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I don’t usually get too excited about cash-back credit cards. See, I’m a rewards optimizer and travel hacker willing to put in the effort to get the most value out of my credit card points. And though cash-back credit cards can be really rewarding, I get more thrill from the potential for outsized value with travel rewards.
But it turns out that the $0-annual-fee Chase Freedom Flex℠ can be the best of both worlds. I first fell for this card in 2020, but it's remained a staple in my wallet. Here's why I cast my vote for this card as NerdWallet's best credit card for bonus cash back this year. » SEE: NerdWallet's 2023 Best-of awards: Credit cards
Why the Chase Freedom Flex℠ is unique as a rotating category bonus card
The main draw of the Chase Freedom Flex℠ is that it earns an impressive 5% cash back on quarterly rotating bonus categories on up to $1,500 in combined spending (activation is required). But it’s not exactly unique. Several other cash-back cards offer similar rewards, including the Discover it® Cash Back whose rewards are nearly identical.
The main difference? With Discover, all other spending will only earn 1% back. The Chase Freedom Flex℠, on the other hand, offers a suite of permanent bonus categories:
5% back on travel booked through Chase Ultimate Rewards®.
3% back on dining.
3% back on drugstore purchases.
1% back on everything else.
And it was one of these categories that first drew me in.
At the height of the COVID pandemic in 2020, I rarely went inside grocery stores. Instead, I got food delivered or picked it up curbside. But sometimes, I couldn’t wait until my next order to pick up more ibuprofen or hand sanitizer. Instead of battling the crowds at the grocery store, I preferred to dash in to pick up last-minute medication and household items at my local CVS. I had a card that earned bonus rewards on grocery store purchases, but all my drugstore purchases were going unbonused. Since the Chase Freedom Flex℠ offered a solid 3% back on drugstore purchases, plus a bonus for new cardholders, I added it to my wallet (currently: Earn a $200 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.)
I figured that the Chase Freedom Flex℠ would be a pandemic-era card that I’d eventually retire once I stopped social distancing. But even though I’m spending less at CVS, it’s still one of my best credit cards because those 5% rotating categories are extremely valuable.
If you maxed out the $1,500 spend every quarter, you’d get $300 back per year. Even if you don't spend that much, you'll likely still earn a fair amount. Categories are very broad and often include grocery stores, gas stations, streaming services, Amazon.com, Walmart and purchases made through PayPal. In 2022, I only spent around $2,800 in eligible spending on rotating categories. But that’s still $140 in rewards on a card with no annual fee.
It’s great for travelers, too
Now that borders have opened up, and I’m healthy and quadruple vaxxed, I’m hoping to take some international trips in 2023. Pre-pandemic, I was a budget traveler who was perfectly content traveling to Europe in the back of a plane. But I now value my sleep more than I used to, so I try to avoid sitting in economy on overnight flights. Since business class tickets aren’t in the budget, I’m phasing out my cash-back cards and focusing on travel rewards to subsidize my ticket.
The great part about the Chase Freedom Flex℠ is that it can be the best of both cash-back and travel worlds. Instead of earning cash, the card earns Ultimate Rewards® points that you can redeem for cash at a rate of 1 cent per point. But if you also hold certain other Chase cards, like the popular Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card that I have, you can unlock the ability to use your Ultimate Rewards® points for even more value towards travel — either by booking directly with Chase or by transferring points to a host of airline and hotel travel partners. I prefer that because I know I can often redeem rewards at a value higher than the 1 cent per point I'd get if I redeemed them for cash. And that's just what I need to get a lie-flat seat on my next international flight.
Easy extra points from online shopping
Social distancing made me realize that I really don’t like shopping in stores. I might be less afraid of catching COVID now, but I also have much less patience for the cart-wielding crowds at Target than I once did. And don’t even get me started on having to go to a mall.
Since Amazon and PayPal are often bonus categories, it’s a safe bet that some online-shopping purchases will earn 5% back for six months out of the year. But your earning opportunities don’t end there. The Chase Freedom Flex℠ also gives you access to Shop Through Chase, a shopping portal that gives you extra rewards at hundreds of stores if you make a purchase using the link in the portal. Since big box stores generally don’t earn extra rewards, using the portal might take a little more effort than rotating categories. But it is well worth the effort, especially since anything you earn is stacked with other rewards that purchase might get you.
For example, I’m a big fan of Costa Rican coffee from Cafe Britt, and I buy it from their online store. In December 2022, I noticed that the store earned 8 points per dollar if I clicked to it from the Shop Through Chase portal. Cafe Britt also allows you to pay with PayPal, one of the quarterly categories at the time. By purchasing Cafe Britt coffee through the portal and paying with PayPal, I earned 13 points per dollar on my morning coffee.
To find the Shop Through Chase portal, log into your Chase card account and click “Earn Bonus Points” in the top menu section. You’ll see different offers listed there and each store will have its own bonus point offer. Once you find a store you want to shop at, click “Shop Now." If you make a qualifying purchase, you should see your points post to your Chase account within 3-5 business days.
Long 0% APR period is an added bonus
As the pandemic raged, I didn’t have much use for travel rewards since I wasn’t getting on a plane anytime soon. Instead, I was about to take a month of unpaid disability leave brought on by lingering symptoms from the “mild” case of covid I had months earlier. Since I didn’t know how long it would take me to recover, I wanted to keep as much money as possible in the bank.
Instead of dipping into my savings, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ 's introductory 0% annual percentage rate offer helped to cover a month of lost wages without worrying about interest. The card offers 0% intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers, and then the ongoing APR of 19.24%-27.99% Variable APR. If you need to carry a balance for an extended period, consider a card with a longer 0% introductory APR or one with low interest. But for me, the Chase Freedom Flex℠ had the winning combination of stellar bonus rewards and breathing room on interest.