How do credit card issuers define travel?

Written by
Geoff Williams
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Travel reward credit cards are an excellent way to earn rewards on travel expenses and to help offset costs for future travel, but how exactly do credit card issuers define travel? If you buy something for your next vacation – new luggage perhaps – will you earn bonus rewards on that purchase? Exactly how strict are credit card issuers in their definition of travel? Let’s find out.  

What is considered a travel charge on a credit card?

All credit cards have their own quirks about how they define travel charges. Generally speaking, at the very least, credit cards that offers travel rewards will give you cash back, points or miles on airline or hotel purchase made with the card. If you rent a car, it’s also a very safe bet that your credit card will give you rewards for that, too.

But what if you pay to stay at a campground during your national park road trip? Or if you rent a houseboat for a weekend at the lake? Do these type of purchases fall under the travel category to earn bonus rewards? We break this down by issuer:  

How credit card issuers define travel

Every credit card issuer is a little different in how they define travel purchases  Here’s how things generally break down:

CARD ISSUER TRAVEL CATEGORIES
American Express American Express has most elements of travel covered, including airlines, hotels, car rentals, buses and transit, cruise lines, trains and railway, taxis (also limos and rideshares), ferries, campgrounds, tolls and parking lots and garages.
Bank of America Bank of America defines travel pretty broadly, possibly more than any other credit card out there. They consider travel costs to be airlines, hotels and car rentals, as you would expect, but they also cover buses and other forms of public transit, such as subways, as well as cruise lines tickets, payments to travel agencies and train tickets. If you pay for a taxi, a limo or any sort of rideshare service like an Uber, that’s considered a travel expense. Also considered travel expenses are payments to: ferries, campgrounds, tolls, parking lots and garages, timeshares, boat rentals, motor homes and RV rentals, amusement parks, carnivals and circuses, aquariums, zoos and tourist attractions and exhibits.
Capital One Capital One covers timeshares as a travel expense, as you would hope, but it’s kind of a rare travel expense among credit cards, which is why we’re mentioning it. Also covered are the expenses you would expect to be categorized as travel costs: airline tickets, hotel stays, car rentals, buses and other forms of transit, cruise lines, travel agency fees, trains and railway (think: railroads but also things like a trolley), taxis/limos/rideshares, ferry rides, campgrounds, motor homes and RV rentals.
Chase Chase also covers timeshares, and then, they, too, cover what you would expect: airlines, hotels, car rentals, buses and other forms of transit, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, campgrounds, trains and railway, taxis/limos/rideshares, ferries, tolls, parking lots and garages.
Citi Citi covers quite a bit, including airlines, hotels, car rentals, buses and transit, cruise lines, travel agencies, trains and railways, taxis, limos, rideshares, ferries, campgrounds, tolls, parking lots, garages, boat rentals and motor homes and RV rentals.
Discover Discover covers airlines, hotels, car rentals, buses and transit, cruise lines, travel agencies, railways and trains, ferries, taxis, limos and rideshares.

While this is a general idea, these categories are also subject to change. Be sure to check your card’s fine print or contact your credit card issuer if you have questions about whether your purchase will count as travel.

How to redeem travel rewards

Earning travel rewards is easy. Simply make an eligible travel purchase with your card and you’ll earn a percentage of that purchase back in rewards, depending on the terms of your card. There’s no one way to redeem travel rewards, however, as every credit card features different redemption options.

You may have the option to redeem rewards through a travel portal, which in some cases, could offer you a boost in rewards value. CardName points, for example, are worth 25% when redeemed through Chase’s travel portal. This card also offers the opportunity to transfer rewards to select travel partners, which could also boost the value of the rewards. Depending on your card, you might also have the opportunity to redeem rewards for cash back or as a statement credit to cover travel purchases. You could also have the option to redeem rewards for gift cards or travel experiences. Redemption options should be clearly laid out in your card’s terms.  

What are the best travel reward credit cards?

There are a lot of excellent travel reward credit cards out there. Some of our favorites include:

CardName

The ideal card user: Savvy travelers willing to book and redeem rewards through a travel portal

Annual fee: AnnualFees

Why you may want this card : First off, this card comes with a generous signup bonus. Once you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first three months, you’ll earn 60,000 bonus points. Because points are worth 25% more when redeemed through Chase’s travel portal, this welcome bonus alone is worth $750 toward travel. Some of the other benefits of having the card include:

  • 5X total points on all travel purchased through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal
  • 3X points on dining, including eligible delivery services and takeout
  • 3X points on online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs)
  • 3X points on select streaming services
  • 2X points on travel purchases
  • 1X point on all other purchases
  • No foreign transaction fees

CardName

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The ideal card user: Anyone looking for an uncomplicated way to earn rewards while they travel – and when they aren’t traveling

Annual fee: AnnualFees

Why you may want this card: The nice thing about this card is that it earns 2X miles on all purchases – not just travel purchases. And if you book your vacations through Capital One Travel, you’ll earn 5X miles on hotels and rental cars. Redeeming rewards with this card is easy, too. Miles can be redeemed through the travel portal or transferred to hotel and airline partners, but if you’re looking for the easy route, simply use your accumulated miles to cover any recent travel purchase. You’ll receive a statement credit for the amount of the purchase, so it’s almost as if the purchase never happened.

This card also comes with a generous welcome bonus opportunity: earn 75,000 miles after you spend $4,000 on purchases within three months of opening the account. That’s redeemable for up to $750 in travel. It comes with other valuable travel perks, too, like up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck reimbursement, as well as airport lounge access privileges.

CardName

The ideal card user: The occasional traveler

Annual fee: AnnualFees

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. What’s particularly special with 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 dollar spent your first year; that’s a fantastic earn rate, especially for a card without an annual fee.

CardName

The ideal card user: Avid travelers willing to pay for a comfortable travel experience

Annual fee: AnnualFees

Why you may want this card: The annual fee may be a bit too steep for some travelers, but if you spend a lot of time in the airport, it could be worth it. First off, the welcome bonus – 60,000 points (worth $900 toward travel) earned once spending $4,000 in the first three months – starts card membership off on the right foot. You’ll also get reimbursed up to $300 in statement credits each account anniversary to cover numerous travel expenses. Already the annual fee is a distant thought.

Additionally, after a one-time enrollment in Priority Pass Select, you’ll get complimentary access to more than 1,000 VIP airport lounges in over 500 cities worldwide. Cardholders are also eligible for up to $100 to cover application fees for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck membership.

Finally, on an ongoing basis, you’ll earn 5X total points on flights and 10X total points on hotels and car rentals when you purchase travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards immediately after the first $300 is spent on travel purchases annually. After that, you’ll earn 3X points on other travel and dining and 1X point per dollar spent on all other purchases.  And with this card, points are worth 50% more when redeemed through Chase’s travel portal, so there’s a ton of value in your rewards.

Bottom line

If you have a rewards credit card, there’s a good chance that every purchase you make with your card will earn you rewards – it might just not earn you the most rewards possible. Travel rewards cards specifically reward higher amounts on eligible travel purchases, so it’s important to make sure you’re using the right card for the right expense. Credit card issuers generally make bonus categories pretty clear, and unless it’s something really obscure, most travel purchases will likely qualify for bonus rewards. And rest assured that if you don’t earn a higher reward rate – perhaps your travel purchase was one of the few obscure things falling outside of traditional qualifying categories – if it’s a reward card, you’ll still walk away with rewards earned on that purchase. Maybe just 1% or so, but still, that’s better than earning nothing at all.

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Disclaimer:

The information in this article is believed to be accurate as of the date it was written. Please keep in mind that credit card offers change frequently. Therefore, we cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information in this article. Reasonable efforts are made to maintain accurate information. See the online credit card application for full terms and conditions on offers and rewards. Please verify all terms and conditions of any credit card prior to applying.

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