Credit cards don't just make it easier to shop - they also provide a number of free benefits that many consumers aren't aware of. As long as you use credit responsibly and pay off your balance in full and on time every month, you might consider paying for more of your purchases with credit instead of debit or cash. When you pay with credit, you can get help from your credit card company if you don't get what you paid for, change your mind, find a lower price or need some extra cash.

If a company doesn't make good on a product or service you paid for and won't refund your money, your credit card company might. The process is called a chargeback. The credit card company refunds the money to you and then charges the cost to the business. The credit card company may require you to meet some conditions, such as disputing the charge within a given timeframe, making a good faith effort to resolve the problem with the merchant first and providing a tracking number to prove that you actually shipped a lost return back to the merchant.

Extended Return Policies
Many retailers limit returns to 30 days, but many credit cards extend this policy to 90 days. MasterCard will refund you up to $250 for a purchase you become dissatisfied with within 60 days if the store won't accept the return. Visa's Return Protection policy will reimburse consumers for eligible items of up to $250 within 90 days of purchase. The annual limit is $1,000 per account. American Express offers 90 days of return protection for items up to $300. Again, coverage maxes out at $1,000 annually.

As a condition of receiving your refund, some creditors may require you to ship the item to them (they'll pay for shipping). Make sure the item you're returning is in like-new condition.

Extended Warranties
Did your new purchase come with a one-year warranty? Your credit card might extend your protection to two years. MasterCard and Visa will double the original manufacturers, or store brand, warranty for up to one year. American Express can extend a manufacturer's warranty for up to one additional year if the original warranty is for five years or less. Discover doubles the original manufacturer's warranty for up to one year for business card holders. We couldn't find information on its consumer card policy, aside from the option to purchase a SquareTrade extended warranty.

Price Protection
If the retailer you bought a product from doesn't have a price-drop policy, you can recoup the savings you missed out on directly from your credit card company. MasterCard and Visa will reimburse you for the price difference on a new item that you find at a lower price within 60 days of your purchase. Again, we couldn't track down any details on a free price protection policy for Discover cardholders. American Express only appears to offer price protection on a card it offers to Hong Kong residents.

Cash Without the Cash Advance Fees
Discover's Cash Over program lets you get up to $120 cash back a day on credit card purchases at the checkout like you would with a debit card, and there are no fees. The amount you collect gets added to your credit card bill, though, which means that if you carry a balance, you'll pay your regular purchase annual percentage rate on any money you get with Cash Over. The program is available at numerous drug and grocery stores nationwide, including Walmart, Safeway and Sam's Club.

Airline Credit
When you buy a plane ticket directly from an airline with your MasterCard and you're enrolled in their PriceAssure Program, they will track your flight itinerary and contact you if the price drops. The eligible airlines are AirTran, Alaska, American, Continental, Delta, Hawaiian, JetBlue, United, US Airways and Virgin America. This service doesn't eliminate change fees, but it does notify you if you'll come out ahead even after paying the change fee. You can then call the airline and get the credit yourself, or you can ask MasterCard to obtain the credit for you for a $19.95 fee. You can use the credit towards a future flight on the same airline.

Damage and Theft Protection
MasterCard will cover "most items" against accidental damage or theft within 90 days of purchase. So will American Express. Likewise, Visa's Purchase Security will replace, repair or reimburse customers for items within 90 days of purchase. Discover Business Card holders receive a 90-day protection against damage, fire or theft. Items you can expect to be excluded from this protection under any creditor include lost items, living things, antiques and collectibles, perishables and consumables and pre-owned items.

The Bottom Line
Most of these benefits require that you pay for the item in full with your credit card - if you paid partly with cash, the item wouldn't be covered. You might need your original purchase receipt. Benefits can vary by card type even from the same issuer, so check the terms and conditions for your specific card to learn about your specific benefits. In particular, there may be substantial differences in the benefits offered to personal cardholders versus business cardholders, with the latter entitled to greater benefits.

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