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Credit Card Bonus Categories Might Not Translate Overseas

Airline Credit Cards, Credit Card Basics, Credit Cards, Rewards Credit Cards, Travel Credit Cards
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Your Credit Card Bonus Categories Might Not Translate Overseas

So you took your travel credit card abroad, made bonus-eligible purchases, like hotel stays and train tickets, and now you’re wondering why you didn’t get extra rewards. You won’t always earn bonus rewards abroad, but there are a few cards that offer solid rewards for purchases made outside the U.S.

How bonus categories work

Let’s say your credit card gives 2 points per $1 spent on travel and 1 point per $1 spent elsewhere. If you book a night at the Marriott for $100, you’ll get 200 points. But who decides that Marriott is a hotel? For that matter, who decides that hotels count as travel?

When a merchant starts accepting Visa or MasterCard, it’s assigned a merchant categorization code (MCC), which tells you whether the business classifies itself as a department store, hotel, travel agency or any other category. MCCs are used by payment companies to calculate interchange fees, by the IRS to set reporting standards, and — most important for our purposes — by banks to determine reward eligibility.

A credit card’s issuing bank will group certain MCCs together to form a rewards category — for example, airlines, car rental agencies and online travel agents might fall under travel — and give bonus rewards through any merchant with a matching MCC.

MCCs are sometimes counterintuitive. Uber, for example, isn’t a taxi — it’s a “ground transportation service.” Costco is listed as a “wholesale store” rather than a department store.

So why didn’t you earn those extra rewards when you spent on a bonus category? Though MCCs are used worldwide, it’s not impossible for international merchants to be categorized differently.

To avoid surprises, try booking through a U.S.-based agency like or Orbitz, and find their merchant categorization codes using Visa’s lookup tool.

» MORE: 7 Ways your credit card could save you money on holiday travel

Cards that earn great value internationally

The simplest way to earn rewards without the hassle is to get a card that has a high base rewards rate and no foreign transaction fee, which will save you a bundle when you go abroad. Here are a couple of the Nerds’ favorites:

The Barclaycard Arrival Plus® World Elite Mastercard® offers an 2 miles on every $1 spent at home or overseas, and you can redeem your miles against any travel expense, including airline flights and hotel stays. It has an annual fee of $0 for the first year, then $89, and comes with a solid signup bonus: Enjoy 40,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 90 days — that's enough to redeem for a $400 travel statement credit toward an eligible travel purchase.

If you’re looking for a $0 annual fee, no-fuss card, check out the Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card. It offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases and, like all Capital One cards, has no foreign transaction fee. Finally, you can earn a signup bonus: One-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening.

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