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Because I’m so focused on travel, I tend to prefer credit cards that specifically offer travel benefits, such as co-branded cards that earn airline miles or hotel points, or those that earn transferable points like Chase Ultimate Rewards or Amex Membership Rewards (which I can use to top up my loyalty accounts when I need to).
However, as I always say, diversification is one of the pillars of a successful points strategy, and that includes considering the cash-back options out there. You can’t pay for everything with frequent flyer miles, so having a solid cash-back card can help you cover (or at least save on) travel expenses apart from airfare and hotels. In this post I’ll talk about how you can put a cash-back card to good use, and run down a list of what I think are the best current offers available to make your travels more affordable.
Advantages of cash-back
The best feature of cash-back options as opposed to points or miles is that you can use your rewards to pay for pretty much anything. Some frequent flyer programs will let you use your miles to make purchases (of gift cards, merchandise etc.), but the return is generally terrible, and you end up sacrificing a lot of value. With cash-back cards, redeeming for statement credits is simple, and the returns are mostly consistent.
I say mostly because some cash-back cards provide bonuses for redemptions in certain spending categories. For example, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus allows you to redeem the “miles” you earn for regular statement credits at 0.5 cents per mile, but you can instead redeem at 1 cent per mile for a wide range of travel expenses, including buses, trains, and tourist attractions, for which you also get a 10% miles rebate. Since you earn 2 miles on every dollar spent, you get an effective return of 2.2% when you redeem for travel expenses. That bonus is nice, but the flexibility to redeem for whatever you want makes this card (and other cash-back cards) a good option to fill in the gaps in your travel budget.
Simplicity is another key factor. A fixed rate of return can simplify your travel rewards strategy, which is great for people who are new to the points and miles game, or who don’t want to devote much thought to which card to use. I don’t recommend going strictly cash-back, because there are more lucrative ways to earn travel rewards, and again because I preach diversification of your loyalty points, but it’s not a bad place to start.
Finally, many of the basic cash-back cards out there offer great benefits in their own right. Some of these benefits, such as no foreign transaction fees and travel insurance, are equally available on co-branded travel cards. However, many cash-back cards offer category spending bonuses of up to 5%, which is a better return than what you’ll get elsewhere.
Top cash-back credit cards
With all that in mind, I thought it was time for a side-by-side comparison and ranking of what I consider to be the top no-fee cash-back cards currently on the market. The ones I’m considering here are:
- Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express
- BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card
- Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card
- Chase Freedom
- Citi Double Cash
- Discover It
- Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express
The factors I considered are:
- Current sign-up bonus
- Everyday earning
- Bonus category earning
- Foreign transaction fee
- Other redemption options/values
Before I look at each of these factors in detail, the table below shows you a true side-by-side comparison to help you decide which card or cards is best for your needs.
|Sign-Up Bonus||Everyday Cash Back||Bonus Categories||Forex Fees||Other Redemptions|
|Amex Blue Cash Preferred||$150/ $1,000 spend||1%||3%/2%||2.70%||No|
|BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card||$100/ $500 spend||1%||3%/2%||3%||No|
|Capital One Quicksilver||$100/ $500 spend||1.50%||None||0%||No|
|Chase Freedom||$150/ $500 spend||1%||5%||3%||Yes|
|Citi Double Cash||None||1% + 1%||None||3%||No|
|Fidelity Investment Rewards||$50/$500 spend||2%||None||1%||No|
Now on to the details.
CURRENT SIGN-UP BONUS
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: $150 cash back when you spend $1,000 in the first 3 months. 0% Intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for 12 months then 13.49% to 23.49% Variable. Terms apply.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: Online-exclusive – $100 cash rewards bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within the first 90 days. 0% introductory APR for 12 months for purchases, then 13.49%-23.49% variable APR after that.
Capital One Quicksilver: $100 bonus after you spend $500 on purchases within 3 months of approval. 0% intro APR on purchases for 9 months; 13.49%-23.49% variable APR after that.
Chase Freedom: $150 bonus after you spend $500 in the first 3 months. Earn a $25 bonus after you add your first authorized user and make a purchase within the same period. 0% intro APR on purchases and balance transfers for first 15 months, then a variable APR of 15.49% to 24.24%.
Citi Double Cash: None. 0% intro APR for 18 months on balance transfers; after that, the variable APR will be 13.99% – 23.99% based on your creditworthiness.
Discover It: No bonus currently, though the card does offer one from time to time. 0% APR on purchases and balance transfers for 14 months, then a variable APR of 11.49% to 23.49%.
Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex: $50 cash back when you spend $500 in 60 days, 0% APR on balance transfers for first 12 billing cycles.
Analysis: The clear winners here are the Chase Freedom, BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card, and the Capital One Quicksilver, each of which gives you a $100 return after spending $500 – that’s a 20% return. The Freedom ends up on top, though, thanks to that extra $25 for adding an authorized user. The Amex Blue Cash Preferred is far behind with double the spending requirement.
Winner: Chase Freedom
Runners up: Bank Americard, Capital One Quicksilver
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: 1%
Capital One Quicksilver: 1.5%
Chase Freedom: 1%
Citi Double Cash: 1% on all purchases, plus 1% as you pay off your balance.
Discover It: 1%
Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex: 2%
Analysis: The Fidelity is the only card here that offers a standard 2% cash back across the board, though you can only redeem for deposits into your Fidelity account. The Citi Double Cash offers 1% on purchases, but another 1% upon payment. Since I always advocate that you pay off your balance in full each month, this card wins, since the return matches Fidelity without the limits on redemption. If you’re looking for flexibility but don’t like the earning structure of Citi Double Cash, the Capital One Quicksilver might be the way to go.
Winner: Citi Double Cash
Runners up: Fidelity, Capital One Quicksilver
BONUS CATEGORY EARNING
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: 6% cash back at US supermarkets on up to $6,000 per year in purchases (then 1%). 3% at US gas stations. Terms apply.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: 2% at grocery stores and wholesale clubs and 3% on gas for the first $2,500 in combined gas, grocery store and wholesale club purchases each quarter.
Capital One Quicksilver: None.
Chase Freedom: 5% rotating quarterly bonus categories on up to $1,500 in purchases. View the current categories here are https://creditcards.chase.com/a1/freedom/calendar2016
Citi Double Cash: None.
Discover It: 5% rotating quarterly bonus categories with a $1,500 purchase cap. Current category is gas stations; starting in October will be online shopping and department stores.
Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex: None.
Analysis: When it comes to cash back, bonus categories can make a big difference. The Freedom and Discover It cards lead the pack with 5% bonuses, though some people might be annoyed at having to keep track of categories that change every quarter. The Amex Blue Cash Preferred and Bank Americard Cash Rewards card come in second thanks to bonuses in set categories that pretty much everyone uses (gas and grocery stores), even though earning is capped.
Winner: Tie – Freedom and Discover It
Runner up: Tie – Blue Cash Preferred and Bank Americard
FOREIGN TRANSACTION FEES
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: 3%
Capital One Quicksilver: None
Chase Freedom: 3%
Citi Double Cash: 3%
Discover It: None
Fidelity Investment Rewards Amex: 1%
Analysis: While a lot of people might prefer to carry a more premium card with them for international travel, these cards all have some decent purchase and travel protections. However, most of them levy foreign transaction fees, which can wipe out the value of any cash back you earn. Not only that, but bonus categories on many of these cards are restricted to US merchants, so you won’t earn multiple points at gas stations or grocery stores (for example) in other countries.
Winner: Tie – Capital One Quicksilver and Discover It
Runner up: None
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: As an Amex card, Blue Cash Preferred gives you access to Global Assist services and help when traveling, purchase protection ($1,000 per occurrence, $50,000 per year), return protection up to $300 per item and $1,000 per year, roadside assistance, secondary rental car insurance up to $50,000, and travel accident insurance.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: No expiration on rewards. This is a Visa Signature with standard benefits.
Capital One Quicksilver: Capital One pulls your credit score from all three credit reporting agencies when applying. This is a Visa Signature with benefits like concierge service, 24-hour travel and roadside assistance, travel accident insurance, purchase security up to $500 per claim and $50,000 per cardholder, secondary rental car insurance, and up to $3,000 in lost luggage reimbursement.
Chase Freedom: You can earn more points per dollar by shopping through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. This is a Visa Platinum rather than Signature product, so benefits are somewhat more limited. Purchase protection is offered within 120 days for $500 per claim up to $50,000 per account. Return protection up to $250 per instance, $1,000 per year. Roadside assistance for $59.95 per incident. Secondary car rental insurance.
Citi Double Cash: EMV chip technology, protections like $1,000 per item up to $50,000 per year for damage and theft, and signature Citi Price Rewind within 60 days up to $300 per item and $1,200 per year. Secondary rental car insurance up to $50,000. $1,500 trip cancellation/interruption protection and $250,000 travel accident insurance.
Discover It: No overlimit fees, and you can get your free FICO score monthly. Shopping through the ShopDiscover portal can earn bonuses of up to 20% cash back. Purchase protection up to $500 per occurrence. Special “cash over” feature, like a cash advance but with no transaction fees or special interest. Secondary rental car insurance, up to $500 lost baggage insurance and up to $500,000 in travel accident insurance. The one major drawback is that Discover is not as widely accepted as Visa or MasterCard.
Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express: You must be a Fidelity customer and can only redeem your points by depositing the cash back value into your account.
Analysis: Most of these cards carry pretty standard features and protections. Discover It offers some interesting earning opportunities through the dedicated ShopDiscover shopping portal, as well as that “cash over” feature where you won’t incur extra charges. Plus its travel benefits are solid.
Runner up: Tie – Freedom and Amex Blue Cash Preferred for comparable benefits.
OTHER REDEMPTION METHODS/VALUES
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express: None. These points are separate from Membership Rewards.
BankAmericard Cash Rewards™ Credit Card: Get an ongoing 10% customer bonus when you redeem cash back into a Bank of America checking or savings account.
Capital One Quicksilver: None.
Chase Freedom: Chase checking customers earn a 10% annual points bonus, but this benefit is ending with the December 2015 billing cycle. You can link your account to a premium Chase card like the Sapphire Preferred, Ink Bold or Ink Plus to combine Ultimate Rewards points balances and transfer to the program’s 11 travel partners. In my most recent monthly valuations, I list Ultimate Rewards points at 2.1 cents apiece.
Citi Double Cash: None.
Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express: None.
Analysis: The Chase Freedom takes the lead in this category because you can combine the points you earn on it with Ultimate Rewards points from premium Chase cards, and redeem them not only for cash back and pay-with-points travel, but also transfer them to the program’s 11 transfer partners. The extra deposit and pay-down bonuses offered by Bank Americard and Citi Double Cash, respectively, are also nice.
Winner: Chase Freedom.
Runner up: Tie – Citi Double Cash, Bank Americard
My top choice is the Chase Freedom simply for the 5% bonus categories and the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal. The ability to transfer points earned on Freedom into my premium Ultimate Rewards accounts is highly valuable, but even as a cash-back card, it remains a top earner.
While Discover isn’t as widely accepted as MasterCard, Visa or American Express, I have to put the Discover It as my number two choice. Not only does it have rotating 5% bonus categories like Chase Freedom, with an annual max that matches the top cards in this category ($6,000 annually), but also it has its own shopping portal with earning potential of up to 20%. If you travel internationally, Discover It waives foreign transaction fees and offers a suite of solid benefits for travelers. Plus, it provides an easy way to get cash fast if you don’t have an ATM card on you.
I also appreciate the grocery and gas station bonus categories on Amex Blue Cash Preferred and Bank Americard, along with their solid across-the-board percentages. The Capital One Quicksilver and Fidelity Amex might be the best choices for those looking for simplicity – though having to be a Fidelity client might limit the usefulness of the latter one (and I’d beware any account fees that offset your cash-back earning).
Keep in mind, these are my own valuations of each product and that yours may vary based on the rewards you prefer, where you tend to spend your money, and how much you plan to use a cash-back card versus another points-earning credit card.
Do you prefer cash back to travel rewards? Do you have any of these cards? Please share your thoughts and expertise in the comments below.
With additional reporting by Eric Rosen. It's a stellar Cash Back card on its own, but when paired with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Freedom's 5x Category Bonuses let you rack up Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, transferrable to partners or redeemable via the portal.
It's a stellar Cash Back card on its own, but when paired with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Chase Sapphire Preferred, the Freedom's 5x Category Bonuses let you rack up Chase Ultimate Rewards Points, transferrable to partners or redeemable via the portal.