Usually, you never want to carry a whole lot of junk around in your wallet.  Seriously, sitting on a stuffed packet full of small bills and credit card receipts will throw your spine out of alignment pretty quickly.  But even though you should always look for ways to lighten your load, keeping a handful of frequent flier membership cards on hand is a great idea when you’re getting ready to leave on that first contract.

                Service providers use incentive programs like frequent flier miles as a way to build brand loyalty by giving customers one more reason to use their company again.  (They also make some extra loot by selling all your personal information to credit card companies, but that’s an article for another day.)  By offering the hope of earning free airfare, frequent flier programs act as a strong motivator to attract repeat business.  With the current low rate of return on these programs, they’re just not worth the hassle for most leisure travelers.  Only the most hardcore fliers can expect to get any kind of reward within a reasonable time.  But for all you aspiring security contractors, congratulations!  You’ve officially become “business travelers,” so pay attention to this next part! 

                You don’t have to be a confirmed globetrotter to cash in on the benefits of membership, so think about this:  even if your travel is limited to an initial deployment flight and a return trip home after completion of your contract, with maybe one more roundtrip to the States for a vacation at some point during the year, that’ll usually be enough mileage to score at least one free coach ticket from the United States.  You can use that ticket to fly your wife to meet you somewhere outside the country for a few weeks in order to take advantage of the Foreign Earned Income Exemption, or just hang on to it for when your contracting days are over.  You might be surprised to learn this but once those big paychecks stop rolling in, a $1000 plane ticket to visit a sick family member or attend someone’s wedding will actually seem like a pretty big expense!

                Most importantly, be sure to sign up with all of the major US-based airlines well in advance of your initial deployment.  This will allow you to have the actual membership card sent to your house, and sometimes just flashing that card when you check in will get you better service from the airline’s employees.  Flights with international airlines are usually creditable for mileage as well, since most of them operate in business partnerships with the American carriers.  Whenever possible, try to book your flights with the same airlines so that your mileage will build up quicker. 

                Last, don’t forget about the membership programs for hotel chains.  These points tend to add up much more slowly since you’ll probably only be staying over for a night or two at your international travel hub, but it’s one more way to get some free shit.  Marriott, Hilton, and Sheraton are all good options, and at least one of these three hotel chains will usually be available to you.  I’ve gotten a lot of free room upgrades from these companies, and a nice suite will be particularly welcome when you touch down after three months in a war zone!

                Look, it’s no secret that entry-level salaries have crept downward in recent years.  With that being the case, it’s more important than ever to make smart decisions about how you spend your money.  If you sign up for travel rewards and make the most of them during your time as a civilian contractor, then you’ll probably be able to set up a nice vacation for yourself as a bonus for completing your contract.  If you want to, you can even go ahead and call that one of the fringe benefits of the work!