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YOUR MONEY: Take advantage of credit card benefits, rewards

I can dish on every detail of my credit cards' reward programs. I know the fees and interest rates, even though I always pay the balance on time and in full. But don't ask me to list the additional benefits my cards offer -- the travel insurance,...

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I can dish on every detail of my credit cards' reward programs. I know the fees and interest rates, even though I always pay the balance on time and in full. But don't ask me to list the additional benefits my cards offer -- the travel insurance, the price protection, the extended warranties.

That's pretty typical, said Ron Shevlin, senior analyst at the financial services research firm Aite Group in Boston. "Most cardholders would have a really tough time telling you what even two or three of the additional benefits are." (He admits he's in this camp.)

It wasn't until my parents had their refrigerator repaired thanks to their credit card's extended warranty provision, and reader Carl Floren wrote to tell me how some charges for teeth-whitening products were reversed using his Visa card's dispute-protection provision, that I started to worry I was missing out on some valuable freebies.

So I came up with this list of common credit card goodies. As always, be sure to read the fine print about your benefits before you need to use them. And don't pay a hefty annual fee just to get a perk; it's usually not worth it. If you have more than one credit card, compare the terms of similar benefits so you can decide which card to use for a purchase; some are more generous than others.

--Car rental insurance: This is probably the most-recognized perk. Use the card to reserve and pay for your rental car and you won't have to blow your souvenir budget to pay for your fender bender.

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--Return protection: If a retailer won't accept that Snuggie, your credit card will reimburse you for the price of the item.

--Purchase protection: Drop your new phone or have your GPS stolen and some cards will reimburse you for the purchase price for a certain number of months. "It's saved my tail on more than one occasion," said Curtis Arnold, founder of Cardratings.com.

--Price protection: Find it cheaper somewhere else and you'll be refunded the difference.

--Zero liability: You aren't on the hook for fraudulent purchases. This is a pretty standard policy.

--ID theft protection: If your identity is stolen, a certain amount of the expenses associated with the cost of clearing your name will be reimbursed.

--Extended warranties: Extends the terms of an original manufacturer's warranty on covered products for a certain amount of time.

--Travel benefits: The perks are varied and plentiful -- from lost baggage insurance to paid-for hotels and meals during some types of travel delays. Credit cards that appeal to frequent travelers, such as airline miles cards, are more likely to have plush travel benefits than a retail-branded credit card.

--Concierge service: Want tickets to a certain show? Stumped about the best restaurant for your date? Need help picking a Christmas gift? This perk tends to be featured on cards catering to more affluent consumers, said Ava Kelly, Visa's head of consumer credit for North America. She's currently using the perk to find a spa day in Palm Springs, Fla., and research restaurant tasting menus.

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"I can't stress how much of a timesaver it is," she said. Plus, it's a 24/7 service.

That's a nice list of potentially valuable perks. But Shevlin's research shows consumers don't even look at these items when deciding which card to apply for. Rates and rewards are what matter. So why do credit cards bother?

"You want to make sure that you're offering a really compelling product and you're not disadvantaged relative to the competition," said Cliff Cook, U.S. Bancorp's chief marketing officer for retail payment solutions. Creating and keeping loyal customers is another reason to pony up the perks.

Now, don't expect your credit card to beat you over the head with these benefits. "They don't really want you using those services because it's a cost to them," Shevlin said.

"They're high-value benefits and, quite honestly, they're probably undermarketed," said Cook.

I wish that when I buy an airline ticket, I'm reminded of my lost-baggage benefit and travel insurance. I wonder why American Express has never asked this harried mother of three if the concierge could help with holiday shopping? At a time when credit cards are jacking up rates and getting a lot of bad press, you'd think it would behoove them to start talking up their good side.

At least the card companies make the details of your perks easy to find online. Since cards are hoping that these benefits will help differentiate them from the competition, this is one time they don't bury details in fine print.

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