If you travel enough, it’s only a matter of time before something goes wrong on a trip. Perhaps the airline loses your baggage, or you fall ill and need medical treatment overseas.

Before paying for these expenses out-of-pocket, it doesn’t hurt to contact your credit card company. Often, the issuer will offer travel insurance if you paid for your plane ticket or rental car with its card. Typically, issuers also offer referrals to make it easier to find the services you need in another country, whether it’s finding a nearby ATM or locating an attorney who speaks your language. (See The Basics Of Travel Insurance.)

For frequent travelers, travel coverage should be one of the factors you consider when shopping for a new card. Benefits vary considerably from one bank to the next, so finding the best protection requires some shopping around. Here’s an overview of what the major card issuers offer.

Visa/MasterCard

Numerous banks issue cards that use the Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) networks. The benefits differ based on the lender, however. If you make frequent international trips, you may want to look at products with the “Visa Signature” or “World MasterCard” emblem. These more exclusive products come with insurance not found with basic cards, including accidental death coverage and reimbursement for lost or delayed baggage.

One of the nice things about a World MasterCard is that it takes the sting out of trip delays and missed connections. For trip delays of more than six hours, owners are entitled to $100 per hour, with a maximum amount of $900 for nine hours, as well as $650 if they can’t make their next flight. You can also get financial help if you need medical care, with personal accident insurance up to $1 million and emergency medical evacuation and repatriation benefits up to $2 million.

On the Visa side, cards such as the RBC Rewards Visa Preferred and Chase Sapphire Preferred are particularly generous to travelers. Both offer trip cancellation/interruption reimbursements to safeguard you against unexpected events.

Typically, the flip side of an attractive benefits package is a higher-than-average annual fee. The AAdvantage World MasterCard, for instance, charges $95 annually after year one. The RBC Rewards Visa Preferred carries a $110 annual fee. When you compare products, keep in mind how likely you’ll be to use these benefits before deciding that you need a travel card in your wallet.

Many standard cards offer a basic level of help to those who journey abroad with little or no annual fee. For instance, most cards provide access to a hotline for referrals to nearby hospitals or consulates. And even basic Visa cards cover collision damages if you paid for a rental car with the card. Be sure to call the issuer or check their website to get all the details about your particular card. (See 8 Things You Need to Know Before Renting a Car.)

American Express

Perhaps it’s no surprise that the company synonymous with traveler's checks offers impressive benefits for the frequent flier crowd. If you’re routinely crisscrossing the country or journeying overseas, travel-oriented American Express (AXP) cards such as the Blue Sky Preferred Card, Platinum Card and Gold Delta SkyMiles Card are worth a close look. Each offers car-rental coverage – allowing you to decline insurance at the rental counter – as well as travel accident insurance.

The Platinum Card throws in baggage insurance of up to $2,000 per bag and an airline-fee credit of up to $200 a year, which reimburses you for luggage check-in fees, flight-change fees and other miscellaneous charges.

As with other cards that offer relatively generous perks, the annual fee can be sizable. The Blue Sky card charges $75 a year and the SkyMiles version costs $95 after the free first year. The lavish Platinum Card comes with a considerable $450 price tag. Still, if you travel often and make good use of the benefits, paying extra may just end up being a bargain. 

Discover

Although not marketed as a travel card, per se, Discover (DFS) extends some surprising travel perks. It has the usual travel-assistance feature to help you find a physician overseas or locate a consulate. However, the company also provides flight accident insurance of up to $500,000 and helps with your baggage when it’s delayed more than three hours. In addition, cardholders receive auto insurance, so they can forgo paying the rental carrier’s charge for this coverage. Not bad, considering most Discover cards come with no annual fee.

One of the drawbacks of the Discover card is that it’s not widely accepted in some countries. So while there may be advantages to booking your ticket with the card, you should have an additional piece of plastic in your wallet to use when you actually get abroad.

The Bottom Line

Many consumers look at rewards such as cash back and points when considering different credit card options. If you're a regular flier, don't forget to factor in travel benefits. For more, see Flight Insurance Can Take The Worry Out Of Flying.

At the time of writing, the author did not have holdings in any of the companies mentioned in this article.