Credit Cards

Traveling? Here’s How to Maximize Your Credit Card Rewards

Your vacation includes a many types of purchases. Here's how to maximize those transactions to get the most out of your credit card rewards.

If you’re only using one credit card to pay for all your travel expenses, you’re probably not maximizing your rewards opportunities.

For instance, one card may provide points for very specific travel expenses, while another offers rewards for other types of purchases that occur on your vacation. Even the seemingly simple matter of how you book a trip can affect whether you can earn or redeem rewards, depending on the card you use.

With so many different scenarios, it pays to know your travel cards exceptions and utilize another card—especially a cash-back one—when appropriate to get the best rewards return on your purchases. Here are four travel expenses to look out for.

Third-party travel sites

Don’t assume you can earn rewards on your card when booking a hotel, flight or car rental through third-party sites—such as Kayak or Travelocity. Some credit card companies will not award points when booking with an online travel sites.

For instance, American Express requires you to bypass third-party sites and book hotels and flights directly with them to get points. Amex even goes a step further and offers additional rewards for purchasing a flight directly from airlines —like Delta, JetBlue and British Airways— that accept the card.

Other credit card issuers are more lenient when it comes to online booking sites. For example, Barclays allows you to earn points if you book with an approved third-party travel provider listed on its website. The rewards rate isn’t always the same, though. For instance, you earn 2 points for every $1 at Orbitz using your Barclays credit card, but you get only 1 point at Expedia or Travelocity. It’s important, then, to check the fine print for the rules before booking.

Vacation rental companies

When it comes to accommodation, Airbnb is generally point-friendly. Most credit card issuers—such as Barclay, Capital One and Bank of America—classify Airbnb as a travel agency. That means you can accumulate points using a travel credit card,. But you should double check before booking.

Be careful, though, when using other vacation rental companies companies, such as VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) or HomeAway. Some credit card companies classify these as real estate rentals, so you may not receive the travel rewards rate. If you’re set on using a home-rental company, you might want to consider using a credit card that will dole out accelerated rewards for general purchases.

Other travel expenses

There’s more to your vacation than a flight and hotel. Pack other cards for purchases that may not get a rewards boost from your travel card. But don’t forget to factor in foreign transaction fees if you're traveling abroad. Those can add up and erode the value of any rewards earned.

Food: If dining out is a big part of your travel budget, bring a card that offers accelerated points for restaurants. Typically, travel rewards cards give a higher rate for these purchases, but check against your other card just in case. If your plans include plenty of home-cooked meals at your Airbnb or beach rental, take the card that offers the best reward rate for groceries.

Gas: Planning a cross-country road trip? Then your cash-back card that earns rewards at gas stations is must-have. But if you’re renting the car or van, you may want to pull out your travel rewards card, which often considers car rentals a travel expense.

Tourist activities: You’d think that such plans as sightseeing tours, excursions, museums, and other tourist attractions would be considered travel-related by your travel rewards card, but that’s not always the case. For instance, Chase specifically doesn’t include these items.

Other: More unconventional vacation plans may need more careful calculations, rewards wise. Barclays, for instance, considers camping a redeemable travel expense, while other issuers don’t. Your cash-back card may come in handy for those items that your travel rewards cards don’t cover. This might include an off-the-grid destination that’s only reachable by an obscure airline, puddle jumper or chartered board. If you want to treat yourself to a first-class travel experience, earn and redeem your miles or points directly through the company’s own loyalty program using its co-branded credit card.

Betsy Vereckey

Betsy is a contributor to ValuePenguin.

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