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How to know if a purchase qualifies as rewards-eligible

Summary

Look for program disclosures, but they aren’t always detailed on what qualifies for rewards

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QuestionDear Cashing In,
Does the 3 percent bonus on eligible travel purchases with the Citi Costco Visa card include train tickets? – Yirin

AnswerDear Yirin,
When you have a rewards card that offers bonuses for spending in certain categories, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly which expenses qualify.

Sometimes, the answer is obvious. If you have a card that awards bonus points at restaurants, and you eat at a standalone restaurant, that almost certainly would qualify.

But what about your office cafeteria? Or a place that sells food along with lots of other merchandise? There, the answer is not so clear.

The first place to start looking to find out if a certain expense qualifies for a bonus is the fine print of your card terms. If you go to the website of the card you have, you should be able to find a link with basic financial information on the card, such as its interest rate, annual fee and late fee.

But reward cards almost always have another link, often listed as something like “program information.” It gives you the same nitty-gritty details, but they are about the rewards: how you earn them, how you redeem them, when you can use them, when they expire and so on.

Incidentally, you should look at these disclosures when you are applying for a card. That’s because advertising materials can be vague, and having the specifics can help inform your decision.

Looking at the rewards information for the Citi Costco Anywhere Visa card, it says that you receive 3 percent back on “eligible travel purchases worldwide, including airfare, hotels, car rentals, travel agencies, cruise lines and Costco travel.”

In other words, it does not explicitly say that train tickets are eligible for the bonus. My guess is that they probably would be eligible for the extra points. Often, card companies list the most common expenses, not all of them. For instance, I have had taxi and Uber rides earn travel bonuses, even though they are typically not listed as travel expenses.

To determine if you qualify for extra points in a category, banks use what are known as Merchant Category Codes (MCC), which every merchant is assigned. If you can figure out which MCCs earn the extra points, you can see if a particular merchant qualifies by using an online tool that allows you to look them up.

To be absolutely certain, you need both the list of MCCs from the bank that earn the extra points, plus the MCC of the merchant. If you don’t have both of those, you cannot know for certain if an expense qualifies. If you call the bank, or send a secure message online, you might be able to get a better idea of whether train tickets are covered.

If not, though, you’ll have to just charge it and wait until it shows up on your bill and rewards summary.

See related: Not all travel qualifies for rewards bonus points, FAQs on new Costco Citi Visa card

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