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Over the past few years, I have refined my military reward travel strategy to get the absolute most out of my vacations. Leveraging military discounts with reward travel opportunities has seriously changed the way I plan for and book vacations. I’m using the American Express Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, and Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant American Express cards for my reward travel. Additionally, I’m using the Chase Ink Business Preferred for my business expenses. Typically, they carry a total of $1,645 in annual fees. But, with my active duty status, I get all of their benefits for free.
In this article, I’ll be covering my first experience with military reward travel. Also, I’ll ask you how you think I should spend my current total of 780,299 combined points! If you are new to reward travel, you will want to first check out this article for my recommended first travel credit card to get you started.
Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
This is an absolutely must have credit card because of the great signup bonus and quick earning power for every purchase.Terms Apply
The Platinum Card from American Express
If you are a traveler who loves the airport lounges, Marriott hotels, airfare credit, and more then you need to add this card to your repertoire.Terms Apply
Chase Sapphire Reserve Card
If traveling is a passion, then this card is the one to get. You can’t beat how fast this card accrues rewards for everyday purchases.Terms Apply
About three years ago, I decided to apply for my very first reward travel card, the American Express Platinum. At the time, I did a little research to understand all the benefits. But, when I found out that I could get the $550 annual fee waived for my active duty status, I was sold. Furthermore, when I learned about the $200 airline fee credit, $200 a year (total) in Uber credits, and 5x travel points, I was ecstatic. I felt like I had been missing out on some free money. So, I used the first couple of months to reach the sign-up bonus spending amount. Once I did, I had 60,000 Membership Rewards in the bank.
Since I was already pretty disciplined, I decided to immediately apply for my next reward travel card, the Chase Sapphire Reserve. Once I hit the spending limit, I earned a $300 travel credit, 50,000 bonus points, and access to the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal. Immediately, I started immersing myself in all of the reward travel websites to really understand how to spend these points effectively. Also, my (at the time) $450 annual fee (now $550) was waived with no issues.
Developing a reward travel strategy will be different for everyone. Looking back, I could have done a few things differently. I could have tried to maximize my points benefits by transferring some of the bonus points to different airlines. Or, I could have tried to find a resort that would allow me to also do a points transfer. But, I decided to spend a fraction of my hard-earned points and opted to accumulate points with the 5x travel rewards.
First, I started looking for adult-only all-inclusive resorts in Costa Rica and stumbled upon Secrets Papagayo (highly recommended). Since we prepared to pay for a vacation, we decided to make our room purchase on the American Express Platinum for the 5x points. We found the resort on the American Express Travel Portal, and we were upgraded to Club Lounge access for top-shelf drinks just for purchasing it through the portal. Additionally, we happily drank our $400 in free top-shelf drinks—so this was an added benefit.
Next, we decided to rent a car and tour Costa Rica without a guide (highly recommend this!). Luckily, with the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal, we booked a $350 car rental for about 25,000 points. As you will find out, your Chase points are usually around 1.5x the value. With some careful flight bookings, we used the $300 airline travel credit to cover a large portion of the airfare. Finally, we now had all of the critical factors of the vacation booked and were getting ready for block leave!
Leading up to our 2017 Costa Rica vacation, we went to Houston to be closer to the airport. (Yes, everything you heard about Fort Polk sucking is right). When we travel, we always try to stay at Marriott brand hotels. They seem to offer significant military discounts, and let’s face it; they are just a great hotel chain. So, I’m okay with paying the premium because the luxury experience from check-in to check-out is worth it.
At this particular 5-star Houston Marriott, we purchased a regular, king-size room for $99 a night with our military discount. Without the military discount, this same room was $199. Now, where this gets fun is that the American Express Platinum gives you Marriott Gold Elite status. When available, they will provide you with a free room upgrade. For this trip, we were given a one-bedroom, massive corner suite. This room (without a military discount and without the free upgrade) was $399 for that night.
Pro Tip: It doesn’t always work out because they obviously won’t be able to upgrade you if they are at capacity. But, this strategy has allowed us to go from a simple king room to a one and two-bedroom suite about four different times that we have been traveling. It even worked for us on our Italy vacation.
Since I’m such a fan of Marriott hotels, I added one more reward travel credit card to my inventory. The Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant earned me 75,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after qualifying purchases, 15 Elite Night Credits, $300 Marriott Bonvoy Statement Credit, and 1 Free Night Award. Additionally, I accrue 6x points for purchases at Marriott Bonvoy hotels. And, like all of the other cards, I was able to have the $450 annual fee completely waived for my active duty status.
If you are a Marriott snob like me, you should consider getting this card. In 2019, the 15 Elite Night Credits allowed us to hit the 50-night stay requirement to upgrade to Platinum Elite status for 2020. Now, I’m extremely excited for 2020 because not only will I be accruing points at a 6x rate, but now I’ll also be receiving 50% bonus points on stays.
As I way all of the benefits of my cards, I’d likely recommend for you to downgrade this card to the Marriott Bonvoy Boundless Visa Credit Card. Also, not only do you still get the benefits of the 6x Bonvoy points per $1 spent, but you get a substantially larger bonus offer with the current offer of 100,000 bonus points. Lastly, you also have the flexibility of a Visa credit card.
After launching MilitaryTravelPro.com, I got my first business card. This allowed me to separate my business income and expenses from my personal life. Not only has it helped with managing my business income reports, but it has also allowed me to take advantage of another sign-up bonus. Therefore, I decided to get the Chase Ink Business Preferred for the 80,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points and the 3x points on select business categories. And, this is another excellent tool to take advantage of and have the $95 annual fee waived.
Since the Costa Rica vacation, we have been saving all of our travel points to take a once in a lifetime vacation—absolutely free. Over these past two years, we have saved a total of 780,299 (February 2020) combined points. I’ll break down our current balances below:
First, my American Express Platinum balance is 134,794.
Next, my Chase Sapphire Reserve Ultimate Reward balance is 196,710.
Now, my Chase Ultimate Reward balance from my Chase Ink Business Preferred is 88,859.
And, my Marriott Bonvoy Point balance is 359,936.
So, my question for you–where should we go with all of these points? Also, I’ll be accumulating them for another year. So, let me know in the comments below!