Open up a credit card to make travel cheaper? Sounds pretty counter-intuitive, right? Actually it isn’t, and I’m here to explain why every military member with good credit should have one premium travel card.
Now, don’t get this confused with travel hacking. Yes, I know it is a real thing, and I’m amazed at individuals and families who can save thousands while seeing the world at pennies to the dollar; however, most folks don’t have the time, inclination or, frankly, the patience to be full-time travel hackers.
Instead, I recommend opening one or two travel credit cards, which offer painless ways to save money and maximize travel.
I will break this into 2 categories: travel premium cards and branded cards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start at the slightly boring but highly important part of credit cards when it comes to military families: The Servicemembers Civil Relief ACT (SCRA).
You might have heard about this within the last few years as it protects military family finances while a person is active duty. While it covers a gauntlet of services, I want to focus on the one that will help you travel and line your pockets – specifically credit cards!
Travel Premium Cards
Under the SCRA, most credit cards companies lower their interest rate, reduce fees and my favorite: waive the annual fee (AF). Still following? Stick with me, here is where it gets important. Luxury credit cards that typically cost $300- $500 per year are FREE for military members who meet the credit score requirements under SCRA.
OK neat, but what does that mean? How does that apply to me and my family? Let me explain. Why I love these travel premium cards:
1. The bonus
When you sign up for any credit card, and especially a luxury travel card, it comes with a bonus. Typically, this bonus is around 50,000 to 75,000 points if you put a certain amount on the card in the first few months of account opening. This equals $500- $750 you can use for travel! This can be turned in for free domestic and international travel, upgrades, free nights in hotels or experiences. Or, if you have no travel plans in your future, you can just turn in points and use to pay off your credit card statement. Luxury cards typically offer better customer service and more ways to cash in on points. The flexibility makes these great for families who have a range of expenses.
2. Premium airport lounges
This is quite possibly my favorite benefit. If you travel often, especially when stationed overseas, you might have access to a USO. However, almost all airports have lounges. With luxury cards like the American Express Platinum or Chase Sapphire Reserve, you get access to over 1,200 lounges worldwide.
The price is rolled into the annual fee of the card, but since military isn’t charged the annual fee this is an absolutely free benefit.
The lounges are a great place to grab water, soda, wine, beer, food and showers. If you have the American Express Platinum card, you also get access to Centurion Lounges in the States and Hong Kong. These lounges have full sit down restaurants and offer massages at no extra cost. Each lounge has different rules on guest passes, but so far I have never been turned down when I travel with my two kids.
The priority pass lounge benefit has changed our world when it comes to travel. We now have places we can relax while connecting flights or just hang out at the airport in case of flight delay (I’m looking at you RyanAir!).
My kids can sleep on couches or plug in electronics at dozens of places throughout the lounge. You will never need to purchase food or drink again in an airport or try to find a space to sit.
For those of you who are stationed in the United States, certain lounges also offer a food credit at some restaurants within the airport if food services can’t be provided in the actual lounge.
3. Travel credit aka more free money
On most luxury cards, you get a form of travel credit reimbursement. My personal favorite is the Chase Sapphire Reserve which gives you $300 back for hotel, airline, tickets — basically anything that is coded by Chase as travel or tourism, once it hits your credit card you are typically refunded up to $300 per year within a billing cycle.
We used this perk on a Disneyland Paris Hotel in November when they ran a buy 2 nights get 2 nights free special. Total cost out of pocket after our travel reimbursement was $112 for 4 nights at Disney and 5 days’ worth of park tickets for our entire family of four.
American Express Platinum gives $200 in airline fee reimbursement. It is not nearly as broad as Chase, but if you need to pay for check bags, seat selection or seat upgrades against your airline of choice it will work and you get reimbursed within 72 hours.
4. Trip insurance
This is probably the least flashy benefit but can save you a significant amount as well as pay out. While the American Express Platinum card is nice, this is where the Chase Sapphire Reserve (or its slightly less premium little sister card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred) really shines.
If your trip is cancelled (sickness, strike, weather, etc) you can be reimbursed up to $10,000 per trip for anything that is prepaid and not refundable. I typically don’t buy separate travel insurance — even insurance through USAA can get pricey. Having the Chase Sapphire has completely eliminated the need for insurance while still giving me better coverage then most policies I would have paid extra for.
**Tip- For those building credit who don’t qualify for the Chase Sapphire Reserve, go for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and then upgrade to the Reserve after a year. Both cards have similar travel insurance and protection.
5. Global Entry reimbursement fee
Global Entry is a program from U.S. Customs and Border Protection that allows expedited clearance for pre-approved low risk travelers. For those stationed outside of the continental U.S., you might have trouble getting this as you need to be physically in the United States for the interview portion. You will pay for this benefit and then most luxury cards will credit you back within two weeks. The fee for Global Entry is $100 and membership is good for five years.
There are probably half a dozen great travel premium cards, but you probably noticed that I have two favorites. They work the best for my family, so I have done a quick summary with key points to compare them, next up branded cards!
$500 annual fee waived, $600 in benefits plus a 60,000 bonus equals $1,200 in free travel money.
$100 Global entry or TSA Pre-Check credit reimbursed fee
Priority Pass Select (Airport lounges!)
$200 credit in airline fees (this can’t be used for tickets, but yes to upgrades, baggage or seat selection)
$200 in Uber credits each year (breaks down to $15 a month, plus an extra $20 in December)
$100 credit to Saks ($50 semi annual)
Hilton, Marriott and SPG Status match to Gold
$450 annual fee waived, $400 in travel expenses plus 50,000 points equals $900 in free money!
$100 Global entry or TSA Pre-Check credit reimbursed fee
Priority Pass Select (Airport lounges!)
$300 Travel credit (much broader range then AMEX)
Trip Delay and Baggage Delay Insurance
Trip cancellation and trip interruption insurance
While I have pointed out five reasons why I love my premium cards that doesn’t even scratch the surface of ways to save or earn money while using them. Make sure when you get any credit card, you do your research for the full range of offers and benefits they provide.
Branded Credit Cards
Branded credit cards are a partnership with a store or company that allow holders to have special privileges while creating brand loyalty. Old Navy credit card? Best Buy? Yup those are all branded, and while you may be more familiar with retail branded credit cards, I want to hit on travel branded credit cards. To me they are not as flexible or exciting then my luxury travel cards, they do serve their purpose.
Hotel branded credit cards are my luxury escape. Through American Express Platinum, I automatically qualify for Marriott, SPG and Hilton Gold. This gets me free upgrades, early check in, late check out and typically a free breakfast, which is nice.
But let’s be honest – I have two little kids so shoving four people into a room that I still pay the base price for, even discounted, just doesn’t thrill me.
What does thrill me is not having to pay for a room at all.
Enter hotel branded credit cards.
Now to recap, as active duty military, under SCRA we don’t pay for most credit card annual fees. Hotel branded cards fall into this category as well, though the annual fees are significantly lower than luxury credit cards, the extras just make this much more interesting to look into.
While there are probably a dozen to choose from, my two favorites are the IHG Chase Card and Marriott Chase rewards card. Both come with big sign on bonuses that translate into several free nights of hotel rooms. And here is my favorite part, every year on my member anniversary I get a certificate for a free hotel pretty much anywhere at $0 cost!
Now, I should say that IHG really wins here as they don’t put a cap on hotel type, dollar amount etc. I have used my certificate to stay at the Intercontinental Paris Le Grand in a room that would have cost $495 a night. I have also used it at the InterContinental London Park Lane which was $700 a night.
With Marriott, I’m combining my sign on bonus and my free annual award night to take the kids to Disneyland, CA, for 5 days, and the total costs will be $0.
I lovingly refer to my hotel branded cards as my “Most Useless Cards” as I hardly ever use them, just enough to keep my account active and my yearly free night, which, this year I plan on using for a staycation with my Tall Dark and Handsome.
Now, some are probably asking why I don’t bring up airline branded cards, and really the answer is simple. Since we live OCONUS, we typically travel on dirt cheap European carriers. However, if hotels don’t do it for you, and airlines do, I highly recommend looking into travel branded cards as well to give your mileage account a boost. Start with the airlines that are local to you and have routes that you take often, or look into an airline that will take you to your dream destination.
If you got through reading all of this, then I hope you learned a few things, but mainly I encourage you to do your research and see what credit cards are out there, their benefits and what best suits your family travel lifestyle. Once you get approved for a card, I typically call them and have my SCRA benefits applied.
Right now American Express, Chase and Citi all have some form of SCRA and were happy to remove all my annual fees associated to any of my accounts or my husband’s.
Finally, while I hope this article offers some interesting ways to increase or stretch your budget for travel, please realize that credit cards can have lasting effects on your credit score if mismanaged. Just because you can do this, doesn’t mean you should. Know your credit score and be responsible with your spending while utilizing any credit card.
Sarah Slater is a military spouse and professional working mother of two crazy kids. Along with her husband, she has made it her priority to see the world, making it their goal to test their marriage on traveling with said two kids! Though they might not be the perfect functional family, they are perfect together as they hop over Europe and the rest of the world to experience food, life, and, of course, love!
Traveling is Sarah’s passion, and she loves sharing her stories of triumphs and failures in the hopes that other families traveling with kids will find something useful.