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9 travel rewards tips for cash back cardholders

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

Summary

If you’d like to earn travel rewards but prefer the simplicity of a cash back card, we have you covered. These tips will help you save on travel by using the right cash back cards.

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The U.S. is starting to see the impact of its inoculation efforts to fight COVID-19, and if you’re like a majority of Americans right now, you may be gearing up for your first post-pandemic vacation (or planning one for the future).

If you’re ready to take that long-awaited trip, you may have looked at your credit card to see if your rewards could help you with trip expenses, only to find that it doesn’t offer miles to get you a free flight.

Travel credit cards or airline co-branded credit cards are a great way to earn free miles or hotel stays, but if you prefer the simplicity of cash back credit cards you’re in luck.

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

Even though you may not have traditional travel rewards in the form of miles, your cash back rewards can still go a long way to improving your next vacation.

“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, credit cards executive at Bank of America, said.

He points to his own bank’s Bank of America® Customized Cash Rewards credit card. This card offers 3% cash back on the spending category of your choice. Depending on your lifestyle, you could choose the 3% back on gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores or home improvements. Additionally, you’d earn 2% on groceries and wholesale club purchases (with a $2,500 quarterly limit on combined purchases in the 2% and 3% categories) and 1% back on all other purchases.

Natasha Rachel Smith, personal finance expert at TopCashback, 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.

  • For example, the Discover it® Cash Back card is offering 5% cash back on purchases in rotating quarterly categories, on up to $1,500 in combined purchases each quarter (after activation), then 1%. Cash back categories include groceries, gas, restaurants, streaming services and more.
  • Chase Freedom Flex is offering 5% cash back at grocery stores (excluding Target and Walmart) and select streaming services (offer available through September 30).
  • In both cases, you’ll need to opt in or sign up for each quarter’s rotating category, and the extra bonuses are earned on up to $1,500 purchases combined.

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:

  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: 6% cash back on U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 annually (1% thereafter) and on select U.S. streaming services, 3% on U.S. gas station purchases and on transit and 1 percent on everything else. The Blue Cash Preferred has a $95 annual fee that’s waived in the first year.
  • Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express: 3% cash back on U.S. supermarkets up to $6,000 every year (1% thereafter), 2% on U.S. gas station purchases and select U.S. department stores and 1% on everything else. No annual fee.

But that’s not the only way you can take advantage of a cash back card that offers extra bonuses in groceries for travel, said David Bakke, a travel expert at Dollar Sanity. 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 or the Wells Fargo Active Cash Card 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: How to maximize your credit card rewards

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 U.S. Bank Cash+™ Visa Signature Card* allows you to select which category rewards you with a higher 5% cash back bonus. You can also choose a second category that comes with cash back rewards of 2% 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.

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 cardholders.

Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express: Earn a $100 statement credit after spending $2,000 in purchases within the first six months of card membership plus 20% back on Amazon.com purchases made on the card in the first six months, for up to $150 back.

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, senior personal finance editor at HighYa, 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.

6. Work with coupon, online rewards sites

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

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 Rakuten, you can earn cash back, too. Current offers include 4% cash back on TripAdvisor and 3.5% 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,” he added.

“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 U.S., 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 foreign transaction fees – which are usually 3% 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 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 Flex and Capital One Quicksilver (no annual fee) both offer a $200 sign-up bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months.
  • Wells Fargo Active Cash Card gives you the opportunity to earn $200 cash rewards after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first three months. Plus, earn 2% cash rewards on all purchases.

Bottom line

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.

*All information about the American Express Cash Magnet Card, the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card and the U.S. Bank Cash+ Signature Visa Card has been collected independently by CreditCards.com. The issuer did not provide the content, nor is it responsible for its accuracy. 

Editorial Disclaimer

The editorial content on this page is based solely on the objective assessment of our writers and is not driven by advertising dollars. It has not been provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. However, we may receive compensation when you click on links to products from our partners.

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