Credit card benefits are changing: What’s going on?

Mar 3, 2020

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I’ve been using credit cards for more than 30 years and I’ve been covering the credit card industry as a journalist since 2008. Until two years ago, credit card benefits were all but chiseled in stone. Nearly every card offered rental car collision damage waiver (CDW) coverage, and the vast majority of premium travel credit cards came with perks like extended warranty coverage, price protection and travel accident insurance. Changes to these benefits were extremely rare and usually involved a card issuer offering additional perks, not removing them.

But starting in 2018, these key benefits and others began disappearing from the cards of some major issuers, even from some premium travel rewards cards that were known for their generous benefits.

What’s changed

The first indication that the ground was shifting came from Discover, which dropped five major benefits from all its cards in February 2018. These benefits included extended product warranty, return guarantee, purchase protection, auto rental insurance and flight accident insurance. These were all benefits that I had considered to be standard on most credit cards. Discover’s statement blamed “prolonged low usage” as its reason for discontinuing these benefits.

Because the Discover it cards are all no-annual-fee cards, I figured it was an anomaly that wouldn’t spread to premium reward cards. I was wrong.

In June 2018, Chase announced the removal of several key benefits from some of its most popular cards. Price protection was removed from all Chase cards and return protection was discontinued from the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited cards, among others. Further, it was announced that Freedom cardholders would no longer receive lost luggage reimbursement and travel accident insurance.

But the big shocker came in June 2019, when Citi announced the removal of nearly all cardholder benefits from most of their cards. The disappearing benefits included:

  • Worldwide car rental insurance
  • Trip cancellation and interruption protection
  • Worldwide travel accident insurance
  • Trip delay protection
  • Baggage delay protection
  • Lost baggage protection
  • Citi Price Rewind
  • 90-day return protection
  • Roadside assistance dispatch service
  • Travel and emergency assistance

Even the ultra-premium Citi Prestige® Card lost medical evacuation and missed-event ticket protection. Extended warranty coverage and damage and theft protection remained in place on many cards, however, and the Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi retained worldwide car rental insurance.

Within a few months of Citi’s announcement, Barclays notified cardholders that extended warranty, price protection, purchase assurance and trip delay benefits were being removed from many popular travel rewards cards, including the AAdvantage® Aviator® Red World Elite Mastercard, AAdvantage® Aviator® Silver World Elite Mastercard and the JetBlue Plus Card.

Whats going on?

To understand why all these changes are occurring, I talked to Peter Alter, vice president at cbsi, the leading provider in the U.S. of protection and assistance benefits for credit cards. Although they don’t have a large public profile, cbsi works with card issuers to provide benefits that protect consumers from financial loss when something goes wrong with travel or retail purchases made with a covered account. It also provides valuable benefits for travelers such as airport lounge access and medical assistance. In fact, cbsi delivers benefits to more than 1,500 financial institutions, covering more than 400 million transaction accounts such as credit cards, and has been doing so for over 30 years.

When I asked about the underlying reasons that credit card benefits are changing, Alter cited rising numbers of cardholder claims for these benefits. He attributes it to several factors such as a good economy and increasing international travel. (International travel generates higher claims than domestic travel.) He also noted that rental car agencies are much stricter about damage and are even using new technology to detect, identify and ultimately bill customers for damage that might have previously gone unnoticed. Those damage claims get passed on to the card issuer’s benefit providers, increasing the cost of offering these coverages.

(Photo by ablokhin/Getty Images)
Rental car agencies, like Hertz, are getting much stricter about damage and sometimes bill customers for unnoticed damage after the fact. (Photo by ablokhin/Getty Images)

Furthermore, car ownership is decreasing as a new generation of Americans living in cities have neither cars nor personal auto insurance policies to cover rental car damage before the secondary policies offered by most credit card issuers apply.

But Alter also point outed out that there are some areas where credit card benefits are improving, such as cellphone insurance. At a time when many people carry a phone that costs $600 or more, there are several credit cards that come with a cellphone protection plan including:

The information for the Citi Prestige, U.S. Bank Visa Platinum, Uber Visa, Wells Fargo Propel card as been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

He cites screen damage as the number one reason for claims, and said that the costs of these claims are going up as the next generation of expensive, OLED screens becomes common. Credit card issuers offer these benefits because they know that cardholders who receive valuable protection benefits in return for using their card will tend to use it more often. The card issuer will then make more money on merchant fees.

(Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Phone screen damage is one of the main sources of insurance claims for credit cards these days. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Finally, Alter makes the case that rental car benefits are extremely valuable and are worth far more than the potential rewards from charging the cost of a rental agency’s CDW insurance on a card. For example, he says that the average cost of the optional insurance sold by rental car companies is $22 per day. So when you use a credit card that offers this coverage and decline the optional insurance, the $22 saved per day will vastly exceed the value of the rewards you might earn. Even an expensive rental car that costs $100 per day earns just 300 points on your Sapphire Reserve, worth just $6 according to TPG’s latest valuation of Ultimate Rewards at 2 cents per point. So it still makes sense to hold a credit card with benefits for renting a car or making other purchases.

What does the future of credit card benefits look like?

Alter sees credit card issuers continuing to focus on the customer experience. He believes that in 2020 card issuers will strive to give their customers a very clear understanding of what’s covered while making it more convenient to use these benefits. For example, he says that cbsi now has access to airline data that it once required customers to provide. You may no longer have to submit proof of a delayed or cancelled flight — the benefits administrator might be able to get that information directly from the airlines.

Bottom line

Before you rely on credit card benefits such as auto rental insurance, price protection or damage and theft coverage, you need to double-check that these benefits are still being offered by your credit card issuer. And when selecting a new credit card, you need to pay closer attention to your benefits than ever before. You can no longer assume that every premium credit card offers a minimum slate of benefits. It’s up to you to find the card that offers the travel insurance and purchases protection coverages that you need.

Featured photo by Isabelle Raphael for The Points Guy.

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