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How Credit Card Issuers Define Travel

Travel rewards credit cards provide you with opportunities to turn everyday spending into your next big vacation. Whether you're earning bonus rewards, redeeming points or miles for trip expenses, or taking advantage of travel credits, it's essential to understand how your card issuer defines traveling.

Categories commonly considered travel include:

-- Airlines

-- Hotels

-- Rental cars

-- Cruise lines

-- Discount travel sites

Depending on the card issuer, though, the list of categories under its travel definition can be much longer.

[Read: Best Travel Rewards Credit Cards.]

Why Travel Definition Matters

There are three situations where it's important to understand how your credit card issuer defines travel: earning rewards, redeeming rewards and using travel credits.

Earning rewards. Many rewards credit cards offer bonus rewards on certain travel-related purchases. With some cards, you'll earn extra points or miles on every purchase within the issuer's travel definition, while others may offer bonus rewards on things like air travel or hotels only.

Make sure you understand what counts as travel and what doesn't as you use your card to maximize your rewards.

"Take some time to review your monthly statements and verify how all of your purchases code," says Brandon Neth, credit card rewards and travel expert at FinanceBuzz.com. It might sound like a lot of work, he says, but if you generally spend at the same places, the initial research is the hardest part.

Redeeming rewards. Some general travel credit cards give you a lot of flexibility in how you redeem your points or miles.

Cards co-branded with an airline or hotel typically limit rewards redemption to that airline or hotel group. Others require booking through a proprietary booking tool. But with more flexible cards, you can book travel where you want and use your rewards to get your money back.

"This (arrangement) allows you to simply pay with your credit card," says Neth, "and anything that codes as travel can be 'erased' if you have enough points in your account."

That is, of course, if your transaction is considered eligible based on how card issuers define trip expenses. If not, you may end up spending a lot of money to book a trip only to find out that your rewards won't cover any of it.

Using travel credits. In addition to rewards, some travel credit cards offer annual travel credits, which automatically kick in when you make a purchase that's eligible for the perk. Some cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve, offer a credit for anything that falls under the card issuer's travel definition. Others, however, may restrict the benefit to certain airline- or hotel-related expenses.

It's important to understand your card's definition for the perk.

[Read: Best Cruise Credit Cards.]

How Major Credit Card Issuers Define Travel

Each credit card issuer has its own list of categories that it considers travel. There are some commonalities, including airlines, hotels, rental cars, cruise lines and discount travel sites, but what some issuers consider travel may be more narrow than others.

"What counts as travel is not always clear, and some issuers are much more generous with their definition than others," says Rand Shoaf, author of travel rewards blog Well Traveled Mile. "It ultimately comes down to how they want to define travel to align with their credit card products."

If you're considering a new travel credit card or already have one with a major card issuer, here's what counts.

American Express. American Express doesn't have any credit cards that offer a specific bonus rewards category for travel or a blanket travel redemption option. You can, however, earn extra points with some cards when you book certain parts of your trip through amextravel.com, and you can redeem Membership Rewards for travel booked through the portal.

Bank of America. If you have a Bank of America credit card that offers bonus rewards and redemptions on travel, a wide spectrum of purchases will count. The bank considers airlines, lodging, travel agencies, ground and boat transportation, parking, and tourist attractions as eligible travel-related purchases.

Capital One. If you have a credit card that earns Capital One miles, you can redeem your rewards for purchases made from airlines, hotels, rail lines, car rental agencies, limousine services, bus lines, cruise lines, taxicabs, travel agents and timeshares.

Chase. A handful of Chase credit cards offer bonus rewards on travel-related purchases, and the Chase Sapphire Reserve offers a $300 annual credit toward travel expenses.

If you have one of these Chase cards, the following counts as travel: airlines, lodging, car rental agencies, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, ground transportation, ferries and parking.

Citi. Cardholders can earn travel-related bonus rewards on purchases with airlines, lodging, car rental agencies, travel agencies or aggregators, tour operators, gas stations, ground transportation, ferries and boats, and parking.

Discover. With the Discover it Miles card, you can redeem your rewards as a statement credit against any of the following travel expenses: commercial airline tickets; hotel rooms; car rentals; cruises; tour operators; vacation packages purchased through airlines, travel agents or online travel sites; ground transportation; and ferries.

U.S. Bank. Of the major credit card issuers, U.S. Bank has the most restrictive travel definition, which includes airlines, hotels, car rental companies, taxis, limousines, passenger trains and cruise lines.

Wells Fargo. If you have the Wells Fargo Propel American Express card, you'll earn bonus rewards with airlines, passenger railways, lodging, vehicle rentals, cruise lines, travel agencies, discount travel sites, ground transportation, ferries and parking.

What Doesn't Count as Travel

Just because something is travel related, it isn't necessarily eligible for bonus rewards or a point or mile redemption. Even if you think something falls within your card issuer's definition, there are some caveats that could keep you from getting bonus rewards or a purchase being eligible for redemption.

Card issuer-specific exceptions. Check your credit card's fine print for specific limitations or exceptions. Many issuers, for instance, state that in-flight goods and services and duty-free airport purchases aren't included in their definition of travel.

You may also run into some problems with some issuers if you want to count things like sightseeing tours, excursions, merchants within hotels and airports -- such as a restaurant or kiosk -- and other tourist attractions.

Miscategorized purchases. Credit card issuers determine whether a purchase is travel related if the merchant category code for the transaction falls under one of their definitions of travel.

Unfortunately, card issuers don't set the merchant category codes; the payment networks -- American Express, Discover, Mastercard and Visa -- do. If the merchant code for a certain transaction isn't considered travel, you may not get the bonus rewards or the chance to redeem your points or miles.

Payment method. With some cards, you might run into issues if you made your purchase using a virtual wallet or another form of near-field communication technology. If, for example, you pay a travel company with PayPal, the payment processor may appear as the merchant instead. In that case, you may only earn what you'd normally get on PayPal purchases.

[Read: Best Hotel Credit Cards.]

Strategies for Working With Issuer Travel Definitions

Depending on the credit card you have, you may or may not have a lot of flexibility with what's considered travel. If you're booking a trip, though, and want to make sure it counts as travel, here are some things you can do to improve your chances.

Use discount travel sites. While some card issuers may restrict certain categories, such as tourist attractions, amusement parks and excursions, those purchases might count if you book with a discount travel website instead of directly with the attraction.

"When in doubt, it's always best to consult the issuers' website or promotional material," Neth says. "Often, your terms and conditions will specify what will work."

Make a test purchase. If you're not sure whether a specific merchant will count as travel, consider making a small purchase to test the waters. If the card issuer counts it as travel, you'll know that you can move forward with your planned booking.

If you don't have an opportunity to make a test purchase and you have a Visa credit card, you can use Visa's supplier locator tool to find out how specific merchants are coded.

Ask for an exception. Credit card issuers aren't responsible for determining merchant codes, but it is still possible to get what you believe you deserve. "If your travel-related purchase is not coded as travel, you can consider contacting the credit card issuer to request an exception," Shoaf says.

There's no guarantee you'll get one, but some cardholders report card issuers making exceptions by offering courtesy points or miles, or by allowing them to redeem rewards for a purchase that wasn't originally included under the travel definition.

Join a forum. Both Shoaf and Neth recommend finding online forums where you learn about experiences from other travelers. In these forums, says Shoaf, you can learn what does and doesn't work. "These data points on what counts and doesn't count for specific travel cards can be incredibly helpful when traveling internationally."

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