Debunking credit card myths: Will I always earn bonus points with certain merchants?
Editor’s note: This post has been updated with new information.
We devote a lot of time to travel rewards credit cards here at TPG. By strategically opening and utilizing these cards, you can unlock valuable redemptions like first-class flights and luxurious hotel rooms. However, there are a number of misconceptions out there when it comes to credit cards, so today, I’ll continue diving into our series that debunks these myths and allows you to begin planning for your next vacation.
Let's talk about one of the most popular ways of boosting your account balances: earning bonus points on credit cards.
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Myth: I am guaranteed to earn bonus points at certain types of merchants
When it comes to the best rewards credit cards, one of the best ways to maximize your earnings is by using them strategically at different merchants.
Depending on the type of purchase, you’ll be eligible to earn bonus points by using certain cards. Some of my favorite cards that fit this bill include:
- Chase Freedom Flex: Offers 5% cash back (5x points) at rotating categories each quarter (up to $1,500 in purchases each quarter; activation required)
- Chase Sapphire Reserve: Offers 3x bonus points at restaurants and on a wide array of travel purchases
- The Platinum Card® from American Express: 5x points on airfare booked directly with the airline or through Amex Travel (5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year), plus 5x points on hotels booked through Amex Travel.
Unfortunately, these bonuses do not always post as expected. This is all due to the relatively inane element of the financial industry known as merchant category codes (MCCs for short). In essence, every merchant is classified under a certain category, and if your card offers bonus points within that category, you should be eligible to earn a bonus when you swipe your card there.
Related: How to ensure you earn bonus points for grocery purchases
In reality, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are some merchants that are coded differently than you would expect, and you may wind up missing out on points as a result.
For example, back in June, I visited a local Honeybaked Ham store to grab lunch. I figured it would be coded as dining, so I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to earn 3x on dining. However, I was surprised to see that I was only awarded one point per dollar spent when it posted to my account. When I visited this handy MCC look-up tool, I noticed that it did not code as a restaurant.
The total was only $17.78, so I only missed out on 54 Ultimate Rewards point (worth $1.08 based on TPG’s most recent valuations). However, if I was counting on a large purchase earning hundreds or even thousands of bonus points, I’d be out of luck.
To prevent this from happening, I’d encourage you to start with the Visa look-up tool (if it's a Visa card) I mention above to get an idea of how your purchase will be categorized.
If possible, try making a small purchase before going for a larger one and check to see how it’s categorized in your online account. Finally, if you find a discrepancy, consider bringing it to the attention of your card issuer. If it was a mistake on their part, they’ll usually resolve it quickly. Unfortunately, if the merchant isn’t coded properly (like with my Honeybaked Ham example above), there typically isn’t anything the credit card company can do.
Related: Small card transactions lead to big rewards: 17 ways to earn even more points
When you use your credit cards at different types of merchants like grocery stores and gas stations, you’d like to think that you’re getting all of the bonus points you deserve.
Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case, since some stores are classified in quirky ways that could prevent you from earning the double or triple points you’d expect. The best advice is to simply check your accounts each month to make sure that you aren’t being shorted, but if the merchant isn’t coded the way you want, you may be out of luck.
Additional reporting by Chris Dong.