Pro tip: finding information on this site

My goal when starting this blog was to write the kind of blog I would want to read, and part of that project has been the fact that I almost never repeat the same information twice. If I were an affiliate blogger I might find excuses to repeat the same tired cliches, but since my only goal is to write the best blog I can possibly write, I'm content with explaining just once why Club Carlson points are so valuable.

One drawback to this approach is that new readers may not realize that their questions have already been answered here on the blog, so they end up asking the same questions or making mistakes that could be avoided if they knew better.

This is surely especially common for readers who subscribe to the blog's RSS feed or have each new post e-mailed to them, rather than reading them on my actual website. Those readers may miss two powerful tools to find additional information about topics that interest them: the search field and tags.

"My blog has a search function"

I feel like I say this at least once a week on Twitter to readers who don't immediately understand something that I'm trying to sum up in 140 characters. If you have a question about a topic like freezing your IDA and ARS credit reports, you can pop over to the search field found at the top of the sidebar on every page, and type in "IDA." The first hit will tell you step-by-step how to freeze your IDA and ARS credit reports before applying for US Bank credit cards.

Almost every post is tagged

Sometime the search field won't get you the precise information you're looking for. At times like that, you can also search for "tags." If you're reading a post about a topic that's interesting, you can click on one of the tags at the bottom of that post to find more about the same topics. If you already know what topic you're looking for, for example all posts about Club Carlson, you can also do a command/ctrl-F search for the bank, card, or product you're interested in, and click the entry in the seemingly-endless list of tags found at the bottom of the sidebar on each page:

I have no idea by what principle these tags are ordered, but the important thing is they're easily searched for and found.

Most, but not all, of my posts are more-or-less meticulously tagged, so if you can't find information using one method, you might have more success trying the other.

Conclusion

It sometimes seems that some of my readers think I have some incredible secrets I'm saving for myself, while in truth virtually everything I know is here on the blog. I simply don't have any interest in rehashing techniques that I've already covered and that have changed little in the intervening months or years. Learning about those techniques is as simple as exploring the multiple tools (in addition to Google!) I've provided for your convenience.

Using US Bank Flexpoints for hotel stays

Flexpoints, US Bank's proprietary rewards currency, are famously most valuable when redeemed for airfare: they're worth between 1.33 and 2 cents each, which makes the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card an (almost) unlimited 2.66% to 6% rewards card, depending on the flights you ultimately redeem your Flexpoints for, as long as you're sure to spend exclusively in the card's bonus categories.

In addition to flights, Flexpoints can also be redeemed for hotel stays, and if Flexpoints are the points you happen to have while booking a trip, they may be worth redeeming. There are a few nuances to doing so, however, which you should know before getting started.

Prices are after-tax

This may go without saying, but before calculating the number of Flexpoints required for a stay, US Bank adds the taxes and fees for the reservation.

What didn't occur to me until I started researching this post is that the Flexperks Travel website presents the total cost, including taxes, up front, which is information that is typically hidden on both online travel agencies and the websites of hotels themselves. Instead of having to click all the way through to the reservation screen to see how much you'll actually be paying for a stay, you can search using the Flexperks portal and see the total cost of your different hotel choices presented on one screen:

Redemption values are lower

While you can get up to 2 cents per Flexpoint in value when redeeming for paid airfare, Flexpoints are only worth up to 1.5 cents each when redeemed for hotel stays. However...

Redemption thresholds are lower

Flexpoint redemptions for airfare start at 20,000 Flexpoints, for flights costing up to $400. When redeemed for hotel stays, you can redeem as few as 10,000 Flexpoints for stays costing up to $150, and in 10,000/$150 intervals thereafter. While your value per Flexpoint is lower, if you're Flexpoint-rich and cash-poor, it could be a great way to get value from large, unused balances.

Redemption prices are based on the total cost of your stay

In other words, while a one-night, $200-after-taxes reservation costs 20,000 Flexpoints, a two-night, $400-after-taxes reservation costs just 30,000 Flexpoints, since the total cost falls within the $301-$450 band.

I assume my astute readers will see where this is going: a way to goose the value of your Flexpoints on longer stays is break down your stay into multiple, shorter reservations to test different permutations of your reservation with "breakpoints" that bring each component reservation as close to the maximum allowed value as possible.

Another trick is to book the most expensive room that doesn't bump you into a higher price band. In other words, rather than booking a $200 stay for 20,000 Flexpoints, see if there's a bigger room or one that includes breakfast or parking, that won't raise your total cost above $300.

Stays probably won't earn points or elite-qualifying nights and stays

The Flexperks Travel portal is "powered by Orbitz," so unlike with airline redemptions, you probably won't earn points on your hotel stays, and they won't count towards elite status. You may or may not receive your elite benefits, depending on the elite program's policies. [Side note: I understand there are ways to get around these restrictions. I don't know any of them.]

While that doesn't sound ideal from a travel hacking point of view, you can also use the opportunity to stay in boutique hotels you don't get a chance to enjoy if you're usually too busy redeeming hotel points or chasing hotel elite status.

Conclusion

Unlike some bloggers, I choose not to pretend to live in a universe full of "ideal" redemptions. Instead, I choose to live in the real world, where points lose value the longer they go unredeemed. In that world, every trip presents a choice between spending cash that could be invested, used to pay off debt, or spent on all the other expenses of daily life, or spending points that have already been acquired, whether advisedly or not.

If you find you're consistently redeeming your Flexpoints for less than the opportunity cost of acquiring them (2% or 2.22% in cash back or statement credits, for example), then you should at least think about earning fewer of them. But don't let the perfect $799 airfare redemption be the enemy of the perfectly adequate $599 hotel redemption.

Quick hit: free money from American Express and Marriott Hotels

I don't write about (or take advantage of) deals like this very often anymore, but this one is easy enough to be worth a quick mention.

If you registered in time for the current American Express "Offer For You" at Marriott Hotels, you can get a $50 statement credit when you make a single purchase of $200 or more at Marriott Hotels (excluding all their other brands: "The Ritz-Carlton®, EDITION®, AC Hotels by Marriott®, Autograph Collection®, JW Marriott®, Renaissance Hotels®, MOXY(TM) Hotels, Courtyard®, SpringHill Suites by Marriott®, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott®, Protea Hotels(TM), Residence Inn by Marriott®, TownePlace Suites by Marriott®, Marriott Executive Apartments®, Gaylord Hotels® and Marriott Vacation Club®").

If you have a local Marriott Hotel (or if you'll be traveling near one before December 31, 2014) you should be able to buy a $200 Marriott gift card at the reception desk. Then use TopCashBack to click through to Cardpool.com and earn an additional $8 per $200 card, on top of the $176 Cardpool will mail you as a check. Earn $34 profit per registered American Express card (I have 5).

Cautious as I am, I'll be buying one $200 gift card first to make sure the statement credit posts properly. If it doesn't, I do have an upcoming Marriott stay which I can pay for with the gift card, rather than the points I was planning to use. That's less than ideal, but since Marriott Rewards points are seldom worth even a cent each on award night redemptions, I don't consider it a great sacrifice given the potential upside of the experiment.

Naturally, I'll report back once my statement credit posts (or doesn't).

How my thinking has "evolved" on the costs of manufactured spend

One principle I've always tried to adhere to on this site is transparency with my readers. That's why I periodically share my income from book sales, referrals to services like Uber, PayPal subscriptions, and so on, and why the comment sections are always open on my blog posts. When I'm wrong, my readers don't hesitate to tell me — and judging by the comments I get, I'm wrong a lot!

I was pondering all this today in the shower when I realized there's a key concept about which my thinking has really evolved in the almost-2-years I've been writing online. That concept is how to think about the cost of individual techniques for manufactured spend and the total cost of a manufactured spend strategy.

To show what I mean, it helps to look at an early post I wrote, in which I described buying PayPal My Cash cards with a rewards-earning credit card and then liquidating the funds using a PayPal Debit MasterCard that earns 1% cash back. It's a perfectly accurate post — but I was totally, utterly, and completely wrong.

What I described was a way to earn as much as possible from a single dollar of manufactured spend on a rewards-earning credit card. I described it as "driv[ing] down your cost per point." With the benefit of 21 more months experience manufacturing spend, that's the key point I've changed my mind about.

Make it up in volume

Rather than focusing on the cost of individual techniques, these days I prefer to think about the costs of my manufactured spend strategy holistically. To give a trivial example: my American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass and Blue Cash cards both bonus charges at gas stations and grocery stores. A quantum view of the two cards would lead me to insist on manufacturing spend at grocery stores (paying an extortionate $5.95 per $500 Visa prepaid debit card) exclusively with the Blue Cash card, netting $19 per card, and at gas stations with the HHonors Surpass card, earning around 3000 HHonors points for $3.95, or about 0.13 cents each.

But that's nonsense. At the end of the day, the amount and cost of my grocery store and gas station manufactured spend is determined by my ability to liquidate the spend, not by the cards I use at each store.

These days, I use what might be called a "lump of MS" strategy. I generally know at the beginning of each month what my goals are in terms of both bonused and unbonused spend: I'm going to spend a certain amount of money at grocery stores, gas stations, drug stores, office supply stores, etc., and put a certain amount of bonused spend on certain cards. As long as I'm sure to hit my targets for each card, I'm totally agnostic about which cards I put "cheap" spend on and which cards I put "expensive" spend on.

Unbonused spend is even simpler, since by definition is has to be much cheaper than bonused spend to be worth engaging in. If I'm due to load a Visa Buxx card, for example, but discover that my Barclaycard Arrival+ card is already maxed out, I'll instead make the charge to a card like Ink Plus. While I'm earning less per dollar, I think of my non-bonused spend, like my bonused spend, as having a fixed monthly cost. All I need to do is make sure at the end of the month I've hit all my spend targets, and I can sleep well at night.

Conclusion

I don't expect this post to revolutionize any reader's strategy. But in the interest of the transparency I prize here, I wanted to explain to anyone who stumbled across my post from last February that I was doing it wrong, and hopefully keep others from making the same mistake!

Why everyone's talking about the Diners Club Card Elite

Back in September I was the first blogger to observe that the new Diners Club Card Elite, which earns 3 Club Rewards points per dollar spent at "grocery stores, supermarkets, drug stores, pharmacies and automobile fuel service stations when you pay at the pump," allows points transfers, according to Flyertalk, to Starwood Preferred Guest at the not-totally-unreasonable rate of 1250 Club Rewards points to 750 Starpoints.

Personally, I don't pay $300 annual fees, so I was a bit surprised to find that the Diners Club Card Elite was one of the most popular topics of conversation last weekend in Phoenix. That convinced me to take a second look at the card's value proposition.

Finding the right comparison

In my first back-of-the-envelope calculation, I compared the Diners Club Card Elite to the "old" Blue Cash, which turned out to be an unfortunately timely comparison, given the wave of Blue Cash shutdowns (and PayPal warnings!) that occurred in October.

It turned out that most folks I spoke with in Phoenix were actually comparing the Diners Club Card Elite not to a straight cash back card like Blue Cash, but rather to the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card, which earns 1 Starpoint per dollar spent.

This comparison is complicated by the fact that the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express and Diners Club Card Elite earn points, while their annual fees have to be paid in US dollars. What we need is a common point of measurement, which is happily provided, as usual, by the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns just 1 Starpoint per dollar, and has no bonus categories (besides SPG properties themselves), anyone who is willing to manufacture spend on the card is already implicitly giving their Starpoints a value of at least 2.2 cents each by foregoing the same amount of spend on the Barclaycard Arrival Plus MasterCard.

Since the Diners Club Card Elite, in its extremely common bonus categories, earns 1.8 Starpoints per dollar spent, a user will break even when she spends, in bonus categories, that amount of bonused spend which generates the $235 difference in the annual fees between the Diners Club Card Elite and the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express.

That break-even amount, remarkably, is just $13,352. At that level of spend, a user will generate 40,057 Club Rewards points, which can be transferred to 24,034 Starpoints, or 10,682 more than with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. As shown above, those points are worth $235, the difference in the two cards' annual fees.

Conclusion

On this blog, I always try to go where the numbers take me, leaving at the door as much prejudice and superstition as possible. And that's what the numbers say: at quite low levels of bonused spend, the Diners Club Card Elite generates enough "excess" Starpoints to justify paying the annual fee, assuming you do, in fact, value Starpoints at 2.2 cents or more each.

But this analysis requires two big caveats. First, there are other cards which bonus grocery store spend, like the American Express Preferred Rewards Gold and Hilton HHonors Surpass, and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards. Ironically, the $300 annual fee of the Diners Club Card Elite will pay the annual fees of all three of those cards ($175, $75, and $49, respectively). And that's a big problem with paying high annual fees: it's not that it's impossible to recoup the annual fee in value – of course it's possible. But it requires a commitment to doing so, at the expense of other points you may want or need over the course of the year.

The second caveat is that any comparison with the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest or Barclaycard Arrival Plus is inherently misleading, since those cards earn at the same rate regardless of the merchant, while the Diners Club Card Elite requires cannibalizing already-bonused grocery or drug store spend.

Unless, of course, your "old" Blue Cash card has already been shut down. In that case I think there's a clear argument for moving drug store spend, a cheap and plentiful, but now rarely-bonused, merchant category, to the Diners Club Card Elite.

Reflections on #WestCoastDO

If you follow me on Twitter you know I spent this past weekend in Phoenix at the second gathering organized in large part by Matt at Saverocity, who was also the motive force behind March's friendly Mile Madness competition.

Before I get to my own thoughts, here are a few reviews/reflections/follow-ups I've already seen around Twitter (I'll update this list if I see any more – or just search for the #WestCoastDO tag):

The Schedule

One difference between this event and the Mile Madness DO in Charlotte is that Matt and his team decided to move the focus of the event from the schedule of presentations to creating a productive social environment. In this he was hugely successful.

The event for me started Friday evening, at the evening wine reception in the lobby of the venue hotel. It seemed like almost everyone arrived Friday, in order to spend as much time with like-minded folks as possible. I met lots of old and new friends, and had a lovely dinner in the hotel's restaurant. After dinner lots of folks lingered in the resort's huge patio and bar area and chatted until the small hours.

On Saturday the event proper started, late enough that we could get a few hours of sleep and still have a decent breakfast, although there were still lots of bleary eyes at 10 am. The presentations and panel discussion were lively and wide-ranging. A few stood out:

  • Frequent Miler gave an updated version of his manufactured spending presentation, including his latest research on the Target REDcard.
  • Marathon Man's presentation was a breath of fresh air. It's no secret that he and I have a pretty fundamental difference of opinion (he wants fewer people to manufacture spend; I want people to manufacture more, better, and smarter). But it seemed like his "old" Blue Cash shutdown may have made him just a touch less cock-sure of the purity and genius of his worldview. Or he may have just still been feeling the previous night's festivities. Either way, I thoroughly enjoyed his presentation.
  • Big Habitat (see above) shared his philosophy, techniques, and calculations for buying and reselling merchandise in order to generate miles and points. He's one of the best.
  • Bengali Miles Guru gave a rollicking walkthrough of his year renting dozens of cars for no good reason, and indeed for no reason whatsoever, and the lessons he learned.

Saturday evening the festivities continued, including a quick trip to a nearby shopping mall, dinner, and more time on the Firesky patio with friends old and new.

Sunday morning, I barely pulled myself out of bed in time to run out and buy an American Express for Target card, a tool that had been missing from my arsenal for far too long!

The Conversations

While the presentations were great, the real heart of the event was the conversations we had all day over breakfast, lunch, dinner, drinks, and around the beautiful (and, importantly, warm!) fire pits the hotel conveniently provided.

In the travel hacking community, there's a fact that's both simple and powerful: everyone knows something you don't know. That's why whenever anyone accidentally calls me an "expert," I'm reminded of Matt's beautiful post on the subject. In a room with 150 other travel hackers, I know for a fact there are (at least!) 150 things I don't know. Some of them may be smaller things (how to beat the lines in Vatican City – thanks Tom!), and some of them may be bigger things (how to beat the rental car racket), but I don't know any of them.

Of course, the groundwork for these conversations was laid weeks and months in advance. If you're interested in attending a conference like this, I feel it probably doesn't make much sense to just show up and hope for the best. Join online communities like The Forum, follow and interact with folks you respect on Twitter (or Facebook, I guess – I don't use it), leave comments, ask questions, share datapoints. It's a community, after all, and the more engaged you become in it, the more you'll get out of it.

The Thanks

Finally I want to thank everyone who made the event so special. I truly didn't want it to end, and it wouldn't have been the same without you. So thanks to Dean, Matt, Ivan, Kenny, Cindy, Nancy, Kunal, Scott, Eric, Tom, Annie, Aegt, all the presenters, and everyone else I managed to speak with! We'll have to do it again soon.

Statement credits are worth (much) less than cash

I've written several times in the last few weeks about hacking Marriott elite status using the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier Visa card, and received a number of e-mails and comments suggesting the Ritz Carlton Visa card might be a better option, allowing cardholders to earn Platinum, rather than Gold, status after $75,000 in annual spend.

In response to those comments and e-mails I tend to say the same thing: I don't pay $395 annual fees, and I don't recommend that my readers do either.

When affiliate bloggers promote cards like the Chase Ritz Carlton Visa and American Express Platinum cards, they usually repeat the tired canard that the hefty annual fees ($395 and $450, respectively) are discounted by the annual airline statement credits the cards offer. The usual approach is to point out that since airline gift cards are reimbursed at face value, you're "actually" paying $200 (American Express Platinum) or $300 (Chase Ritz Carlton) less per calendar year than the annual fee would suggest.

The problem with that argument is that a $50 American Airlines gift card (the usual example) is worth much less than $50.

Travel hacking means never paying retail

Using only the most trivial examples, redeeming US Bank Flexpoints, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, or Barclaycard Arrival+ miles for paid tickets allows you to purchase redeemable- and elite-qualifying-mile-earning revenue tickets at a fraction of face value.

Indeed, if you fund Kiva loans with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, all you have to pay for your revenue tickets is the time value of your money and the risk of your Kiva loans defaulting (which can be substantially mitigated against by carefully choosing your loans and diversifying your loans across borrowers and countries).

Don't let annual fees lock you into paying retail

Using $50 American Airlines gift cards to purchase your revenue tickets means foregoing the opportunity to redeem alternative, cheaply-acquired rewards currencies for them. In other words, it means paying the full face value of your airline tickets.

When you pay a $395 annual fee for the Chase Ritz Carlton Visa card, and receive back a $50 American Airlines gift card, you shouldn't mentally deduct the full $50 from your annual fee as a rebate. Rather, you should deduct only the amount you would have paid for $50 in American Airlines air travel:

  • if you redeem free Flexpoints for your travel, that amount is $0;
  • if you redeem Arrival+ miles acquired at 0.29 cents each, that amount is $14.50;
  • if you redeem Ultimate Rewards points acquired at 0.47 cents each, that amount is $18.80;
  • and so on.

In no case is that amount $50, so you can't justify deducting a full $50 from your annual fee in your mental accounting.

Conclusion

Credit card annual fees have to be paid with cold hard cash, while the supposedly dollar-denominated annual benefits they provide can only be redeemed in restricted and restrictive ways. While annual benefits like companion tickets can sometimes justify paying annual fees, there are vanishingly few scenarios where paying annual fees over $100 is justified.

If I can make as controversial a claim as is supported by the evidence, even the American Express Delta Platinum credit card, with its $195 annual fee and companion ticket awarded on each account anniversary, only makes sense (compared to redeeming Arrival+ miles) if you can consistently redeem the companion ticket for flights costing more than $672 – the value of the Arrival+ miles you could manufacture with the same $195 in disposable income – or if you can use the Medallion Qualifying Miles earned with the card to achieve Platinum or Diamond Medallion status.

Do this now: double points with Hilton HHonors

Registration is now open for Hilton's winter "Double Up" promotion, whereby you can earn double points between November 1, 2014 and January 31, 2015, starting with your second stay.

I love staying with Hilton, but naturally make almost all my reservations using HHonors points. I have one "Points and Money" and one award reservation during the promotional period, so it doesn't look like I'll be earning any double points during this promotion.

Whether you plan to take advantage of the promotion or not, be sure to register now, before you forget, and find the list of non-participating properties here.

US Bank Visa Buxx address changes

Obviously, I change addresses somewhat more frequently than your average worker bee. Back in May I moved to the Upper Midwest from New England, then in August my partner and I finally moved into our own place together. That's a lot of address changes to keep track of, but I do my best.

One thing common to all Visa Buxx cards is that the profile address on file with your Buxx card must match the billing address of any credit card used to fund the card. With the Nationwide and TD Go Buxx cards this doesn't pose much of a problem: when your credit card's billing address changes, you can easily sign into your Buxx account and update your profile address to match it.

The first time you attempt this with a US Bank Visa Buxx card, you'll find it equally easy. But if you change your billing address again shortly afterward, you'll see that the option to edit your profile address has been disabled, as indeed I discovered when I moved for the second time and became unable to fund my Buxx card.

I've been logging into my US Bank Visa Buxx account a few times a week for the past few months, and finally today discovered that the option to edit my profile address had reappeared. I checked my records and found that the last time I'd edited the address was 3 months ago, almost to the day.

Conclusion

Your Visa Buxx profile address must match the billing address of any card you use as a funding source. While Nationwide and (formerly) TD Go both allowed you free reign to edit your profile address, my experience indicates that US Bank allows additional profile address changes only after a 3-month period has elapsed.

I'm setting off this afternoon for a long Halloween weekend, so anticipate delayed response times until Monday. Hopefully a few days off will allow me to take a more nuanced view of all the changes currently taking place when I return on Monday.