credit cards in the foreign service

UPDATE: Also check out the new Chase Sapphire Reserve.

I have been asked at least five times this week about what credit card I am planning to use overseas. Before joining the foreign service, I “churned” credit cards. Basically, I signed up for cards for the sign-up bonuses and got creative with rules to rack up the points. Over the last year, I paid for trips to Maui, DC (in first class!), Denver, San Diego, and Knoxville using points/miles from credit cards. All together, I have had more than 25 different cards in the last 2 years!

So which one is the best for foreign service officers? Everybody’s situation is different because everybody is looking for something based on their unique situation. But my suggestion to everybody who asks me is the Chase Sapphire Preferred.

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What is great about the Sapphire Preferred

0% foreign transaction fee. This is big in the foreign service. We spend most of our time, and money, overseas.

Points earned per dollar spent. I see people on various boards say “The United card is great!” or “The Delta/Southwest card is the best!” They are all okay, but not as good as the Sapphire and here is why. They each give you 2 points per dollar spent on their airline. Every other dollar spent on it, including rival airlines, only gets you 1 point per dollar. But the Sapphire Preferred gives you 2 points per dollar spent on ANY travel. United, Delta, Carnival, the DC Metro, taxis, Uber, rental cars, airline baggage fees, it all earns 2 points. It also earns 2 points on dining. It’s seriously awesome.

Incredibly valuable and flexible points redemption. This card allows you to transfer your points to other frequent flier programs and use them as if you earned them in that program.This includes British Airways, Korean Air, Singapore Air, Southwest, United, Virgin, Amtrak, Hyatt, IHG (Holiday Inn), Marriott, and Ritz-Carlton.

What makes this transfer perk so valuable? Using points to buy airfare is almost always cheaper than cash. Most credit cards allow you to use your points “like cash.” This sounds good, but it rarely worth it.

An exampleA United Airlines ticket from SLC to Kingston right now goes for $538 one way! That’s a lot. That would be 53,800 points on most credit cards (and in theory you could use the Sapphire points as cash that same way if you wanted to). But by using your Sapphire Preferred to transfer points to United, you would need as little 17,500 points! So it would be possible for you to buy 3 tickets using points for what you would have paid in cash.

Travel insurance. For free! All of your trips are insured when you use your Sapphire. I booked a cruise with Jen that we missed due to a death in her family. Carnival refused to refund any of it. Not a penny. Chase, however, got me a check for the full amount (over $2,000) that same week.

What is good about the Sapphire Preferred

Customer service. There is no automated phone tree. When you call, a real person answers immediately.

Extended warranty. Whenever you buy a tv or playstation or blender with your card, Chase automatically extends the warranty on top of whatever the manufacturer offers.

It’s made of metal. Cooooool.

What is bad about the Sapphire Preferred

The fee. There is a $95/year fee for the card. However, they waive it for the first year. For signing up, you get 50,000 bonus points, worth a minimum of $625 airfare/hotel (but a lot more if you transfer them to a loyalty program like I explained above). You can sign up your spouse or child for an “authorized user” card, and it is totally free! All you need to do is spend $4,000 on the card in the first three months.

Overall, I love this card. Out of my 25 or so cards, it is my favorite. I recommend it to everybody who asks me what travel card they should get, but it is especially valuable in the foreign service. I’ve noticed that easily half of the people at the FSI cafeteria are using this same card.

If you want to apply for it, please consider using this link here.

10 responses to “credit cards in the foreign service

  1. Credit cards are an important part of FS life, good of you to bring it up. The default no annual membership fee, no foreign transaction fee card most people I know use is from Capital One. But if you can make the extra benefits from points etc. work for you, then great.


  2. 19 cards! Whoa! Isn’t it such a pain to cancel a credit card? I always want to do the same thing for the bonuses, but it seems like such a headache to cancel them. Any tips for canceling them easily?


    • The best thing is to downgrade to a free version of the card or to ask them to waive the fee. Otherwise your credit score can be dinged.


  3. Hey Scott,

    I’m a 24 year old law student interested in the foreign service (I’m planning to take the test on Friday!). I’ve talked to a couple FSOs later on in their careers but it would be great to talk to someone who’s just starting out. Is there any way you’d be available to talk about your experience so far either through e-mail or Skype?



  4. Great info. My wife and I have and the Delta American Express for years. You made us switch. Enjoy those bonus points.


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