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Plastic Perks and the Wallet War
December 1, 1988 -- Credit and charge-card issuers are locked in a ferocious "share of wallet" war and that's very good news for savvy travelers.

Thousands of large financial institutions are offering cards larded with perks designed to catch a traveler's fancy. Extras run the gamut from such basics as free car rental collision protection to unusual lures such as reimbursement for expenses caused by airline delays.

Picking through the varied offerings--and the small type--is no small task. Besides the charge cards of American Express and Diners Club, at least two types of Visa and MasterCard--standard and gold versions--are issued by many U.S. banks. And since each bank is free to design its own perks, no two credit cards are exactly alike. There are also MasterCards and Visas tied to airline and hotel frequent-travel programs.

The chart below examines 11 cards, including several issued by three of the country's largest banks and four linked to major frequent-travel programs. Here are some points to keep in mind while comparing the perks that come with the cards.

CAR RENTAL COVERAGE
Some card issuers provide "primary" collision coverage, which means they pay all the costs if your rented car is stolen or damaged by collision or fire. Other cards only give you "secondary" coverage, which means the card issuer pays only the costs not covered by your own auto insurance. Some cards have limits on the amount the issuer will pay; others cover the full value of the car. And some cards also include personal accident insurance and personal-effects coverage.

TRAVEL INSURANCE
"Common carrier" refers to any provider of land, sea or air transportation licensed to carry passengers. Most card issuers provide coverage for death on any common carrier. Some include dismemberment, injury and hospitalization benefits, too. Other card issuers limit their coverage to airline travel. The dollar value of the coverage varies widely.

FEES AND INTEREST RATES
Compare the overall costs of the cards carefully. Besides the standard charges listed--annual fee, the cost of a cash withdrawal and the interest rate--some card issuers also impose fees for additional cards. Most assess penalties for late payments, returned checks or exceeding your credit limit.

TRAVEL EXTRAS
Many cards have unique features that might be particularly valuable to you. For example, some cards offer travel agency services and/or cash rebates on travel purchases. With others you can earn points in a specific frequent-traveler program.



This column originally appeared in Travel & Leisure magazine.

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