9 travel rewards tips for cash back cardholders

You can enjoy the benefits of travel rewards with a cash back card – if you use it wisely

Dan Rafter
Personal Finance Writer
Specializes in mortgages, credit and credit scores

Cash back travel guide: Earn cash back for travel

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You’re ready to take that big trip across the globe. Or maybe you fill your years with multiple small trips. You know that travel rewards or airline co-branded credit cards are a great way to earn free miles or hotel stays, but you prefer the simplicity of cash back credit cards.

Is it possible to use these cards to save money on travel?

The answer is a resounding “yes.” If you use them wisely, cash back cards can help you save on the costs of renting a car, eating out and buying airline tickets and hotel stays.

Here are nine tips to capitalize on the benefits of cash back cards when traveling.

See related: Best cash back cards

1. Use cash back to offset travel costs

"General cash-back credit cards offer consumers great rewards on everyday spending, which can be redeemed for cash to cover travel expenses like hotels or flights," Jason Gaughan, card products executive with Bank of America, said.

He points to his own bank's Bank of America Cash Rewards card. This card offers 3 percent cash back on gas, 2 percent on groceries and wholesale club purchases and 1 percent back on all other purchases.

Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance expert at TopCashback.com, said cash back cards can be valuable if you use them for the everyday purchases you might make when traveling, from buying a gallon of milk at the supermarket next to your hotel to charging an expensive meal on the last night of your trip.

It's important, though, to use these cards at the right vendors. A few cash back cards offer rotating categories in which you get a greater return on specific purchases.

The key is to use your cash back cards strategically, maximizing the amount of purchases you make in your higher-value rewards categories while you’re traveling.

  • If you’re planning a road trip, for example, consider using a card that offers a generous bonus on gas purchases.
  • If you’ll be dining out frequently while on the road, consider using a card that offers extra bonuses on restaurants.

2. Maximize grocery shopping – for travel

If your card provides cash back rewards for grocery store purchases, take advantage of them and buy travel-related gift cards (such as Southwest Airlines, Uber, Airbnb or Hotels.com, for example) at your local supermarket.

Cash back cards that offer extra bonuses on groceries include:

But that’s not the only way you can take advantage of a cash back card that offers extra bonuses in groceries for travel, says David Bakke, a travel expert at the Money Crashers blog.

That cash back bonus could come in handy during a long trip if you’d rather spend your money on seeing the sights than on expensive restaurant meals.

"If you're a smart traveler, you'll purchase some of your food from grocery stores and prepare it in your hotel room," Bakke said.

If you partner an extra-bonus cash back card with a generous flat-rate card such as the Citi Double Cash Card – unlimited 2 percent cash back on all purchases (1 percent when you make a purchase plus another 1 percent once you pay in full) – you could generate plenty of cash for and during your trip. Remember, you'll be using your plastic more often when you travel.

"At the end of the day, it's possible to avoid the hoops you have to jump through with a lot of travel-based cards and still save yourself a load of money," Bakke said.

See related: 7 things you need to know about gift cards

"If you're a smart traveler, you'll purchase some of your food from grocery stores and prepare it in your hotel room."

3. Choose travel-related cash back categories

Some cash back cards go beyond offering extra bonuses on specific categories: They let you choose your own categories.

  • The SimplyCash® Plus Business Credit Card from American Express allows you to pick which category will reward you with a higher cash back bonus of 3 percent. You can choose from a list of categories including airfare, hotels, car rentals, U.S. gas stations or U.S. restaurants on the first $50,000 spent in the category of your choice from a list of eight, and 1 percent cash back on other purchases.
  • The U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card allows you to select which category rewards you with a higher 5 percent cash back bonus. You can also choose a second category that comes with cash back rewards of 2 percent on your first $2,000 in eligible net purchases each quarter on the combined two categories you choose.
  • If you like fancy dining when you travel, you can choose a higher amount of cash back for restaurant meals.
  • If you know you'll be driving plenty of miles, you can choose gas as the higher cash back category.

"If you are able to choose which categories get which cash back percentages, you can choose the most beneficial categories for yourself," Maxwell-Wood said.

See related: 8 tips for choosing bonus categories on your rewards card

4. Take advantage of card-linked offers, promotions

Cash back cards can also give you access to special promotions that can save you on travel via card-linked offers.

American Express offers deals for its cash back card holders.

  • Through Amex Offers, it is offering cash back bonuses of $50 whenever you spend $250 or more at Omni Hotels, and $200 back if you spend $1,000 on Qantas Airlines purchases.
  • To see other travel-related promotions, log in to your American Express account and go to “Amex Offers.”

Once you’ve added those deals to your account, you can pay with the cash rewards you’ve already earned with the card.

See related: Card-linked offers: Shopping deals you're not aware of

5. Book through your issuer’s travel portal

Some cash back cards also allow you to book through their issuers’ travel booking portal, even though these booking sites are mainly intended for rewards credit cards.

This doesn't mean, however, that you should exclusively book travel expenses through your cash back card's portal. Sometimes it makes more sense to work with other travel sites that offer better deals.

"I'd suggest comparing the prices and flight times of your cash back card's travel portal to find out where the best mix of value and convenience merge," J.R. Duren, personal finance writer with HighYa.com said. "If a travel site not affiliated with your credit card has the best deal, book it and redeem an equivalent dollar amount from your [cash back] rewards balance."

  • You could, for instance, use your Chase Freedom Unlimited card to book flights through United Airlines’ website. 
  • As long as you are a member of MileagePlus, United’s frequent-flyer program, you will earn free miles on top of any cash back that you will earn.

See related: MileagePlus X: A unique, mobile way to earn miles on United

6. Work with coupon, online rewards sites

Trae Bodge, smart shopping and personal finance expert, said that consumers can save more when they use their cash back cards in conjunction with online rewards or cash back sites such as Swagbucks or Ebates.

These sites let you earn additional points or cash back while shopping, which you can use to reduce your expenses while traveling.

  • For instance, if you earn enough points from Swagbucks, you can redeem them for travel-related gift cards, hotel stays or low-cost deals at museums, amusement parks, tours and other attractions.
  • If you shop for travel through Ebates, you can earn cash back, too. Current offers include 5 percent cash back on TripAdvisor and up to 7 percent cash back on Expedia.

Combining these offers with the cash back you receive by using a cash back card can generate plenty of travel savings, Bodge said.

"Just because you don't have a travel rewards card, doesn't mean that you can't save on travel," Bodge said.

"If a travel site not affiliated with your credit card has the best deal, book it and redeem an equivalent dollar amount from your [cash back] rewards balance."

7. Unlock travel benefits through your cash back card

Travel rewards cards are also preferred by road warriors and frequent flyers for the array of travel benefits that they offer, including airport lounge access, travel insurance or priority boarding.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t have access to some of those perks if you have a cash back card.

These are a few travel benefits some cash back cards offer:

See related: Best cards for airport lounge access

8. Avoid foreign transaction fees

If you're traveling out of the United States, your cash back card might be a good choice on your travels, too – if it doesn't charge foreign transaction fees.

Howard Dvorkin, a certified public accountant and chairman of Debt.com, said that foreign transaction fees – which are usually 3 percent of each transaction – can add up over a long trip.

"That doesn't sound like much, but adds up real fast when you're eating, drinking, shopping and staying at hotels," Dvorkin said.

Cash back cards that don’t charge foreign transaction fees include:

If all of your cash back cards charge foreign transaction fees, Dvorkin said you can call your credit card provider to ask for the fee to be waived – or apply for a new card that doesn't charge these fees.

9. Cash (back) in on sign-up bonuses

Applying for a new card in preparation for your trip could also mean unlocking extra funds through a sign-up bonus – yes, cash back cards also offer them; even some no-annual fee cards come with generous introductory bonuses.

Current cash back sign-up bonuses include:

  • Chase Freedom and Chase Freedom Unlimited (no annual fee) both offer a $150 sign-up bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months.
  • Capital One Quicksilver and Wells Fargo Cash Wise Visa (no annual fee) both offer a $200 sign-up bonus after you spend $1,000 in the first three months.

As you can see, cash back cards can be valuable travel companions whether it’s for driving across the country or flying across the Atlantic – and save you a good amount of money on your next trip.


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Updated: 10-17-2018