I don't buy points, but maybe you should!

Every major loyalty program sells their points for cash, normally at a fixed rate through the industry-sponsored site Points.com.

For example, you can buy up to 60,000 Delta SkyMiles per calendar year for 3.76 cents each, up to 75,000 United MileagePlus miles for 3.76 cents each, up to 150,000 American AAdvantage miles for 3.19 cents each, and up to 60,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles for 2.96 cents each.

Hotel programs likewise sell their points currencies for cash, with IHG Rewards Club selling up to 60,000 points for 1.15 cents each, Hilton HHonors selling 80,000 points for one cent each, Marriott Rewards selling up to 50,000 points for 1.25 cents each, Starwood Preferred Guest selling up to 30,000 points for 3.5 cents each, and Hyatt Gold Passport selling up to 55,000 points for 2.4 cents each.

Purchased points are too expensive for me

I don't personally buy miles or points because it's a more expensive way of acquiring miles and points than the other methods I have available.

United MileagePlus miles and Hyatt Gold Passport points cost just 1 cent each when purchased with Ultimate Rewards points transferred from a Chase Ink Plus account.

I happen to have a Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, so if I ever needed to stock up on AAdvantage miles, I can do so for 2.105 cents each — the cash back I'd earn manufacturing the same unbonused spend on my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard.

And of course I earn 6 HHonors points per dollar spent with my American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card at grocery stores, so even compared to an "optimal" redemption rate of 2 cents per US Bank Flexpoint, I'm already buying HHonors points at a mere 0.67 cents each, 33% less than the 1 cent per point Hilton wants to charge.

Purchased points may make sense for you

As the examples above make clear, the decision whether to purchase miles and points or manufacture them rightly depends upon your next best alternative: your opportunity cost.

If you're currently manufacturing the bulk of your otherwise-unbonused spend on a 5% cash back card like the Wells Fargo Rewards Visa during the introductory promotional period, then manufacturing spend on a one-mile-per-dollar card costs not 2.105 cents per mile, but 5 cents per mile, 57% more than, for example, American is willing to sell them!

Likewise, if you have $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, you might be earning 2.625% cash back with a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card. That may make purchasing Hyatt Gold Passport points at 2.4 cents each worthwhile, compared to manufacturing spend on a Chase Hyatt credit card.

Purchase small numbers of points for high-value, upcoming redemptions

While you usually see affiliate bloggers advocate buying large numbers of points speculatively when loyalty programs offer the highest bonuses on purchased points (bringing down the cost per point), I have exactly the opposite view.

If you find yourself with an upcoming, high-value redemption, and don't have the time to manufacture the required points, then go ahead and buy them. Paying "too much" per point, if it drastically brings down your total out-of-pocket cost, makes perfect sense: the goal isn't to pay as little as possible per point, it's to spend as little money as possible on the trips you actually want to take!

But the money you spend speculatively buying miles for redemptions you don't actually have planned could almost invariably be better spent building a credit card and manufacturing spend strategy that generates the trips you want to take at far lower out-of-pocket expense.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is a beautiful, not-very-useful book

This is a review of "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" by Philip A. Fisher. You can find all my previous book reviews here. If you're interested in buying a copy, I hope you'll consider using my Amazon Associates referral link.

In my May review of the "Masters in Business" podcast I mentioned that the host asks his guests for book recommendations, and one extremely common recommendation is "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits," by Philip A. Fisher. In it, the legendary fund manager describes his investment philosophy and, in great depth, his strategy for selecting stocks he believes will dramatically increase in price over a period of many years.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is a book about late-1950's America

It is rare to come across a book that is so strongly rooted in a particular time and place. When reading "Pride and Prejudice" you notice some quirks of English law (like perpetual entails) but you basically get the idea that it's a story about a bunch of young people growing up and getting married.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" is not like that. Here's Fisher writing about labor unions:

"In this day of widespread unionization, those companies that still have no union or a company union probably also have well above average labor and personnel relations. If they did not, the unions would have organized them long ago. The investor can feel rather sure, for example, that Motorola, located in highly unionized Chicago, and Texas Instruments, Inc., in increasingly unionized Dallas, have convinced at least an important part of their work force of the company's genuine desire and ability to threat its employees well. Lack of affiliation with an international union can only be explained by successful personnel policies in instances of this sort."

That is an almost-unrecognizable vision of the American labor movement, but it's listed as one of the most important considerations when deciding whether to invest in a company!

Needless to say, an investor today should not base their decisions on 1958's union environment, which we now know was almost literally the peak of union membership as a percentage of the American workforce.

This is also a book about America as a manufacturing powerhouse. Fisher describes with wonder the almost-miraculous invention of titanium and exciting new uses for aluminum. Even DDT gets a nod as an exciting new insecticide, guaranteed to increase American agricultural production for many years to come (it's now illegal).

Importantly, Fisher is describing a world where the only investment choices for working Americans are actively-managed mutual funds and stock brokers. Because of that, the book can be read in two ways: if you're an active manager of a mutual fund, it's advice on how to do your job. If you're in investor, it's advice on how to select an active fund manager: pick one who agrees with Philip A. Fisher!

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" provides no useful information about picking stocks

If you picked up a book like Michael Covel's "Trend Following," and read it cover to cover, you could start trading stocks using the strategies in that book.

You'd lose a lot of money, perhaps slowly at first, and then all at once, but the book does give you instructions on how to trade according to Covel's theories.

"Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" isn't really like that. Fisher's strategy requires you to gather information about companies that is not publicly available. I don't mean "insider" information, but simply information that is not knowable without spending a lot of time hunting down employees, customers, vendors, and competitors and communicating with them at length. It's a strategy that could only be followed by a wealthy, well-connected mutual fund manager with a lot of money to invest.

The problem, of course, is that identifying the disciple of Philip A. Fisher (the author died in 2004) who truly and correctly follows his investment principles is impossible in advance. The successful fundamental fund manager will naturally say that he "correctly" applied Fisher's strategy, while his unsuccessful competitors "incorrectly" applied it, and give you all sorts of reasons why. Unfortunately, there's no reason to believe past performance is any indicator of future results.

Fisher has some interesting insights about dividends

Fisher makes two interesting arguments in his discussion of whether dividend-paying stocks are better or worse investments than companies that retain most or all of their profit for further investment.

The first is a straightforward mathematical insight that's frequently glossed over: the dividend yield that should matter to you is the yield on the price you purchased a stock at, not its current price. If a company pays the same 2% of its share price in dividends, but its share price quadruples over 15 years, the lucky owner over that time period will be earning an 8% yield on the price she paid for it, despite the stock never paying a "high" dividend at any point in the entire period.

The second point has to do with transaction costs. The high historical stock market yields you frequently see quoted in investing propaganda require the reinvestment of all dividends paid. If you, quite rightly, plan to reinvest all your dividends, you have three problems: first, until very recently, fixed commissions on stock purchases meant it was as expensive to make small purchases as large ones. If you immediately reinvest dividends, purchase commissions eat up a higher percentage of your capital. If you wait to invest a large amount, you suffer from having more time out of the market, losing some of the benefits of compounding.

The second problem is that it can be cumbersome to reinvest dividends because of the need to buy integer values of stocks.

And third, you also have to find a stock to invest in! It may be your current stocks have already gone up too much in value to be good candidates for further investment, which means you have to find something new to buy. That friction imposes another transaction cost. Retained earnings reinvested in a quality business, on the other hand, eliminate all those transaction costs by (hopefully) increasing further the value of your existing shares.

Basically, Fisher is not a big fan of dividends.

Conclusion: read this book for nostalgia, not for advice

This may sound like I'm being harsh on the author: after all, what period was he supposed to write about if not the period he was living in?

On the contrary, I actually found "Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits" to be a beautifully written description of the world our Baby Boomer leaders grew up in. When Donald Trump says he wants to make America great again, this is the America he has in mind: heavily unionized, highly-paid, a manufacturing powerhouse, with exciting research developments that would only years later prove to be toxic to humans and the environment. Men work in labs and factories, women purchase previously-unheard-of consumer goods, and during periods of economic recession the government runs a deficit of "25 to 30 billion dollars."

It sounds like a lovely place to visit, but I'm not sure I'd like to live there, and I definitely wouldn't recommend investing as if you did live there today!

Travel hacking without spend

While I write a lot about strategies for using manufactured spend to get pay for travel at deep discounts, I know that many of my readers find manufacturing spend to be distasteful, time-consuming, or impossible (I know because you never hesitate to tell me in the comments section).

So at a reader's suggestion, I want to share some thoughts on travel hacking without manufacturing spend, and indeed without the requirement to spend any money on credit cards at all (besides annual membership fees).

Annual benefits

There is a not-unreasonable intuition that in the absence of manufactured spend, which properly focuses on high earning rates, bonus categories, and valuable points, annual recurring benefits of credit cards would become more important in developing a travel hacking strategy.

For airlines, those benefits include things like American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve companion tickets, the Chase Southwest Airlines 3,000 (Plus) or 6,000 (Premier) annual bonus points, the Bank of America Alaska Airlines annual $99 companion ticket and, for those grandfathered in, the 10,000 bonus anniversary miles offered by the Barclaycard American Airlines Aviator card.

Many hotel co-branded credit cards offer anniversary nights: the Chase IHG credit card gives a free night worldwide, Chase's Hyatt credit card gives a Category 1-4 night annually, and US Bank's Club Carlson credit cards give 40,000 (Premier Rewards and Business Rewards) or 25,000 (Rewards) bonus Gold Points on each account anniversary.

If our intuition that recurring benefits are more valuable without manufactured spend is true, then one credit card strategy might be to carry:

  • both a personal and small business version of both the Platinum and Reserve cards ($1290 in annual fees);
  • a Chase Southwest Premier card ($99 annual fee);
  • a Chase IHG credit card ($49 annual fee);
  • a Chase Hyatt credit card ($75 annual fee);
  • and one or more US Bank Club Carlson Premier Rewards and Business Rewards credit cards ($75 and $60 annual fee, respectively). Note that US Bank doesn't impose a hard cap on the number of its products you're allowed to have.

For $1,648 in annual fees per year, you could thus buy 4 domestic companion tickets on Delta (subject to fare bucket constraints), 6,000 Southwest Rapid Rewards points (worth perhaps $100), a free night at any IHG Rewards property, a free night at a Category 1-4 Hyatt property, and 80,000 Club Carlson Gold Points (good for at least one free night at any Club Carlson property).

I'm deliberately leaving out the Citi Hilton Reserve free weekend night benefit and the Club Carlson free domestic night benefit, since they each require $10,000 in annual spend.

Without price compression, free nights are an expensive trap

In a world with plentiful manufactured spend, travelers experience a phenomenon I've dubbed "price compression:" nights and flights that have large differences in retail price have much smaller or nonexistent out-of-pocket differences in cost to the travel hacker.

For example, a free Category 4 Hyatt night from the Hyatt credit card can be combined with Hyatt Gold Passport points transferred from a Chase Ink Plus, where you've manufactured cheap Ultimate Rewards points.

Without manufactured spend, and the price compression it produces, you'll be paying the retail price of your stays out of pocket, less any rebates earned by booking through shopping portals and online travel agencies. Unless you typically spend only a single night in each city you visit, travel solo, or have a very understanding travel companion, this can become very expensive very quickly.

To see why, take a stylized example of a city with a Category 4 Hyatt that costs $125 per night and a nearby Holiday Inn that costs $100 per night. On a four-night stay, you'll pay $375 out of pocket for the Hyatt, and $400 out of pocket for the Holiday Inn: a savings of $25.

So far, so good. But remember you paid a $75 annual fee for your Hyatt credit card! If you only compared the value of your night to your annual fee, you'd mistakenly believe you saved $50. By taking into account how the "free" night benefit affects your behavior, you'll realize the truth: the Hyatt credit card in fact cost you $50.

Of course if you are a solo traveler or have an understanding travel companion, moving hotels in the middle of your stay may not be a big deal. If you have a lot of one-night stays, you may also save real money. But that's an individual assessment you should take seriously before paying hundreds, let alone thousands, of dollars in annual fees.

You'll find a similar principle applies to the airline credit cards: if Delta flights are consistently more expensive, or less convenient, than competitor flights you may find yourself over-paying just to take advantage of your companion ticket. Southwest Rapid Rewards points, likewise, are only valuable if you're able to earn enough of them to redeem them for the flights you want.

None of which is to say these are bad credit cards or bad benefits. They just need to approached critically if you're to have any hope of using them to save money on travel.

Everyday spend

My standard response when asked which credit card people should use for their actual purchases is that actual purchases should represent a rounding error in your miles and points balances. Without manufactured spend, of course, that rounding error may turn into the bulk of your balances!

In my view, there are only a few credit cards that have any measurable advantage over paying for your purchases with cash.

  • Discover it Miles. If you can sign up for a Discover it Miles card that doubles your cash back after your first year, you'll earn 3% cash back on all purchases and pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fees. You can boost your earning even more by redeeming your cash back for certain gift cards — you can currently redeem $90 in cash back for $100 in Hyatt gift cards, turning a Discover it Miles card into a 3.33% cash back card. Canceling and applying for a new card each year may let you continue on an ongoing basis.
  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards. If you have $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, or MerrillEdge, you'll earn 2.625% cash back on all purchases, and pay no annual fee or foreign transaction fee.
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred. If you make 30 purchases per month, this card earns 1.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere, 3 points at gas stations and 4.5 points at grocery stores. Because of its $95 annual fee, you should only consider this card if you spend a lot of money each year. If you do, you might find the ability to transfer points to Delta, Air Canada, British Airways, or American Express's other partners more valuable than cash back.

Travel hacks that don't require spend

Of course, credit cards are just one tiny corner of the travel hacking universe. It's just a corner that's become unusually prominent because there's so much money to be made selling credit cards to the unwitting.

So here's a brief list of other travel hacking techniques, no credit card required:

  • Mistake fares and attack fares. Among the original travel hacks are simply waiting for an airline to slip up and forget to add a zero to an airfare, or to "attack" a rival's hub by cutting fares far below normal. By following Twitter accounts like @TheFlightDeal and @EscapeATX, and bookmarking sites like Flyertalk's mileage run forum, you can handily see whenever those hard workers find a new error fare or attack fare. Julian the Devil's Advocate wrote up a terrific guide to getting text alerts for a particular city or airline that interests you.
  • Stacking portal and online travel agency rewards. In the bleak world without manufactured spend, you've got to make every dollar count. By clicking through shopping portals to online travel agencies before making hotel reservations, you can earn portal rewards plus the rewards offered by whichever travel agency you select.
  • Best rate guarantees. I've written before that I find best rate guarantees to typically be a waste of time, and I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense to make booking decisions around best rate guarantees. But once you've identified a hotel and rate, it's common sense to check if there's a lower rate elsewhere that's eligible for a best rate guarantee claim.
  • Hidden city ticketing. It's not for everyone, and it won't work for every itinerary, but it's possible to save a lot of money searching for flights using Skiplagged, a service that takes care of the hard work of finding cheaper "hidden city" tickets. Note that you usually will not be able to check bags when flying domestically on such tickets.
  • Corporate rates and other discounts. There are a number of lists circulating of corporate rate codes, which can bring down the cost of chain hotel stays significantly. Likewise, if you find out there's a convention, conference, or athletic event in a city being held during your visit, you may be able to piggyback on their lower negotiated rates.
  • Aggressively book and rebook. Autoslash makes it easy to monitor rental car rates so you can rebook your car if and when the price goes down. By booking cancellable hotel reservations early on, periodically checking for price changes lets you lock in any price declines while being protected from any price increases.

None of those techniques will save you as much as manufacturing spend will, which is why I write a lot about the benefits of manufacturing spend. But the universe of travel hacking, like the universe itself, is vast and growing, so it pays to keep an open mind and to keep exploring!

In defense of mileage running for top-tier elites

I have the rather unfashionable view that mileage runs on Delta, American, and United are more likely to be worthwhile for top-tier elites now that those programs are revenue-based than they were under the previous, distance-based regime.

Mileage running is definitely not for everyone: it takes time, and unless you actually like flying, it's not particularly fun. You may end up paying for transportation, parking, and meals, so it's far from free besides whatever you pay for your actual airfare. But there are still reasons you might consider it.

So here's why I don't think mileage running is dead.

Revenue-based programs give a fixed rebate on airfare dollars

Top-tier elites in all three of the legacy carrier frequent flyer programs earn 11 redeemable miles per dollar spent on airfare on their own flights.

That fixed rebate in miles produces a rebate in value that's likewise fixed, although not by the carrier, but rather by your own planned pattern of future redemptions. If you redeem miles for domestic economy flights, you might get 1.5 cents per mile in value. For international business class flights, you might get 2.5 cents per mile. And on partner first class flights, you might get 4 or more cents per mile in value.

In an extreme case, you could imagine a top-tier elite consistently getting 9.09 cents or more per mile in value, in which case their entire airfare expenditure would be rebated back to them in the form of a future high-cost flight: buy one get one free.

Most travelers, however, don't consistently get 9.09 cents per mile in value, and so even top-tier elites don't earn enough miles to completely rebate their out-of-pocket expenses, if they're paying cash.

Using fixed-value points to fund mileage runs

The above is a strong argument against paying for mileage runs with cash: the difference between the amount paid and the rebate earned in miles is too large to justify wasting a day or more in flight, unless you're very close to top-tier elite status and have no opportunity to qualify otherwise (and plan to fly enough the following year to take advantage of your top-tier benefits).

But what if you're able to fund mileage runs with cheaply-acquired fixed-value points? How would that change the calculus?

Rather than look at the out-of-pocket cost of manufactured spend, as I did last Thursday, let's look at four fixed-value currencies and compare a straightforward cash redemption value of 1 cent each to the redemption value when spent on a mileage run.

  • Chase Ultimate Rewards are worth 1.25 cents in paid airfare, earning 13.75 redeemable miles for a top tier elite. To break even compared to a one-cent cash redemption, you'd need to get 7.27 cents in value per redeemable mile.
  • Citi ThankYou points in a Citi Prestige account are worth 1.33 cents when redeemed on Delta or United, or 1.6 cents when redeemed on American. Compared to a one-cent cash redemption (for example, for a student loan or mortgage rebate check), you'd need to get 6.8 cents per SkyMile or MileagePlus mile, or 5.7 cents per AAdvantage mile to break even.
  • American Express Membership Rewards points in a Business Platinum accounts are worth 1.43 cents each when redeemed for flights on your selected airline, requiring a value of 6.4 cents per redeemable mile to break even compared to a cash redemption.
  • US Bank Flexpoints are worth 2 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare, requiring 4.55 cents per redeemable mile in value compared to redeeming the same Flexpoints for cash at one cent each.

Obviously your out-of-pocket cost for those fixed-value points currencies will be lower than one cent each. However, once you've earned them, the question is how you'll redeem them, and at that point they're worth roughly one cent each in cash (slightly less in the case of Membership Rewards points, which have to be liquidated with American Express gift cards).

Why swap fixed-value points and time for redeemable miles and elite status?

My beloved readers sometimes accuse me of making arguments just to be difficult. My defense is that I don't give advice — my only advice is that people should do whatever they want to do!

But top-tier elites who have access to cheap fixed-value points and who redeem their Delta, United, and American miles for long-haul premium cabin awards may do well to consider mileage running to requalify for top-tier status for a few reasons:

  • Upgrade priority. Smaller domestic first class cabins and more pressure to sell first class seats for cash means top-tier elite status is the only reliable way to secure free first class upgrades on routes with a lot of elite volume. If you fly on paid economy fares regularly, that may matter to you.
  • Award flexibility. I haven't had high-tier elite status for a few years now, but when I was a Delta Platinum Medallion I used free award changes and redeposits constantly to make slight alterations to my itineraries or to recoup miles when cheaper awards became available. On my last trip to Europe business class award availability opened up at the last minute, which would have made our trip much more comfortable, but I couldn't bring myself to pay United's extortionate award change fees — top-tier elite status would have made the free change a no-brainer.
  • Top-tier elite status benefits. United Global Premier Upgrades, American systemwide upgrades, and Delta's Platinum and Diamond Choice Benefits have concrete value if you're able to take advantage of them. Not everyone will, so like everything in the world of travel hacking, they're not worth pursuing if you don't have a plan or intention to use them. But for many people, being able to upgrade paid economy tickets may provide even greater value and flexibility than booking award tickets in premium cabins.

If redeemable miles are based on revenue, only distance matters

One important thing to note is that unlike the previous era of mileage running, the number of cents paid per mile flown is totally irrelevant to this calculation: if you've accurately calculated that you'll receive the total price of your airfare back in redeemable miles, your only goal should be to maximize the distance flown on any given mileage run, in order to secure top-tier elite status while spending as little out-of-pocket time as possible.

Long, multi-leg, inconvenient flight routings are ideal regardless of whether they're more or less expensive than direct flights.

Conclusion

Most people rightly think that mileage running, if it ever made sense, only did so in the distant past. However, for top-tier elites with access to cheap fixed-value points, mileage running in revenue-based legacy mileage programs may still make sense, if they plan to redeem their miles for long-haul premium cabin awards, if they have a realistic expectation that they will take full advantage of top-tier elite benefits, and if they have the time to do so.

That may be a smaller subset of the travel hacking population than it was when the legacy carriers offered miles based on distance, but it's not nobody.

When deals don't stack

One of the most popular approaches to travel hacking is finding deals that "stack:" when you can apply multiple techniques to a single transaction, you can bring your out of pocket expenses even lower than you would applying any one of them individually.

Some deals stack

Since stacking deals can amplify total savings, deals that stack tend to get a lot of attention. For a simple example, you might click through a cash back portal to Hotels.com, apply a Hotels.com coupon, and pay for your stay with an Arrival Plus card. The cash back portal and coupon lower the amount you're charged, and then your final out-of-pocket cost is reduced further by redeeming against the transaction Arrival Plus miles you've manufactured as cheaply as possible.

Stacked deals can get much, much more complicated that that: Frequent Miler has painstakingly shown how portal cashback, coupons, credit cards, and even the tax code can be stacked to earn a Southwest Companion Pass with as little out-of-pocket expense as possible.

Most deals don't stack

What's usually glossed over by credit card salesmen is that most deals don't stack, which is important to both understand and take into account when developing a travel hacking strategy.

To take an example from last Thursday's post, the 4th-night-free benefit of the Citi Prestige card gives a roughly 25% discount off paid stays of exactly 4 nights. Ideally, you'd like to stack that with something like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, to redeem cheap points against your final bill. But because the stay has to be paid for with the Citi Prestige, your discount is limited to 25% — less than you'd save simply paying for a 4-night stay with one of those credit cards.

Another example is the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards, which offer an annual companion ticket in economy (Platinum) or first class (Reserve). Such tickets offer a discount of almost 50% off 2 domestic tickets (though only the primary ticket earns redeemable and Medallion Qualifying miles). But manufacturing spend at grocery stores with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card offers a discount of, for example, between 53.2% and 68.9% on paid airfare! Buy two tickets with Flexpoints and not only are you unconstrained by fare class, but both tickets will earn miles and be upgrade-eligible, as well.

That doesn't mean the Delta American Express cards are bad cards (I personally have a Delta Platinum small business card). It does mean you need to think critically about the value of the companion ticket, perhaps using it to book travel for friends or relatives who will reimburse you (maybe) rather than using it for your own travel.

Conclusion

The question, "can I stack this deal?" should be one of the first ones you ask whenever you see a pitch for a new credit card or discount on purchased points, but also as you proceed through your everyday routine. If the answer is yes, you can amplify your savings by applying as many angles as possible to each transaction.

If the answer is no, that doesn't render a deal instantly worthless. But it is an invitation to examine the deal more closely, to ask whether and how you'll incorporate it into your overall travel hacking strategy. It may turn out to be superior to your other techniques, and it's those other strategies that should yield to the new, cheaper method of paying for your travel.

But if it offers a smaller discount (like the Prestige 4th-night-free), less-flexible booking options (like the Delta companion tickets), or interferes with your other goals, like elite status requalification, then you should take seriously the possibility that you will get less value, or have greater out-of-pocket expense, then you would pursuing a different strategy that incorporates more, better, and stackable deals.

Is the Citi Prestige a good deal? Compared to what?

This isn't my favorite kind of blog post to write, but I do consider it essential service journalism in the context of a travel hacking blogosphere whose default mode is "breathlessly excited."

The Citi Prestige credit card is often pitched as an essential tool for the sophisticated travel hacker. In this post I want to make the argument that, on the contrary, the benefits of the Citi Prestige are valuable almost exclusively to the least-sophisticated travel hackers, who don't have a well-designed portfolio of credit cards, or to travelers who don't have access to even the most mundane techniques for manufacturing spend.

Let's take each of the benefits of the Citi Prestige card in turn.

Price compression makes airfare cheap

The first thing you hear about the Citi Prestige card is how it multiplies the value of your ThankYou points: with the card, ThankYou points are worth 1.33 cents each towards airfare, or 1.6 cents each towards airfare on American Airlines-marketed flights.

That creates a theoretical cash value of the current 50,000 ThankYou-point signup bonus of $665-$800 in paid airfare.

But $800 in paid airfare manufactured with a Chase Ink Plus card at office supply stores costs $380 in purchase and liquidation fees ($665 in paid airfare costs just $316).

So don't tell me a 50,000 ThankYou-point signup bonus is worth $800; it's worth between $316 and $380, the money you'd spend manufacturing the same airfare with a much more versatile (and, obviously, much cheaper) Chase Ink Plus.

If you have access to manufactured spend at grocery stores, then you'll find a card like the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa runs around the world before the Citi Prestige has even got its boots on.

Compare a 25% discount on paid hotel stays to real travel hacking

The "killer app" of the Citi Prestige is supposed to be its "4th-night-free" benefit, whereby reservations made through Citi's contract travel agency, and paid for with the Citi Prestige, earn a statement credit equal to the amount of the stay's fourth night, including taxes.

In other words, when used for stays of exactly 4 nights, the Citi Prestige offers a discount of 25% on average (the actual discount will vary depending on the distribution of room rates over the four nights; Frequent Miler provides some extreme examples here).

By contrast, using only the most commonly available manufactured spending techniques, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus produces $21.05 in hotel stays for just $11.50 — a 45.4% discount.

A Chase Freedom Unlimited, earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (or 1,515 Ultimate Rewards points for the same $11.50 above), paired with a $95 Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus, requires just 1.01 cents in value per Ultimate Rewards point transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport point to match the 25% discount offered by the Citi Prestige. You have to look pretty hard to get that little value from a Hyatt Gold Passport point.

Finally, using an American Express Hilton Surpass card, you'll earn 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at grocery stores. Given only the most widely available cost of $6.30 for 3,036 HHonors points, you'll need to get just 0.28 cents per HHonors points to beat the Citi Prestige's 25% average discount on four-night stays. And that doesn't account for the value of 5th-night-free award reservations for Hilton elites.

Which brings me to the most important drawback of the Citi Prestige's "killer app:" it's only useful on stays of 4 nights or more! While all the cards and techniques I described above are useful on stays as short as 1 night, to get even a 25% discount on your paid stays, you'll have to stay for exactly 4 nights: any less, and your stay isn't eligible; any more, and your discount shrinks as a percentage of your total stay.

How does the the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free differ from the Club Carlson last-night-free?

When the US Bank Club Carlson co-branded credit cards offered the last night free on award stays, I was one of their biggest enthusiasts. That's because the last-night-free benefit allowed you to leverage the already generous 5 Gold Points earned per dollar spent on all purchases. In other words, it made valuable manufactured spend more valuable.

The Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit is exactly the opposite: it requires you to pay cash out of pocket for your room, which violates one of the most important principles underlying a successful travel hacking strategy: spend cash last.

Value all the other Citi Prestige card benefits at what you're willing to pay for them: nothing

You can check out the remaining benefits of the Citi Prestige over at Miles to Memories. They include:

  • airline fee credits (worth much less than cash);
  • lounge access (you're not paying for it now, are you?);
  • Global Entry fee credit ($100 every 5 years, so, $20 per year);
  • and 3 rounds of golf (not 3 foursomes, just 3 rounds: your friends will have to pay their own way).

Reimbursed business travelers should ignore everything I've said

Travelers who are reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses have opportunities that are, from a normal person's perspective, stratospherically lucrative. If you're able to book Monday-Friday hotel reservations for a product launch, investment banking intervention, or Republican Party platform committee meeting with your own credit card for later reimbursement, you have no excuse not to earn thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per year in 4th-night-free reimbursements from a Citi Prestige card.

But when a rich weirdo like Ben Schlappig tells you how much money he's saved with the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit, remember that you don't have to pay cash for your hotels, and when you do, you can get a much better discount than 25% by developing a credit card portfolio and manufactured spend strategy that meets your actual travel needs.

Ways you could (but shouldn't) manufacture spend

In addition to the garden variety manufactured spend I do day in and day out, I also enjoy keeping my eyes open for new avenues that might prove easier or more lucrative. Naturally, most of those either don't work or do work, but cost too much to be worth pursuing. Here are a few examples in the latter category.

Reselling Marriott gift cards

There's a whole cottage industry devoted to gift card arbitrage, which consists of buying discounted gift cards and reselling them at a higher price or theoretically even the same price while pocketing any rewards earned on the initial purchase.

Remembering an Amex Offer from back in 2014, it occurred to me that you could manufacture unlimited spend by buying Marriott gift cards and earning bonus points on a card like the Chase Ink Plus, then reselling the cards below their face value.

And it would work! Except at the rate offered by Cardpool (currently the highest payout), a Marriott gift card receives just 88 cents on the dollar, meaning you'd need to get 6 cents per Ultimate Rewards point just to break even, or 4 cents per ThankYou point earned with a Citi ThankYou Premier or Citi Prestige card.

That's certainly possible with a premium cabin redemption on a partner like Singapore Airlines, but it's not even close to worth doing unless you're desperate to top up an account and don't have the liquidation bandwidth (or free time) to manufacture your points more cheaply.

Returning merchandise to a different form of payment

What if you could make a purchase with a rewards-earning credit card, preferably at a bonused merchant, then return it and send the refund to a different form of payment, like a non-rewards earning debit card or even a check?

That would be great, except for obvious and non-obvious reasons banks are extremely sensitive to returns or refunds from merchants where purchases weren't originally made. The obvious reasons have to do with interchange fees and the costs of processing transactions, and the non-obvious reasons might include concerns about money-laundering: a refund to a debit card would be a great way to deposit money in someone's checking account without attracting attention — which is why it attracts attention!

All sorts of stuff is plainly illegal

I've been living in my current apartment for 2 years, and an Oster-brand toaster has been living here with me just as long. I'm moving soon, and don't particularly care to haul a 2-year-old toaster across the country with me. If I were a thief, instead of a travel hacker, I could just order up a new one from Amazon, take it out of the box, send the old one back in the same back, and sell the new one on eBay.

But again, that would be illegal, so don't do that either.

Conclusion

I find that keeping my eyes open and walking through potential techniques step-by-step is worth doing, even when I find that a deal isn't ultimately worth pursuing. It usually isn't! But it's the rare deal indeed that's discovered by someone blindly following only the most-travelled paths.

Is this how UberPOOL is supposed to work?

On our return from Germany last month, we stayed overnight in New York City, flying into JFK on airberlin Saturday evening and out of LaGuardia on Delta the next morning. Traveling between the two airports and midtown Manhattan should be easy on public transportation, but when we boarded an E train Saturday evening in Jamaica, we discovered after 30 seconds of panic and 2 minutes of confusion that E trains were running on F tracks in Manhattan.

Unrelated: is there another city in the world that phrases their maintenance-related inconveniences in this way? On every other system I'm familiar with, if such a rerouting were required, they would announce that "this train is an F train between such-and-such stations." Why do New Yorkers insist on saying that it remains an E train while behaving in every way like an F train? Is it for union-related purposes, so E-train drivers can continue to operate what are obviously F trains?

Rather than try to figure out which E trains were E trains and which E trains were F trains, Sunday afternoon we decided to take a car to LaGuardia instead.

UberPOOL was strange, but cheap

This taxi fare guesser suggests a yellow cab would have cost $26.70, plus tip, for our Sunday trip to the airport, and the Uber app estimates an UberX would cost $32-$41. Then, since I'd never seen the UberPOOL icon in my Uber app before, I decided to check how much that would cost, and was offered a fixed price of $26.27.

This ended up feeling like an even better deal than those numbers suggest because Sunday was also the day of the New York City Pride march, and 5th Avenue was tied up with revelers. So instead the driver took what I guess you would call the scenic route under Central Park to avoid the parade. This longer route would have run up a higher UberX or yellow cab fare, so we benefited from locking in our UberPOOL rate in advance.

That's not the strange part. The strange part is that since the driver ignored the directions Uber was feeding him, he was forced to ignore all the other UberPOOL users trying to hail him. For Uber to add people to a pool they have to be able to predict where a driver will be, and when. But since our driver was never where he was supposed to be, he ignored all the additional UberPOOL requests he was given, and we enjoyed a private ride to the airport.

Conclusion

I will definitely use UberPOOL again, if I'm ever in a city where it's offered as an option. Their prices seem extremely competitive, and I consider being able to lock in prices in advance regardless of traffic and route to be a big convenience.

Now, I'm perfectly aware that having a fixed up-front price does not save anyone money, on average, and indeed allows Uber to apply "sneak" surge pricing and quiet rate increases. I'm totally fine with that — if the ride's too expensive, I'll take a different form of transportation. You should too.

This is what Uber's promise should be: identify the most annoying practices of the existing cab monopolies, and eliminate them. Then, some people will be willing to pay higher prices to avoid experiencing those inconveniences and some people won't. I consider the constantly-ticking taximeter and attendant fear that a driver is taking you on the long haul and deliberating missing traffic lights to be one such inconvenience, and I'll happily pay a premium to avoid it.

Microhacking: ATM fee refund edition

Even before most travel hackers' American Express prepaid cards were shut down last year, American Express had restricted Bluebird and Serve cash withdrawals to ATM's in the United States. That was a shame since they had previously worked as fee-free ATM cards around the world, and with reasonable exchange rates.

Fortunately, I have a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account, which offers as one of its rewards "No ATM fees - CCU will reimburse all ATM and surcharge fees." I'd never actually made an ATM withdrawal with the card (I bank with a local credit union), so I was eager to see how this benefit works.

My experience withdrawing money in Europe

It works really well!

I made three ATM withdrawals during the two weeks we were in Europe, and incurred ATM fees on each withdrawal:

  • 30,000 Hungarian forint ($109.40), $0.87 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($226.85), $1.81 ATM fee;
  • 200 Euro ($225.96), $2.26 ATM fee.

On the first of July, I received an ATM fee credit of $11.19. Since only $4.94 had been charged to my account in separate ATM fees, that leaves $6.25 in ATM fee refunds unaccounted for.

That $6.25 happens to be the sum of the difference between the first two ATM withdrawals in dollars and the next lowest multiple of $5 ($109.40 minus $105, plus $226.85 minus $225).

Now, maybe that's a coincidence ($6.25 is the sum of a lot of numbers, real and imaginary). But it's my current best hypothesis, although it doesn't explain why the odd $0.96 on my final ATM withdrawal wasn't refunded.

Microhacking ATM fee refunds?

If my hypothesis is correct, that means a simple hack is possible: intentionally make ATM withdrawals that are at least $1 more than a multiple of $5, getting the additional amount refunded the following month.

The only ATM's I've ever seen that allow such odd withdrawals are TD Bank ATM's, which allow you to specify the exact composition of a withdrawal, including $1 and $5 bills.

According to this CNN article, Chase and PNC were rolling out ATM's with this function back in 2013, but some light Googling didn't turn up any more recent information than that.

Have you tried this? Does it work? And do you have a better explanation for my mysterious $6.25 ATM fee refund?

When do you contact the hotel, or, living gratefully

The feeling I most associate with travel hacking is "gratitude." That's because before I discovered the world of miles and points, or at least before I knew just how big and beautiful that world is, I still traveled all the time.

Back then I traveled "on the cheap," the same way many people travel today: booking flights based on the price of a ticket, regardless of the number or inconvenience of the connections, and booking noisy, inconvenient hostels. That wasn't all bad — I once stayed in a trailer park reconfigured as a hostel on the far, far, far outskirts of Amsterdam and had a great time biking around the Dutch countryside. But it also wasn't great (the steel trailer got up to 100 or so degrees in the sun).

Altogether, that means I'm sometimes confused about what conditions rise to the level of a "complaint."

Club Carlson properties are confusing

Last month we stayed in two Club Carlson properties, the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel in Budapest and Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava, and both properties had an ice situation that was confusing (remember, I'm easily confused).

The Radisson Blu Beke Hotel had an ice machine on our floor that appeared to me to be a Soviet relic. After I tweeted about the thing, someone apparently managed to get it working and it was full of ice the next day. Although in all honesty, I'm fairly sure they just filled it with ice from the restaurant to get me to shut up.

The beautiful old Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava upped the weirdness ante: every single floor of the hotel had an ice machine in a specially designed cabinet across from the elevators, and every single ice machine was unplugged, apparently permanently. I called the front desk for an explanation and the young lady working was happy to send up a bucket of ice from the bar. So that was terrific service, on the one hand, but on the other hand what were the ice machines doing there on every floor?

Hyatt Diamond food and beverage amenities are confusing

One of my favorite things I learned last month was the neologism "regranding." It's when, well, it's when this happens.

But that's neither here nor there. What I find confusing is when a Hyatt property has already installed some fruit basket or something in your room, then asks whether you'd like the Diamond points amenity or the food and beverage amenity. As a rule, I always take the food and beverage amenity.

At both the Park Hyatt Vienna and Grand Hyatt Berlin, the property then sent up a bottle of wine, which was much appreciated after a day of travel.

But under those circumstances, does the already-existing bowl of fruit in the room count as the food amenity? If I selected the points, would someone come up and take the fruit away? At the Grand Hyatt Berlin I simply told the agent at checkout that we'd never received a food amenity and he gave me the 1,000 Gold Passport points instead. Was I wrong?

What kind of feedback do hotels appreciate?

The waiters at the Park Hyatt Vienna breakfast buffet are absolutely incompetent (with one marvelous exception). The first day, we got a cup of coffee from our waiter and never saw him again. The second day, I managed to place an order with my waiter from the à la carte menu, and never saw him again. Only on our third morning in Vienna was I able to actually receive eggs Benedict cooked to order from the à la carte menu, once I shanghaied the only competent waitress in the entire restaurant (if you're staying there, e-mail me and I'll let you know which one she is).

Why I started this post by mentioning "gratitude" is that none of these things bother me at all. I tweet about stuff because it amuses me, or because I think my readers will find it amusing, but the fact that I'm able to stay in a hotel with a spa (even if the guy who does massages no longer works there) is a radical improvement over the kind of travel I did before I learned about the game.

But the response on Twitter from the brands themselves is invariably, "did you contact the hotel?" And that's a question I never have a good answer to. The Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel presumably knows that its ice machines don't work, but does the Park Hyatt Vienna know that its service staff is incompetent?

What helps improve the experience of guests, and what is just another box the property has to check when the chain's social media team tells them a guest is complaining?

Conclusion

I never "contact the hotel" unless my comfort is directly impacted in some way, like the time we had to get a maintenance man to fix the lights in our very strange room at the very weird Grand Hyatt New York. So I'm just throwing this out there: when do you "contact the hotel," and when do you just enjoy the ride?