Last updated February 2021
When Checkbook staff sifted through member benefits that come with credit cards, warehouse clubs, health insurance plans, and more, they discovered dozens of free, often little-known perks.
An on-the-house latte at the coffee shop. An upgrade at hotel check-in to a sweet suite. Finding $20 in your coat pocket. Who doesn’t love surprise freebies?
When our staff sifted through member benefits that come with credit cards, warehouse clubs, health insurance plans, and more, they discovered dozens of free, often little-known perks. We share examples of gratis stuff you already get—but might not know about. By doing your own hunting, you’ll likely find more.
Why do companies give away something they could sell? The answer varies from industry to industry. Competition for new credit card customers is so intense that banks often advertise features and benefits to present themselves as unique among other plastic options. You can get some benefits by joining an organization (AAA, credit unions, etc.) that businesses want to partner with to gain access to millions of potential customers. Most health insurance plans offer free or discounted stuff that promotes healthy lifestyles—and ultimately reduces medical costs.
Once you sign up for a credit card, the issuing company might not worry so much about reminding you about any extras you get. And sometimes organizations and companies do a lousy job of telling members about partner deals—or have so many partnerships it’s difficult to market them all.
Keep in mind, of course, that sometimes even “free” isn’t worth the bother. Free trials often come with not-at-all-free monthly charges if you don’t cancel. Sometimes it’s a hassle to trigger a member benefit: You probably won’t, for example, want to spend an hour jumping through a bunch of hoops to exercise a “lowest-price guarantee” program offered by your credit card just to save $5. Don’t pick a credit card based solely on getting a small discount at Disney; you’ll also want to compare annual fees, interest rates, and other details.
There are lots of reasons to pay with a credit or debit card. Many offer points toward free travel or merchandise or cash back. And we often remind you that federal laws and the policies of credit card companies let you contest charges for lousy services or products, providing valuable consumer protections.
Many cards also offer other benefits, most of which kick in when you use your card to buy something. Some card issuers have yanked perks, especially for their entry-level cards; in 2018, Discover dropped most of its warranty and travel benefits. Log on to your credit card company’s website and check its member benefits pages to see what you already have. Then read the fine print to check the requirements to file a claim. For example, for warranty benefits a common roadblock is that you’ll have to provide full documentation of the purchase, including an original credit card receipt.
- Extended warranties. We advise against paying for these mini insurance policies, but if they’re free, that’s a different story. Many credit cards extend the manufacturer’s warranty for stuff you charge. For example, the Citi Platinum Select Card will add to any warranty a 24-month plan to cover repairs, plus it will replace items lost or stolen within 90 days of purchase. Reimbursements are capped at $10,000 per item. The American Express Gold Card offers a nearly identical perk, although its repair-or-replace provision lasts for only a year longer than any original warranty.
- Reimbursement for damaged and stolen stuff. If you charge something that’s damaged or stolen within 90 days of purchase, if requested, many cards will offer a repair, replacement, or refund. These plans are secondary coverage; if something was stolen, you’d first have to file a claim with your homeowners insurance company.
- Guaranteed returns. Charge something to many American Express cards and the company will reimburse you up to $300 if you try to return it to the store within 90 days but the retailer won’t take it back. Click here for more advice on what to do about defective merchandise.
- Free shipping via ShopRunner. If you have an American Express or certain Mastercard and Chase cards, you can join ShopRunner, an Amazon Prime competitor that offers two-day shipping and free returns for 100+ retailers, and skip its $79 annual fee.
- Price protection. Many cards let you apply to receive a refund if, within a few weeks of purchasing something, you find you could have bought it for less. You usually must show receipts and proof of the lower price to get the credit. Before you jump through all these hoops, check whether your retailer has a price-matching policy; many stores do, and we found it’s very easy to get a price match when you buy or a refund of the difference later on.
- Preferred boarding and more. Airline-affiliated rewards cards usually let you board before the non-premier-tier masses and check bags for free on airlines that charge ridiculous fees for them.
- Travel insurance. Like extended warranties, we think trip-protection policies sold by airlines and travel-booking companies are bad buys. They’re of so little value that some credit cards provide similar protection gratis. Some refund fares if you nix a trip due to illness, or if weather cancels a trip for you, refund prepaid charges for hotel rooms and the like. Some policies reimburse for lost baggage or pay off if there’s an accident and you die, are dismembered, lose your eyesight, and other morbid scenarios.
- Rental-car coverage. In the last few years, many cards dropped this type of benefit, but some still provide limited protection (typically, collision damage waiver [CDW] coverage) when you rent using their cards. We have a very dim view of the policies pushed by rental companies—you usually get adequate protection against big risks from your personal auto policy.
- Credit report monitoring. Many cards will now email you if your credit score changes or an affiliated credit bureau reports it received an application for new credit.
- Think outside the box office. Many cards offer access to special seating options, presales, and other insider benefits for concerts, theater, and more. During the coronavirus pandemic, some card companies provide free access to virtual events. Click here for more advice on scoring a seat for less.
Many warehouse clubs deliver more than just low prices and 10-year supplies of paper products.
- Tech support. At the end of your rope trying to program or hook up a new TV? Can’t configure that new laptop? If you bought something at a warehouse club, you can call on free tech support for help. (BJ’s, Costco)
- Travel deals. Include your club when checking prices for your next vacay: We’ve found good deals on airfare, hotel rooms, cruises, and car rentals through travel services offered by warehouse clubs. (BJ’s, Costco)
- Get entertained for less. The clubs offer ways to get discounts on theme park passes, spa gift cards, movie tickets, and restaurant gift cards. (BJ’s, Costco)
- Tire care. If you need new tires, you’ll likely save enough by buying at a warehouse club to pay its annual membership fee. You’ll also get free tire-related services that most other outlets charge for: flat-tire fixes, rotation and balancing, and inflation. Costco will even replace punctured tires it can’t fix. (BJ’s, Costco)
Health Insurance Plans
Many health insurers offer free or discounted products and services that promote healthy habits—or, if you’re a cynic, to attract a large pool of health-conscious customers who are less likely to run up huge medical bills.
- Weight loss programs. Many plans pay for or subsidize fees for WW (“Weightwatchers Reimagined”) and other companies. (That’s nice, but what we want is someone to follow us around and hide the breadbasket and Häagen-Dazs.)
- Free or discounted fitness center memberships. Many insurers incentivize fitness by offering deals on gym memberships. Some will even reimburse gym fees if you go often enough. Check your plan’s website to see what you can get with your contract. If you’re with a Medicare Advantage plan, check the SilverSneakers and Silver&Fit programs, which offer free or very-low-cost memberships at lots of gyms.
- Smoking cessation. Your health insurance company likely would love to help you kick your habit. Most offer free counseling, and many offer free nicotine-replacement products.
- Get pumped. Health insurance plans are required to cover breastfeeding equipment and counseling. Breast pumps don’t come cheap: Most cost $100 to $350. Before putting one on your baby registry, check with your plan; it might pay for a pump.
Along with towing, roadside assistance, and battery-replacement services, AAA memberships often come with freebies. Since availability, fees, and policies vary from local association to association, check with yours to see what you get.
- Travel planning help. Along with free maps and guidebooks, and discounts on hotel rooms and tickets for amusement parks, shows, and museums, AAA members can turn to full-service travel agents at most of its offices for help finding lodging, cruises, planes, trains, and automobiles. Simple advice is free, but you might have to pay booking or research fees if they do more (in our experience, AAA offers low booking fees compared to travel agencies).
- Say “Cheese.” AAA Plus and AAA Premier members get free passport photos.
- Lockout help. Doh! If you lock your keys in your car, AAA will reimburse $50-$150 (depending on membership type) to get you back in. If you need help breaking into your own home, Premier members can get reimbursed up to $100 for locksmithing help.
- Travel insurance. AAA members get $300-$1,500 (depending on membership level) trip-interruption coverage if they have an out-of-town auto breakdown. Plus and Premier members also get $100,000-$200,000 of travel accident coverage.
- Car seat loaners and more. All AAA members can join Hertz’s Gold Plus Rewards program for free. Our favorite program benefit? Free car seat loaners! You can borrow one (or a booster) even if you’re not renting from Hertz. Plus, Hertz Gold members age 25 and under can rent vehicles without paying young-driver surcharges. (Note: At the time of this writing, Hertz was in the midst of bankruptcy proceedings, which could affect its future AAA partnership.)
Most Prime subscribers signed on for expanded free-and-faster shipping, and to stream free movies, TV, and its Prime-exclusive Amazon Originals content. But a $119/year (or $12.99/month) subscription also offers:
- Unlimited photo storage/backup. This is our favorite freebie. Plenty of cloud-based companies offer to store your digital stuff, but most cap it at 5GB, and you have to pay up if you need more. Because our kids are so darn photogenic, we need more—a lot more. With Prime, you get free unlimited full-resolution photo storage/backup plus 5GB storage for video.
- Music streaming. Companies like Apple and Spotify offer unlimited listening libraries, but charge for them. If you have Prime, you get its similar ad-free, on-demand music service at no cost.
- Free e-reads. Unlimited free access to more than 1,000 e-books and magazines. Prime members also get early access to one soon-to-be-released “editor’s pick” title each month.
- Free Twitch subscription. Prime members can subscribe to one channel per month for free.
- Access to Prime Wardrobe. Buying clothes online is a pain. With this program, you can select up to eight items at a time, try them out for free for up to seven days, then return what you don’t like. You get charged only for what you keep.
- Discounts on many household and personal-care products if you sign up for regular delivery. For example, you can get a 20 percent discount off diapers and baby food. The company makes it easy to turn off subscriptions, skip a shipment, or get an extra order if you’re too fully stocked or need more.
- Free Prime memberships for students. Hey, college kids also get to mooch off Amazon! You can sign up for its “Prime Student” program using an email address with an “.edu” domain. After the trial, you get to keep going for half off the regular $119 rate.
More Perk Providers
Other groups offer even more perks. Good places to go hunting for them include credit unions, USAA, and college alumni groups. Many large employers offer benefits such as discounts on mobile phone plans and free gym memberships; check with HR. Seniors, armed forces members, teachers, and healthcare workers also often get perks like special hotel rates, retailer discounts, and free coffee (!).