2 Churning Reward Options: Cash Back vs Travel Rewards 2023

Credit card churning can be a rewarding venture if you are willing to put in the effort of maintaining a “portfolio of plastic“. Everything in the churning game is a moving target. Often, you will find that the margin between a successful card event and a bust can be attributed to timing. However, there will inevitably come the selection of cash back vs travel rewards when sizing up options for credit card churning. What you select should be based on a variety of factors.

While it is pretty clear that I prefer credit cards that provide travel benefits, I’m fully aware that not everybody feels the same. Yes, churning does have specific end goals with travelers in mind. However, choosing cash back in the travel rewards vs cash back struggle comes with its merits as well. Below, we unpack and provide five solid options for each strategy.

Unpacking Cash Back vs Travel Rewards

Regardless if you are churning for travel points or for cash back, the goal is the same: To maximize your rewards. Properly timing your moves is the key to making the most out of your churning experience. You’ve got the high credit score, and you’ve got the room to absorb a few dings against that score from hard pulls. However, there are plenty of other timing choices that can impact your ability to rack up all those multiplier points and sign-on bonuses.

Note: Is your credit score not what you’d like it to be? Check out our guide on how to improve it.

Most premium card issuers have instituted limitations on how many cards you can possess or apply for within a specified time period. Become intensely familiar with these various rules. This will help you to stay abreast of any changes made to the system. Knowing when to apply and when to wait can mean the difference between an approval, denial, or worse, a shutdown of existing cards.

Don’t be afraid to wait

You may be eager and able to jump in and get started, but sometimes waiting is the intelligent move. You can’t simply apply for all the cards and expect to be approved. If the calendar brings you close to clearing one of the premium issuer’s limitations, stand your ground and wait.

Applying for lesser cards may give you that instant gratification but cost you the big fish because you crossed another threshold limit. Timing your cards is critically important to successfully churning.

The Thrill of the Chase

When you begin churning credit cards, one of the biggest targets in your sights will be Chase. This goes double if your goal is cash back vs travel rewards.

There are plenty of premium issuers you will be applying for, but the big fish in the room is JP Morgan Chase. Robust sign-on bonuses, rich points, and cash back offers await. A wide menu of available cards means you will likely be centering your churning around a rotating portfolio of Chase credit cards.

This veritable smorgasbord of credit card bonuses comes with plenty of strings. Chase knows we’re out here salivating at their offers, so they have some of the more restrictive rules in the business. Learn them, know them, obey them. Aside from failing to get a card, Chase can also issue a “shutdown” of all your existing Chase cards.

About the 5/24 Chase rule, Sapphire, and avoiding shutdowns

The 5/24 rule is amorphous and opaque, but it is a very real obstacle you must navigate while applying for credit cards. When applying for most Chase cards, the bank will investigate your existing credit card portfolio. If you have opened up five new cards with any issuer in the last two years, your latest Chase card application will be denied. 

Through experience, people find that some cards are exempt, but Chase does not issue any hard and fast rules on the 5/24 rule so be wary when approaching that limitation.

The Sapphire cards are premium targets for any credit card holder, especially for churners. The main reason for this is that the Sapphire line offers significant bonus points and multiplier earnings. However, you can’t have more than one Sapphire card. 

There have been reports of workarounds that result in two Sapphire property cards, but there have also been just as many reports of violations leading to denials and shutdowns.

The Chase shutdown is the bane of your credit card churning existence. You’ll receive a notification that all your Chase and affiliated cards have been closed. They will inform you that you have 30 days to use or lose any accumulated points that remain after an investigation into program misuse determines that you still even have any points remaining. 

Yes, it can be devastating to lose all your biggest earners in one fell swoop. Be sure to stay on Chase’s good side. Do this even if that means being a little conservative in the face of seemingly unlimited earning potential with churning through Chase.

Cash Back vs Travel Rewards: Choosing Travel Rewards

Here are the five credit cards you must have in your wallet if you are pursuing travel rewards vs cash back:

Chase Sapphire Reserve

Signing up for the Chase Sapphire Reserve currently gives you a plump 60,000 points on a three-month, $4,000 purchase term. Long haul, you get 3x points on travel and dining, and even more when you purchase directly through Chase.

These Ultimate Rewards points each count as one and a half cents toward redemptions. Sapphire Reserve also gives you a $300/year statement credit against any travel expenses. $300 free travel every year, that’s reason enough right there. However, in addition, they’ll also reimburse you up to $100 against your fees for Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check.

Chase has a broad and generous definition of travel and dining. You can gain points on nearly any travel accommodations, from booking flights and hotels down to the bridge tolls and parking garages. Purchasing a meal just about anywhere counts too; diners, bars, five-star establishments, and even vending machines. 

Interestingly to note, we found that meal subscriptions like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh do not count as dining. However, paying for meal delivery services like GrubHub, DoorDash, or Uber Eats does.

Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select

If you’re traveling American Airlines, the card perks are a welcome addition to the mileage-earning potential in this Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite card.

Sign-up bonuses vary by season, but they are always generous in initially granted miles. Current offers are 70,000 miles for business cards and 50,000 miles for personal cards, all for spending $2,500 in the first three months. In the first year of card issuance, there is no annual fee. However, it does go up to an annual $99 fee after the introductory year.

The American Airlines bonuses are worth the card fee if you fly domestically, especially if you’re a regular traveler. You and up to four traveling companions get preferential boarding on flights. Additionally, each of you gets a free checked bag, and 25% off of in-flight food and beverages.

You earn double mileage on American Airlines flights, gas stations, and restaurants. All other purchases earn you one AAdvantage mile on the dollar. Every year you renew your card, you get a $125 discount on any American Airlines flight.

All of this adds up to a robust travel card. The American Airlines perks and double points earnings make this a must-have card for the regular passenger. Overall, it’s a very solid travel rewards option for those looking to stick with one airline. I try to fly Delta, but have one of these cards and like it.

US Bank Altitude Reserve

If you are a member of US Bank, you’ll want to open up a US Bank Altitude Reserve VISA Infinite card if you’re looking for a solid churning option. Spend $4,500 in three months and you get the 50,000 introductory enrollment points. US Bank values this at $750 worth of travel. We are inclined to agree.

The earning potential for this card is strong, with triple points on travel purchases. Additionally, card holders get triple points for any purchase made with approved mobile wallet apps. This includes apps like Apple Pay, Google Pay, and others.

With this card, you may have signed up for a travel card, but you’re also getting some excellent cash back rewards. This makes it a solid option for those looking for a hybrid card option. You get $100 back on your Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check fees, just like the Chase Sapphire Reserve card above. Cardholders also receive up to $325 annually on general travel expenses. Essentially, it’s like getting paid to travel!

And while traveling, this card offers plenty of top-tier perks such as priority boarding, complementary in-flight wifi, terminal lounge access, and other VIP benefits. Additional benefits include a 15% discount and a one-time $30 credit toward chauffeured BlackCar services or a 30% discount on SilverCar rentals.

American Express Personal Platinum

Apply for the American Express Platinum card and you’ll be earning 5x points on travel reservations. Flights that are made through the airlines or through American Express Travel and hotels booked at the American Express online travel site receive extensive benefits as well. Other purchases add up at a standard one-for-one Membership Reward Point/dollar.

The sign-up introductory bonus is currently a whopping 100,000 points after spending $6,000 in three months, already establishing a growing bank of points to spend on travel. You’ll receive a $200 credit against any charges made with an airline of your choosing. So, you’re not stuck traveling with an airline simply because it’s part of the program. Instead, you get to choose your own.

You get your Global Entry or TSA Pre-Check fees credited back to the card, and access to a variety of cushy airport lounges, including the American Express Centurion Lounges. I have this card, typically move points to Hilton or Delta, and have been to the Centurion Lounge in Miami. I can highly recommend it.

Once you arrive in a new city, you’ll need to reserve an Uber. Every month, the AmEx Personal Platinum credits $15 against Uber rides, upping that to $20 in December. Who couldn’t use $200 in free Uber rides each year? The credit transfers to Uber Eats as well if it’s more your style.

CNB Crystal Visa

The City National Bank Crystal Visa card offers you 50,000 points for signing up and spending $5,000 in the first three months. You get three points for every dollar spent on travel and food such as airlines, hotels, taxis, Uber, rentals, gasoline, groceries, restaurants, and even fast food. Other purchases earn one point per dollar.

A $250 credit can be earned annually for airline fees such as baggage and other incidentals and $550 annually for airline lounge fees. Free in-flight wifi, priority boarding, and access to airport lounges make this card a relaxing way to travel.

This card grants you access to the Broadway League. You get access to select seats not available to the general public for large New York City shows as well as national touring productions. Elite meet-and-greet opportunities and invitation-only events are available as a Crystal Visa card holder.

Cash Back vs Travel Rewards: Choosing Cash Back

Here are the five credit cards you must have in your wallet if you are pursuing cash back rewards:

In the credit card churning world, cash back is not a common selection when compared to travel rewards. The simple reason for this is that the points and miles available with travel awards make churning introductory offers far more lucrative for those who travel frequently.

However, cash back rewards are a wonderful option if you are a small business owner, especially with multiple cardholders funneling spend into a single cash back rewards account.

Chase Freedom Unlimited

Reach out and get that Chase card first if you’re looking at cash back credit cards for churning. The Chase Freedom Unlimited is one of the elite premium credit cards and you’ll want it at the top of your cash-back earning stable.

New cardholders earn 3% cash back on everything they purchase in the first year up to $20,000. However, there is no minimum spend required to reach before you begin earning those bonus points. Day one, purchase a pack of gum, and you’re earning 3%. The APR for that first year (and then an additional quarter for a total of 15 months) is 0%. On top of all this financial good news is that this premium card has no annual fee. This is uncommon in the credit card churning space.

Once your introductory year passes, you’ll still be earning 1.5% on all your purchases. As a cash-back card, the Chase Freedom Unlimited is a heavy earner. Chase’s Ultimate Rewards points count as one and a half cents each and they never expire. 

When it’s time to redeem your rewards, there is no pesky minimum point spending threshold or hoops to jump through. You spend your points as you see fit without the hassle of having to micromanage your point rewards account.

Capital One Spark

Business cards routinely offer cash back as an enticement for membership. The Capital One Spark Business series is a solid-performing card that is fairly straightforward and easy to manage. 

The Spark Cash business card is an unlimited 2% cash back card with a sign-on bonus of $500 cash back after spending $4,500 in the first three months of card ownership. The introductory year has no annual fee. However, for years two and onward, it’s a $95 annual fee.

Employee cards are free, and an excellent way to earn those points. Issue these cards out to your employees and for every purchase they make, you’re earning 2% cash back on their purchases. With the unlimited earning potential, if you’ve got a small business spending money, you’ll be earning 2% back across the board and that adds up quickly.

The Spark Cash card is the premium cash-back business card available from Capital One. The Spark Cash Select is the little brother card. It earns 1.5% unlimited but with a nine-month 0% APR.

Discover it Cash Back

If you have flexibility on where and when you make your credit card purchases, the Discover it Cash Back card can really rack up some cash-back rewards with minimal research performed on your part.

The card appears to be a solid mid-range earner with:

  • No annual fee, ever
  • 0% APR for 14 months
  • Unlimited 1% cash back on all purchases

At the end of the first year, they match the entirety of your cash back. This is a solid perk that is uncommon with other cash back cards. All of this makes for a really good card, but does it belong in the top echelon of churning cards? Yes, it does when you factor in the 5% cash-back calendar.

Activate your 5% earnings every quarter with new purchase options.

  • From January to March, you earn 5% on $1,500 in purchases at grocery stores
  • April to June, it’s gasoline and ride-sharing (such as Uber and Lyft)
  • July and September give you restaurants and all your PayPal purchases
  • From October to December, the bonus is on Target, Walmart, and Amazon

Max out the quarterly options and that’s an annual additional $300 cash-back on things you were already going to purchase anyways. All in all, this is a solid choice for those looking to get into the credit card churning game but not interested in extensive travel benefits.

Bank of America Cash Rewards

Here’s your card if you make very specific purchases every quarter and need a card that can be shaped to fit your purchase profile.

The Bank of America Cash Rewards card (now referred to as “Customized” cash rewards) lets you choose which category of vendor you want to earn 3% cash back from. The categories span the gamut, from daily purchases like gasoline and dining, occasional purchases like travel or home improvement, and reoccurring expenses like drug stores.

If you don’t fit any of those categories, you can choose online shopping where you’ll be earning your 3% on many online retailers. Grocery stores aren’t a category, because you automatically get 2% cash back on them and 1% on all other purchases.

Signing up gives you a $200 cash back bonus, with a low minimum of $1,000 spent in the first 90 days of card membership. Additionally, there is no annual fee, and a one-year 0& APR.

Wells Fargo Business Platinum

When you sign up for the Wells Fargo Business Platinum card you have the option of selecting 50,000 bonus points, or the $500 cash-back bonus. If you’re churning for cash back, it’s obvious you’ll be selecting the $500 sign-up bonus.

The card earns unlimited 1.5% cash-back on every purchase. No worries about which card earns on which purchase, as this card earns on every dollar you spend no matter where you spend it.

With no annual fee, free employee cards, and an introductory nine-month 0% APR, this is a good card for small business owners looking to maximize their cash back rewards.

Cash Back vs Travel Rewards: Final Thoughts

All in all, there are plenty of fantastic options for both cash back and travel rewards to consider when looking to get started churning in 2023. Above are our five top choices for those starting out. Considering cash back vs travel rewards is a fantastic question to ask yourself before even applying.

We at Credit Card Churning are partial to travel rewards and have utilized cards from Hilton, Delta, American Airlines, and general American Express. However, for those who don’t travel much, don’t spend a ton on a regular basis, or own a small business with multiple cardholders, cash back may be the best option.

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