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Points and miles collectors love to talk about maximizing redemptions and how cards with high annual fees pay for themselves. Some of these cards have excellent travel protections and shopping benefits as well as the potential to earn valuable points and miles.
However, some people can’t stomach paying credit card annual fees despite the potential value. If that’s you — but you still want to maximize your cash back both at home and abroad — this trio of cash-back, no-annual-fee cards is for you.
For Use at Home: Citi Double Cash Card
The Citi Double Cash Card earns up to 2% cash back on all purchases — 1% when you make a purchase and another 1% when you pay your statement — all with no annual fee and no limit on the cash back you can earn. This makes it a good choice for general spending while you’re in the US — but you’ll want to store it deep in your luggage when you travel internationally due to its 3% foreign transaction fee.
This card has excellent shopping benefits including Citi Price Rewind, damage and theft protection and a 24-month extended warranty benefit. It also has car rental insurance that’s secondary when in the US but primary when abroad as well as trip cancellation and interruption protection.
For at Home and Abroad: Capital One Quicksilver Card
The Capital One Quicksilver Card earns unlimited 1.5% cash back on every purchase with no foreign transaction fees and no annual fee. This makes it a good card for general spending while abroad.
This card has a sign-up bonus of $150 cash once you spend $500 on purchases within three months from account opening. So you’ll want to go ahead and use it for at least $500 of general spending within the first three months even if you aren’t traveling abroad to make sure you get the sign-up bonus.
This card features various benefits including purchase security, extended warranty (up to one year on warranties of three years or less), car rental insurance that’s secondary when in the US but primary when abroad and lost luggage reimbursement.
For at Home and Abroad: Discover it® Cash Back
With the Discover it Cash Back, you can earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in purchases made in accordance with Discover’s 2018 Cashback Calendar after enrollment. The card has no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees, so it’s a good choice for spending in the quarterly bonus categories whether you’re in the US or overseas. The card also features price protection and boasts 97% acceptance at stores in the US.
Discover matches your total cash back after the first year of card membership, meaning those bonus category purchases will earn 10% cash back in the first year. This makes the Discover it card a better value than the Chase Freedom for at least the first year if you can maximize its rotating bonus categories. The Chase Freedom also offers 5% cash back on quarterly rotating categories up to $1,500 per quarter but doesn’t offer a first-year bonus and has foreign transaction fees.
How to Use the Trio Effectively
You could just sign up for the Capital One Quicksilver Card or the Discover it Cash Back, which both have no foreign transaction fees, and use that one card for all your expenses at home and abroad. But then you’d miss out on maximizing your cash-back potential.
Assuming you have all three cards, here’s how to use them for maximal value and protection.
- At the beginning of each quarter (January 1, April 1, July 1 and October 1) go to Discover’s Cash Back Calendar, log in and activate the 5% cash-back bonus. Although you can activate the bonus up to two months before the bonus category actually becomes active, I’d do it at the beginning of each quarter and put a new sticky note on my card noting the quarter’s bonus category.
- If you’re purchasing something in the US with a manufacturer’s warranty or renting a car in the US, use the Citi Double Cash Card.
- If you’re purchasing something abroad with a manufacturer’s warranty or renting a car abroad, use the Capital One Quicksilver Card.
- Use the Discover it Cash Back card for the first $1,500 you spend in the bonus category each month (unless you’re using a different card for the extended warranty benefit or car rental insurance). Once you hit $1,500 in the category during a quarter, retire the card to your sock drawer until the beginning of the next quarter.
- For spending outside the Discover it’s bonus category — or over the $1,500 spending mark in a quarter:
This trio works best if you also purchase independent travel insurance and have medical insurance that covers you abroad. Although some premier travel credit cards offer travel protections, evacuation insurance and limited medical coverage while abroad, none of the cards in the trifecta offer what I consider to be the most important protections: trip delay protection, baggage delay protection and medical evacuation insurance. So, make sure to cover yourself with travel insurance if these are important protections for you.
For those that might want to make a quartet of cash-back, no-fee cards, value could be gained from also including the Chase Freedom. The Chase Freedom offers 5% cash back on quarterly rotating categories up to $1,500 per quarter and could be used as a second category-bonus spending card (see the full card review here). However, remember that the Chase Freedom has a foreign transaction fee. Of course, points and miles aficionados would lament that you’re not maximizing the card’s potential without a Chase Ultimate Rewards earning card — but the Chase Freedom is still a good way to earn 5% cash back on additional categories for no annual fee.
If you refuse to pay any annual fees, travel internationally and prefer the simplicity of cash-back rewards but want to maximize your cash-back earning, the trio discussed in this article could be a good fit for you.
Each card has a specific purpose:
- Citi Double Cash Card: Up to 2% cash back on all purchases, 24-month extended warranty benefit, secondary car rental insurance
- Use for: domestic spending outside or past the Discover it’s quarterly bonus category, domestic rental cars, domestic purchases with a manufacturer’s warranty
- Capital One Quicksilver Card: 1.5% cash back on all purchases, no foreign transaction fees, secondary car rental insurance
- Use for: international spending outside or past the Discover it’s quarterly bonus category, international rental cars, international purchases with a manufacturer’s warranty of up to three years
- Discover it Cash Back: 5% cash back on quarterly rotating categories up to $1,500 per quarter, no foreign transaction fees
- Use for: spending in the quarterly rotating categories up to $1,500 per quarter, except as noted above for car rentals and purchases with a manufacturer’s warranty
- Earn 2% cash back on purchases: 1% when you buy plus 1% as you pay
- Balance Transfers do not earn cash back
- 0% Intro APR on Balance Transfers for 18 months. After that, the variable APR will be 15.24% - 25.24% based on your creditworthiness*
- Click 'Apply Now' to see the applicable balance transfer fee and how making a balance transfer impacts interest on purchases
- No categories to track, no caps on cash back, no annual fee*