The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express Priority Pass Membership "Year"

Unlimited access to the Priority Pass network of airport lounges, which was long an afterthought compared to airline lounges and, more recently, the superb American Express Centurion lounges, has quietly become an impressive benefit of many super-premium credit cards, like American Express Platinum cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and the Citi Prestige. In part that’s because Priority Pass has aggressively added airport restaurant locations where you can typically receive about $28 towards your food and drink bill (excluding gratuities). When I first started tracking that option, I recorded just 23 participating restaurants. The number is now up to 49!

Credit cards issued in the United States have typically offered either unlimited Priority Pass memberships or, like the Chase Ink Plus, “memberships” in name only where “members” pay $32 or so for lounge access. Obviously those memberships don’t offer any value at all at non-lounge locations, since the benefit is usually capped at $28-$30, although they might theoretically still be useful on long international layovers.

The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express struck an interesting compromise, offering a Priority Pass membership that includes 10 free visits per year, a benefit I enjoyed last year (although my partner’s new Hilton Honors Aspire card will give us both unlimited free visits while traveling together).

If you have an Ascend card and don’t otherwise have unlimited Priority Pass access, you should already be asking an important question: what’s a “year?”

Three ways a year could be defined

The two most common ways credit card benefits are restricted are by cardmember year and by calendar year. For example, American Express airline fee reimbursements are offered on a calendar year basis, while American Express Delta companion tickets are offered on a cardmember year basis, with the companion ticket appearing in your SkyMiles account shortly after your annual fee is charged each cardmember year.

There’s a third option, however, when benefits are provided by a third party: third-party program year benefits. For example, American Express Platinum cards offer Hilton Honors Gold status as an incidental benefit, but your Hilton Honors Gold status doesn’t depend on either the calendar year or your cardmember anniversary. Instead, it depends on the Hilton Honors program year, and your Gold status will continue for a year or longer even if you don’t renew your Platinum card.

American Express claims Priority Pass membership is based on a third-party program year

You can find American Express’s description of the Ascend Priority Pass benefit on the online application or by logging into your account. It’s more or less identical in both cases, and crystal clear (this text comes from the description in my online account, emphasis mine throughout):

Your Priority Pass Membership year begins on the date you enroll. Once enrolled, you will receive your Priority Pass Select card directly from Priority Pass within 10-14 business days. There is no membership fee with your Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card. With your Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card you will receive 10 complimentary lounge visits each Priority Pass Membership year. Once your 10 complimentary lounge visits are used, all subsequent lounge visits during the remainder of the Priority Pass Membership year are subject to a fee equal to the amount of the guest visit fee of the Priority Pass Standard program per person per visit, which will be automatically charged to your Card. To check on your remaining complimentary visit balance, please contact Priority Pass directly. Any unused complimentary lounge visits will be forfeited at the end of each Priority Pass Membership year.”

In other words, whenever you get around to enrolling in Priority Pass, the clock starts on your Priority Pass membership year, during which you can make 10 total visits, including guests. This would theoretically be gameable, for example by waiting until a few weeks before the first trip you expect to use Priority Pass on, thereby delaying the start of your Priority Pass membership year.

But it’s not true.

The Hilton Honors Ascend Priority Pass membership is a calendar year benefit

I know travel hackers all fancy themselves jailhouse lawyers, so before anyone starts commenting about how crystal clear the terms and conditions are, let me say: I know how crystal clear the terms and conditions are. But if you rely on the terms and conditions, you’re going to end up with a bunch of $32 credit card charges before you know it.

Fortunately, I only ended up with one, but it illustrates the issue perfectly:

  • My Hilton Honors Ascend annual fee was charged on January 19, 2018;

  • I registered for Priority Pass on February 7, 2018;

  • I made 11 visits between August 20, 2018, and December 26, 2018, and was charged $32 for the 11th visit;

  • I made another visit on January 2, 2019, and was not charged.

There’s simply no other way to explain this set of facts than the benefit being based on the calendar year, contrary to the explicit terms and conditions of the benefit.

My secondary piece of evidence is that I called Priority Pass today to ask how the benefit works, and spoke to a lovely woman with a perfect British accent who nevertheless understood no English. After both of us shouted at each other in perfect English long enough, she finally understood my question and told me I get 10 free visits per calendar year, I’ve used 1, and I have 9 remaining. At that point I politely thanked her and she politely hung up on me, to both of our relief.

Conclusion

For me, travel hacking is about staying focused on a simple question: how does it really work? The systems we take advantage of lie on the intersection of marketing, engineering, and law. Sometimes the marketers talk to the engineers, sometimes the engineers talk to the lawyers, and sometimes nobody talks to anybody at all. It isn’t enough to ask what the marketers intended, or what the lawyers wrote, if you don’t pay attention to what the engineers actually programmed.

East Coast Alaska Airlines companion fare strategies

As I mentioned last week, In order to get to Maui and back I stitched together 3 legs using a single Alaska Airlines companion ticket. While folks on the West Coast are probably familiar with Alaska and their companion ticket, now that the merger with Virgin America is complete it might be time for residents of some East Coast cities who had ruled out Alaska because of its limited route network to take another look.

Two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares

There are technically two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares. For the past several years Bank of America has offered a taxes-and-fees-only companion fare to new Alaska Airlines Visa cardmembers after spending $1,000 on the card within 90 days.

Then, on each account anniversary, you’ll receive another companion fare for $99 plus taxes and fees.

Besides the $99 co-pay for anniversary companion fares the two are otherwise identical.

What’s so great about Alaska Airlines companion fares?

Three features make Alaska companion fares unique:

  1. they can be used systemwide;

  2. they can be used on any economy fare;

  3. and both passengers receive mileage credit as if they were both flying on paid tickets.

In fact, the only restriction I’ve ever encountered using a companion fare is that the Bank of America cardholder has to be either one of the two passengers traveling on the fare or have their name on the credit card used to make the reservation.

The fare does not have to be paid for with the Bank of America credit card that triggered the fare. You can even use an authorized user card, as long as it has the name of the Bank of America cardholder, and even that isn’t required if the Bank of America cardholder is one of the passengers.

That means using an Alaska companion fare isn’t mutually exclusive with many methods of payment, for example using a Chase Sapphire or Barclaycard Arrival Plus card for trip delay insurance, or a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card for a Real-Time Rewards redemption.

A final note on fares: since the companion fare can be used to book any economy fare class, and both tickets book into the same fare class, you can use the companion fare to book tickets that are upgradeable using miles or MVP Gold guest upgrades. However, that upgrade space is extremely limited so I would not suggest paying more for an upgradeable fare speculatively if upgrade space is not available at the time of your booking; it likely never will be.

Alaska Airlines routes from the East Coast

Alaska serves a surprisingly large number of cities, especially now that Virgin America’s routes have been integrated into the system, but they are almost entirely reliant on five West Coast hubs: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

That means flying from the East Coast to anywhere in the middle of the country will require backtracking: flying first to the West Coast, then connecting to a flight retracing your steps. You probably won’t want to do that — Seattle is a long way out of the way if you want to fly between Washington, DC, and Cancun.

However, lots of people fly to the West Coast as their final destination, and others fly onward to points West, North, or South, and for those folks the companion fare can still provide a fantastic value.

What I’ve done is break up Alaska Eastern time zone airports into six buckets, based on which of Alaska’s hubs are served from that airport.

Seattle

  • Tampa (TPA)

  • Atlanta (ATL)

  • Charleston (CHS)

  • Indianapolis (IND)

  • Columbus (CMH)

  • Detroit (DTW)

  • Pittsburgh (PIT)

Seattle and San Francisco

  • Raleigh/Durham (RDU)

Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL)

  • Washington (IAD)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Washington (DCA)

  • Philadelphia (PHL)

  • New York City (JFK) (plus San Jose and Las Vegas)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and San Diego

  • Orlando (ORL)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego

  • Baltimore (BWI)

  • Newark (EWR) (plus San Jose)

  • Boston (BOS)

Three strategies for East Coast companion fares

If you live in or near one of those Eastern cities, I think there are at least three useful ways to judge the value of Alaska Airlines companion fares: connecting onward, backtracking, and non-stops.

Connecting onward is the most obviously high-value use: if you fly to Hawaii or the Pacific coast of Mexico at least once per year, and are willing to do so in economy, the ability to book any economy fare in the system can give you enormous value and flexibility. For example, from Washington, DC, there are no non-stop flights to Hawaii, so you’ll have to make a connection somewhere. If that’s the case, why not Seattle instead of Atlanta? Over the Thanksgiving dates I checked from DC, Alaska flights to Hawaii were already the cheapest options — adding a companion fare is icing on the cake. From New York, Alaska was the cheapest option to every Hawaiian island but Kauai (Delta undercut them by $15).

Backtracking is a less obviously appealing option, as I gestured at above. However, for many destinations in the Mountain West, it can still make sense. For example, my hometown of Missoula, MT, is a notoriously expensive city to fly in and out of (fortunately flights are also very often overbooked, and I received my only $1200 voluntary denied boarding voucher there). Over the Thanksgiving weekend, for example, Delta isn’t selling fares eligible for American Express companion tickets, so two tickets would cost $1,596, while two Alaska tickets would cost just $1,373 with a companion fare. A $223 savings isn’t revolutionary, but it’s still more than the Alaska Airlines Visa’s $75 annual fee.

Finally, obviously a lot of people have perfectly good reasons to fly between the East and West coasts without connecting at all. If you live in Baltimore, New York, or Boston, you might simply use Alaska companion fares to pay for the occasional trip to the West Coast. It’s lovely there!

The point is, the Alaska companion fare is such a good deal it’s worth considering even if you don’t think of yourself as a “typical” Alaska passenger, which is to say someone who commutes up and down the West Coast.

Alaska Companion Fare routing rules

Here I’m leaning entirely on Scott Mackenzie at Travel Codex, who is the authority on all things Alaska Airlines:

“Although the terms and conditions say the fare must be for round-trip travel, this isn’t strictly true. You can book one-way travel. You can book open jaws. You can book multi-city travel between completely different cities. I’ve confirmed that Austin to Seattle, Portland to Maui, and Honolulu to Sacramento — all on different dates — will qualify…

What you can’t do is book travel that is clearly not anything close to round-trip. In the example of AUS-SEA//PDX-OGG//HNL-SMF we flew west and then flew east. Kinda sorta maybe round-trip, even if we never hit the same city twice.”

Since Alaska allows up to 4 entries in a multi-city itinerary (not four legs — Alaska will add connections on its own as necessary), my itinerary IND-PDX-OGG-DCA wasn’t entirely optimized. I could have added a longer stopover in Los Angeles on the way back, or a longer layover in Seattle on our outbound itinerary.

Ultimately, because of Alaska’s strong North-South axis on the West Coast, a truly optimal itinerary would need to include several West Coast stops. For example, this is a valid companion fare itinerary:

  • JFK-SEA//PDX-SFO//LAX-LIH//OGG-LAX

You can put an unlimited amount of time between each of these legs, meaning as Scott points out, these are really “four one-way fares booked on a single ticket.”

Of course, that begs the question: why would you want to book four unrelated one-way fares on a single ticket? First of all, the fares don’t have to be unrelated. Our flights from Indianapolis to Portland, Portland to Maui, and Maui back home were not “unrelated,” after all. But even in the case of totally unrelated fares, there are reasons you might consider it.

Since Alaska prices out all itineraries as one-way fares, it’s not uncommon to find a situation where one leg of your trip is expensive with cash and cheap with miles, while the other leg is cheap with cash and expensive with miles. If the dates and directions all line up properly (no small feat), you could use a single companion fare to book four one-way fares, then fill in the rest of the itinerary with miles or cash as you see fit.

Likewise, especially frequent travelers might consider “nesting” different trips inside a single itinerary. Someone traveling frequently between Washington and Los Angeles, for instance, might book:

  • DCA-LAX//LAX-OGG-LAX//LAX-DCA

If you squint at this just right you see it’s actually two unrelated roundtrips: one between DCA and LAX, and one between LAX and OGG. To make this work you’ll need to book an additional roundtrip between LAX and DCA, of course, but in exchange you get can get two companion fares for the price of one.

Conclusion

Bank of America has added some restrictions in recent years to who is eligible for certain new credit cards, unfortunately including the personal Alaska Airlines Visa card. The business card is supposedly unaffected for now, so even if you don’t have any Bank of America Alaska Airlines cards you should be able to sign up for one personal and at least one business card, naturally conditional on your creditworthiness.

The main effect of those changes should be to discourage folks who already have multiple personal Alaska Airlines cards from cancelling them, unless they’re absolutely certain they won’t be flying Alaska anytime in the near future, since it seems that it will be increasingly difficult to collect new companion fares going forward.

Quick hit: when are you eligible for your first Hilton Honors Aspire American Express resort credit?

I started writing this blog because I was frustrated by how imprecise and inaccurate the mainstream travel hacking bloggers I was reading at the time were. In some ways that situation has gotten a lot worse, as credit card affiliate blogs have consolidated and become ever more limited in what kinds of deals they’re able to talk about, while in other ways it’s improved, as more independent bloggers have started writing without relying on affiliate revenue.

As careful as I am to be as accurate and precise as possible, I got caught out on Wednesday by two commenters asking versions of the same question: when are you eligible for your first $250 Hilton Honors Aspire American Express resort credit? This is a question it genuinely hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

The source of the confusion

The reason my commenters were confused arises from the fact that the resort credit is described in at least 2 different ways in different places:

  • on the American Express credit card application: “With your Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, enjoy up to $250 in statement credits each year of Card Membership for eligible purchases at participating Hilton Resorts.”

  • on the American Express “benefits” tab for existing cardholders: “Upon renewal of your Card, enjoy $250 in Hilton Resort Credits each year when you stay at a participating resorts within the Hilton portfolio.”

This raises the question, is the resort credit an anniversary benefit (like the bonus Radisson Rewards points offered by US Bank, or the Alaska Airlines companion ticket offered by Bank of America), or an annual benefit? If it’s the former, the value of the card drops enormously, since the credit would only be available if you kept the card or were able to make an eligible resort charge shortly after your first anniversary. If it’s the latter, you have an entire year of card membership to find a chance to use the credit before canceling the card.

My answer to this very good question

I was so flummoxed by these commenters I started to believe I may have actually misunderstood the terms of the benefit, something that has happened before and will happen again (always for the benefit of my readers). Had I relied too much on the seductive prose of affiliate bloggers? Had I, the anti-affiliate-blogger, become a pawn in their game?

But I quickly oriented myself and realized my original interpretation of the benefit, that it is available during your first year of card membership, had to be correct for a simple reason: the card is less than a year old, and people have already received resort credits. The relevant FlyerTalk thread has datapoints from as early as March, 2018, less than 3 months after the card was launched, so the benefit has to be available during the first year of card membership.

Conclusion: banks and loyalty programs love to out-legal themselves

If you squint at the conflicting language just right, you can start to see what American Express and Hilton were thinking: they wanted to make it as clear as possible that unlike the card’s $250 airline fee credit, which resets on January 1 of each year, the $250 resort credit is a cardmember year benefit, and they tried to express that concept in slightly different, slightly contradictory ways. While lawyers have fun pretending to speak with precision, English simply isn’t a surgical language. Here’s my modest attempt at reformulating the resort benefit:

“Each year of card membership, beginning with your first year, and continuing each additional year upon the anniversary of your account opening, enjoy $250 in Hilton Resort Credits each year when you stay at a participating resorts within the Hilton portfolio.”

As always, you can find my personal referral link on my Support the Site! page (feel free to use either my Hilton or Delta referral link, since they should both give you access to the same cards).

The great, good, weird, and apologetic about the Grand Wailea, a Waldorf Astoria Resort

What a week! I bring you alohas (that means “hello”) from Maui, the second largest island in the state of Hawaii (or as the locals call it, “the aloha state”). As a reminder, I organized this trip as a belated honeymoon taking advantage of a few interlocking opportunities:

  • Hilton Honors offers the fifth night free on award stays to all elite members (everyone, in other words), which is naturally most valuable on stays of exactly 5 nights at top-tier 95,000-point properties;

  • the new American Express Hilton Honors Aspire card offers a $250 statement credit for charges made at “participating Hilton Resorts;”

  • there’s also currently an Amex Offer for a $70 statement credit when you spend $350 at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in the US, Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris and Conrad Hotels & Resorts in the US;

  • and the Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket can be used to book moderately complex multi-city itineraries with a stopover, so we were able to use it to fly from my partner’s family in Indiana, to my family in Oregon, onward to Maui, and back to the East Coast, all for the price of a single Alaska Airlines ticket, plus taxes and fees.

There are a few ways the deal could have been stretched a little further. For example, I booked all five nights from my Hilton Honors account, including this weekend, while it would have been technically optimal to book a 5-night stay ending on a Friday night, then use the Aspire card’s free weekend night certificate to book a free 6th night and my Ascend free weekend night certificate for a 7th night, but that would have required my partner to take a lot more time off work, and we’ve already been traveling since before Christmas. As a rule I try to avoid organizing my travel around stunts unless I think I’m going to get a particularly good blog post out of them, and the free weekend night certificates will certainly get used, hopefully at a good redemption value.

The Grand Wailea breakfast mystery, solved

When I first wrote about this trip, I explained that I’d been told the Diamond breakfast benefit was “a daily $15.00 per day up to 2 person a in room dining credit. Unfortunately the $15.00 in Only for in Room dining” [sic]. But I’m now happy to be able to share the actual letter describing the benefit I was handed when checking in last Wednesday:

Breakfast, revealed!

Now, a civilian might think this letter is as clear as day: a $30 per day credit for food and beverage. But if you’re a travel hacker, you know this raises just as many questions as it answers. What’s a “day?” We arrived on Wednesday afternoon and departed on Monday; do we get six $30 credits, one per “day,” or five $30 credits, one per night of our stay? Is the credit “use it or lose it,” so we have to spend $30 per day, or can we splurge on one day?

I asked all these questions to our check-in clerk, and was told, “I don’t know, it doesn’t matter, we’ll just take $150 off your bill when you check-out.” And sure enough, when we checked out yesterday the front desk agent was happy to remove $150 from our room charges (although I did have to remind her, possibly due to the chaos the night before — see below).

The property is spectacular, but starting to show its age

Before arriving, I requested a quiet room, and we were given a ground floor king room in the “Chapel Wing,” with a balcony overlooking one of the resort’s many koi ponds. The room was indeed quiet, except for in the mornings when housekeeping carts rattled by on the tiles outside and the sprinkler system turned on to water the gardens. The room had a small refrigerator instead of a minibar, which was great for storing food, leftovers and drinks, which we found very convenient.

While everything in the room was great, it was the first place we started to notice wear and tear on the property, which opened in 1991 and underwent a major renovation as recently as 2017. At some point the door handles were replaced with longer, curved handles (possibly as an ADA compliance measure?), but the raised decorative designs on the doors were not taken into account. That means our door handle didn't have a full range of motion, and the bolt didn't fully withdraw when we turned the handle from the inside. Nine times out of ten, this doesn’t matter and the door closes anyway. The tenth time, the bolt catches against the doorframe and the door stays open. We noticed this happen one time and pulled the door shut on our way out, but the second time it took a a security guard to notice it, who promptly scared the daylights out of us when he walked into the room to make sure we were ok! Other than that, we mostly noticed small things like missing tiles in the swimming pools and chipped paint on the waterslides, but nothing that interfered with our fun.

Speaking of fun, the main attraction at the resort is its network of swimming pools and hot tubs, most of which are connected by waterslides, so you can start at the top level and slide down from one level to the next, or take one long fast ride all the way to the bottom. I don’t know why some people don’t like resorts with kids, but if you’re one of them, you are not going to like this place. There is one "adults-only” pool, but it’s right in the middle of all the other pools so there are still kids walking through all the time to get between the waterslides and the guest rooms. I guess they’re just not allowed to actually get into the water. Compare that to the Hyatt Zilara, where it was someone’s full-time job to keep kids from stepping over a rope onto the “adults-only” portion of the beach.

The adults-only Hibiscus Pool

Paying for (and eating) the food

I had my partner sign up for an Aspire card before this trip, so we had a $250 American Express credit (remember: this is a cardmember year, not calendar year, benefit) to spend in addition to the $150 food and beverage credit. Plus, since she had the $70 off $350 offer on her card, if we spent a total of exactly $500 we’d end up owing just $30 after the $150 property credit, $250 Aspire resort credit, and $70 Amex Offer credit.

Based on our experience at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall in Jamaica (an all-inclusive resort, so we didn’t actually spend any money there), I assumed we’d be spending a lot more than that, so I planned to charge any amount over $350 to my own Hilton Honors Ascend American Express to trigger another $70 credit. That ended up not being the case, for two main reasons: the food at the Grand Wailea isn’t very good, so we didn’t eat very much of it, and the Grand Wailea isn’t nearly as isolated as the Zilara.

In fact, there’s a shopping mall with a pair of grocery stores (same company, but with slightly different selections) just next door, so we were able to stock up on drinks, snacks, and even things like salads and sandwiches there and pay perfectly reasonable prices. Many of the prices didn’t even seem inflated compared to prices on the mainland, and Hawaii has a state sales tax that’s less than half what we pay at home.

Ultimately, when we woke up Monday morning, we still had over $50 left to spend to get up to $500 total, but we went for a morning swim and managed to run up a bill poolside to cover the difference.

Before I go any further, let me be clear that it’s perfectly possible to spend as much as I had expected to at the Grand Wailea. Importantly, we didn’t take advantage of the four luxurious options on the property: the fine dining Humuhumunukunukuapua’a, the Sunday brunch at the Grand Dining Room Maui, the Luau, or the “sunset cabana dining” option. We also didn’t order room service, which has both a $7 delivery charge and a 20% service charge. If you do any combination of those things, you’ll have no trouble triggering as many statement credits or minimum spend requirements as you please; entrees at “Humuhumu” are between $34 and $95, and sunset cabana reservations cost between $685 and $2,235 per couple (which at least is inclusive of taxes and tip). I don’t have anything to say one way or the other about whether you should try one or all of those options, I can only say I didn’t save $8,000 on my stay in order to spend it on food and drink; I saved $8,000 on my stay because I don’t have $8,000.

With that out of the way, we did eat at three on-site restaurants:

  • Café Kula. This was our go-to for breakfast, and we also ordered one lunch and a couple dinners there, all of which were basically a mixed bag. The "avocado toast” was guacamole on stale bread and the “kale burger” was a vegetarian burger patty on a bed of raw kale leaves. On the flip side, the "Wailea burger” was the best thing I had at the resort (I ordered it again our last night just because I was tired of being disappointed), and the “wild mushroom pizza” was very weird but not in a bad way at all, and if we return I’d happily try out some of their other pizzas.

  • Bistro Molokini. We had our only sit-down dinner of the trip here, and my partner thought her tofu dish was pretty good, but the real stars were the sides of asparagus and mashed potatoes we ordered. My “Hamakua Springs Bibb Lettuce” salad was a disaster, first because they gave me the identically named salad off the regular menu instead of the vegetarian menu, which wasn’t a problem, except the chef also forgot to put avocado on it, which was literally the only ingredient costing more than $0.50 in the whole $20 dish. When I pointed this out to our server she first tried to tell me that “sometimes the chef cuts the avocado so small people don’t know it’s there," but finally had to concede that there was obviously no avocado on my salad and took it off our bill.

  • Hibiscus Pool. Our final morning we ordered some onion rings off the adults-only Hibiscus Pool menu, and not only were the onion rings pretty good, once I’d taken a look at the menu I decided it might be the best “restaurant" at the resort! On the flip side, one day at the pool I overheard a waitress enthusiastically apologizing to another guest because his burger had tomato on it, which he had asked to be left off.

And that’s the vibe I got from virtually all our interactions with staff during our stay: enthusiastically apologetic. The security guard was apologetic our door was broken, the maintenance guy was apologetic our door was broken, our waitress was apologetic my salad was broken, the bartender was apologetic my cup was broken, the morning of our departure the housekeeper was apologetic for barging in on us (the one time I almost lost my temper pointing out the privacy sign on the door to her), and everyone worked hard to try to make things right.

And of course everyone was apologetic on our last night when a nearby transformer exploded and wiped out power to the entire area, with the convenient exception of the Grand Wailea’s Chapel Wing, where we were staying. When we walked up to the lobby bar for a nightcap we discovered folks were making the most of it, and the hotel was accommodating everyone with some portable emergency lighting equipment, seen here:

Desperate times = desperate measures

A note on transportation

I bounced around several times when deciding on what to do for transportation on the island. My preliminary plan was to rent a car for our entire stay at the airport and pay for parking at the hotel. Ultimately things ended up a lot simpler than that:

  • I paid $49.50 for a “shared” SpeediShuttle reservation for two from the Kahalui airport to the resort (although we were the only passengers);

  • On Friday, we paid about $34 each way to take a Lyft to and from Wailuku for the Friday Town Party;

  • On Sunday I paid $150.20 to rent a Jeep for the day from the Enterprise rental car desk at the Grand Wailea to drive up to Haleakala National Park;

  • Finally, on Monday I paid $38.13 for an Uber back to the airport.

There are two tricky things to note here. First, Lyft and Uber can drop off at the airport, but can’t pick up passengers there, so you slightly overpay for a shuttle to the Grand Wailea compared to the ride back.

Second, as convenient as it is to be able to pick up a rental car directly at the hotel, be careful when making an Enterprise reservation. The desk opens at 7:30 am, so I made a reservation for 7:30 am each morning we were there, assuming we’d only end up using one or two of the reservations. On Saturday we stopped by the desk around 9:30 am and were told they’d given our car away (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to give us a different vehicle (which I was expecting) and that they’d have to charge us $60 for the upgrade to a Jeep (which shocked me). I turned down the offer, went back to the room and changed my Sunday reservation to 9:30 am (for the same price).

Sunday morning we went by the desk at 9:30 and not only did they still have the car we reserved, but offered to upgrade us to a Jeep for $20, which I gladly accepted. I know rental agencies famously operate on slim margins, and I’m not even really upset they tried to gouge me on Saturday, but my word of warning is to make your reservation for the time you actually expect to get going in the morning, instead of the time the rental desk opens, so they don’t have an opportunity to rip you off.

One fun thing about myself I learned on this trip is that I thought I hated driving, but it turns out that was just because I’d never driven a Jeep before. They’re extremely fun.

We be wrangling

Conclusion

I hope this doesn’t sound like a “negative review” or anything like that. Our room was great, the weather was perfect the entire time we were there (until it started to drizzle on our way to the airport, just in time to help the firefighters working on the blaze started by the aforementioned transformer explosion), and we got to spend hours swimming, reading and playing in the resort’s terrific waterpark. But, we also made some obvious mistakes (“kale burger”) that hopefully this post will help readers avoid if they ever decide to check out this top-tier Hilton Honors redemption for themselves.

I’m not a tour guide, but we did spend a couple days exploring outside the resort, so I’ll try to write up a few brief suggestions for other things to consider checking out if you do find yourself at the Grand Wailea anytime soon.

Just another day in paradise

An annoying (but probably good) change to Visa gift cards from Staples.com

Like most (all?) travel hackers, I consider flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points to be the most valuable currency for hotels (World of Hyatt) and award tickets (United Mileage Plus and Southwest Rapid Rewards), and even find myself redeeming them for paid airfare periodically at 1.25 cents each through my Chase Ink Plus card.

That means it’s a no-brainer for me to spend $50,000 per cardmember year at office supply stores, to earn 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points. That’s not the only way I earn Ultimate Rewards points (I also have two Chase Freedom cards and a Freedom Unlimited), but it’s a commonsense way to make sure I have a steady stream of points coming in each month.

Staples.com Visa gift cards can no longer be activated by Blackhawk phone reps

While I stock up on prepaid debit cards at Staples and Office Depot during promotions, my city unfortunately only has one of each, and they quickly sell out, so I top up my spend with monthly purchases of $300 Visa gift cards from Staples.com.

Those cards are mailed unactivated and unusable, and for each order, a separate letter is mailed with activation codes that can be entered online or over the phone.

In my experience, those activation codes typically arrive a day or two after the physical cards, and Blackhawk has long offered a workaround if the activation codes are delayed: after verifying your identity, their phone reps were able to submit manual activation requests without the activation codes.

Sometime between the beginning of October (my last order) and this week, that process stopped working. You can still activate gift cards using their phone system, but only using the automated phone tree; there’s no longer an option to speak to a phone rep to request manual activation of cards (or anything else).

This is annoying, since I typically order 18 cards per month, and waiting for the activation codes to arrive and then manually activating them is a pretty tedious chore, especially since the website makes you complete a “captcha” for every single card you activate. I’ve spent so much time looking for traffic lights and bicycles I can’t tell them apart anymore.

The previous system was extremely vulnerable

While phone reps previously “verified” your identity before submitting activation requests, the information needed to verify your identity was delivered along with the physical gift cards: your name, mailing address, order number, and the last four digits of the cards themselves (depending on the phone rep).

That meant anyone who knew what was in the envelope (anyone who knows what Blackhawk sells) could steal the cards and call in to have them activated using only the information in the gift card package itself.

It’s possible this threat was finally realized, or that enough such thefts actually occurred, and that led Blackhawk to make the change. It’s also possible, and perhaps more likely, that they decided to lay off some of their call center workers and needed to reduce the number and type of calls they handled.

Conclusion: probably for the best

If you manufacture a lot of spend, wasting a day or three waiting for activation codes to arrive can feel like an eternity, and I was definitely frustrated trying to find a way to talk to a phone rep until I realized the option had been completely removed.

But the frustration of not being able to immediately liquidate cards pales in comparison to the frustration of trying to get your money back if one or more orders of gift cards were stolen and liquidated.

Having gift cards and activation codes arrive on separate days is a fairly primitive form of one-factor identification (you have to be able to check the mail at the same address on two separate days), but since the previous system was zero-factor identification, on balance I think the inconvenience isn’t worth complaining about too much.

On the other hand, if your activation codes never arrive, then the inability to speak with a phone rep to resolve the issue is going to get very annoying, very quickly.

Product review: what is a Torro bracelet and who wants one?

Welcome back, folks. The past few weeks have been extremely annoying and frustrating for me, which was not helped in the slightest by my birthday falling in the middle of last week. However, that’s all behind us now, so I’m moving my birthday to this week and to celebrate I’m back in the saddle, grabbing the blogging bull by the horns, wrangling some fresh content, and no doubt additional rodeo metaphors as well.

The 21st century economy is a strange, dreary place

Back in October, I got an e-mail from “Houston Golden,” “Co-Founder at BAMF Media and Head of PR for Torro Bracelets,” offering to send me something called a “Torro bracelet” to review. I get a surprising amount of unsolicited e-mails like this given how small the site is, but who am I to turn down some free blog content? So I said I’d be happy to take one of these gadgets and write a review, although first I did warn him the review would be honest.

A few strange e-mail exchanges led me to wonder, what is BAMF Media and why is its co-founder also the head of PR for a jewelry company? The answer, you may have already guessed, is that BAMF Media is a marketing company and I assume its co-founder is the “head of PR” for all their clients.

So if you want to buy a white label product from China, stamp it with your company’s logo, and market it in the United States, you hire BAMF Media to engage in some “PR hacking” to make sure everyone in the “BAMF influencer program” tells their followers to go buy your product.

I find this entire ecosystem unspeakably depressing, but on the other hand I have a giant stack of drained gift cards by my desk so I’m not exactly in a position to judge.

Torro is a product you never knew you needed because you don’t

I can be a bit slow, so it took me a little while browsing the Torro website for my free item to realize what the product actually is, and I had to confirm it with the founder (and I assume sole employee) to make sure I understood.

So, deep breath: Torro bracelets are USB charging cables. But they’re USB cables you can wrap around your wrist. That’s it. Take a look:

The model I selected is the “Penny II” (sadly seems to have since sold out) in the medium size, and you can see it’s a bit tight on my extremely narrow wrist, so I’d suggest ordering a large no matter how small you think your wrists are.

Torro bracelets aren’t even very good charging cables

If you squint just right you can kind of see the logic behind the product.

If you’re going out on the town and don’t want to carry a bag, you might find a regular-length charging cable cumbersome to bring with you, but since we all live on our mobile devices these days, you might also reasonably worry about your phone dying, for example if you plan to call a car in order to get home.

Likewise, if you’re traveling (they reached out to me specifically to describe this as a “travel hack”) you might get robbed and lose your regular charging cable, and need to power up your phone in order to cancel your credit cards or whatever.

Which is why it’s notable that Torro bracelets aren’t very good charging cables. There’s probably a more technical way to put it, but the phone end of the cable is both stubby and bulky, like Danny DeVito. It literally does not fit into the charging hole of my iPhone case. Here’s a comparison with my normal charging cable (Torro on the left in both pictures):

It’s both too wide to fit into the charging gap on my case, and too short to reach the charging port on my phone from outside the case. Now, some cases are easy enough to pop off it might not matter one way or the other to you. But if your product is only supposed to do one thing, you’d hope it could at least do that one thing with a minimum of fuss.

They also sent me an external battery, which seems to work ok, although unlike my Limefuel battery (an excellent product that does not seem to be manufactured anymore) it doesn’t have any way of indicating the remaining charge.

So, who wants it?

I told BAMF Media that if they sent me two bracelets I’d do a reader giveaway for the second, but they didn’t seem to think that was a good enough “PR hack,” so I just have the one. However, I’m not using it, so if anyone wants it, wish me happy birthday in the comments and include your best throwaway e-mail address and I’ll pick somebody to bestow it on. Free USPS shipping within the United States! Terms and conditions don’t apply.

My version of the co-branded paradox

I was listening to the latest episode of the new Milenomics² podcast, which everyone should subscribe to, and sign up for bonus Patreon content from, and the hosts brought up what they call the “co-branded paradox.” By this they mean the counter-intuitive way that even if you like staying at Hyatt properties, or like flying on Delta, your best bet for a credit card to use on everyday spend is probably not a Hyatt or Delta co-branded credit card.

That’s for the simple reason that while those cards may offer other worthwhile benefits, they actually earn points at a lower rate than other available options. A Chase World of Hyatt credit card may be worth carrying for the annual free night, but for non-bonused spend you’d be better off using a Freedom Unlimited card, which earns 50% more Ultimate Rewards points. At restaurants, the World of Hyatt card earns 2 points per dollar, but so does the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which allows you to transfer your points to Hyatt or any of Chase’s other transfer partners.

Likewise, you might want to carry a Delta Platinum card for the annual companion ticket or to take advantage of free checked bags, but that card only earns 1 SkyMile per dollar spent, while a no-annual fee Amex EveryDay earns 1.2 Membership Rewards points everywhere when you use the card 20 times per month (and the $95 EveryDay Preferred earns 1.5 points everywhere when you use it 30 times per month).

This is even more true in the case of products like the Chase IHG Rewards Club credit cards, which earn just 1 point per dollar spent on unbonused purchases: the more you value IHG Rewards Club points, the less you should be willing to spend on their co-branded credit cards, for the simple reason that a simple 2% cash back credit card earns almost 3 points per dollar, given that points can be purchased year-round for 0.7 cents or less.

All this produces a simple conclusion: get co-branded credit cards if you like their benefits, but don’t use them for actual purchases, where you can earn more points, more valuable points, or both using other products.

This is fine as far as it goes, but I actually think the logic of the co-branded paradox can be taken one step further.

Put everyday purchases on the card that earns the least useful rewards

What listening to the Milenomics podcast got me thinking about was the fact that most frequent travelers are usually already optimizing their earning of their most useful loyalty currencies. If you’re a paid business traveler that likes flying on United, you’re already earning United miles every time you fly. The fact that you like flying United shouldn’t encourage you to earn more United miles because your paid travel is already taking care of that. Likewise if you’re spending 55 nights a year at Hyatt properties for work, you’re likely already earning somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 points per year, plus two annual free nights (at the 30-night and 55-night thresholds) and any points earned from seasonal promotions.

To me, this is the real co-branded paradox: if your paid travel and manufactured spend are already optimized around the most useful rewards currencies, then your everyday spend should be going to the least useful rewards currencies, the ones that are nice to have lying around but that you don’t count on for your major travel needs.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa. If you’re like me, you don’t stay at Choice Hotels properties very often. But when you do want to stay at a Choice Hotel, you can get terrific value from having a handful of Choice Privileges points lying around.

  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. This is another card that doesn’t make any sense to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in spend on, but if you do like to occasionally ride on Amtrak, you might like to have 20 or 30 thousand points kicking around so you don’t have to pay cash for what would be an especially high-value redemption, like 2.9 cent-per-point long-haul sleeper accommodations.

  • US Bank Radisson Rewards cards. I don’t carry any of these cards anymore because, with the exception of the Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago, I have mostly found Radisson properties to be trash heaps. However, if you do still carry any of these cards due to their anniversary point bonanzas, you might also consider using them for everyday spend, earning as they do 5 points per dollar on unbonused spend.

Conclusion

Of course in one sense I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek: obviously you shouldn’t prioritize earning less-useful currencies over more-useful currencies. But this is another way of expressing my long-standing observation that people really are inclined to earn too much, and redeem too little, of the currencies they consider most valuable. If there’s one good thing about the end of the Starwood Preferred Guest program it will be that we won’t have to listen to people complain that Starpoints are “too valuable to redeem” ever again!

If you’re maxing out a couple of Ink Plus cards at office supply stores every year and sitting on a million Ultimate Rewards points already, then I think it can make perfect sense to put away the Freedom Unlimited card when you go out to eat and pulling out something a little more exotic. Not because Amtrak Guest Rewards points are more valuable than Ultimate Rewards points in the abstract, but because they might be more valuable to you at the frontier you are personally operating at.