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For a decade, I was a rabid travel rewards enthusiast. During that time, I opened roughly 100 credit cards, scoured forums for tips and tricks, scored tens of thousands of dollars in free travel and eventually became an expert on points and miles. 

But this year, I left the world of travel rewards behind and decided to go all in on cash back.

While the decision was a personal one, I found that points and miles programs weren't always the best fit for me in the first place, and the goal of maximizing rewards at all costs isn't the best path for the vast majority of people.

Recommended Cash-Back Credit Cards

Credit Card Rewards Rate Intro Bonus Annual Fee Learn More

Chase Freedom Unlimited®

1.5% - 5%Cashback More Info

Enjoy 5% cash back on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 3% cash back on drugstore purchases and dining at restaurants, including takeout and eligible delivery service, and unlimited 1.5% cash back on all other purchases.

1.5%Extra Cash Back More Info

Earn an extra 1.5% on everything you buy (on up to $20,000 spent in the first year) — worth up to $300 cash back. That's 6.5% on travel purchased through Chase Travel, 4.5% on dining and drugstores, and 3% on all other purchases.

$0

Wells Fargo Active Cash® Card

2%Cashback More Info

Earn unlimited 2% cash rewards on purchases.

$200Cash Bonus More Info

Earn a $200 cash rewards bonus after spending $500 in purchases in the first 3 months.

$0
Citi Double Cash

Citi Double Cash® Card

2%Cashback More Info

Earn 2% on every purchase with unlimited 1% cash back when you buy, plus an additional 1% as you pay for those purchases. To earn cash back, pay at least the minimum due on time. Plus, for a limited time, earn 5% total cash back on hotel, car rentals and attractions booked on the Citi Travel℠ portal through 12/31/24.

$200Cash Bonus More Info

Earn $200 cash back after you spend $1,500 on purchases in the first 6 months of account opening. This bonus offer will be fulfilled as 20,000 ThankYou® Points, which can be redeemed for $200 cash back.

$0

Ink Business Cash® Credit Card

1% - 5%Cashback More Info

Earn 5% cash back on your first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services each account anniversary year. It also offers you 2% cash back on your first $25,000 spent in combined purchases at gas stations and restaurants each account anniversary year.

$750Cash Bonus More Info

Earn $350 when you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first three months and an additional $400 when you spend $6,000 on purchases in the first six months after account opening

$0

Here's why I prefer cash back now.

Many Points and Miles Programs Aren't Flexible

woman boarding airplane

iStock

Over the years, I've had credit cards with all the major general travel rewards programs, as well as several domestic and international airlines and hotel brands. 

Each program has its differences, but if you have different needs and want the flexibility to choose non-travel redemptions, options are limited. Some programs offer subpar value for cash redemptions, statement credits and gift cards, while others—particularly airline and hotel cards—don't offer those options at all.

While cash back credit cards don't give me extra value on travel redemptions or the option to transfer rewards to other programs, I get to choose exactly how I want to use my cash back.

Maximizing Travel Rewards Is a Complex and Time-Consuming Process

Many travel credit cards offer straightforward redemption options. For example, you may be able to book flights, hotels and other trip expenses through the card issuer's travel portal or even use your card to book travel on your own and request a statement credit.

But to maximize the value of your rewards, you need to transfer them to frequent flyer programs or hotel programs to take advantage of more dynamic redemption options. But that alone isn't enough. You'll also need to:

  • Be flexible with your travel dates: As a freelance writer, I have more flexibility than most people, but as a divorced parent with a custody schedule, I still had a hard time finding great redemptions that worked for me.
  • Fly international: You can occasionally get great redemption rates on domestic flights, but you typically need to travel abroad to get the best ones. Again, having children makes it difficult to take longer international trips. What's more, points and miles experts often focus on first- and business-class flights, which require a lot of rewards.
  • Research, research, research: There are great deals to be had if you can find them. To do that, however, you'll need to familiarize yourself with the tips and tricks of searching for award flights, and there's a steep learning curve. With some airlines, finding award availability can be a convoluted process that only the most experienced can understand.

For people who enjoy this process and have the time, it's all fine and good. But, ultimately, I decided I wanted to spend my time on other things.

Recommended Travel Credit Cards

Credit Card Intro Bonus Annual Fee Rewards Rate Learn More

Chase Sapphire Preferred®

60,000Chase Ultimate Rewards Points More Info

Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,380 (60,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards Points * 0.023 base)

$95 1x- 5xPoints More Info

The card offers 5x points per dollar on Chase Travel℠, 3x points on dining (including eligible takeout and delivery services), as well as 3x points on select streaming services and online grocery purchases (excluding Target, Walmart and wholesale clubs). This card earns 2x points on all other travel spending and 1x point per dollar everywhere else. Chase broadly defines travel to include not just airfare, hotels and rental cars, but expenses like parking, tolls and public transit too.

Southwest Rapid Rewards® Plus Credit Card

50,000Southwest Rapid Rewards Points More Info

Earn 50,000 bonus points after spending $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $700 (50,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards Points * 0.014 base)

$69 1x - 2xPoints More Info

Earn 2X points on Southwest® purchases. Earn 2X points on Rapid Rewards® hotel and car rental partners. Earn 2X points on local transit and commuting, including rideshare. Earn 2X points on internet, cable, and phone services; select streaming. Earn 1X points on all other purchases.

United Gateway℠ Card

20,000United MileagePlus Miles More Info

Earn 20,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open. Dollar Equivalent: $280 (20,000 United MileagePlus Miles * 0.014 base)

$0 1x - 2xPoints More Info

Earn 2X United miles per dollar on United purchases, local transit and commuting and at gas stations. You’ll earn 1X mile per dollar on all other purchases.

Citi Premier® Card

60,000Citi ThankYou Points More Info

Earn 60,000 bonus ThankYou Points after making $4,000 worth of purchases during the first three months of account opening. Dollar Equivalent: $1,080 (60,000 Citi ThankYou Points * 0.018 base)

$95 1X-10XPoints More Info

10X total ThankYou® Points per $1 spent on hotel, car rentals and attractions (excluding air travel) booked on the Citi Travel℠ portal through June 30, 2024. 3X -- Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Gas Stations, Air Travel and Other Hotels 3X -- Earn 3 Points per $1 spent at Restaurants and Supermarkets 1X -- Earn 1 Point on All Other Purchases

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As I Get Older, I'm More Drawn Toward Simplicity

woman on cruise

Unsplash

In my 20s and early 30s, I felt like I had something to prove, and so I enjoyed the complexity and challenge of travel rewards. But in the past couple of years, I've recognized that decluttering my life gives me more joy. I've closed several credit cards, so I have fewer payment due dates to keep track of, and switching to cash back has simplified how I manage the credit cards that remain. 

While these steps alone haven't made a huge impact on my life, adding them to other steps I've taken to simplify my finances has given me more time to pursue other hobbies and interests that don't require me to stay up to date on all the latest news and developments in the travel rewards space.

My Travel Habits Have Changed

I injured my back in 2015, and while I've traveled an average of once or twice a month in recent years, I've pulled back significantly as chronic back pain has limited my mobility and travel options. 

At one point, I was paying thousands of dollars a year in annual fees, but I always managed to get that value back in the form of travel-related perks. Now, I no longer travel often enough to make those yearly costs worth it.

The 5 Cash Back Credit Cards I Use Daily

While I'm no longer interested in maximizing travel rewards, I still want to make the most of my everyday spending with cash back credit cards. Drawing on my experience writing about credit cards and my understanding of my spending habits, here are the five cards I chose.

As a single father of two children, I spend a decent amount on groceries. Even with its annual fee, the Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express has long been my favorite card for U.S. supermarket purchases (see rates and fees).

I also use a fair amount of U.S. streaming services for everyday entertainment, and it's tough to beat this card's rewards rate on those purchases.

Alliant Cashback Visa® Signature Credit Card

Alliant Cashback Visa Signature card

Alliant

I've used 2% credit cards in the past, but this time, I wanted more. The Alliant Cashback Visa Signature® Credit Card offers 2.5% cash back on up to $10,000 spent each month (and 1.5% after that).

There is a caveat, however. To qualify for the 2.5% rewards rate, you need to open an Alliant High-Rate Checking account and meet the following criteria:

  • Opt-in to receive electronic statements
  • Receive at least one electronic deposit each month
  • Maintain an average daily balance of $1,000

To meet the balance requirement, I moved some cash from my emergency fund, which I likely won't need to touch unless something dire happens. The card doesn't charge an annual fee.

Chase Freedom Flex℠

  • Our Rating 4.5/5 How our ratings work
  • APR20.49%-29.24% (Variable)
  • Annual Fee$0
  • Sign-Up Bonus $200Cash Bonus More Info

    Receive a $200 bonus after you spend $500 in the first three months.

The Chase Freedom Flex card expands on the already lucrative Chase Freedom card. The Freedom Flex also gives cardholders access to Chase Ultimate Rewards, which is arguably the most versatile rewards platform, and you’ll get plenty of redemption options at good rates. Plus, if you have one of the program’s travel cards, you can transfer points from your Freedom Flex to your travel card account and get even more value and flexibility with how you redeem.

Overview

Getting more in cash back is a clear win for anyone who is considering the Freedom Flex card. This card is ideal for anyone who want to maximize cash-back rewards with the option to get more value with travel redemptions.

Pros

  • Generous earnings on select rotating categories each quarter
  • Cellphone and trip insurance coverage
  • No annual fee
  • Ability to convert rewards to transferable Ultimate Rewards points

Cons

  • Can't transfer Chase points to travel partners unless paired with select products

I love the Chase Freedom Flex for its rotating 5% categories. While a category sometimes overlaps with a high rewards rate on another card—such as grocery stores or Amazon—I use the Freedom Flex when it makes sense to maximize my rewards.

As a foodie, I also use the card regularly when eating at restaurants. 

Prime Visa Credit Card

amazon prime visa credit card
Apply Now

Secure application on Amazon’s site

  • Our Rating 3.5/5 How our ratings work Read the review
  • APR19.49% - 27.49% (Variable)
  • Annual Fee$0 More info

    $0 with Prime membership

  • Sign-Up Bonus $100Gift Card More Info

    Get a $100 Amazon Gift Card instantly upon approval exclusively for Prime members

This card is a good fit for consumers who do a lot of shopping at Amazon and Whole Foods because they can earn an unlimited 5% cash back on purchases there. Cardholders also earn some cash back on other purchases, with decent rates for restaurants and gas stations. If you already have or plan to get a Prime membership, using this card could quickly earn you sizable cash back.

Overview

With high rewards rates, this card could make up for the required Prime membership fee if you shop a lot at Amazon and Whole Foods. Non-Prime members can qualify for the Prime Visa Credit Card, which is pretty similar but with lower rewards rates.

Read the review

Pros

  • No annual fee
  • High rewards rates
  • Sign-up bonus offer
  • Can redeem rewards as soon as the next day
  • No foreign transaction fees

Cons

  • Must have a Prime membership for highest rewards rates
  • No intro APR offer

Beyond groceries, I generally prefer to shop online than in person, and Amazon's Prime Visa® is the perfect card for that. I can always bank on earning a great rewards rate on everyday household items and necessities. I even relied heavily on the e-retail giant when furnishing my new house last year. 

Discover it® Cash Back

Discover It Cashback card

Slickdeals

Like the Freedom Flex, I use the Discover® it Cash Back for its rotating 5% categories. I get 5% back on up to $1,500 spent in categories that change every three months—grocery stores, restaurants and gas stations are common. I just need to activate the bonus categories each quarter.

But also like the Freedom Flex, the Discover it Cash Back's bonus categories sometimes overlap with similar or better rewards rates on other cards, so I only use it when it makes sense. With no annual fee, I don't have to worry about spending enough to offset a yearly cost.

Earn Cash for Your Spending

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Should You Choose Cash Back or Travel Rewards?

Ultimately, the decision between cash back and points and miles depends on your spending habits, travel plans and general preferences. Consider these factors for yourself to determine whether to focus on one or the other, or possibly a mix of both.

Over time, you may change your mind as you start traveling more or less, or you yearn more for complexity or simplicity. Check in with yourself now and then to make sure your credit cards are still the best ones for you.

If you like the idea of maximizing travel rewards but also want the flexibility of cash back, consider a card that offers Chase Ultimate Rewards® points or Citi ThankYou® points. Both programs offer transfer partners, but they don't penalize you with a dismal redemption rate for choosing cash back, statement credits or gift cards instead. 

BL

Ben Luthi

Ben Luthi is a personal finance and travel writer and credit card expert. He has a degree in finance from Brigham Young University and worked in financial planning, banking and auto finance before writing full-time for NerdWallet and Student Loan Hero. Ben is now a full-time freelance writer and enjoys traveling and spending time with his two kids. His work has appeared in several publications, including U.S. News & World Report, USA Today, Money, Success and Slickdeals.