Should you switch your credit card strategy to cash back amidst the COVID-19 crisis?

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No one knows when the COVID-19 pandemic will end or how long it will take to recover from the economic impact. But when we come out the other side, it you can expect that the travel rewards landscape will change.

We don’t know which travel providers will survive and what their programs will look like. Unemployment will also be on the rise, so it makes sense that a big chunk of the population won’t be as excited about travel rewards as they were a few months ago. Given this uncertain economic future, now is a good time to look into earning cash back.

This simple cash-back strategy will allow you to get through what may come and plan for future opportunities.

Every storm eventually passes. (Photo by Krivosheev Vitaly/

Should you switch to earning cash-back rewards?

Great travel deals come and go. The problem is that no one knows when or where the next opportunity will pop up. That makes now a good time to be patient and wait for opportunities to show themselves. It’s worth it to earn cash back now and, with the tactics we cover below, position yourself to switch to travel rewards when the right time comes.

Keep it simple

The best way to get the biggest value from rewards credit cards is to earn miles and points that can be used to book expensive flights and lodging. This will continue to be true, but the right rewards programs may change. Also, maximizing value by using miles and points requires more flexibility, is more time-intensive and might not be high on your priority list in the near future.

This is where a simple cash-back credit card strategy makes sense. The most straightforward tactic is to get a credit card with no annual fee that earns at least 2% back on every purchase. The Citi® Double Cash Card is a perfect option because you earn unlimited 2% back (1% when you buy and 1% as you pay) and it has no annual fee.

You can earn a higher rate of return on specific purchases, like eating out or groceries, but the best credit cards for groceries and the best credit cards for restaurants are a bit more complicated. They come with restrictions like limits on bonus-category spending. Or they may have annual fees. Or they only earn points with a specific loyalty program, making them less flexible than cash back. It can take a lot more commitment to squeeze a few extra dollars out of your travel rewards cards.

If you shift to the Citi Double Cash card, the biggest thing you’d miss out on, compared to a rewards card, is an intro bonus (read our Citi Double Cash review here). For example, right now you could earn 100,000 Chase points with the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card and you could turn those points into $1,000 of straight cash. That’s amazing, but you have to spend $15,000 in the first three months to earn that bonus. If you qualify for business cards and can meet the minimum spending, go for it. But if your financial situation is less certain, there is no need to rush into applying for a card and committing yourself to a minimum spending requirement you may not be able to meet.

The information for the Citi Double Cash Card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

However, if you’re willing to put in the work, it may make sense for some to grab multiple cash-back cards, like the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards Credit Card which earns 4% back on dining (and take out or delivery orders should qualify for this bonus as well). Plus the card comes with a $300 bonus after spending $3,000 on purchases in the first three months of account opening. And then use the Citi® Double Cash Card for all other purchases.

When you consider how much card issuers earn on swipe fees (usually in the 2-3% range), being able to earn unlimited 2% back without an annual fee is the gold standard for cash back.

The information for the Capital One Savor Cash Rewards card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

Plan for the worst, hope for the best

When things settle down, it’s likely that there will be plenty of deals as companies compete for our travel dollars. The cash back you’ll have earned can easily be used to scoop up cheap flights and nights. And you might also be able to use it to take advantage of awards deals.

The Citi Double Cash earns cash back, but you can also convert those rewards into flexible Citi ThankYou points that transfer to travel partners. You’ll just need to open either the Citi Premier® Card or Citi Prestige® card and then convert your cash back into ThankYou points at a rate of 1 cent to 1 point. This unlocks deals like 15,000-mile round-trip flights from the mainland U.S. to Hawaii with Turkish Airlines. That’s a stellar deal because you’d only need to convert $150 in cash back into 15,000 points to book the flight. Even if this exact deal isn’t around in the future, the principle applies.

This is a great way to increase the value of your rewards down the road. You can plan for the worst and earn cash back now that can be used for any expense. And when you’re eventually ready to travel, you can increase the value of your rewards by opening a Citi Premier card, which only has a $95 annual fee.

The information for the Citi Prestige card has been collected independently by Million Mile Secrets. The card details on this page have not been reviewed or provided by the card issuer.

You could use the same strategy with the Chase Freedom Unlimited® card, which earns an unlimited 1.5% back on purchases and has no annual fee. And if/when you want to convert that cash back into transferrable travel rewards, you’d just need to open one of these cards: Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card, Chase Sapphire Reserve® or the Ink Business Preferred® Credit Card. You will be earning less cash back, but the Chase Ultimate Rewards points you’d earn can be worth much more in travel than Citi ThankYou points.

Bottom line

With an uncertain future in the travel rewards (and employment) landscape you might be wondering what to do. I suggest th

at you plan for the worst and hope for the best. The best way to do that is to earn cash back with a card that has no annual fee. You can earn 2% back with the Citi Double Cash card (1% when you buy, plus 1% as you pay) without committing to paying an annual fee or having to spend to earn an intro bonus. If you’re willing, you can even add an extra cash-back card to maximize your earnings on every purchase.

That cash back is great to have in case of an emergency because you can use it for any expense. And if you find yourself in a better spot later on, you can pair the Double Cash with the Citi Premier Card and turn your cash back into more valuable transferrable travel points.

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Jason Stauffer was a writer for Million Mile Secrets where he covered points, miles, credit cards, airlines, hotels and general travel. His work has appeared in The Points Guy and NextAdvisor.

Editorial Note: We're the Million Mile Secrets team. And we're proud of our content, opinions and analysis, and of our reader's comments. These haven’t been reviewed, approved or endorsed by any of the airlines, hotels, or credit card issuers which we often write about. And that’s just how we like it! :)

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