Military Travel Hacking Strategy
Creating a military travel hacking strategy is just like military life; have an idea of your end goal and remember to stay flexible. Below are 5 things to keep in mind while you’re deciding on cards that work with your goals. Just remember that you can always adjust your timing with limited time offers or if there is a way to maximize your points better.
1. Best to Start with Chase Cards
Chase has a rule that you cannot get approved for any Chase cards if you have already opened five cards in the last 24 months. You’ll hear this rule referred to as the 5/24 rule. Chase counts every card even if opened with a different bank, like Amex or military star card. This includes your spouses GTC. If your spouse makes you an authorized user on their card, this also counts as one of your five cards.
The next time you think about opening a Nordstrom card to save $60, just remember it might preclude you from opening a Chase card with a welcome bonus valued over $1,000, like this one. For this reason, I recommend starting with the Chase Reserve card. This luxury card comes with many benefits and an easy to use $300 annual travel credit. This is a great card if you are OCONUS, since it is a VISA and has no foreign transaction fees.
2. American Express “Once in a Lifetime” Rule
Many of the American Express cards include a once in a lifetime limit on welcome bonuses. I’ve read some articles that a “lifetime” may only be seven years, but I’ve never personally tried to get a welcome bonus on a card I’ve already opened. The reason to keep this in mind is if you are considering upgrading your card. You want to make sure you’ve already earned the full welcome bonus on the card you are going to be upgrading to.
For example, I had the Hilton Surpass and received an offer to upgrade my card for two free nights. I upgraded the card to the Hilton Aspire and now I will not qualify in my “lifetime” for the welcome bonus for the Hilton Aspire. If I could do this again, I would have opened a Hilton Aspire, earned the welcome bonus and then upgraded the Surpass to the Aspire to earn the free nights as an upgrade bonus.
This rule even applies if you qualified for but did not earn the welcome bonus on a card. Being sure you can meet the minimum spend required to earn the bonus is an important step before you open the card. If there is a card I like but the minimum spend is higher than we typically spend, I save it for when we have a long TDY, a PCS or another big, planned expense to be sure we get the big bonus. There are so many great cards and welcome bonuses that you could do this for an entire 20-year AD career without running out of bonuses. This rule may seem limiting but if you are careful about upgrading and make sure that you earn the welcome bonus every time you open a card, it won’t ruin your military travel hacking strategy.
3. Three Types of Cards
Cash back cards are probably what you are most familiar with; they are also the most straight forward cards. Usually you earn between 1% and 2% in cash back. Some cards let you transfer this to another bank and others let you use your accrued cash to pay off your card. If traveling isn’t a priority for you, cash back cards are the most flexible way to use your MLA/SCRA benefits. You could use the cash back for anything; education, starting a business, groceries, paying off debt. Think of it as a thank you bonus from the bank.
Co-branded points are points that can only be used in the rewards system of the card you are earning on. Since I mentioned Hilton above we’ll just stick with that example. The welcome bonus and the points I earn using my Hilton Aspire are only able to be used at Hilton. There are some small exceptions like Marriott, where they have their own transfer partners, but this is very uncommon. The power in cobranded cards is when you use that card to spend a lot of money with that rewards program. We lived in a Hilton hotel for four months, having the Hilton Surpass earned us 10 more points per dollar than if we paid with our transferable point card. If we could do it again, we would’ve opened the Aspire and put all the hotel charges on there.
Most airline and hotel cards earn points that can only be used in their program. Let’s talk about airlines for a minute though. Many airlines are a part of an alliance. If you are earning Delta SkyMiles with the Delta Reserve, you can only spend those SkyMiles on Delta’s website. You can book an Air France flight in Delta’s website, with Delta SkyMiles, because they are in an alliance. You cannot transfer your SkyMiles to Air France to book flights through the Air France website though. When you are trying to decide on co-branded cards, think which brands you spend the most money with and enjoy the most. This may change depending on airlines available near your base but since there is no fee, you can adjust easily.
Transferable point cards give you the most options and you can usually get the most value per point since you aren’t limited to a specific program. These points are earned on cards like Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Citi Preferred. Each bank has their own travel portal as well as their own transfer partners. These banks also host transfer bonuses from time to time which really give your points a boost. When we booked our flights to Germany there was a 25% transfer bonus with Air France, which gave our points even more value.
4. Working with Your Spouse
Since both the AD service member and their spouse qualifies to have their annual fees waived, you both can earn points and you can double up on the benefits you love the most. For our family, reaching the minimum spend is the limiting factor. You can open up new cards every 30-90 days depending on the bank. When you are working with your spouse to earn together you can cut that time in half when you rotate who is opening the cards. When you find a card or benefit you love, be sure to refer your spouse, so you get referral points in addition to their welcome bonus. Referrals and doubling up on cards you love should be included in your military travel hacking strategy.
You can work together to reach the minimum spend, even if you are geographically separated, thanks to digital wallets. Even before your card arrives in the mail, you can add your card to your digital wallets through the banks app. If you aren’t ready to have two of the same card, just be sure to think through who is most likely to need the benefits on that card. I have the Hilton Aspire, but my husband is more likely to need it for his TDY travel. It would’ve been more advantageous for him to open that card before me, although we love it and he’ll be getting his own next.
5. You Can Have More Than One, Sometimes
If additional benefits are a large part of your military travel hacking stagey, you may have noticed I talked about opening a new Hilton Aspire before upgrading the Hilton Surpass earlier. Yes, you can have two. American Express is very generous, and you can have multiple Platinum’s, Aspire’s, Reserve’s almost any card that you see value in, up to 5 credit cards. Platinum and Gold are considered charge cards, not included in the limit. Chase doesn’t allow this. They only let you have one card in each “family” of cards. For example, you can only have the Sapphire Reserve or the Sapphire Preferred. You cannot have both and you cannot have more than one.
This is a great way to stack those free reward nights or earn more streaming and Uber credits. You could also gift Global Entry, TSA Precheck or Walmart+ memberships to friends and family. You get multiple cards by upgrading. Just be sure you already have earned the welcome bonus for the card you want to upgrade to. You must have the lower card for a year before upgrading and you can only upgrade in the same card “family”. You can’t upgrade your Amex Gold to a Delta Reserve or a Blue Everyday Cash to the Hilton Aspire.