The wife and I are on our way to the Boarding Area Convention, known as BACON.  Been looking forward to this for awhile, especially because this will be the first opportunity to meet my co-blogger, Andy, in person!  Yep, a year together and it has all been virtual until now.  We’re going BWI-LAX-LAS to add a few more miles in there.  Vegas, baby, Vegas!

Anyway, back to the story.  Yesterday, we had been offered to volunteer to take a later flight in exchange for $200 flight credit.  We passed, but I thought that I would check again just to see if the offer had increased and, more importantly, how we could still get to Vegas on time.  The poor Gate Agent at BWI had no help and was trying to work everything by herself.  She politely asked me to wait while she made a call.  I heard her say, “I’ve got a prisoner in 38E, but don’t show the escorts”.  OK, maybe I shouldn’t eavesdrop, but this was really interesting!  I guess she go the answer she wanted and then dealt with me.  No love for the bump, so I sat back down.

It wasn’t long before I saw a very clean cut guy walking behind a guy who I wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley and point for him to sit in a certain seat.  The guy then went to stand behind him.  No visible cuffs, but his hands were together and covered by a jacket, so pretty obvious if you were looking for the bad guy.  I was really surprised as I had never noticed a prisoner being escorted on a plane before, but maybe it happens all the time!

They boarded after the people with disabilities and I got a glimpse of the handcuffs and they were pretty substantial!  Like “bike chain” substantial.  I had looked at the seating chart on the display and noticed that seat 38E was the last row and right in front of the lavatory.  At least the Government was kind enough to give him the worst seat on the plane.

Later in the flight, I had to go to the latrine and passed by the happy couple.  He was just babbling like a homeless guy in the street corner.  Mostly reciting the bible or his version of it.  I felt sorry for the passengers stuck right in front of him if he was doing that all flight!  I stopped on the way back from the lav and politely said to the Marshall, “thanks for your service”.  He was a bit taken aback, undoubtedly because I can’t imagine that he hears “thanks” very much in his line of work.  Sounds like a good job to get miles and status, trouble is you couldn’t use them when flying for work.  Well, maybe if you wanted to upgrade your prisoner as your companion?

Anyone else every have an experience like this?  More to follow from Vegas!

Posted by glenn | 3 Comments

My 35th birthday was last week, so I’ve come here, on the Military Frequent Flyer, to announce my candidacy for the Presidency of the United States!!!

 

Just kidding! However, I figured at 35 years old, I am wise enough to give out some “things I’ve learned” advice. Some of this will be travel advice; some, not so much.

 

(Although we never use credit card affiliate posts, there are other affiliate links in this post – these are all products I own and use regularly. Feel free to not use them if you don’t feel comfortable with it, but if you do, thank you!)

 

Age & Health – I feel qualified to talk about this both because of my age and my job

 

1) You’re only as old as you feel – Throughout the day I try to have a positive attitude, and try to approach everything with the freshness and openmindedness of a teenager, but with the maturity and wisdom of a 35 year old. The number one way to feel young is to go into every situation, no matter how bad you think it will be, with the idea to take something positive or constructive out of it.

2) Physical health should be one of your top priorities – This is the other really important rule to maintain youthfulness. Family, occupation, and physical health, to me, are the three most important things in my life and daily routine. Because I try to do something active daily, to engage in high intensity physical activity 3-4 times a week, to stand or walk whenever possible, I can transverse across massive airport terminals with heavy bags quicker than 99% of most people without any luggage – However, I feel 35 after most basketball games against guys half my age. Along the same lines:

3) Move and walk, all the time – One of the most insidious ways to kill yourself is to sit all day. The more you move, the healthier you are. If it’s part of your job, find a way to switch it up. If you’re flying all the time, make sure to get up every two hours to walk the aisles or stand in the back. I do this all the time, and have been surprised how many times the flight attendants give me free food (and sometimes booze!)

4) You’re never to old to quit your bad habits – Even life-long smokers who quit when they’re 65 live longer than those that don’t. Anything over 2 alcoholic drinks per day is too much. If you’re out of shape, you are never too old. There’s a 67 year old guy at my gym, who is a seriously ripped dude and who does triathalons, that had a desk job, smoked, and didn’t ever work out or play a sport until he was 43, before deciding to turn it around after a blood clot in his leg. Speaking of habits:

5) Waking up early makes you happier and more productive – and the best way to wake up is with a Bialetti. I’m a coffee snob, and tried every coffee product there is, and I’ve never had better coffee than homemade, using good beans, with a Bialetti. I’ve even packed it when I was travelling and had access to a stove!

 

Travel

 

1) For me, the best way to explore a city is to go running through it – I’ve said it before and I’ll keep on saying it – you can see a huge swath of city, closer and quicker (and more enjoyable) than in a car, taxi, tour or bus.

Best headphones for running: Sennheiser Headphones

Best sunglasses: Suncloud Sentry

2) I’ve had much more memorable experiences travelling when they’re shared. I’m not talking about travelling with someone; I mean when staying in a place while travelling, I’ve had much better experiences couchsurfing or staying in a hostel than when staying in a hotel, because of the people I’ve met that I otherwise never would have. It may not be as comfortable, but you’ll spend less money and you’ll meet (possibly lifelong) friends! Airbnb and VRBO are two other options for more authentic experiences. If you’re young and single, you might consider Triptogether.

3) For me, it’s the destination > the journey. I accumulate miles and credit cards for the destinations. Premium cabins can add amazing experiences to your vacations, and the blogs that advocate for those are fun to read, but, for me at least, I’ll slog it for several hours in economy to get to an amazing destination.

4) Food from food carts or local markets is often way better, cheaper, and rarely (but sometimes) more dangerous than restaurants. I’m a doc, and I eat at them all the time.

4) If you’re travelling 2 or more times per year, get some quality travel accessories. I’m totally cheap, but a few years ago realized it’s worth it to invest in quality items even if they’re more expensive. A couple recommendations that I have:

-For more active travel: eBags TLS Weekender

-For more relaxed travel:Briggs & Riley Explore International. B&R bags are super durable, have lifetime warranties, and I’ve been very pleased with this one.

-If you need to check a bag: REI Wheely Beast Rolling Duffel

-Power Source: Belkin Mini Swivel Charger Surge Protector

-Travel Adapter: Ceptics International Plug Adapter Set

5) If you’re in the military, have good credit, but aren’t collecting miles and points from credit cards, you’re missing out on free travel. Solution: Read this blog!

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Many bloggers and posters of frequent flyer programs love to go “woe is me” and implying that the airlines are screwing everyone by devaluing your hard earned miles.  I think that nothing more is happening here than the laws of economics – yes, economics applies even to miles and points!

Basic economics dictates that the worth of a dollar or other monetary unit, is equal to the worth backing that currency and the amount in circulation.  Increase the amount of currency and the worth of each dollar decreases proportionately.  This is called inflation.  My lovely wife, for example, cannot understand why the U.S. does not just print more dollars to pay off our debt.  I am done trying to explain the concept of inflation to her (this argument went the way of why algebra uses “x” – we almost got divorced over that) so will hopefully do a better job with you.

Every time that an airline or hotel issues a mile or point it is just as if they printed a dollar.  When there are not many miles in circulation, the value of a mile is relatively high and can be redeemed for a high value product.  This would be the 80′s.  If miles were redeemed at the same rate they were spent, everything would be fine.  However, airlines and hotels discovered that they could actually sell their miles instead of just giving them away for free to customers who used their asset.  They started selling them first to credit card companies and later to many other services, such as mortgage companies, in order to develop a very lucrative cash stream.  Think about it, these credit card miles are just a bunch of electrons that may or may not get redeemed for a product that is often not sold such as empty airline seats or rooms.  This results in more and more miles in circulation.

As more miles get printed, more people start chasing the same amount of assets (seats and rooms).  They become hard to get and people start to rebel and stop buying the miles.  In order to keep the market going, the airline raises the price of a free seat, making them harder to afford therefore more available.  People shout and complain about “devaluation”, but what you are really witnessing is classic inflation.

As the market picks back up, more companies buy even more miles and the cycle continues.  The economic term for this is an inflationary spiral.  This is why a free economy round trip has gone from the original 20,000 miles in the ’80s to 25,000 in the ’90s and I find 50,000 is very common in today’s market.  Pro tip – always check the price of the First Class ticket compared to the coach, it can often be the same because few people check for FC.  Back to the lesson.  As someone who has collected miles since 1986, I can tell you that they were hard to earn back then.  Even with the credit card, there were no 100,000 mile bonuses like you see today.  Scoring 25,000 miles from a mortgage in 1994 was huge.  The majority of big mileage makers were businessmen who traveled a lot.  This is the main reason that the Pudding Guy became so famous as earning a million miles was really something in those days.

Nowadays, guys like Greg, the Frequent Miler, can earn a million miles in one month of credit card and other bonus tricks!  Note that the airlines react to this inflationary spiral by trying to keep selling the “good miles” to credit card and other companies and minimize the “bad miles” which are those they give away for free to people who fly.  They are just trying to maximize their shareholder return and if you have airline stock you should appreciate that.  So what do you do in this inflationary environment?

Ironically, my best advice is to earn miles faster than they can raise their prices for redemption.  I know that this only continues the cycle, but it is really all the individual can resort to keep the value of their accounts.  In monetary inflation, you actually lose value by keeping them in a bank that earns half a percent interest.  Similarly, don’t worry about your account balance.  Use them whenever you are getting a good return against the alternative of purchasing the ticket or room, but don’t burn them for the sake of burning them.  A big need for miles could be just around the corner and you need to keep some reserve.  In the past, I would make back these miles through a combination of credit card purchases (good miles) and flying on business-paid or cheap vacation fares(bad miles).   What the airlines are changing now is going to a revenue-based method of giving you those free “bad” miles.  UA and DL are going there next March and, much like baggage fees, all will eventually conform.

So keep flying, but concentrate on earning more of your miles through those lucrative bonuses, smart credit card use, and other ways to collect large amounts of miles for little effort (or money).  The industry will continue to find and try to shut down these avenues for you.  Witness the shutoff of the CVS/ Vanilla Reload “easy button” for MS.  This will continue to be a game of cat and mouse as the Boarding Area bloggers find a new method, let you exploit it, and then see it shut down.  I never said this was going to be easy!  But it should still be fun if you are the type of person who enjoys solving a puzzle and getting a pretty good reward for a few hours of your time each week.  If you discover your own trick please share it, but do so discretely.  I suggest posting on here your rough idea or plan and let people email you for the details.  Good luck in the Grand Game!

 

Posted by glenn | One Comment

We are all familiar with getting the military/ federal government rates at most hotels when traveling TDY.  Did you know that most of the major chains will also give you those rates when you are on vacation with your family?  You should check both ways, regular rates and Gov’t rates, as I have often found that empty hotels will offer rooms at below Gov’t rates.  Gov’t rates are particularly good in high cost areas.  However, just like cheap airline seats, once a hotel sells however many rooms they set aside for that rate, it will become unavailable.  The rule here is book early, you can always cancel and rebook as long as it is not at the last minute.

Here are what the major chains list for their Military/ Gov’t rates for personal use:

Hilton Military Link

Government & Military

The most recognized name in the industry, Hilton Hotels & Resorts stands as the stylish, forward thinking global leader of hospitality. With more than 540 hotels and resorts in 76 countries across six continents, Hilton welcomes guests in more countries than any other full service hotel brand. If you are a state, federal or United States military employee, you can enjoy great savings with special government and military rates at participating Hilton Hotels & Resorts.

Marriott Military Link (Note their warning about some properties not allowing leisure stays)

Marriott Government & Military Per Diem Rate Qualification Guidelines

Who is Eligible for Marriott’s Government Rates? U.S. Federal Government Rates State Government Rates Local Government Rates Canadian Federal Government Rates
U.S. Federal Government Employees Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
U.S. Military Personnel Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Cost-Reimbursable Government Contractors Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Other Government Contractors Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs) Employees Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Native American Tribal Government Employees Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Canadian Federal Government Employees Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Eligible
Canadian Military Personnel Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Eligible
U.S. State Government Employees Not Eligible Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
U.S. Local/County Government Employees Not Eligible Not Eligible Eligible Not Eligible
Select Canadian Provincial Government Employees Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Eligible *
(see note)
Retired Military Personnel Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible
Dependents of Military Personnel Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible Not Eligible

* Note: Only government employees of the following five Canadian provinces and territories are eligible for the Canadian Federal Government rate:

Alberta, New Brunswick, Ontario, Yukon Territory, and Northwest Territories

Note: At most Marriott hotels the government rate is available to eligible guests regardless of whether they are traveling on business or pleasure. However, some hotels may only make the government per diem rate available to guests traveling on official business. Please check the hotel’s rate description for details. If the rate description states that the rate is only for guests traveling on official government business, please be prepared to present travel orders when checking in.

Choice Hotels Military Link (Note that you can join their Choice Privileges program and get Gold status just for being a military member)

Save big with hotel & travel deals for military and government personnel
Choice Hotels show their appreciation for military and government travelers with guaranteed discounts on one and two person rates at more than 2,700 participating properties. Active duty/retired military personnel, federal employees, cost reimbursable contractors and employees of foreign governments are eligible for the Choice Hotels military discount and government hotel rate program.

Government hotel rates are reserved for travel on official government business only for federal employees. Military personnel, their dependents and members of several government/military associations are extended the rate for official and leisure travel. An eligible party must occupy the room to qualify for this rate plan.

Competitive government rates* available to the following:

  • Government/Military employees on official travel status
  • Government reimbursement contractors on official government business
  • Active/retired military or their dependants on leisure travel
  • Members of certain government/military associates on leisure travel
  • Appropriate identification will be required upon check-in

 Best Western Military Rate Link

US Government / Military Hotel Discount

Best Western hotels are pleased to offer low discount hotel rates based on U.S. government per diem for government employees, military personnel traveling on official business or leisure.

US Government/Military Hotel Discount

Who Qualifies

  • All federal and state government employees with credentials.
  • Military personnel/civilian military personnel
  • Tax funded hospital and university personnel
  • Cost reimbursable contractors

How it Works

  • Make a hotel booking online or call our Worldwide Reservation office at 1-800-WESTERN
  • Present an official identification card or work orders at time of check in
  • Don’t have an official identification card? You may apply in advance of your stay for a Best Western issued government traveler card. Please complete our online government application. If you qualify, your card will be sent to you electronically within 7-14 days.
  • Questions? Contact our Government Representative at 623-780-6842
  • Canadian Government Travelers: Most of our Canadian Best Western properties and many in the United States honor special Canadian Government discount hotel rates. Proof of Canadian Government identification or work orders at check in is all that is required. For further information and to make a reservation with the Canada Government discount rate, please visit our Canadian Government/Military Hotel Discount page.

Starwood (Note that this says you can only use Gov’t rates on official travel, so no love here)

Can I book Government Rates online?

Yes. Government rates can be booked online for Government employees on individual (non-group) government business-related travel. The eligible employees are U.S. Federal and State employees, National Government employees, active military personnel, Amtrak employees and Canadian Provincial employees. You will be required to provide the appropriate identification at check in. Please note that only one room can be booked per government employee.

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

I recently dropped in to my neighborhood Citizen’s Bank to deposit a bunch of cash I had acquired from paying for group dinners with a points-earning credit card and collecting everyone’s cash. (My friends have gotten use to my “crazy” manufacturing spend techniques and don’t question it anymore). I was watching the slideshow they had on their branches monitor, and noticed in caps “10% back on gas”. What??? I inquired at the desk, and they’ve recently changed the terms on their Cash Back Platinum Mastercard.

CashBack Platinum MasterCard   Citizens Bank
You get 10% cash back on the first $1k of gas purchases, and an unlimited 5% after that, for the first 90 days. You also get 5% back on grocery and drug store purchases, but again only for the first 90 days. There is no annual fee. After 90 days, everything reverts to 1%. I hate that these rewards only last 90 days, but there doesn’t seem to be anything in the T&C to limit your amount, just your credit limit. I suppose if they gave you a huge limit, you could really kill it. For instance, if you had a 7-11 nearby (coded as gas stations) that let you buy gift cards with a credit card, and put $50k in 90 days, you’d make $2550 (minus whatever you paid in GC fees). I doubt many people could pull this off though, so I’m not sure how scalable this is, especially only for 90 days. This card is only available in certain states too. I’m not going to be jumping on this one, especially since I just got denied for two cards (even after recon calls) because of way too many CC applications this year.

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

This happened to me in my own Philly, as my wife and I were going downtown on a date. We were getting off the subway, and a young guy asked if I could break a $50 dollar bill, as they wouldn’t accept it for a subway token and he had to get home. He had it folded up, but it looked real, and I did have change, so I got it out of my wallet. I grabbed the bill and opened it to make sure it was legit, and it was so old and decrepit it fell in half. He wanted compensation as I had just “ripped his 50 in half”. I’m not sure it real or not, but I gave it back to him, and just gave him $3 for a subway token. He still wanted $50 of change for the $50 I “ripped”, but I squared up to him and my sympathetic autonomic system kicked into overdrive, and he eventually scrammed.

I read about this from other people on some local Philly blogs happening to other people as well. I can only imagine what would’ve happened if it were just my wife, so my advice, be VERY selective in who you help out.

Posted by glenn | 7 Comments

COL Glenn alerted me to a blog post where a child on a plane had a severe peanut allergy, and anaphylaxed (stopped breathing) when a passenger 4 rows away had opened a bag of peanuts. He wanted my medical opinion on this case. I find her anaphylaxis from 4 rows away by smelling peanuts dubious, but I’m not an allergist, I’m an ER doc, so I asked my allergist friend (who wished to remain nameless, but works at a top 10 nationally ranked hospital). He said this would be virtually impossible unless the peanuts were ground finely and aerosolized. Here’s the medscape article on inhalation of peanuts.

I read one study where found researchers failed to detect peanut in air filters at the level of the neck after volunteers danced on peanuts on the floor of a poorly ventilated room (Perry TT, Conover-Walker MK, Pomes A, Chapman MD, Wood RA. Distribution of peanut allergen in the environment. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2004;113:973-976). There was also a study where people with severe peanut allergies smelled a jar of peanut butter from very close range but experienced no allergic side effects (Simonte SJ, Ma S, Mofidi S, Sicherer SH. Relevance of casual contact with peanut butter in children with peanut allergy. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2003;112:180-182). There is still persistent belief that just smelling peanuts can cause anaphylaxis; however the medical literature does not support this, as there have only been anecdotal cases.

From my perspective, if you’ve got such a severe allergy that you anaphylax from smelling peanuts, you need an epi-pen on you at all times, and you need to immediately see an allergist for desensitization therapy, because you’re constantly at risk of death.

 

Posted by glenn | 5 Comments

Most tour companies have a pitch for you to walk their beautiful sand beaches, tropical paradise, or see some ancient sites.  Sounds enticing, right?  So take a look at this pitch:

“If your idea of a good time is driving through a Hezbollah rally and then going to get some sushi, Beirut is definitely the edgy Mediterranean destination for you.”

Or how about “Where wildlife, oil, and AK47s abound: how can this region be anything but fascinating.”

Beirut, Iraq, Mexico and Africa are all tourism destinations of War Zone Tours.  As incredible as it sounds, there are people that really want to go to these places of danger and experience what it is to be like in the middle of a conflict.  The founders started this back in 1993 and say they have conducted tours in over 50 countries.  They are staffed with High Risk Environment (HRE) guides are all experienced security professionals having spent years traveling dangerous areas of the world.  Many are former military special operations personnel.  Hmmm, so am I, maybe this should be my retirement job?

Apparently, they will customize the tour to your desires.  However, I doubt they will give you IBA and an M-4, so you take your chances.  And to think I scored two completely free tours of Iraq courtesy of Uncle Sam!  Another great military benefit.  For those who missed out on deployment, go for it.  Just don’t ask POTUS to save you if things go south…

Posted by glenn | 2 Comments

For those of us who travel on Uncle Sam’s dime, we are at the mercy of the GSA’s bidding war for routes between commonly traveled cities.  Known as GSA City Pairs, the lowest bidding airline gets all the Government traffic between the two cities.  While you don’t have to take the GSA City Pair, you must justify why you are not.  If you can find the same fare, and in my experience many airlines will match the GSA fare, there generally is not a problem.  If you need to take a more expensive fare, the excuse cannot be because you need to earn miles with another airline so have a good reason!

The bidding this year surprised me a little.  My perception is that DL and AA were the low bidders for most routes.  Some were really unusual, such as need a flight from DCA to JNU (Juneau, AK)?  You would think that AS has a lock on this, but  no DL was the winner.  They won a lot of the State of Alaska flights in fact.  Another surprise was the number of Southwest (WN) city pairs that were long haul.  Going from DCA to SFO?  WN was the winner.  In total eight airlines won at least one route:United, American, Southwest, JetBlue, Delta, Hawaiian, Alaska, and Sun Country.

The Sun Country and Jet Blue are new (to me).  Also, remember that the Fly American Act requires the fare be sold by an American airline, but you will commonly find yourself flying one of their code share partners.  For mileage earning, note that these code share flights do not always credit to the airline you want.  For example, a few years ago I flew a Delta ticketed flight from HNL to ICN (Seoul).  The actual carrier (known as metal) was Korean Airlines.  Normally, I can credit DL flights to AS, but not for this number flight.

Examine the routes that you think you will fly and this may help you decide which airline to concentrate your miles on in order to get status.  For my new assignment in Oct., I expect to be taking a lot of flights to Europe and most of the city pairs from East Coast to Europe were won by AA.  Normally, I credit AA flights to AS where I am already a Gold, but I am considering crediting to AA in order to get status and hopefully some upgrades.  Check them out for yourself.

Here is a link to the new FY15 GSA City Pair spreadsheet.  Note that Column N lists the fare so you can calculate the miles earned if you are flying UA or DL.

Here is a link to the current GSA City Pair site if you want to see the present fares good until 30 Sep.

You should also be aware of the benefits that go with flying a GSA fare:

The benefits of this service include:

  • Fares priced on one-way routes, permitting agencies to plan multiple destinations;
  • No advance purchase required;
  • No minimum or maximum length stay required;
  • Fully refundable tickets;
  • Last seat availability;
  • No blackout periods;
  • Stable prices enabling travel budgeting; and
  • Dual fares availability.

Posted by glenn | No Comments

Andy and I were able to post every day for our two week “Featured” period on BoardingArea.com and we thank you for reading our little blog.  The comments were great and we really appreciated those of you who support us as we just do this out of a sense of sharing with the community rather than a route to fame and fortune.  Many of the comments were informative and we learned a thing or two from your knowledge, so thanks for sharing.

I had promised two United GPUs for a random commenter over the two week period and I am here to deliver.  Using Random.org, the winner is Scott M.  Congratulations Scott and let me know when you want to use your prize!  Unfortunately you will need a W fare or higher for an international upgrade or you can use them for any domestic fare.

Random

Posted by glenn | No Comments

At the end of last year, I wrote a post about the best credit cards for military members. Since then, there have been a couple changes, so I thought I’d update the post. As before, I’m not taking into account signup bonuses, only benefits and category bonuses.

 

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.

 

(There are affiliate links for the Barclaycard and Discover cards. I only recommend cards I have and use. You are free to not use the affiliate links, but if you do – thank you, I appreciate it.)

 

1. Best overall card: Barclaycard Arrival Plus

I previously had the Chase Sapphire Preferred as the best overall card, but they’ve changed their terms recently, taking away the travel benefit and the 7% annual dividend, so there is a new winner this year. The Arrival+ has an annual fee, but Barclaycard waives it for active duty military, and more frequently and without as much documentation than Chase does. 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. 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, but again it’s waived for active duty.

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 my go-to card 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 dining and entertainment: Citi Thankyou Premier

This card offers 3% back in Thankyou points on dining and entertainment, and 2% on airfare, hotels and travel agencies. This didn’t mean much back when Thankyou points were not transferrable to airline partners, but they’ve recently become a transfer partner to several airlines. The new partners include:

  • Cathay Pacific
  • EVA Air
  • Etihad
  • Garuda Indonesia
  • Malaysia Airlines
  • Qatar Airways
  • Singapore Airlines
  • Thai Airways

 

This is huge, because Singapore can be used to book awesome Star Alliance Awards. Check out this post from Travel is Free. Citi does waive their annual fees, which on this card is waived the first year then $125 per year. However, they’re the hardest company to get a waiver. I just applied for this card, and it wasn’t an immediate approval, but hopefully I still get it. The Citi Forward used to offer 5% Thankyou points for dining and entertainment, but it’s no longer accepting new applications.

 

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.

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, 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.  

(Of note, for my last post, many people told me of the Penfed Platinum Rewards card which has 5% cash back on gas…but I bike everywhere, so I didn’t take heed)

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. The 2014 categories are out already, so we know how to maximize our rewards next 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 buy Amazon gift cards until I hit $1500 for the quarter.

Runner-up: Discover It Card – it usually offers similar categories and has access to the ShopDiscover shopping portal, which often has better bonuses than the Ultimate Rewards portal, and that’s why I got it. It doesn’t come with a signup bonus, and you can’t transfer UR points, which is why I rate the Freedom a better card.

9. Best for purchased airline travel: Amex Business Rewards Gold

I don’t yet have this card, but will be applying for it in January. 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. According to Nerdwallet, it’s the best credit card for bad credit.

On a daily basis, the cards I carry are the Arrival Plus, the Amex SPG business, 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.

I would LOVE to hear your thoughts or disagreements about this list – PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS!

Posted by glenn | 5 Comments

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