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How Credit Card Issuers Classify Travel and Dining Purchases

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Lots of credit cards offer bonuses for spending in certain categories, but those categories aren’t always clear. In this post, TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains which cards give you extra incentive to spend on travel and dining, and exactly which purchases qualify.

When a credit card offers you a spending bonus for “travel” expenses, it might not mean what you think it does. Each card issuer applies different criteria to charges that will qualify for a travel bonus, and the same is true for bonuses offered for spending on dining.

Today, I first want to look closely at which travel rewards credit cards offer bonuses for travel and dining purchases, and more importantly, which expenses will qualify for those points and miles. Then I’ll offer some tips and tricks to help you maximize your rewards.

Am
Some Amex cards offer bonuses for travel booked through the Membership Rewards Travel portal.

American Express

Amex doesn’t offer any generic bonuses for travel, but it does offer some cards that feature 2x rewards for travel purchases made on the American Express Travel website, AmexTravel.com. Excluded are:

  • Car reservations.
  • Non-prepaid hotels.
  • Bookings with Fine Hotels & Resorts and The Hotel Collection.
  • Anything not charged to an eligible Amex card.
  • Any portion of a booking that is paid for by redeeming Membership Rewards points.

When it comes to restaurants, several American Express express cards do offer bonuses within the U.S.

American Express Gold CardBeginning on June 1, 2015, this card  will offer 2x Membership Rewards points for purchases at U.S. Restaurants. It also offers 2x point on eligible travel purchases made on the American Express Travel website.

American Express Premier Rewards Gold CardBeginning on June 1, 2015, this card  will offer 2x Membership Rewards points for purchases at U.S. Restaurants.

The Platinum Card from American ExpressOffers 2x points on travel purchases made on the American Express Travel website.

American Express Green CardOffers 2x points on travel purchases made on the American Express Travel website.

Hilton HHonors Card from American Express: Offers 5 Hilton HHonors points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your card at U.S. restaurants.

Hilton HHonors Surpass Card from American Express5 Hilton HHonors points for each dollar of eligible purchases on your card at U.S. restaurants.

Barclaycard

The no-fee Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard offers 2x miles on all travel and dining purchases, and both this card and the premium Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard allow you to redeem miles for statement credits toward qualifying travel expenses.

However, as TPG recently discovered, Barclaycard’s definition of a travel expense did not cover Disney World park tickets, which it considered to be a “tourist attraction,” not a travel expense.

According to Barclaycard, a travel purchase is defined as a purchase in any of these categories:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Motels
  • Timeshares
  • Campgrounds
  • Car rental agencies
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies
  • Discount travel sites
  • Trains
  • Buses
  • Taxis
  • Limousines
  • Ferries

Excluded from Barclaycard’s definition of travel are:

  • Real estate agents.
  • Websites or owners that rent properties.
  • In-flight goods and services.
  • Merchants within airports.
  • Merchants that rent trailers, trucks, and other vehicles for the purpose of hauling.

Thankfully, dining expenses are simply defined as charges from restaurants and fast food establishments, with no apparent exclusions for dining outside of the United States.

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Bank of America offers 1.5x points on all purchases with the Travel Rewards card.

Bank of America

The BankAmericard Travel Rewards® credit card offers 1.5x points on all purchases, and points can be redeemed for statement credits toward travel expenses. Fortunately, Bank of America goes to great lengths to define travel, even going so far as to disclose the actual merchant codes that qualify:

  • Airlines, Air Carriers (MCC 3000-3299, representing individual major airline carriers, and 4511-Airlines/Air Carriers)
  • Lodging-Hotels, Motels, Resorts (MCC 3501-3999 – representing individual major hotel/motel chains and 7011-Hotels/Motels/Resorts)
  • Car Rental Agencies (MCC 3351-3441 – representing individual major agencies; and 7512-Automobile Rental Agency)
  • Cruise Lines (MCC 4411)
  • Travel Agencies and Tour Operators (MCC 4722)
    Taxicabs and Limousines (MCC 4121)
  • Passenger Railways (MCC 4112)
  • Transportation-Suburban and Local Commuter Passenger, including Ferries (MCC 4111)
  • Bus Lines (MCC 4131)
  • Transportation Services not classified elsewhere (MCC 4789)
  • Real Estate Agents and Managers-Rentals (MCC 6513)
  • Timeshares (MCC 7012)
  • Campgrounds and Trailer Parks (MCC 7033)
  • Motor Home and Recreational Vehicle Rental (MCC 7519)
  • Tourist Attractions and Exhibits (MCC 7991)
  • Art Dealers and Galleries (MCC 5971)
  • Amusement Parks, Carnivals, Circuses, Fortune Tellers (MCC 7996)
  • Aquariums, Dolphinariums, Zoos, and Seaquariums (MCC 7998)
  • Boat Leases and Boat Rentals (MCC 4457)
  • Recreation Services-not elsewhere classified (MCC 7999).

Capital One

The Capital One Venture Rewards credit card offers double miles on all purchases, and miles are worth one cent apiece as statement credits toward travel expenses. In addition, the no-fee Capital One VentureOne Rewards credit card offers 1.25 miles per dollar spent.

Capital One defines travel expenses as purchases made from airlines, hotels, rail lines, car rental agencies, limousine services, bus lines, cruise lines, taxi cabs, travel agents and time shares. These terms do not appear to include things like theme parks and other tourist attractions.

Chase Sapphire Preferred offers 2x points on dining, or 3x on the first Friday of each month. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Chase

The Chase Sapphire Preferred card offers 2x Ultimate Rewards points on all restaurant and dining expenses, while the standard Sapphire card offers 2x points on dining only. (The standard Sapphire is not available to new applicants, but is sometimes offered to Sapphire Preferred cardholders.)

Merchants in the travel category (by Chase’s definition) include airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages.

Excluded are real estate agents, websites or owners that rent properties (though there are some such businesses that do seem to be classified as travel), in-flight goods and services, sightseeing activities, including those that take place on vehicles such as dinner cruises and tour buses, tourist attractions, merchants within airports, and merchants that rent trailers, trucks, and other vehicles for the purpose of hauling.

For Chase, the restaurant category includes “merchants whose primary business is sit-down or eat-in dining, including fast food restaurants as well as fine dining establishments.”

Chase adds that “some merchants that sell food and drinks located within larger merchants such as sports stadiums, hotels and casinos, theme parks, and department stores may not be included in this category.” This definition also applies to the United MileagePlus Explorer Business card, which offers 2x miles at restaurants.

Citi

Cards in the Citi ThankYou Rewards program offer some bonuses for travel and dining. The basic Citi ThankYou Preferred Card and the premium Citi Prestige Card both offer 2x points on dining expenses.

Through April 18, 2015, Citi ThankYou Premier cardholders earn 3X points on dining and 2X points on charges from airlines, hotels, and travel agencies. After that, cardholders will earn 3X points on travel including gas, and 2X points on dining.

Citi appears to use an expansive definition of travel, and it lists all of the eligible expenses here. In addition to the usual suspects like airfare, hotels, and rental cars, other qualifying expenses include:

  • Bridges and tolls
  • Parking lots and garages
  • Tourist attractions and museums
  • Commuter transportation.
  • Motor Home and Recreational Vehicle Rental.

Discover

The Discover it chrome Card offers 2x points at restaurants, which Discover defines to include full service restaurants, cafes, cafeterias and fast-food locations.

Their new Discover it Miles card allows you to redeem rewards for travel purchases defined as airline tickets, hotel rooms, car rentals, travel agents, online travel sites, and commuter transportation. Nevertheless, any restrictions are moot, as you also have the option of redeeming your miles for cash anyways.

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Foreign transactions may be coded differently, so check with your card issuer to make sure you get the rewards you’ve earned. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Tips and tricks

1. If in doubt, look up codes. Credit card issuers classify charges based on something called a merchant category code (MCC). These codes are part of every transaction, and are used to classify merchants for all sorts of reasons, including the allocation of rewards. Thankfully, there are web sites like this one from Visa where you can search for merchant codes. See Using Merchant Category Codes to Maximize Bonuses.

2. Watch out for warehouse stores. Many banks will exclude purchases from warehouse stores from eligibility for bonus rewards. These stores negotiate steep discounts in the fees that card issuers charge, and the banks really don’t want to offer additional rewards when they’re already making less money from these transactions.

3. Be careful with travel agents. In some cases, purchases from travel agents are considered to be “travel,” while in other cases they’re not. For example, most card issuers will classify charges from travel agents as travel; however, cards like the American Express Gold Card require eligible travel purchases made on the American Express Travel website.

4. Call to appeal. If you have what you considered to be an eligible expense that didn’t earn the bonus, or wasn’t eligible for rewards redemption, consider contacting the card issuer and asking for an exception. This won’t work every time, but the credit card industry is intensely competitive, and banks have good reason to resolve these issues in your favor.

5. Be careful outside of the United States. American Express excludes foreign transactions from just about every bonus category it offers, including restaurants and travel. While other card issuers are less explicit about it, foreign transactions are also more likely to be miscategorized. So if you have major travel or dining expenses during a trip abroad, be sure to double check that they have been properly credited when you return.
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