The Ultimate Military Travel Hacking Guide
Travel hacking is an awesome way to increase your travel while simultaneously decreasing the amount of money you spend on travel expenses. If you think of travel hacking as a game, there is a way to play this game with cheat codes. That cheat code is being an active duty military service member.
When you are on active duty, you do not have to worry about paying annual fees on credit cards from certain banks. This is a complete game-changer for travel hacking. If you are not taking advantage of this opportunity as a member on active duty, you are missing out on literally thousands of dollars in free flights and hotel rooms.
In case you are new to travel hacking, download my free eBook to gain a solid understanding of what travel hacking is and how you can get started today.
The worst thing you can do is start signing up for credit cards before you have a solid foundational understanding of travel hacking, because I guarantee you will make some costly mistakes. So make sure you read through the entire eBook before taking the steps I outline in this guide.
The basic idea behind travel hacking is using points and miles from bank, hotel, and airline loyalty programs instead of cash to get flights and stay in hotel rooms for free.
While most people use credit cards incorrectly and fall into credit card debt, travel hackers utilize credit cards as a tool to travel for free, and actually increase their credit score while doing so.
This guide will show military members how easy it is to begin travel hacking and how you can start earning hundreds of thousands of points and miles that can be used to travel for free.
If you have friends or family members in the military, please send them this guide so they can start utilizing the amazing benefits offered to them as active duty military service members!
MLA AND SCRA PROTECTIONS
The biggest hurdle to travel hacking is dealing with annual fees on credit cards. Not only do you have to pay hundreds, or even thousands of dollars, to play, you have to constantly keep track of how long you have been holding a card and strategically determine the best time to downgrade or cancel that card.
However, active duty service members do not have to worry about this at all, because of some awesome benefits known as MLA and SCRA protections.
The Military Lending Act (MLA) was passed by Congress in 2006 to provide specific protections for active duty service members and their dependents in consumer credit transactions. Some of the loans covered under the MLA include certain payday loans, vehicle title loans, deposit advance loans, and most importantly, credit cards. You can find more information on the MLA protections here.
The Service members Civil Relief Act (SCRA) was instituted in order to give service members certain protections in civil actions. The SCRA has some valuable protections such as capping the interest rate on most loans you receive to 6%. You can find more information here.
HOW THIS APPLIES TO TRAVEL HACKING
So what do these protections have to do with travel hacking? Well, there are a handful of banks that have gone above and beyond the MLA and SCRA protection requirements.
Chase, Citi, American Express, US Bank, Capital One, and Barclaycard all waive the annual fees on their credit cards for active duty service members. All though this is not required, all of these banks have chosen to do so, which is an extremely good deal for military members.
Thanks to these banks, I have more than 10 credit cards with annual fees that would normally amount to a total of $3000+ every year. But thanks to these awesome perks, I don’t pay a single cent in annual fees and still get to enjoy all of the free perks and benefits that these cards have to offer.
And you should be doing the same. It is no guarantee that these banks will continue to waive annual fees, it could change at any point. But while they do, you NEED to be taking advantage of these cards because you can be rewarded with thousands of dollars in free flights and hotel rooms.
WHICH CARDS YOU SHOULD SIGN UP FOR
So now that you know which banks offer credit cards with no annual fees, lets take a look at which cards you should be signing up from each of these banks. Make sure apply for the credit cards from each bank in the following order to ensure you earn the most points possible.
Because of the 5/24 rule, you should start with signing up for Chase credit cards. Since you do not need to worry about annual fees, the first credit card you should be signing up for (assuming your credit score is high enough) is the Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR).
The CSR is the top card offered by Chase. There is normally a $450 annual fee on the card, but of course it will be waived for you. There is currently a 50,000 points sign up bonus, $300 annual travel credit, and 3x points on travel and dining. This is a must have card for any military member.
If you are looking to earn the Southwest Companion Pass, which allows you to choose one person to fly with you for free (besides a tax fee of $5.60 on each flight) every time you book a Southwest flight, I would suggest looking into the Chase Southwest credit cards. The Companion Pass (CP) is arguably the most valuable perk in the world of travel hacking. You’re essentially getting a 2-for-1 deal every time you fly.
In order to earn Companion pass, you will need to earn 110,000 points in a calendar year. The easiest way to do that is by earning the sign-up bonuses from Southwest credit cards. There are currently three Southwest cards that offer a 40,000 point sign-up bonus after spending just $1k in the first three months of holding the card:
Southwest Rapid Rewards Priority Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Card
Southwest Rapid Rewards Plus Card
It is important to note that Chase has rules set in place that only allow you to earn the sign-up bonus on just one of these cards very 24 months, and you cannot earn the sign-up bonus on a second personal card if you have one open. For example, if you currently have an active Southwest Priority Card, you cannot open a Premier or Plus card.
After earning the sign-up bonus on one of the Southwest personal cards, it is time to open a Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business Card. The current sign-up bonus is 60,000 points after spending $3k in the first 3 months.
Once you have opened a personal and business Southwest card, you will be only roughly 10,000 points shy of the Companion Pass.
Also note that you will want to earn the CP as early in the year as possible. This is because when you earn the CP, it is good for the remainder of the year you opened it, as well as the next full calendar year.
So if you earn the CP in March of 2019, it will be good through all of 2019 and 2020, or 21 months. But if you earn the CP in December of 2019, you will have it for only 13 months. To maximize the amount of time you have the CP, earn it as early in the year as possible.
If you are not interested in the Southwest CP (or already earned it), Chase Business Cards are what I recommend signing up for next. The list of Chase Business cards include:
Ink Business Cash
Ink Business Preferred
Ink Business Unlimited
United Explorer Business
Southwest Rapid Rewards Premier Business
You will need to be under 5/24 in order to get approved for a Chase Business card, but it will not add to your total card amount.
For example, if you are currently 4/24 and sign up for the Chase Ink Business Preferred (CIP), you will get approved and will remain at 4/24. However, if you are 5/24, you will not be approved for the CIP.
At this point, if you are still under 5/24, I would recommend checking out some of the Chase co-branded cards, such as the Marriott, Hyatt, and United cards. These cards are not nearly as valuable as the cards listed above, because they do not earn Chase Ultimate Rewards points. But they are solid options if you are looking to max out 5/24.
To summarize, here is the order of Chase cards to apply for:
Chase Sapphire Reserve
Chase Southwest Cards (if interested in Companion Pass)
Chase Business cards
Chase co-branded cards
After you have surpassed 5/24, it is best to next apply for Citi cards. You will specifically only want to apply for one Citi card, the Citi Prestige.
The reason for this is because you will have to wait 24 months after receiving the sign up bonus for the Citi Prestige card in order to be eligible for the Citi Premier (next best Citi card) sign-up bonus. It is best to start that 24 month clock as soon as possible.
The Citi Prestige card is the top of the line travel card offered by Citi. The card offers 5x points on air travel as well as restaurants.
The top perks of this card are certainly the $250 travel credit that is automatically applied to almost any travel expense, as well as the fourth night free perk. This perk allows you to receive a fourth night free on any hotel reservation booked for four nights. Although this can only be used 2 times a calendar year, it can save you hundreds of dollars if used effectively.
After applying for the Citi Prestige it is best to move on to American Express cards until that 24 month period has concluded. Then you will circle back to Citi and apply for the Citi Premier.
If you are a frequent American Airlines flyer, it may make sense to apply for the Advantage Executive World Elite MasterCard. The main selling point of this card is the complimentary Admirals Club access, the American Airlines top of the line airport lounge. If you do not find much value in this perk, just go ahead and move onto American Express.
Apply for the Citi Prestige right after Chase cards, then circle back to Citi after 24 months for the Citi Premier.
AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard/other Citi AA co-branded cards (After American Express cards)
Citi Premier (must wait 24 months after receiving Citi Prestige sign-up bonus to be eligible for Citi Premier sign-up bonus)
3) AMERICAN EXPRESS
After you have exhausted your Chase options and signed up for the Citi Prestige, it is time to move on to American Express cards.
I am biased towards American Express for a few reasons. Amex does not have as strict of rules as Chase, they have a wide variety of cards available, and their customer service has been fantastic in my experience.
Amex has so many cards in fact, I am still working on maxing out the large amount of cards available.
The most important rule from American Express you need to be aware of is the 5 personal card limit. Amex only allows you to hold up to 5 personal Amex cards at a time. This does not apply to charge cards or business cards.
It is also important to note that American Express Membership Rewards Points (MR) are some of the most valuable points you can earn.
With Amex cards, your strategy should be to maximize the number of Amex MR points you can possibly earn.
The first card to sign up for is of course The Platinum Card from American Express, my favorite travel card on the market today. This card comes with a monstrous $550 annual fee. Luckily we don’t have to worry about this fee.
There are actually 3 Platinum cards you can (and should) sign up for:
The Platinum Card from American Express (referral link)
Each of these cards offer a 60k MR point sign-up bonus after $5k spend in the first three months. If you are able to earn the sign-up bonus on each of these cards, that will already put you at 180k MR points after just 3 cards. That is enough points for a first class flight any where in the world, or multiple international flights in economy.
It is important to note that with the Amex Platinum Card from Schwab, you will need a Charles Schwab Brokerage account. You do NOT need an Ameriprise account to sign-up for the Amex Platinum Card from Ameriprise.
After signing up for the three Amex Platinum cards, I would recommend going after the American Express Gold Card. This card is like the little brother to the Platinum Card, but is a great card to have none the less. With a referral link, you can earn 40k MR points after $2k spend in the first three months.
There are also business versions of the Platinum and Gold cards that I recommend checking out as well. Just be aware that the sign-up bonuses are not as valuable as the personal card versions.
You have a few option to explore after the personal and business versions of the Platinum Card and Gold Card. If you stay in hotels quite often, I would highly recommend the Amex Hilton Aspire Card, the best hotel credit card on the market by far.
The Aspire card has a sign-up bonus of 150k Hilton Honors points, along with complimentary Diamond status, a free night certificate, and more. Even if you did have to pay the $450 annual fee, this card would still be worth it. Without the annual fee, this card is a no-brainer.
I actually plan on applying for the 3 other Hilton cards as well to earn all of the sign-up bonuses they offer.
You can also check out the Delta cards and Marriott cards offered by American Express, although I do not find them as valuable as the Hilton cards.
The best Amex Marriott co branded card is no doubt the Bonvoy Brilliant (formerly SPG Luxury). This card offers a $300 Marriott credit that can be applied to room rates, along with a free night certificate after the first year of holding the card. With no annual fee, a free $300 credit is hard to pass up. You can read about how I used the credit for a great last minute New Year’s Eve hotel room in Dallas here.
Chances are its going to take you a while to max out all of your Amex card options. I am still working on the Platinum cards, and looking at the Hilton cards afterwards.
In my opinion, Amex is leading the pack for credit cards at the moment, so it is important to get as many Amex cards as you possibly can.
In order to maximize the number of Amex MR points you can earn, sign up for Amex cards in this order:
Three American Express Platinum Cards (Vanilla, Ameriprise, Charles Schwab)
Amex Gold Card
Business Amex Platinum and Gold Cards
Amex Hilton Cards (If you frequently stay in hotels)
Amex co-branded cards
4) US BANK
We will keep this section short and sweet. The only US Bank credit card worth getting is the US Bank Altitude Reserve (AR), a $450 annual fee card aimed at competing with the other top travel cards on the market.
The AR offers 3x points on travel as well as mobile wallet spending, and a $325 annual travel credit. This credit will be applied to purchases made directly with airlines, hotels, car rentals, taxis, trains, and cruises.
It is important to note that data points suggest you must be a US Bank customer for at least 30 days before applying for the card if you want to be approved. I am not sure how accurate that is. There are conflicting data points online, but it is probably safe to err on the side of caution.
The easiest way to become a US Bank customer is to sign up for the Gold checking account. This checking account will waive the monthly maintenance fee once you sign up for the AR.
You also need to be living in a state with a US Bank branch location in order to sign up for an account. You can find branch locations here.
There is just one card you need to apply for with US Bank.
1) US Bank Altitude Reserve
I did not include cards from Barclaycard or Capital One in this guide. I chose not to because I do not believe the cards offered from these banks are worth applying for considering you do not have to pay annual fees. The cards listed on this guide are much better options when it comes to travel hacking.
If you are interested in cards from these banks not listed, there are plenty of helpful resources to reference online.
HOW DO I GET THE ANNUAL FEE WAIVED?
So now you know which cards to apply for, but how do you get these annual fees waived?
The process is rather simple. All you need to do is call the number on the back of your card and tell the customer service representative that you are active duty military and looking to get the annual fee waived. The bank will typically just confirm your active duty status in 3-7 days and inform you that you are eligible for MLA and SCRA benefits and that the card annual fee has been waived.
If you already have a card with an annual fee and have paid that annual fee before, follow the process listed above and you will receive a refund for the annual fee you paid as long as you were active duty status at the time you paid the annual fee.
Is your mind blown yet? I sure hope it is, because as an active duty military member you have the unique opportunity to earn thousands upon thousands of dollars worth of free travel. Who knows how long these banks will continue to offer these generous perks. It is best to take advantage of this opportunity while you still can.
This guide simply covered which cards you should be applying for if you are in the military. If you are completely new to travel hacking, there is a ridiculous amount of information I did not cover in this guide, to avoid turning it into a novel. Again, check out my free ebook for over 15 pages of information on what you need to know in order to become a seasoned travel hacker.
Thank you for taking the time to read through this guide, I hope you got a ton of value out of it. Leave a comment down below if you are active duty military and have any questions about the information covered in this guide.