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A new year and a new decade are finally here. For 2021, is a cash back vs travel rewards credit card going to let you maximize your spending? The answer depends on your lifestyle. We’ll help you decide which credit card is your best option.
Editor’s Note: Some of the offers below may have expired or are no longer available on our site.
Cash Back vs Travel Rewards Credit Cards
While both cash back vs travel rewards credit cards have their perks and benefits, choosing the wrong one will put a damper on your rewards. Do you travel (or plan to travel) in the coming months? Or do you prefer getting cash back?
Each card is different. You may find one that really speaks to your financial goals and needs. So, even if you’re leaning towards a cash back card, it’s helpful to look at different options to get an overall picture.
Travel Credit Cards
If you take several trips per year, a travel credit card can be the better option. Below are a few reasons travel credit cards can be better.
Tiered Purchase Rewards
Most travel credit cards offer tiered rewards. You can earn between 1 and 5 points per $1 spent for most credit cards. Co-brand hotel credit cards, such as some of these best hotel credit card options, may award more points for hotel loyalty purchases. As travel-related expenses tend to be a large portion of your monthly budget, you might be able to earn more points than a flat-rate cash back credit card, such as the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card, that earns the same number of points on every purchase (except Uber Eats purchases that earn 5x miles per $1 spent through January 31, 2021).
Note that there are flat-rate travel rewards cards and tiered rewards cash back credit cards as well.
Above-Average Redemption Value
The main reason why is that travel rewards tend to be more valuable than cash rewards. Most credit card points are worth 1 cent each when redeemed for cash rewards, gift cards, or travel statement credits.
Your points can be worth as much as 6 cents each when redeeming for first-class or business class award flights on select airlines. Only select cards offering 1:1 transfer ratios let you redeem your points for maximum value.
Complimentary Travel Perks
Another reason travel credit cards are also more likely to offer additional benefits is to save money on travel. Some examples of the perks you can get include:
- Free hotel nights
- Checked baggage fee waivers
- Complimentary airport lounge access
- Airline fee credits
- Travel fee credits
- Global Entry or TSA Precheck application fee credit
These benefits will vary by card. Generally, the more perks a credit card has, the higher the annual fee. Even so, there are no annual fee options available (more on that below).
Learn more: Best miles credit cards
Most travel credit cards offer a one-time signup/welcome bonus for new cardmembers. Most bonuses require you to spend between $1,000 and $5,000 within the first 3 months. Higher spending requirements usually signify a more valuable bonus between $300 and $1,000.
Most cash back bonus offers are worth around $150 but only require you to spend $500 in the first 3 months.
Learn more: Best credit card offers
No Foreign Transaction Fee
Travel credit cards are more likely to charge an annual fee than cash back cards. Though there are several travel credit cards without an annual fee, you can expect to pay an annual fee between $95 and $450 for most cards. However, using the card perks and maximizing your point redemptions can exceed or offset the annual fee cost.
While you’re more likely to pay an annual fee, travel credit cards are less likely to charge a foreign transaction fee. This is something to keep in mind if you make international purchases.
Learn more: Best no annual fee travel credit cards
Best Travel Credit Cards
Below are some of the best travel credit cards that you should consider first. These cards do a great job of making it easy to earn rewards points, redeem points for award travel, and offer benefits worth more than the annual fee.
Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is an excellent option for one of the best overall travel credit cards. Key reasons include:
- Earn 2x miles on all purchases, though Uber Eats purchases earn 5x miles per $1 through Jan. 31, 2021
- Redeem miles for travel statement credits, upcoming travel, or transfer to airlines and hotels
- Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit, up to $100
- The annual fee is $95
- No foreign transaction fee
- Signup bonus worth $1000 in award travel
New cardholders can earn 60,000 miles if you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months of the account opening.
Learn more: Rewards Credit Cards
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
The Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card is another budget-conscious travel credit card with flexible redemption options. Your points are worth 1.25 cents each when booking award travel. Or, you can transfer points to travel partners including United Airlines, Southwest Airlines, and World of Hyatt.
- Earn 2x Ultimate Rewards points per $1 on travel and dining
- Earn 1x Ultimate Rewards on all non-bonus spending
- Points are worth 25% more when booking any award travel through Chase
- Transfer points at a 1:1 ratio to airlines and hotels
- Trip cancellation insurance of $10,000 per person and $20,000 per trip
- Primary rental car insurance benefits
- No foreign transaction fee
- $95 annual fee
If you want an annual $300 travel credit, Priority Pass lounge access, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit, you may consider applying for the premium Chase Sapphire Reserve® instead.
Platinum Card from American Express
One of the best premium credit cards for frequent travelers is the Platinum Card® from American Express. While this card has a hefty $550 annual fee (See Rates & Fees), the value from these Amex Platinum benefits are worth the annual fee:
- 1:1 airline point transfers
- $200 annual airline fee credit
- $200 in annual Uber credits
- Airport lounge access (includes Centurion, Priority Pass, Delta Sky Club, and others)
- Global Entry or TSA PreCheck application fee credit
- Hilton Honors Gold and Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite loyalty status
Earn 5x Membership Rewards® Points for flights booked directly with airlines or with American Express Travel. Starting January 1, 2021, earn 5x points on up to $500,000 on these purchases per calendar year. Cardholders also earn 5x points on prepaid hotel bookings through amextravel.com.
There are other little-known Amex Platinum benefits that add more value. Your points are most valuable when transferring to the 1:1 airline partners including British Airways, Delta Air Lines, Emirates, and Singapore Airlines.
Learn more: American Express Platinum Review
Cash Back Credit Cards
Cash back credit cards can be the better option if you enjoy the flexibility of cash rewards. It’s possible to redeem your rewards for cash statement credits, bank account deposits, or gift cards.
Some travel credit cards let you redeem points for recent travel purchases. But if you don’t travel often, it can be several months between redemptions. If you don’t travel regularly, the more valuable redemption options or additional travel perks may not help you save money. After all, you have to patronize a participating airline or hotel to use the benefits.
The best cash back credit cards are also less likely to charge an annual fee. Travel credit cards with the most benefits tend to charge higher annual fees–some as high as $550.
Most, but not all, cash back credit cards give you flat-rate rewards programs. On average, you can expect to earn 1.5% or 2% back on purchases. The best cash back credit cards award up to 5% back on select purchases.
Best Cash Back Credit Cards
Here are some of cash back credit cards to consider first.
Citi Double Cash Card
The Citi® Double Cash Card earns up to 2% back on all purchases. Cardholders earn unlimited 1% cash back when they make a purchase, plus an additional 1% back when they pay for those purchases. To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time.
There is no annual fee but there is a 3% foreign transaction fee.
You can begin redeeming your rewards balance for cash statement credits, bank account deposits, or a mailed check with a $25 balance.
Learn more: Citi Double Cash Review
Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card
The Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card earns an unlimited 1.5% back on every purchase. It doesn’t have an annual fee or a foreign transaction fee. There is no minimum balance requirement when redeeming your cash rewards.
This card also has a signup bonus of $200 bonus cash after spending $500 in the first 3 months of account opening.
Chase Freedom Flex
The Chase Freedom Flex℠ takes a unique approach to offering tiered rewards. You get 5% back on the first $1,500 spent in rotating bonus categories, once activated. Cardholders also earn:
- 5% on travel purchased through Chase Ultimate Rewards
- 3% on dining, including takeout and delivery services
- 3% on drugstore purchases
- 1% on non-bonus purchases (1.5% for the Chase Freedom Unlimited)
There isn’t an annual fee.
New cardholders can earn a $200 cash bonus by spending $500 in the first 3 months.
The bonus categories can range from gas stations and public transit to grocery stores and digital wallet purchases.
There isn’t an annual fee but the foreign transaction fee is 3%. If you happen to own either Chase Sapphire card, the points you own with the Chase Freedom Flex can be worth more when redeeming for travel by first transferring them to your Sapphire account. Otherwise, they are worth 1 cent each for cash and travel rewards when redeemed directly through your Freedom account.
Learn more: How hard is it to get the Chase Freedom?
Blue Cash Everyday Card from American Express
The Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express offers the following rewards:
- 3% back at U.S. supermarkets (on the first $6,000 in purchases per year, then 1% back)
- 2% back at U.S. gas stations and select U.S. department stores
- 1% back for everything else
Cash back is received in the form of Reward Dollars that can be redeemed for statement credits. There isn’t an annual fee (See Rates & Fees). The one-time welcome bonus is $100 back after spending $1,000 in the first 6 months of the account opening. You can also earn 20% back on amazon.com purchases, up to $200 back, in the first 6 months of card membership.
Plan It® gives the option to select purchases of $100 or more to split up into monthly payments with a fixed fee.
Learn more: 20 reasons to have the Blue Cash Everyday Card
Summary of Cash Back vs Travel Rewards Credit Cards
Travel credit cards tend to offer more valuable redemption options and additional card benefits than cash back cards. However, cash back cards are better when you don’t travel or prefer the flexibility that comes with cash. Between cash back vs travel rewards, which do you prefer?
Are travel cards better than cash back?
Travel cards tend to offer higher redemption values for credit card points. They also tend to offer more valuable travel perks like airline lounge access, travel fee credits, and travel insurance.
However, cash back cards are better if you can’t maximize the travel rewards or additional benefits.
For example, you might be able to earn more rewards with the Citi Double Cash that earns up to 2% back on every purchase (1% when making the purchase, then 1% when paying for the purchase). Since the Double Cash doesn’t have an annual fee, you don’t lose the first portion of your rewards like most travel credit cards with a $95+ annual fee.
Is it worth getting a cash back credit card?
A cash back credit card can be worth it when you can’t maximize the redemption options or additional benefits of a travel credit card. Some exceptions can be a hotel credit card with a free anniversary night or an airline credit card with free checked bags. These benefits can exceed the annual fee.
Otherwise, a cash back card is a better option. Most cash back cards don’t charge an annual fee. They can also make it easier to earn bonus points on your daily spending. Since you can redeem your rewards for cash statement credits or bank account deposits, your cash rewards are less likely to expire than travel miles.
Which travel credit card is best?
The best travel credit card depends on your travel habits and the annual fee you’re willing to pay. However, you should consider these cards first due to their flexibility:
- Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card. Earn 2x miles on purchases and get a fee credit of up to $100 for Global Entry or TSA PreCheck. Miles can be redeemed for travel statement credits, booking upcoming travel, or transfer to airline partners. The annual fee is $95.
- Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Earn 2x points on travel and dining (1x point for everything else). Points are worth 25% more when booking award travel. You can also transfer to airline and hotel partners at a 1:1 ratio. Valuable travel insurance benefits as well. The annual fee is $95.
- Chase Sapphire Reserve®. Earn 3x points on travel for each $1 spent (after the first $300 is spent annually on travel purchases). Earn 3x points on dining purchases worldwide. Additional benefits include $300 annual travel credit, Priority Pass airport lounge access, and Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit.
- Platinum Card from American Express. Earn 5x points on most flights and select hotel bookings. Air travel benefits include a $200 airline fee credit, Global Entry or TSA PreCheck fee credit, and access to multiple airport lounge networks including Centurion, Priority Pass, and Delta Sky Club.
Which credit card is best for cash back?
The best overall cash back credit card is the Citi® Double Cash Card. It earns an unlimited 2% back and doesn’t have an annual fee. However, there is a 3% foreign transaction fee.
In that case, go with the Capital One Quicksilver Cash Rewards Credit Card which earns 1.5% back on U.S. and global purchases with no annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
For tiered rewards, consider one of these cards depending on your largest expense category:
- American Express Blue Cash Everyday: Up to 3% back at U.S. supermarkets
- Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card: 4% back on dining and entertainment
- Chase Freedom Flex: Up to 5% back on rotating bonus categories
The information for the Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card has been collected independently by Johnny Jet. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.
For rates and fees of The Platinum Card® from American Express, please click here.
For rates and fees of the Blue Cash Everyday® Card from American Express, please click here.
Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $750 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- 2X points on dining at restaurants including eligible delivery services, takeout and dining out and travel & 1 point per dollar spent on all other purchases.
- Get 25% more value when you redeem for travel through Chase Ultimate Rewards®. For example, 60,000 points are worth $750 toward travel.
The comments on this page are not provided, reviewed, or otherwise approved by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered. Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.
Editorial Note: The editorial content on this page is not provided by any bank, credit card issuer, airlines or hotel chain, and has not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by any of these entities.