Table stakes for a decent Marriott credit card reboot

I've been traveling all week, but followed with interest the announcement that Marriott will be rebooting their credit card lineup, with "mass consumer," "premium," and "super premium" credit cards offered by Chase and American Express. Having no interest in speculating about what the cards will actually look like, but wanting to say something about it, here's my take on what to look for in the credit card reboot.

The problem with Marriott credit cards

I haven't carried a Marriott credit card for years, because despite Marriott's broad global footprint, the cards stink:

  • The earning rate of 1 Marriott Rewards point per dollar translates into an imputed redemption value of $900 for top-tier properties, which cost 45,000 points per night. That's absurd compared to any other hotel rewards program besides IHG Rewards Club.
  • The annual free night certificates offered by the Marriott Rewards Premier credit card are limited to Category 1-5 properties. Marriott has experienced enormous category creep in the last several years, so there simply aren't any Category 5 properties available in the medium and large cities I typically visit. Even IHG Rewards Club credit cards offer free night certificates you can use at all IHG properties worldwide.
  • While not impossible, it's outlandishly expensive to manufacture mid- and top-tier status through the Marriott Rewards Premier credit card, requiring as it does $105,000 in spend (in addition to the 15 free elite qualifying nights) to earn mid-tier Gold status.

I'm not in the prediction business, so I don't expect Chase and Marriott to implement my suggestions, but here's the absolute minimum I would look for to even begin to be interested in one of the rebooted credit cards.

An earning rate of 1.5 points per dollar

The fundamental problem with the Marriott Rewards co-branded credit cards has always been the same: their redemption rates top out at 45,000 Marriott Rewards points, which is higher than Hyatt (30,000) or Starwood (35,000), but the earning rate on their co-branded credit cards is the same (one point per dollar). Hilton properties top out at 95,000 points per night, but their credit cards earn a minimum of 3 points per dollar (and offer bonus points in easily-manufactured categories).

The problem was made even more ridiculous when Starpoints became transferrable to Marriott Rewards at a 1:3 ratio, so the same top-tier hotel award night required $15,000 in spend on a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express, but $45,000 in spend on a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card.

Besides that, anyone can earn 1.5 Marriott Rewards point per dollar with a Chase Freedom Unlimited credit card paired with a $95 Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, Ink Bold, or Ink Preferred credit card. Why would they pay anything at all for a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card that earns less than that?

If a premium or "super-premium" Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card earned 1.5 or 2 points per dollar on unbonused spend, or on easily-manufactured bonused spend, it would begin to look competitive with other cards and combinations of cards already on the market.

Anniversary free nights redeemable at any Marriott property

If a Marriott Rewards co-branded card wants to be taken seriously, it has to get rid of the category limit on anniversary free nights. A natural compromise would be to limit the free night certificate to weekend nights as the Citi Hilton Honors cards do, but in any case the category limitation of Marriott Rewards free night certificates is a pure liability for them at this point.

Gold or Platinum status after a reasonable amount of spend

Any decent co-branded credit card would have to offer at least mid-tier Marriott Rewards Gold status after spending a lot, but not too much, money on the card. Hilton offers top-tier Diamond status for spending $40,000 on its premium co-branded credit cards, and mid-tier Gold status just for carrying them. I understand that Marriott wants to preserve its most valuable elite status for its most valuable customers, but that's not our problem. If it wants people to carry its co-branded credit card, it has to make it worth our while.


To be clear, these aren't three separate suggestions for things Marriott could do to improve their co-branded card lineup. Marriott, Chase, and American Express would have to do all three of these things before I'd consider applying for one of their credit cards.

Who wants to pay an annual fee for a card with inferior earning, an inferior anniversary bonus, and a nominal elite status?

Actually Moviepass is good

Like a lot of people, I signed up for Moviepass when they recently lowered the monthly price to $9.95. Like so many people, in fact, that it took a few months for my Moviepass debit card to arrive. Some theatres apparently allow electronic ticketing through Moviepass, but none do near me, so I just had to sit on my hands until their vendor got around to sending me a card.

It finally arrived, and I've now used it several times, so I thought I'd share a brief report.

How Moviepass works

The Moviepass system consists of two parts: the Moviepass debit card, and the Moviepass smartphone app. Once you've downloaded the app and activated the debit card, you can go to eligible movie theatres in person, open the app, and select the movie and showtime you're interested in. After "checking in" to the movie, money is added to the Moviepass debit card, which you can then use to pay for your ticket.

Not all movie theatres participate, and special screening types like 3D and IMAX aren't eligible. However, there are no limits on showtimes or new releases or anything like that: Moviepass works for all standard showings at all participating theatres.

Additionally, since Moviepass is just a normal debit card, you can combine it with movie loyalty programs like AMC Stubs or Marcus Theatres Magical Movie Rewards.


In my experience so far, this system works perfectly, but it has some drawbacks:

  • You need to buy tickets in person, so if you want to go to a popular movie on a popular day, you may need to hit the theatre early in the day to secure your ticket.
  • You need one card per person, which I find to be a strange restriction; I don't see why they couldn't offer a "couples" subscription that let you add two tickets to the card instead of one.
  • Not all theatres are eligible. Our AMC theatres are in the app, but our Landmark Theatres locations don't appear.

Hacking Moviepass

Here are a few obvious ways you can get more value from Moviepass than they, strictly speaking, intend:

  • At movie theatres that allow advance ticketing (I assume this is 99% of movie theatres), buy a ticket on day 1 for day 2, then another ticket on day 2 for day 2. This would keep you from having to pay for two Moviepass subscriptions in order to cover yourself and your date (but would require two trips to the theatre).
  • Buy a ticket every day whether or not you plan to see a movie. At theatres that offer rewards for each ticket you buy, there's no reason you have to actually see the movie you buy a ticket for. If you're an AMC Stubs Premiere member (a paid membership tier), you earn 100 points per dollar spent, and can redeem 5,000 points for a $5 credit. That means five $10 movie tickets turn into a $5 credit.
  • Buy a gift card every day. It may be possible to load the price of a movie ticket onto your Moviepass card, then buy a gift card for that exact value.
  • Resell (or give away) movie tickets. Movie tickets can be expensive, so you could potentially save people money and turn a profit buying tickets to popular movies and showtimes and then selling or giving them away.

I'm not a priest, and I'm especially not your priest, so complaints about the ethics of doing this will be politely ignored.

Is Moviepass sustainable?

This is the kind of speculation travel hackers love engaging in, so as travel hackers, let's speculate!

What might be Moviepass's business model? As far as I can tell, there are two options:

  • The profitable option is that since most people don't see very many movies, if you had near-universal enrollment in the program the infrequent moviegoers could subsidize the frequent moviegoers, pay for Moviepass's overhead, and produce a profit for their owners.
  • The unprofitable option is that they are burning through venture capital trying to create a proof of concept that combining the demographic information (and other identifying details) of their customers with moviegoing habits will produce a database that is or will be of value to someone, somewhere, eventually. In this version the actual price of the service is irrelevant, since their subscription revenue is merely buying them time to find a customer for that database.

Realistically, the answer is probably a combination of the two: while building a database they hope to sell or license to someone, eventually, they also are trying to enroll as many people as possible in order to improve their ratio of casual to committed moviegoers. They wouldn't mind turning a profit but they aren't counting on turning a profit.

Lifecycle effects, Thanksgiving car rental edition

I often talk about lifecycle effects when it comes to travel hacking. That's what I call the phenomenon of people believing that travel hacking has become objectively more difficult when in fact it's their own lifecycle progression that has made them subjectively experience travel hacking as more time-consuming, laborious, or downright boring than when they had more time and fewer responsibilities.

This is a totally normal and indeed ubiquitous phenomenon in all fields of human endeavor, but it's important to keep in mind when you hear a retiree explain how much better everything used to be: sure, travel hacking might have been easier, but he also had more hair, better joints, and fewer kids.

I had my own lifecycle effect moment the other day while renting a car for a Thanksgiving trip.

How I think you're supposed to rent cars

Travel hackers have a lot of options when it comes to minimizing the cost and maximizing the value of car rentals:

  • Redeem Discover cash back for car rental certificates. You can redeem $20 in Discover cash back for a $40 certificate with National, Alamo, and Enterprise.
  • Earn frequent flyer miles by using airline promo codes when booking. I often see Frequent Miler posting these codes, for example here and here, but you can also earn miles by booking through airline car rental portals, e.g. Delta's.
  • Use Autoslash to track car rental prices. Autoslash has changed quite a bit through the years but you can still use it to track your car rental reservation and alert you when the price drops, so you can make a new reservation at the lower price.

Five years ago I probably would have done all that, and made sure to minimize the price I paid and maximized the rewards I earned on our 4-day rental.

How I actually rented a car for Thanksgiving

I logged onto Chase Ultimate Rewards and redeemed 15,840 Ultimate Rewards points for a rental that priced out at $198, which seemed in line with the prices I saw glancing at Kayak.

I did create a Hertz account and earned 275 points for the rental (worth approximately $0), but I didn't bother searching for referral codes or promo codes to apply to the reservation.

Coming to terms with lifecycle effects

There are still lots of marginal travel hacking techniques I pursue. I still credit all my paid flights to a frequent flyer program, even if it's a program like United's that doesn't offer me much if any value. I still try my best to keep my Delta SkyBonus small business account active in order to gradually earn points towards redemptions like drink coupons and domestic flights. I use shopping portals when I buy stuff online, even if the rewards end up being just a few thousand points per year.

But when it comes to renting a car once a year, I can't bring myself to care the way a younger me probably would have.

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).