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The Citi Custom Cash℠ Card is marketed as a higher-earning cash back card—but if you use it strategically, it could be a great asset to your award travel goals.

If you’re willing to put forth some effort into what we think is more an intermediate-level award travel tactic, you might find that this card gets the job done. Here are some tips for “hacking” this no-annual-fee card into a useful travel credit card.

What does the Citi Custom Cash card offer?

Quick highlights

  • Rewards rate: 5 percent cash back (on up to $500 each billing cycle, then 1 percent) on your top spending category each billing cycle
  • Welcome offer: 20,000 ThankYou points (worth $200 in cash back) after spending $1,500 on purchases in the first six months
  • Annual fee: $0
  • Intro APRs: 0 percent intro APR for 15 months on purchases and balance transfers
  • Variable APR: 17.7 percent to 27.74 percent

Why is the Citi Custom Cash a good card for travel?

Rewards rate

Taking a look at the rewards rate, you might notice that this rewards card offers a pretty high cash back rate. Although your cash back is capped at $500 each billing cycle for your top spending category, you still earn 1 percent back on everything else.

Here are the ten categories you can earn 5 percent cash back on:

  • Restaurants
  • Gas stations
  • Grocery stores
  • Select travel
  • Select transit
  • Select streaming services
  • Drugstores
  • Home improvement stores
  • Fitness clubs
  • Live entertainment

In the travel category, specifically, here’s what you can earn 5 percent back on:

  • Airlines
  • Hotels
  • Cruises
  • Other major travel categories
  • Car rentals
  • Taxis and rideshares
  • Ferries
  • Trains
  • Subways
  • Parking garages and tolls
  • Other major transit categories

As you can see, there are plenty of travel-related purchases you can earn 5 percent back on. If you use this card exclusively for your travel or other bonus category spending, you could earn at least $25 back each billing cycle, or $300 per year. However, if you spend more than $500 on your top spending category, you’ll still get 1 percent back, earning you even more than $300 back each year.

Welcome bonus

Now that you know you can get up to 5 percent back on various bonus categories, including travel, let’s turn your attention to the welcome bonus. This bonus gives you 20,000 ThankYou points—worth $200 in cash back—after spending $1,500 on purchases in the first six months.

Not only is the spending requirement extremely reasonable for the time allotted, but, like your rewards, it’s also in the form of Citi ThankYou points. Note, all of Citi’s no-annual-fee cards earn “basic” ThankYou points, which cannot be transferred to travel partners for a potentially higher value. (However, further below, we’ll cover how you can get around this restriction with a card-combining strategy.)

Redeeming rewards for travel

Here’s where you can capture the value of your Citi Custom Cash ThankYou points for travel. The simplest way to use your rewards for this card is to get a direct deposit, check or statement credit, which could cover any travel spending you might put on your Custom Cash card. You could also use your ThankYou points to book travel through Citi’s travel portal.

Other redemption options include redeeming your points for gift cards, eligible purchases on Amazon via Shop with Points, merchandise and some Citi loan products. These options can come in handy when you aren’t traveling as much and simply don’t have a need to cover your travel spend with card statements or deposits from your rewards.

The Citi trifecta

Above, we covered a pretty simple and straightforward way to use your Custom Cash card strategically to earn rewards toward travel. In essence, you’ll use your rewards for statement credits or cash against any travel charges on your card.

Let’s move on to an advanced strategy that can help you actually earn more toward travel while boosting the value of your rewards upon redemption. Essentially, you can get one or more Citi credit cards that earn standard ThankYou points, which are valuable when transferred to Citi travel partners.

Most Citi cardholders use this strategy by getting both a mid-tier travel card, such as the Citi Premier® Card, and a more premium travel card, such as the Citi Prestige® Card. We consider this a more advanced strategy because both cards have an annual fee of $95 and $495, respectively. You should really only do this if you’re serious about your award travel goals. If you can’t justify these annual fees by maxing out your travel potential, this approach won’t be worth it.

Another reason to get the Citi Premier and Prestige is that they have more opportunities to earn rewards in common spending categories. Plus, they both offer generous welcome bonuses, which, again, are best used toward travel.

Here’s a quick look at what these cards offer:

Citi Premier

  • Welcome bonus: 80,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 on your card within three months of account opening
  • Rewards: 3X points on restaurant, supermarket, gas station, hotel and air travel purchases; 1X points on all other purchases

Citi Prestige

  • Welcome bonus: 50,000 bonus points when you spend $4,000 within three months of account opening
  • Rewards: 5X points on air travel and restaurant purchases; 3X points on hotels and cruise line purchases; 1X points on all other purchases

If you don’t want to pay annual fees for both cards, you could get away with pairing just one of them with your Custom Cash card. If you must add another card into the mix to make a trifecta, there’s also the no-annual-fee Citi® Double Cash Card, which offers an unlimited 1 percent cash back as you buy, plus another 1 percent back when you pay for your purchases.

The important thing is that you have at least one Citi card that allows you to redeem your points with Citi travel partners for more than 1 cent apiece.

ThankYou points award travel example

To see how the Custom Cash card can help you with award travel deals, we’ve provided a simple example scenario that pretty much anyone could execute.

First, open your Custom Cash credit card, meet the spending requirement for the welcome bonus and max out your 5 percent category each billing cycle for an entire year. This should bring you to a total of 50,000 ThankYou points for the first year. In terms of redemption, the easiest thing you can do is get a $500 statement credit to cover past travel spending. You can also redeem those points for travel through Citi’s portal.

However, if you apply for a higher-tier Citi card, like the Premier, you could combine those 50,000 points with the Premier’s 80,000-point welcome bonus (earned after spending $4,000 in the first three months)—bringing you to a total of 130,000 ThankYou points.

Of course, you could redeem these points as a statement credit or for travel through Citi’s portal, but (thanks to owning the Premier) you can also transfer points to one or more of Citi’s travel partners to get more value (or up to 1.9 cents apiece, according to our recent points and miles valuations). Here are some examples of how far your transferred points could go:

  • Air France-KLM Flying Blue: Fly to Europe from the United States for as little as 50,000 miles.
  • JetBlue TrueBlue: Travelers frequently report round-trip domestic flights for 20,000 points or less. Round-trip international flights to Central America or the Caribbean can also be affordable in points, often coming in as cheap as domestic itineraries.

With these examples, it’s easy to see how 110,000 ThankYou points can offer plenty of travel opportunities for yourself—and maybe even a travel companion.

Citi Custom Cash card FAQs

The bottom line

The Citi Custom Cash might not seem like the most exciting rewards credit card around, but if you use it strategically, there’s plenty of room for exciting award travel opportunities.

And if you’re just dipping your toes into award travel, this no-annual-fee card can be a great start. Once you’re more comfortable using your rewards for travel, you can add other Citi cards to your strategy and receive redemption rates.