Active duty military can have the top rewards credit cards in every category without worrying about annual fees. This is because Chase, American Express, and Capital One waive annual fees for active-duty military as part of the Servicemembers Civil Relief Act and the Military Lending Act. This is an amazing perk for active-duty military!
Best Credit Cards For Military By Category
When looking for the best credit cards for military we kept several factors in mind:
- Sign-up bonus
- Ongoing benefits
- Earning rates
The best bonuses are worth at least $500 or more. Sign-up bonuses are used as an incentive to attract customers to apply for their card over the competition and they can be quite lucrative. Typically, you have to spend a certain dollar amount in purchases in a set amount of time in order to receive the sign-up bonus. They are definitely worth planning your spending to make sure you hit the spending requirements.
Many cards offer ongoing perks that make them valuable to hang on to–especially when you don’t have to pay the annual fee. Perks like travel credits, checked bag fee waivers, and free hotel nights are just some of the ongoing benefits that cards can offer.
Some cards offer increased earning rates for spending in specific categories. For example, you may earn double points on gas or at the grocery store. Those are great to have when not working toward a sign-up bonus.
Best Sign Up Bonus—Chase Sapphire Reserve®
The Chase Sapphire Reserve® is Chase’s top-tier transferrable point rewards card.
- Earn 60,000 bonus points after you spend $4,000 on purchases in the first 3 months from account opening. That's $900 toward travel when you redeem through Chase Ultimate Rewards®
- $300 annual travel credit
- 3X point earning rates on travel and dining purchases
- Complimentary airport lounge access with Priority Pass Select membership
- Up to $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- Trip cancellation/ trip interruption insurance
- $550 annual fee is waived for active-duty military
When redeemed for travel in the Chase Ultimate Rewards® travel portal, points are worth 1.5 cents each. This makes the sign-up bonus worth $900. And Chase Ultimate Rewards® points are incredibly versatile.
In addition to being able to book flights, hotel, rental cars, cruises, and activities with Ultimate Rewards points, they are also transferable.
Chase Ultimate Rewards® points may be transferred to 13 different travel partners for potentially even more value.
While other credit cards may offer sign up bonuses similar in value, the Chase Sapphire Reserve® includes additional benefits that push it to the top.
The $300 travel credit is automatically reimbursed and easy to use. Normally, the annual fee for the Chase Sapphire Reserve® is $550, but for military eligible for MLA benefits, the fee is waived. The $300 travel credit is essentially free money.
Of special interest to active duty military is the Chase Sapphire Reserve®‘s trip cancellation/trip interruption insurance. This provides coverage in the event of changes in military orders for you, your spouse, or domestic partner when the travel is purchased with the Chase Sapphire Reserve®.
Best For Travel Benefits—The Platinum Card® From American Express
In military circles, The Platinum Card® from American Express is frequently recommended as the best card to have. It’s definitely one that tops our list as well.
- Welcome offer of 80,000 Membership Rewards points when you spend $6,000 in the first six months
- $200 annual airline fee credit
- 5 Membership Rewards points earned per dollar spent on flights booked through American Express Travel or directly with the airlines
- Access to the Global Lounge Collection
- Up to $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- $15 per month in free Uber rides
- $695 annual fee is waived for active-duty military
- Terms Apply
Civilians fork over $695 each year to have this card in their wallet. It’s easy to see why. The Platinum Card® from American Express is hands down the best card to have for its airport lounge benefits. No need to search for a seat at crowded gate, pay for an over-priced muffin at the food court, or stalk the outlets so you can charge your phone. Airport lounges are a quiet and relaxing location to wait prior to boarding. Many have nice selections of free food and drink, and outlets are available everywhere.
With The Platinum Card® from American Express, you have access to more than 1200 airport lounges in 130 countries.
- The Centurion Lounge
- The International American Express Lounges
- Priority Pass
- Escape Lounges
- Delta SkyClubs (when flying Delta)
- Plaza Premium
- Air Space
Traveling with others? No problem. Bring guests into the lounge with you. With the exception of the Delta Sky Clubs, a limited number of traveling companions may accompany the cardholder into the lounge.
Airline Fee Credit
Airlines are charging for almost everything these days. Thankfully, most airlines will waive baggage fees for active-duty military. If not, The Platinum Card® from American Express will offset the cost. With this card, receive up to $200 in statement credits each calendar year for incidental charges made to your selected airline.
What are incidental charges?
- Checked baggage fees
- Oversize baggage fees
- Change fees
- Phone reservation fees
- Pet fees
- Airport lounge day pass and membership purchases
- Seat assignment fees
- In-flight refreshments and amenities
- In-flight entertainment (excluding internet)
Uber Cash Credit
Ridesharing is a super convenient way to get around a city or to and from the airport. The Platinum Card® from American Express has you covered. Cardholders enjoy VIP status and a $15 per month in Uber Cash credits. In December, there’s an extra $20 for a total value of $200 per year.
Hotels like to reward loyal customers with little perks during their stays. Status can mean upgrades, late checkouts, free breakfast, and other perks. Having status also earns additional bonus points on each dollar spent. But reaching those higher tiers takes a lot of nights or stays. Get status without all the stays. The Platinum Card® from American Express offers Marriott Bonvoy Gold Elite and Hilton Honors Gold status just for having the card.
Increased Earnings on Travel Purchases
Besides the benefits The Platinum Card® from American Express provides during travel, cardholders also earn 5x points on flights booked directly with the airline or with American Express Travel. Need a hotel? Hotels booked through American Express Travel also earn 5x Membership Reward points.
Best For Everyday Purchases—Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card
As good as some high-annual fee cards are, many aren’t very compelling for everyday spending. For your everyday purchases, you can do better than earning just one point or mile per dollar. The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card doubles the value other cards typically offer on everyday spending.
- 75,000 miles when you spend $4,000 within the first three months of opening the account
- 2 Venture Miles per dollar spent
- 5X miles on hotels and rental cars when booked through Capital One Travel
- Up to $100 credit on Global Entry or TSA PreCheck
- 15 airline transfer partners
- $95 annual fee is waived for active-duty military
The Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is an excellent choice for your everyday, non-bonus category, expenses. Not only does it offer a healthy 75,000-mile bonus, the $4,000 spend within the first three months of account opening to earn the bonus is quite reasonable. Better yet, it earns two Venture Miles per dollar on every purchase.To receive all the benefits of elite hotel status, bookings need to be made directly with the hotel. However, when booking stays at independent hotels or when there’s no elite status benefits to lose, the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card earns 5x points when booked through their portal.
The versatility of Venture Miles is another reason the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card is a great choice for everyday spending. Miles may used for flights, hotels, rental cars, etc., or transferred to one of the Capital One Venture Rewards Credit Card‘s 15+ travel loyalty programs.
Best For Cash Back—Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express
Transferrable rewards points are great, but cash is king. A good cash back card rounds out your portfolio. Use earnings for a multitude of travel or financial goals. The Blue Cash Preferred Card from American Express has bonus categories with earning rates that top all the competitors.
- Earn a $250 statement credit after you spend $3,000 in purchases on your new Card within the first 6 months.
- 6% cash back at US supermarkets (on up to $6,000 per year in purchases, then you’ll earn 1%)
- 6% cash back on US streaming subscriptions
- 3% cash back on transit (rideshares, tolls, parking meters)
- 3% cash back at US gas stations
- 1% back on all other purchases
terms and conditions apply
That 6% cash back on your first $6,000 in US supermarket purchases is incredible and equals $360 each year. That’s a huge savings! Using public transit is already economical, and becomes even more so when using this card to pay for tickets and fares. And just like with the American Express Gold Card, the 6% earning applies for purchases at US-based military commissaries. The card has $0 intro annual fee for the first year, then $95. This fee is waived for active-duty military.
Best Airline Card—United℠ Explorer Card
While miles earned with co-branded airline cards aren’t as versatile as transferable points, they are still worth pursuing. Members of the military can rarely make personal travel plans very far in advance. Having points and miles spread out across different rewards programs helps make near-term rewards travel possible.
Chase’s co-branded United℠ Explorer Card tops our list of best airline credit cards.
- Earn 60,000 bonus miles after you spend $3,000 on purchases in the first 3 months your account is open.
- Earn 2 miles for every dollar spent at restaurants, hotels, and United–1 mile per dollar spent everywhere else
- Largest number of destinations served
- Most travel partners of any airline alliance
- Greater flight availability when redeeming miles
- United Club℠ access
As with other cards listed, the annual fee for the card is waived for active-duty military.
United has a large domestic footprint and its 35+ partner airlines give United miles a fairly extensive reach world-wide.
There’s another feature that makes United cards valuable beyond their miles–Cardholders have more flight options when redeeming miles. Having more flights choose from when booking reward travel means more available seats. That can make the difference between booking a trip or skipping it entirely.
United Club Passes
United℠ Explorer Card offers two United Club℠ one-time-use passes. Cardholders will receive them shortly after account opening and then two more with each account anniversary. Access to United Clubs nicely complements the network of airport lounges available with the previously recommended cards.
United Club℠ Infinite Card
Another card that offers the United Club℠ passes is the United Club℠ Infinite Card, also through Chase. However, the sign-up bonus is not typically as lucrative as the one for the United℠ Explorer Card.
What the United Club℠ Infinite Card does offer is access to the United Club℠ all the time, not just the one-time-use passes that the United℠ Explorer Card offers.
A way around this is to request a product change and upgrade to the United Club℠ Infinite Card after your first account anniversary. This allows you to reap the best of both cards. The higher sign-up bonus with the United℠ Explorer Card and then the United Club℠ membership from the United Club℠ Infinite Card.
Best For Dining—American Express® Gold Card
Everyone should have a card that will earn them big rewards for dining and groceries, but since active duty military doesn’t need to worry about an annual fee, they can get the very best. And that’s the American Express® Gold Card.
- Earn 60,000 Membership Rewards® Points after you spend $4,000 on eligible purchases with your new Card within the first 6 months of Card Membership.
- 4 Membership Rewards points for every dollar spent on dining
- 4 Membership Rewards points for every dollar spent at US supermarkets (up to $25,000 per year)
- 3 Membership Rewards points for every dollar spent on flights booked with airlines or at amextravel.com
- $10 per month in statement credits toward dining purchases with select vendors. Enrollment required.
- $100 annual airline fee statement credit on a selected qualifying airline
- Terms Apply
- The $250 annual fee for the card is waived for active-duty military.
Groceries is one of the big three household expenses, right up there with housing and transportation. The American Express® Gold Card earns 4x Membership Rewards points at restaurants worldwide.
Too tired to cook or even go out? This card also offers $10 in monthly statement credits to meal delivery service Grubhub, or at select restaurants like The Cheesecake Factory. Enrollment required.
In addition to the dining benefits, the American Express® Gold Card earns 4x Memberships Rewards points at US supermarkets, up to $25,000 per year. And yes, the 4x earning works at military commissaries located in the US.
Best Hotel Card—The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card
Getting to your destination is only half the battle. Hotel credit cards are a great way to get not only points, but free nights and more.
The top hotel card is without a doubt the Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card. There are a ton of perks with this card that civilians pay $450 a year for. They can easily get more than $450 in value from this card, but military gets it all for free.
- Welcome offer of 150,000 Hilton Honors bonus points if you spend $4,000 in the first three months
- 14 Hilton Honors points for every dollar spent at participating hotels and resorts
- 7 Hilton Honors points for every dollar spent at restaurants, participating car rental services, and flights booked at amextravel.com
- 3 Hilton Honors points for every dollar spent everywhere else
- Free weekend night reward upon opening and with each anniversary year
- Up to $250 Hilton Resort Statement Credit each year of card membership
- Up to $250 Airline Statement credit each calendar year
- Complimentary Hilton Honors Diamond Status
- $450 annual fee is waived for active-duty military
The free weekend night reward is incredibly valuable. It’s valid for almost any Hilton property. Only a handful of exclusions are listed on the Hilton website. Even better, it can be combined with the $250 Hilton Resort Statement Credit. Meaning the credit can be used for room charges or on the room rate for an additional night while using the free weekend night.
Hilton Honors Diamond status is the highest tier achievable. It normally requires 60 nights per year to reach. With Diamond status, there are perks like Executive Lounge access, room upgrades, free breakfast, late checkout, premium internet, and a 100% bonus on Hilton Honors base points earned.
Best For Military Base Spending—USAA Cashback Rewards Plus American Express Credit Card
No, this isn’t about the Military Star Card. There’s a better deal out there. The USAA Cashback Rewards Plus American Express Credit Card offers a healthy cash back bonus on certain purchases.
- 5% cash back on the first $3,000 in combined gas station and military base purchases
- 2% cash back on the first $3,000 in grocery purchases yearly
- 1% cash back on all other purchases
- Special military SCRA rate of 4% APR
- no annual fee
The quality and availability of on base shopping opportunities varies greatly around the world. The major benefit of shopping on base is not having to pay sales tax. All else being equal, military members can save a good percentage in just sales tax making major purchases on base. Combine that with a credit card offering and additional 5% in cash back, and that’s some significant savings.
Those who do a lot of on-base shopping should have no problem maxing the $3,000 limit out and in turn, earn the $150 cash back. Earn an additional $60 cash back from the 2% cash back on the first $3,000 in grocery purchases each year.
But this card only earns 1% cash back for everything else, so it isn’t the best choice for everyday spending. After maxing out the cash back bonus categories, it’s a sock drawer card. Hit the limits and put it a drawer. Bring it back out again on January 1st when the limits reset.
Why Annual Fees Are Waived For Military?
There’s no doubt military life comes with a range of challenges. But the primary focus of service members must always remain on the mission. To ensure that financial hardships at home do not become a distraction, Congress has implemented Federal laws that provide various financial protections to the military.
The Servicemembers Civil Relief Act (SCRA)
SCRA has been around for a number of years and is widely known within the military ranks. It provides the service member with a broad range of protections involving issues such as:
- Lease terminations
- State residency rights
- Interest rates
Under SCRA, interest rates are capped at 6%. However, SCRA provisions only apply to debt incurred prior to entering active duty and only when requested by the service member. Unfortunately, new loans or lines of credit obtained while on active duty are not eligible for the protections or interest rate limits set forth by SCRA.
Though the law does not require it, several companies kindly apply SCRA benefits to accounts opened while on active duty. It’s a nice way to thank members of the military for their service and sacrifice. Specifically, American Express has been the most generous applying SCRA benefits to both its personal and business cards.
Capital One also waives annual fees under SCRA regardless of when the account was opened.
Military Lending Act (MLA)
The most recent benefit for military became law just a couple of years ago. In 2017, Congress expanded MLA to include additional interest rate protections. The key difference between SCRA and MLA is that MLA protections apply to loans and credit cards obtained after its effective date, October 3, 2017.
Additionally, the protections afforded to military under MLA include dependents of active duty service members.
Interest rates under MLA are capped at a whopping 36%. That’s a huge number when compared to SCRA’s mere 6% cap. However, MLA incorporates fees in the interest rate calculation. The exception is bona fide fees. That’s a key term and one that is open to the card issuer’s interpretation. Therefore, not every credit card company calculates interest rate the same. Consequently, the implementation of MLA is not consistent across companies.
Chase is one issuer great about applying MLA benefits to its personal credit card products. But adhering to the law, Chase only applies MLA benefits to accounts opened after the Oct over 3, 2017 effective date.
Considering which issuers apply SCRA or MLA benefits, what are the best cards for members of the military? Here’s some more info on SCRA and MLA.
There are a number of credit cards that offer incredibly valuable rewards and ongoing benefits.
Because of Federal laws designed to provide financial protections to service members, annual fees on many of the most lucrative cards can be waived. Members of the military can take advantage of these benefits to save money and travel better.
All the recommended cards are eligible for annual fee waivers under either SCRA or MLA.
For cards issued by American Express or Capital One, make the request for SCRA benefits online or by calling the number on the back of your card. With Chase, MLA apply automatically when selecting”Military” as the source of income. Or request MLA benefits by calling the number on the back of the card.
Regardless of the issuer, it never hurts to call and ask if any special benefits or considerations ave available to service members.
To see the rates and fees for the American Express cards featured, please visit the following links: The Platinum Card® from American Express: See Rates and Fees; Blue Cash Preferred® Card from American Express: See Rates and Fees; American Express Gold Card: See Rates and Fees; The Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card: See Rates and Fees.