What counts as travel on a travel rewards card?

Cashing In columnist Tony Mecia
Tony Mecia is a business journalist who writes for a number of trade and general-interest publications. He writes "Cashing In," a weekly column about credit card rewards programs, for CreditCards.com

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Question Dear Cashing In,
What constitutes “eligible purchases” for travel purchases? Does it include buying airline tickets? – Malcolm

Answer Dear Malcolm,
When it comes to categories that can earn you extra rewards points, travel is one of the most common. Some of the best known cards from the biggest banks, including Chase, Citi and American Express, offer category bonuses for travel expenditures. Other card companies, including Capital One and Bank of America, offer cards that allow you to redeem points to pay for travel-related purchases.

Remember, one smart technique for racking up reward points quickly is to have a few cards with different category bonuses, then orient your spending on those cards toward those categories. For instance, you might have one card that gives bonuses for travel, a second that gives bonuses for groceries and maybe a third that gives bonuses on gas. If you can remember to use the correct card when paying, your rewards can quickly multiply. 

Travel tends to be a popular category for card issuers because people who express interest in travel and spend money on traveling tend to be desirable customers for banks.

Of course, as you point out, anytime a card offers a category bonus, there’s always the question of what expenditures qualify in that category. The answer is not always clear, and different issuers can define their categories differently. Let’s look at what some of the different banks say about how they define the travel category:

Chase: The Chase Sapphire Reserve and Chase Sapphire Preferred both offer bonuses on travel expenses. On its website, Chase says that the travel category includes “airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, campgrounds and operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, toll bridges and highways, and parking lots and garages.” It lists some exceptions, too, such as tourist attractions and merchants located inside hotels. 

Citi: For bonus points on the Citi Costco Anywhere Visa, the travel category includes “airfare, hotels, car rentals, travel agencies, cruise lines and Costco Travel.” For the Citi ThankYou Premier card, the list is more expansive: “purchases at airlines, hotels, car rental agencies, travel agencies/travel aggregators/tour operators, gas stations, commuter transportation, ferries, commuter railways, subways, taxis/limousines/car services, passenger railways, cruise lines, bridge and road tolls, parking lots/garages, campgrounds and trailer parks, timeshares, bus lines, motor home/recreational vehicle rentals and boat leases and rentals.”

American Express: The high-dollar American Express Platinum card gives 5x points on purchases direct from airlines or on flights and hotels booked through its travel portal.

Bank of America: The BankAmericard Travel Rewards card allows you to redeem points for travel purchases such as “flights, hotels, vacation packages, cruises, rental cars or baggage fees." 

Capital One: Capital One Venture cards allow cardholders to redeem points to pay for travel expenditures including “airline tickets, car rentals, hotels, travel packages, cruises, and more.”

There are some differences between how these card issuers describe travel, but you can see that one constant is that airline flights do count as “travel.” So you should feel free to use your card to buy airline tickets with the knowledge that you will earn the extra points.

See related: Maximizing card rewards after you’ve earned the sign-up bonus, Q&A: How to transfer AmEx points between airlines

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Updated: 11-20-2017