What do I think about the 100,000 Hilton HHonors Surpass offer?

Yesterday blog subscriber JH wrote to ask me, "what's your opinion on the current 100k Hilton card offer?" JH is referring to the current offer of 100,000 Hilton HHonors points after spending $3,000 within three months on the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express. The offer is available until May 4, 2016. Incidentally, I don't include personal referral links here on the blog, but you can find the relevant offer on my "Support the Site!" page.

Since I wrote JH a detailed answer, I thought it may be useful to share and expand on it here.

Higher signup bonuses are better than lower signup bonuses

In general, if you've been going through life vaguely considering signing up for a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express, but have been waiting to sign up until the bonus goes up to an all-time high, well, you're in luck: the bonus is at an all-time high.

If that's you, this is the time to sign up.

What do you call 100,000 Hilton HHonors points?

A good start.

The fact is, 100,000 HHonors points is not an interesting number of HHonors points. The key characteristic of the Hilton HHonors program is that award nights at desirable properties are extremely expensive (up to 95,000 points per night), but Hilton HHonors points are easy to earn at bonused grocery store and gas station merchants using the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express.

Two approaches to an unusually high signup bonus

There are two ways to approach a 100,000 Hilton HHonors point signup bonus.

If you are already planning an expensive vacation to a Hilton HHonors property, signing up for the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express with a 100,000 points signup bonus will get you a minimum of one night free at that property (and breakfast, if you don't already have Hilton HHonors Gold elite status). That could mean saving real money compared to your cash rate!

Alternatively, you can use this unusually high signup bonus as an impulse towards earning large numbers of Hilton HHonors points on an ongoing basis in bonused spending categories.

But most readers shouldn't care about signup bonus fluctuations

The third approach, and the one I personally take, is to not pay any attention to the barrage of blog posts and twitter feeds dedicated to identifying the highest and shortest-lived signup bonuses.

The difference between a 50,000 and 100,000 Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express signup bonus is $8,333 in grocery store or gas station spend. If it wasn't worth spending that much on the card before the 100,000 signup bonus came around, what makes you think it is now?

These increased signup bonuses occupy an outsized portion of the attention of the travel hacking blogosphere, and the best thing you can do for yourself is to simply ignore them.

"Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is a pretty good book

This is a review of "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" by Fred Schwed Jr. You can find all my previous book reviews here. If you're interested in buying a copy, I hope you'll consider using my Amazon Associates referral link.

I have a technique I like to call "reverse showrooming." In retail parlance, "showrooming" is when a customer comes into a physical store to inspect a product, then ultimately orders it for a lower price on Amazon.com. I "reverse showroom" by keeping track of books I'm interested in reading by adding them to my Amazon wish list, then checking them out for free from the public library.

"Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is the first book I've ever checked out from the public library that was so good I immediately ordered 2 copies from Amazon in order to lend them out to friends and family.

It isn't the only book you'll ever need to read about investing in the stock market, but it should be the first book you read about investing in the stock market.

History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes

Fred Schwed Jr. originally published "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" in 1940. Despite the intervening years, with all its wars and revolutions, there's scarcely a single word in the book that doesn't apply just as accurately today as it did when it was written (with one exception, below). Moreover, a vast corpus of economic research has developed to provide statistical proof for what Schwed learned from practical experience.

Schwed is much funnier than I am, but I will attempt to do justice to his basic attitude towards investing:

  • Making predictions is hard, especially about the future;
  • If someone can consistently and accurately predict future price movements, they are able to command vast sums for doing so;
  • But even someone who consistently and accurately predicts price movements is almost certainly just lucky.

Schwed predicted almost every development in the world of investing

Decades of economic research have now established that active mutual funds perform no better than passive index funds, after management fees. But Fred Schwed doesn't need your decades of economic research. In 1940, he wrote:

"The subject of choosing profitable financial investments does not lend itself to competence. There is almost no visible supply."

It is breathtaking to read Schwed recommend — in 1940 — a primitive system of passive index investing:

"The average small investor needs a certain amount of diversification, but he can get it for himself by buying five-share lots instead of hundred-share lots. The added expense of doing his business this way is negligible. If his funds are too limited even for that procedure, the only diversification he needs is to put some of his money into life-insurance payments, some into the savings bank, and the remainder into his right-hand trouser pocket."

Michael Lewis catalogued the difficulties large investment banks have buying and selling large blocks of shares in his 2014 book "Flash Boys." Fred Schwed described them in 1940:

"An investment trust [i.e. mutual fund] should be good and large, because this tends to make the expenses of running it a negligible percentage of the whole. But when the trust is big in size, the investing problem becomes increasingly difficult. A fifty-thousand-share position is a hard thing to buy and usually a harder one to sell. If the quotation on such a position rises twenty points in the newspaper, the trust scores up a million-dollar profit on their book value, but of course actually realizing on profit on such a block is apt to be quite a different thing."

Schwed is curiously obsessed with margin investing

The only part of "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" that doesn't seem as relevant today as it was when it was written is his discussion of "margin." Margin, for those born after 1930, refers to the regrettable willingness of brokers to allow their customers to buy stocks not with money, but with a line of credit backed by a small amount of collateral. As Schwed explains:

"We assume that it is a wise and profitable venture to buy 100 shares of United Fido at ten, paying $1,000 for it. Ergo, wouldn't it be even better to buy 200 shares paying the same $1,000? And even better to make it three or four hundred if we can find a sufficiently kindly broker to do us this favor?

"The answer is no. But I only know one way of proving it to you conclusively. Go try it."

While investing on margin is still legal and, I assume, encouraged by the more unscrupulous stock brokers, it doesn't occupy the American imagination in the way it seems to have when Schwed was writing. Although in fairness, Tim Geithner did something indistinguishable when he borrowed money from JPMorgan in order to back his stake at his new Warburg Pincus gig.

Let's check back in 10 years to see how that plays out.

In 76 years, investor psychology has changed not one jot nor tittle

Ultimately, "Where Are the Customers' Yachts?" is a book about psychology: specifically, the psychology of people who decide to put a little bit of money to work for them in the stock market. If you don't recognize yourself in it, then you've probably never put a little bit of money to work for you in the stock market.

Fortunately, you have one great tool Fred Schwed Jr. and his clients and customers didn't have and indeed didn't imagine: low-fee, passive, indexed Vanguard mutual funds.

Unfortunately, you can only take advantage of those funds if you can convince yourself to actually invest in them. And as much as it pains me to say it, neither Schwed nor I are going to be any help in that department.

What happens when a Flexperks reservation is refunded to the original payment method?


For a recent trip to Washington, DC, I used US Bank Flexpoints to book my partner's ticket on the only daily nonstop flight home from Washington National Airport. Since economy tickets cost $264 while first class tickets cost $343.10, either option would have the same cost to me: 20,000 Flexpoints (an example of what I call "price compression"). I used Delta denied boarding vouchers to pay for my own $264 ticket in economy.

When I checked us in the night before our flight, I found that my partner had been seated in economy, although her ticket correctly showed her first class fare. My first move was to reach out to Delta's Twitter handle @DeltaAssist to see if they could resolve the problem:

Since my partner needed to get back in time for work the next morning, I decided not to push harder over Twitter and instead resolve the issue once we got back home.

Filing a Department of Transportation complaint

Since Delta wouldn't offer a refund over Twitter, I filed a Department of Transportation complaint, explaining that Delta had neither offered a refund nor reaccommodated my partner in the class of travel I paid for. I asked for a refund of the $79 price difference between first class and economy and any other compensation she was entitled to.

Response from the Department of Transportation

My first response from the Department of Transportation was a lengthy e-mail, reading in relevant part:

"Based on the information you have provided, your complaint appears to fall under the Department's rules. I will forward your complaint to the airline and ask the company to respond directly to you with a copy to me. Airlines are required to acknowledge receipt of a consumer complaint within 30 days and provide a substantive response to the complainant within 60 days. I will review the airline's response. If you need to contact me, please include your name and case number (see above). I will make every effort to reply to your message within one business day."

Response from Delta

Three days later, I received an e-mail from Delta's refund department, saying:

"I’m happy to help with your request regarding a refund.

We’re sorry you weren’t seated in the forward cabin as planned. An adjustment has been made for the fare difference between the class of service purchased and the class of service flown.

A refund for you
We processed a refund on April 8, 2016 as follows:


Now, obviously, I don't have a Visa card ending in 5853: that's the account number used by the travel agency contracted by US Bank to book Flexperks reward tickets.

US Bank is clueless

My first thought was to call US Bank and see if their customer service agents knew what happens to Flexperks ticket refunds. They don't.

But they were able to transfer me to, and give me the direct number for, "The Rewards Center," the travel agency they use to book revenue flights. That number is 1-855-516-9182.

The Rewards Center is slightly less clueless

To communicate with the Rewards Center, you don't need your credit card number, your Flexpoints number, or even your airline record locator. You need your "Trip ID," the 12-digit number that is e-mailed to you when you make a Flexperks Travel Rewards redemption.

The frontline Rewards Center customer service agent had no ability to understand what I was talking about; he kept trying to transfer me back to US Bank. But once I said the word "refund" enough times, he finally was willing to check with his supervisor, and eventually came back to say that no refund had been processed for my reservation.

How Flexperks reservations are refunded

At that point I decided to wait and see how this played out. And it turns out, with no additional action on my part, my $79 refund was processed automatically — back to my Flexperks Travel Rewards Flexpoints account.

Remember that I paid 20,000 Flexpoints for a $343.10 first class reservation, getting roughly 1.72 cents per Flexpoint.

On April 20, 2016, 12 days after Delta e-mailed that they were processing my refund request, I received a "Points Adjustment" of 4,605 Flexpoints into my account.

For those doing the math at home, 4,605 Flexpoints for a $79 refund comes to 1.72 cents per Flexpoint — a refund of the exact number of Flexpoints corresponding to the original redemption rate.

Conclusion: when booking first class, go ahead and snap an economy screenshot

In this case, I actually had an economy ticket booked within minutes of the first class ticket I redeemed US Bank Flexpoints for, which allowed me to upload my economy receipt to the Department of Transportation complaint website.

But that won't usually be the case! My recommendation is, out of an abundance of caution, whenever using Flexpoints (or any other fixed-value rewards currency) to book revenue airline tickets in business or first class, take a screenshot of the economy fare as well. If an equipment change lands you in economy, you'll be glad to have some evidence supporting your refund request for the amount you actually overpaid for the premium cabin you didn't get to sit in.

Starting from scratch: alternative banking products

This week I've been writing about some strategies, credit cards, and loyalty programs I would use differently if I were building a travel hacking practice from scratch. If I were ignoring my elite status and current stable of credit cards, I'd focus even more on fixed-value points for use in booking airline tickets, and I'd ignore hotel loyalty completely in order to maximize my cash discount booking hotel nights through online travel agencies.

Today's post is about the alternative banking products I've used, abused, and lost throughout the last five or six years.

High-interest prepaid savings accounts

Back when CVS allowed virtually-unlimited numbers of Vanilla Reload Network reload cards to be purchased with credit cards, the American Express "old" Blue Cash offered unlimited 5% cash back, and the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express gave 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at drug stores, there was a constant search for new prepaid products that could be loaded and unloaded as quickly as possible through the Vanilla Reload Network. I burned through 3 MyVanilla accounts, 2 Netspend accounts, and a Momentum account all in order to liquidate as many Vanilla Reload Network cards as possible.

In hindsight, with Vanilla Reload Network cards today mostly unavailable to credit card users, that was a mistake: Netspend and Momentum offer savings accounts with higher FDIC-insured interest rates than those available anywhere else in the market today, and I'd prefer to still have working relationships with those companies.

American Express prepaid banking products

Like most aggressive users of American Express's Bluebird and Serve prepaid products, on January 8, 2016, my accounts were all closed. I had been using both accounts to liquidate PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards for free, and in the case of Serve, earn cash back by loading funds from my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card.

If I were starting over today, I wouldn't use American Express prepaid banking products to manufacture spend at all: I'd use them to manufacture transactions for high-interest savings, checking, and credit card accounts that require a certain number of transactions per month to unlock their highest reward levels.


I don't have any regrets about the path that my travel hacking practice has taken, even though I focus more on airline and hotel loyalty currencies than I would if I were starting from scratch today.

I probably slightly overpay for my checked bags by earning Delta Medallion elite status with a Delta Platinum American Express each year, and I earn only part of that value back with high-value SkyMiles redemptions.

Likewise, I tend to overpay for my hotel stays by earning Hilton HHonors points and Diamond elite status with my Hilton Surpass American Express, instead of booking through a cashback portal and online travel agency, and I've certainly overpaid by directing stays towards Hyatt during this year of my Diamond status match.

But building relationships with banks and merchants is a process that necessarily develops over time, and as things stand I'm more or less happy with the decisions I've made and the relationships I've built, even if I would have proceeded different in hindsight.

I'd sure kill for another shot at a Serve account, though.

Starting from scratch: hotel stays

In yesterday's post I talked about how to develop a strategy for booking airline tickets that works for you. As I said then, "the options you have available today are restricted by the decisions you made in the past." For example, your ability to get approved for new American Express credit cards depends on the number of American Express credit cards you currently have (in general folks are restricted to 4 total American Express credit cards each).

Hotels are cheap, if you ignore loyalty

Yesterday I explained that airfares are cheap, if booked using cheaply acquired fixed-value points. The opposite is true of hotels: while you can redeem fixed-value points for hotels, you'll be redeeming them against the full retail price of the hotel room, which means you're virtually certain to overpay.

For example, it's possible to use a cashback portal like TopCashBack to click through to Hotels.com and earn 9% cash back from TopCashBack, plus 10% back in the form of a Hotels.com award night when you book and stay 10 nights through Hotels.com.

There are additional benefits to booking through an online travel agency: you'll be able to pay with the credit card of your choice, meaning you'll earn that credit card's reward points as well, while redeeming US Bank Flexpoints, Citi ThankYou Points, or Chase Ultimate Rewards points through their booking tools necessarily keeps you from earning credit card rewards on your reservations.

But the most important benefit of booking through an online travel agency, rather than a hotel chain's own website, is that it frees you to book the cheapest hotel available (that meets your other requirements like location and amenities)!

To see how this works, let's take the example of a weekend stay in Portland, OR, from May 20-22, 2016. Once I've filtered by 3-star hotels in the downtown neighborhood, I find that the cheapest Hilton property is $189 per night, the cheapest Marriott property is $213 per night, and the cheapest Starwood property is $269 per night, before taxes.

Now, clicking through TopCashBack and booking through Hotels.com will save you 19% off whichever property you choose. But being agnostic as to the chain you're staying with saves you even more: an additional 11.27% compared to being loyal to Marriott and an additional 29.7% compared to Starwood loyalty.

Loyalty programs: cheap, but loyal

Hotel loyalty programs can also bring down the cost of your stays from retail, but only under certain conditions.

The biggest problem with hotel loyalty programs is that if you're not saving money on every single stay (compared to the online travel agency method described above), then you're faced with the unpleasant choice of deciding between overpaying for a hotel stay within the loyalty program or saving money but earning online travel agency rewards too slowly to notice your savings, or, God forbid, even wind up seeing a message like this:

Having said that, there are 3 principle ways to use hotel loyalty programs to consistently bring down the price of your stays:

  • Wyndham Rewards. The Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards credit card earns 2 Wyndham Rewards points everywhere, and Wyndham has a huge global footprint. Since all Wyndham Rewards properties cost 15,000 Wyndham Rewards properties per night, if your hotel stays typically cost more than about $150 per night (or about $180 before accounting for cash back portal and online travel agency rewards), you'll save money manufacturing spend on the Wyndham Rewards credit card compared to a 2% cash back card.
  • Hyatt Gold Passport. If your travel takes you primarily to the kinds of mid-size European cities or larger American cities served by Hyatt, then you can often save money by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport from a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus credit card, earned with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Compared to paying with cash back earned on a 2% cash back card, you need to get a consistent value of at least 1.59 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point to break even, since cash back is worth roughly 19% more than face value when spent on hotels at Hotels.com.
  • Hilton HHonors. The good thing about Hilton's program is that, like Wyndham, Hilton has a huge global footprint, so it's not unreasonable to expect you'll be able to find Hilton properties to accommodate you almost anywhere you travel. Since the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express earns 6 HHonors points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations, you'll need to consistently get about 0.4 cents per HHonors point in order to come out ahead compared to a 2% cash back card, with the cash back spent at an online travel agency like Hotels.com. The $189 room we found in Portland above would cost about $186 after discounts and taxes, or 50,000 HHonors points, giving a value of 0.37 cents per HHonors point — in other words, you'd be better off earning cash back and using it to make a Hotels.com reservation at the same hotel, which happens to be the cheapest option for the weekend I searched.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that the Club Carlson Premier Rewards credit card, which earns 5 Gold Points per dollar spent everywhere, might be a competitive option for manufacturing unbonused spend. But due to the heavy discount afforded when using cash to book stays through online travel agencies, you'd need to consistently get 0.48 cents per Gold Point on all your Club Carlson award stays to break even compared to cash. Club Carlson is simply not a program that affords that kind of value anymore: Hotel Hustle's average value found for Club Carlson is 0.41 cents per point, with a median value of 0.379 cents per point.


As you can see, just as I showed yesterday, the best approach to booking hotel stays as cheaply as possible will depend on your situation: the fixed cost of hotel award nights can be an argument in their favor if you typically travel to expensive cities during peak travel times, or it can be an argument against them if you're a flexible leisure traveler who travels when hotels are cheap in dollar terms, and can be made even cheaper using online travel agency rewards.

Tomorrow I'll conclude this series with a look at the prepaid and alternative banking products I would use differently if I were starting out from scratch.

Starting from scratch: airline tickets

Travel hacking is an iterative game: the options you have available today are restricted by the decisions you made in the past. That's one reason I avoid giving advice whenever possible: your situation is different from mine, not just depending on the merchants you have available geographically, but also depending on which banks you have relationships with, which products you've already had or lost, and the amount of time you have available to dedicate to the game.

Having said that, I do sometimes think about how I would design a travel hacking strategy from scratch: with a blank slate, what approach would I take to the loyalty ecosystem to get the most value for my travel hacking dollar?

Today's post is about how I would approach booking airline tickets if I were starting from scratch. Tomorrow's will be about hotel stays.

Revenue versus award

Starting from scratch, there's a basic decision you have to make about how to pay for the flights you're responsible for securing each year: will you book revenue tickets or award tickets? Once you're deeply involved in the game you may have large balances across a range of programs you can deploy for their optimal uses. But when you're just getting started, it's much easier to focus on this stark choice.

When booking revenue tickets, you'll usually get a fixed return on your travel hacking dollar, or one that falls in a relatively narrow band: US Bank Flexpoints are worth 1.33 to 2 cents each, Chase Ultimate Rewards points in a premium (Ink Plus or Sapphire Preferred) account are worth a fixed 1.25 cents each, and Citi ThankYou points are worth between 1.25 cents and 1.6 cents depending on whether you have a Premier or Prestige card, and the airline marketing the flight.

When booking award tickets, there's no such band of values: points can range in value from a fraction of a penny up to 10 cents or so depending both on the cash price of the flight and the number of miles required to book it.

Note that neither of these options is any more or less "free" than the other. Since you should be manufacturing spend furiously, you're paying acquisition and liquidation fees for whichever currency you happen to choose. The only question is which strategy will bring the cost of your travel down the most.

Revenue tickets are cheap

On the revenue side, there are lots of good options depending on your situation:

  • Citi ThankYou Premier. A fixed 3.75 cents in airfare per dollar spent at gas stations. At $5.75 in "all-in" cost for $505 in spend, a 69.6% discount off retail.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Up to 4 cents in airfare per dollar spent at grocery stores or gas stations (wherever you spend more each month). At $6.30 in "all-in" cost for $506 in spend, an "up to" 68.9% discount off retail.
  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards. For those with $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and MerrillEdge, a fixed 2.625 cents in airfare per dollar spent everywhere. At $4.30 in "all-in" cost for $504 in spend, a 67.5% discount off retail.
  • Chase Ink Plus. For small business owners, a fixed 6.25 cents in airfare per dollar spent at office supply stores (and 2.5 cents per dollar spent at gas stations). At $9.18 in "all-in" cost for $309 in office supply spend, a 52.5% discount off retail.

When I say "depending on your situation," I mean to draw attention to the fact that you when starting from scratch, you shouldn't pursue all four options! If you don't have access to gas station manufactured spend, the Citi ThankYou Premier won't work for you. If you don't have access to grocery store manufactured spend, the Flexperks Travel Rewards card isn't for you. If you don't have access to $100,000, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card won't give you the same value it will someone who does. And if you don't own a small business, Chase probably won't give you an Ink Plus.

Award tickets are cheap and (can be) hedged

On the award side, the picture looks radically different. Three of the four major domestic airlines offer some form of "last-seat" availability on their own flights: Delta, American, and Alaska will sell almost any seat on almost any date for some number of miles, while United reserves last-seat "standard" availability to their co-branded Chase credit cardholders. Thus there are three pots airline rewards currencies fall into:

  • Delta. When starting from scratch, there are two main ways into the Delta ecosystem: their own co-branded credit cards, and American Express Membership Rewards co-branded credit cards. Unfortunately, neither of them is cheap. The American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards offer 1.4 (Platinum) and 1.5 (Reserve) SkyMiles per dollar spent everywhere when you spend exactly $25,000 (Platinum) and $30,000 (Reserve) and $50,000 (Platinum) and $60,000 (Reserve) each calendar year. But the Delta Platinum card costs $195 per year and the Reserve $450 per year! Meanwhile, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold costs $175 per year and earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations and supermarkets. Those points can then be transferred to Delta on a 1-to-1 basis. Moreover, Membership Rewards points let you hedge your downside risk: if a particular Delta award redemption gives you less than 1 cent per Membership Rewards point, you can book it as a revenue ticket. If it gives you more than 1 cent per point, you can book it as an award ticket.
  • Alaska and American. Advanced travel hackers muck about with applying for Alaska and American co-branded credit cards over and over again at various intervals. But when starting from scratch, there's a simple way into both ecosystems at the same time: with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. When transferred to either Alaska or American, the card earns 1.25 miles per dollar spent everywhere, which is higher than the amount you can earn directly with either airline's co-branded credit card. Like Membership Rewards points, Starwood Preferred Guest also offers a hedged downside risk, since you can redeem their points for between 1 and 1.43 cents per point for revenue tickets using "SPG Flights."
  • United. If you're able to make United your main airline, then you'll never do better than with a Chase Ink Plus small business credit card, because of its bonused earning rate at office supply stores and 1-to-1 transfer ratio to United MileagePlus. But if you can't get a small business credit card, then you have some hard decisions to make. You could get a Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points everywhere, and a Chase Sapphire Preferred, which enables the transfer of Ultimate Rewards points to United, but that combination comes with a $95 annual fee. Alternatively, a Chase United MileagePlus Club card earns 1.5 United miles on all purchases but has a $450 annual fee. That's the kind of up-front expense that's not precisely crazy, but needs to be well-justified before taking it on.

Your situation should drive your decision between revenue and award tickets

As I mentioned, I try not to give advice.

Your situation is different from mine: your award availability, typical revenue flight prices, and airline service have nothing to do with mine.

But in my experience, for many people, much of the time, a focus on revenue tickets will generate bigger savings than a focus on award tickets, and if I were starting from scratch, that's where I'd start.

Fortunately, you don't need to take my word for it: all the numbers are above. Look at your own travel needs and it should quickly become obvious whether revenue flights or award flights will generate more value for your travel hacking dollar.

Tomorrow, I'll take the same approach to hotels: starting from scratch, are award nights really cheaper than just paying for your hotel stays?

Understanding Hotel Hustle award alerts

I've written quite a few times about Seth Miller the Wandering Aramean and Hotel Hustle, his tool for searching for award space across hotel chains.

Like most (all?) his online tools, it's undocumented, which means it requires quite a few rounds of trial and error before you get the hang of its, shall we say, nuances.

Just yesterday I discovered another one of those nuances that I thought readers might appreciate.

A Hyatt property can have any of three flags — or none of them

As a newly-minted Hyatt Diamond, I've been doing a lot of searching for Points + Cash rates to fill out my travel schedule for the year, and to do so, I've spent a lot of time using Hotel Hustle.

To understand how Hotel Hustle views the universe, you have to treat every Hyatt property as having 3 possible "flags" in a true or false position:

  • Flag #1 asks, "is there a cash rate available?"
  • Flag #2 asks, "are there rooms available for all-points redemptions?"
  • Flag #3 asks, "are there rooms available for Points + Cash redemptions?"

If there are rooms available for all-points redemptions there should be cash rates available, but the same is not true for Flags #3 and #2; in the course of researching this post I discovered a property with Points + Cash availability but with no points-only redemptions available.

(As an aside, I'm sure I could call Hyatt and have them book me into an all-points redemption, but Hotel Hustle operates based on what's available on the website — no bargaining allowed.)

Hotel Hustle treats each combination of flags differently

Say I'm interested in visiting Philadelphia on July 25, 2016, which happens to be the first day of the Democratic National Convention. Here's what Hotel Hustle shows me when I narrow my search to Hyatt:

It looks like Hyatt doesn't have any properties in Philadelphia, so I'm out of luck.

But a bit earlier in the year, say, this Saturday, my results look different:

It turns out Hyatt has all sorts of properties in Philadelphia! That Hyatt Place in Mt. Laurel looks promising, but unfortunately it doesn't have any points-only or Points + Cash award availability.

Of course, if I arrive a few days earlier, I might be interested in spending some time up in Plymouth Meeting:

I'm in luck! Points + Cash rates are available, securing me a precious stay credit towards requalification.

Making sense of Hotel Hustle flags

Each of the above pictures illustrates a particular combination of flags, each of which you need to understand to get all the information you need from Hotel Hustle.

The first picture illustrates the situation when none of the flags are "true:" Hotel Hustle will not help you. You cannot configure any kind of alert for a property that does not have any rooms available for cash.

The second picture illustrates a situation where only Flag #1 is "true:" Hotel Hustle will allow you to set an alert for points-only award availability in the righthand sidebar or, if you can locate the property on the map and click on it, set an alert for Points + Cash award availability.

The third picture illustrates the (unusual) situation where Flag #1 and Flag #3 are "true," but Flag #2 is "false." Hotel Hustle does allow you to set a points-only alert in the righthand sidebar, but it only allows you to view Points + Cash availability by locating the property on the map and clicking on its icon.

Points-only and Points + Cash are different alert types

What if you're not interested in qualifying or requalifying for Diamond status with Hyatt and just want to save some money on your next Hyatt stay?

In the second picture above, you can see that you can create both points-only and Points + Cash award alerts through Hotel Hustle. But if you are indifferent between the two, you need to create both types of award alert.

If you select "Manage Alerts" you can see which kind of award alert you've created. If you want to be alerted when either a points-only or Points + Cash awards become available, your "Manage Alerts" page should look like this:

The "C&P Alert?" column designates whether the alert is for Points + Cash or a points-only award availability.


I poke fun at Seth for not documenting his web apps, but in all fairness, even if he did I wouldn't read the documentation.

At the same time, since I just figured out how this worked I suspect there's a chance it will be of value to some of my readers!

Mattress running for Hyatt stays and bonus points

Pure mattress running for hotel elite status rarely makes sense: you only receive status benefits for nights you stay, so the further away from elite status you are, the less worthwhile a potential mattress run towards status will be.

At the same time, mattress running for bonus points during promotions rarely makes sense because travel hacking makes hotel stays so cheap that any bonus points earned are unlikely to buy you much hotel than you can purchase any day of the week by simply manufacturing spend.

As a new Hyatt Diamond, I decided to see whether the current Stay More Play More promotion may make mattress running make sense for the combination of elite-qualifying stays towards renewing my status, and the bonus points earned.

How much does a mattress run cost?

To calculate the cost of a mattress run, I take the cost of a paid stay and, in the case of a Points + Cash stay, the cost of any points redeemed, then subtract the value of any points earned on the stay. Here are some sample calculations I scratched out last week, based on nightly rates at my local Hyatt property.

In words, I can pay $50.38 (after buying a gift card at an 18% discount) and 2,642 Hyatt Gold Passport points (4,000 minus the 1358 points earned on the cash portion of the stay), or I can pay $122.84 and earn a total of 1,872 points. A valuation of 1.61 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point makes the two options a wash. If I value Hyatt Gold Passport points more highly than that, I should book an all-cash stay, and at a lower valuation, I should book a Points + Cash stay for my mattress run.

The question is, it possible for the Stay More Play More promotion to make mattress running cheap, or even free? The answer, it turns out, is yes — for a certain definition of free.

Stay More Play More makes mattress runs cheaper the more nights you stay

Stay More Play More is really 5 distinct promotions, and it's essential to grasp that to make any sense of this calculation:

  • one promotion offering 5,000 points on your 5th eligible night;
  • one offering 10,000 points on your 10th night;
  • one offering 15,000 points on your 15th night;
  • one offering 20,000 points on your 20th night;
  • one offering 25,000 points on your 25th night.

Keep in mind that no other nights are bonused in any way under this promotion: only these multiple-of-five eligible nights between April 1 and June 30, 2016, earn any bonus points at all.

The first promotion may be marginally worth a mattress run if you have access to a Category 1 Hyatt property. You'll earn 5,000 bonus points plus, as a Diamond, 6.5 points per dollar on the cash portion of your stay, plus 500 bonus points (at Hyatt Place and Hyatt House properties) or 1,000 bonus points (at other Hyatt properties).

A Points + Cash stay at a Category 1 property will thus cost $50 plus tax and earn a net of 3,325 Hyatt Gold Passport points, or 1.5 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point at Hyatt Place and Hyatt House properties or 3,825 points (1.31 cents per point) at other Hyatt properties.

If you value Hyatt Gold Passport points at 1 cent each (when transferred from Ultimate Rewards), that's like paying $11.75 or $16.75 for a stay credit, which may be worth doing if needed to secure Diamond elite status the following year.

The promotion for later nights shifts the balance even more in your favor. Booking your 10th night on a Points + Cash stay in Category 1 gives a net cost of 0.6 cents per point and at Category 2 a net cost of 0.8 cents per point.

The deeper you get into the promotion, the more lucrative it becomes. If your 25th night happens to be at a Category 7 Park Hyatt on a Points + Cash stay, you'll pay 15,000 and $300 for the night — then get 27,950 points back, leaving you out of pocket just $170.50 for your Category 7 night.

Think twice before mattress running unbonused nights

The flip side of the structure of this promotion is that unbonused nights (all but the 5 bonused nights) make little sense for mattress running. Even at the very top of the promotion earning 5,000 bonus points per night leaves you paying 1.5 cents per point at Category 1 properties, which is 50% more than you would pay simply transferring in Ultimate Rewards points.

But even more importantly, if you are staying that many nights in a single 3-month period you're unlikely to need the elite-qualifying stays at all — you'll probably requalify for Diamond status on the stays you'll naturally book during the calendar year.

When the Fun Stops

If you've ever visited Las Vegas, you've no doubt seen the constant parade of advertisements run by the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling, with the campaign slogan "When the Fun Stops."

I've persisted, in the face of pressure from Rolling Stone, in calling travel hacking "the game," which makes us players, and which usefully raises the specter of problem gaming. In general, I think there are three ways a healthy attitude towards travel hacking can become problematic.

Getting stuck on the status treadmill

One of the great intellectual triumphs of the loyalty industry was making it difficult — but just easy enough — to qualify for elite status. Hotel loyalty programs offer three good examples:

  • The Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express and Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve give top-tier Diamond elite status after spending $40,000 on either card;
  • The Starwood Preferred Guest American Express gives 5 nights and 2 stays towards SPG elite status just for being a cardmember;
  • The Chase Hyatt Gold Passport credit card gives 2 stays and 5 nights towards elite status after spending $20,000 with the card, and 3 stays and 5 nights towards elite status after spending a total of $40,000 with the card each calendar year.

Likewise the Delta Platinum and Reserve business and personal American Express cards each offer Medallion Qualification Miles towards elite status at certain spend thresholds, the Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCard offers 10,000 Elite Qualifying Miles after $40,000 in calendar year spend, and the Barclaycard AAdvantage Aviator Silver World Elite MasterCard gives 5,000 Elite Qualifying Miles after spending each of $20,000 and $40,000 on the card per calendar year.

For an experienced travel hacker those thresholds are easy to meet, which is easy to confuse with being worth meeting.

But if you'll enjoy few or any of the benefits of elite status, you shouldn't be going out of your way to earn — or even think about earning — elite status in programs you don't actually take advantage of!

Losing track of point values

The Chase Marriott Rewards credit card has earned 1 Marriott Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere, well, forever.

But the Marriott Rewards program has undergone a series of horrific devaluations since the credit card was introduced!

The same card that would have earned you three free nights at the JW Marriott in Washington DC for $50,000 in spend will now barely earn you one night for the same spend (the property now costs 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night).

If you got on board early, you could have powered your way through a series of devaluations and suddenly find yourself earning far fewer stays for the same amount of spend.

Losing track of costs

This is a story I've told before, but I think it's still illustrative. I was introducing a friend to travel hacking right about the time when Vanilla Reload Network cards stopped being sold to credit card users at national pharmacy outlets.

I broke the news to my friend and explained that only cash was now accepted for the reload cards. And my friend, who was eager to earn as many United MileagePlus miles as possible for an upcoming trip, asked me, "well, what if I take out a cash advance from my card and use the cash to buy a Vanilla Reload card?"

It's a funny story, but it illustrates an actual problem I see all too often: once folks are stuck in a groove, they'll do anything to stay in that groove, even when the costs slowly (or rapidly!) start to outweigh the rewards they were initially earning.


At the end of the day, I'm a travel hacking enthusiast. I think this game, in the huge variety of forms it takes, will be around for a long, long time to come.

But that general relaxation about the bigger picture shouldn't be treated as an invitation to take your eye off the particular credit cards, programs, and techniques you use!

A relentless focus is the only way to make sure you're getting the most value out of every second you spend playing this game.

And if you don't have that focus? Well, there's always tennis.

The concept of loyalty and the Wyndham Rewards revaluation

I had an interesting exchange on Twitter the other day with Seth, the Wandering Aramean, who was arguing in response to Trevor at Tagging Miles that loyalty currencies are on a perpetual downward valuation spiral. While they devalue at different rates and different times, Seth claimed, they never increase in value.

My response was, "What about Wyndham?" After all, the May 11, 2015, revaluation of the Wyndham Rewards program made the 4 cheapest award categories (5,500 to 14,000 Wyndham Rewards points) more expensive, while the 5 most expensive award categories (16,000 to 50,000 Wyndham Rewards points) became less expensive when all properties were realigned at 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night.

Meanwhile, the Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards credit cards continue to offer 2 Wyndham Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere.

Reconciling these two positions is easy, as long as you can tell the difference between loyalty programs and loyalty.

If you were a loyal Wyndham guest, you probably got screwed

I admit that I've been travel hacking so long that it's a bit tough to remember what "loyalty" is supposed to signify.

But if "loyalty" means anything, it's surely the willingness to pay more to direct your stays or flights to a particular travel provider, not for any short-term interest but because over multiple nights, flights, stays, and years, your business will be rewarded in a way it wouldn't if you stayed at the cheapest possible hotel and booked the cheapest possible flight each time you traveled.

Since most travelers, most of the time, are traveling domestically, and only rarely staying in the most expensive categories of property, the change of cost of Wyndham Rewards nights to a flat 15,000 points was, as Seth asserted, a radical devaluation for "loyal" travelers, which is to say for travelers who directed their paid stays to Wyndham in order to secure cheap future award nights.

If you're a travel hacker, the Wyndham Rewards revaluation was a godsend

Compared to putting the same spend on a 2% or 2.105% cash back credit card, the Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards credit cards allow you to purchase a night at any Wyndham Rewards property in the world for between $150 and $158. As it is for a "loyal" Wyndham Rewards customer, at many properties that's an increase over the cost prior to the May 11, 2015, revaluation.

But the key takeaway for the travel hacker is that other, cheaper options remain for the nights you'd otherwise have redeemed Wyndham Rewards points for. There's a difficulty in analyzing the situation precisely, but fortunately Wyndham still makes available the list of properties which went up and went down in category in 2013, which at least gives a sense of what properties were in which categories prior to the 2015 revaluation.

With all that in mind, here are some United States properties which, as of 2013, cost less than 15,000 Wyndham Rewards points per night. These are properties that became more expensive after the 2015 revaluation. Next to each property I also suggest the cheapest nearby competing property and its imputed redemption value.

I don't claim this is exhaustive research — anybody can do the same research and find more extreme examples at their leisure using the links provided above.

  • Baymont Inn and Suites Florence/Muscle Shoals. Was 14,000 Wyndham Rewards points ($147 IRV). Nearby: Hampton Inn Florence-Midtown. 20,000 Hilton HHonors points ($70 IRV).
  • Days Inn Tempe ASU. Was 10,000 Wyndham Rewards points ($105 IRV). Nearby: Embassy Suites Phoenix - Tempe. 30,000 - 40,000 HHonors points ($106 - $141 IRV).
  • Days Hotel Oakland Airport-Coliseum. Was 14,000 Wyndham Rewards points ($147 IRV). Nearby: Hilton Oakland Airport. 30,000 HHonors points ($106 IRV).
  • Ramada Denver Midtown. Was 10,000 Wyndham Rewards points ($105 IRV). Nearby: Hampton Inn & Suites Denver-Speer Boulevard. 30,000 - 40,000 HHonors points ($106-$141 IRV).
  • Knights Inn Lafayette Midwest. Was 5,500 Wyndham Rewards points ($58 IRV). Nearby: 
    Homewood Suites by Hilton Lafayette. 30,000 - 40,000 HHonors points ($106-$141 IRV).
  • Travelodge - Columbus. Was 5,500 Wyndham Rewards points ($58 IRV). Nearby: 
    Hyatt Place Columbus/OSU. 8,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points ($80 IRV). Also
    DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Columbus Downtown. 20,000 - 30,000 Hilton HHonors points ($70 - $106 IRV)


The point of this post is not that the Wyndham Rewards revaluation was "a good thing." Whether or not a particular individual benefited or suffered from it depends on that person's past and future pattern of paid and award stays.

My point is that for a travel hacker the increases in prices at Tier 1-4 Wyndham Rewards properties are easily offset by balances in competing programs with more reasonably priced properties in the same markets.

Meanwhile, the decrease in prices for properties in Wyndham Rewards tiers 5 to 9 (16,000 to 50,000 Wyndham Rewards points) make their top-tier properties radically more affordable in the same markets as their competitors continue to charge high prices, whether you choose to pay in cash or in points.