Maximizing Military Benefits for Long-Term Travel

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This article is a guest post from Mark. Mark left the US Army after eight years of active duty. He felt some frustrations with the transition process and so he started writing about it.

Eventually that writing turned into The Veteran Professional where he writes about going to graduate school, entrepreneurship, and professional careers for veterans after their service.

Leaving the military after eight years was a tough decision, But, I ultimately knew it was the right move for me. In thinking about what I wanted to do after hanging up the boots and moving on, I knew I wanted to plan some long-term travel.

I always loved to travel. There’s just something magical about being at an airport with your bags and knowing you are going somewhere. And so is everyone around you. 

While the military afforded me many opportunities to travel, personal travel was usually allocated to two-week blocks of leave, twice a year. I just wanted something longer. 

So when my commander asked me, what I planned on doing between getting my DD-214 and starting my MBA nine months later, I responded:

“I’m going to travel”

But how did I afford it?

Long-Term Travel in the military

Deployment and TDY Savings

My main pot of savings came from extra money earned on deployments and TDY trips. These afforded me opportunities for extra income. First, there were the direct increases in income:

  • Per diem
  • Special duty pay like hardship duty location or COLA
  • Combat Zone Tax Exclusion (CZTE)
  • Hostile fire and imminent danger pay (IDP)

But there were also opportunities to save based on adjustments to my living situation:

  • While deployed or TDY I was not paying for gas, my grocery bill was either less or zero, and my utility bill was less.
  • On my second deployment, I was able to find someone to move into my house while I was away. The timing was almost to the day — perfect. He was a friend, so I trusted him to look after the place. Plus he paid half my mortgage during that time. 
  • On my third deployment, I had moved out of that house and brought in a tenant (through a property manager). While I was gone, all my household goods were placed in storage. So my housing costs were the cost of that storage unit. Needless to say — they were significantly cheaper.

First things first — I made sure I had my emergency fund set up. 

Then, on top of my usual 25% savings rate, I doubled down with these extra savings opportunities. I typically put around 60% of the extra money into “long-term savings.” I made sure I maxed out my Roth IRA, got the match from the TSP when the Blended Retirement System came out, and started investing in real estate through Fundrise and Groundfloor.  

The rest went into low-volatility Vanguard bond funds. This was money I knew I would want in a few years for travel and wanted to see a bit of growth from it. I made sure I was maxing out my retirement savings, but wanted to leave some for me to enjoy as well. 

Military Discounts and Advantages

I won’t lie, I was never one to routinely ask for military discounts. I didn’t join the military to get 10% at a small business somewhere. But sometimes the deal is just too good to pass. 

My first adventure was two weeks of skiing in Park City, Utah. Sounds fancy, huh?

Despite how much I love to ski, it can be quite expensive. Just to get a ski pass, you can expect to pay close to $100/day and closer to $200/day at a world-class resort like Park City. 

Before the ski season, while still on active duty, I bought the Epic Pass, which gave me season access to some of the best mountains in America. The cost? 

$169 for active duty, active duty dependents, and retired military. 

That’s nuts. Even for non-retired veterans, the price is still unbelievable at $559.

For lodging, I kept it simple. I stayed at a hostel. This also saved me money on food because they had a kitchen where I could make meals. Hostels around ski reports are different from the party-crazy ones you may hear about overseas. Most people were just there to ski.

For the last few days of the trip I stayed in a Marriott Residence Inn with some family. The stay was paid for entirely through Marriott Points earned during TDY trips and on Marriott cards like the Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant. I always stayed at a Marriot when able on TDY. And because rooms at the Residence Inn have kitchens, I again made my own meals and saved on food.

Amex Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant Free for Military
  • Learn how to apply for the Amex Marriott Bonvoy Brilliant
  • $450 annual fee 100% waived for US military personnel
  • $300 Marriott Statement Credit on all charges to your room including spa, restaurants, room service, laundry, and nightly rates
  • Earn 125,000 Marriott Bonvoy points after spending $5000 in the first 3 months of card membership
  • Plus earn a $200 statement credit for US restaurants in the first six months of account opening. Offer expires 5/12/21
  • Earn 6 points per dollar spent at participating Marriott Bonvoy hotels
  • Receive 1 Free Night Award every year after your Card account anniversary (any redemption up to 50,000 points)
  • Complimentary Gold Elite Status at all Marriott Bonvoy properties (Westin, Ritz Carlton, etc)
  • No foreign transaction fees

Wanting to keep the snow theme alive, my next adventure was dog sledding in Minnesota with Outward Bound. This nonprofit offers free trips every year for veterans with everything from sailing, to rafting, to dog sledding. They even paid for my flight to Minnesota and to my next destination. 

Credit Card Points and Air Travel

Air travel is expensive. It’s easy in planning long-term travel to have the “travel” part be one of the most expensive. 

I had a significant number of points acquired through my military fee waived credit cards, like the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Amex Platinum.

Chase Sapphire Reserve bonus
Military SCRA MLA AMEX Platinum

I like having both Visa and Amex credit cards because Visa is accepted more globally than Amex. I built up points while on active duty, where I took advantage of the waived yearly fees. 

I still kept my American Express Platinum Card®. While on active duty, the yearly fee is waived. Even though I’m not active duty anymore, the annual $550 fee is still worth it to me. The travel perks are amazing:

Military SCRA MLA AMEX Platinum
  • American Express Platinum Card – learn how to apply
  • Annual fee of $550 waived for US military personnel and spouses
  • 75,000 Membership Reward Points welcome bonus (valued at $1500) when you spend $5000 in the first 6 months
  • 10x points at US Gas Stations and US Supermarkets (OCONUS Commissaries are US supermarkets) up to $15,000 in combined purchases for the first 6 months (an extra 150,000 points potentially!)
  • 5x points on airfare booked directly with airline or on amextravel.com
  • 5x points on prepaid hotels at amextravel.com
  • $200 annual Uber or UberEats credit (free taxi or food) + VIP Uber Status
  • $100 annual Saks Fifth Avenue credit, can be used for gift cards
  • Centurion and Priority Pass airport lounge access for free + guest
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Heavy metal card that looks and feels really cool
  • Read my full review of the Amex Platinum card for military

And while flying you get access to the American Express Centurion® Lounges and a host of other lounges via the Priority Pass, membership which is free with the Amex Platinum Card®. There’s nothing like being able to kick back and relax at an airport lounge while traveling. And it surely helps with layovers.

Even though I am no longer on active duty and the annual fee is no longer waived, I still have this card. The price is made up through all the perks.

Chase Sapphire Reserve No Annual Fee for Military
  • Apply for the Chase Sapphire Reserve
  • $550 annual fee waived to $0 for US military + spouses with Chase MLA policy
  • Earn 60,000 Chase Ultimate Reward Points after $4000 of spend in the first 3 months – $900 minimum value when redeemed through Chase Ultimate Rewards
  • $300 annual travel credit – through Dec 31, 2021 gas station and grocery store purchases also count towards your travel credit
  • 3x Points on Travel (airfare, hotels) and Dining (restaurants) after earning the $300 travel credit
  • Ultimate Reward Points redeemed through the Chase travel portal are worth 1.5 cents, a 50% bonus
  • Priority Pass lounge and restaurant access with over 1300+ airport lounges worldwide
  • Up to $100 application fee credit for Global Entry
  • Primary car rental auto insurance and trip cancellation/interruption insurance
  • No foreign transaction fees
  • Learn more about the Chase Sapphire Reserve

Long-Term Travel With Military Benefits

Long-term travel is a dream for a lot of people. It can be a ton of fun. There are numerous ways to save through budget travel options.

The good part about taking advantage of these is that if you are traveling long-term, you usually have flexible options and won’t mind taking a cheaper flight or longer bus ride, where someone on a shorter timeline will want to pay for the convenience. 

After a military career, it’s important to reflect on what you’ve experienced and accomplished. Take advantage of these offers and opportunities and build the experience you want.

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