When you first get a new credit card, you may be more interested in the card’s rewards program than its benefits, such as travel insurance and purchase protection. But don’t wait until the last minute – or worse, wait until you need that rental car coverage, like I did – to learn what your card offers.
Recently, I got a firsthand taste of what it’s like to find yourself in an emergency without a clear idea of how your card can help you. On a trip to the Midwest, I accidentally hit a curb and damaged the side of my rental car.
As soon as I saw the damage, I panicked and immediately tried to remember which credit card my husband had used to book the rental car.
In the meantime, I frantically googled stories on rental car insurance and learned that most cards offer only secondary car insurance. This means you first have to tap your primary car insurance provider before your card will cover any remaining bills.
I am embarrassed to admit, having written about credit cards for years, that I didn’t know this. I wrongly assumed that most cards that advertised car rental insurance offered primary coverage.
Did the credit card he used include primary or secondary coverage for rental cars? Should we have used a different credit card with better coverage?
I also learned that the credit card company might not even cover the claim since I wasn’t listed as the primary driver of the rental car. This was also news to me. I assumed that the card would cover any damage that occurred on the rental car it paid for.
Some cards also restrict how long you can rent the car or what type of vehicle it will cover. For example, if you’ve rented the car for more than two weeks, your card issuer might refuse to cover the damage. Your card issuer might also refuse to pay up if you rented a truck or extra large van, damaged the car on an off-road or rented your car in a foreign country.
Because I was traveling, I didn’t have a copy of our credit cards’ benefits information with me, so I would have to look it up online – or call the number on the back of the card – once I learned which card we had used.
I would also have to look up which number to call to start a claim, what forms I needed to fill out and save and what else I needed to do now that I had added a big gash to the side of my rental car. I felt so overwhelmed and intimidated by the whole process that I was tempted to just forget it and find a way to pay for the damage myself.
Eventually, I learned that my husband had used his Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which offers one of the most generous car insurance policies. Unlike most credit cards, it offers primary insurance and also covers secondary drivers (including drivers who aren’t authorized users of the card).
Ultimately, we ended up not using the card’s rental car coverage. It turned out that my husband had paid for the rental company’s insurance coverage because his employer was footing some of the bill and required full coverage.
The end result: Having insurance on the rental car saved us from paying potentially hundreds of dollars in labor and repair costs.
And I learned an important lesson: An emergency is the worst time to learn what benefits your credit card offers.
If I had to do it all over again, I would have created a cheat sheet for myself before traveling that listed what specific insurance benefits our cards offered and what steps we needed to take to file a claim. That way, I wouldn’t have felt so paralyzed by the whole ordeal.
Or, if I had been thinking straight in the heat of the moment, I could have used the Sift app that I recently downloaded to my phone. It lists all the benefits a card offers and provides hot links to important phone numbers.
Either way, I don’t want to be caught off guard the next time I travel and run into some kind of emergency. In the future, I am determined to read about all of my cards’ benefits, carefully wade through the fine print and learn exactly what is and isn’t available.
See related: How your card’s travel insurance can save you, Which cards are best for renting a car?, Renting a car? Know whether your card adds insurance,