How credit card issuers classify travel and dining purchases

Feb 24, 2020

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Editor’s note: This post has been updated with current information and card offers. It was originally published on Nov. 25, 2018.

When a rewards credit card offers you a spending bonus for travel or dining expenses, it might not mean what you think it does. Each card issuer applies different criteria to charges that will qualify for these bonuses and you might not receive the bonus rewards you expected.

In this guide, we’ll take a closer look at which travel rewards credit cards offer bonuses for travel and dining purchases and more importantly, which expenses will qualify for those extra points and miles. Then we’ll offer some tips and tricks to help you maximize your rewards.

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In This Post

American Express

(Photo by The Points Guy)

Many popular Amex cards that earn Membership Rewards points offer bonuses on different kinds of travel purchases. Among the most popular are The Platinum Card® from American Express and The Business Platinum Card® from American Express, as these cards offer 5x points on flights booked directly with the airline. You’ll also earn 5x points on flights and prepaid hotels booked through Amex Travel. The American Express® Gold Card, meanwhile, offers 3x points on flights booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel — though it doesn’t extend to prepaid hotels.

The American Express® Green Card offers the broadest perk here, as it earns 3x points on the following travel purchases:

  • Airfare
  • Hotels
  • Vacation packages (flight + hotel packages)
  • Cruise reservations
  • Car rentals
  • Campgrounds
  • Trains
  • Taxis
  • Ride-share services
  • Tours
  • Ferries
  • Tolls
  • Parking
  • Buses
  • Subways
  • Third-party travel websites (i.e., OrbtizExpediaPriceline)
  • Travel booked through amextravel.com

The information for the Amex Green Card has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

When it comes to restaurants, several American Express cards do offer bonuses, but some of the cards only offer the bonus at eligible restaurants within the United States. In these cases the following are excluded:

  • Purchases made at a restaurant owned by a U.S. company but located outside the U.S. (e.g., the Hard Rock Café in Paris)
  • Purchases at a restaurant located within another establishment (e.g., a restaurant inside a hotel, casino or event venue). For example, purchases made at a restaurant located within a hotel may be recognized as a purchase at a hotel, not a restaurant.
  • Purchases at nightclubs and convenience stores

In addition, a purchase may not qualify for additional points if the merchant submits the purchase using a mobile or wireless card reader or if you use a mobile or digital wallet.

Related Reading: Amex Travel guide: Everything you need to know

Amex cards that offer bonuses for each dollar of eligible purchases at U.S. restaurants include:

And you’ll earn bonus points at restaurants worldwide with these cards:

Barclays

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite Mastercard (no longer available to new applicants) allows you to redeem miles for statement credits toward qualifying travel expenses. However, as TPG once discovered, Barclay’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 Barclays, 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 Barclay’s definition of travel are:

  • Real estate agents
  • Websites or owners that rent properties
  • Inflight 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.

(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)
(Photo by John Gribben for The Points Guy)

These Barclays-issued cards offer bonuses on dining:

Bank of America

The Bank of America® 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.

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

The Bank of America® Premium Rewards® credit card offers you 2x points on travel and dining.

Dining includes:

  • Restaurants, including fast food
  • Drinking establishments, such as bars or taverns

Travel includes:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Motels
  • Timeshares
  • Trailer parks
  • Motor homes
  • Recreational vehicle rentals
  • Campgrounds
  • Car rental agencies
  • Truck and trailer rental
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies
  • Tour operators
  • Real estate agents
  • Operators of passenger trains
  • Buses
  • Taxis
  • Limousines
  • Ferries
  • Boat rentals
  • Parking lots and garages
  • Tolls and bridge fees
  • Tourist attractions and exhibits like art galleries, amusement parks, carnivals, circuses, aquariums, zoos and the like.

Not included:

  • Inflight goods and services
  • Duty-free airport purchases

Capital One

(Photo by The Points Guy)
(Photo by The Points Guy)

The Capital One® Venture® Rewards Credit Card offers 2x miles on purchases, and miles are worth one cent apiece as statement credits toward travel expenses or can be transferred to a variety of airline partners. In addition, the no-annual-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.

The Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card offers you 4% cash back on dining and entertainment and the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card offers 3% cash back on dining and entertainment. The information for the Capital One Savor card on this page has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.          

Related Reading: Best ways to maximize Capital One miles

Capital One defines qualifying dining purchases as those from:

  • Restaurants
  • Cafes
  • Bars
  • Lounges
  • Fast-food chains
  • Bakeries

Chase

(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas for The Points Guy)

The Chase Sapphire Preferred Card offers 2x Ultimate Rewards points on all travel and dining expenses and the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers 3x Ultimate Rewards points for travel and dining.

Merchants in the travel category (by Chase’s definition) include:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Motels
  • Timeshares
  • Car rental agencies
  • Cruise lines
  • Travel agencies
  • Discount travel sites
  • Campgrounds
  • Operators of passenger trains
  • Buses
  • Taxis
  • Limousines
  • Ferries
  • Toll bridges and highways
  • Parking lots and garages.

Not included:

  • Real estate agents
  • Educational merchants arranging travel
  • In-flight goods and services
  • On-board cruise line goods and services
  • Sightseeing activities
  • Excursions
  • Tourist attractions
  • Merchants within hotels and airports
  • Merchants that rent vehicles for the purpose of hauling.
  • Purchasing of gift cards, points or miles does not qualify in this category unless the merchant has set up such purchases to be classified in the travel category.

For Chase, the dining 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.”

Related reading: Sweet spots: The best ways to use Chase Ultimate Rewards points

Below are some of the other Chase credit cards that offer bonuses for dining or travel:

  • United Explorer Card — 2x United miles at restaurants and hotels (purchased directly with the hotel) and at United
  • United Business Card — 2x United miles at restaurants, local transit and commuting, including taxicabs, mass transit, tolls, and ride share services and with United
  • The World of Hyatt Credit Card — 4x Hyatt points on Hyatt purchases and 2x Hyatt points at restaurants and on airline tickets purchased directly from the airline, local transit and commuting
  • IHG® Rewards Club Premier Credit Card — 10x IHG points for IHG stays and 2x IHG points at restaurants
  • Ink Business Cash Credit Card — 2% cash back (2x points) at restaurants
  • Ink Business Preferred Credit Card — 3x Ultimate Rewards points on the first $150,000 of combined purchases made annually for travel, shipping, telecommunications and advertising with social media and search engines

Citi

(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Isabelle Raphael/The Points Guy)

Cards in the Citi ThankYou Rewards program offer some bonuses for travel and dining. The Citi Premier® Card offers 3x points on airfare, hotels, gas stations, restaurants and supermarkets, and 1x point on all other purchases. And the premium Citi Prestige® Card offers 5x points on dining and air travel.

Citi uses an expansive definition of travel and 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
  • Travel agencies/travel aggregators/tour operators
  • Gas stations
  • Ferries
  • Taxis/limousines/car services
  • Passenger railways
  • Cruise lines
  • Bridge and road tolls
  • Parking lots/garages
  • Campgrounds and trailer parks
  • Timeshares
  • Bus lines
  • Boat leases and rentals

Not included:

  • Purchases made at recreational camps
  • Insurance companies
  • Auto clubs
  • Fuel used for non-automobile purposes
  • Real estate agencies
  • Gas purchases made at warehouse clubs, discount stores, department stores and convenience stores

As far as restaurants and entertainment purchases go, these purchases are included:

  • Cafes
  • Bars
  • Lounges
  • Fast food restaurants
  • Live entertainment
  • Live theatrical productions
  • Concerts
  • Live sporting events
  • Movie theaters
  • Amusement parks (including zoos, aquariums, circuses and carnivals)
  • Tourist attractions (including museums and art galleries)
  • Record stores
  • Video rental stores and on-demand internet streaming media

Not included are:

  • Bakeries
  • Restaurants/cafes inside certain department, grocery, discount and convenience stores or warehouse clubs
  • Sporting camps
  • Public and private golf courses
  • Country clubs (including membership fees)
  • Stores that sell musical instruments
  • Video game arcades
  • Bowling alleys
  • Stores that primarily sell video games/accessories
  • Charitable organizations that provide live entertainment
  • Bookstores
  • Sports complexes where you participate in the sport

Other Citi credit cards that offer dining bonuses include:

The information for the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Card, Citi Prestige has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Discover

The Discover it Miles card earns 1.5x miles on all purchases and 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. The Discover it chrome offers 2x points at restaurants and gas stations on up to $1,000 in combined purchases each quarter. Discover defines restaurants to include full service restaurants, cafes, cafeterias and fast-food locations.

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 websites like this one from Visa where you can search for merchant codes.

2. Watch out for warehouse stores.

Many banks will exclude purchases from warehouse stores from eligibility for bonus rewards. These stores negotiate steep discounts on 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, some cards only award bonus points on travel that’s specifically categorized as flights purchased from the airline or the American Express Travel website. Be sure to know the stated policy for your card before making a purchase from an online travel agency.

4. Call to appeal.

If you have what you considered to be an eligible expense that didn’t earn a 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 many bonus categories it offers, including restaurants (for some cards) and travel. While other card issuers are less explicit about it, foreign transactions are also more likely to be incorrectly categorized. As a result, 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. And of course, be sure to swipe a card with no foreign transaction fees to avoid being hit with the one-two punch of lower rewards and added fees for the purchase.

Additional reporting by Jason Stauffer.

Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

WELCOME OFFER: 80,000 Points

TPG'S BONUS VALUATION*: $1,600

CARD HIGHLIGHTS: 2X points on all travel and dining, points transferrable to over a dozen travel partners

*Bonus value is an estimated value calculated by TPG and not the card issuer. View our latest valuations here.

Apply Now
More Things to Know
  • Earn 80,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $1,000 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
  • 2X points on travel and dining at restaurants worldwide, eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
  • Get 25% more value when you redeem for airfare, hotels, car rentals and cruises through Chase Ultimate Rewards. For example, 80,000 points are worth $1,000 toward travel.
  • Get unlimited deliveries with a $0 delivery fee and reduced service fees on orders over $12 for a minimum of one year on qualifying food purchases with DashPass, DoorDash's subscription service. Activate by 12/31/21.
  • Earn 5X points on Lyft rides through March 2022. That’s 3X points in addition to the 2X points you already earn on travel.
Intro APR on Purchases
N/A
Regular APR
15.99%-22.99% Variable
Annual Fee
$95
Balance Transfer Fee
Either $5 or 5% of the amount of each transfer, whichever is greater.
Recommended Credit
Excellent/Good

Editorial Disclaimer: Opinions expressed here are the author’s alone, not those of any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.

Disclaimer: The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser’s responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.