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Can credit cards protect you from flight delays and cancellations?

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Recently, I wrote about a new air travel insurance plan called AirCare, which provides cash payouts on the spot if your flight is delayed more than two hours for any reason, if your luggage is lost, delayed or stolen, if a flight delay causes you to miss a connecting flight, or if you're stuck on the tarmac for more than two hours. 

There are surprisingly no obvious loopholes, and this is over and above what compensation you might collect from the airline, insurance policies, or other sources, all for $25 per flight.

But soon after publishing the story, some commented that credit cards provide the same benefits for free. Do they? Yes and no.

What I didn't realize is that, yes, some credit card issuers have buried in their fine print contracts rather extensive travel insurance. The benefits vary widely between issuers.

Did you ever have a laptop or iPhone stolen or disappeared during TSA scanning, or perhaps in the plane? Depending on the cards you used to pay for your trip, your issuer's built-in, free travel insurance might have compensated you for at least part of your loss.

Did a traveling companion get sick just before departing on a trip, causing you to cancel? Did the airline lose your bags, and only offer a paltry $500 in compensation? You might have been covered and not even known it.

But as this report clearly shows, there are credit cards with extensive benefits and those with paltry ones, even though the annual fees tend to be similar.

It's the travel insurance you probably didn't know you have. 

Of course, the details of that coverage are going to be buried in fine print, in documents you probably threw away when your card showed up in the mail. Not to worry – it's easy to go back and check because it's all on line.

There are three main categories of air travel insurance included with credit cards, although not all cards offer all of them: 

Trip interruption or delay

Your flight is interrupted or delayed after departure due to a "covered reason"—typically one or more (but not always all) of the following:  illness, injury, labor strikes, equipment failure, or weather. Needless to say, no card covers all possible causes of a delay. If it's not in the "covered reasons" (for example, a crew showing up late for your flight or congestion-related air traffic control delays) you're on your own.  

Trip cancellation (i.e., when you have to cancel a trip before departure)

You or a traveling companion or immediate family member (definitions of "immediate" vary widely) becomes ill or injured before departure and you need to cancel your plans. For example, your son breaks his leg a week before your trip and you have $4,000 in non-refundable trip arrangements, many credit cards cover that. But in all cases, pre-existing conditions are not covered.

Lost or delayed baggage

The airline loses your checked bag; someone steals something from your carryon bag in flight; or your bag is not lost but merely delayed upon arrival.  Different cards define a delay differently: for some it's just four hours, for another it might be 12 hours. And in almost all cases, lost bag coverage is in "excess" of whatever you collect from your airline or any other insurance you might have, such as homeowners insurance (although if your policy deductible is $1500 and the loss is $1000, you might not have to make a claim if you present your policy's declaration page to the credit card company's representative).

Even computers, cell phones, and jewelry are covered by some credit cards, although for no more than $500 per incident. But at least it's something, and airlines don’t cover these things at all.

Cards vary in their deadline for making a claim, so in some cases if you've had a recent loss but didn't know you had coverage, you may still have time to file a claim retroactively to your credit card issuer (some claims can be made a full year after the loss). However, some cards require that you pay the entire cost of your trip on the card to qualify for coverage, while others settle for just a portion of the trip. One card we checked, oddly, only pays for round-trip transportation, not one-way trips. Some cards cover trips of up to 30 days, another might cover up to 60. 

This free coverage will never be as extensive as a policy you purchase separately from a company like Travel Guard or Access America, but neither is it something to ignore and if you've had a recent loss you even might be able to file a claim retroactively.  

Are you covered? Here are some favorite credit card brands and issuers with a synopsis of what they will and won't do for you next time something goes bump in the flight, along with links to their official contracts.

American Express

Chase Sapphire card

Citibank Aadvantage Signature card

World MasterCard

Capital One Venture Rewards

United Explorer Visa Platinum card

George Hobica is a syndicated travel journalist and founder of the low-airfare listing site Airfarewatchdog.com.