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Credit Card Benefits and Strategies for Active Duty Military

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A great way to maximize travel is to take advantage of memberships or other affiliations (like an alumni association or AAA) that can earn you discounts and more. With well over one million members on active duty, the United States Military is a prominent example, and today TPG Senior Points & Miles Correspondent Jason Steele explains the extra benefits credit card issuers extend to those who serve.

America asks a lot of its military, and to help ease the service time of military personnel (and their families), there’s a special law that protects their finances while on active duty. The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA) restricts the terms, fees, and interest rates that can be charged on rental agreements, home mortgages, automobile loans, and many other common financial instruments, including credit cards.

The SCRA
The SCRA restricts terms, fees, and interest rates for active duty military members.

The SCRA limits credit interest rates to no higher than 6%, and all of the major credit card issuers that I’ve spoken with will waive most fees for active duty service members, including annual fees. It’s unclear whether the law actually requires credit card issuers to waive all late fees and annual fees, but I have confirmed that doing so is the policy of American Express, Barclaycard, Bank of America, Capital One, Chase, and Citi. Note that Chase requires accounts to be open before beginning active duty.

So whether or not they’re legally bound to do so, it’s clear that much of the credit card industry is intent on exceeding the requirements of the SCRA for the benefit of military service members on active duty.

How to receive these benefits

According to this document at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, SCRA protections begin the day you enter the military for full-time, active-duty members, or the day you receive your mobilization orders for Reservists or Guardsmen. In each case, you should notify card issuers and ask for their SCRA benefits, although I’ve read reports that some first line credit card customer service representatives may be unfamiliar with both the requirements of the SCRA and any additional benefits offered. Expect card issuers to request documentation of your active duty military status, and know that the approval process may take a few weeks.

Avoiding annual fees can save you hundreds of dollars annually, while still allowing you to receive lucrative credit card benefits. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

Utilizing these benefits

Most credit card users have to carefully weigh the benefits of each account against the annual fees that must be paid, but this consideration need not apply to active duty service members. This opens up a new world of strategies that focus entirely on a credit card’s benefits while completely ignoring the annual fees that most people would have to pay.

While I’m not an active duty service member, I can certainly imagine what my credit card strategy might be like if I knew that I could have any card’s annual fee waived upon request.

Here are the cards I would consider first:

American Express Platinum

The only reason not to have this card is its hefty $450 annual fee. But without that consideration, it would be a must have for everyone. The earning rate is unexceptional—cardholders receive one Membership Rewards point for each dollar spent, and these points can be transferred to 17 airline partners and four hotel partners. However, the perks that come with this card make it worthwhile.

Cardholders get access to three airport lounge networks: Delta’s SkyClub, Priority Pass Select, and Amex’s own Centurion clubs. Add in a $200 annual airline fee credit, a $100 statement credit toward a Global Entry application, and plenty of other benefits, and the value of this card is impressive. Cardholders can also request additional cards for authorized users for an additional $175 annual fee, and it seems likely that American Express would waive this fee as well.

This card currently offers a sign-up bonus of 40,000 points after you spend $3,000 in the first 3 months. However, there is a targeted offer for 100,000 points, so check to see if you’re eligible for that before applying.

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Citi Prestige offers a $250 annual credit for airfare.

 

Citi Prestige

The Citi Prestige card also has a $450 annual fee, and while it’s a competitor of the Amex Platinum, the cards could actually complement one another in many ways. This card offers three Citi ThankYou Points for each dollar spent on air travel and hotels, two points per dollar spent on entertainment and on dining out, and one point per dollar spent on other purchases.

Points can be transferred to ten different airline programs as well as Hilton HHonors. Aside from transfer options, points are worth 1.6 cents apiece when you redeem them through the Citi ThankYou Rewards Travel Center for airfare on American Airlines and US Airways, or 1.33 cents on other airlines. Lounge benefits include access to the American Admiral’s Clubs, US Airways Clubs, and the Priority Pass Select network. This card also has a $250 annual airline travel credit, which includes ticket purchases (unlike the credit on Amex Platinum), and a $100 Global Entry Application fee credit.

Servicemembers can also receive additional points bonuses by being CitiGold or Private Banking clients, which they should also be able to do with no fees. The current sign-up bonus for this card is 30,000 ThankYou Points after you spend $2,000 within the first 3 months. Read TPG’s review of this card from November for more details.

Note that Chase requires accounts to be open before beginning active duty in order to receive an annual fee waiver.

Ritz-Carlton Rewards card from Chase

This card, which normally has an annual fee of $395, currently offers a sign-up bonus of 140,000 points (which can be used for Marriott stays as well) after you spend $3,000 on the card within three months of account opening. Benefits include a $300 annual travel credit, a $100 hotel credit on paid Ritz-Carlton stays of two nights or longer, and Lounge Club membership, which is very similar to Priority Pass Select.

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Get access to United Airlines lounges with the United Club card.

United Club card from Chase

This card, which also has a $395 annual fee, is my favorite of all of the premium cards offered by airlines. In addition to United Club lounge access (which isn’t offered by any other credit card), it offers 1.5 miles per dollar on all purchases, and has a first and second bag fee waiver for the cardholder and one companion. It also features numerous Premier Access travel services that equate to nearly all the benefits of elite status (except for the complimentary upgrades, of course). Finally, cardholders can waive the close-in fee on United award bookings.

Note that Chase requires accounts to be open before beginning active duty in order to receive an annual fee waiver.

One final note

Even though military service members can obtain any card they want without paying an annual fee, that doesn’t mean they necessarily should. The SCRA is intended to minimize the financial burdens faced by service members, but you’ll still have to pay back whatever charges you make, even if the interest rate is lower than normal. If you use a line of credit to overspend and incur debt, then it’s simply not worth having with or without the annual fee.

If you can responsibly utilize the most valuable credit card benefits offered, without paying any fees for these privileges, then you might as well accept these fee waivers from the banks as a small way of saying thank you for your service.