This post contains references to products from one or more of our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on links to those products. For an explanation of our Advertising Policy, visit this page.
As I’ve discussed in the past, two valuable (but often overlooked) benefits of credit cards are travel insurance and secondary auto rental insurance, even though terms are sometimes poorly disclosed and policies can be inadequate. For instance, when you’re covered by secondary car rental insurance provided by your credit card and you damage a rental car in the US, you’ll still have to file a claim with your own car insurance company — something most drivers want to avoid like the plague. Fortunately, there are several credit cards on the market that offer primary car rental insurance, providing immediate and direct coverage to the driver of a rental car.
Car rental coverage provided by credit cards is called the Collision Damage Waiver (CDW). Secondary CDW coverage waives your rental car agency’s right to pursue you for damages incurred to your rental car as a result of theft, vandalism, etc. However, secondary coverage may come with a deductible (typically $500), and in most cases doesn’t cover administrative fees or total loss of the vehicle due to an accident. Secondary CDW coverage is offered by a variety of cards issued by American Express (e.g., the Premier Rewards Gold Card), Visa (e.g., Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve) and Discover.
Primary rental car coverage provided by a credit card generally covers the loss of the vehicle, meaning you won’t need to pay a rental car company an extra fee for coverage when renting a vehicle, nor will you need to alert your car insurance company to any activity that could cause your premium to increase.
Most of these policies exclude certain countries from coverage — most commonly Australia, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Jamaica and New Zealand. All policies cover most private passenger automobiles, minivans and sport utility vehicles, but often don’t cover sport and specialty vehicles such as trucks, motorcycles, mopeds and motorbikes. Excluded across the board are cars considered antique (generally defined as any vehicle over 20 years old, or one that hasn’t been manufactured for 10 years or more) or exotic (e.g., Aston Martin, Porsche and Ferrari). In all cases, in order to receive primary car rental insurance via a credit card, you have to decline the rental agency’s CDW.
In addition, there are many credit cards out there that offer primary CDW insurance for rentals outside of the US. For example, when I log in to my Citi ThankYou Premier Card account and find the car rental insurance portion of my benefits, it specifically includes the following notation:
You’ll want to read your card agreement very carefully before assuming that your rental is covered; a quick call to customer service should give you some additional insight into the details and exclusions of the policy.
The following credit cards presently offer primary auto insurance coverage on rentals both in the US and abroad (with countries of exception noted):
American Express Cards
All American Express cards offer premium primary coverage for a flat rate of $19.95 or $24.95 ($15.95 or $17.95 for California residents) for a rental period of up to 42 days (up to 30 days for Washington State residents). The more expensive option simply includes higher thresholds for medical expenses and coverage like accidental death and dismemberment. During the enrollment process, you’ll see details of the two options and can decide whether the extra coverage is worth the higher premium.
To enroll, simply visit the Amex Premium Car Rental Protection page and click Enroll Now. You’ll need to log in to your American Express account, choose the plan you’d like and review the program’s terms and conditions. You won’t be charged anything until you actually use an enrolled card to rent a car, in which case the premium will automatically post to your account. If coverage won’t be necessary for your travel needs, be sure to disenroll your card prior to your trip by calling 1-866-518-0259. Otherwise, you will automatically be charged on future rentals.
One of the best current offers is for The Platinum Card from American Express, which comes with 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. This card has a high $450 annual fee, but you can receive an annual airline fee credit of $200 for incidentals like checked bags, flight-change fees and snacks, and you’ll also pay no foreign transaction fees and enjoy complimentary lounge access.
Both of these cards offer primary coverage for most types of vehicles (with the exception of sports cars, trucks and off-road vehicles) in most countries except Ireland, Israel and Jamaica. The coverage provides reimbursement up to the actual cash value of the vehicle for theft and collision damage. However, note that cardholders must be driving for business in order to be covered.
Ink Plus currently offers a sign-up bonus of 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after you spend $5,000 in the first 3 months from account opening. You’ll earn 5 points per dollar spent at office supply stores and on cellular, landline, internet and cable TV services (on up to $50,000 in combined purchases each year). In addition, you’ll earn 2 points per dollar spent at gas stations and hotel stays (again, capped at $50,000 annually) and 1 point per dollar on all other purchases. The card incurs no foreign transaction fees, and the $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
Ink Cash currently offers $200 cash back after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months from account opening. You’ll earn 5% cash back per dollar spent at office supply stores and on cellular, landline, internet and cable TV services (up to $25,000 in combined purchases each year). In addition, you’ll earn 2% cash back per dollar spent at gas stations and restaurants (again capped at $25,000 annually) and 1% cash back on all other purchases. You can combine these earnings with other eligible Chase cards to essentially “convert” them to Ultimate Rewards points (in the same way you can with the Chase Freedom). Unfortunately, Ink Cash charges a 3% fee for foreign transactions, but there is no annual fee.
Be sure to check out Jason Steele’s post on choosing the right Chase Ink card for more information.
Last July, Chase announced some changes to the Sapphire Preferred, including a move from secondary to primary car insurance. Rentals of up to 31 consecutive days paid for with the card are now covered for losses including physical damage and/or theft of the rental vehicle, valid loss-of-use charges assessed by the rental company and reasonable and customary towing charges related to a covered loss. Reimbursement is available up to the actual cash value of the vehicle as it was originally manufactured. While expensive or exotic cars are generally excluded, select models of BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac and Lincoln are covered.
The current sign-up bonus for this card is 40,000 points when you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening, and the $95 annual fee is waived the first year. This card is one of my favorites, due to its 2x earnings for every dollar spent on travel and dining, as well as its lack of foreign transaction fees. Ultimate Rewards points also consistently appear near the top of my monthly valuations.
Both of these Diners Club cards provide primary coverage that applies to physical damage and theft of the vehicle, reasonable loss of use charges and reasonable towing charges, and includes secondary personal effects insurance. Protection for covered damages applies to rental cars with a retail price of up to $75,000.
Neither of these cards comes with a sign-up bonus, but the Elite card does offer triple points on purchases at grocery stores, drug stores and gas stations. Diners Club Rewards can be transferred to a wide variety of partners (including restaurants, airlines and hotels), and the card offers 24/7 personal concierge service, global airport lounge access and discounts on car rentals at Avis and Budget.
Unfortunately, neither of these cards is accepting new applications at the moment, so unless you’re already a cardholder, you’ll need to wait until they become publicly available again to take advantage of these benefits.
Discover Escape Card
While this card is no longer available to new applicants, existing cardholders can take advantage of its primary rental car insurance. Escape covers you for a rental period of up to 31 consecutive days, and excludes tax, gasoline and airport fees from its definition of car rental charges. The list of covered vehicles includes minivans and sport utility vehicles that hold up to 9 passengers, but excludes off-road vehicles and cars that have a suggested retail price above $50,000. Coverage includes physical damage to and theft of the vehicle, reasonable towing charges and any deductible or other eligible amounts not covered by other insurance. The insurance doesn’t cover personal injury, personal liability, damage to other vehicles or property or any injury to any other party.
This card doesn’t typically make the list of best hotel credit cards, but if your travels include Fairmont properties and you value primary CDW coverage, it can be a great option. The coverage is offered for physical damage and theft of most rented vehicles, up to 31 consecutive days within or outside your country of residence.
The current sign-up offer is two complimentary nights after you make $3,000 in purchases within your first 3 months of account opening. You’ll also receive one complimentary night each anniversary year that you spend $12,000 on the card. You earn 5 Fairmont Rewards per dollar on Fairmont stays; 2 points per dollar spent on airline tickets purchased directly with airlines, at car rental agencies and on transit and commuting; and 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases. The card incurs no foreign transaction fees and includes an automatic upgrade to Premier Status; you can also earn a stay credit toward Platinum Status by spending $7,500 on your card (up to 2 credits per calendar year). The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
The primary coverage offered by this card protects you up to the actual cash value of most rental cars, and applies to damage caused by collision or theft.
The current sign-up bonus on this card is 2 complimentary nights at a Tier 1-4 property after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. You receive 5 points per dollar on Ritz-Carlton and Marriott purchases; 2 points per dollar on airline tickets, car rental expenses and restaurants; and 1 point per dollar on everything else. Additional benefits of this card are a $300 annual travel credit, $100 hotel credit on paid Ritz-Carlton stays of two nights or more, complimentary Lounge Club membership, three upgrades to Ritz-Carlton Club level each year and instant Gold Elite Status for the first year. The card incurs no foreign transaction fees, but comes with a $395 annual fee.
For more information, check out my review of the card from last fall.
These two Chase cards also offer primary coverage, and the insurance policy terms are almost identical to those offered by the Sapphire Preferred. The major exceptions are that expensive/exotic cars are included and the primary coverage is offered in all countries, even those normally excluded by other policies.
The current sign-up bonus on the Explorer card is 30,000 miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months. You can enjoy priority boarding and a free checked bag when flying United, and you’ll also get two United Club passes every year. In addition, you’ll earn 2 miles per dollar spent on tickets purchased from United and 1 mile per dollar spent elsewhere. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year, and the card incurs no foreign transaction fees.
The Club card gives you full United Club membership and automatic Hyatt Gold Passport Platinum membership. You’ll earn 2 miles per dollar on United purchases and 1.5 miles per dollar elsewhere. On United-operated flights, you’ll get your first and second checked bags free, and enjoy Premier Access for priority check-in and boarding. This card comes with a $450 annual fee, but you may be able to have the fee waived by signing up for the card in a Chase branch.
Please note that many USAA co-branded cards (e.g., American Express, MasterCard, etc.) also offer primary rental car insurance to cardholders. However, these cards are only available to officers, enlisted personnel or veterans of the US military and their eligible family members.
Many of us tend to focus on the earning and redeeming benefits of credit cards, especially when they come with lucrative sign-up bonuses. However, the other benefits can come in handy when traveling, and primary car rental coverage can be a lifesaver when you get into an accident. That being said, don’t assume that you’re covered for every possible auto-based mishap when you pay for a car rental with a card that offers primary coverage, as many exceptions and exclusions may apply. Before you rent a car, call your credit card’s customer service to determine exactly what is covered and what is not.
If you’ve taken advantage of primary car rental coverage provided through a credit card, please share your experiences (both positive and negative) in the comments below.