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Spring and summer will be here before you know it, and that means it’s time to start planning your getaways. Travel credit cards are an excellent tool for saving money on travel and upgrading experiences, but they’re not for everyone.
For one thing, the best travel credit cards often come with annual fees, making them worth it only if you plan on taking at least two or three trips each year. No-annual-fee travel cards do exist, but still, you may be better off racking up a more versatile type of credit card rewards if you only travel occasionally.
Using cash back credit card rewards to fund your vacation
A cash back card might make more sense financially if you are only taking a trip once a year or once every few years. That way you can earn and use rewards on more than just travel expenses throughout the year.
Typically, the best cash back cards offer more diverse bonus categories for maximizing rewards outside of travel purchases. For instance, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express earns bonus rewards at U.S. supermarkets, on select U.S. streaming services and more. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t use the cash back you earn on your everyday spending on your travel expenses. If you strategically save your cash back rewards in the months leading up to a trip, you can use them as a statement credit to cover flight costs, hotel or Airbnb bookings and other travel expenses.
Cash back cards that are great for funding travel
Chase Freedom Flex
The Chase Freedom Flex℠ is a versatile cash back card thanks to its generous cash back categories, which can get you a good return on almost every purchase. Most notably, the Freedom Flex offers 5 percent cash back on activated bonus category purchases each quarter (on up to $1,500, then 1 percent). These bonus categories change each quarter, allowing you to earn boosted cash back on a variety of purchases.
If you decide later on that you want a travel card, you can apply for the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card or Chase Sapphire Reserve®. The nice thing about this strategy is that you can transfer your Freedom Flex rewards over to the Sapphire cards and redeem them for travel at a boosted value.
Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express
With the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express, you’ll get 6 percent cash back on the first $6,000 you spend at U.S. supermarkets each year (1 percent after), 6 percent back on select U.S. streaming services, 3 percent back on transit and at U.S. gas stations and 1 percent cash back on everything else. That’s one of the most competitive rewards structures on the market right now. If you’re maximizing the bonus categories each month, you could potentially rack up hundreds of dollars in cash back each year.
You can’t transfer cash back rewards over to your Amex Membership Rewards program (which offers benefits like transfer partners and exclusive travel discounts) if you happen to get a travel card in the future, but that isn’t a dealbreaker for this phenomenal cash back card. You can redeem your cash back for a statement credit at any time, which you can use to cover the cost of a flight or hotel stay, or anything else for your travels.
Wells Fargo Active Cash Card
If you like to keep your rewards strategy simple, the Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card is one of the best options on the market. Unlimited 2 percent cash rewards on purchases makes this one of the simplest and most lucrative rewards credit cards available. If you spent $1,000 per month on this card, you would earn $240 in cash rewards over the course of a year, which can cover the cost of many domestic flights. And if you didn’t end up taking a trip one year, you could use it for anything else — or you could save up your rewards for a bigger trip! That’s the beauty of cash back.
Things to consider when funding travel with cash back
While cash back can just as easily be used to fund travel as points and miles, there are a few things to consider before forgoing a traditional travel card.
Foreign transaction fees
Some cash back cards come with a 3 percent fee for purchases made abroad. This will almost or completely negate any rewards you would earn with your card. Before using your card outside of the U.S., check the terms and conditions for a foreign transaction fee. Some issuers, such as Capital One and Discover, don’t charge foreign transaction fees on any of their cards.
If your card does charge a foreign transaction fee, use your cash back for prepaid bookings, but for purchases on your trip.
Fewer hoops to jump through
Points and miles earned with travel cards can typically be redeemed for a higher rate than cash back, but that often comes with caveats like availability limitations or blackout dates. For frequent travelers, this is usually worth the hassle. However, it could be a major source of frustration for families who want to book multiple seats on a flight or those who don’t travel enough to reap the outweighing benefits of a travel-specific card.
When a travel card is more beneficial
At the end of the day, a travel card will offer you the best value on your travel purchases. If you are a frequent traveler (or plan to become a frequent traveler within the next year), it’s worth looking at travel credit cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card or Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Travel cards typically come with more competitive welcome bonuses, travel insurance and perks like a TSA PreCheck application fee credit or annual statement credits for travel. Even if you don’t spend much of your budget on travel, cards like the American Express® Gold Card offer optimal travel redemptions with a more diversified set of bonus categories.