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
- 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!
While the Fidelity is a great card, I find that Capital One’s SPARK 2% card is a lot better because Visa is more commonly accepted than American Express. No foreign transaction fees, all other fees waived for active duty (with a 4% interest rate if you have to carry a balance month-to-month). The only wrinkle is that it is a business card, but if you are a sole proprietor (i.e. you have a ssn) than it works fine.
And I forgot to mention, but you get $250 bonus once you spend $5000 and $50 for adding one additional user… even without fees being waived, this is an incredible card.
@Jerry – I agree, that does sound like a winner for non-category spend, esp w/ the lack of foreign transaction fees. As I said before, I don’t have much capital one experience. I also heard the Venture is a good one, though with annual fees for non-active duty, I’d stick w/ the no annual fee ones.
I think it’s almost a tie with the Barclay Arrival and Chase Sapphire Preferred. IF both cards had the annual fees waived, I’d say that CSP has better benefits than the Barclay Arrival because of the flexibility of the points as well as the ability of the Ultimate Rewards Mall. If the CSP fee wasn’t waived, but the Barclays was, I’d stick with the Barclays due to it’s effective %2.2 cash back. The CSP and Freedom combo is one of the best powerhouse combo’s in earning lucrative ultimate rewards points!
Isn’t CSP annual fee waived for military members? I thought I read that elsewhere in the blog.