Special offer: 5 percent cash back on travel from AmEx Blue Cash cards

Oct. 2016 update: This 5 percent-back-on-travel offer has now expired. The information below is for historical reference purposes ONLY. Go here for the latest offers for the Blue Cash cards.

The Blue Cash cards from American Express (a CreditCardForum advertising partner) have long been considered work-horse earners for everyday purchases (gas and U.S. supermarkets). Now, however, these cards are offering something a bit more glamorous – 5 percent back on travel (for up to $4,000 in eligible travel purchases within the first six months of cardmembership). This special offer is available only to new cardmembers.

Read on for some fine print to be aware of – and tips for maximizing this offer.

Offer available on both Blue Cash cards

Both the no-annual-fee Blue Cash Everyday and the Blue Cash Preferred ($95 annual fee) are offering the 5 percent cash back on travel. So what’s the advantage of getting the Preferred version? It has higher cash back in the categories than the no-annual fee card does.

Fine print

Not everyone is eligible to get 5 percent back on travel, and the bonus is capped. Before you attempt to cash in, know these important facts:

  • For new cardmembers only: If you already have either of the Blue Cash cards, you can’t get this special offer.
  • Once per lifetime: AmEx restricts access to its welcome bonuses to first-time cardholders. If you’ve ever had one of the Blue Cash cards, you’re not eligible for the offer.
  • There’s a cap and a deadline: Only the first $4,000 in eligible travel purchases is eligible to earn 5 percent back, meaning the most you will earn from this offer is $200. You must also complete your eligible travel purchases within six months of opening the card (starting from the date your account is approved, not the date you get the card in the mail).
  • Only eligible travel purchases qualify: The merchant code of your travel purchase must match the codes Amex defines as eligible travel purchases. These include airfare on a passenger carrier purchased directly from the airlines, hotel stays (not including timeshares), purchases from select car rental companies, purchases from cruise lines, purchases from travel agencies (including online ones) and purchases from tour operators. American Express publishes a list of what it considers eligible travel purchases here.
  • Rewards are in the form of a statement credit: This holds true for all rewards earned with the card.

Should you apply for this offer?

As always, this will depend on your goals and your current cards. Five percent back on travel is, indeed, comparatively generous. Generally, travel reward cards offer 2 percent on travel, and some offer up to 3 percent on a specific subset of travel purchases – the Premier Rewards Gold card with its 3X points on airline tickets, for example.

Weigh these factors in your decision:

  • Do you plan to purchase travel in the very near future? To max out this special bonus, you’ll need to spend $4,000 in travel in the next six months. So make sure to time your application with a planned airline ticket purchase, cruise or hotel stay. Remember that the cards also offer a sign-up bonus for general purchases, which requires you to spend $1,000. Your travel purchases count toward this $1,000 goal. But $4,000 in travel purchases alone can be a tall order unless you have a trip to spend it on. If all you have planned for the next six months is a $200 plane ticket, you’re getting a not-so-exciting $10 back.
  • Are you OK with earning cash back instead of flexible points or airline miles? Earning a $200 cash-back statement credit (assuming you maximize this bonus) isn’t bad and is quite competitive. But other rewards currencies may be more valuable.
    For example, the Chase Sapphire Preferred card allows you to transfer your points to various airline and hotel partners, where your points can fetch a higher value – or cash them in for travel expenses at a 20 percent discount. If you look at the current sign-up bonus on the Sapphire Preferred, you’ll see how it might be just as valuable (and possibly more valuable) than the Blue Cash cards’ welcome offers.

    Certain targeted sign-up offers on airline cards could also be a more lucrative way to spend $4,000 (although their sign-up bonus deadlines are tighter). Because airline points have the potential to be worth more than 1 cent each, a sign-up bonus could get you more than the Blue Cash card’s welcome bonuses could.

If, however, you like the straightforwardness of cash back, the special 5 percent offer on travel from the Blue Cash cards is compelling. Once you get the cash back, it’s as simple as a statement credit – no need to worry about transferring points or trying to find a flight that lets you use miles. Even if you don’t maximize this special offer, at the end of the day, you’re getting 5 percent on travel with no hassle. And, after the welcome bonus expires, you’re still getting elevated earnings on purchases at U.S. supermarkets, gas stations and U.S. department stores.

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