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Are You Really Getting All Those Bonus Points?

One of the specific reasons that people sign up for credit cards is the promise of racking up lots of bonus points for spending money on things they ordinarily consume, such as eating out, buying groceries, or having a night out on the town. When you get a glimpse of your monthly statement and see only a pittance in new reward points barely enough to redeem for a set of plastic plates and silverware, it's no wonder why some people wonder if there's a glitch in the credit card company's computers.

Unfortunately, some shady credit card companies hire teams of top-notch lawyers to hammer out complicated user agreements. By taking advantage of fancy legalese and judicial jargon, the credit card contracts can often split hairs over exactly what constitutes such spending categories such as: food, entertainment, and travel. But when you're savvy and know what's going on, you can make sure that you earn your fair share of rewards.

Below is our guide for how you can cut through all the complicated legal mumbo jumbo and really understand what's going on with your "disappearing" reward points.

Dining Out

Even some of the most premier banks in America have a few cards programs that entice people into signing up with the promise of earning double reward points every time they use the card to dine out. But you have to read through the fine print to understand these banks define eating out as food or drinks for "immediate consumption". That's perfectly fine when you're in a bar, grabbing a sandwich from a fast food place, or enjoying a fine cocktail before shaking your booty on the dance floor.

It pays to be sharp to the exceptions to the rule of what "immediate consumption" means, as sometimes even hot food sold from places like hotels, stadiums, exposition centers, theme parks, recreational venues, and government parks might get re-classified as coming from a facility whose main function is other than serving food and drinks for "immediate consumption". So no matter how fast you wolf down that hot dog and chili cheese fries the next time you're on a family vacation, your credit card company might dispute whether or not it counts as "dining out."

Related Article: Are You Making These Stupid Shopping Mistakes?


Speaking of food, many attractive card deals from premium credit card companies include reward points for food and drinks bought from grocery stores. Of course since we all have to eat, it makes intuitive sense to most people that using the card for every trip to the grocery store should quickly add up to a lot of reward points.

As with everything else, the definition of exactly what a grocery store is must be carefully understood before you sign on the dotted line. Some credit card issuers strictly define grocery stores as stand-alone businesses that are solely dedicated to food and drink. Many "super stores" that people depend on for their weekly food shopping, discount warehouses like Costco, Wal-Mart, Target, and Sam's Club are often reclassified as other forms of business, and don't qualify as stand-alone "grocery stores".

Likewise, smaller corner stores and fueling stations across America often sell a variety of snacks and drinks, but rarely will those purchases go towards grocery store reward points as the main focus of the business is clearly not on the food and drinks.


If you have to ask a friend or neighbor to come over and water the plant and feed the cat, it's considered travel, right? Well, depending on which credit card program you sign up for, the exact definition of what "travel" is might get a little complicated.

One attractive program from a large national banks totes the special bonus of three times the points for all purchases made on air travel and hotels. You have to sift through the contract first though to realize that often only tickets purchased directly from an authorized travel agency or tour company may count as official "travel" when earning reward points.

Another popular program from a different big bank promises double points on all travel, and leaves the lawyerly definitions for other companies. With this expansive program, not only are ticket purchases from authorized agencies, tour operators, and cruise lines counted towards the double points bonus, but even such incidental costs like parking fees and toll roads are included as well. One supreme credit card program from a top bank also expands their definition of travel to include fuel costs, whether by car, truck, or rail, meaning that just about every conceivable mode of transportation will go towards piling up reward points.


Nothing makes a night out on the town go more smoothly and pleasantly than having a good credit card on hand to take care of all of your entertainment expenses. Some credit card programs from big banks are a little unclear about what constitutes "entertainment" until you get into the meat and potatoes of the contract.

Thankfully though, most credit cards from big banks have rather generous definitions of what "entertainment" is, knowing that people get a lot of enjoyment out of attending sports games, going to shows at theaters, watching movies, visiting amusement parks, getting an education at zoos, and marveling at the rich underwater animal life at a quality aquarium. Even better, many popular tourist attractions and some of the country's finest art galleries and museums also qualify as "entertainment", giving customers a great way to expand their minds and feast on high culture while simultaneously racking up big reward points.

Related Article: Which Credit Card Rewards Program is Right for You?

Educating Yourself Further

Since each card issuer and bank has specific rules and guidelines about which businesses are classified into which categories, it's important to understand that every company uses what are called "merchant codes". These vary from company to company, and each credit card issuer is free to define their own codes as see fit.

Luckily, the online age has provided a great number of useful websites and digital tools to help understand the merchant codes attached to every purchase you make. Several credit card issuers have their merchant codes published online, and even gives you a great option of filtering local businesses in your area by individual merchant codes. That way, you can know ahead of time whether or not a purchase made at a particular business with the credit card will qualify for reward points, and under which category or categories.

Once you're confident about exactly how you can best start piling up reward points, you'll be able to make better-informed purchasing decisions.

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Yael Kent's picture

Yael Kent is a personal finance enthusiast with experience writing about credit cards, credit repair, debt, and more. In addition to being an editor at Creditnet, she has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Reuters, and other financial sites.

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