Travel hacking with less manufactured spend

It seems that the travel hacking community has been thrown into one of its periodic panics, first over the loss of a popular gift card reselling opportunity and then an online bill payment option. I don't participate in such panics myself, but it's an opportunity to ask the question: what would travel hacking look like not in a world without manufactured spend, but in a world with less manufactured spend?

It's a good question because in a world with plentiful manufactured spend, lots of things are worth doing that might not be in a more constrained world. For example, today I happily earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, essentially speculating that I'll get more than 1.3 cents per point when I ultimately redeem them (since I could use a 2% cash back card instead). That wouldn't make any sense (for me) in a world where every dollar manufactured on one card reduces the amount I can manufacture on the others.

So, here's what I would do in a world of severely constrained — but not eliminated — manufactured spend.

Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash for office supply stores

I consider buying $200 or $300 Visa prepaid debit cards from office supply stores with a Chase Ink Plus or, if you're signing up today, Ink Cash, to be the best current opportunity, even though liquidating smaller-denomination gift cards can be time-consuming if you have to do it in-person. Paying $8.95 in activation fees and $0.35 for money orders lets you buy 1,545 Ultimate Rewards for $9.35. That's slightly more expensive than paying $4.30 for 756 Ultimate Rewards points by using a Freedom Unlimited at an unbonused merchant, but it's over twice as efficient, in that a single money order transaction made with four $300 debit cards earns 6,180 Ultimate Rewards points (at 0.6 cents each), while one transaction with four $500 debit cards earns just 3,024 points (at 0.57 cents each). In a world of limited manufactured spend, maximizing the total haul from each transaction would inevitably become a much higher priority.

Since flexible Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each for paid travel, doing this alone would let you earn $3,125 in paid travel each year for about $1,504.

Annual spend: $25,000 (Ink Cash) or $50,000 (Ink Bold or Ink Plus).

"Old" Blue Cash for grocery stores

For reasons that are beyond my petty comprehension, American Express still issues the "old" Blue Cash card that earns 5% cash back on up to $43,500 in purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and "select" drugstores in the United States. That's a devaluation from the previous, unlimited bonus earning, but it's still a lot of money.

Since grocery store spend is somewhat cheaper than office supply store spend, whether you prefer to prioritize Ink Plus or Ink Cash spend or "old" Blue Cash spend properly depends on the value you expect to get from Ultimate Rewards points redemptions.

Annual spend: $50,000.

Amex EveryDay Preferred for grocery stores

I almost hesitate to include this one since the cap on earning is so low, but if you can knock out $6,000 in grocery store purchases, then make enough additional purchases to get to 30 transactions in the same statement cycle, you can earn 27,000 flexible Membership Rewards points per year (and pay an annual fee of $95).

That's not very many Membership Rewards points, so in a world of unlimited manufactured spend you'd want to supplement them with, for example, a Premier Rewards Gold card. But in a world of less manufactured spend, it would roughly add up to a business class international award ticket every 3-5 years. That's not great compared to the status quo, but it's not terrible either.

Annual spend: $6,000

A good cashback card for unbonused spend

So far so good, right? The problem is that all these cards are terrible for anything except manufactured spend. The Ink Cash and EveryDay Preferred have foreign transaction fees (the "old" Blue Cash card does not for some reason), and the Ink Bold and Ink Plus only earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused spend.

Obviously if you have a lot of money the answer is the BankAmericard Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards, which earns 2.625% on all spend, has no foreign transaction fee, and is PIN-enabled for use internationally.

If you don't have a lot of money, you can use the PenFed Credit Union Power Cash Rewards card, which earns 1.5% cash back, or 2% if you have a PenFed Access America Checking Account. It's PIN-enabled and has no foreign transaction or annual fees, although the checking account requires a $500 average daily balance or monthly direct deposit to avoid a $10 monthly fee.

For domestic transactions you might consider using a Chase Freedom Unlimited to top up your Ultimate Rewards balance, but that card also has a foreign transaction fee so shouldn't be used internationally.


I think this is roughly the strategy I would pursue if my access to manufactured spend were suddenly constrained. It's pretty cheap (two $95 annual fees), pretty lucrative, and isn't very time-consuming, requiring only an average of about 6 total trips per month.

It would yield 125,000 or 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points, $2,240 in cash, and 27,000 Membership Rewards points. Whether or not that's sufficient to cover all your travel expenses depends on how many travel expenses you have, but it would certainly make a dent in mine.

Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, or Ink Preferred for Ultimate Rewards transferability?

I am on the record believing that much of the caterwauling about the end of travel hacking is essentially an artifact of individual travel hackers aging and having more responsibilities in other parts of their lives and less time to dedicate to the game. A person starting today wouldn't miss Vanilla Reload cards, just like when I got started I didn't miss buying dollar coins from the Mint. You can't miss what you never knew.

On the other hand, it's absolutely true that things are constantly changing, and keeping up-to-date on changes taking place is essential if you don't plan on retiring when your favorite credit card, award sweet spot, fuel dump, or manufactured spend technique is killed.

One such important change came about when Chase stopped issuing new Ink Plus small business credit cards.

The Ink Plus is the best Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card

People who currently hold Chase Ink Plus (and an even earlier card, the Ink Bold) earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores. While those cards can come with expensive activation fees, it's possible to turn a profit buying them virtually regardless of the liquidation technique you use, including even the most expensive options like making ordinary bill payments through Plastiq.

The Ink Plus also makes the Ultimate Rewards points you earn with other cards, like the Chase Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards, transferrable to Chase's travel partners, meaning you don't need to hold a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve card in order to maximize the value of your Ultimate Rewards points.

I say all this by way of background, and in case you already have an Ink Plus account: don't close it!

Brief aside: the Chase Ink Cash is still available for new signups

I try not to give recommendations around here. Your situation is different from my situation, your needs are different from my needs, etc.

But the no-annual-fee Ink Cash card is still available for new applications, and it still earns 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores (although only up to $25,000 per cardmember year, unlike the Ink Bold and Ink Plus maximum of $50,000 per cardmember year).

If you don't have one or more Ink Plus or Ink Bold accounts (and possibly even if you do!), moving an Ink Cash card up your list of applications in order to get another $25,000 in annual bonused office supply store spend seems like very low-hanging fruit to me at this point.

You can't sign up for new Ink Plus accounts

Chase hasn't given any indication they plan to force current Ink Plus or Ink Bold cardholders to change to the recently-introduced Ink Preferred, but they have stopped opening new accounts with those products.

That means if you have a portfolio of Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash cards that are earning fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points, you have to decide which Chase card to use to turn them into flexible Ultimate Rewards points.

So, which flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card is best for someone without access to an Ink Plus? Like I say, I don't give recommendations, but here are four factors you can use to help you decide.

1) Product changes

Chase's proprietary credit cards can be more or less freely changed within the personal and business credit card "silos." That means the Sapphire Preferred and Reserve cards can be changed to Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards, while an Ink Preferred can be easily changed to an Ink Cash card.

On the personal side, a Freedom Unlimited card is quite valuable for earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points at otherwise-unbonused merchants, but you only need one since you enjoy that earning rate on an unlimited amount of annual spend. Freedom (not Unlimited) cards meanwhile earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent in specified bonus categories, which have typically included widely-available manufactured spend opportunities like grocery stores and drug stores, but that bonused earning is capped at $1,500 per quarter, per card. That means you're typically best off accumulating as many individual Chase Freedom accounts as possible.

On the business side, as mentioned the Ink Cash is the last remaining Ultimate Rewards-earning credit card available to new customers that earns 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores.

The decisive question then is whether you prefer to earn bonus points on a finite amount of spend or fewer points on an unlimited amount of spend. If the former, an Ink Cash card lets you earn up to 125,000 Ultimate Rewards points on $25,000 in cardmember-year office supply store spend, while a Freedom card lets you earn a maximum of 30,000 points on $6,000 in calendar-year bonus spend. If the latter, the Freedom Unlimited card lets you earn 1.5 points per dollar spent on cheaper, unbonused manufactured spend or, for example, on unbonused reselling opportunities.

I'm not differentiating between the two premium personal cards here, since both can be product changed to either of the Freedom or Freedom Unlimited cards.

2) Signup bonuses

The Ink Preferred currently has a signup bonus of 80,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $5,000 within 3 months, while the Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards offer 50,000 points after spending $4,000.

That should give the Ink Preferred a strong advantage if you plan to transfer the points to Chase's travel partners. If you plan to redeem them for paid airfare, the difference shrink somewhat since the Ink Preferred signup bonus is worth $1,000 in paid airfare while the Sapphire Reserve's bonus is worth $750 due to its higher fixed redemption rate of 1.5 cents per point.

Note that unlike with some fixed-value rewards currencies you can combine points and cash on Ultimate Rewards booking portal reservations.

3) Bonus categories

If you plan to hold a flexible Ultimate Rewards credit card, it would be nice if you could earn some bonus Ultimate Rewards points with it:

  • Both the Sapphire Reserve and Ink Preferred cards earn 3 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on travel;
  • The Sapphire Reserve earns 3 points per dollar spent at restaurants while the Sapphire Preferred earns just 2 points (the Ink Preferred doesn't bonus restaurant spend);
  • The Ink Preferred earns 3 points per dollar spent on internet, cable, and phone services.

If you're a reimbursed business traveler, especially one in charge of wining and dining clients, the Sapphire Reserve or Preferred has the advantage, while if you can convince your employer to let you put $150,000 in telecommunications charges to your Ink Preferred card that would be a no-brainer.

4) Trip delay insurance

Depending on your own travel habits, this may be a decisive factor or more of a tie-breaker. The Sapphire cards have excellent trip delay insurance (Reserve for delays of 6 hours or an overnight stay, Preferred for delays of 12 hours or an overnight stay), and it applies to reservations paid for with the card, booked through the Ultimate Rewards portal, and award tickets so long as you charge the related taxes and fees to your card.

I've used Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance in the past and it was both fairly painless and fairly lucrative.


How to weigh these different factors in your own travel hacking practice is up to you, depending on your particular earning and redemption needs. Since I already have a couple of Freedoms, a Freedom Unlimited, and an Ink Plus, my advice wouldn't be worth anything to someone new to the game.

That being said, two obvious approaches suggest themselves. You could use a personal card (which one you choose depends on your own situation, including the factors above) as your permanent flexible Ultimate Rewards card, and then periodically apply for Ink Preferred cards before downgrading them to Ink Cash cards.

A second approach would be to alternate applying for personal and small business credit cards every 24 months (in order to be eligible for new account signup bonuses on the personal cards). This way you could product change Sapphire Preferred or Reserve cards to Freedom or Freedom Unlimited cards, and Ink Preferred cards to Ink Cash cards, gradually accumulating a stable of cards that are each subject to separate bonus earning limits. In this strategy, you would always have a flexible Ultimate Rewards card, but it would alternate between a personal and small business card, as long as you could continue to be approved. Of course, this approach may be somewhat riskier since it would always be subject to Chase approving your product change requests and new card applications — no sure thing!

The right ways to get to Evian-les-Bains

I recently wrote about my trip to Europe which involved a very expensive cab ride about 50% of the way around Lake Geneva, from Lausanne, Switzerland, to Evian-les-Bains, France.

The basic mechanics of the problem were simple, and I knew them in advance: we were flying into Munich because we booked very cheap tickets pretty far in advance, long before we had any plans on how to spend the vacation. From Munich, the best train connection to Lausanne arrived at 7:40, giving us 20 minutes to catch the final 8:00 pm ferry to Evian-les-Bains.

The train arrived late, we missed the ferry, and that was that.

But Evian-les-Bains was a delightful little destination and we have talked about going back in the summer when it might be a little more lively. That begs the question: after doing it wrong the first time, what's the right way to get there?

Don't fly into Munich

It may seem to go without saying, but obviously don't fly into Bavaria, Germany if you want to go to Haute-Savoie, France.

Flying into Zurich

From Zurich Airport you can get a direct train to Lausanne on one of the commuter trains that leave roughly every half hour. The train takes up to 2 hours and 40 minutes, and if it's your first time finding the ferry terminal in Lausanne I would suggest arriving at Lausanne-gare no later than 40 minutes before the last ferry of the night.

You can search an entire itinerary between Zurich Airport and Evian using the website of the Swiss state railway company, SBB CFF FFS.

Flying into Geneva

Another option is to fly into Geneva and take the intercity train from the Geneva airport to the Geneva train station, and connect to the regional TER train system. Although it takes about 3 hours to get from Geneva's airport to Evian-les-Bains, this method has the great advantage of allowing you to arrive somewhat later at night. The last train that would let you connect to Evian-les-Bains leaves Geneva airport at 8:32 pm, which would get you into Evian's train station around 11:38 pm.

The best tool I found to plan this itinerary is the website of SNCF, France's national state-owned railway company.

Note that the train station in Evian-les-Bains is not in the town centre so you should arrange a taxi or hotel shuttle in advance. It's not a long walk, but again, if it's your first time you'll have no idea what you're doing once you arrive.

Wait, why do you want to go to Evian-les-Bains?

For the waters! Evian is a funny little town built around the theme of a mineral water source "discovered" there by a bankrupt nobleman with liver and kidney problems. Best of all, once you're there you get all the mineral water you can drink for free.

But seriously, I found it interesting as a once-glorious tourist destination that has managed to hang on due to its magnificent views and the skiing, hiking, and water-sports infrastructure it has accumulated over the years.

It also has a Hilton property which features strikingly low award redemption rates throughout the year, an excellent breakfast buffet, and a generous evening cocktail, hors d'oeuvres, and dessert spread in the executive lounge, which also exits onto a rooftop terrace. I imagine that during the high season that rooftop turns into a pretty solid party every night.

American Express's new co-branded Hilton credit cards

I've been reading with interest this morning about the revamped lineup of co-branded Hilton Honors credit cards American Express will be launching soon. Since I earn a lot of Hilton Honors points with my current Surpass card (and I stay at a lot of Hiltons), I have some quick reactions to share (all of this is based on reported details; I haven't seen an official announcement from American Express yet).

Aspire for high-spending reimbursed business travelers

Note that I always differentiate mere business travelers from reimbursed business travelers. The former can still earn lots of points and elite status benefits on their employers' dime, but it's the later that are truly fortunate since they're also able to maximize the value of their personal credit card rewards with purchases that are later reimbursed by their employers.

For high-spending reimbursed business travelers, I think the Hilton Honors Aspire card may be a pretty good deal. If you spend $60,000 during the calendar year on reimbursed meals (in the US) and flights, you'll receive:

  • two free weekend nights at any Hilton property in the world;
  • 420,000 Hilton Honors points (good for at least 4 nights at any Hilton property in the world);
  • a $250 Hilton resort statement credit;
  • a $250 airline incidental fee credit;
  • unlimited Priority Pass lounge access.

Of course you can't analyze the Aspire card in a vacuum; you have to compare it to your next best option to identify the opportunity cost of putting that much spend on it instead of a rival card. The obvious candidate is the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which also has a $450 annual fee, and also earns bonus points on travel and dining (worldwide, not just in the United States). It also offers a $300 travel statement credit instead of a $250 airline fee credit.

So, how do they compare? A reimbursed business traveler who spent $60,000 on the Chase Sapphire Reserve in bonus categories would earn 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points, worth $1,800 in cash, $2,700 in paid travel through the Ultimate Rewards portal, and potentially much more than that if transferred to a partner program.

420,000 Hilton Honors points, meanwhile, are worth perhaps $2,100 if you're able to get half a cent in value per point. Assuming you use your two annual free weekend night certificates at mid-tier 45,000-point properties, and get the equivalent of half a cent per point in value, that adds another $450 in value, for roughly $2,550 total stay value. Assuming you can use the $250 Hilton resort statement credit on award stays, I don't see any reason not to value that close to face value. If you have to use it on paid stays, of course, you should assign it no value at all because you'll never use it.

So I think a fair prospective estimate of the value of the Aspire card to a high-spending reimbursed business traveler would be between $2,550 and $2,800, basically within a margin of error of the value of Chase Sapphire Reserve Ultimate Rewards points used to book paid travel.

That being the case, I think the strongest argument for picking the Aspire card over the Sapphire Reserve is not strictly the value of the points, but rather the value of diversifying into a rewards currency besides Ultimate Rewards. That's because there are other ways to earn Ultimate Rewards points (Chase Freedom and legacy Ink Plus cards spring to mind), so you may already be earning enough Ultimate Rewards points to meet the travel needs they're best suited for. In that case, earning Hilton Honors points instead may reduce your dependence on Chase's travel partners.

Anyway, I don't pay $450 annual fees, so I won't be getting an Aspire card anytime soon.

Business card for resellers?

American Express is also adding a business credit card to the Hilton Honors lineup that will offer 6 Honors points at a variety of merchants, including "wireless telephone services purchased directly from U.S. service producers." The card will offer a free weekend night after spending $15,000 and $60,000 each calendar year.

Some reseller may have to jump into the comments to correct me on this, but I think the obvious brute force way to maximize this card would be to buy $60,000 in iPhones from one of the mobile phone companies and resell them for as small a loss as possible.

I don't know if that would successfully earn 6 Honors points per dollar, and I don't know how much would be lost in transaction costs, but you'd get 360,000 Hilton Honors points and two free weekend nights, worth $2,250 using the same math as above. That means you'd need to keep your reselling transaction costs below 3.75% to break even (of course it would be even better if you turned a profit). You'd also receive Diamond elite status and 10 Priority Pass passes each year.

Rebranded Surpass: still good for manufactured spend

I put a lot of spend on my current Hilton Honors Surpass card, which I gather will become an "Ascend" card sometime in the next few quarters. I'll keep doing so, earning 6 Honors points per dollar spent at grocery stores and receiving Diamond status after spending $40,000 during the calendar year, but now I'll also get a free weekend night once I hit $15,000.

Unfortunately, after the transition I'll also have to pay $20 more per year for the privilege. As far as I'm concerned, that's a small price to pay for the free weekend night and 10 Priority Pass lounge passes.

If you want to lock in the $75 annual fee on the Surpass card I have a personal referral link on my Support the Site! page (shameless, I know).

How to make Delta's (bad) squeaky wheel policy work for you

If you spend much time around here, you know that I like flying on Delta. There are some catches, of course: if you prefer flying on Delta you'll probably want to get an American Express Delta Platinum or Reserve card and meet the high spend threshold in order to secure a Medallion Qualifying Dollar waiver (plus bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles). It's become harder to secure domestic First Class upgrades, but I've had great luck being upgraded to Comfort+ on leisure trips, even as a Silver Medallion (though I'll be a Gold Medallion next year).

But there's one area where Delta drives me positively nuts: their policy on meal vouchers for delayed and misconnected passengers.

Delta agents absolutely can issue meal vouchers

One of the great things about flying back to my hometown in Montana is that the outbound flights are inevitably overbooked. On my last two trips home I've taken voluntary denied boarding compensation of $1,300 and $800, so basically each trip I take home pays for another couple trips on Delta. Agents in my hometown also love printing out meal vouchers, so in addition to getting to relax at the downtown Hilton, I also get 3 $15 coupons to eat at the steakhouse there. Good deal, right?

Somebody told Delta's agents they can't issue meal vouchers

On my last flight back from Montana, my plane went mechanical and they had to fly a replacement jet in from Minneapolis, causing me to miss my connection back to the East Coast. When we finally arrived late at night in Minneapolis, Delta had already set us up with hotel reservations and boarding passes for flights the next day. Naturally, I asked the agent, "what about meal vouchers?" and he replied with a straight face, "no, we don't do that anymore."

Keep in mind that 36 hours earlier I'd received $45 in meal vouchers printed on Delta ticket stock out of a Delta agent's computer.

So, being me, I started bitching about it on Twitter, and after I explained the situation over DM, Delta's Twitter agent replied:

"I will have to get more information on that because you were just offered a voucher for meals on yesterday. I will reach out to airport Leadership to get some additional information on that. It may be only certain stations that offer meals. Corporate will definitely reimburse under the circumstances."

Reimbursement procedure

This wasn't exactly tricky but I'd never done it before so I want to spell it out for my readers. To get reimbursed for my meals, I did the following:

  1. Visit Delta's "comment/complaint" page here.
  2. Select "voice a complaint," then "after trip."
  3. Fill out the personal information and flight information.
  4. Explain the situation, ask for reimbursement, and attach any supporting documentation.

For my supporting documentation I attached both the receipt for my meal at the hotel bar that night and screenshots of my entire exchange with Delta's Twitter team, stating the bill would be reimbursed. I don't know if the Twitter screenshots were strictly necessary, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I did not include the itemized receipt, just the credit card receipt showing the total amount charged (useful if you remember the details of my Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance post).


I filed my complaint on September 29. On October 14, I received an e-mail stating they had issued me a check for the entire restaurant bill I submitted, and the check I am now holding in my hands was dated October 16 (I was out of the country last week and only just checked my mail).

This is bad

Now I know how to do this, and since you're a faithful reader, now you know how to do it too. But of the 100+ passengers on my misconnected Delta flight, all of whom were owed meal reimbursement, how many of them got it? I'd be stunned if you told me a single other person on that flight went through this procedure and received the reimbursement they were entitled to.

Were they lazy? Were they stupid? No, they were just told by an authority figure that they weren't entitled to anything, and they accepted it, because what else were they going to do?

Anatomy of a (partly) award trip: France, Switzerland, Germany

This week I'm on my first big vacation since last summer's Club Carlson-financed trip around Central Europe, which means it's time for one of my patented anatomies of an award trip. You can find previous entries in the series here.

Getting there: United to Munich

Booking this flight was the occasion for a post in August about never finding a good enough excuse to redeem points for premium cabin travel. After writing that post, the price of our nonstop flights from Dulles to Munich fell even further, and I ultimately redeemed just 30,000 Flexpoints for a $599.76 roundtrip ticket.

Total cost: 30,000 Flexpoints. Total value: $599.76. Value per point: 2 cents per Flexpoint.

Getting around (1): train tickets to Lausanne

We arrived in Munich on Saturday, and don't have to be back in Germany until Thursday, so we decided to visit a friend currently working in Lausanne, Switzerland. After taking the Munich subway to the main train station, we popped into the "traveler's assistance" room to buy tickets.

Interestingly, at the Munich train station there were automated kiosks that sold tickets within Germany, but our itinerary required us to travel to Zurich, then switch to another, Swiss rail company for the second leg, and the kiosks wouldn't accept Lausanne as a destination (I believe they would have sold us tickets to Zurich if that were our final destination).

However, in the "traveler's assistance" room we walk up to the extremely friendly, extremely fluent English-speaking counter and were able to buy the exact tickets we wanted in a matter of minutes.

Total cost: $236.02. Note that we expect to pay this amount, or somewhat more, on the return trip to Zurich and then back to Munich.

Getting around (2): taxi from Lausanne to Evian-les-Bains

Once in Lausanne, it's easy to get from the train station to Evian-les-Bains, where we're staying. It's easy, that is, if you arrive before the last ferry across Lake Geneva leaves for the night. In our case, we were arriving on a Saturday, so we needed to be on board by 8 pm. Our train was scheduled to arrive at 7:40 pm. This was, obviously, cutting it pretty close, but it's not like we had any choice: we had to cross Germany and Switzerland after all, and we were on the only train that would get us to Lausanne that night.

Ultimately, our train arrived a few minutes late, at 7:47. We sprinted through the station looking for signs for the Lausanne metro, jumped onboard without paying (sorry, Lausanne), and managed to make it to the dock just in time. Just in time to see the last ferry pulling away from shore, that is.

At that point our hands were tied. We'd been traveling for 24 hours, we had no internet connection or hope of an internet connection to call an Uber (if they even have Uber) or research bus or car transportation. So we dragged ourselves up from the dock to the nearest taxi stand, where a car was waiting.

I asked the driver if he could take us to Evian-les-Bains, and he shrugged and said, "oui." Assuming this was a fairly regular occurence at 8:01 pm every night, I asked him how much it would cost, and he said he didn't know, but he would use the taximeter. Figuring I couldn't do much better than that, I finally asked if he could take credit cards, and he said he could. We hopped in and were on our way.

Now, I don't mean to be critical. Maybe it was his first day on the job. Maybe no one has ever missed the last ferry before and needed to be driven to their hotel on the other side of the lake. Maybe Swiss and French tourists carry hundreds of dollars in cash as a matter of course. But this is what happened next.

We drove along for 5 or 10 minutes, when the driver was suddenly struck by a realization: "I'm not sure my card reader will work when we get to France." I remind him I had asked if he could take cards, and he repeats that the card reader works on Swiss Telecom, and he doesn't know if it will work on the French mobile network. He says he'll drive me to an ATM, and I politely decline. Finally, he comes up with the idea of estimating the fare based on the distance to Evian. This seems sensible, and we settle on 220 CHF for the ride, which he charges me while we're still in Switzerland. We get back on the road, and I tell him to turn the taximeter back on. He agrees to pay me the difference it the fare ultimately ends up being less than 220 CHF.

The taximeter ultimately ended up around 260, so I guess the guy's confusion saved me 40 francs. I never did find out whether his credit card reader worked in France.

Total cost: $224.44 (two one-way ferry tickets would cost $42.85, so I "wasted" $181.59 on this part of the trip).

Staying there (1): Hilton Evian-les-Bains

For our first three nights, we're staying at the Hilton Evian-les-Bains, which is one of the only two properties in the area that participates in a loyalty program (the other is a Best Western Plus in Lausanne). The Hilton Evian-les-Bains is a beautiful, well-maintained spa/resort hotel a very short walk from the ferry terminal. They have a big, comfortable executive lounge where breakfast is served during the summer high season, and which offers desserts in the afternoon and hors d'oeuvres in the evening (you read that right, dessert first, then hors d'oeuvres). In the evening they also set up an open, unsupervised bar in the lounge, from which you are definitely not supposed to fill up the takeaway coffee cups with the liquor, wine, or cocktail of your choice.

During the low season (right now) Diamonds can take breakfast in the restaurant, which has an extensive buffet they call "continental" but that struck me as a pretty good take on an English breakfast, right down to the grilled tomatoes.

Total cost: 99,000 Hilton Honors points. Total value (comparable stay): $401.89. Value per point: 0.41 cents per Hilton Honors point.

Staying there (2): Park Hyatt Zurich

I don't always stay at Park Hyatts, but when I do, I redeem suite upgrade awards. In this case, I actually redeemed the suite upgrade attached to my customer service case number after the Hyatt Regency Lexington gave my "confirmed" suite upgrade to a bridal party instead (and refunded the entire cost of my stay back to my account).

The Park Hyatt Zurich is one of Hyatt's 13 Category 7 properties, and the first Category 7 property I'll stay at (I hope to visit at least the Park Hyatt New York before my Globalist status finally expires in March).

Total cost: 60,000 World of Hyatt points. Total value: $1202.31. Value per point: 2 cents per World of Hyatt point.


As you can see, the cost of this trip hasn't really been hacked at all.

For our hotel stays, I used the balances I had to guide where to stay during the trip. For example we're staying in Evian instead of in Lausanne, where our friend lives, because of the presence of the Hilton here, and at the Park Hyatt Zurich in order to try to wring some value from my Globalist status and Hyatt points balance.

While that means I didn't have any out-of-pocket expenses for my hotel stays (except 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points I had to transfer to World of Hyatt), on the other hand if I were absolutely focused on cost I probably could have spent far less by simply booking far in advance and staying at the absolutely cheapest properties in each city. The flip side, however, is that then we'd be staying at the absolutely cheapest properties, and not at this lovely Hilton or at the Park Hyatt Zurich.

Additionally, I got somewhat less value than I generally hope to from my Hilton Honors points: just 0.41 cents per point, meaning my grocery store spend with the Hilton Honors Surpass American Express earned just 2.46% in rebate value. I didn't hesitate to redeem points anyway since having already earned them, they were worthless until redeemed. However, if I find myself consistently redeeming for less than half a cent per Hilton Honors point, I can use that information to adjust where I allocate my manufactured spend.

My US Bank Flexpoints redemption, on the other hand, was just a few cents away from the maximum possible value, making me feel great about the Flexpoints I earn throughout the year (and bad about the upcoming devaluation).

Walmart Money Center debit limit problem solving; gone vacationing

I have never felt the impulse to constantly repeat, here on the blog, every manufactured spend technique that still works. People periodically send me e-mails or leave comments on ancient posts asking, "does this still work?" and my response is usually, "why wouldn't it?" After all, almost everything I know and do is contained here on the blog, and virtually everything else I know is included in my subscribers-only newsletters.

Still, even I occasionally wonder whether a given rule still applies or a given restriction has been loosened or tightened, and I had an experience the other day that provided a funny example.

The Walmart Money Center 4-debit limit

If you're a working travel hacker, grinding out your manufactured spend with money orders and bill payments, you know that Walmart point-of-sale systems will only accept four separate debit payments on a single transaction.

But do you really know that? I mean, if you are going to a Walmart with competent cashiers, making purchases with exactly 4 debit payments on each transaction, how would you know if a the point of sale system were updated to suddenly allow 8, 12, or 20 debit payments per transaction? They wouldn't tell the cashiers, since the cashiers have no reason to know. You'd have to find out for yourself.

Which, the other day, I did!

Walmart Money Center problem solving

In a typical Walmart money order purchase, you might ask for two $1,000 money orders, intending to pay $500 at a time on four PIN-enabled Visa or MasterCard debit cards. Since the amount debited from each card is manually entered by the cashier, that creates the possibility of the cashier manually entering the wrong amount.

In my case the other day, my cashier debited $50, rather than $500, from my first card. That left me with a $450 hole to fill. She offered to let me pay with the remaining balance of my debit card, but she didn't have any say in the matter: the point of sale system spit out a little slip refusing a fifth debit, after I'd paid the remaining $1,500 with my three remaining cards.

At this point, you have a few options. None of them is better or worse than the other, but you need to be ready, because if this happens to you your cashier is going to be very flummoxed and you need to know your options, depending on what they're they're prepared to do:

  • Remove a money order from the transaction to square it up. This is technically the best option if the mistake is made on the first or second debit charge of your transaction. For example, if you have a $2,000 total money order purchase, and the first debit is accidentally made for $50, you can ask the cashier to remove the second $1,000 money order, make a $450 supplemental payment with your first (incorrectly debited) card, and then another $500 payment with a second card. You'll have completely paid for one money order. No harm, no foul.
  • Remove a money order from the transaction to generate a refund. This is actually a variation of the situation most experienced travel hackers have run into, where the money order printer crashes and the store has to give you a refund in cash since they can't refund debit card transactions. If the erroneous debit takes place on the third or fourth debit, this may be your only option. You can either take a cash refund or, if your cashier is game, use it against the cost of the second money order (since most Walmart cashiers don't have that much cash in their drawers anyway).
  • Finally, and this is only for folks who are sure about the competence of their cashiers, you can ask them to add a money order to the purchase in the amount of the mistake, before removing one of the original money orders. For example, if you intended to buy two $1,000 money orders with four $500 debits, but one of the debits was incorrectly entered at $50, you can ask the cashier to add a $550 money order, then remove one of the $1,000 money orders. That would bring your order to $1,550 — the amount you were ultimately able to pay with four debits.

I'm going to Europe!

This afternoon I'm flying to Munich to spend 10 days in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Don't burn the place down while I'm gone!

I guess this is a vacation so I don't expect to post more than once or twice next week, but I do plan to have sporadic internet access so follow me on Twitter for updates, pictures, and rants about how they do things over there, putting mayonnaise on their fries or whatever.

When did Hilton get so bad at processing award stays?

I'm no thought leader in travel, so I'm not going to paint this as a symbolic or meaningful decline in the quality of the Hilton Honors program, but I had a pair of experiences this weekend that together formed one hell of a coincidence. My mom was visiting from Oregon, and together we drove to the Maryland coast to get out of the city for the weekend.

Hilton Honors award reservations are easy for hotels to screw up

Being a travel hacker means never having to share a hotel room with your parents, so I booked us two all-points award stays at a Doubletree property in the Annapolis suburbs, one with my partner as the "additional guest" and one with my mom as the additional guest. The stay went smoothly, but when the folios were emailed to me on the morning we checked out, only one of the rooms had been zeroed out; the other showed a charge to my credit card for the two nights of $480 or so.

The next night, I had booked my mom a room at the Hilton Garden Inn near Washington National Airport, again with her as the additional guest on the reservation, and got a text from her asking whether the stay was a points stay or a points and cash stay. I thought this was a pretty strange question, but she said the front desk clerk had been confused. Sure enough, the next morning the e-mailed folio showed the full room rate had been charged to my credit card!

If it hadn't happened two nights in a row it probably wouldn't have even registered with me; there are all sorts of things you have to call a hotel about to follow up on after a stay, and it only took two 2-minute phone calls to get both sets of charges reversed. The fact that it happened under identical circumstances, however, makes me think there may really be a Hilton reservation issue when the "additional guest" checks in on an award stay without the primary guest. There's no rule against booking such stays (I do it all the time), and the charges are easy to reverse, but the pattern is certainly suggestive.

A more serious concern would be if you booked an award stay for someone and they provided their own credit card on check-in, and that credit card was charged the full price of the stay. If they were nervous talking about money, like many Americans, they might simply pay the charge thinking you'd stiffed them! And of course if the reservation were held with a debit card, you could experience serious cashflow issues or even overdrafts while the refund was being processed, which can take several days.


I don't have any grand unified theories about the source of this issue, and don't have any idea whether it originates on Hilton's side as a reservation software issue or on the properties' side as a training issue or even an attempt to grift unwitting guests. The solution is simply to be aware of it, check your Hilton folio as soon as they e-mail it to you, fix the issue before you check out if possible, and call as soon as you discover it if not!

How might the World of Hyatt-Oasis partnership work?

Via Travel with Grant, I saw the other day that World of Hyatt is planning to partner with a luxury home rental company called Oasis (and that you can use discount code "UnboundxHyatt" for a $100 discount if you book before October 31). Apparently at some point in the near future you'll be able to earn and redeem World of Hyatt points on these stays.

When I first saw this tie-up described, I thought there was no way it could possibly work. After doing a bit of digging, I've actually come around to the idea that it's possible, if well-executed, for the partnership to make sense for customers.

Let's take a look.

World of Hyatt points are very valuable because of the low maximum points redemption

Setting aside for the moment the value of the World of Hyatt program (it's comparable to the other major programs for paid stays, contingent on your elite status and credit card) and focusing on the value of World of Hyatt points, you see that World of Hyatt points are uniquely valuable because of the very low maximum number of points you need to redeem: the most expensive Park Hyatt properties in the world cost no more than 30,000 World of Hyatt points.

Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to World of Hyatt, that puts a hard cap of $300 per night in cash value on the cost of your hotel stays in destinations with Hyatt properties, subject of course to award availability.

Across all redemptions Hyatt presumably turns a profit

While an award redemption during a particularly busy or expensive weekend may require World of Hyatt to pay properties close to retail, most of the time Hyatt pays just a small fraction of the retail cost of your stay (properties sometimes accidentally print on your folio the amount they're paid by Hyatt so it's worth taking a look at your folio on award stays if you're interested).

I don't have any special insight into the economics behind this process, but across all award stays I think it's safe to assume Hyatt makes a modest profit: Chase pays them more for World of Hyatt points than Hyatt pays out on award stays, and Hyatt properties pay more in licensing fees than they get paid for award redemptions (hopefully making up the difference by being able to charge more and attracting customers loyal to the program).

How could World of Hyatt redemptions work with Oasis?

I did some clicking around Oasis to get a feel for the prices these properties typically charge, and they span a pretty wide range. I searched for the 6 US cities on Oasis, for a 3-night weekend stay in November. Here are the rates I found:

  • In Austin, prices range from $110 for a one-bedroom to $1,200 for a 4-bedroom;
  • In New York City, from $222 for a one-bedroom to $1,350 for a 5-bedroom;
  • In Chicago, from $140 for a one-bedroom to $2,160 for a 5-bedroom;
  • In Los Angeles, from $144 for a studio to $6,000 for a 6-bedroom;
  • In San Francisco, from $152 for a one-bedroom to $519 for a 2-bedroom;
  • In Miami, from $180 for a one-bedroom to $4,995 for a 7-bedroom.

To synthesize these rates, in the US market Oasis charges between $110 and $222 per bedroom on the low end, and between $259 and $713 per bedroom on the high end.

My mistake when I first glanced at the Oasis website was to think that there's no way Hyatt could square the circle of paying $4,995 per night to an apartment's owner while charging a low enough number of World of Hyatt points to make the redemption reasonable to their members (who only pay 30,000 points at the most luxurious properties in the Hyatt portfolio, remember).

The answer, of course, is that they'll charge per bedroom per night, as Wyndham Rewards currently does for redemptions at their vacation properties.

If I had to guess I'd say redemptions will start at 12,000 or 15,000 points for the cheapest apartments, and top out at 30,000 points for the most expensive, on a per-bedroom, per-night basis. Redeeming 210,000 World of Hyatt points per night for a 7-bedroom house in Miami obviously isn't something you'd do for a weekend getaway, but for a wedding, bachelor party, or other special occasion it would offer 2 cents per point compared to paying cash. There's no question there would be some takers at that rate (and since each property can only accommodate one reservation per night you only need to book a maximum of 365 nights per year).

I could see this working for family trips

Right now Oasis doesn't have very many participating cities or properties, but presumably they're intent on rapid expansion to new cities and signing on more properties within their existing footprint. Once World of Hyatt redemptions are live, we'll see what kind of value redemptions ultimately offer. The obvious value of these redemptions will be for folks traveling as a family who want additional living, kitchen, and dining space compared to what they'd get at a hotel.

If the alternative is booking multiple hotel rooms and eating out for every meal, or having to spend a lot of time driving between your hotel and your destination, then being able to stay in a single unit, in a good location, with a kitchen and other amenities could be very valuable.

The devil will be in the details

Obviously since the partnership hasn't launched yet, it's impossible to say whether it will "really" be a good deal or a bad deal. There are a lot of ways it could go wrong:

  • World of Hyatt awards include all taxes and fees. Will taxes and fees be included on Oasis awards? If not, they'll become a significant co-pay on award stays, since in addition to taxes Oasis reservations also charge a cleaning fee.
  • Will award availability match paid stay availability? Most (all?) Oasis properties have minimum stay requirements, but will they be longer for award stays than for paid stays? Will there be blackout dates for award stays, or will you be able to book with points any nights available with cash?
  • Will award rates be too high? You can imagine Hyatt investing nothing in this partnership and simply allowing you to redeem World of Hyatt points for one cent each towards Oasis stays. That's an extreme case, but if they set redemption rates too high on a per-bedroom, per-night basis, the whole thing will be a meaningless embarrassment.


While I doubt I'll ever book an Oasis stay with World of Hyatt points, over the course of writing this post I slowly came around to the idea that, if well-executed, the Hyatt-Oasis partnership might provide good value to families under certain circumstances.

But until redemption details are announced, all we can do is speculate.

About Delta Private Jets

Last week I wrote about how I would think about earning Diamond Medallion status with Delta after the changes going into effect for Medallion Qualifying Dollars in January, 2018. I then quipped on Twitter that "If you're just a rich guy who wants Diamond Medallion status just get a Delta Private Jets Card."

I was referring to the ability to deposit $100,000 on a Delta Private Jets card and receive Diamond Medallion status. You would then have 2 years to spend the $100,000, which you can redeem either for private jet flights or for commercial flights marketed by Delta. If you buy full fare commercial tickets you also get a 20% discount (they would still be much, much more expensive than the "discounted" tickets ordinary people buy; I assume this benefit is targeted at companies that insist on booking refundable tickets).

This is, obviously, not worth doing for an ordinary travel hacker. But you can imagine a well-connected rich guy, or even a very frequent reimbursed business traveler who wouldn't earn enough Medallion Qualifying Miles or Segments for Diamond Medallion status, getting quite a lot of potential value from this benefit.

That's because the status you get from Delta Private Jets is supposed to give you "immediate" access to Diamond Choice Benefits, for instance, that could be worth a thousand dollars or so, between Sky Club membership, global upgrades, or just selling Gold Medallion status. If you get Diamond Medallion status for the year you join and the next two years, you could potentially receive three sets of Choice Benefits to offset the cost of prepaying for your Delta travel.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen any reports of how this benefit works in practice. Folks with that kind of money don't spend a lot of time posting on public message boards, I guess.

Two other ways to get Delta Private Jets access (but not Diamond Medallion)

When I started writing this post I hoped to reveal a secret backdoor into Diamond Medallion status. You see, there are two ways to get a Delta Private Jets card without spending $100,000:

  • American Express Platinum cardmembers can deposit as little as $50,000 on a card, and receive a 3% bonus on the card's value (if you were planning to deposit $100,000 you would want to open a Platinum card just for this benefit; paying a $550 annual fee for a $3,000 boost in value);
  • all SkyMiles members can redeem 2,500,000 SkyMiles for a $25,000 Delta Private Jets card.

What the internet couldn't tell me is whether people pursuing either of those options would still receive Diamond Medallion status! So, I picked up the phone and committed journalism: I called Delta Private Jets and asked.

What I found is kind of interesting in its own right. While these three methods of buying a Delta Private Jets card all seem different to a travel hacker, with different thresholds and benefits, Delta Private Jets doesn't actually seem to differentiate between the methods internally. You can redeem SkyMiles in any amount in excess of 2.5 million, and you can use a Platinum card to load any amount in excess of $50,000 to receive a 3% bonus, or both.

But regardless of how you pay for the amount you load, the benefits you receive depend only on the amount you load. There are a few minor differences concerning hourly rates and such, but the two important ones are:

  • Loads of less than $100,000 expire in one year, rather than two years;
  • and loads of less than $100,000 don't grant Diamond Medallion status.

In other words, Diamond Medallion status is a benefit of the amount you load, not a benefit of Delta Private Jets membership (this has been misreported absolutely everywhere I have looked for it).


One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on airfare, and it's a hell of a lot of money to loan to Delta interest free for two years in the hopes you'll spend it within 24 months. On the other hand, for somebody rich enough to not mind the float, but not rich enough to actually fly private and shop around for the best private jet pricing, and who knows they'll spend $100,000 on Delta-marketed flights for themselves and their employees, friends or relations in the next 24 months, this is the quickest and easiest path to Diamond Medallion status I know of.