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If travel rewards cards are tuxedos, cash-back cards are comfy black T-shirts — they aren’t as flashy, but they’re great to use in so many situations. As a result, some cash-back cards can be good companions for everyday spending and travel.
Think of cash-back cards as flexible travel rewards cards. Instead of using points to get a free plane ticket or discounted car rental, you can offset travel costs with rewards cash. If you have a $400 plane ticket on your statement and you redeem $400 worth of cash back, you essentially get the airfare for free.
There are three scenarios when cash-back cards are useful for travel. They are cash-back cards to carry:
What to look for in a travel-friendly cash-back card
Several features can make cash-back cards a decent option to bring on trips, or to use at home so you can offset travel costs later. Look for:
A good rate of cash back. Among flat-rate cash-back cards, look for ones that earn at least 1.5% back. Some even earn 2% or more. If a card has bonus categories, look for one that not only amps up your cash back overall, but also gives you something extra for spending you’ll do while traveling, such as extra rewards for gas, travel or restaurants.
Travel protections. You won’t find robust travel protections, insurances and perks like you would on good travel credit cards. But the best cash-back cards for travel will have some travel features, sometimes offered by the bank and sometimes by the network, such as Visa or American Express.
If you’re traveling abroad, also look for:
Worldwide acceptance so your card doesn’t get declined. In general, Visas and Mastercards are accepted all over the globe, while Discover and American Express cards may not be.
No foreign transaction fees if you plan to use the card on international trips. Many cash-back cards charge these fees, often 3% of your purchases, but some do not. The fee is irrelevant if you use the card for only domestic purchases.
Cash-back cards to use before you go
Here are good cash-back cards that can help you pay for your trip. The goal here is to accumulate cash from your everyday spending and use that money to pay for travel, such as airfare, hotel stays or vacation packages. These are not necessarily the cards you want to take on the road with you.
Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer
For the ease of flat-rate rewards, the Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offer earns 2% cash back on everything — 1% when you make a purchase, and 1% when you pay your credit card bill. The annual fee is $0, but there's no sign-up bonus.
The card charges a foreign transaction fee of 3%.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
If the bulk of your budget goes to cooking at home or commuting to work, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express earns 6% cash back at U.S. supermarkets, on up to $6,000 a year in spending (then 1%); 6% cash back on select U.S. streaming subscriptions; 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit; and 1% cash back on all other purchases. Terms apply. The card's annual fee is $95, but there’s a rich welcome offer: $250 statement credit after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 3 months. Terms Apply.
If an annual fee isn’t for you, consider the $0-annual-fee Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, which also offers a lower welcome bonus and lower rewards. Terms apply.
Both cards charge foreign transaction fees, and American Express cards are less commonly accepted outside of the U.S. So neither card makes an ideal international travel companion.
If you’re willing to use three cards strategically, you can use two cash-back cards from Chase in a strategy to get great value when buying travel. Details are here.
Basically, you use the popular Chase cash-back cards — the Chase Freedom®, Chase Freedom Unlimited® and Chase Freedom Flex℠ — to earn cash-back rewards. Then you convert those cash rewards to travel points by transferring rewards to either the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
Nerd tip: The Chase Freedom® still exists, but is closed to new applicants. It can be product-changed to a Chase Freedom Flex℠ if you call Chase and make the request.
Once you’ve converted your cash back into travel points, you can buy travel through Chase’s online travel agency at a discount. In the end, you get great travel rewards value on a Sapphire card that started out as cash back on a Freedom card (or in the case of business credit cards, one of the Ink Business-branded cards).
You'll still have the flexibility of straight-up cash back if you need it.
» MORE: What is the ‘Chase trifecta’?
Cash-back cards to carry while traveling in the U.S.
The cards above are good to use while traveling domestically, but these cards are extra rewarding for such typical travel expenses as restaurants and entertainment venues.
Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card
Earn more rewards when dining out on the road with the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card, where you can earn 4% back on dining and entertainment (which includes movie theaters, sporting events, zoos, aquariums, amusement parks and more). You’ll also earn 2% back at grocery stores and 1% on all other purchases. The annual fee is $95. But the sign-up bonus sweetens the deal: Earn a one-time $300 cash bonus after you spend $3,000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
For a card with a lower price and lower rewards, there’s a version with a $0 annual fee: the Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card.
Capital One doesn't charge foreign transaction fees on its cards.
Deserve® Pro Mastercard
The Deserve® Pro Mastercard is good for those new to credit — including newcomers to the U.S., but its bonus-category rewards are also spot-on for being on the road. You get 3% cash back on travel and entertainment, 2% cash back on restaurants (on up to $500 in combined spending on 3% and 2% categories per billing cycle) and 1% unlimited cash back on all purchases.
The cap on bonus rewards means the card is better for cheaper getaways, like a long weekend. You also get a complimentary one-year membership to Priority Pass after spending $1,000 in the first 90 days after activating the card. The pass allows you to access over 1,300 airport lounges worldwide for a $27 charge per visit.
The card doesn't charge foreign transaction fees. The annual fee is $0.
Cash-back cards to carry while traveling abroad
These cards don’t charge a foreign transaction fee and run on the widely accepted Visa and Mastercard networks. Both are important features when using a card in a foreign country.
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card
The $0-annual-fee Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card earns unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and new cardholders can earn this sign-up bonus: One-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months from account opening. There’s no foreign transaction fee, and the card offers travel benefits like travel accident insurance and 24-hour assistance if your card is stolen.
HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card
The HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit card earns 3% cash back on up to $10,000 in purchases in the first year, and 1.5% back after that. This card also has a $0 annual fee and no foreign transaction fee. Travel benefits include roadside assistance in the U.S., pre-trip planning assistance and help if your luggage gets lost. You can also redeem cash back for travel bookings made online through your HSBC account, or to cover the cost of TSA Precheck when you use your card to pay the fee, but redeeming for a statement credit is by far the simplest option.
Why you might want a travel credit card instead
While a NerdWallet survey found that many consumers can get more value out of cash-back cards than travel rewards cards, you can benefit more from a travel card if you:
Travel overseas at least once a year.
Spend more than $8,600 per year on travel expenses.
Are willing to open new credit cards every year or two to snag those (usually richer) sign-up bonuses.
Take advantage of the other perks that travel cards typically offer, such as Global Entry or TSA Precheck application reimbursement, access to airport lounges, and free checked bags.
Not everyone can eat enough room-temperature cheese cubes in an airport lounge to offset the higher annual fees of a travel card. Thankfully, there are cash-back cards that can help pay your expenses — and some that can travel with you, too.