If travel rewards cards are tuxedos, cash-back cards are comfy black T-shirts — they aren’t as flashy, but they can be worn in more situations. You may not travel often enough to take full advantage of a travel card, but you still want a credit card that will help you save money on all of your purchases, including the rare trip out of town. That’s where cash-back cards come into play.
In a way, cash-back cards are like more flexible travel rewards cards, but instead of getting a free plane ticket or discounted car rental, you can offset the cost of your credit card statement. If you have a $150 plane ticket on your statement and you redeem $150 worth of cash back, you essentially just got free airfare. Not too shabby.
What to look for in a travel-friendly cash-back card
Several key features make cash-back cards the ideal thing to bring along on trips, or to use at home so you can offset travel costs later. Look for:
- No foreign transaction fees if you plan to use them on international trips. Many cash-back cards do charge these fees, but it’s irrelevant if you use the card only for domestic purchases.
- Worldwide acceptance so you don’t get declined when buying souvenirs. In general, Visas and Mastercards are accepted all over the globe, while Discover and American Express cards may not be. Again, this is less of a concern if you plan to use your card only in the U.S.
- A low minimum cash-back redemption so you don’t have to wait forever to earn a statement credit. This way, you can pay yourself back for small travel-related charges like cab rides.
Not all cash-back cards meet these nice-to-haves, but that’s OK. They can still help you earn rewards at home.
Cash-back cards to take abroad
Flat-rate cards earn the same amount back for every purchase. There’s no need to remember where to use the card for the best rate, and no fear that the merchant category code used in a store overseas won’t be properly categorized, preventing you from earning the maximum number of points. Ideally, the card will charge no foreign transaction fees while also offering certain travel-related insurance and protection.
Capital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit CardCapital One® Quicksilver® Cash Rewards Credit Card earns unlimited 1.5% cash back on all purchases, and new card holders 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 rental car insurance and 24-hour assistance if your card is stolen.
HSBC Cash Rewards Mastercard® credit cardHSBC 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. Even better, you earn a 10% cash back bonus for each cardmember anniversary, raising your effective earning rate to 3.3% for the first $10,000, and 1.65% thereafter. 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. Besides, if you think about it in terms of “money in, money out,” does it matter if you specifically redeem to cover the cost of TSA Precheck over some other charge on your statement?
Cash-back cards to use domestically
It’s not easy finding a cash-back card that doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees. But if you’re using the card only in the U.S., it won’t be an issue. You can rack up rewards wherever you spend money the most.
Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American ExpressBlue 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.
Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express
If an annual fee isn’t for you, consider the no-annual-fee Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, which also offers a (lower) welcome bonus than the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express. The cash-back rewards are also lower, yet still worth a look. You’ll earn 3% back at U.S. supermarkets, 2% back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores, and 1% everywhere else. Terms apply.
(All information about the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express has been collected independently by NerdWallet. The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express is no longer available through NerdWallet.)
Both cards require a minimum redemption of $25 in cash back. Both of them also charge foreign transaction fees, and American Express cards are less commonly accepted outside of the U.S. anyway. So neither card makes an ideal international travel companion.
Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit CardCapital 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 $0 for the first year, then $95. But the sign-up bonus sweetens the deal: Earn a one-time $300 cash bonus after you spend $3000 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
Capital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit CardCapital One® SavorOne® Cash Rewards Credit Card. Earn 3% cash back on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores, and 1% on all other purchases. There’s also a bonus for new cardholders: Earn a one-time $150 cash bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 3 months from account opening.
Capital One doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees on any of its cards. With either of these products, you can redeem cash back for any amount and even set up automatic redemptions for a specific time each year or when you reach certain earning thresholds.
Citi® Double Cash Card – 18 month BT offerCiti® 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.
You must redeem at least $25 worth of cash-back rewards. The card also charges a foreign transaction fee of 3%.
Chase Freedom®Chase Freedom® earns 5% cash back on bonus spending categories that rotate quarterly, on up to $1,500 in spending each quarter (activation required); all other purchases earn 1% back. The card comes with this sign-up bonus: Earn a $150 Bonus after you spend $500 on purchases in your first 3 months from account opening.
Chase Freedom Unlimited®Chase Freedom Unlimited® earns 3% back on up to $20,000 in spending in the first year, and 1.5% back on everything after that.
Both Freedom cards have a $0 annual fee and earn Chase Ultimate Rewards® points, which redeem for cash back at a penny per point. But here’s where things can get interesting:
If you also have the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or the Chase Sapphire Reserve®, you can transfer the points you earn via either Freedom card to one of those Sapphire products. Your points then take on more value — 25% more or 50% more, depending on which Sapphire card you have — when you redeem for travel through Chase.
While both Sapphire cards have annual fees, combining them with Chase’s no-annual-fee Freedom products can superpower your travel-rewards-earning ability — but you’ll still have the flexibility of straight-up cash back if you need it.
So … shouldn’t everyone use cash-back cards for travel?
Not necessarily! 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, free checked bags and more.
Of course, 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 you whittle down your expenses — and some that can travel with you, too.