on Visa’s website. Though these upscale properties still average $400-plus per night, Visa guarantees the best rate available. What’s more, you can get free-of-charge room upgrades, continental breakfast, and either in-room Wi-Fi or valet parking, as well as late checkout and a $25 voucher on food or beverage within the hotel. That works out to more than $100 in extras per day on an average booking.
All of these benefits are on top of the ones you’re already getting from your Visa card’s affiliated airline or hotel partner, such as Marriott, United or American Airlines, or the card type itself (Capitol One Venture card is a Visa Signature card, for example, which means you get all of the Venture rewards, too).
If you’re carrying a US Airways-, Best Western-, or Chase Freedom-branded MasterCard, you’re also entitled to World MasterCard benefits. This means you’ll get access to all the perks offered to MasterCard’s pricey Gold and Platinum cardholders, plus a few aimed at world travelers, including luggage reimbursement (up to $300 per bag), and accident and trip cancellation insurance. If your travel plans are disrupted by "circumstances beyond your control" (i.e. severe illness, your airline folds), this card can help get your nonrefundable fare back.
Unlike AmEx or Visa Signature, however, there’s no way to book travel through the MasterCard website itself, so you won’t find any additional deals to that end.
Through their Signature and World programs, Visa and MasterCard have attempted to catch up to American Express, which set the bar for travel perks long ago. American Express began as a travel agency business in 1915 and was already highly noted among travelers by the time they introduced credit cards in the 1950s. On top of whatever brand their cards are affiliated with, AmEx cards offers travelers similar insurance plans to those mentioned above, plus, extra layers of travel perks for cards with higher annual fees (such as airport lounge access and airline fee reimbursement for Platinum cardholders).
Where AmEx still outshines competing credit cards is in the booking of travel itself. If you register with their Membership Rewards program, you can book a trip through the website with any AmEx card and earn double reward points to use on hotel and airfare redemption. Plus, American Express has a 24-hour customer service line for booking travel.
Starwood Preferred Guest and Hilton HHonors Surpass cards are good examples of credit cards that combine standard American Express travel perks with a hotel chain’s generous incentives. The SPG card allows holders to redeem points earned on 350 airlines, while the Hilton HHonors Surpass grants you nine points per every dollar spent at participating hotels.
Which Card Should I Choose?
All three programs add a lot of value to their airline, cruise, and hotel partners’ credit cards, and are often offered with reasonable annual fees.
AmEx is a clear winner if you want to rack up extra points by booking travel through them, and AmEx Platinum is a favorite among business travelers.
But for leisure travelers who want to keep costs down, a low- or no-fee World MasterCard or Visa Signature card—connected to the airline, hotel chain, or travel rewards program you’re most likely to use—will likely provide all the travel perks and coverage you need.
When deciding, keep in mind that the best source of info on these varying card types is not necessarily your loyalty program (i.e. US Airways or Starwood) or the issuing bank (Chase, Citi, Capital One), but, rather, the credit card processor themselves (Visa, MasterCard, or American Express).
Fodors.com contributor Cathleen McCarthy is the travel rewards expert for CreditCards.com and covers hotel and travel deals in Northeast cities on her own network, Save on Cities. Her stories have appeared in The Washington Post, WSJ, Amtrak ARRIVE, Town & Country, and many in-flight magazines.
Photo Credit: Many Credit Cards via Shutterstock