With airline meals, pay less, earn more points with some cards

Don't forget: Travel credits with a handful of cards cover airline expenses

Cashing In with Tony Mecia

Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. Every week, he answers readers’ questions about credit card rewards programs in his “Cashing In” column.

Ask Tony a question, or see if your question has already been answered in the Cashing In answer archive.


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What category does airplane food fall into for credit card bonus points? 

In-flight food and other purchases are considered an airline expense and can qualify for credit card points on a travel rewards card. 
Expert Q&A

Check out all the answers from our credit card experts.

Dear Cashing In,
I have three different rewards cards that give me bonuses for different kinds of purchases. When I am on an airplane and buy a meal, does that count as a food purchase, a travel purchase or something else? What’s the best card for in-flight expenses? – Gary

Dear Gary, 
With reward cards, a lot of people wonder how different charges are going to show up on their account statements. Charges in certain categories can give you extra points, depending on the card you use. The challenge is finding out how your purchases are categorized by the card network, and this involves determining the merchant category code used. 

Airline meals are categorized as an airline purchase

Often, there are gray areas with how purchases are categorized.

For example, some tour organizer charges show up as travel expenses, while others show up as educational expenses. Restaurants in retail stores sometimes register as dining out, but sometimes they show up as retail expenses. Food bought from a gas station usually doesn’t show up as dining out or buying groceries but rather as gas purchase. Surely there are plenty of other examples, and it can be tough to know ahead of time how the purchase will be coded.

With in-flight meals, snacks and alcohol, which you are buying from an airline, your purchases are categorized as an airline purchase. As an airline purchase, your in-flight meal or snack should be eligible for bonus points if you have one of the many travel credit cards that give bonuses for travel purchases.

Some cards offer discounts on food and beverages

When it comes to buying meals, snacks or drinks while in flight, there are also a handful of airline credit cards that give you discounts – usually the cards affiliated with that airline. 

Tip

Tip: There are a handful of cards that give you discounts on airline food - usually cards affiliated with that airline. 

For example: 

Barclays JetBlue credit card
Perk: Save 50 percent on in-flight cocktails and food purchases

Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator
Perk: Save 25 percent on in-flight food and beverage on American Airlines-operated flights

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard
Perk: Save 25 percent on in-flight food and beverage on American Airlines-operated flights

Gold Delta SkyMiles from American Express
Perk: Save 20 percent on in-flight food, beverages and audio headsets on Delta Air Lines-operated flights

United TravelBank Card from Chase
Perk: Save 25 percent on in-flight food and beverages on United-operated flights

Also, travel credits that come with some rewards cards can erase your airline expenses. For example, if you have the Platinum Card from American Express, you have $200 in annual airline fee credits, which can be used to buy food or drinks in the air. If you have the Chase Sapphire Reserve, you have an annual $300 travel credit.

The discount on all of these travel expenses comes in the form of a statement credit after you use the card. Note that with United cards, only the United TravelBank Card from Chase provides that discount.

Discounts don't apply to other in-flight purchases

Note that none of the cards listed provides discounts for other purchases in the air, such as Wi-Fi. It’s really just for food and drinks and, in the case of Delta, headsets. Also note that the discount applies only on flights operated by that airline – airline partners don’t count.

Discounts on food and drink in the air are probably little-used perks on these credit cards, and they probably don’t save you too much unless you are a huge consumer of airline food or a big drinker on airplanes – which incidentally is not a great idea because it dehydrates you at high altitudes, in addition to the usual dangers of alcohol. 

Of course, the cheapest solution is to bring some food on board from home to avoid paying high airport concessions costs or being stuck with a limited selection on a flight. But if your hunger won’t hold off, there are ways to be smart about using your rewards cards to buy food in the air and save a little bit of money, or at least receive extra points for your purchase.

See related: Can I use reward miles for in-flight meals and entertainment?, How to find a business's merchant category code 



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Updated: 05-25-2018