‘Travel expense’ covers a few surprising areas
Some rewards cards count ride-shares, vacation rentals, even parking fees as travel
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.
With rewards cards, what counts as a travel expense that earns bonus points?
Sometimes, travel expenses are obvious: plane tickets, hotel rooms, cruises, rental cars. Sometimes expenses that count as travel are less obvious and not as across-the-board, such as ride-sharing, vacation rentals and parking fees.
Dear Cashing In,
I have a card that gets me bonus points for travel, but what counts as “travel”? How do I know when to use this card as opposed to another card? – Phil
Summer is high season for travel, which means that if you have a travel rewards credit card, now is the time to use it and let the earning of points commence.
There are, of course, many ways that reward credit cards can be useful for travel.
Airline cards can earn you frequent flyer miles to use toward flights and offer perks like free checked bags.
Hotel cards can accumulate points used for free stays and come with perks, too, such as late check-out and room upgrades.
Then there is a category of cards that aren’t tied to any particular travel brand, but offer advantages when you use them for travel.
Some, like the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card and the Bank of America Travel Rewards Credit Card, earn points that can be redeemed for statement credits that offset travel charges. Others, such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Sapphire Reserve, give you bonus points when you charge travel expenses.
But what counts as a travel expense?
Sometimes, travel expenses are obvious: plane tickets, hotel rooms, cruises, rental cars … those all qualify as travel expenses, all the time.
But then there are some gray areas, and perhaps some expenses that count as travel that might not be obvious, including:
You might use Uber and Lyft around town and not even think of them as travel expenditures, but they count as travel. If you have a card that earns bonus points on travel, be sure to link those cards to these ride-sharing apps for extra points.
Tip: Unsure if an expense is considered travel? Check your terms and conditions
Your credit card’s terms and conditions will spell out what your card issuer considers covered travel expenses. For example, those carrying the Uber Visa card from Barclays earn “3 percent/3 points for every $1 spent on net purchases on airfare, hotels and vacation home rentals (including travel agencies and home share exchanges), as defined by merchant category codes.”
Meanwhile, those carrying the Bank of America Premium Rewards credit card earn unlimited 2 points per $1 spent on travel and dining. Travel spending includes “airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, trailer parks, motor home and recreational vehicle rentals, campgrounds, car rental agencies, truck and trailer rental ... operators of passenger trains, buses, taxis, limousines, ferries, boat rentals, parking lots and garages, tolls and bridge fees...”
Sometimes vacation rental websites count as travel expenses, and sometimes they count as real estate (which does not earn extra points).
According to The Points Guy, Airbnb typically counts as a travel expenditure and stays are eligible for extra reward points. But competitors VRBO and HomeAway count as a real estate expense, not travel.
Other vacation-rental booking sites that count as travel include Booking.com and FlipKey.
See related: Using your credit card points for vacation rentals
While less common in the United States than in some other countries, tolls often show up as a travel expense and are eligible for extra reward points.
Of course, there are occasionally problems with using credit cards at automated booths when traveling abroad (our chip-and-signature cards may not be accepted at kiosks that accept chip-and-PIN cards), so be sure to carry cash.
There’s some variety here, too, but paying for parking occasionally shows up as a travel expensive and is eligible for bonus reward points.
When assessing whether an expense fits the definition of travel spending, card companies look to a vendor’s Merchant Category Code (MCC). That will determine how the expense shows up on a credit card bill.
It is often difficult to know in advance how a particular merchant is coded – if you call to ask, a lot of times the merchant itself will not know.
If in doubt, the best strategy is to go ahead and use the travel card. When your statement arrives, you might be in luck and find that the extra travel points posted.
See related: How to find a business's merchant category code
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