Simplifying and automating debit card transactions

Last month I wrote about using Amazon Allowance to generate credit and debit transactions, like those required by Wells Fargo to waive monthly maintenance fees, by Bank of America's Better Balance Rewards card to ensure you receive your quarterly bonuses, and by Consumers Credit Union to trigger the high interest rates on their Rewards Checking accounts.

I like Amazon Allowances and I use Amazon Allowances, but there are reasons you might prefer not to use Amazon Allowances: you might not do enough shopping on Amazon to justify buying Amazon gift credit, or on the contrary, you might value your relationship with Amazon too much to entangle it in your extracurricular activities.

With that in mind, here are two other options for, if not automating, at least simplifying your monthly transaction requirements.

Evolve Money

Interest in Evolve Money has dwindled since they added fees for transactions funded by prepaid debit cards, but the site still exists, and they still have a large database of billers that's well worth exploring. For example, I'm able to make contributions to my Utah Educational Savings Plan account, which is in my opinion one of the better 529 Educational Savings Plans available — and, even better, it's not administered by Upromise Investments!

Importantly for our purposes, Evolve Money charges a flat 3% fee on credit card and "small bank" debit card transactions, rather than the more typical 2.9% + $0.30 fee charged by many payments processors. That means a $1 charge incurs a fee of exactly 3 cents. Since you are allowed to make 4 debit card-funded payments per month, per biller, if you can find 3 eligible billers in their database you can generate 12 transactions per month at a total cost of $0.36.

Unfortunately I cannot seem to set up recurring payments using Evolve Money, but since payments can be scheduled in advance you can just set aside 5 minutes per month to schedule your 10-12 monthly debit transactions. Likewise, a monthly $5 Better Balance Rewards payment would cost all of $0.15 in processing fees.

Bluebird, Serve, and Target Prepaid REDCard loads

American Express's full-service prepaid cards actually feature a powerful recurring payment service: you're able to schedule recurring transactions to move funds from a debit card to your prepaid account, as well as from any credit card on the American Express network (some American Express-issued credit cards do not earn rewards on such transactions, however).

Unfortunately, as with Evolve Money, I am no longer able to create new so-called "scheduled add" transactions. What I am able to do is edit existing scheduled add transactions and change the funding source to a new credit or debit card.

So on the Bluebird account I manage, I had three recurring "scheduled add" plans already created, and was able to change them to set up daily $0.50 funding transactions for the first 12 days of the next 3 months. That's not exactly automatic (I'll have to move the dates forward every 3 months), but it also doesn't take up too much mental bandwidth.

Conclusion

Frequent Miler and Matt at Saverocity have both raised the question lately, in their own ways, of how much cognitive space they're willing to devote to "smaller" deals when they could instead be pursuing big fish, and I think it's an absolutely essential conversation to have.

In my own travel hacking practice, I tend to err on the side of doing more, rather than less. I continue to pursue a number of "small fry," like Visa Buxx cards, which offer a small amount of unbonused spend each month. But I'm also eager to automate or simplify as many elements of my manufactured spend as possible, so I can devote more cognitive bandwidth to exploring new deals — and sharing them with my readers!

Recurring, small debit card transactions are precisely the kind of nuisance that can take up a disproportionate amount of attention, and are the kind of thing that are essential to simplify or automate if at all possible.

Ben Schlappig's hobby has nothing to do with mine

I don't know Ben Schlappig, although I've been in the same, large room with him a few times. But Ben has been the subject of a recent media blitz (Rolling Stone, Nightline, the Economist) which has upset a number of people I do know for the attention it has drawn to travel hacking.

PFDigest, for example, describes the Rolling Stone article as putting "another nail in the coffin," while TravelBloggerBuzz asserts about the Economist article and Nightline segment that "each one of these PR stunts hurts the hobby."

Ben Schlappig's hobby is buying remaindered premium-cabin seats at deep discounts

Ben Schlappig is a rich weirdo.

And God bless him! Many immigrant families take multiple generations to attain the middle class, and here he is: the son of immigrants, buying Florida condos, living out of luxury hotels, and subjected to the affection of fans and flight attendants all over the world.

But needless to say, virtually no actual travel hackers are the proprietors of popular blogs where they're able to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars selling credit cards to unsuspecting newbies while farming out their award booking business to independent contractors.

It's certainly an interesting fact that wealthy people with knowledge of loyalty programs can buy premium-cabin seats at a deep discount compared to their unknowledgeable peers.

But it has nothing to do with me.

My hobby is travel hacking

While buying discounted premium-cabin seats is a hobby, it isn't my hobby. My hobby is traveling, and figuring out how to pay as little as possible for my trips.

Before the site was rebranded, Travel Codex was called "Hack My Trip," which I always liked the sound of. A trip to me is more than a seat in a premium cabin: it's hotels, museums, restaurants, churches, universities, people, and more.

So I plan dozens of trips per year, often to visit friends and family, sometimes to visit new cities, sometimes just to take advantage of Bank of America's underrated "Museums on Us" program.

And since I'm the opposite of a rich weirdo (a poor weirdo?), my goal is to spend as little money as possible paying for the trips I want to take. Furthermore, those trips are often inflexible! I know when my brother's graduation is going to be, so if I want to be there, I need to be there on time. I know when my partner's work conferences are, so if I want to go, I need to be on flights that get me there while they're taking place.

And that's the experience of almost everyone I talk to in the travel hacking community. With limited vacation time or fixed school schedules, most people need to get where they actually want to go, and they hope to use travel hacking techniques to get there as cheaply as possible.

There is no reason for people like me to care when Lufthansa opens their premium cabin seats for partner award redemptions — unless I actually want to fly somewhere on Lufthansa!

And that's the difference between Ben Schlappig's hobby and mine: he cares even when he has nowhere to be and no reason to be there.

I'll worry when the mainstream media pays attention to real travel hacking

A photogenic, tortured protagonist. A whiff of scandal. Shots of first class cabins and luxury hotel rooms. That's the kind of story anyone can understand, and it's the kind of story the mainstream media eats up.

Merchant coding? Adverse action? ChexSystems? Maybe you'll read about them in trade publications, but what would Rolling Stone, Nightline, or the Economist have to say about them? And how many of their readers would care?

The fact is, most of what actual travel hackers do simply puts us out on the long tail of loyalty programs; we may be unprofitable, but we don't cost more than the profit generated by the vast bulk of customers who behave according to expectations. For every $7.90 in profit a travel hacker makes buying $2.10 Ticketmaster tickets, how many people buy $50 tickets instead? $100 tickets? Of course they're saving money on tickets they would buy anyway, but they're also generating a profit for American Express that, ultimately, more than offsets ours.

Conclusion

Naturally, any individual travel hacking technique is subject to more pressure the more people who take advantage of it, and consequently there are techniques which travel hackers prefer to receive as little publicity as possible. But travel hacking as a whole is too diverse a spectrum of behavior for the banks, airlines, hotels, and merchants to decide to bring it to an end simply because of "too much exposure."

So as long as Ben Schlappig is "revealing" to the media that he books last-minute premium-cabin seats with his Ultimate Rewards points, I'm not going to lose any sleep over it.

Retiring to hotels: good idea, or great idea?

After a prominent miles-and-points blogger cast off the chains of the rental housing market I wrote a light-hearted piece about manufacturing enough spend to, with the help of the Club Carlson last-night-free benefit, spend 30 days in one of their Category 1 properties.

Since that benefit can no longer be used on new reservations, I thought I'd revisit the topic, but cast a wider net this time: how many points would be needed to live in each chain's cheapest properties year-round? In other words, should you retire to hotels?

Starwood Preferred Guest

As a rule I don't find Starwood Preferred Guest's co-branded American Express card to be a great way to manufacture points for hotel stays (it's great for manufacturing Alaska Mileage Plan and American AAdvantage miles). The exception is Category 1 and 2 hotels, where weekday nights cost 3,000 and 4,000 Starpoints and weekend nights cost 2,000 and 3,000 Starpoints, respectively.

That puts the weekly cost of a Category 1 stay at 19,000 Starpoints. Manufacturing those Starpoints has an opportunity cost of $380 — that's how much you'd earn using a 2% cash back card, instead. So what can we get for a little over $1,520 in monthly rent?

Well, there are a lot of Category 1 properties in China and India. Since we're retiring, beaches should be considered, like the Four Points by Sheraton Puntacana Village in the Dominican Republic, where $1,520 is little over a 50% discount for the dates I checked in September. The Sheraton Ambassador Hotel in Monterrey is "within walking distance of the city center." But the winner for me is the Sheraton Catania Hotel & Conference Center in Sicily, which actually looks extremely comfortable. It's a bit of a hike to the city center, but it's important to stay active in retirement.

Retirement savings: 912,000 Starpoints annually ($18,240 in imputed redemption value).

Hilton HHonors

Unlike Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors their elites the fifth night free on all award stays — including Category 1 stays. That makes five-night stays at Category 1 properties cost just 20,000 HHonors points, or $3,333 in manufactured spend at gas stations or grocery stores.

With 5-night Category 1 redemptions having an imputed redemption value of $66, our monthly rent will be 120,000 HHonors points or $400 in foregone cash back. But what does that get us?

Hilton's Category 1 properties actually include a few Hiltons, like the Hilton Alexandria King's Ranch and Hilton Hurghada Resort, so if you're really committed to Peter Thomas Roth bath products those are options. In Poland you have your choice of the Hampton by Hilton Krakow and Hilton Garden Inn Rzeszow, while over the border in Russia you can stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Ufa Riverside or Hampton by Hilton Samara. Personally, I'm leaning towards the Hampton by Hilton Panama, which seems to have a pretty good location in downtown Panama City. $400 per month is a roughly 85% discount off retail for the dates I checked, and in fact on the dates I checked HHonors redemptions gave an astonishing 2.17 cents per HHonors point.

Retirement savings: 1,440,000 HHonors points annually ($4,800 in imputed redemption value).

Marriott Rewards

Marriott offers the fifth night free on all redemptions, even for non-elites, so five-night Category 1 stays cost 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.

Since Marriott Rewards points cost one cent each when purchased with flexible Ultimate Rewards points, but 2 cents each in foregone cash back when manufactured using a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card, we're realistically looking at 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month, or $1,800 in monthly rent. Are there any properties that would make that redemption worthwhile?

The Courtyard Kazan Kremlin has a nice location right on Karl Marx Street, but $1,800 will rent you a lot of house in Kazan, and I suspect that's true of most of Marriott's Category 1 properties.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Marriott Rewards points annually ($21,600 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Hyatt Gold Passport

While Hyatt redemptions start at 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, they don't offer a fifth night free, so it'll cost us 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month to live in a Category 1 property — a $1,500 value.

The Hyatt Regency Kuantan Resort in Malaysia looks superb, as does the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, and neither is so isolated that you'd be stuck buying food in the hotel, plus Hyatt Diamond elites would receive free breakfast at either property. The Hyatt Regency Bali is currently being renovated, but when it reopens it should be beautiful — if it's still a Category 1 property!

Retirement savings: 1,800,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points annually ($18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

IHG Rewards

Here the situation is even bleaker, since Category 1 properties cost 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night, and there's no fifth night free benefit. Instead you can chase the 5,000-point PointsBreaks list around the world, in which case the math is the same as above, since IHG Rewards is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The current PointsBreaks list includes gems like the Holiday Inn Andorra and Holiday Inn Trnava, in Slovakia.

Retirement savings: 3,600,000/1,800,000 IHG Rewards points annually ($36,000/$18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Club Carlson

Category 1 Club Carlson nights cost 9,000 Gold Points, or $1,800 in manufactured spend per night. At a $36 nightly imputed redemption value, our monthly rent will be a little over $1,000. Not as bad as Marriott, Hyatt, or IHG, but also not great.

The Park Inn by Radisson Budapest (where I have a reservation next June) has a great location, and I've enjoyed all the Park Inns I've stayed at so far. There are two Radisson Blu properties, the Radisson Blu Resort, El Quseir in Egypt and Radisson Blu Hotel, Mersin in Turkey. Both are great deals at $36 per night. I like the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, San Jose, Costa Rica, since it includes breakfast, but it's not terribly close to downtown San Jose.

Retirement savings: 3,240,000 Gold Points annually ($12,960 in imputed redemption value).

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges hotels start at 6,000 points, which can theoretically be earned for as little as 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you're able to transfer Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges. At $20 per night we can figure $600 in monthly rent, the second-lowest value so far, after Hilton HHonors. To get that value month after month, however, you'd need to first rail run your Amtrak elite status up to Select Executive status, which allows you to transfer an unlimited number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners.

Choice Privileges doesn't share a consolidated list of their properties by point cost, so it takes a little bit of work on AwardMapper to find 6000-point properties.

In Sweden, the Quality Inn Hotel Prince Philip offers a free buffet breakfast, and $600 is a steal in famously-expensive Scandinavia. The Clarion Suites Roatan at Pineapple Villas seems like a lovely resort in Honduras, although close-in availability was spotty for the dates I checked. Personally, I'd probably splurge the extra $200 monthly and move into the Clarion Congress Hotel Prague, an 8,000-point property.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Choice Privileges points ($7,200 in Ultimate Rewards points, with Amtrak Select Executive status).

Conclusion

This was a fun exercise, but there are a few problems which make it impractical to permanently retire to hotels, as opposed to moving into one for a month or two. First, you face the problem of award availability: at chains that don't guarantee standard room availability, you might be stuck paying cash for a hotel room if award availability suddenly dries up. Second, over the longer term you face the risk of devaluations: properties themselves can move up or down in award categories and new categories can be introduced, but rewards programs also sometimes go through wholesale devaluations, for example shifting to a revenue-based redemption model that would leave you stuck with much less valuable points.

Still, if I ever need to spend a month in Krakow, I know where I'll be spending it!

[updated] Automate Twitter American Express offers the (really) easy way

[updated 8/2/15: apparently a number of people didn't read the Devil's Advocate post I linked to closely enough, and did not follow the instructions there, so I'll repeat the relevant ones here. When configuring your Twitterfeed account:

"You’ll also want to change a few settings by clicking on that 'Advanced Settings' link at the bottom. This will open a whole slew of options, but you only need to adjust two of them. Unclick the 'Post link' checkbox so that it’s empty, and change the 'Post Content' option to “description only.'"

By doing this, you won't be mentioning my Twitter account every time you tweet out an Amex Sync offer.

Thanks.]

Hat tips go to William Charles, Devil's Advocate, and Amit Agarwal at Digital Inspirations for this post.

Introduction

In the last few weeks there have been a flurry of posts about methods of automating enrollment in American Express offers available through Twitter.

All the methods have one thing in common: they require you to open separate Twitter accounts for each American Express card you have, and sync each Twitter account to a single American Express card, as described here.

One method, described by William Charles at Doctor of Credit, is to set up an additional, separate account with the service IFTTT for each of your newly linked Twitter accounts, then retweet each tweet from the Twitter account @OffersBot that includes the hashtag "#available".

That's a pretty good method, but involves a lot of brute force and a lot of new IFTTT accounts that you'll only ever use for a single purpose.

A second, more elegant method, described by Devil's Advocate, involves:

  1. Setting up a single IFTTT account linked to a "master" Twitter account that tweets out all available American Express offers;
  2. Creating an RSS feed of that Twitter account using the technique described by Amit Agarwal;
  3. Then linking all your "slave" Twitter accounts to that RSS feed using Twitterfeed.

However, since the RSS feed created in step 2 is public, there's actually no need for you to create your own.

Feel free to use my RSS feed to automate your American Express offers

I set up one of my Twitter accounts as a "master" account, which all of my other American Express-linked Twitter accounts automatically retweet. You can use it too!

To be clear, you'll still need to set up unique Twitter accounts for each one of your American Express cards.

But once you've done that, you can skip to creating a Twitterfeed account and using the URL of my RSS feed, as described by Devil's Advocate in this post (skip down to "Option #3: Twitterfeed."

Once you've opened a Twitterfeed account, use the following URL as the "Blog URL or RSS Feed URL:"

https://script.googleusercontent.com/macros/echo?user_content_key=N_k_NWvLE-yMX85cDVGchXEJ1AWmYB-Id1fkw7MKPMd1IbYDyg568VEjW-JDjrzjEOwCYGopqhEBPk7bZMUWqkAYnwADx9pDOJmA1Yb3SEsKFZqtv3DaNYcMrmhZHmUMi80zadyHLKCzniYmIAKERg17xiLfYcbFU4hYwYLUc2VoAPxoDu5zV7-AlymaS3_oxWSqwvZphMa1UvnaGu-CRLuzKH9hWLZv2DJBNgH3uNGbUlc-DMMiftPKuzvYGGE2o00lmP9351dL7y6l43CLNy40VzKAMHpU&lib=Mn4xCJMdCZdQdN_YOKukP6Lfh5YOtzaZT

Then follow the rest of the steps Devil's Advocate lists, and you'll be all set.

One note: Devil's Advocate doesn't make clear that you need to repeatedly sign in, validate, add, and sign out of each of your Twitter accounts while still within "Step 2" of the setup process. It's time-consuming, but not too hard as long as you have all your Twitter passwords handy.

Conclusion

I had fun hacking together my automated Twitter sync machine, but I understand that not everyone has the time and patience to set up their own. Hopefully those readers will find this streamlined method easy enough to implement.

Note that if you choose to do this you are giving me and, vicariously, @OffersBot, control over your American Express-linked Twitter accounts! This is another excellent reason to never, ever use your actual personal or professional Twitter accounts for American Express offers, although an even better reason is that it drives me, and everyone else you know, absolutely crazy.

How does the Club Carlson annual free night benefit work?

Introduction

On June 1, the US Bank Club Carlson co-branded credit cards underwent a serious devaluation: the last-night-free benefit was eliminated, and replaced with a single, domestic award night each year cardholders spend $10,000 on the credit cards.

I wrote in April that I would keep the card, spending exactly $10,000 on the card in order to earn 50,000 Gold Points from spend, 40,000 anniversary Gold Points, and an annual free night, all of which I'd redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel Chicago for a long weekend.

Then Club Carlson devalued again, lifting many of their 50,000-point properties into the 70,000-point tier, including the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, Chicago and Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia. That meant my 90,000 annual Gold Points would barely cover a second night at those properties, let alone a third.

Since I never actually received any new terms and conditions for the annual free night benefit, yesterday I decided to call US Bank and find out how the annual free night benefit actually works.

The annual free night benefit was implemented in an obvious, but disastrous, way

The annual free night eCertificate is awarded on your first, post-devaluation anniversary, if you spent $10,000 in the preceding 12 months. That means that if, like me, you paid your annual fee in April, you won't receive your first annual domestic free night certificate until April, 2016.

This is a terrible way to reward high-spending customers, since it detaches the reward (a free night) from the spend, which could have occurred as many as 12 months earlier.

I cancelled my Club Carlson Business Rewards card

Even after the dual devaluation, I fully expected to keep my US Bank Club Carlson credit card. It still earned 5 Gold Points per dollar spent, it still offered 40,000 anniversary Gold Points, and spending $10,000 on the card would get me an additional free domestic award night each year.

But I haven't spent a dime on the card since May, and once I found out that I won't see my annual free night certificate until next April, I lost what was left of my interest in the card.

Foregoing $200 in cash back on $10,000 in manufactured spend, plus paying a $60 annual fee, for 2 nights in Chicago or Philadelphia doesn't make any sense in a world where Hilton and Hyatt points are so easy to come by; I would have to start planning my Club Carlson redemptions years in advance, even while my Hilton and Ultimate Rewards accounts are being continually replenished.

I'm getting some kind of annual fee refund

It's been over 3 months since I paid my annual fee, so I don't expect a refund of the full $60 annual fee, but I asked my phone agent and he said that I'd receive some kind of refund check as soon as the annual fee refund hits my account.

I couldn't product change to the much better Business Edge Cash Rewards card

Likewise in April, I wrote that a phone representative had told me I could product change my Club Carlson card to a Business Edge Cash Rewards card. Once I decided to cancel my Club Carlson card, I asked whether that was possible, and my agent yesterday told me it was not — I'd have to apply for a new card. Needless to say, I passed.

Conclusion

The best case scenario for the dual devaluation was folks who had account anniversaries after June 1 and who could fit $10,000 in manufactured spend in before that anniversary. They got to maximize the last-night-free benefit, run up spend one last time, then get another 40,000 Gold Points and a free domestic night certificate.

As for me, I don't trust Club Carlson enough to keep the card, let alone put any spend on it, knowing that anything could happen between now and April, 2016.

How to glamp right. Hint: don't be me

I'm still recovering from a 3-night glamping adventure, so no serious miles-and-points analysis today. Instead, here are my thoughts on what you should keep in mind when going glamping for the first time.

Introduction

I grew up in Western Montana, which means I grew up camping. Camping meant driving (as kids) or hiking (as adults) as far as you could before sundown, leaving just enough time to throw up tents and start a fire before having a quick dinner, telling some jokes, and turning in for the night. Space and carrying capacity being limited, you packed exactly what you planned to eat for each meal, each day in the wilderness — plus maybe a few protein bars.

So when my friends invited me camping, that's more or less what I expected. It turns out Madeline Island is a fully-developed resort community that happens to have a state park where camping is permitted.

Things I did wrong

Here's a quick rundown of the things I did wrong on this glamping adventure:

  • Pillows. When you're hiking into camp, you bring a sleeping bag with a padded top — a pillow would take up an impossible amount of space. When you're glamping, you drive right into the campsite, and can fill the whole car with pillows if you like. After the first night, I ended up sleeping in the car since it was more comfortable than lying flat on my back on the gravel ground of the campsite.
  • Sports equipment. When you go glamping in a resort community, there are community amenities like tennis courts and softball fields. Since I've been teaching my partner tennis this summer, the trip would have been a lot more fun if we'd brought some rackets and balls. Check ahead of time what amenities are available near your glampsite.
  • Bathing gear. Needless to say, when camping in Western Montana your only chance at a bath is a very quick dip in the nearest (ice-cold, glacier-fed) river. Our glampsite had running water and showers, but it didn't occur to me to bring towels. Or shampoo. Or soap. Remember: I thought we were going camping!
  • Firestarters. On the night my partner and I got the campfire going, it took us hours to carefully coax the wood up until it was finally hot enough to cook on. When our friends started the fire, they put some prefabricated fuel cubes in the fire and lit them, which only took a few minutes. Do that instead.

Things I did right

Having said that, I got a few things right:

  • Way too much food. Rather than planning each meal in advance, we went on a shopping spree beforehand buying both the stuff we wanted to cook over the campfire and a variety of snacks that we knew we'd eat eventually. This was a great move, since when glamping the urgency of coordinating meals is much lower, and you may end up needing more snacks between meals.
  • Camping uniform. Since I wasn't planning to shower, I picked a pretty simple camping uniform: long underwear, a pair of shorts, and a long-sleeved, lightweight shirt. It kept me mostly bite-free from disease-carrying insects, and worry-free from getting dirt and grass stains, since they were basically my workout clothes.
  • Reading material. Just like when camping, the days in camp are long and boring. Bring everything you can think of to read. Stock up on podcasts. Download movies. You may think you're there to enjoy nature's beauty, but when the sun rises at 5 AM and sets at 9 PM, it's unlikely you're going to spend every daylight hour communing with woodland creatures.

Conclusion

This trip was not exactly like anything I'd done before. I've stayed at relatively luxurious guesthouses in the national parks of California and Alaska, and I've gone camping in the wilderness areas of Western Montana. But the idea of combining showers and flush toilets with tents and sleeping bags on the ground positively baffled me.

Still, while I probably wouldn't drive 6 hours in each direction to do it again, I'll say I'm glad I gave it a shot.

Thoughts towards earning domestic airline miles as cheaply as possible

[For reasons I cannot begin to understand, I am camping far from civilization this week. I have a couple posts scheduled, but won't be participating as actively as usual in the comments or on Twitter.]

Last week I received polite notification from Suntrust that my services as a customer would no longer be required, which inspired this post.

My simple heuristic for booking air travel

When booking air travel, I usually follow variations of the following simple decision-making heuristic. First, I ask...:

  1. How much are paid airfares? If American- or Delta-operated flights are near the top of a Flexpoint redemption band, I'll redeem Flexpoints for paid, mileage-earning airfares in order to credit them to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. If American- or Delta-operated flights are less than $300 or so, I'll redeem Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each for paid, mileage-earning airfares. If neither of those are true, I ask...
  2. Is there Delta low-level availability? Since for a little over a year I've been able to manufacture SkyMiles at such a trivial cost, Delta low-level availability will almost always offer me the cheapest out-of-pocket cost. If there isn't Delta low-level availability, I ask...
  3. Is there American low-level availability? Since I can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways for cheap short-haul flights, and get preferred seating with my Alaska Airlines MVP Gold 75K status, American is often a convenient and even comfortable way to travel. For the longer flights that make Avios redemptions impractical, I can use the Alaska Airlines miles I still have left over from the days of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card.

Those three simple questions cover the vast majority of my air travel needs.

No more cheap Delta and Alaska miles; what next?

With my Alaska Airlines debit card closed along with everyone else's, and my Suntrust card retired a little ahead of schedule, I no longer have access to unlimited, virtually free domestic airline miles.

That got me thinking that it might be worth doing a little math on the cheapest way to earn redeemable domestic airline miles through manufactured spend.

  • United Mileage Plus. United is in an interesting position, since it's a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. The Chase Ink Plus (and Sapphire Preferred) cards offer an unusual dual value proposition: Ultimate Rewards points are both worth 1 cent each and also entitle the cardholder to buy United miles for 1 cent each. Many readers don't like it when I draw attention to this dual functionality, but that doesn't keep it from being true: the ability to redeem Ultimate Rewards points for cash means you face a tradeoff between cash and Mileage Plus miles. That creates the following dynamic: if you value United miles at between 1 and 1.25 cents each, you are best off redeeming your Ultimate Rewards points for paid airfare at 1.25 cents each; if you value United miles at between 1.25 and roughly 1.5 cents each, you're best off transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United; and if you value United miles at more than 1.5 cents each, it may start to make sense to sign up for a Chase United Club card, which earns 1.5 United miles per dollar spent, depending on how much unbonused spend you're willing to manufacture with the card. Here's a chart which illustrates the principle:

In this chart, every dollar you spend above the "Breakeven spend" point generates profit, having already paid off the card's annual fee with the Club card's "Excess value."

The key is that whether you like it or not, you're buying Mileage Plus miles for 1 cent each when you transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United.

  • American AAdvantage. This one's simple: since no credit card earns more than 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent, the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest is the cheapest way to earn AAdvantage miles through manufactured spend: it earns 1.25 AAdvantage miles per dollar spent when you transfer Starpoints to American in increments of 20,000 Starpoints.
  • Alaska Mileage Plan. As above, so below. No (currently-available) cards earn bonus Mileage Plan miles, so Starwood Preferred Guest transfers offer the best earning rate at 1.25 Mileage Plan miles per dollar.
  • Delta SkyMiles. Here we can get some more traction, since SkyMiles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a 1-to-1 ratio. The cheapest option depends on your ability to buy and liquidate prepaid Visa debit cards at gas stations. If you have access to unlimited gas station manufactured spend, the $95 Amex EveryDay Preferred card gives 3 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations (when you make more than 30 purchases during your statement cycle). If you don't have access to gas station manufactured spend, the $175 Premier Rewards Gold card offers 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at grocery stores. Both are better values than the $195 American Express Delta Platinum or $450 Delta Reserve cards, unless you don't have access to either gas station or grocery store manufactured spend. In that case, the slight difference between the 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar (at $25,000 and $50,000 in spend) earning rate of the Platinum card and 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar (at $30,000 and $60,000 in spend) rate of the Reserve card usually makes the Platinum card the better bet, unless you're gunning for Delta Medallion elite status.

Conclusion

Now that my fountain of Delta miles has dried up, I'll likely rely more and more on Flexpoints (for more expensive flights) and Ultimate Rewards points (for cheaper ones) when booking domestic travel and international economy travel.

The ability of airline miles to offer out-sized value when booking international premium cabin travel is often exaggerated (ignoring things like availability constraints), but it's not a fabrication: there really are trips where miles, when earned cheaply enough, offer a much greater value than equivalent flights booked using rewards currencies like Flexpoints, Arrival+ miles, or Ultimate Rewards points.

So with those flights in mind, I'll continue building up modest balances in a variety of domestic rewards programs, while always remembering that the least valuable mile is the one I don't redeem.

Can current cardholders get one more TripIt Pro subscription from Barclaycard Arrival+?

[For reasons I cannot begin to understand, I am camping far from civilization this week. I have a couple posts scheduled, but won't be participating as actively as usual in the comments or on Twitter.]

A few months back the free TripIt Pro subscription I received through my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard expired. I reached out to Barclaycard on Twitter to ask how to renew my subscription, and they told me to "log into the website and from the ‘Account Summary’ page click on the ‘Tripit Pro’ link to activate," then gave me a unique code to use instead of entering my credit card information.

Being lazy and not getting any particular value from TripIt Pro, I didn't act on this information until last week, when the Arrival+ devaluation was made official and free TripIt Pro subscriptions were explicitly discontinued.

Never being one to pay for a benefit I don't use, I logged into my TripIt account and entered the unique code I'd been given, which instantly upgraded my account to TripIt Pro.

The TripIt Pro benefit has been removed from my online account

As indicated by Barclaycard's Twitter team, before the devaluation, "TripIt Pro" was a benefit on the "account summary" page of my Barclaycard Arrival+ card account. Now it's gone.

Current cardholders should still be eligible for free TripIt Pro subscriptions

Since the devaluation goes into effect on November 17 for existing cardholders, if you signed up for the card before the card was rebooted earlier this month, you should still be able to sign up for a free TripIt Pro subscription.

The easiest way is probably to do what I did, and contact @AskBCUS on Twitter to ask for your upgrade code. If you're not a Twitter user, you should be able to call in and ask for an upgrade code.

TripIt Pro is like TripIt, but with lots of text messages

TripIt allows you to organize all your upcoming trips, which I find mildly useful when assembling trips with multiple components, especially multiple airline ticket confirmation numbers. It's genuinely convenient to have them all in one place.

TripIt Pro is like that, but also with lots of text messages throughout each travel day about your inbound and outbound gate assignments and any flight delays. Honestly, it's usually more stressful than it is helpful, knowing ahead of time just how many terminals you need to dash in order to make your connections.

The potentially useful service that TripIt and TripIt Pro don't provide is allow you to easily search for alternative flights on your ticketing carrier. Instead their "alternate flight" search is essentially a Kayak search of all flights between point A and point B.

But TripIt Pro is included in your (hopefully waived) annual fee

As I mentioned yesterday, the worst thing you can do is pay for a benefit and not take advantage of it. So if you signed up for the Arrival+ card on the understanding you'd receive a free TripIt Pro subscription, go ahead and sign up!

You might like it.

Travel benefits versus travel hacking benefits

[For reasons I cannot begin to understand, I am camping far from civilization this week. I have a couple posts scheduled, but won't be participating as actively as usual in the comments or on Twitter.]

With the announced elimination, as of January 1, 2016, of the "First Friday" dining benefit of the overrated Chase Sapphire Preferred, we've seen the predictable surge of posts extolling all the non-points benefits of the card. This makes a certain amount of sense since the card is so useless on the earning side that writing about actually using the card for purchases requires heroic level of delusion, even from our affiliate blogger friends.

If you're feeling self-loathing, you can read:

  • Mommy Points drooling over trip delay and cancellation coverage;
  • a Thought Leader in Travel giddy over primary car rental insurance;

If you have some self respect left you can instead read Miles to Memories reminding you to product change to Freedom or Doctor of Credit gaming out bonused restaurant spend on other, better cards.

Glancing at my Feedly did get me thinking about an interesting distinction: the one between travel benefits and travel hacking benefits.

Travel benefits are nice and not worth paying for

It's trivial to game out situations which would make credit card travel benefits pay for themselves many times over:

  • Trip delay and baggage delay insurance. Chase will reimburse up to $500 per ticket for unreimbursed meals and hotel expenses if a delay forces you to stay overnight. With a $95 annual fee, using this benefit once could conceivably pay for 5 years of annual fees;
  • Trip cancellation insurance. In covered situations, Chase will reimburse up to $10,000 in non-refundable reservations. That is a large multiple of $95.
  • Primary car rental insurance. If you rent a car with your Chase Sapphire Preferred, the rental car is insured by Chase, so you don't need to make a report to your own insurance company.

If you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred, you should take advantage of those benefits. The last thing you want to do is pay for benefits and not use them.

But you also shouldn't pay for them. Here's why:

  • You may already have cards that offer baggage delay and trip delay insurance. The Barclaycard Arrival+ covers up to $100 per day for up to 3 days when your baggage is delayed by 12 hours or more. The Citi Executive / AAdvantage offers up to $500 for baggage delays of 3 hours and $500 for trip delays of 3 hours or more, as does the Citi Prestige.
  • You may already have cards that offer trip cancellation and interruption insurance — see above.
  • Primary car rental insurance is not worth paying for, and virtually all your cards offer secondary car rental insurance. There are three kinds of insurance that matter when you're renting a car: a collision damage waiver, medical insurance, and personal liability. Your personal car insurance policy will usually include a collision damage waiver and personal liability policy. "Secondary" collision damage waiver policies, like those offered by most credit cards, will cover your deductible when filing a claim with your insurance company. When bloggers promote the advantages of primary rental car policies, they're gesturing at the fact that your insurance premium may go up when filing a claim with your insurance company. But you'll have to file a claim anyway if another vehicle is involved in your accident. Now, to be fair, that won't always be the case. My dad once backed a rental car into a tree and totaled it — that's the ideal use case of collision damage waivers. But it radically narrows the range of cases where you won't have to file a claim with your own insurance company, which is supposedly the evil avoided by primary rental car insurance.

You should know the benefits of your cards, and have a rough idea of what card to use for what kind of purchase. Personally, I use my Arrival+ MasterCard for pretty much everything, but you should certainly find the right combination of cards that works for you. The point is that you don't need to pay an extra $95 per year for those benefits; you likely already have them.

Travel hacking benefits can be worth paying for

For me, the difference between a travel hacking benefit and a travel benefit is that travel hacking benefits are available to be consciously exploited by the cardholder. No one would say they "hacked" their trip by paying for it with a Sapphire Preferred card, even if the trip was delayed enough to trigger the card's trip delay benefit. But someone who's going to pay for Global Entry can affirmatively sign up for a card that reimburses that expense and effectively spend the same $100 twice: once for Global Entry and once for a potentially-lucrative super-premium credit card.

As an exercise, here's a roundup of some travel hacking benefits that may be worth paying for, under the right circumstances:

  • $100 Global Entry fee reimbursement. American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cards are supposed to reimburse this fee once every five years (the term of Global Entry enrollment), although I've heard reports that the reimbursement actually resets annually. Citi Prestige cards also provide this benefit once every five years, although the card is too new to know whether that limit is enforced in practice.
  • Airline reimbursements. While statement credits are worth (much) less than cash, these are still benefits that can be actively gamed. The American Express Platinum and Business Platinum cards give $200 airline fee credits, which can be used as intended (for airline fees) or used to purchase gift cards with some airlines (for example, American Airlines). The Citi Prestige gives an even more generous $250 credit which can explicitly be used for airfares — no gift cards required.
  • Lounge access. If you're going to pay for a lounge membership, it often costs the same amount to sign up for a credit card that gives lounge access, but may have auxiliary benefits as well. The American Express Delta Reserve card gives lounge access (but not the ability to bring in guests) when you fly on Delta-coded or Delta-operated flights and earns 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar when you spend exactly $30,000 or $60,000 in a calendar year. Its $450 annual fee is the same as an "Individual" Sky Club membership. The Citi Prestige and Executive / AAdvantage give Admiral's Club access for the cardholder and up to two guests, and at $450 each cost the same or less than an Admiral's Club membership for non-elites with AAdvantage. The Chase United Club card earns 1.5 United Mileage Plus miles per dollar spent, and has a $450 annual fee — $100 less than the annual membership fee for non-elites.
  • Golf. The Citi Prestige offers a phenomenally complicated "free golf" benefit, which gives you up to 3 free rounds of golf per calendar year at select courses. The key thing to know is that it gives you, the cardholder, 3 free rounds of golf per calendar year. In other words, if you typically play golf in foursomes, it's a 25% discount — the benefit can't be applied to any other golfers in your group, or indeed to anyone else at all. But if you like to golf alone at premium courses, this is a straightforward way to do so for free.
  • Fourth night free. The Citi Prestige offers an also-complicated-but-less-so fourth night free benefit when making reservations through their "Citi Concierge" (call 1-561-922-0158 to reach them). If you are in the habit of paying for 4-night hotel stays with cash, this benefit offers an almost unlimited upside to making such reservations through Citi Concierge. My suspicion is that the benefit isn't long for this world, but it might justify paying the card's annual fee if you have near-term plans to take advantage of it.

Conclusion

I don't pay $450 annual fees and I don't recommend my readers do, either. When you pay an annual fee, you're forced to pay it in cash. That's why the value you get from a card needs to be measured in cash, as well. The distinction I've tried to draw in this post is between benefits that have cash value and those that require you to assign speculative, emotional value to them.

When you read a blogger telling you how priceless peace of mind is, you know to keep at least one hand on your wallet.

That's not to say that the Chase Sapphire Preferred doesn't have generous flight delay benefits. Indeed, if you regularly fly United Airlines in and out of Chicago or Denver, you could face overnight flight delays on a weekly basis, and let Chase pick up the tab for your points-earning hotel stays.

But that's an extreme case. Virtually everyone will be better off looking to the travel benefits already offered by their credit cards, and if they have cash left in their budget for credit card annual fees they should spend it on cards that offer concrete, recurring, lucrative benefits.

Let's go rail running!

Earlier this year, Frequent Miler wrote about the possibility of achieving Amtrak elite status through "rail running:" boarding trains for the sole purpose of earning enough Tier Qualifying Points with Amtrak Guest Rewards to achieve "Select" status, which allows the transfer of up to 50,000 Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners, Choice Privileges and Hilton HHonors.

Being based in Ann Arbor, Frequent Miler couldn't make the numbers work out for himself, but after writing about Choice Hotels a few times recently, I wondered under what circumstances rail running could make sense.

Making rail running work

Here are the basics of rail running for Amtrak elite status:

  • 5,000 Tier Qualifying Points are required to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards Select status;
  • 2 Tier Qualifying Points are earned per dollar spent on Amtrak fares, except;
  • each one-way trip earns a minimum of 100 Tier Qualifying Points, but;
  • a maximum of 4 one-way trips per calendar day are eligible for the 100-Tier-Qualifying-Point minimum.

The ideal rail run, then, is two one-way tickets in one direction, followed immediately by two one-way tickets back to your starting location. That means you need to find three stations which are close to each other in one direction and a train schedule that keeps you from having to wait very long at the second station you arrive at.

Do such stations and such a schedule, along with cheap enough prices to justify rail running, exist?

A few promising station constellations

There are a number of promising station constellations (three stations closely packed together) on the Pacific Surfliner route in California. Here's one:

  • Oceanside, CA (OSD) — Carlsbad, CA - Village (CBV) — Carlsbad, CA - Poinsettia (POI)

Tickets for each leg cost $8.10 for AAA members on the random December day I checked, for a total cost of Select status of $405. Unfortunately the schedule doesn't allow for an immediate turn in either direction (although if you go northbound POI-CBV-OSD and then turn around you may be able to rely on the southbound train being delayed as it nears the end of its route — it only has to be delayed 6 minutes for you to make the connection).

Another candidate on the same Pacific Surfliner route is SNA-ANA-FUL, at the same price.

Down South, the City of New Orleans has a slightly longer, but cheaper option:

  • Hazlehurst, MS (HAZ) — Brookhaven, MS (BRH) — McComb, MS (MCB)

AAA tickets on the same random December day cost $4.95 and $7.20, for a roundtrip cost of $24.30, or $303.75 for Amtrak Select status. Same-day turns only work starting Southbound, which would give you a leisurely 3 hour lunch in McComb, Mississippi.

Here's an easy one for our brothers in Philadelphia on the Keystone Service:

  • Philadelphia, PA (PHL) — Ardmore, PA (ARD) — Paoli, PA (PAO)

Each leg costs $5.85 for AAA members, for a roundtrip cost of $23.40 and $292.50 for Amtrak Guest Rewards Select elite status. Best of all, the train operates frequently enough that you should be able to put together an easy same-day turn, for example departing Philadelphia at 4:45 PM and returning to Philadelphia at 6:25 PM.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are valuable!

So far I haven't mentioned the fact that during the course of all this rail running, you'll also be earning redeemable Amtrak Guest Rewards points! At least 5,000 of them, in fact.

And since the point of this operation is to transfer your Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges, you have to assign those redeemable points at least $50 in value, since that's the cash value of the Ultimate Rewards points you'll save. In other words, to max out your annual 50,000 in Amtrak Guest Rewards points transfers to Choice Privileges, you only have to transfer 45,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Amtrak.

If you are thinking about rail running, wait until Amtrak runs a promotion

Amtrak periodically offers double points on paid travel, their so-called "Double Days" promotions. The last Double Days promotion ran from March 16 to May 16, 2015. If you wait until the next one, you'll be able to score even more redeemable points, saving yourself the corresponding number of Ultimate Rewards points when the time comes to transfer them into your Amtrak Guest Rewards account.

Conclusion

Researching this post was a lot of fun, but I fully understand most of my readers are not actually going to go rail running in order to achieve Amtrak elite status. Nonetheless, I think it's an idea that's more defensible than it appears at first blush, especially if you have your heart set on one of Choice Privileges' Preferred Hotels & Resorts.

If you decide to go rail running, remember: you need to book two one-ways in each direction to earn the maximum of 400 Tier Qualifying Points each day, and the goal of the game is finding the cheapest trips and shortest turnaround times possible!