Holiday travel headaches and credit cards that can help

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In a Nutshell

Heading home for the holidays? Whether you’re braving traffic or long airport security lines, a travel rewards credit card can help you save money and relax during the trip.

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The holidays can be the most magical time of the year — assuming you don’t have to travel far to visit friends or family.

For those of us braving traffic or long airport security lines to head home for the holidays, “magical” might not be the first word that comes to mind.

But here’s the good news: Whether you’re traveling by plane or car, holiday travel doesn’t have to be a nightmare before Christmas. If you pack the right credit card in your wallet, it can be downright enjoyable.

Lounge access, free checked bags, trip delay insurance — these are just a few of the benefits available with the best travel rewards cards. While many of these benefits are available all year long, we thought we’d highlight some ways they can bring some extra cheer to your holiday travel plans.

Consider these tips for holiday travel our gift to you.

If you’re traveling by plane…

If you’re traveling by car…

If you’re traveling by plane…

Unless your name is Santa Claus, you won’t be flying home in a magical sleigh. So, you should probably plan on dealing with expensive ticket prices, overcrowded airports, insufficient legroom and all the extra luggage you’re carrying.

Here are five ways to bring some extra holiday cheer to your flight.

Use your credit card to skip the security line

There’s no getting around long security lines, right?

Well, that’s not entirely true. If long lines stress you out, you might consider applying for TSA Pre√® or Global Entry. These popular expedited screening programs may help you clear airport security more quickly, particularly during the holiday season when more people are traveling.

The Transportation Security Administration currently lists 17 credit cards and loyalty programs that will reimburse you for all or part of the TSA Pre√® application fee. Several of the same credit cards, such as Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ (This offer is no longer available on our site) and Mastercard® Black Card™, offer a credit for either TSA Pre√® or Global Entry.

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Mastercard® Black Card™

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Escape from the crowds in a VIP airport lounge

After you’ve waltzed through the security line, relaxing in an airport lounge is just what the doctor ordered. Fortunately, several high-end travel cards offer the benefit of lounge access.

The Platinum Card® from American Express is one stellar example. With this card in your wallet, you’ll get access to American Express Centurion Lounges as well as Delta Sky Club® and Priority Pass™ Select lounges.

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Platinum Card® from American Express

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Other cards may offer more limited lounge access, but keep in mind that any type of lounge access generally comes with a high annual fee. The Platinum Card® from American Express, for instance, carries a $550 annual fee.

Apply your card’s air travel credit toward an upgrade

It’s no fun squeezing into a tiny airplane seat. If you need to stretch out your legs on a long flight, you might want to consider applying for a high-end travel card like the Citi Prestige® Card (This offer is no longer available on our site).

The Citi Prestige® Card offers an annual air travel credit of up to $250. You can use this credit to upgrade to a more comfortable experience, purchase regular airfare or pay for checked bags. It’s up to you how you spend it.

Other cards offering a similar air travel upgrade include the Platinum Card® from American Express (up to $200 per calendar year in baggage fees and more at one qualifying airline) and Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ (Up to $300 in statement credits as reimbursements for travel purchases charged to your card each account anniversary year).

Got a bag filled with gifts? Check it for free

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, airlines racked up a whopping $4.2 billion in baggage fees in 2016. That figure seems crazy-high, but even experienced travelers who know how to pack light can get hit with baggage fees around the holidays.

Fortunately, there are ways to avoid paying for checked bags. Choose the right airline or credit card, and you could end up saving some serious money.

Southwest Airlines allows you to check not one, but two bags for free. You can also carry on a small suitcase and a personal item, like a backpack. The best part? Southwest offers this benefit to all passengers, regardless of whether you have one of the airline’s credit cards.

If you’re flying a different airline, you might want to look into an airline credit card that lets you check your first bag for free. The United MileagePlus® Explorer Card is one example of a card that offers this benefit for United flights.

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United MileagePlus® Explorer Card

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Invite your friend along with a companion pass

If you’re flying home over the holidays, why not bring a friend? Some airlines offer companion tickets or discount codes that allow you to fly with a guest at a heavily discounted price.

In our recent analysis of airline companion tickets, we found that the Southwest Airlines Companion Pass offers the best value of the bunch. But if you’re interested in checking out companion tickets associated with other airlines, be sure to read our comprehensive guide to airlines that offer companion tickets or discount codes.

Take advantage of your card’s built-in travel insurance

It pays to have a credit card that comes with travel insurance. Don’t believe us? Consider this:

  • With the Chase Sapphire Reserve℠ card, Chase will reimburse you or your immediate family members up to $10,000 for non-refundable reservations if your covered trip is cancelled or interrupted.
  • If your trip or luggage is delayed for at least three hours, the Citi Prestige® Card provides up to $500 in either situation to cover your expenses.
  • Both cards also offer up to $1 million in travel accident insurance.

Travel insurance isn’t the first benefit people usually think of when applying for a credit card, but it can be one of the most useful. This is especially true during the holiday season, when cancellations and delays due to severe weather are all too common.

If you’re traveling by car…

Did you know most Americans hit the road over the holidays?

According to AAA, more than 93 million people were expected to drive to their holiday destinations in 2016. If you count yourself among that group, here are a couple of ways you can save on travel this holiday season.

Get cash back on gas

You might be wondering how you can save money on gas during your holiday road trip. If a new hybrid car isn’t quite in your budget, consider applying for a gas rewards credit card.

Assuming you drive consistently throughout the year (and not just during the holidays), a gas rewards credit card can save you from leaving too much money at the pump. Our favorite gas rewards cards offer anywhere from 3 to 5 percent cash back on gas, which can really add up over time.

Use your credit card to save on rental car insurance

With the right credit card, you may be able to save about $15 per day in rental car insurance.

Many of the best travel rewards cards offer some kind of rental car insurance. Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, for example, offers primary rental car insurance that covers up to the actual cash value of the rental car.

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Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

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One thing to watch out for: Typically, travel cards offer secondary rental car insurance, which means you must first file a claim with your personal auto insurance company, and then your credit card will cover what your other policy doesn’t. (Unfortunately, filing a claim may raise your auto insurance rates.)

But you don’t have to worry about this with Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, because it offers primary rental car insurance. Just make sure you book the rental car with your credit card and read the terms and conditions carefully, as some exclusions may apply.

Bottom line

Traveling during the holidays can be hectic, but if you follow these tips you may be able to turn your vacation into a more enjoyable (and affordable) trip.

Think of it this way: The less money you spend on airfare, checked bags or gas over the holidays, the more you can spend on gifts for your family.

It’s a win-win.

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