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How do credit card issuers define 'travel'?

By , CardRatings contributor
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    Best credit cards for travel rewardsThis is about the time of year when everyone starts thinking about redeeming travel rewards. That is, it's cold outside, and you want to go somewhere warm. If you are somewhere warm, you're probably thinking this might be a good time to find the white stuff and pull out the skis. Whatever your rationale, if you're searching for a place to travel, you'd do well to search for credit card that works for you by earning travel rewards. After all, traveling is expensive enough; it can help to have a tool to offset that cost.

    But just as travel has become more complicated, like the restrictions on what you can or can't take on the airplane, so is picking out travel rewards credit cards. For instance, does the travel rewards credit card offer rewards when you rent a car? Well, sure, you may be thinking. It must. It would be a pathetic piece of plastic if it didn't. But does it offer rewards when you call Uber? What about toll booths? That's travel-related money you're spending? And does it cover trains? Or what if you're staying not at a hotel but getting lodging through a home sharing website like Airbnb? Now you're probably thinking: Hmmm, let me get back to you on that.

    You also may want travel rewards credit cards that offer bonus rewards. That is, you want a credit card that offers rewards but one that offers extra points when you purchase something travel related, or you get a percentage off when you're redeeming travel rewards.

    Or maybe you're just someone who tries to go on a summer vacation once a year and is kind of lucky to squeeze in a shorter trip or two throughout the rest of the year. Maybe the last thing you need are travel rewards credit cards that offer a lot of bells and whistles that you'll never use, and yet, you'd like something that offers you perks and benefits all the same.

    So if you're looking for the best travel rewards credit cards, here are a few for the hardcore traveler, with some thoughts on how the card defines travel. And if you want a solid, uncomplicated credit card that rewards you for travel and never mind the bonus stuff, we'll offer up a suggestion for you as well.

    Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card

    The ideal card user. Avid travelers; definitely business travelers.

    Intro APR offer. None.

    Why you may want this. There's a generous signup bonus. Once you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months, you'll get 50,000 bonus points. You can redeem those points to spend on $625-worth of travel related expenses, or you can redeem them for $500 in cash. And if you add an authorized user in your first three months, and he or she makes a purchase, you'll get 5,000 more points. But some of the other benefits of having the card include:

    • Double points on travel expenses and when dining at restaurants around the world.
    • You get one point for every dollar you spend, on anything.
    • There are no foreign transaction fees.

    How Chase defines travel. Happily, they define it pretty broadly, meaning that there are a lot of opportunities to land double points on travel for just about anything. Here's what Chase says on its website: "Merchants in the travel category include 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."

    There are some important exclusions, though, as you'll see if you check on the website. For instance, you won't get rewards points if you visit a tourist attraction. A good rule of thumb is that if you spend money to get somewhere and stay somewhere, it's probably covered. But what you do while you're there, it probably isn't (well, in terms of getting double points; you would get your one point for every dollar you spend if you're visiting a museum or getting tickets to the Statue of Liberty or what have you).

    Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi

    Who the ideal card user is. Regular Costco members, especially if you travel a lot by car.

    Intro APR offer. 0 percent intro APR on purchases for seven months.

    Why you may want this. The Costco Anywhere Visa Card is a store credit card for Costco warehouse club members, but it's also a general rewards card that can double as a pretty good travel card as well. You'll receive three percent cash back on qualifying restaurant and travel purchases, which is nice, but what may make it a terrific card is the four percent cash back on gas (up to $7,000 a year) - even if you fill up somewhere other than Costco. (How much you'll really save on gas is tricky. Costco states in its terms that you'll get 1 percent back if you buy gas at, say, a convenience store or supermarket, but a lot of consumers are reporting that they're still getting four percent because of how many establishments that sell gas are coded. Anyway, your mileage here, pun intended, may vary.) In any case, if you commute daily, and especially if you take cross-country family road trips, a card like this could end up saving you a significant windfall.

    Other benefits include:

    • No annual membership fee, other than your regular Costco membership fee.
    • You get 2 percent cash back for any purchases at Costco.
    • You get one percent cash back everywhere else.

    How Costco defines travel. A little more narrowly than Chase, at least in their language on its website: "3% cash back on restaurant (including cafes, bars, lounges and fast food restaurants) and eligible travel purchases worldwide, including airfare, hotels, car rentals, travel agencies, cruise lines and Costco Travel."

    Based on that definition, tolls, train fares, parking, Uber and even house-sharing sites like Uber won't earn you that travel bonus. Just something to keep in mind if you're planning on racking up points on your EZPass reload, for instance.

    Barclaycard Arrival Plus™ World Elite MasterCard®

    The ideal card user. World travelers and business travelers.

    Intro APR offer. None.

    Why you may want this card. For starters, there's a terrific signup bonus. After you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days, you'll earn 50,000 bonus miles, which you can redeem for a $500 travel statement credit. And every time you redeem your points, you get 5 percent of your miles back to use during your next redemption.

    Other benefits include:

    • For the first year, no annual fee. Then, $89 a year.
    • You earn 2 miles for every $1 spent on all purchases.
    • As long as your account is open, active and in good standing, your miles don't expire.

    How Barclaycard defines travel. Quite broadly. According to Barclaycard's website: "A travel redemption is defined as: airlines, hotels, motels, timeshares, campgrounds, car rental agencies, cruise lines, purchase and travel agencies, discount travel sites, trains, buses, taxis, limousines, and ferries as defined by the merchant category code. Purchases made at merchants that do not process transactions under these terms or that use incorrect merchant category codes will not qualify."

    The website goes on to note that some travel-related services that aren't included in travel include websites that rent properties. According to Barclaycard's website, Airbnb counts, but certainly some websites that offer vacation rentals may not, and so if you're planning on staying somewhere you aren't certain offers rewards, you would want to call your credit card issuer first, just to check.

    The website also mentions that it won't offer rewards if you use a merchant to rent a truck that hauls things. So, alas, if you're moving any time soon, yes, you're technically traveling somewhere, but if you use your credit card to stuff things into a moving truck rental, you won't be redeeming travel rewards.

    So those are some good travel rewards cards for everyone who travels all the time. But if you're a mere mortal when it comes to traveling, and you'd like a credit card that offers a flat earn rate, so it's easy and uncomplicated to rack up rewards toward travel, you might be better off with a more simple card, such as …

    Discover it® Miles

    The ideal card user. The occasional traveler.

    Intro APR offer. For the first 14 months, you'll get a 0 percent intro APR on purchases.

    Why you may want this card. For every dollar you spend on groceries, airfare, online shopping or whatever you want, you earn 1.5 miles. You can redeem those rewards for a statement credit to cover travel charges or for a bank deposit; incidentally, 100 points is always worth $1 whether you're redeeming for statement credit or a deposit directly to your bank account.

    What's particularly special at this card is that Discover will MATCH all the miles you earn during your first year. If you do the math, that means you essentially earn three miles per $1 for your first year; that's a fantastic earn rate, especially for a card without an annual fee.

    Other benefits include:

    • Up to $30 statement credit annually to cover WiFi charges.
    • Paying late won't raise your APR.
    • No late fee on the first late payment.
    • No foreign transaction fees.

    There are other cards good for the occasional traveler, of course. For instance, the Citi® Double Cash Card - 18 month BT offer offers double points, 1 percent back right away and another 1 percent when you pay your card off, so you're getting rewarded for being a good credit card user. That would work out well if you were traveling a lot.

    You could probably spend weeks sifting through the nuances of the best travel rewards credit cards and good but basic cards earning travel rewards. You probably don't have weeks, especially if you have cabin fever. And, hey, you could rent a cabin. Just make sure that the credit card you use to rent a cabin will allow you to be earning travel rewards.

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