Since I’m on a top 10 kick, I might as well write the post that most people want me to write, and that topic is credit cards! 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.

Disclaimer: there are no affiliate links in this post, this is just my opinion. I have or carry most of these cards.

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 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 everyday spend: Barclaycard Arrival World Mastercard

This would be the best for everyday spend, except that Barclaycard does not waive annual fees for military members (yet!). 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. I don’t yet have this card, but will be applying for it in January.

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 and Hilton 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 (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. 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.

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 Sapphire Preferred, 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 | 18 Comments

18 responses to “10 Best Credit Cards for Military Members”

  1. Tom B. says:

    The Penfed Cash Rewards Preferred Visa is the ‘best’ gas card offering a 5% cash back in a monthly statement credit. You never have to sign up for anything. You never have to ask for the cash back. You don’t get gift cards, points to be used or any other nonsense. You get the cash each and every month to the cent in a statement credit. You need excellent credit. You need to do two things to be eligible for this card – one is to be a member of the credit union and the other is to deposit a minimum of $25 into a money market account. Instructions for the average bear to easily accomplish both are on the site. You need to follow directions. I made a $15 tax deductible donation, establish a $5 credit union account and a $25 money market account. So far this year in fuel rebate credit I’ve rec’d back $248.25. Not bad. Worth the bother to follow instructions for applying and meeting requirements. It’s open to everyone to apply like I did. Penfed.org

    • Andy says:

      @Tom B – Tom, great point, this is certainly better than 3% on the Amex Blue Cash Preferred. I guess I showed my bias on this (I ride my bike to work). Thanks for the input.

  2. buddy says:

    Andy thx for the article, I just wanted to mention that for outdoorsy types, the US Bank REI card offers 5% back at REI.

    • Andy says:

      @Buddy – I have this card, and I love REI. Make sure to use a cashback portal (cashbackmonitor.com is the best portal finder) when you’re buying online to double dip!

  3. Sgt Bill says:

    why didn’t you include any airline cards? I think the United Explorer Mileageplus is a good card.

    • Andy says:

      @Sgt Bill – Generally, airline cards ARE great cards, for the signup bonus. For instance, I got 55,000 miles for both United MP Explorer cards I had, and 50,000 for both southwest cards. However, they don’t have good category bonuses, and the perks (like free checked bags or priority boarding) don’t apply as much to us since we get these perks anyways being military members. As an example, it’s better to purchase a United flight w/ your Amex gold rewards and get 3x points, than with your Chase MP Explorer which only offers 2x miles.

  4. Benji says:

    I think it is irresponsible of you to post “Chase waives all annual fees for military members, so this is an amazing card to have for free.”

    On your referenced post, not a single person has responded that they had the same success. In the least, you should post that Chase is YMMV.

    I have yet to hear a story of Amex not providing their benefits to Active Duty. Their are several Amex cards that I would call superior, just because their annual fees are waived.

      • Andy says:

        @Benji – I don’t know if irresponsible is the right word. Two of the three Chase cards, the CSP and Ink, have annual fees that are waived the first year, and the third, the Freedom, doesn’t have one. So if for some reason you don’t get benefits under the SCRA, you can just cancel them before your year is up.

        I truly don’t know why people are having trouble with the Chase cards. I’ve gotten a letter in the mail for every single Chase card I have, saying they qualify under the SCRA benefits. It could be that they’re not active duty. I will try to explore the issue further.

        • Benji says:

          I am active duty. Fair point about the cards being cancelled, but opening and closing cards for the benefits is not as good for your credit as opening them and keeping them open. Also, since the Chase fee refund is not a slam dunk like Amex seems to be, it seems wrong to recommend it as if it is.

  5. […] consistently need one. (One quick tip: I would get their USAA credit card, not necessarily to use (there are better cards), but to link it as an overdraft option, just in case you accidentally overdraw on your checking […]

  6. […] 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 […]

  7. Mary says:

    I have a good little system (I think):

    *PenFed Plat. Rewards – 5% on gas (I only use for gas)
    *Sapphire Preferred – Travel and Restaurants (unless restaurants are on Freedom calendar)
    *Freedom – 5% on rotating categories and everyday spend
    *USAA World Mastercard – I only use this at Sam’s Club due to it being the only Mastercard I have. This was my first credit card and has no AF so I keep it.

    I know I need a better card for everyday spend such as groceries (luckily it is on Freedom calendar this Q1 2015). I am seriously considering AMX Everyday Preferred since I can get waived AF.

    I’m all ears to suggestions.

  8. UNISOL says:

    One note on USAA cards: they do not offer a card which does not have a foreign transaction fee.

  9. Great web site! Now that I have retired (20 years Dental Corps) I would like to request more information about deals for retirees. Thanks, COL Dean Robinson

  10. Eric says:

    Are the “free for military” annual fees only for active duty or do reserve and guardsman qualify too?

  11. Beth says:

    Chase does not waive annual fees just because you’re military. Per the Service Member’s Civil Relief Act, they can waive it if you had the account prior to becoming military. The act was established to protect people who didn’t know they would be active duty, as in a draft, and thus did not know their annual salary would decrease. It does not protect you if were already military and then got a card you couldn’t really afford.

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