Credit cards are the easiest and fastest way to rapidly accumulate miles and points (or cash back), and is a major part of the overall strategy of cheap or free travel, with a couple caveats. First off, you need good credit for most of the cards I am listing; however, I will include a card for those who need to build good credit. Secondly, if you carry a balance, this post is not for you. The only way to accumulate miles and points while getting ahead is to pay off your balances IN FULL, and on time; carrying balances will cost you more in the long run. Finally, in this post I will not be basing their utility on signup bonuses. They fluctuate throughout the year, so to remain relevant, I will only base it on the non-signup bonus perks of cards. That being said, signup bonuses certainly help, so I might mention it. If you want more information on all aspects of travelling smartly whilst in the military, check out The Military Frequent Flyer.
1. Best overall card: Chase Sapphire Preferred
You get 2x points on restaurants and travel, which includes non-flight travel like taxis, trains, etc. You also get a 7% dividend on all points earned at the end of each year, so really it’s like earning 2.14x points on those two categories and 1.07x on all regular purchases. Chase waives all annual fees for military members, so this is an amazing card to have for free. Having this and/or the Chase Ink means you can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to travel partners like United, British Airways, and Southwest amongst others, which is by far the best use of points. It currently offers 40,000 signup points, an extra 5000 for designating an authorized user, and can (if you ask for it, like I did) get a chip installed in it. No foreign transaction fee, which is huge if you travel internationally. Bonus: the card is metal, which is awesome!
2. Best no-fee card for everyday (non-category) spend: American Express Fidelity Investment Rewards (I do not yet have this card)
This is one of the only no annual fee cards to get 2% back on EVERY purchase. It goes into a Fidelity Investment Account, but you can withdraw from it at any time. This is purely cash-back, and does not earn you any points, which acts as a segue into my next card:
3. Runner-up best card for everyday (non-category spend): American Express SPG
This card earns only 1% back on everyday (non-SPG) spending, but transfers to the most partners of any other program, over 30 airlines and other transfer partners. However, when you transfer, you get a 5,000 point bonus on any transfers of 20,000 points. So, you could say you get 1.25 points per dollar spent on everything. And, depending how you use or value those points, for redemptions on SPG properties or for high-value international airfares, you could say that these points are more valuable than that. And, remember that Amex waives annual fees for military members, just like Chase. This is one of my go-to cards for non-category spend in the US (it does unfortunately incur foreign transaction fees), because I place a high value on SPG points. They offer both a personal and a business card, and you can hold both simultaneously.
4. Best annual-fee card for everyday spend: Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard
This card and the SPG Amex are the two best for everyday, non-category spend. My friend Spencer at MilitaryMoneyManual wrote a nice review of it, “When you use your Arrival card, every $1 of spending on the card equals 2 points. When you use the points, you get 10% of them back. So when you use the 40,000 signup bonus points, you’ll received an additional 4000 points, or $40. This yields a total of 2.2% reward point return for every dollar spent.” 2.2% is the best you can do for everyday spend of any card I’ve yet seen. Also, other perks include a free FICO credit score instantly in your account, a free membership to Tripit Pro, which I highly recommend, and no foreign transaction fees. The annual fee is $89, which is waived the first year, but also waived for military members.
5. Best for the frequent traveller: Amex Mercedes Benz Platinum
I love Amex cards for their great customer service and the waived annual fees, and this in my opinion is the best you can get. Amex Platinum cards offer free lounge access (although they’ve recently lost access to US Airways and American lounges, and does not give access to United lounges) through their membership with PriorityPass Select, give you $200 reimbursement per year on airline incidentals, SPG Gold status, status with Hertz, Avis, and National car rental companies, $100 reimbursement towards Global Entry (and by extension, TSA Precheck), and some other perks. No foreign transaction fees and ability to get a chip in your card (if you ask for it) are definitely huge perks for the frequent international traveller. Why Mercedes Benz you might ask? Because they offer 50,000 Membership Rewards points as a signup bonus, which is huge, as they can be transferred to travel partners, just like Ultimate Rewards and SPG points can. Both personal and business platinums are offered. Note that with the recent loss of lounge access, American is offering from $100 to $500 reimbursement for additional airline fees, but you have to call to get it.
6. Best Business Card: Chase Ink Plus or Bold
This card is probably the best category spend card, because you get 5x points per $1 on the first $50,000 spent annually at office supply stores and on cellular phone, landline, internet and cable TV services, and 2x points on hotels and gas purchases. If you have this or the Sapphire Preferred (above), you can transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to travel partners. It’s normally a $95 annual fee, but free for us! I use this for all my monthly cell phone and internet bills, and at Staples for our reselling business (more on this another time). This also currently comes with 50,000 Ultimate Rewards sign-up bonus, which is huge! You can get both at the same time, and don’t actually have to have a business to qualify for one.
7. Best for families: Amex Blue Cash Preferred
This is a pure cash-back card, and offers 6% back on grocery store purchases (up to $6000 per year), 3% back on gas stations and select department stores, and 1% back on everything else. I have a wife and kid, and my brother lives in our spare bedroom, so we buy a lot of groceries! Military base exchanges are included in this bonus! This has a $75 annual fee, but we don’t have to pay it.
8. Best for rotating categories: Chase Freedom
This card offers 5x Ultimate Rewards points on rotating categories, currently amazon.com and a couple other department stores, up to $1500 (or 7500 Ultimate Rewards points) per quarter. All of the 2014 categories are out already, so we know how to maximize our rewards this year. This is advertised as a cash-back card, but the best way to maximize rewards is to transfer these points to either your Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink account and then transfer to travel partners for high redemption awards. No annual fee. I try to max out my category every quarter, for instance this quarter I’ll use it on restaurants and at Lowe’s until I hit $1500 for the quarter.
9. Best for purchased airline travel: Amex Business Rewards Gold
I don’t yet have this card, but will be applying for it in the future. You get 3x Membership Rewards per dollar spent on airfare, so I’d use this for all purchased airfare, especially if your command will reimburse you for airfare for TDY, PCS, or official travel. It also offers 2x rewards on gas, shipping, media, and computer stores. It has a $175 annual fee, waived the first year, or every year for us.
10. Best travel rewards card for bad credit: US Bank Lifemiles Secured card
I recently recommended this card to a reader with a credit score of 590, which is considered bad. It is secured, which means you pay money up front, and then can use your credit card for the amount you’ve loaded onto it. This is a decent card for rebuilding a credit score. Bonus, you get 10,000 Lifemiles points (I’ll be doing a later post on Lifemiles, but they have some amazing redemptions) as a signup bonus, and the $25 annual fee is waived the first year, although we get it for free. According to Nerdwallet, it’s the best credit card for bad credit.
On a daily basis, the cards I carry are the Sapphire Preferred, the Barclaycard Arrival, and then maybe Chase Ink if I’m going to Staples, the Amex Blue Cash Preferred if I’m going to the grocery store, or Chase Freedom if I’m hitting a store on their rotating categories. These cards only apply if I’m not trying to hit a minimum spend; if that’s the case, that card is all I will carry.
Although all the above companies waive annual and late fees under the auspices of the Servicemember’s Civil Relief Act (SCRA), some are more willing to than others, so YMMV.
I would LOVE to hear your thoughts or disagreements about this list!