Everything (nothing) is changing

Why I started travel hacking

The year my father died, I accidentally got elite status. I was living in Russia and flew back to the US for my brother's wedding. A few months later, my father passed and I flew back again for his funeral and to be with my family. Aeroflot, the Russian national carrier, is a member of Skyteam, and together with a few other domestic flights, those Medallion Qualifying Miles were enough to get me Silver Medallion status.

And I loved it. I was upgraded on my first flight after making Silver Medallion, and have always kind of suspected that Delta makes sure every newly-minted Silver Medallion is upgraded on their first flight, to cement in their mind the benefits of loyalty.

Curiously, my father was also a "travel hacker," but of the old school. He always wore beautiful suits to the airport and politely asked if there was any space available in first class. He never hesitated to add a stopover in order to get more segments hopping around on short-hauls in the Pacific Northwest.

I suspect a lot of people get started like I did. They see they've just made entry-level elite status and start searching the web to find out what the benefits are. And naturally, they come across the carefully search-engine-optimized blog posts telling them what credit cards they have to sign up for in order to maximize their rewards.

And I played that version of the game for perhaps a year.

Why I started blogging

It was only after I had dutifully followed the instructions of the "top" blogs for a few months, and had signed up for their recommended credit cards, and took a look around, that I realized it was all a con.

Not that travel hacking is a con – travel hacking is amazing. But that blogging in the travel hacking space is dominated by people whose interests don't align with the interests of their readers.

You can laugh at my naïveté, but I promise you, it really isn't obvious to someone doing a search for "Medallion Qualifying Miles" that someone like René promotes the American Express Delta cards whether their signup bonuses are unusually high or unusually low – or even if there's a better signup bonus available elsewhere.

Fortunately, it's the 21st century. So I wrote an ebook, and I started a website, and I started blogging.

And, as incredible as it sounds, people started reading.

What's next

So far, this blog has been a labor of love. I saw a need, and I did my best to meet it. I write what I want to write, whenever I want to write it, and I love it.

Last year, I think I just about broke even – financially – between book sales, $1 Venmo referrals, and my lonely few PayPal subscriptions. In other words, I donated a few thousand hours of my time to this site.

But in a few weeks, I'm going to be leaving my current lightly-paid position to move halfway across the country to be with my partner. And frankly, I like blogging and travel hacking a whole hell of a lot more than I like any other job I've ever had. So I'm going to see if I can't make a go of it doing this full-time.

Usually when a travel blogger tells you he's going to start blogging full-time, it means he's earning enough from affiliate revenue that he can afford to quit his day job.

Needless to say, that's not the case around here. I'm just making a bet: that I can produce enough original content, and attract enough readers willing to voluntarily pay for that content, that I can afford to pay the rent.

The Cylons had a plan; me, not so much

While I've given this a lot of thought, I frankly have no idea whether it's going to work out. Here's my general plan for how I'll make ends meet:

  • Recently I've gotten a lot of enthusiasm for my PayPal and Amazon Payments subscriptions (which I appreciate tremendously!). Hopefully that enthusiasm will continue and more readers will find what I write to be worth paying for;
  • As I passed along on April 14th, I've been able to write a couple paid pieces for a website called "Credit Card Insider." If that continues, it'll provide some kind of occasional income (and I'll be open to any other paid writing gigs that come along!);
  • Unlike in my current New England residence, Amazon allows affiliate links in the state I'm moving to. My guess is that there's only a minimal chance of me being corrupted by the awesome power of Amazon affiliate links ("Read more books!"), so hopefully some readers will click through an Amazon link and that will provide some kind of revenue stream as well;
  • And of course my income from travel hacking itself.

Suggestions needed

But I also need suggestions from my readers: are there ways you think I can make money from my expertise, analysis, and honesty that won't detract from the experience of coming here and getting my straightforward reporting on everything taking place in this game we play?

Let me make one point up front: I love hearing from my readers, and I love answering questions, and I love helping them optimize their strategies. I do this by e-mail, in the comments to the blog, and on FlyerTalk. None of these suggestions would replace that, because I love doing that!

Having said that, would any of these ideas have any appeal to any of my readers?

  • Some kind of e-mail or phone or Skype consultancy. You're getting started, you want some advice, you pay an hourly fee or a monthly/yearly "retainer" to be able to get in touch with me and bounce ideas around.
  • Some kind of in-person consultancy. Firms that have a lot of employees who travel for work might pay me to do a presentation about the best ways to maximize their travel rewards. Crazier things have happened.
  • Some kind of "premium" content. This could be a forum where subscribers can chat with each other and me about lesser-known techniques, or a more expensive and comprehensive version of my subscriber newsletter.

Conclusion

So, that's it!

Sometime in the middle of next month, you can expect to see more frequent posts here on the blog and perhaps some other announcements, depending on how ridiculous you folks find my suggestions and how awesome your suggestions are.

See you in the comments!

Suntrust online banking errors are a feature, not bug

Ten days ago, I passed along a working link to a signup page for the Suntrust Delta Skymiles World Check Card. When I shared that link, I had just called the number on that page to open a "balanced banking" account over the phone.

Today, my account is finally up and running, and I wanted to share the timeline for opening new accounts in case anyone else is as confused by it as I was.

Wednesday, April 9

10 days ago I:

  • Called and opened a "balanced banking" account over the phone;
  • Was told to wait for a "signature card" to arrive in the mail, sign it, and mail it back in the provided envelop;
  • Was given an online banking "password" to configure my online profile;
  • Set up an online username and password;
  • But was unable to log into my new account. Instead, I received an error stating that "This service is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later."

Monday, April 14

On Monday:

  • I received, signed, and mailed back my signature card;
  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking.

Tuesday, April 15

On Tuesday:

  • I received my Delta Skymiles World Check card;
  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking;
  • And I was unable to call into their phone system for help, because that required my PIN number, which I hadn't yet received.

Thursday, April 17

On Thursday:

  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking;
  • I received my PIN number in the mail, and attempted to call into the Suntrust phone tree, but after entering my check card number and PIN was not connected to a representative;

I used the online banking "live chat" feature and had the following conversation with a customer service representative, "Tera:"

Tera: Good afternoon. Thank you for contacting SunTrust. How may I assist you today?

Free-quent Flyer: I am not able to set up my online account. At Step 3: Services & Agreement I just get an error page: "This service is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later." This has been going on for a week or so

Tera: It sounds like your temporary internet files and cookies need to be deleted. Do you know how to clear those?

Free-quent Flyer: Yes, I've already done so multiple times

Tera: Are you making sure to close the browser after clearing those then open a new one?

Free-quent Flyer: Yes, and I've tried private and incognito browsing as well

Tera: There is something in your browser that is causing the page to do that. Are you able to use a different browser such as Internet Explorer or FireFox?

Free-quent Flyer: I get an identical error in Chrome and Safari and Firefox

Tera: Our services are not down. Your browsers seem to have a bad file that is blocking the site. Let me set up the profile for you. So that I may bring up your profile may I please have your full account or card number and the last four digits of your Social Security Number?

Free-quent Flyer: [numbers]

Tera: Thank you, let me pull up your profile. I will be right back with you.

Tera: Your profile has already been created. You will need to log in through www.suntrust.com using the user id and password that you chose however that will not be accessible until the "no debit" status is removed from your account. That will be removed once we receive your signature cards.

Free-quent Flyer: I am logging in using the user id and password I chose

Free-quent Flyer: That brings me to this error screen

Tera: I'm sorry, I thought you mentioned you were just setting that up. Sorry for the confusion. The Online Banking is set up however you will not be able to log in until the "no debit" status is removed from your account.

Free-quent Flyer: So I'm supposed to be receiving this error screen? Perhaps the text could be changed so it doesn't look like a generic error page

Free-quent Flyer: Will I be notified when you receive my signature cards? Or am I supposed to just try every day until one day it suddenly works?

Tera: Yes, I am sorry. I will submit your feedback on that. Sorry for the confusion.

Tera: You will not be notified when those are received.

Saturday, April 19

I was able to log into my Suntrust online banking account, and everything looks to be correctly configured.

Conclusion

As frustrating and ridiculous as it seems, this appears to simply be Suntrust's standard operating procedure for new accounts. Instead of a specific error message telling you to wait until your signature cards have been processed, they return what looks like a website error.

The take-home advice from this is: wait at least 10 days, and perhaps as long as 12-14 days, to have online access to your Suntrust account. And try not to worry too much about it in the meantime!

Do this now: Starwood Preferred Guest early summer promotion

Between May 1 and July 31, 2014, Starwood Preferred Guest is running a promotion giving double base points at participating properties for stays that don’t include a Sunday night (Saturday night in the Middle East) and triple base points at participating properties for stays that do include such a night.

There’s a long list of non-participating properties, so don’t deliberately direct any stays to Starwood properties without making sure the property is participating in this promotion.

And of course, register now, before you forget.

Paying Fidelity Investment Rewards cards at Walmart

I know this post won't be super relevant to all of my readers, but I always try to write the kind of blog that I would want to read, so I want to pass along this piece of helpful information that I was able to confirm today.

Credit cards issued by American Express aren't payable at Walmart

Starting in February, it hasn't been possible to use the technique I described in this series of posts to pay credit cards issued by American Express. However, there are a number of credit cards that use the American Express payment network that are not issued by American Express, and the community has been hard at work finding ways to make Walmart bill payments to those credit cards.

Fidelity Investment Rewards credit cards are payable at Walmart

The card I recommend to absolutely everyone getting started in this game is the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card, which gives 2% cash back on all purchases and now even comes with a $75 signup bonus.

While the card is Fidelity-branded, and operates on the American Express payment network, it's issued by FIA Card Services, which is a wholly owned subsidiary of Bank of America.

Knowing that fact is what allowed FlyerTalker CrediPig to successfully make a bill payment to "Bank of America Consumer Loans," which accepted his payment. MsArbi later posted another success.

I had to get some money into my Bank of America account before I could try it for myself, but can now report my own success making a next-day payment, with a transaction fee of $1.50. That's the same fee that used to be charged for American Express bill payments and that I believe is still charged for Discover bill payments. 3-day payments should cost $1.

For your information: Walmart terminals have been (very) recently updated

The payment terminals at my local Walmart store location were updated sometime in the last 48 hours. All our favorite techniques still work on the new software, including split payments, but you may be thrown off by the new interface (I was).

While previously I entered my PIN immediately after swiping a debit card, now I'm given the "cash back" option before entering my PIN. It may seem like a small thing, but when you make as many Walmart debit transactions as I do, you start to notice the little things! 

My usually very competent regular cashier was having trouble splitting payments on the new interface, and had to look up "Bank of America Consumer Loans" through what her colleague called "the old system," so anticipate slight delays and holdups as the update is rolled out across Walmart locations and cashiers familiarize themselves with it.

Quick hit: free money from Evolve Money

Evolve Money is a weird company, but they have a great product which I use many, many times each month. And it appears that they are currently running two promotions that add up to $10 in free money.

Use promo code "save5april" through April 21

Make any bill payment of $5 or more and receive $5 off your total bill payment.

Use promo code "TaxDay2014" through April 15

Make any bill payment of $5 or more and receive $5 off your total bill payment.

Can you combine these promotions on the same bill payment?

I redeemed "save5april" earlier this month, so I don't know whether the promotions can be combined in one transaction. But I have redeemed them both through my account, so you're not limited to one or the other.

Leave your experiences in the comments.

I don't know much about Credit Card Insider, but they seem to like me

Background: Using a Balance Transfer Offer to Pay Off Credit Card Debt
Background: Best Travel Credit Cards for Airlines, Hotels, and Gas

A few months ago, one of my long-time readers reached out to me with a sort of tentative offer to write some guest posts on a website she works for. That hasn't ended up working out, but it did lead to an unrelated gig writing guest posts for a website called Credit Card Insider. I've now written a couple posts for them (above), and while no one has asked, I thought I would preemptively answer a couple potential questions my readers might have if they stumbled across one of those posts.

I have no idea what Credit Card Insider's business model is

A cursory examination of the way they insert application links into my posts suggests it probably has something to do with credit card affiliate links. But that has never entered into any discussion I have had with anyone at the site.

I get no cut of affiliate revenue (if any)

As I explained last month, I have no affiliate links here on the site (although many of the signup links for cash back portals, useful services like Venmo, Plink, and Uber, etc., do give me some nominal referral bonus – and thanks for using those links if you're so inclined!), and 100% of my remaining revenue comes from subscriptions, one-time gratuities (thanks Thomas!), and book sales.

In other words, people who like my work and want to see me continue cover my expenses, and I only answer to my readers.

Credit Card Insider pays me a flat fee per post. I find it fair and I consider it good publicity for this site.

And hey, if anybody else wants to sponsor blog posts, you know how to reach me!

Credit Card Insider exercises no editorial control over my content

There's a small group of folks at the site who come up with general post topics and assign them to writers. But no one at any time has implied that there are certain cards that need to be included in any given post, or that some cards need to be pushed harder than others. Frankly I suspect they had never even heard of the BankAmericard Cash Rewards card, which offers a healthy 3% cash back at gas stations. Good card!

Of course that could change at any time, and I'd certainly stop writing for them if my voice was ever compromised in that way.

Further, my feelings about cards like the Sapphire Preferred are well-known, so I'm not going to write a post on some other website praising its value or flexibility or whatever.

Credit Card Insider comes up with the headlines

The one piece of "editorial control" they do exercise is over the headlines. For example, my column "Best Travel Credit Cards for Airlines, Hotels, and Gas" is about thinking about your spending patterns and travel needs before deciding on the credit card that's right for you. In fact, I probably would have titled it "think about your spending patterns and travel needs before deciding on the credit card that's right for you."

But that's why they get paid the big bucks.

I suspect our audiences are very different

When my reader first suggested I write some guest posts, I worried about diluting my web presence by writing in bits and pieces in various places all over the web.

But if you visit Credit Card Insider you'll see that broadly speaking they're aimed at a very different audience than I am here. My blog has, over time, grown increasingly focused on a fairly niche subset of travelers: those who are seeking to maximize their value and minimize their costs when traveling — and who are willing to put in some serious work to do so.

While I try to write without the jargon and codes so many people in our hobby use, the techniques I describe are frankly inaccessible to the vast majority of the population, whether it's from lack of interest or lack of time. So I don't think I'm cannibalizing any content that I would post here by writing guest spots for Credit Card Insider. That is an issue I'm sensitive to, however.

With all that out of the way:

Those are the answers to the questions I had before I started writing for them. But if you have any specific questions about the situation (or anything else), the comments, as always, are open.

Rant: if you care about the American devaluation, you're doing it wrong

Fact: I currently have no more than 100,000 of any airline or hotel rewards currency.

Does that sound like a horrifically low number?

Good. That means I'm doing it right.

Your miles and points are not safe

In case you've forgotten your loyalty program terms and conditions, allow me to refresh your memory.

Delta Skymiles:

"Always remember, the rules below are subject to change at any time. Unless otherwise stated, the current rules in effect at the time of your travel, request for a benefit or other transaction will govern that transaction."

United MileagePlus:

"MileagePlus membership and benefits, including the Premier Program, are offered at the discretion of United Airlines and its affiliates, and United has the right to terminate the Program and/or the Premier Program or to change the Program Rules, regulations, benefits, conditions of participation or mileage levels, in whole or in part, at any time, with or without notice, even though changes may affect the value of the mileage or certificates already accumulated."

American AAdvantage:

"American Airlines may, in its discretion, change the AAdvantage program rules, regulations, travel awards and special offers at any time with or without notice. This means that the accumulation of mileage credit does not entitle members to any vested rights with respect to such mileage credits, awards or program benefits. In accumulating mileage or awards, members may not rely upon the continued availability of any award or award level, and members may not be able to obtain all offered awards for all destinations or on all flights."

What would it mean to "trust" a loyalty program?

There's an absurd conversation taking place between Gary at View from the Wing and Lucky at One Mile at a Time about whether American is a "trustworthy" loyalty program:

These are smart dudes, who have each forgotten more than I've ever known about earning and redeeming miles and points for free travel.

And yet here they are talking about "trusting" faceless, bankrupt multinational corporations.

Since those guys don't seem to get it, I thought I would share a few simple tips for never caring about an airline devaluation.

Tip #1: Earn points as cheaply as possible

The periodic US Airways "share miles" promotion allow you to buy US Airways miles for 1.14 cents each. Don't do it.

The only number that matters in this game is the spread between what you pay for your miles and points and what they're worth when you redeem them.

Unfortunately, you don't have any control over that second number.

Fortunately, you have complete control over the first number, and the lower that number is, the more pain you can absorb in the form of devaluations.

Tip #2: Redeem your damn miles!

There's only one mile that no loyalty program can devalue: the one you redeemed last year.

I only have 91,000 Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles. And look: I agree, that's a pretty low balance. Maybe you feel better having a cushion of 200,000 miles. Maybe you need 300,000 miles in your account to really feel comfortable.

But no matter how many miles you decide you need in your account for a rainy day, you need to be actively redeeming every single mile in excess of that number.

Why? Because the least value mile is the one you don't redeem. It's less valuable than a 1 cent per mile Pay With Miles redemption on Delta; it's less valuable than a 50,000 mile AAnytime award. It's less valuable than a $63 food processor.

It's worth nothing.

Tip #3: Earn cash back. Please.

There is one rewards currency that's totally out of the control of the airlines and hotels: the US dollar. You can redeem it for 100 cents per dollar online as well as at brick and mortar merchants. And it devalues at an extremely consistent and gradual rate of 1 – 2.5% per year.

Best of all, thanks to the techniques discussed here and elsewhere, you can purchase this rewards currency for a small fraction of its redemption value.

Sure, it takes a whole hell of a lot of US dollars to pay for a business class or first class international redemption. But that's what your huge stockpiles of (rapidly depreciating) airline miles are for...right?

Update: my first declined American Express gift card order

A few weeks ago I shared my thoughts on introducing American Express gift cards into a miles and points strategy. At that point, I had successfully clicked through to Barclaycard's RewardsBoost shopping portal, purchased a personalized gift card for around $2,000, and seen the Barclaycard Arrival miles post to my account.

As I shared in my April 5th roundup, many shopping portals are currently offering higher-than-usual payouts for these gift card orders, so I went ahead and purchased several thousand dollars worth of business gift cards with my Delta Platinum Business American Express card.

I placed the order on April 7th, and the next morning I received an e-mail from American Express saying:

"Your order was not fulfilled for the following reasons: We could not verify your order information and cannot approve your order at this time."

As has been widely reported, and as a reader confirmed in the comments to my original post, American Express very frequently declines orders based on an algorithm known only to them. It's not a huge deal, although if you're urgently trying to hit a minimum spending requirement or spend threshold, it can easily throw off even the most careful planning.

After a decline, your credit line doesn't immediately become available

When an order is cancelled, it can take a relatively long time for your credit line to become available again. I reported on this odd timeframe in my original post, explaining that my pending March 8 charge disappeared on the 10th, only to reappear as a posted transaction on March 15.

Having experienced my first declined order, I want to share that it appears the same is true with these unsuccessful transactions. The pending charge for my April 7th order remained in my pending charges until today, when it disappeared. However, my credit line in the amount of the charge still hasn’t become available. I expect it will do so tomorrow or Monday.

Takeaway: don’t rely on American Express gift cards if you have an urgent spending deadline

While American Express gift cards are great ways to buy miles and points at a potentially negative net cost, declined transactions can slow you down and keep you from meeting time-sensitive thresholds. If you really need a certain amount of spend in a limited time frame, use a more reliable method.

I just paid $200 in bills for $171.90 – did you?

As the one-stop source for all things Evolve Money, I want to make sure my readers know about two currently available deals I took advantage of yesterday.

Use promo code "Save5april" and save $5 in April

The next (or first!) time you make an Evolve Money payment, enter the promo code "Save5april" during checkout and you'll save $5 — including on bill payments of $5 or less.

Sync each of your American Express cards to Twitter and save

If you have an American Express card "synced" to a Twitter account, you can tweet "#AmexStaples" to activate an offer giving a $20 statement credit after making a purchase of $100 or more at Staples by April 30, 2014.

If you have more than one American Express-issued credit card, your first stop should be Frequent Miler's primer on syncing multiple cards to Twitter.

Once you understand that process, add the #AmexStaples offer to each of your cards, and head to Staples!

I bought 2 $100 Visa gift cards for $105.95 each – paying just $171.90 after my $40 in Amex Sync rebates.

Register your Visa gift cards and use them to pay bills

Any bills you can find in Evolve Money can be paid using Visa gift cards purchased at Staples, as long as you register the gift cards with your billing address prior to using them. To do that, follow the instructions on the back of your gift cards.

Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check Card being (gradually) retired

While the community's attention is focused on the betrayal and heartbreak caused by this week's American Airlines devaluations, allow me to pass along some thoughts on a slightly different topic.

The Alaska Airlines debit card was real

For as long as I can remember, I've been the biggest cheerleader for the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card. Believe it or not, all the way back in May, 2013, bloggers were already claiming the card was no longer available, but there was still a working link that I included in every blog post I could – no matter how tenuous the connection – because I believed the card was one of the best methods available to earn travel, while paying next to nothing.

Finally, it was announced that existing cards would no longer earn Alaska Airlines miles starting May 31, 2014over a year after my post letting readers know the card was still available. A year of $0.70 money orders, $1 and $1.88 credit card bill payments, and a year of free, $3,000 Venmo transactions up to 4 times per month.

That's a lot of miles.

It's still possible to apply for the Suntrust Delta debit card – but not for long

The Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check Card is still available — today — for new accounts being opened online and over the phone. Your humble blogger just opened an account over the phone an hour ago.

The card earns 1 Skymile per dollar spent on PIN-based and signature transactions.

But it has disappeared from Suntrust's website, and certainly will stop accepting new applications sometime in the coming days, weeks, or months. Until that day comes, I'll continue including the link to the card in every post I can – no matter how tenuous the connection – because I believe it's one of the best methods currently available to earn travel, while paying next to nothing.

Have you let the last week teach you anything?

With the end of CVS reloadables nationwide and the unannounced American devaluation, the last week has given every travel hacker an opportunity to reevaluate their entire system from the ground up: what's working, what's not? What entails too much risk, and what's worth the risk? Where do I go from here?

Are you taking advantage of that opportunity?

I don't give advice — but I don't entertain complaints

I don't know how long currently-existing Suntrust Delta World Check Cards will continue to issue Skymiles. It might be months and it could be years.

I do know that when they finally close existing accounts, a lot of people are going to regret not trying their luck to see just how many Skymiles they could earn in that crazy period in the early 2010's when debit cards still earned rewards on PIN transactions.

When that day comes, are you going to be complaining – or bragging?