Credit cards that forgive small statement balances (microhacking)

A few months ago I noted on Twitter that Discover had "forgiven" an extremely small balance outstanding at the end of my billing cycle. Several people pointed me to a FatWallet Forum thread on the subject, but like many FatWallet threads, it's a bit sprawling and confusing unless you're willing to dig into it.

I recently ran another accidental experiment on the subject. Many credit card companies will close accounts that don't show any activity over a certain period, usually 6 or 12 months. In order to keep my accounts active (at least until I close them to avoid their annual fees), I went through and charged a $0.50 Amazon gift card to all these cards:

  • Citi Dividend Platinum Select MasterCard
  • Citi AAdvantage World MasterCard
  • Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa
  • Bank of America BankAmericard Cash Rewards Visa
  • Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard

Chase and Barclaycard both forgave my $0.50 balances, while Citi and Bank of America posted the $0.50 charges to my statements.

Meanwhile my Discover it card statement coincidentally (I forgot the Diet Coke I threw in with my "gas station" purchases) closed with another, slightly larger balance of $1.89, which was also forgiven.

Significance?

This is pretty much the definition of an unscalable deal. After all, there are only 12 statements per year, and the maximum you can "earn" is less than $2 per statement, per card.

On the other hand, the money does seem to be free, and everyone can use $5 in Amazon gift cards per month, so if you have some unused Chase, Barclaycard, or Discover cards lying around it might still be worth considering (see the FatWallet Forum thread for datapoints on other card issuers).

I'm more interested in the fact that our financial system is packed full of these holes, which make sense individually (since it would be more expensive to keep track of small balances and process Automated Clearing House payments against them) but which, taken together, are big enough to drive a (small-ish) truck through.

In any case, I'm curious what my readers think: are $0.99 Amazon gift cards in your future?

Good enough for government work

I'm not shy about telling people that Americans today are blessed to have inherited government institutions designed by people who believed in the government's ability to function. I marvel, for example at the IRS's ability to fit a century of income tax regulations onto a one- or two-page form that works for almost all wage-earners – despite Congress's insistence on adding more amendments, exceptions, and exclusions each year.

While one political faction continues to sabotage the ability of those institutions to function on a daily basis, for the time being our inheritance hasn't yet run out. That's why I'm writing more in sadness than in anger at a ridiculous institutional failure I encountered today.

Since it has to do with US passport renewal, I think it's not completely out of place here. For all I know, this post may even help someone in the future who runs into the same absurd situation.

The Department of State has an online tool to complete applications for passport renewals

You can find it here.

Since passport renewals require you to submit a recent (within 6 months) passport-sized photo and your most recent passport (which the Department of State insists on calling a "passport book"), you can't actually submit the application online. However, you can use an online tool to prepopulate the fields of the relevant form, DS-82:

Then you just have to print and sign the form, and submit it with the necessary materials.

The online tool is too smart for its own good

This took me several hours of trial and error to discover, but buried deep in this online tool is a seemingly innocuous question:

As it happens, my place of birth WAS printed incorrectly on the passport I've been using for the last 9 and a half years. I was born in Arkansas, but my passport says I was born in Alaska (AR, AK, get it?).

If you report an error of any kind, however, your answers are prepopulated not to the correct DS-82 form, elegantly titled "U.S. PASSPORT RENEWAL APPLICATION FOR ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUALS", but to the DS-5504 form, used for "NAME CHANGE, DATA CORRECTION, AND LIMITED PASSPORT BOOK REPLACEMENT."

This error could cost you months of processing time

This shouldn't – necessarily – matter. After all, both the DS-82 and DS-5504 forms contain the same information (which is why they can be prepopulated from the same online tool). But the DS-5504 contains the following text:

"There is no fee associated with the use of this form unless expedited service is requested (see below)."

While the DS-82 reads:

"Please visit our website at travel.state.gov for detailed information regarding current fees."

In my case the renewal fee for my passport was $110. What would have happened if I had submitted my application without a check for $110? I have a hard time even venturing a guess. Would they have simply mailed my application back? Is there someone in the passport processing facility whose job it is to call hundreds or thousands of people every day to try and track down their missing payments?

A (kind of) explanation

As it turns out, there is an explanation for this diabolical situation: you can file form DS-5504 within a year of your passport's date of issue and have any errors on the document corrected at no charge. That seems like a fairly reasonable policy, allowing for human error on the part of both applicants and State Department employees.

What's unreasonable is that the online tool defaults to form DS-5504 even though another question on the same form asks for your most recent passport's date of issue. The online tool simply doesn't check first whether you're eligible for a fee-free replacement before defaulting to the fee-free form.

Now, if this were United Airlines, I'd have just submitted the fee-free form and crossed my fingers. But with the US government, I thought it was better to be safe than sorry, and submitted the DS-82 instead, with check firmly attached.

And if there are any errors on my new passport, I'll deal with them in another 9-and-a-half years!

One Family Dollar manager's theory about Serve load limits

It's no secret that many travel hackers know more about the ins and outs of merchant software than the employees themselves. That makes sense: for us, the difference between success and failure is the difference between a payday and going home empty-handed, while for those helping us check out, we're mostly just another ripple in the daily river of anonymous customers.

For a Walmart customer service agent who sells dozens of money orders every shift, but processes just one or two CheckFreePay bill payments, of course it's up to us to insist they not key in the amount of a split tender until after we've entered a PIN.

Nonetheless, our tellers are people, and people are basically curious at heart; when we see unusual events, we tend to seek an explanation. And the other day, the manager at my local Family Dollar shared her explanation for why Serve loads are occasionally rejected.

Background: Serve loads at Family Dollar

Regular readers know that for the past few months I've been loading my Serve account at Family Dollar, where OneVanilla prepaid debit cards are still accepted without any fuss.

However, using Family Dollar raises its own issues; in particular, you can generally only load a Serve card once per day, per store location. Since I only have one convenient Family Dollar location, that means loading $5,000 in OneVanilla cards over ten days, compared to the 2 days possible at Walmart registers ($2,500 per day).

Additional velocity limits

In addition to the limitation of $500 per day, per store location, there are also other, unpublished limits on the number and speed of Serve loads. When loads are attempted in excess of those limits, the transaction is rejected and the cashier is given a "fraud warning." After that, the OneVanilla card has to be swiped again, and the PIN re-entered, in order to refund the amount of the load back to the prepaid debit card (don't leave before completing this procedure!).

There are various explanations floated, for example on FlyerTalk, for what triggers those fraud warnings. I hadn't thought much about it, since I only have the one Serve card, until yesterday, when I finally encountered a fraud warning and went through the rigamarole described above.

The employee helping me called for his manager, who had herself helped me multiple times already this month, and she gave me her own explanation for why Serve loads are sometimes rejected: she claimed that each store was allowed to load exactly 3 American Express cards per day; it's loads in excess of that number that prompt rejection.

Now, I don't think what's essentially a store manager's speculation necessarily deserves more weight than FlyerTalker speculation, for all the reasons I described above. On the other hand, she did claim that she's been loading a lot of American Express cards this month, so I also don't think it can be dismissed completely out of hand.

What's your favorite explanation for Serve load rejections at Family Dollar?

Do this now: Starwood and IHG fall promotions

I've updated my Hotel Promotions page with two more Fall hotel promotions.

Double or triple points with Starwood Preferred Guest

Between September 15 and December 15, 2014, earn double Starpoints on paid stays of 2 or more nights, or triple Starpoints on paid stays of 2 or more nights that include a Friday or Saturday night (Thursday or Friday night in the Middle East). Register for the promotion here by October 31, and find the list of non-participating properties here.

While it's not spectacular, and there are a fair number of non-participating properties, you should still register now, before you forget, in case you end up with some paid Starwood stays this Fall.

At least 50,000 points or 2 free nights with IHG Rewards

This Fall IHG Rewards is continuing their recent trend of offering "customized" promotions to members based on their history with the program. Here's the offer I received (based on my non-existent participation with IHG Rewards):

As is true for many folks, it's possible to complete all 5 of my tasks by staying a total of three nights over two stays, if and only if both stays are completed at different Holiday Inn hotels and include two Saturdays.

As it happens, I have an upcoming Saturday night award stay at the airport Hyatt Place in Portland, Oregon, for which I redeemed 8,000 Gold Passport points. Since there's also a Holiday Inn property at the airport, I can easily book a stay there and end up breaking roughly even (I'll pay about $93 and get my 8,000 Gold Passport points back, paying 1.16 cents per Gold Passport point and meeting almost half my IHG Rewards tasks).

For my second Saturday, second Holiday Inn, second stay, and second and third nights, I'll probably slightly "overbook" and make a 3-night reservation in San Antonio for an upcoming trip my partner needs to take there. I'll pay about $553 for the 3 nights and fulfill the rest of my IHG Rewards tasks.

That's perhaps $60-70 more than the cheapest satisfactory room in central San Antonio (and it's likely possible to find an even lower rate using opaque booking sites, not to mention using hotel points). On the other hand, that premium will pay for 2 free nights at any IHG property in the world, subject to award availability.

In discussing this promotion, The Miles Professor made the most important point when she wrote:

"The certificates do expire after 12 months so it only really makes sense to go for it if you have a particular trip and hotel in mind. For some hotels, award nights are not always available so, if you do have your heart set on a certain hotel, check for general availability instead of time [sic]."

Back in June I wrote about hotel loyalty program "no blackout date" policies, and shared that IHG has the worst policy of all the major chains, essentially allowing properties to throttle award availability at any time and in any way they choose.

On the other hand, I have an upcoming trip to Italy that still has a number of nights that need to be booked, so I'm hoping those 2 free award nights will give me some valuable flexibility as I complete my hotel reservations for that trip.

Whether you plan to game the promotion or not, be sure to register now, before you forget.

Quick update: online American Express credit reallocation

A number of readers have commented in response to my original post back in June that the steps I described there for moving credit lines between accounts no longer worked; the option to "Transfer Available Credit to Another Card," present back in June, has since disappeared from the "Manage Credit Limit" console.

Rather than continue the discussion there, I thought it was worth writing a quick update to point out that Flyertalker yugi recently shared a working link directly to American Express's credit reallocation page.

To access the page, you'll need to first log into your American Express account, then open this working link.

It's unclear to me whether the page was left up intentionally or not, so it may not be available for long; if you need to reallocate your available credit, I'd take advantage of the opportunity as quickly as possible.

As a reminder, all the restrictions I wrote about in this post still apply: the card "contributing" credit has to be open for at least 12 months; credit lines can only be reallocated between consumer cards and from consumer cards to business cards (not vice versa); and you can only move "available" credit (so pay off your card before attempting to move a credit line from it).

If manufactured spend disappeared tomorrow

Introduction

For many people, in many parts of the country, this is a golden age for manufactured spend.

OneVanilla prepaid debit cards are back (sort of). 5% cash back is back. Debit card miles are still around (for those who listen). Flexperks gives 75-100% discounts on paid airfares while Hilton and Club Carlson are working to make your hotel stays as cheap as possible. The list goes on.

But as great as it is to be doing what we do at this moment in history, I've been thinking a lot lately about developing an exit strategy – albeit one I'll hopefully never have to use!

So I thought I'd share with readers my action plan for the day when manufactured spend disappears for good.

Immediately consolidate my debt in a low-interest loan...

One of the underrated benefits of manufacturing spend is the unlimited liquidity it gives. The ability to spin off huge amounts of cash on a monthly basis transforms high-interest credit card debt into free, unsecured loans. Unlike some personal finance gurus, I have no principled objections to debt or even any particular interest in paying off my credit card debt, as long as the banks keep letting me turn it over at 0% APR.

I don't go out of my way to avoid debt, but I do go out of my way to avoid interest, so if manufactured spend disappeared tomorrow, I'd first need to consolidate as much of my credit card debt as possible into one or two low-interest loans. Assuming I didn't have enough notice to use the technique described here, I'd start with a Chase Slate card, the only 0% balance transfer card I know of that doesn't charge a balance transfer fee (for the first 2 months), and maybe take up Discover on one of their regular offers of low-interest personal loans.

...then focus on paying it off!

Of course, whether it's an interest-free balance transfer or a low-interest personal loan, the goal would be to pay it off as quickly as possible in order to minimize the interest paid on the loan.

Cancel or change most of my annual-fee cards

I cancel most of my cards that charge annual fees before their first anniversary anyway, so I pay either nothing or only once for each card (depending on whether the first year's fee is waived). However, there are a few cards that charge annual fees that I only keep around because of the opportunity to manufacture spend on them.

So I'd request to change my Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express back into the no-annual-fee version of the card, downgrade my Barclaycard Arrival+ to the no-annual-fee Arrival, change my Chase Ink Plus into an Ink Cash, and convert my US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card into another Cash+ or Perks+ card. Of course each bank has different policies on product changes, so not all of them might allow me to do so; in those cases I'd cancel the cards.

There are a few cards that charge annual fees I'd keep: my US Bank Club Carlson Business Rewards Visa, which gives 40,000 Gold Points annually (and the last night free on award redemptions), and my Delta Skymiles Platinum Business American Express, since that card's $195 annual fee is more than covered by the companion ticket earned on each anniversary. While it's tough to rationalize paying cash for a Delta ticket (and getting a second ticket free) while Skymiles are so easy to earn, remember that this is a world without manufactured spend: in that world, there's no doubt I'd have a chance to use the companion ticket each and every year.

The card I'd struggle the most to justify keeping is the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa, which charges $85 annually for a Category 5 free night certificate. As I explained earlier this year, Marriott's latest category realignment has gutted downtown Category 5 options, making these certificates much less valuable for the properties I like to stay at. On the other hand, for airport, rural, and some overseas properties, it's still easy to get more than $85 in value from the certificates — as long as you're willing to commit in advance to staying in such a property at least once each year!

Use 2% cash back cards for everything

Once all those affairs were in order, I'd take my own advice and do what I've always recommended readers who weren't interested in manufacturing spend do: put all my domestic spend on my Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, and my overseas spend on a card that didn't charge foreign transaction fees, probably the Discover it card, which still earns 1% cash back on such purchases. For cash transactions, I'd make ATM withdrawals overseas from my Bluebird account, which doesn't charge foreign transaction or ATM fees.

The fact is, I only have trivial amounts of real spend each month, so I might not get more than one or two redemptions per year out of those cards. But I'd know I was getting the best return possible on what little spend I have, and not speculatively earning hotel points or airline miles I may never use.

Get back to travel hacking basics

And finally, I'd reinvest in the techniques I started travel hacking with: watching for cheap fares; taking travel vouchers when flights are overbooked; using Priceline to get the cheapest hotel stays possible; keeping track of future travel plans and be sure to book free one-ways on award tickets; and so on. It may not be particularly glamorous, but it is how to stretch the same small travel budget into more travel.

The newest 2% cash back card (and how to use it)

Introduction

For quite a while now, there have been two cards worth mentioning for everyday, non-manufactured, real honest-to-God spend: the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, which gives 2% cash back on all purchases, and the Barclaycard Arrival (now Arrival+) MasterCard which earns 2 Arrival "miles" per dollar spend, redeemable for 1 cent each against travel purchases, with a 10% rebate on all travel purchase redemptions.

With its $89 annual fee, the Arrival+ MasterCard is theoretically only superior (with its 10% rebate) to the Fidelity Investment Rewards card if you spend over $44,500 per year on your Arrival+. Thanks to Barclaycard's liberal approach to annual fee waivers, that hasn't actually been a binding constraint for literally anyone I have talked to about the card. But that fee waiver policy could change at any time, so the annual fee is still important to be aware of.

Citibank has now entered the market with what claims to be a 2% cash back, no-annual-fee MasterCard. It's no secret that I've given Gary Leff a hard time about his fawning treatment of the card, but I'm not one to throw babies and bathwater out together. I'll probably get the card one of these days, and this is how I'll use it.

What we know – and don't know – about Citi Double Cash

The new Citi Double Cash card earns 1% cash back on purchases and an additional 1% cash back "as you pay." I assume my readers' first reaction to this scheme was the same as mine: "Wait, can I earn 1% cash back on bill payments?!?" Here's the relevant entry in the card's Terms and Conditions:

"Cash Back on Payments: You will also earn 1% cash back on payments you make that appear on your current month's billing statement as long as the amount paid is at least the Minimum Payment Due that is printed on your billing statement and there is a balance in the Purchase Tracker. The balance in the Purchase Tracker is reduced by eligible payments you make. When the Purchase Tracker reaches $0, you won't earn cash back on payments until more eligible purchases are made." (emphasis mine)

Good try, but whoever came up with the unlimited 5-ThankYou-Point-per-dollar offer has apparently been let go, so they aren't just shoveling cash willy-nilly into furnaces anymore.

What we don't know is what the hell a "Purchase Tracker" is and, most importantly, whether purchases show up there immediately upon posting or only after a statement has closed.

There's simply no way to know until datapoints start coming in, but that's a potentially huge difference: will folks who pay off their entire balance before each statement closes earn 1% or 2% cash back on their purchases?

For those who do wait to pay off their balances until after their statement closes, the final 1% cash back won't be earned until two months after the initial purchase was made. That makes the card a hybrid between the "old" Blue Cash's 2-statement delay and the Fidelity Investment Rewards card's 2% cash back program, which allows you to redeem all your rewards each month (as long as you've accumulated at least $50 in cash back).

The beauty of negative-interest-rate loans

Many cards offer 0% introductory interest rates on purchases. The goal, naturally, is for customers to run up large bills during the interest-free period, then pay them off over time (or, realistically, never) once the promotional period ends. It's a ludicrously simple – and effective – trap for unsuspecting customers.

Few of those 0% introductory rate cards offer 1% cash back on all purchases. None of them have offered 2% cash back on all purchases, until now.

The Citi Double Cash card offers 15 months of 0% interest rate financing for purchases (and balance transfers, but with their 3% balance transfer fee).

The 1% immediate cash back rate makes your initial manufactured spend purchases free once your first statement closes. Except they're better than free: they're interest-free. Fund Kiva loans with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, stick the money in a Mango 6% APY saving account, or pay off your Blue Cash card and go around the track another time or two each month. No matter what you do with the money, your returns will be printed at the bank's expense, since the 15-month loan is interest-free.

Then 14-and-a-half months later, pay off your Citi Double Cash card with your favorite miles-earning debit card and pocket another 1% cash back on the amount you've been floating.

Conclusion

That's how I'll be using my Citi Double Cash card, once I make up my mind to actually apply for one. I'd love to hear from readers who have already decided to jump in: what the hell is a Purchase Tracker, and what else do we need to know about the card?

Blogger, don't ask for credit card affiliate links

Introduction

In the past few weeks, 3 events have piled up in my mind: a series of e-mail and voicemail messages I received from representatives of bankratecreditcards.com; a post by PointsChaser about being censored by Barclaycard; and this ridiculous hack job by Gary Leff this afternoon.

This post is my reflection on those three events, and a plea to readers – but especially bloggers – to just say no to credit card affiliate links.

Bankrate doesn't realize I don't work for them

Back in June, I signed up for an account on cardsynergy.com, one of the many web fronts of the same company that generates most online credit card affiliate links. Since I wasn't interested in cluttering up my website with banners, advertising text, and the other bullshit that company produces, I just pulled out the underlying links and linked directly to the cards I was writing about. I wrote about the two decent signup bonuses offered by that company, and forgot about it.

A couple months later, after not having made any money, they fired me, which I also wrote about here.

Here's the e-mail I received:

"A review of www.freequentflyerbook.com has revealed that you are still displaying links that have been scraped from creditcards.com. Unfortunately, at this time, we must remove you from our Affiliate program. Please remove all links that direct readers to application pages from creditcard.com immediately. Failure to remove this content in a timely manner may prohibit you from marketing cards through our program in the future."

If that seems like a mutually satisfactory resolution, you'd only be half right. After firing me, they then have continued to pester me up until the present day with obnoxious e-mails like this one from Camille Thomas, dated August 7, over a year after being removed from their affiliate program:

"I hope all is well. For your site , Freequentflyerbook, can you please  remove the Chase affiliate links. Please notify when issue has been resolved."

and with voicemails threatening legal action by Chase (if someone can tell me how to download voicemails from an iPhone I'll post that crap as well).

Needless to say, I've told them to fuck completely and totally off, when I've replied to them at all. But the only reason these morons thought they had the right to e-mail me in the first place is that I decided to sign up for an account with them in the first place – a mistake I made because I thought that's how bloggers made money.

PointsChaser made a shocking amount of money from Barclaycard

A few days ago I read this post by Ariana Arghandewal at her personal blog, PointsChaser. It's structured as her rejection of Barclaycard's demands for her to take down content, but I naturally honed in on the most interesting part of her post:

"I wasn’t promoting Barclay cards much, but did manage to earn about $500-$1,000 in affiliate commission each month."

I understand, and have always understood, that travel hacking is a hobby engaged in, by and large, by those who are already well-off. Most folks only realize travel hacking exists once they're already in sales, management, or ownership positions that have them flying enough to naturally earn the miles, points, and elite status that have them asking what they can do with all these rewards currencies.

That's not me, but I understand.

But consider Ariana's statement, not from the perspective of someone who came into travel hacking from the sales, management, or ownership side, but from the perspective of those who don't work for a "living," but work to survive. The sums of money involved for a blogger who "wasn't promoting Barclay cards much" are already more than lots of folks take home from their minimum wage jobs.

Ariana claims to have been able to resist the temptation to cleanse her site of material Barclaycard didn't want to pay her for; every blogger who still has Barclaycard affiliate links, by definition, couldn't resist.

Gary Leff appears to be unable to write about the mechanics of Citi credit cards

I've written before that I have all 4 of the major 5% cash back credit cards, and have written extensively about the mechanics of all four: US Bank Cash+ allows you to redeem small amounts of cash back, Discover it requires a minimum of $50 to redeem for a direct deposit, Citi Dividend Platinum Select only allows you to earn $300 in cash back per year, etc.

But today I was shocked, jaded as I am, that Gary Leff wrote about a new 2% cash back card offered by Citi without providing any details whatsoever on the details on the mechanics of the card's rewards currency.

Just like the example from Ariana above, that's a situation that can only possibly come about because the people at Citi who pay Gary Leff (much more than $1,000 per month) don't want him to write about the mechanics of redeeming the card's rewards. They don't want him to write about anything except the talking points they've passed along to him.

Now, Gary makes enough money that he could tell them to fuck off if he wanted to. He hasn't, and until he does, I consider it the work of everyone in the community is to make sure he, and bloggers like him, aren't rewarded for taking advantage of their high-profile positions.

Conclusion

Blogger, and reader: just say no to credit card affiliate links.

Comparing Alaska promotional redemptions to year-round Avios redemptions

Introduction

Alaska Airlines has announced a promotion, whereby one-way economy awards between select city pairs on Alaska metal cost between 5,000 and 12,500 Mileage Plan miles, a 60% discount on some routes.

Of course, to qualify seats have to be available at the lowest level of award availability, and that means they're also bookable using British Airways' distance-based Avios award chart.

So I thought it would be fun to compare the standard cost in Avios and the promotional cost in Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

Why it matters

Alaska Airlines miles are very valuable when redeemed for partner awards (100,000 miles and trivial taxes and fees for Emirates A380 First Class to Asia, for example) and for last-seat availability, for example to Hawaii during the Christmas holiday season or when you just need to be somewhere and are miles-rich but cash-poor (I know the feeling!).

At the same time, they're relatively difficult to earn except through transfers from Starwood Preferred Guest, clicking through their online shopping portal, or crediting revenue flights on Delta, American, or Alaska to the Mileage Plan program.

That's why under most circumstances it would be preferable to redeem easily-acquired British Airways Avios for Alaska Airlines award flights, rather than Alaska's own, more valuable, Mileage Plan miles.

Sample analysis

Here are the city pairs between which Alaska Airlines is charging 5,000 Mileage Plan miles one-way from August 30 to October 31, 2014 (note that all these fares work both ways):

  • Boise-Las Vegas
  • Boise-Salt Lake City
  • Los Angeles-Salt Lake City
  • Oakland-Seattle
  • Oakland-Portland
  • Portland-San Jose
  • Portland-San Francisco
  • Salt Lake City-San Francisco
  • Salt Lake City-San Jose
  • Salt Lake City-San Diego
  • San Francisco-Portland
  • San Francisco-Seattle
  • San Jose-Portland
  • San Jose-Seattle

Of these city pairs, can you guess how many are more than 650 miles, the cutoff for British Airways 4,500 Avios one-way awards?

If you said 3, you'd be exactly right: the 3 Bay Area airports (SFO, OAK, and SJC) clock in at just under 700 miles to Seattle, putting those flights in the 7,500 Avios price band.

The next set of city pairs cost 7,500 Mileage Plan miles during the promotional period:

  • Bellingham-San Francisco
  • Bellingham-Oakland
  • Boise-San Jose
  • Boise-San Francisco
  • Boise-Oakland
  • Oakland-Vancouver
  • San Francisco-Spokane
  • San Francisco-Vancouver
  • San Jose-Vancouver

What do you think? How do these discounts compare to a 7,500 Avios redemption, available year-round?

If you said they weren't any kind of discount at all, you'd only be 66% correct. That's because flights between Boise and the 3 Bay Area airports in fact cost just 4,500 Avios, clocking in at between 511 and 523 miles!

You get the picture.

Conclusion

I'll spare you the rest of the promotional city pairs (at the 10,000 and 12,500 Mileage Plan mile levels) and end with two thoughts.

First: there's nothing wrong with promotions like this. For folks who (rightly!) credit their revenue Delta and American Airlines tickets to Alaska's Mileage Plan, the ability to redeem those miles for short flights around the Western United States at a steep discount is a terrific opportunity, and I'm sure this promotion will be incredibly popular. The least valuable mile is the one you don't redeem, and if this promotion gets folks to redeem their miles for trips they want to take, it'll be an unqualified success.

Second: while this example involves small stakes – just a few thousand miles here or there – a rough background knowledge of airline partnerships like this will keep you from making shockingly expensive mistakes. The classic example is the couple who allegedly redeemed 2 million Starpoints for SPG Flights revenue First Class tickets to Australia on American Airlines — when they could have transferred just a few hundred thousand points to American and redeemed them for an AAnytime award!

Breaking: Iberia goes bizarre, British Airways award chart intact (for now)

About 12 hours ago, at 10:23 am, I sent out what seemed like an innocuous tweet:

 

"Did Iberia go revenue-based while I wasn't watching? Short domestic flights are pricing out astronomically"

Here's what I was referring to. While planning an award trip using some of the 100,000 British Airways Avios I earned during that short-lived signup bonus back in January, I wondered whether I might see different availability or cheaper taxes and fees if I transferred my British Airways Avios (through Avios.com) to Iberia.

Here's the itinerary I was looking at, in British Airways' booking engine:

This is an example of an itinerary that, since British Airways prices segments out individually, is a pretty good deal despite their policy of charging three times the price of coach for US domestic first class. It's two 13,500 Avios legs paired with two 4,500 Avios legs, for a total cost of 36,000 Avios, while the same itinerary would cost 50,000 AAdvantage miles or 65,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles.

Here's the same itinerary priced out with Iberia's award engine:

That's...weird. The same itinerary is pricing out cheaper using Iberia Avios than British Airways Avios (although the additional taxes and fees make British Airways the better deal overall).

But even weirder is that there's no reason, based on the award charts we all thought Iberia was using, for that odd number of Avios to be required at all.

Since Iberia only allows round-trip award reservations, I thought I'd see whether I got a similar result with a single-cabin reservation. Instead, it got weirder.

Here's a first class reservation between Madison and Chicago using British Airways Avios:

Just as we saw above, this roundtrip flight in first class prices out at 27,000 British Airways Avios.

Here's the same reservation priced out with Iberia Avios:

You read that right. The itinerary costs over twice as many miles using Iberia Avios (which, as a reminder, are freely transferrable to British Airways Avios).

For a final test, I thought I'd check the economy itinerary between Chicago and Lexington. Here's what British Airways shows me:

As you'd expect, the short round-trip itinerary prices out at 4,500 Avios each way.

Here's Iberia's pricing of the same award:

In this case, the economy itinerary costs almost three times as much using Iberia Avios!

The Explanation

As my Twitter follower @KennyBSAT was the first to point out, Iberia has quietly introduced what most bloggers this evening are calling a devaluation (see here, here, here, and here). They've already implemented a new award chart for partner award bookings, including American Airlines award bookings like the one I was booking today.

The new award chart will require close study, and as Gary points out, "long haul flying can be cheaper than using BA Avios."

The most interesting point my example above illustrates is that they appear to use a formula to weight mixed-cabin redemptions, such that adding short-haul economy legs radically reduces the total cost in Iberia Avios, sometimes below the cost in British Airways Avios. Since Iberia requires round-trip redemptions, it isn't obvious how to use this loophole to add a "third strike" to a reservation in order to drag down redemption costs. However, adding a short-haul economy flight to a long-haul business or first class flight may, as in my example, drastically reduce the number of Iberia Avios required for your award redemption.

Conclusion

Trust me: you'll be seeing a lot more analysis along these lines on all the most popular travel hacking blogs in the coming days and weeks. Potential arbitrage opportunities like these are the bread and butter of travel hackers, and I suspect a lot of discussions will be taking place on Twitter, as well as in the comments to this blog and others. Be sure to follow me @FreequentFlyr and check out my list of some of the best travel hacking feeds to make sure you're in the loop for this ongoing and guaranteed-to-be-lively discussion.