Last updated in March 2017
Checkbook staff sifted through member benefits that come with credit cards, warehouse clubs, health insurance plans, and more, and discovered dozens of mostly unknown perks.
Finding $20 in your coat pocket. An on-the-house latte at the coffee shop. An upgrade at check-in to a sweet suite. You gotta love surprises, especially free-stuff surprises.
When Checkbook went hunting for membership perks, we found that many credit card companies, health insurers, and membership groups often provide their customers with free, often hidden perks, from gratis child seats when you rent a car to steep discounts to tech support for your purchases. Below we share examples of free gets you've already got—but probably don’t know about. By doing your own treasure hunt, you’ll likely find many more.
Why do companies give away something they could sell? The answer depends somewhat on the type of business giving it away. Competition for new credit card customers is so intense that banks often advertise features and benefits to present themselves as unique from the other plastic options. You can get some freebies simply because you belong to a group (AAA, credit unions, etc.) with which businesses want to partner to gain access to millions of potential customers. Most health insurance plans offer free or discounted stuff that promotes healthy lifestyles—and reduces medical costs.
But once a credit card counts you as a customer, it might not worry so much about reminding you about what 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. And you for sure shouldn’t pick a credit card based solely on getting a small discount at Disney—also compare annual fees, interest rates, and other serious-business 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've told you about how federal laws and the policies of credit card companies combine to let you easily get your money back if you use a credit or debit card to pay for what turns out to be lousy services or products. Many cards also come with other purchase-protection perks, most of which kick in when you use your card to buy something:
- Extended warranties. We advise against paying for them, but free is a different story. Many credit cards double the manufacturer’s warranty for stuff you charge, or provide an extended warranty.
- Roadside assistance. Lots of cards provide not just free towing, but also tire changes, jump starts, and rescues from lockouts and gas runouts.
- Free shipping subscriptions. American Express cardholders can join ShopRunner (an Amazon Prime competitor that offers two-day shipping for more than 140 stores) and skip out on paying 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 have to 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 have them, and we found it’s very easy to get a price match when you buy or a refund of the difference later on.
- Travel insurance. Cards offer a wide range of plans. Some refund fares if you have to cancel 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. Like extended warranties, these policies are bad buys unless they’re free.
- Think outside the box office. Many cards offer access to special seating options, presales, and other insider benefits for concerts, theater, and more. Click here for more advice on scoring a seat for less.
- Museum passes. Bank of America and Merrill Lynch cardholders can visit a long list of museums for free on the first weekend of each month. In this area, the list includes The Contemporary Jewish Museum, de Young Museum, Legion of Honor, San Jose Museum of Art, and The Tech Museum of Innovation.
Many warehouse clubs deliver more than just low prices, 10-year supplies of paper products, and samples, samples, everywhere.
- Tech support. At the end of your rope trying to program or hook up a new TV? Can’t get your new tablet to find your Wi-Fi network? Can’t configure that new computer? If you bought at a warehouse club, you can call on free tech support for help. (Costco, Sam’s Club)
- 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. (Costco, Sam’s Club)
- Get entertained for less. The clubs offer ways to get discounts on theme park passes, spa gift cards, movie tickets, and restaurant gift cards. (Costco, Sam’s Club)
- Printer cartridge refills. Costco will refill your ink-cartridge empties for a fraction of the cost of new ones. Feel-good bonus: The reduced waste is better for the planet. (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. (Costco, Sam’s Club)
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 Weight Watchers 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 gym 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 clubs.
- 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. Under the Affordable Care Act, health insurance plans must 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, tire changes, 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.
- Car seat loaners. Going on vacation and don’t want to drag along a car seat? Have a grandkid or niece coming to town? AAA works with Hertz to lend convertible and booster seats to members for no charge. If you're renting from Hertz, check with it for availability; if you're not renting, check with a local AAA office.
- Travel planning help. Along with free maps and guidebooks, and discounts for hotel rooms, Amtrak, 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 very low booking fees compared to other travel agencies).
- Say “Cheese.” AAA Plus and AAA Premier members get discounted or free passport photos.
- Waived car rental young-driver surcharges. Many car-rental companies charge $30 a day extra if you’re age 25 or under, but Hertz waives these fees for AAA members.
- Skip the line at the DMV. AAA offers tag and title services. It charges a fee for the service, but AAA members get a 20 percent discount. Members also get free notary services for vehicle-related documents.
- CARFAX reports. These used-car background reports usually cost $40, but AAA’s Premier members can get one for free each year.
Most Prime subscribers signed on for free two-day shipping and to stream movies, TV, and some pretty good original content. But the $119-a-year subscription also offers:
- Unlimited photo storage. This is Checkbook’s editors’ favorite freebie. Plenty of cloud-based companies offer to store your digital stuff, but most cap it at 5GB and charge hefty fees if you need more. Because our kids are so darn photogenic, we need more—a lot more. With Prime, you get free unlimited photo storage.
- Music streaming. Spotify and Apple 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. Prime members who own Kindle devices can borrow one book a month from Amazon’s lending library, which has more than 200,000 available titles.
- Free Prime memberships for students and educators. Hey, college kids also get to mooch off Amazon! Its “Prime Student” program offers free Prime for six months to anyone with an email address with an “.edu” domain. After the trial, you get to keep going for half off the regular $119 rate.
- Diaper discounts. If you have Prime and sign up for Amazon Family, you can get a 20 percent discount off diapers, formula, and all that good stuff. You have to sign up for automatic deliveries, but you can easily turn off or change your deal if you need more or run out of room.