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- Courtesy of Richard Kerr
- Rewards points and frequent-flyer miles can help anyone travel for free or cheap, but active-duty servicemen and women in the US military have unique travel needs.
- Fortunately, there are a few specific programs and benefits for military servicemembers that can help them take advantage of points and miles rewards programs.
- Business Insider spoke with Richard Kerr, a US Navy veteran who runs the Facebook group Award Travel 101 and writes about points and miles. He shares his advice for servicemembers looking to travel more without spending an arm and a leg.
- His biggest tip: Start by opening the Platinum Card® from American Express, since AmEx waives the annual fee for active duty servicemembers, and take advantage of that card’s benefits.
Servicemembers and their families often find themselves traveling frequently, whether for assignments, new postings, or just to visit friends and family back at home – and that’s not to mention well-deserved vacation.
Of course, the logistics of travel as a servicemember can be inconvenient – even more so than for civilians.
Richard Kerr, a veteran who spent nine years in the US Navy, knows this firsthand. While stationed in Seattle in 2012, he was offered leave for Christmas just a few days before the holiday.
“Plane tickets were about $1,500 each to go back home to Atlanta,” he said in an interview with Business Insider. “I hadn’t seen my family in a year because we were deployed, so we decided to cough up the money.”
Kerr, who founded the 56,000-member Facebook group Award Travel 101, decided that he never wanted to be in the situation of deciding between saving money and seeing family again. Today, he’s visited over 45 countries.
“I figured that there’s gotta be a better way to travel,” he said. “So I found points and miles.”
Using points and miles to travel for less
Credit card rewards points, frequent-flyer miles, and hotel loyalty points can all be redeemed for free, or significantly discounted travel. Each specific program has its own system – for instance, Delta miles and American Airlines miles work differently, and credit card points generally work differently than frequent flyer miles – but in general, all travel rewards programs can be used for travel.
Although cash prices for tickets were high in Kerr’s case, they might not have been quite as high if he’d had enough miles and used them to book.
That’s because booking frequent-flyer “award tickets” is different from buying reservations outright – you can read more about how it works here. In most cases, the cash price and the miles price of a ticket aren’t directly linked, so it’s possible that while a flight’s cash price may have gone up, its mileage price stays on the lower side.
Even if the mileage price has gone up, meaning you would get a lower value for each mile if you used them, rather than saving them for another time, having points and miles on hand can help in the event of last-minute travel, whether due to surprise leave or an unexpected emergency.
While some credit cards earn airline frequent flyer miles, and some earn fixed-value points or cash back, other cards earn flexible transferable points, which can be used as cash, to book travel at a fixed value, or transferred to a partnering frequent flyer program. Those are typically the best points to earn, at least initially.
Servicemembers are in a unique position to take advantage of points and miles
Even if you don’t fly or stay in hotels frequently for your job, it’s possible to earn tons of points and miles through other methods. Opening credit cards and earning the big new membership bonuses, earning rewards on normal spending, signing up for promotions, and using various cash-back and rewards tools can be incredibly helpful.
One major advantage that servicemembers have when getting started in the points and miles game: They can get the annual fees waived on the best credit cards.
“If you’re in the military, you really need to take advantage of the no-fee [benefit] on the big American Express and Chase cards,” Kerr said.
“You can get these large bonuses and you can get the huge benefits of the AmEx Platinum Card for no annual fee. That’s gotta be first.”
Active duty servicemembers and their families can request the fee waiver by contacting American Express online, or by calling the number on the back of their cards – you can read more about it here. Chase will also waive the annual fee on its cards, including the lucrative Chase Sapphire Reserve, for active duty servicemembers who call the number on the card and make a request.
In addition to getting those two big cards, earning the bonuses, and using the benefits, Kerr suggests looking at other credit card options – but unlike the AmEx Platinum and Sapphire Reserve, which have easy-to-use and fairly universal benefits, the best additional options vary between people. Do some research online to figure out your best option.
“Be willing to invest a little bit of time to get over the learning curve and see the value that’s there,” Kerr said.
You’ll also want to consider where you’re stationed, Kerr said. Different credit card and airline programs can be advantageous depending on what airlines and alliances you have access to.
“Get really familiar with the airlines and learn how you can book them with points and miles to apply to the routes you’re going to fly most often,” he said.
Saving on the highway
Of course, traveling is more than just flying. Whether someone is planning a road trip or looking to rent a car, Kerr has suggestions on ways to save or maximize expenses.
Both the Chase Sapphire Reserve and the AmEx Platinum offer car rental benefits, including discounts and elite status with agencies like Avis, National, Enterprise, and Hertz. The Sapphire Reserve also offers primary rental car insurance, as long as you pay with the card and decline the collision damage waiver coverage offered by the rental agency.
At the gas pump, Kerr suggests using a card that offers bonus points on fill-ups. For example, the Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card offers 6x points per dollar spent at US gas stations, while several Citi cards – like the Citi Premier Card – offer bonuses. However, because their rewards programs offer more flexibility than any others, Kerr suggests focusing on Chase and AmEx.
“Some of the Citi cards have really great deals, but if you’re getting no annual fee on the Chase cards and AmEx cards, that’s what you want to maximize,” he said.
Some cards from Chase like the Chase Freedom Unlimited, which is marketed as earning 1.5% cash back, actually earns 1.5x points per dollar, which can be pooled with points earned from other Chase cards – including the Sapphire Reserve.
Kerr also suggests linking cards to programs like the Fuel Rewards program at Shell. Between the savings Fuel Rewards offers on fill-ups – especially because you can earn Fuel Rewards discounts at other retailers besides Shell – and the points you can earn from credit card rewards on fuel, benefits can add up quickly.
“Yesterday, I filled up 20 gallons of gas for a net total of about $0.38,” he said.
He recommends signing up for Fuel Rewards, which is running a partnership in conjunction with Award Travel 101 – you’ll get Gold status right away, and immediately start saving $0.05 per gallon.
Saving on hotels
While you can use points to cover hotel stays, in many cases, Kerr suggests servicemembers take advantage of government rates to just pay outright – and to earn more points on those stays.
“Government rates can be found at all the chains, and can be found worldwide,” he said. “I’ve found some amazing government rates through Marriott, Hilton, and Hyatt when I’ve traveled the world. Even AccorHotels, which is Europe and Middle East-centric, for people who are stationed over there,” he said.
To get the government rate, simply request it while booking (you can usually check a box while searching online), and keep your military ID handy when you check in.
Another suggestion is to join certain hotel programs that give you complimentary elite status if you’re in the military.
Similarly, some Las Vegas casino chains offer substantial military benefits.
“They’re actually really awesome,” he said, “like free nights, and free $100 dining credits.”
It all comes back to earning points with fee-waived credit cards
Ultimately, Kerr suggests prioritizing a credit card rewards and benefits strategy above anything else.
“When I was in, I got the credit cards that earned me all the points, and then I used to look for government rates,” he said. Coupled together, that helped him maximize leisure and leave time with his family, letting him visit home or go on vacation.
Of course, it can be hard to get started with the points and miles game. Kerr suggests starting by opening the AmEx Platinum and Chase Sapphire Reserve (although make sure you have a plan to meet the minimum spending requirement to earn the bonuses before you open them), and then, once you have a feel for how points-earning and card benefits works, going in deeper.
“On Award Travel 101 on Facebook, learn all the tips,” he said. “I’ve got tons of military on there that ask me questions all the time based on my experience.”
Also, Kerr recommends searching around and reading points-and-miles blogs that you find interesting, and checking out message boards like FlyerTalk.
Ultimately, the biggest piece of advice he has for servicemembers looking to use points and miles is to – at least initially – focus on transferable, flexible rewards currencies. like Chase Ultimate Rewards, AmEx Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points.
“Because our travel patterns change so differently and we aren’t sure where we might be next year, you really need to make sure that you have transferable points so that your options stay as wide as possible,” Kerr said.
- Why the AmEx Platinum is worth it – especially for anyone who travels
- Chase’s Sapphire Reserve credit card has a high annual fee – but here’s why it’s worth it
Last but not least, a word of warning
Keep in mind that while annual fees are waived for active duty personnel and their families, interest is still charged on any carried balances, and negative reports can still affect your credit score. Be sure that you don’t spend more than you can afford, and try to avoid carrying balances – in other words, treat your credit card like a debit card.