Why you should always book your vacation on a credit card

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Max and I are total credit card points nerds, but we know not everyone is as addicted to the #pointslife as we are, and it can be an overwhelming experience to book trips and know what card to use. There are a lot of things that can go wrong, or right, when booking a hotel or airfare so its important to understand your options.

In our opinion, it should be your #1 priority to book your hard-earned vacations on the right credit card. Beyond the obvious points earning and benefits, we never use our debit cards for anything, because there are typically zero real protections in the event your card number is stolen or something is fraudulently charged to your card. A credit card provides built in security and a buffer of time for you to deal with issues that arise. A debit card, however, takes money out of your account immediately, often leaving you without options in a dispute.

I used to work in the hotel business, so I wanted to share some insight into booking hotel rooms or airline tickets on your credit cards and what our recommendations are. We recently had a very bad experience with a property we stayed at, so we wanted to share the experience in the hopes that it helps someone else in the future.

Let’s back up: here’s a short story before we get into why the credit card matters.

Nine months ago, we booked a hotel room at the Moorea Beach Lodge in Moorea on hotels.com. We booked the property originally for 5 nights. Hotels.com is a third party booking engine that sends the reservation to the hotel and essentially authorizes a specific amount on a masked credit card number associated with your reservation. So what that means is that typically, the information sent to the hotel about you is only your name and reservation dates. They rarely, if ever, share your email, credit card info, billing address, birthday, etc.

Side note: this is also why you may be disappointed at times when you show up to a hotel and they don’t know it’s your birthday or anniversary, even though you made special requests on the third party booking site. Those requests are often not passed along by the site.

Most third party booking agencies do not pass along your credit card number since it is not secure to fax, email or share that number. So the hotel receives a “debit card” style number that authorizes ONLY room & tax (or whatever you booked) for that booking. Therefore, when you show up to the hotel, you are typically required to provide a credit card for incidentals, and you never see the actual room & tax bill. Have you ever noticed that when you check out, you don’t see the room rate? Or worse, you’ve accidentally been handed the wrong folio and noticed a much lower rate than what you paid? This is why. Hotels.com pays the hotel a rate that is pre-negotiated in exchange for the hotel’s visibility on their site. I digress- the point is, the hotel is able to authorize a specific amount to the hotels.com-provided account number upon checkout.

Fast forward a couple of months to when we ended up modifying our reservation from 5 nights to 3 nights. The price adjusted from ~$1200 total to ~$720 total. We received a confirmation email with the explained changes and we were all set.

Fast forward again to our check in date. We arrived to the hotel (which was a disaster in itself) and we never provided a credit card. We were given a little tour and sent on our way to our Family Bungalow to enjoy our 3 nights. The three nights pass by, we leave and move onto the next hotel.

Shortly after arriving home to the states, we notice the hotel charged us $1200. At first, we were deeply confused because we never provided a credit card, so how could the hotel charge us $400 more than the guaranteed room rate we agreed to pay? Great question. After confirming the reservation change, they continued to charge the “pre-authorized” amount for the original booking. Thankfully, we paid on our Chase Sapphire Reserve and were able to submit a claim to dispute the difference after the property failed to respond to us and to hotels.com. At first, I called Hotels.com and found one very helpful support agent using the hang-up-call-again method, who was persistent. Sadly, that persistence ended when his shift ended so the case was closed with no explanation or follow up. Hotels.com proceeded to claim the hotel denied our request and that we were no longer owed this money because “they tried”.

Had I not paid on a credit card that does protect me from a charge like this, I would be required to pay that bill anyway, or worse, had I paid on a debit card, I would have zero recourse for getting that money back. The hotel refused our refund and we were able to file a claim successfully with Chase.

Have I convinced you that you should book your next trip on a credit card yet? Good.

Now that that’s covered, let’s talk about who has protections. We use the Chase Sapphire Reserve (and have for a long time- check out this post) for everything related to travel, because when it comes to protections, they really do seem to be the best (although, AmEx Platinum just added their travel protections- hallelujah!). I’ve called Chase’s travel claims department multiple times and they’ve been helpful and explained each benefit. That being said, here’s the breakdown of the top credit cards with travel protection:

Chase Sapphire Reserve ($550)

Baggage delay: up to $100 reimbursed per day for up to 5 days if your baggage is delayed more than 6 hours
Lost/damaged baggage: $3,000 per passenger, but only $500 per passenger for jewelry, watches, cameras, video recorders and other electronic equipment
Trip delay reimbursement: up to $500 per ticket if you’re delayed more than 6 hours or require an overnight stay
Trip cancellation and interruption protection: up to $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip for prepaid, non-refundable travel expenses
Emergency medical and dental benefit: up to $2,500 for medical expenses when on a trip more than 100 miles from home
Medical evacuation benefit: up to $100,000 for medical services and transportation in the case of emergency evacuation when on a trip of five to 60 days and traveling more than 100 miles from home

Chase Sapphire Preferred ($95)

Baggage delay: up to $100 reimbursed per day for up to 5 days if your baggage is delayed more than 6 hours (same as the Reserve)
Lost/damaged baggage: $3,000 per passenger, but only $500 per passenger for jewelry, watches, cameras, video recorders and other electronic equipment (same as the Reserve)
Trip delay reimbursement: up to $500 per ticket if you’re delayed more than 12 hours or require an overnight stay (6 more hours than the Reserve)
Trip cancellation and interruption protection: up to $10,000 per trip for your prepaid, non-refundable travel expenses (half of the Reserve)
Emergency medical and dental benefit: not available
Medical evacuation benefit: not available

Those two are the best cards for travelers due to the comprehensive benefits they offer across the board. If you’re a frequent traveler, like us, the benefits of the Reserve are well worth the additional fee.

Our recommendation is to avoid booking travel on the Platinum American Express ($550) card, unless you book the entire fare on the card. While it’s one of our favorite cards, we use it mostly for its extensive lounge network, uber credit, concierge, early access to event tickets, and fine hotels & resorts offerings. We find value in these luxury benefits, more so than the protections. They did recently add trip protections, but you must pay the entire fare with the card, versus with Chase, you can pay for the taxes on an airline award ticket to gain the same protections. With the AmEx platinum, you do also get baggage loss protection and travel accident insurance, but again, you must pay for the entire fare on your card (whether in points or cash). The one benefit it offers that does exceed the benefits from Chase is the medical evacuation benefit. There is no cap to the cost and you do not need to have paid for your trip on your card. This is simply a benefit available to all cardholders.

In conclusion…

We’ve made lots of mistakes over the years on where to book, how to book and what protections we have, just like anyone else! Hopefully this post helps you the next time you book your travel so you don’t end up in a messy situation with your airfare or hotels, or worse- fraudulent charges on your card.

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