Many of my friends and family members want to know how I travel so much, but when I start explaining the strategies of multiple credit cards, transferable points and online shopping portals, their eyes inevitably start to glaze over. Fortunately, many card issuers provide simpler reward options.

Today I want to go over the top cash-back credit cards.

While many of the best travel credit cards allow you to earn cash back on your purchases, you’re usually forgoing better value redemption options to do so. In this guide, we’ll mainly consider cash-back credit cards where getting cash back is the redemption that provides the best return. Let’s get into the details of each of our top recommendations.

The best cash back credit cards of 2019:

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited: Best for pairing with Ultimate Rewards credit cards
  • Capital One® Savor® Cash Rewards Credit Card: Best for dining
  • Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: Best for gas, select U.S. streaming services and at U.S. supermarkets
  • Chase Freedom: Best for rotating bonus categories
  • U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card: Best for flexible bonus categories
  • Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card: Best for online shopping
  • Discover it® Cash Back: Best for your first credit card
  • Citi® Double Cash Card: Best for flat-rate cash back
  • Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card: Best for travel

Cash Back Credit Cards

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Welcome bonus: 3% cash back on the first $20,000 you spend in your first year.

Rewards rate: The Chase Freedom Unlimited normally offers 1.5% cash back on all purchases, which isn’t bad for non-bonus category spending.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: If you spend $20,000 in your first year, you’ll end up with $600 in total cash back earnings. That’s not bad for a no-annual-fee card, but it gets even better. The Freedom Unlimited is even more valuable when you pair with it an Ultimate Rewards card such as the Chase Sapphire Preferred Card. You can then redeem your points for travel at a better rate or transfer them to partners for potentially even more value. Since TPG values Chase Ultimate Rewards points at 2 cents each, you’ll approximately double your return if you also hold a card that earns Ultimate Rewards points. Keep in mind that although the Freedom Unlimited doesn’t have an annual fee, it does impose a 3% foreign transaction fee.

Read our full review of the card.

Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Welcome bonus: $300 back after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.

Rewards rate: Earn 4% on dining and entertainment, 2% at grocery stores and 1% on everything else.

Annual fee: $95, waived the first year

Why we chose it: If you spend a lot on dining and entertainment, you can’t get much better than the Capital One Savor. Dining encompasses restaurants, cafes, bars, fast food joints, bakeries and more, and entertainment will earn you 4% on a long list of purchases that includes concert tickets, movie tickets, sporting events, theme parks, certain tourist attractions and more. Because Capital One doesn’t charge foreign transaction fees on the Savor, you’ll also earn those amazing bonus rewards when you’re traveling abroad. Don’t forget that you’ll also get 8% on tickets at Vivid Seats using your Savor card through May 2020.

Read our full review of the card.

Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express

(Image by The Points Guy)
(Image by The Points Guy)

Welcome bonus: $250 back after you spend $1,000 in purchases on your new card in your first three months.

Rewards rate: Earn 6% cash back on purchases on select U.S. streaming subscriptions and at U.S. supermarkets (on up to $6,000 of spending at supermarkets each reward year, then 1%), 3% cash back at U.S. gas stations and on transit, and 1% cash back everywhere else.

Annual fee: $95.

Why we chose it: Another card with some intriguing bonus categories is the Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express. This is a great all-around cash-back card because it earns solid rewards on categories that don’t always get a lot of love from other cards. When Amex added streaming services and transit to this card’s bonus categories, it got a major bump in value in my mind. Just remember that it charges a 2.7% foreign transaction fee, so while it’s a great option for use in the U.S., you shouldn’t use it when you’re traveling abroad.

Read our full review of the card.

Chase Freedom

Welcome bonus: $150 cash back after you spend $500 on purchases in your first three months from account opening.

Rewards rate: Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 in combined purchases on rotating quarterly bonus categories each quarter you activate. For Q4 2019, the categories you’ll earn 5% back in are department stores, PayPal and Chase Pay purchases.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: If you don’t mind keeping track of quarterly categories and spending caps, you can get a lot out of the Chase Freedom. While you can only earn $300 in bonus rewards annually with this card, that turns into 30,000 Ultimate Rewards points when you pair this card with the Chase Sapphire Preferred, Chase Sapphire Reserve or Ink Business Preferred. Then, you can redeem those points at a higher rate through the Ultimate Rewards travel portal or transfer them to travel partners for added value.

Read our full card review.

U.S. Bank Cash+ Visa Signature Card

Welcome bonus: $150 bonus after you make $500 in eligible net purchases within the first 90 days of account opening.

Rewards rate: Earn 5% on your first $2,000 in combined eligible net purchases each quarter on two categories you choose from a selection of categories, plus 2% on one everyday category that you can choose.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: This card made our list because of its category flexibility. Because you can choose which categories that you earn 5% and 2% on each quarter, you get to customize your rewards structure to your unique spending habits. While the bonus is nothing to write home about, for many cardholders the ability to customize the card and choose your bonus categories still makes this an attractive cash-back option. Check out our card hub for more details.

Bank of America Cash Rewards credit card

Welcome bonus: $200 bonus after you spend $1,000 within the first 90 days of account opening.

Rewards rate: 3% back in the category of your choice (gas, online shopping, dining, travel, drug stores, or home improvement and furnishings) and 2% cash back at grocery stores and wholesale clubs on the first $2,500 in combined bonus category purchases each quarter (then 1%). You can change your 3% category once a month.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: Having the option to get a 3% bonus on online shopping across a wide variety of retailers is terrific. Plus, depending on your banking relationship with Bank of America, that 3% return can go as high as 5.25% back if you qualify for the top tier of the Preferred Rewards program. If your spending habits change throughout the year, the BofA Cash Rewards card should definitely be on your radar.

Read our full card review.

Discover it® Cash Back

Welcome bonus: Discover will match the cash back you earn during your first year with the card.

Rewards rate: Earn 5% cash back on up to $1,500 you spend each quarter on rotating categories (activation required), then 1% on all other purchases. For the fourth quarter of 2019, you’ll earn 5% cash back at Amazon.com, Target and Walmart.com (up to $1,500 this quarter after activation).

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: The Discover it® is a great option for your first credit card. It’s easy to get approved for, and you can earn a decent amount of cash back if you keep up with your rotating categories each quarter. With the cash back match at the end of your first year, you can earn up to $600 in total cash back by the end of your first year just by maximizing bonus category spending. Check out our ultimate guide to Discover cards for more details.

Citi Double Cash Card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Welcome bonus: N/A

Rewards rate: Earn 2% cash back — 1% when you buy, and another 1% when you pay your bill each month.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: One of the simplest and most rewarding cash-back cards out there is the Citi Double Cash Card. This card essentially gives you two opportunities to earn cash back: 1% when you buy and then another 1% as you pay. You only need to make the minimum payment each month to earn the second reward, but remember that paying your balance in full is always strongly recommended. Unfortunately, one of the biggest drawbacks of the card is a lack of a sign-up bonus, and it also charges a 3% foreign transaction fee. Still, 2% cash back on everyday purchases with no limits can be a pretty solid value proposition (not to mention a very simple way to get started in the credit card rewards hobby).

And as of Sept. 22, 2019, cardholders can now convert the cash back they earn on the card into ThankYou Points via a linked ThankYou account. This converts into an effective 2x ThankYou Point earning rate on all purchases. TPG values ThankYou points at 1.7 cents each, meaning this card would effectively get at 3.4% return on all purchases.

Read our full card review.

Wells Fargo Propel American Express® card

(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)
(Photo by Eric Helgas/The Points Guy)

Welcome bonus: 30,000 points (worth $300) after you spend $3,000 in the first three months.

Rewards rate: Earn 3x points on dining, travel and select streaming services, plus 1x on everything else.

Annual fee: $0

Why we chose it: The Wells Fargo Propel American Express card effectively earns cash back, since points are worth 1 cent apiece toward statement credits, travel, gift cards or charity donations. This is a relatively straightforward card with no annual fee and no foreign transaction fees. But it does stand out for offering cellphone protection and the ability to boost the value of your point redemptions toward airfare to 1.75 cents per point if you have the Wells Fargo Visa Signature® Card and spend at least $50,000 on it in a year. In that case, you’re effectively getting up to 5.25% back on your spending, which is very solid for a card with no annual fee. See our full Wells Fargo Propel review for more information. The information for the Wells Fargo Visa Signature has been collected independently by The Points Guy. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Cash back cards that require a membership

Some credit cards have specific membership requirements. The following cards can be good options, but I’ve left them off the main “best cash-back cards” list due to their membership requirements:

  • Fidelity Rewards Visa Signature Card: 2% on all purchases with no annual fee (must have a specific Fidelity account)
  • Alliant Cashback Visa Signature Credit Card: 3% on all purchases the first year with a waived annual fee, then 2.5% in subsequent years with a $99 annual fee (must be an Alliant Credit Union member)
  • Costco Anywhere Visa® Card by Citi: 4% on gas (up to $7,000 per year; then 1% thereafter), 3% on restaurants and travel and 2% at Costco with no annual fee with Costco membership (must have Costco membership, must visit Costco location to redeem annual cash-back reward, may need to make a purchase at Costco to obtain the cash-back reward)
  • Sam’s Club Mastercard: 5% on gas (up to $6,000 per year, then 1% thereafter) and 3% on dining and travel with no annual fee (must have a Sam’s Club membership, must visit Sam’s Club location to redeem, cash back capped at $5,000 annually)
  • USAA Cashback Rewards Plus American Express® Card: 5% on the first $3,000 on combined gas and U.S. military base purchases annually and 2% on the first $3,000 on grocery purchases annually with no annual fee (must be a USAA member)

Common types of cash-back credit cards

With so many cash-back card options, it can be hard to narrow down which card might be right for you. To start, I would take a look at which type of cash-back card you want. Here are a few common types, and the advantages of each:

Flat-rate: These are cards that earn the same rewards rate across all spending. An example is the Citi Double Cash because you’re earning the same 2% across all categories. A flat-rate card is great for everyday spending because you don’t have to juggle specific bonus categories, but it does limit your earning potential on popular categories such as dining or travel.

Tiered: Similar to most travel rewards cards, these cash-back cards offer higher bonus earnings for specific, static categories. For example, the Blue Cash Preferred offers 6% cash back on certain categories, 3% on others, and 1% on non-bonus spending. While these cards are excellent for maximizing rewards for categories you spend a lot on each month, you won’t necessarily earn bonus rewards on every purchases. These are best to pair with a flat-rate or complementary tiered card.

Rotating categories: Rotating category cards typically offer 5% cash back on certain categories that shift every quarter. The Chase Freedom and Discover it Cash Back are both examples. While 5% is an excellent bonus rate, keep in mind that these cards typically limit your bonus earning to $1,500 each quarter and you have to activate new categories each quarter.

Choose-your-categories: A newer cash back category that has sprung up in recent years is the choose-your-categories cash-back card. These are cards that allow you to choose the category (or categories) that you earn your bonus rewards in each month. I personally love these cash-back cards because they allow you to customize your rewards structure in a way other cards do not. This type of card is great if your spending habits change throughout the year.

How to choose a cash-back credit card

What things should you look for when you’re comparing credit cards that offer cash back? Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Earning rates: How much cash back will you earn? Is it consistent across all purchases, or does the card restrict the best rates to specific types of purchases? Since cash back by definition provides you with money to go back in your wallet, there isn’t any way to truly “maximize” the points or miles you earn. Instead, be sure to evaluate the exact earning rates compared to your typical spending patterns.
  2. Ease of redemption: Not all cash-back cards are created equal when it comes to actually getting the cash in your hands or bank account. Some post rewards automatically to your statement, while others earn you points/miles that can then be redeemed for cash back or for statement credits to offset specific purchases. Be sure to read the terms and conditions of the rewards program carefully so you know how (and when) you’ll actually put your hands on the money.
  3. Additional perks: A third factor involves the additional perks provided on the card. Does it incur foreign transaction fees? What about coverage and added protection for your purchases or trips? These benefits can add significant value to a card.
  4. Annual fee: A final aspect to consider is any possible annual fee. The majority of the cards below don’t charge an annual fee, but there are a handful of cash-back cards that do. It’s critical to crunch the numbers to see if the annual fee is offset by the earning rates on the card.

Maximizing cash back rewards

Cash back sometimes gets a bad reputation in the travel rewards game because it’s not as easy to maximize. While you can’t redeem cash back for the same value as Chase Ultimate Rewards points or Amex Membership Rewards points, cash back is still a valuable tool.

For starters, cash back is great for beginner travelers. You don’t have to spend a lot of time researching the best redemption options, and your cash back is flexible as far as what you can redeem it for. Maybe you only travel once or twice a year, and want to use your credit card rewards for more than just your vacation fund. Cash back can be deposited into a high-yield savings account to build up your emergency fund. You can invest your cash back for long-term gains and an early retirement nest egg.

Even if you’re a frequent traveler, a cash-back card can help you build a cash fund for spending money to use while you’re abroad. Unlike travel rewards, there is no pressure to use cash back to book award flights or hotel stays. You can redeem cash back to pay for your ski rentals this winter, or use your cash back to splurge on that new Away luggage you’ve been eying. Overall, cash back can be more flexible than travel rewards points and programs.

Bottom line

Many people believe that “cash is king” and don’t want to waste their time with travel rewards programs. While I do disagree with their dismissal of the points and miles world, there’s no doubt that earning cash back on your credit card can be simpler and easier to quantify. Hopefully this list has given you some food for thought if you’re just getting started in the hobby or plan on adding a cash-back card to your wallet.

This story was originally published on The Points Guy. Sign up for the TPG daily newsletter and wake up to unbeatable flight deals, travel industry news, and credit card bonuses that let you travel first-class to some of the world’s most incredible destinations at a fraction of the price.