How much value did you get out of your Priority Pass membership this year? Did you ever use Global Entry in 2020?
Sure, travel credit cards can offer luxurious benefits like hotel room upgrades, admission to airport lounges, elite status and access to priority lanes at airports. Yet here lies the problem: It’s unlikely you set foot in an airline lounge more than a couple of times this year — if at all. It’s even less likely you made use of Global Entry membership, considering there are few countries where U.S. citizens can travel right now.
If you didn’t travel much in 2020 and aren’t sure what 2021 will look like, then it might feel like a waste to hold a fancy travel credit card. And to some degree it’s true — many of the best travel credit card perks were rendered useless in 2020. But that doesn’t mean travel credit cards as a whole are useless.
In fact, some benefits have become more valuable than ever as travel habits change, along with budgets.
When applying for a new credit card — or simply deciding which ones in your wallet to keep vs. dump — here are four travel credit card benefits you absolutely need in 2021:
1. Trip insurance
While your credit card’s trip insurance likely won’t cover disinclination to travel (perhaps a sudden increase in coronavirus cases has you reconsidering plans to travel for the holidays), it probably can cover other coronavirus-related cancellations. Most credit cards with trip insurance will cover all or part of your trip if you or someone you’re traveling with actually gets sick.
Considering many destinations require COVID-19 testing anyway before traveling there, a positive test would likely allow you to at least get a refund on your now-canceled trip.
2. Rental car insurance
If you’re one of the many travelers trading a flight for a road trip, you may find yourself renting a car. When you do rent that car, charge it to a credit card with rental car insurance, as it can help pay for some or all of the costs of damage or theft.
Ideally, your credit card would offer primary coverage, which means it pays out first in the event of a rental car accident, preventing you from having to get your own insurer involved. That’s preferable to secondary insurance (which pays out for fees and charges that your primary insurance policy doesn't cover), as you’ll likely avoid having to file an initial primary insurance claim — which could otherwise result in your insurance rates increasing.
3. Flexible cancellation policies when redeeming award travel
Many credit cards offer big time rewards in the form of points and miles as either a sign-up bonus or for spending money on your card (or both). Just ensure that your particular currency of points or miles enables you to get a refund should you need to cancel your trip.
For example, Southwest Airlines always allows passengers to cancel award flights and receive a full refund of all of your points, taxes and fees. But on airlines like JetBlue or United, you may find yourself paying what’s called a mileage redeposit fee on some bookings, which is a fee to get those points returned back to you. While this fee may be waived in 2020, policies are always changing and are in flux for 2021.
If your credit card is helping you earn gobs of points, you don’t want to lose them just because your trip got canceled — so choose your currencies carefully.
» Learn more: How to recover miles and points if you cancel your trip
4. Statement credits for at-home spending, like takeout or streaming
One of the most delightful aspects about travel credit cards is the benefits you get that you might not otherwise pay for yourself, but that improve your experiences: lounge access, airport restaurant credits or upgraded boarding. Even if you’re not traveling, the same logic applies to non-travel perks.
Especially now, issuers are throwing in benefits designed for sheltering in place. As an example, you’ll find credits for Variis by Equinox, an app designed by the gym that brings Equinox’s workouts to your living room. Plus, more cards offer credits toward takeout or discounts on delivery, so you have a good excuse to order in from the new pizza place you’ve been pining for. And keep an eye out for special offers on streaming services so you can finally binge that new hit show everyone is talking about.
You might not be the kind of person who’d pay for a Disney+ subscription or a Peloton membership on your own, but when it’s free or discounted thanks to your credit card, you may find that Baby Yoda and yoga can make your social-distanced life just a bit better.
The bottom line
Premium travel credit cards aren’t totally dead — but you should ensure the card you have has benefits you’ll actually use. Whether they’re travel-specific benefits that enable more cancellation flexibility (which is more important than ever in the ongoing COVID-travel world), or the benefits have hardly anything to do with travel at all, the right credit card can simultaneously make your life a little more posh and a little less of a headache.
In 2021, don’t be seduced by benefits like a Southwest Companion Pass or Marriott Bonvoy Elite Status. Travel insurance and flexible cancellation policies are less sexy, but in a year when you’re not traveling the way you used to, they can be the most valuable credit card benefits of all.
How to Maximize Your Rewards
You want a travel credit card that prioritizes what’s important to you. Here are our picks for the best travel credit cards of 2021, including those best for:
Airline miles and a large bonus: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
No annual fee: Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card
Flat-rate rewards with no annual fee: Bank of America® Travel Rewards credit card
Premium travel rewards: Chase Sapphire Reserve®
Luxury perks: The Platinum Card® from American Express
Business travelers: Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card