You may like your credit card because it offers you a low rate. You may appreciate it because it gives you some money back on each dollar you charge. You may be vaguely aware that your card offers some special consumer protections, too -- but odds are, you've not thought too much about that. That would be a mistake, though.

Credit cards usually offer some very valuable perks. For example:

  • If you charge something that turns out to be defective or is stolen or destroyed, many card companies will cover its repair or replacement. Sometimes cards extend your product warranties, too.
  • Many cards will insure you, offering free collision and theft insurance when you charge a car rental and/or free travel accident insurance of up to $1 million for bus, plane, or train rides. The car insurance alone can be worth about $20 per day, if your alternative is buying insurance from the rental company.
  • Some cards offer roadside assistance. Perhaps it's not free, but it's often cheaper than paying a tow truck you looked up in the Yellow Pages.

A recent Consumer Reports Money Adviser article sang the praises of these perks, explaining that, ".if you lose that new pair of designer sunglasses, your American Express (NYSE:AXP) plan pays to replace them." The limit is $1,000 per claim, and the item must have been charged within the past 90 days. Premium cards offer increased claim limits. Note that Visa and MasterCards, such as those offered by J. P. Morgan Chase (NYSE:JPM), as well as Morgan Stanley's (NYSE:MWD) Discover, Capital One (NYSE:COF), and Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), also offer these kinds of protections.

So next time you're about to pay for something, think twice before grabbing that wad of cash in your pocket. Used irresponsibly, credit cards are extremely dangerous, but used intelligently, they can be the smartest way to go. Why leave (free) extra protections on the table?

Learn much more about the surprisingly interesting credit card industry in our Credit Center, which also features tips on getting out of debt, along with guidance on how to manage your credit effectively. (We even offer spiffy Motley Fool credit cards.) Really. I mean it. There's some great stuff in our Credit Center, and it's all free reading.

The following articles can help you:

You can also read about all things credit-related on our Consumer Credit/Credit Cards discussion board.

Longtime Fool contributor Selena Maranjian does not own shares of any companies mentioned in this article.