Sleeping the rails

As some readers may know, in a former life I worked as an English language teacher in Russia. At that time, it was typical for expats to arrive on a business visa, which as a rule only allowed you to be present in the country for 91 out of every 180 days. The idea was, you'd arrive on a business visa, get a job, and then switch over to the appropriate visa at some later date (I think of this whenever I hear about unauthorized immigrants who "overstay" their visas to the United States — that was me and most of my friends, and it was simply the way things were done).

In the winter of 2007-2008, rumors started to spread that the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a new decree that visas could only be issued in the home country of foreign passport holders. While previously people had hopped over the border to the Baltic states, those Russian embassies were refusing to issue visas to third-country passport holders. However, we were hearing reports that the Russian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, was still issuing visas to third-country passport holders — for now.

With that in mind, my company bundled me off to Kiev to spend the Christmas vacation waiting for a visa. The embassy was no longer issuing one-day visas, so I would have to spend 10 days in the country while my visa was prepared. In Kiev, the hostel I ended up in was owned and operated by a fanatically racist Englishman (this is a common problem in expat communities), and after a day or two I decided I couldn't stay there any longer. But where to stay? Having just gotten off an overnight train ride, I quickly arrived at a solution. Here's a map of Ukraine:

Glancing at this map, you can immediately see there are four cities located roughly equidistant from one another: Kiev, Liev, Odessa, and Dnipro (still called Dnepropetrovsk while I was there). Not only are they roughly equidistant, but they're also all about 7-9 hours apart by train. The solution to my housing problem was obvious: I'd board a train about midnight each night, sleep on the train, and arrive in a new city around 8 am. I could spend the day exploring the city and get back on the train that evening.

I eventually got back to Kiev, got my visa, and headed back to Russia. But that adventure has always left me wondering: could it work here?

Using Amtrak for both housing and transportation

Trying the same thing in the United States poses several difficulties:

  • our trains are far less frequent than trains in Eastern Europe, often passing through a given community as rarely as once a day;
  • our trains are more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe (although often less expensive than you think, and very often less expensive than flying);
  • and our network of train stations is more limited, with routes that typically either feature very frequent stops or very infrequent stops.

So, I decided to investigate if it's possible to replicate something like what I did in Ukraine, and if so, at what cost?

Back and forth

Due to less frequent US train schedules, the easiest way to do what I'm describing is simply to go back and forth on the same route. Head north, south, east, or west one night, and head back the next night.

For example:

  • Northeast Regional 65/67 southbound from Boston to Richmond, leaving 9:30 pm and arriving 9:29 am, and Northeast Regional 66 northbound from Richmond to Boston, leaving 7:00 pm and arriving 7:58 am, roundtrip (2 nights) from $166;
  • or City of New Orleans 59 southbound from Chicago to Jackson, MS, returning on City of New Orleans 58, roundtrip from $196.

This is, obviously, a pretty boring way to travel since you'd be bouncing back and forth between the same cities. It is cheaper than a typical downtown hotel, though, at less than $100 per night.

Hub and spokes

A more interesting way to sleep the rails would be starting at an Amtrak hub and taking individual routes out and back each day. This would give you the benefit of a little variety in your site-seeing. Amtrak, unfortunately, is a little short on hubs, with the only ones I can think of worth mentioning being Chicago (11 routes), Los Angeles (5 routes), and New York (14 routes). New Orleans is another possible option with 3 routes.

I think all three hubs are fairly promising, depending on the part of the country you want to see. For example, from Chicago you can overnight to Denver on the California Zephyr ($97), Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited ($57), West Virginia on the Cardinal ($62), Memphis or Jackson on the City of New Orleans ($86), North Dakota on the Empire Builder ($102), Buffalo or Rochester on the Lake Shore Limited ($59), Colorado on the Southwest Chief ($102), or Texas on the Texas Eagle ($98).

Circle the country

To circle back to my original anecdote: is it possible to spend time around the country while spending every night on a train, instead of in a hotel?

The short answer is no: long-haul train schedules are too infrequent in the United States to give people the opportunity to arrive in the morning and leave the same night on most routes. Here's one option I found that illustrates the network's limitations:

  • Empire Builder westbound from Chicago, leaving 2:15 pm and arriving in Portland 10:10 am 2 days later;
  • Coast Starlight southbound from Portland, leaving 1:50 pm and arriving Los Angeles 9:00 pm one day later;
  • Sunset Limited eastbound from Los Angeles, leaving 10:00 pm and arriving in New Orleans at 9:40 pm two days later;
  • Overnight in New Orleans;
  • City of New Orleans northbound from New Orleans, leaving 1:45 pm and arriving in Chicago at 9:00 am the next day.

The route described above would cost, if booked sufficiently far in advance, about $483, and would take 7 nights to complete, from beginning to end, although you'd be on the hook for one night in New Orleans. That would give you a cost per night spent in the coach car of a train of $80.50. Not a bad deal, and a much better set of views than a roach motel in Chicago (I've seen my fair share).

Don't forget Amtrak unreliability

Of course, the stylized route above assumes that four different Amtrak trains all run on schedule. This will not happen, because Amtrak trains don't run on schedule. On most versions of this run you would end up spending many more nights on trains than I indicated, which would drive down your per-night cost of sleeping on Amtrak trains.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, American cities and Amtrak routes aren't very accommodating to the kind of tour I was able to take of Ukraine. Only rarely are cities served by the kind of morning and evening trains that are typical in Eastern Europe. But if you have to spend 10 days in the United States waiting for a consular official to stamp a visa in your passport, remember that we do have trains, and you can see a lot of the country in 10 days without spending very much money.

What to expect when you're expecting your first music festival

There's a storied tradition of bloggers not doing any research ahead of time and then making a series of predictable unforced errors. Bengali Miles Guru filed a classic of the genre about a last-minute jaunt to Cuba (Cuba is not a place you want to go on a last-minute jaunt). My own humble entry about the rotting cruise port of Galveston, Texas, belongs in the same category, and received so much heat from the upright citizens of Galveston that I was finally compelled to close the comments (do go read them though, if you want a laugh).

Most years I try to make it back to my hometown for the Western Montana Fair, and this year due to a stroke of luck the indie rock band The Decemberists inaugurated an annual music festival in town, so we got some tickets to that as well. I'd never been to a music festival before, but with two of my favorite bands on the schedule I was optimistic that it would be a good time.

In true blogger fashion, I didn't do any research ahead of time. While we had a good time, I learned a few lessons that would have been helpful to know 24 hours ahead of time. Here are a few.

1. Read up on the rules

Americans love nothing if not rules, and this festival had a lot of them: no outside beverages (ok, makes sense), no outside food (makes less sense), no umbrellas, no drones, low-profile single chairs allowed, larger chairs forbidden, cell phone recording allowed, professional recording prohibited, and so on.

I met someone who had been to another event at the same venue the previous week, and for that event umbrellas were allowed. Basically, each festival has different rules, and your strategy should depend on the specific rules of the festival you're attending.

2. Bring water vessels

While outside beverages were prohibited, bringing in empty water containers was allowed. Seeing this, I packed my little 16 ounce water bottle, figuring a big outdoor venue would have water fountains sprinkled throughout.

Big mistake. While water was available, there were just two small drinking fountains (an additional filling station was added later), and thousands of people waiting to fill up their containers. Unless you want to spend the whole festival waiting in line, bring lots of big bottles and fill them all up at once.

3. Strategize meals

Festivals that prohibit outside food are trying to get you to buy from the food vendors on-site. If there are multiple good vendors, that's not necessarily a problem. But if you have any kind of allergies or food restrictions, you may be limited to just one or two vendors. If that's the case, you might be best off having a big meal before getting to the festival and planning a late supper after leaving, for instance.

You can also strategize the timing of your meals. If there's a big act everyone is waiting to see, lines at food vendors may be shorter. Likewise immediately after a big act, everyone who was waiting to eat might decide to rush the food vendors all at once.

4. Bring something else to do

If you're going to spend all day trapped in a park with strangers, you may start to feel overwhelmed. Bring a book, newspaper, or knitting for when you need to sneak away and reset.

5. Bring seating

This was probably the biggest bone-headed move I made this weekend. The festival explicitly allowed chairs to be brought into the venue, but I figured, "I'll just sit on the grass."

It turns out sitting on the grass for long periods of time is insanely uncomfortable. You can sit cross-legged and ruin your posture, or lean on one arm or the other and torture your wrists or elbows. A $10 folding chair is the best investment you can make in a 9 hour day of music.

6. Be open-minded, tough, and fair

This goes for everything in life, not just music festivals, but I was still surprised by how much I was surprised at the music and performers. I had seen The Decemberists live once before and knew more or less what to expect from them, but one of my favorite bands, Belle & Sebastian, were also playing at the festival and I was shocked that their live performance sounded nothing at all like their studio albums.

Now, that may have been unfamiliar equipment, or the absence of post-production techniques, or they might have just been having a bad day. But the lesson is: don't pin too much hope on a single performer fulfilling your every dream, and give unfamiliar performers the chance to impress you, too!

Conclusion

Those are a few of the things I wish I'd known before going to Travelers' Rest (and could have learned with 5 minutes of light googling before going). I'm sure my more experienced readers have pro tips of their own for surviving and thriving at music festivals.

Breaking even with IHG Rewards Club Spire elite status

Last week I wrote about the possibility of using IHG Rewards Club as the primary hotel loyalty program for a reimbursed business traveler. In that post I considered only the Platinum elite status that comes with the IHG Rewards Club credit card. But of course IHG has a newish top-tier status, called Spire.

In the comments, reader Just some guy mentioned one popular way to achieve Spire status:

"Virgin Atlantic points are easy to acquire, and when transferred to IHG are elite qualifying. Every year that you hit 75k elite qualifying points, your status will be raised to Spire and you'll be gifted an additional 25k points.

Spend 32k of those points on Intercontinental Ambassador status and you will be given 5k points back and a buy one weekend night get one free certificate. Ambassador status gets you a guaranteed upgrade at intercontinental hotels."

There are a couple things here worth unpacking. Let's get started.

What is IHG Rewards Club Spire elite status worth?

Spire elites earn a 100% bonus on base points earned on paid stays, for a total of 20 points per dollar spent, and paying with an IHG Rewards Club credit card earns an additional 5 points per dollar. Updating the chart in last week's post, that gives the following comparison between Hilton Honors Gold, Marriott Silver, and IHG Spire status:

The way to read this chart is that an IHG Rewards Club member with Spire status has to spend less on paid stays than a Hilton Gold or Marriott Silver member to receive a free night at hotels in similar tiers. Note that this only applies to paid stays! If you're looking exclusively at credit card spend you need to use imputed redemption values, a completely different calculation.

Since Spire status can be acquired by transferring 75,000 Virgin Atlantic Flying Club miles to IHG Rewards Club, and Virgin Atlantic Flying Club is a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, American Express Membership Rewards, and Citi ThankYou points, it's relatively easy to calculate how much you need to spend at IHG properties to justify buying Spire status.

Here's the math: 75,000 flexible points transferred from any of the 3 currencies translates into 100,000 IHG Rewards Club points, for the reason Just some guy mentioned. 100,000 IHG Rewards Club points are worth at most $700 — the amount they'd cost if you used the Points + Cash trick discussed in the comments here (you can usually find prices as low as $600 for 100,000 points, but $700 is the "standard" price). For the same reason, the additional 5 Rewards Club points per dollar spent you earn as a Spire elite are worth 3.5 cents.

The amount of money that has to be spent on paid IHG stays to break even is the difference between the value of the flexible points transferred and the value of the IHG points received, divided by the value of the additional points earned as a Spire elite. The more valuable your flexible point redemptions, the more you have to spend as a Spire elite to break even, as this chart shows:

So a Chase Ink Plus cardholder who redeems Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each and who transfers 75,000 points to Virgin Atlantic is spending $937 for $700 in value. To make back that difference, they'd need to spend about $6,750 at IHG properties, which would earn 33,750 in "extra" Spire points compared to a Platinum elite — worth $237, the difference between the amount paid in Ultimate Rewards points and the value received in IHG Rewards Club points.

One more point: once you've reached 75,000 Elite Qualifying Points, you'll receive Spire elite status naturally. That means the values above are only for spend up to the point where you'd qualify for Spire anyway. If you spend more than $7,500 at IHG properties per year ($15,000 at extended stay properties), you're almost certainly better off simply acquiring Spire status through your normal spend.

Alternatively, you can wait until the end of each calendar year to determine how far you are away from keeping Spire status, and only transfer the number of flexible points needed to maintain your status for the next year.

If you do pursue that strategy, keep in mind that points earned with the IHG Rewards Club credit cards do count as elite qualifying points. That means each point you earn with credit card spend is a perfect substitute for your flexible points. That's not terribly relevant for unbonused spend since the card earns just 1 Rewards Club point on unbonused spend. At IHG properties, however, the card would effectively earn 5 Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, or ThankYou points per dollar spent, since it would save you that many flexible points at the end of the year.

What is InterContinental Ambassador status worth?

Besides late check-out (a benefit I personally value enormously but isn't, strictly speaking, worth anything) InterContinental Ambassadors also get a buy-one-get-one-free weekend night. Again, it's easy to determine the value of the free weekend night:

  • 27,000 Rewards Club points cost $189 (32,000 points cost $224 but Ambassadors should receive a 5,000 point voucher — I've seen mixed reports on this question so am giving both values);
  • InterContinental properties top out at 60,000 Rewards Club points, which cost $420 at 0.7 cents each;
  • So a free weekend night is worth using if the property's "Ambassador Weekend Rate" is below $659 but above $189.

If a property's Ambassador Weekend Rate is above $659 per night, you should just buy (up to) 120,000 Rewards Club points and redeem them for two nights. InterContinental properties in lower tiers will cost even less.

If a property's paid rate is below $189, you should pay the paid rate for both nights and not bother with Ambassador status at all.

For nightly prices in between, you'll save money by paying the paid rate for one night and $189 in points for the second night.

Adjusting these values for the value of points earned with Spire status on paid stays is an exercise left to the reader.

Conclusion

Just as I concluded last week, IHG Rewards Club (and InterContinental Ambassador) appear to offer great value to folks with a lot of paid travel that they're able to direct to IHG properties. The ability to "top up" your status each year by transferring flexible points first to Virgin Atlantic, and then to IHG, is an additional advantage of the program over the other large hotel loyalty programs.

On the other hand, leisure and budget travelers are likely better off sticking to programs with more valuable points or points that can be earned more easily, like Hilton, Hyatt (through Chase Ultimate Rewards), and Starwood Preferred Guest.

IHG Rewards Club, reconsidered

[edit 8/7/17: updated charts to reflect 60,000-point top-tier IHG Rewards Club properties. Conclusions left unchanged.]

Easily the reaction I least expected to Tuesday's post on credit card auxiliary benefits was the passionate defense that emerged in the comments of IHG Rewards Club.

I have always dismissed IHG Rewards Club more or less mechanically: their credit card doesn't offer high enough unbonused or bonused earning rates to justify manufacturing spend on it, and IHG Rewards points have so little value that it's extremely expensive to combine them with the credit card's annual free night certificate for stays of more than one night.

IHG Rewards Club offers a good rebate on paid nights for co-branded credit card holders

But what about using IHG as your primary hotel loyalty program? How would a top-tier elite fare in each of the biggest hotel loyalty programs? Fortunately, this information was at my fingertips thanks to the calculations I'd already done for Chapter 6. Here are the results, showing the amount of hotel spend required to earn sufficient points for a free night award at low-, mid-, and top-tier properties with each program:

Next, It's worth pointing out that this comparison, in which IHG Rewards Club has a strong showing compared to the other two programs, is in fact deeply unfair to IHG. That's because IHG Rewards Platinum elite status is trivially easy to earn: all you have to do is carry their Chase co-branded credit card.

To earn top-tier Hilton Honors Diamond status you need to spend $40,000 on one of their premium co-branded credit cards or complete 30 stays or 60 nights (award stays and nights count), and to earn Marriott Rewards Platinum status you need to spend an ungodly amount on their Premier co-branded credit card or stay 75 nights.

Comparing IHG Rewards Club Platinum status to the much more fair Hilton Gold or Marriott Silver status (which come with their co-branded credit cards), the comparison suddenly shifts sharply in IHG's favor:

While low-level properties are still slightly easier to earn with the Hilton and Marriott co-branded credit cards on paid stays, earning stays at mid-level and high-level properties is easiest with IHG Rewards Platinum status and their co-branded credit card. That's true whether you use a co-branded credit card to actually pay for your stay or not.

IHG Rewards elite status isn't worth much

If your goal is to earn award nights as quickly as possible on reimbursed paid stays, IHG offers a very strong value proposition for co-branded cardholders. On the other hand, Hilton Honors Gold status and Marriott Rewards Gold status both come with free breakfast, while IHG Rewards Club Platinum status doesn't come with...anything.

Whether having breakfast included on your stays is worth a lot, a little, or nothing is entirely up to you — I've seen good arguments on all sides of the question. But if you're going to make IHG Rewards your primary program for paid stays, you should be aware of what you're getting.

IHG Rewards Club offers frequent, potentially lucrative promotions

While the other big hotel loyalty programs have fallen into a tired habit of offering double or triple points promotions every quarter, IHG Rewards Club has done a pretty good job of maintaining a steady tempo of promotions which, if you have enough paid stays during promotional periods, can spin off a phenomenal number of points.

While it's hard to quantify, by aggressively targeting paid stays during relevant promotions you can increase the rebate value of your participation even further.

Conclusion

So, this has been my reader-inspired reconsideration of the value of IHG Rewards Club. My revised conclusion is that it's an extremely strong program for co-branded credit card holders who have lots of paid or reimbursed stays, and who are not concerned with the limited benefits available to those with elite status.

While Hilton will remain my primary hotel loyalty program as long as it remains so easy to manufacture Honors points (and Diamond status) in bonused categories, I have a renewed appreciated for IHG Rewards Club, and I have only my readers to thank for it.

My favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked

I've been thinking lately about the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card, since it has a somewhat higher signup bonus than usual, at 30,000 Mileage Plan miles, a $100 statement credit, and a taxes-and-fees-only companion ticket for the first year, instead of the usual $99-plus-taxes-and-fees offer.

Since Alaska companion tickets can be used on any economy fare, and Mileage Plan has last-seat award availability, this is basically a signup bonus of between 1.5 and 2 roundtrips on Alaska or Virgin America, depending on whether you can find low-level award space or have to redeem all 30,000 Mileage Plan miles for a one-way (or possibly a few more if you're flying to Hawaii or Mexico).

Since Bank of America lets you apply for and receive the same card and signup bonus multiple times, it used to be popular to apply for a new Alaska Airlines card every 91 days and then request product changes to the Better Balance Rewards card, which can be automated to spin off $30 every quarter in cash back. I believe that product change is no longer available as the Better Balance Rewards card isn't being offered to new customers, but a product change from a card with a good signup bonus is still likely the best way to get a card like the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, which only has a standard signup bonus of 20,000 points.

Since ranking stuff is fun, here are a few of my other favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked.

5. Centurion Lounge access

This is technically not one of my favorite auxiliary benefits since I don't have an American Express Platinum or Business Platinum card, but it's one of my favorite auxiliary benefits for other people to have so they can guest me into the lounges.

I've invited subscribers to join me at meetups in the Centurion lounges in Las Vegas, New York La Guardia, and Dallas/Fort Worth, and as someone who would never pay for lounge access I am happy to say they really are terrific lounges. Great food, cocktails, views, seating, and wi-fi. If I lived in or regularly traveled through cities with Centurion Lounges I could certainly see applying for a Business Platinum card. I don't, so I won't, but this benefit still sneaks into the top 5.

4. America Express Delta Platinum and Reserve companion tickets

I don't think the Delta companion tickets, which can both be redeemed for tickets in certain cheap domestic economy fare buckets, and in the case of the Reserve companion ticket in first class, are as valuable as people claim. They essentially function as a not-quite-50% discount on economy tickets, if you are willing to be flexible with your routing and plan far enough in advance, because you still have to pay taxes and fees on the second ticket.

The best value of the companion tickets, of course, is to simply sell them to someone who isn't a travel hacker. That's an easy way to bring down the out-of-pocket cost of your annual fee, if you're primarily interested in the cards in order to earn bonus SkyMiles and waive the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements for status.

Finally, Frequent Miler has written about the opportunity to combine Delta companion tickets and the American Express Business Platinum card's 35% Membership Rewards point rebate. Apparently Membership Rewards points can be redeemed against purchases made with the Business Platinum card outside the American Express Travel booking portal. It does require a phone call and is apparently up to the discretion of the phone agent, and I've never tried it, so don't take my word for it. To give a simple example, two $500 tickets with $11.20 in taxes and fees would cost a total of $511.20 if booked with a Delta companion ticket. Since you can pay for Delta companion tickets with any American Express card, you'd then put the charge on your Business Platinum card. Calling into Membership Rewards, you'd redeem 51,120 Membership Rewards points, and eventually receive a rebate of 35% of those points, or 17,892. That would give you a total out-of-pocket cost of 33,228 Membership Rewards points for $1,000 in flights, or 3 cents per Membership Rewards point.

Be careful to note the reason this works: you can't pay for Delta companion tickets with any card that is not an American Express card. If you could, you'd be better off paying with a travel rewards card that you manufacture cheap spend on, or a card that offers free trip delay insurance. But since you have to choose an American Express card, the Business Platinum is the card that lets you leverage the value of your Membership Rewards points against the already-discounted cost of the companion ticket.

3. Trip Delay insurance

Speaking of trip delay insurance, after my experience getting stranded by United in Denver, I've come around to the idea. I'd never pay for it separately, and I probably wouldn't keep a card just because it offers trip delay insurance, but if you already carry a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival+, then you should be booking as many of your flights with it as possible.

That won't always be possible, for example if you're booking tickets using US Bank Flexpoints or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but for tickets you book with cash, or award tickets that give you a choice of cards to pay with — use the right card! It only takes one claim every few years to pay for many years of $89 or $95 annual fees.

2. Hilton Honors Gold (Diamond) status

Hilton Gold status is notoriously easy to earn, and Hilton Diamond status is notoriously worth little above and beyond the benefits of Gold. Nonetheless, no matter how easy it is to earn, you still want to earn it somehow if Hilton is going to be one of your primary loyalty programs. Personally I carry the American Express Hilton Honors Surpass card, which gives automatic Gold status and Diamond status when you spend $40,000 on the card, although the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve card has the same status earning structure (but earns just 5 Honors points per dollar spent at grocery stores).

1. Hyatt annual free night certificate

The annual free night certificate earned by the Chase Hyatt credit card is the best credit card free night certificate for a few reasons:

  • Unlike the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve free night certificate, it can be used on any day, not just on weekends, and doesn't have a $10,000 spending requirement, allowing that spend to be put on more lucrative credit cards.
  • Unlike the Chase IHG Rewards Club free night certificate, the Hyatt certificate can be combined with valuable World of Hyatt points instead of worthless IHG Rewards Club points. To illustrate this point, a 3-night stay at a top-tier IHG Rewards Club property like the InterContinental Sydney would require the transfer of 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points to IHG Rewards Club, plus the use of an annual free night certificate. A 3-night stay at a top-tier Hyatt property requires just 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points — no certificate required! The corollary of that is the ability to save valuable World of Hyatt points at lower-tier properties by swapping in the free Category 1-4 certificate. The credit card's $75 annual fee buys you a free night certificate worth between $50 and $150 in Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Unlike the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier free night certificate, the Hyatt free night certificate can be used at properties you actually want to stay at. The Marriott Rewards Premier certificate can be used at properties up to Category 5, which would cost 25,000 Marriott Rewards points, if you could find one to stay at. But while Marriott has so totally gutted their categories that there's no reason to count on finding a Category 5 property that's worth an $85 annual fee, there are still plentiful Category 4 Hyatt properties where paying a $75 annual fee will get you a reasonable discount.

Conclusion

Naturally, your ranking should differ based on your own travel needs:

  • if you travel often enough that you are desperate for lounge access, the premium airline credit cards will offer it;
  • likewise Hawaiian travelers may get value from the Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines credit card's companion ticket;
  • and if you stay at a lot of Sheratons the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Business card gives Sheraton Club Lounge access (I've never stayed at a Sheraton or visited a Sheraton Club Lounge but I'm sure they're nice).

But for my own travel needs, these are the five benefits I value the most.

There are no benign conflicts of interest

Back in January I wrote about the problem of conflicted advice, and the solution:

"Your stockbroker, your insurance agent, and your affiliate blogger are all required to disclose their conflicts of interest, and do so dutifully. The problem is that disclosure of conflicts of interest does not have any impact on the quality of the advice provided, and may perversely lead you to trust the conflicted party more, not less.

"Let me be clear: the logical response to "I may be compensated based on your choice of mutual fund/insurance product/credit card" is not to discount the advice given by 10%, or 20%, or 50%.

"The logical response is to discount the advice given by 100%."

Yesterday a remarkable article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel crossed my Twitter feed (via @MilesperDay). The following passage startled many people

"Trusted websites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and others have strict policies limiting what is allowed to be included in online customer reviews.

"So while readers might learn that a resort's seafood isn’t fresh and the beds are too hard, they won’t typically hear that guests were assaulted on the property or that they believed a bartender slipped something in their drinks.

"When guests interviewed by the Journal Sentinel tried to describe what happened on those sites, they said their comments were rejected."

There's no mystery what's going on here. Websites which receive their income from hotel reservations booked through the site are not in the business of providing a clearinghouse for user reviews of their hotel stays. They allow users to submit reviews as an ancillary source of content for their actual business: selling hotel rooms.

Reviews, even negative reviews ("beds are too hard"), are no threat to the underlying business since someone booking away from a negatively-reviewed property towards a positively-reviewed property still generates referral commissions.

The reviews that pose a threat to the business are those which cause someone to decide not to travel to Cancun at all because people are being drugged and raped in Cancun.

This is a useful example of the aphorism from my post in January: if you are not the customer, you're the product.

There are no benign conflicts of interest

At this point the analogy between credit card affiliate bloggers and hotel booking sites is hopefully obvious: unless special bounties are being offered for certain credit cards, it is much less important to your affiliate blogger which credit card you get than the fact you get credit cards — as many as possible as often as possible. The only advice you'll never hear is "the only credit card most people should carry is a no-annual-fee, no-foreign-transaction-fee, chip-and-PIN cash back card."

In other words, the conflict of interest between credit cards that pay affiliate commissions and those that don't is a relatively minor subset of the vast conflict of interest inherent in selling credit cards for a living: the preference for credit cards over not credit cards, just like Expedia's conflicted preference for travel over not travel.

I'm conflicted too — proceed accordingly!

While I may come across as some kind of fire-and-brimstone frontier preacher, every single thing I've said applies in full to my own blogs. This is a for-profit enterprise, after all! If you're reading this in a browser, you can see up top I have a disclosure:

"Disclosure: to the best of my knowledge, the only remuneration I receive for any of the content on this site is through my personal referral links, my Amazon Associates referral link, the Google Adsense ads found in the righthand sidebar, and my blog subscribers, who also receive my occasional subscribers-only newsletter. You can find all my personal referral links on my Support the Site! page."

As you can see, I'm hopelessly conflicted. I have personal credit card referral links, and while it's true that means I can only refer people to credit cards I actually carry, it also means I will benefit personally if my blog convinces readers to apply for an American Express Hilton Surpass card or Delta SkyMiles Business card (the only referral links I currently have available). Proceed accordingly!

I also have Amazon Associates links, so if I write about a book or object (since Amazon sells everything) I benefit if readers use my links to buy the thing. I don't provide Amazon Associates links to specific products, but it's still a conflict if I benefit from my readers' actions. Proceed accordingly!

I also have Google Adsense ads, and (I assume) writing about certain products or services changes the ads that appear there. So if I knew that a certain kind of ad paid especially well, I could write about that topic and try to bump my ad revenue in that way. In other words, I'd be writing for the Adsense engine, not for the benefit of readers. Proceed accordingly!

And of course the overwhelming majority of my income comes from blog subscribers, who also receive my periodic subscribers-only newsletters. That gives me an incentive to hold back content for newsletters, and it influences what I write about since I benefit when additional people become blog subscribers. Proceed accordingly!

Conclusion

Conflicts of interest, as I hope I've made clear, aren't inherently good or bad. The fact that my Adsense revenue increases when my writing attracts more readers may make me a better writer who writes on more timely or interesting topics, for instance, or it may cause me to write about topics which generate more lucrative ads. The same conflict, in other words, can have different outcomes.

But while disclosing conflicts of interest is an important legal requirement, and identifying conflicts of interest where not disclosed (like Expedia's preference for travel over not travel) is a critical task, both will prove pointless unless you take the additional step of synthesizing the content, conflicts and all, in order to reach decisions which, ultimately, you alone will benefit or suffer from.

Ideas that should work

I have a fascination with travel hacking ideas that sound great in principle but for one reason or another are unworkable in practice. For example, I earn a lot of Hilton Honors points, and am perfectly satisfied with the value I typically get redeeming them, but it's not the kind of value you can get at a property like the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (0.96 cents per point on a sample five-night stay).

Since, in principle, there must be some people paying cash for such a stay, and since I can get it at a far lower cost, we should be able to split the difference, giving me a higher "redemption" value than I usually see, and giving a wealthy vacationer a nice discount off retail. While coupon brokers do exist, I've seen no evidence that this market is deep enough to sustain a gold rush of travel hackers selling points, once transaction fees and the broker's own cut are taken into account.

Here are a few other ideas I think should work, but face obstacles in practice.

Reselling/giving away gasoline

Periodically grocery stores will allow PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards to earn their proprietary points that can be redeemed for a discount off gasoline purchases.

I don't drive anymore, but I understand that car owners treat gas purchases as a major component of their monthly budget. In principle the fact that I, a car-free urban-dwelling millennial, am earning zillions of dollars in free or discounted gasoline, while others are buying just a few gallons at a time in order to get to their minimum wage jobs, should create an opportunity to make some money (or at least get some zakat out of the way on the cheap).

But the obstacles are rather profound. Since I don't have a car or any gasoline containers, or even know where the nearest gas station is, I certainly can't do the work of buying a bunch of cheap gasoline and then spreading it around to the downtrodden.

Likewise, I only have a few of the little bonus cards they give you at the grocery store, so I can't walk around handing them out. I think I could register it to a phone number, but then I'd have to hand out my phone number (or somebody else's) [ed: I just checked and I think I signed up with a fake name so I can't seem to register online at all].

But there's one more problem that I think poses an even more profound obstacle: on what basis would the gas be provided or split? Consider a sort of ideal condition: I find a group of struggling single mothers in the suburbs who all have to drive to their three jobs on the nightshift. I want to save them some money on gas, asking nothing in return (remember, I don't need the stuff so it costs me nothing). I photocopy 5 versions of my plastic card so they can all use them at the gas station whenever they fill up. These promotions don't come along very often, so most of the time there are no points on the card, but occasionally they save $30 on a tank of gas ($1.50 per gallon on a 20-gallon tank).

All I've done is created a situation of conflict and resentment among folks who never asked me to come along and invent this scheme in the first place! It would be a constant battle to try to seize the discounted gasoline each time a promotion came along, and whoever lost out (filling up her tank on the last day of the promo when all the points had already been redeemed) would feel terribly ill-used.

So what did I actually do? I just gave my card to a reader whose son lives in the area and drives to work. I didn't even have to give him my phone number.

Collective Rewards Accounts

This is an idea that I know has actually been implemented by some sophisticated travel hackers, but which I think still has obstacles that make it difficult for most people to pursue.

Most loyalty programs (with obvious exceptions, like Korean Air SKYPASS) don't have strict rules regarding on whose behalf points can be redeemed. That means a team of 4-5 travel hackers could each specialize in different programs, spreading devaluation and unredeemed-point risk across a larger number of people (especially if they have traveling families). Between a Delta Diamond Medallion, American Airlines Executive Platinum, and United Premier 1K, you'd have access to refundable award tickets on all three airline alliances, and no one member would feel the pain of being "locked in" to an award program with limited availability (which is more or less all of them these days).

A similar idea applies to hotel loyalty programs which require paid stays to qualify for elite status but also allow elites to transfer their benefits to others (see Frequent Miler's recent post for some additional thoughts in this vein). World of Hyatt Globalist status qualification requires 60 paid nights, which is a lot of nights for one person, but less significant for a group of 4-5 frequent travelers. By crediting every paid night to a single person's account, they would be able to secure Globalist status for the entire group (and trigger potential points windfalls during promotions).

Finally, a group approach to credit card applications would have significant potential benefits, allowing every member of the group to stay below arbitrary thresholds (staying below 5 applications each every 2 years would leave the entire group eligible for outsized signup bonuses from Chase, for example), while giving the entire group access to lucrative offers like 5% cash back cards from Wells Fargo, which according to their terms are limited to 6 months per person out of every 16.

So what's the problem? First, each individual member of the group would have responsibilities and limitations. It may be that when you joined such a group you preferred flying United and didn't have a problem being the designated Premier 1K. But a change in work or flight schedules might suddenly make flying United unacceptably inconvenient. Your partners are meanwhile diligently pursuing Diamond Medallion and Executive Platinum. What do you do?

Second, the group would need a fairly sophisticated method of keeping track of each member's contributions and withdrawals from the pool in order to maintain harmony. It's true that if well-implemented there should be far more total points in the pool than would ever be redeemed, but if two members both want to fly their extended families on Lufthansa First the same weekend, you can imagine the pool of Star Alliance miles getting pretty depleted.

These are surmountable problems, and indeed I know of groups that pursue collective strategies like this. But despite the obvious advantages I don't think such a system is simple enough to implement for it to be practical for most travel hackers.

Instead, the far more accessible solution is one-time transactions mediated by cash or other instruments. I think that's a reasonable compromise, but nevertheless reduces the potential for outsized value a truly collective strategy would provide.

Hey look the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard raised their signup bonus

I saw at Miles to Memories yesterday morning that the Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard had raised its signup bonus from 20,000 to 30,000 Guest Rewards points after spending $1,000 within 3 months.

While I don't chase signup bonuses, I'm not a lunatic: if you want to get a card, you're better off getting it when the signup bonus is higher rather than when the signup bonus is lower!

And the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard is a pretty good card, if you travel on Amtrak regularly and pay for your own tickets.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are pretty valuable

Amtrak Guest Rewards points are now redeemable for between 1.71 cents each (on certain Acela fares) and 2.9 cents each (on certain close-in Value fares), meaning a 30,000-point signup bonus is worth between $513 and $870, if you pay for your own Amtrak tickets out of pocket.

Note that this is not true if all of your Amtrak travel is reimbursed by an employer! If that's the case you should be putting your Amtrak purchases on the most lucrative card in your wallet for unbonused spend or travel purchases.

But if you just like taking trains (trains are great) then you can save a lot of money on train travel with this signup bonus.

Additionally, under certain circumstances it's possible to make large transfers of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges points. Choice has a fairly confusing loyalty program but if you are able to take advantage of their properties you can get a lot of value from relatively few points.

Amtrak Guest Rewards points aren't that easy to earn

Since Chase Ultimate Rewards removed Amtrak Guest Rewards as a transfer partner, the only ways I know of to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points are:

  • Paid travel on Amtrak. If you commute on Amtrak, or if you have your Amtrak travel reimbursed, this is the most seamless way to earn Guest Rewards points.
  • Shopping through the Amtrak Guest Rewards portal. If you're a reseller who's able to direct your online purchases through the portal of your choosing, you can use Amtrak's and not muck around with credit cards or manufactured spend.
  • Transfers from Starwood Preferred Guest and Diners Club. If you have a Starwood Preferred Guest American Express or Diners Club credit card (either from the long long ago or during the brief period when cards were available to new applicants) then you can already earn one Amtrak Guest Rewards point per dollar spent at unbonused merchants.
  • The Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. Of course, some people don't have access to American Express credit cards for one reason or another, and almost nobody has access to Diners Club credit cards. That means if you are interested in earning Amtrak Guest Rewards points, don't have paid travel on Amtrak, don't do a lot of online shopping, and don't have a Starwood Preferred Guest or Diners Club credit card, well, you're going to need an Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard.

A few other benefits

The Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard isn't exclusively for folks who redeem points for Amtrak travel: the annual roundtrip companion ticket, even with its numerous restrictions, is the kind of thing that folks who frequently buy paid Amtrak tickets can take advantage of so that a partner or family member can come along on business trips. That's the kind of thing business folks seem to enjoy.

There's also an annual lounge pass. Amtrak lounges are pretty bad, so I'd ordinarily say to just show up right before your train leaves, but given Amtrak delays maybe a lounge pass is more valuable than I'm giving it credit for.

Conclusion

I won't personally be applying for the current increased signup bonus because I have about 9 credit cards that are higher priorities for my applications right now. But if you don't have anything better on deck, I think the Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard is a pretty good card with a better-than-usual signup bonus.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards is probably the best single credit card

I've written before about the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, which I think is probably the best card for unbonused spend, assuming you can put an average of $100,000 into an eligible account for an average of 3 months. Other good candidates are the Discover it Miles card which doubles 1.5% cash back after 12 months (for a total of 3% cash back, if you don't mind the wait) or the USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards card which earns 2.5% cash back with far fewer hoops to jump through (if you're eligible for the card).

While working on a different project, I realized the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card has a different distinction: I think it might be the single best credit card. I mean, if for some reason you only carry one credit card, I think it might be the best one to carry.

To be clear, most travel hackers don't carry only one credit card, and someone who already carries a wide variety of cards for a variety of purposes shouldn't necessarily apply (unless they're able to trigger the higher earnings described in the link above).

What's so great about the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card?

Here's my case for the Travel Rewards card being the best credit card:

  • No annual fee. $0 is the lowest an annual fee can be.
  • No foreign transaction fee. If you travel outside the United States, a card that charges no foreign transaction fees is strictly superior to a card that charges foreign transaction fees.
  • Chip-and-PIN enabled. I did not realize until recently that most (all?) BankAmericard credit cards with chips are PIN-enabled, making it possible to use them at unmanned kiosks outside the United States. You can set the PIN on your BankAmericard credit cards by logging into your account, selecting "Information & Services," and then "Manage card settings."
  • 1.5% cash back rewards (unless you're able to trigger higher earning with Bank of America and affiliate account balances). This is lower than many other credit cards, but not that much lower, which will become important.

What's wrong with the rest?

BankAmericard Travel Rewards has a lot of competition for best single credit card. What's wrong with them?

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited. No annual fee, 1.5% cash back, but with a 3% foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Citi Double Cash. No annual fee, 2% cash back, but with 3% foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Capital One Venture Rewards. $59 annual fee and 2% cash back, no foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Fidelity Rewards Visa. No annual fee, 2% cash back, and 1% foreign transaction fee. Not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus. $89 annual fee, 2.105% cash back, no foreign transaction fee. Chip-and-PIN enabled.

The 1.5% cash back earning rate on the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card is lower than the maximum cash back available on unbonused purchases, but in each case you can see you're making an explicit tradeoff: you can pay an annual fee, a foreign transaction fee, or give up chip-and-PIN capabilities.

Conclusion

At this point I assume my readers are boiling over with outrage about not considering this, that, or the other thing in the world of travel and travel hacking.

Which brings me all the way back to my point. If you know anything about travel hacking this recommendation is absurd; there are so many better cards to apply for first, so many bonus categories to maximize, so many spending requirement thresholds to trigger! But most people don't know anything about travel hacking, and they need recommendations too.

To those people this is my recommendation: sign up for a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and never think about it again.

For the sake of full disclosure, I personally don't carry this card since I don't have $100,000 in assets I can house with Bank of America, but am planning to product change my Better Balance Rewards card to Travel Rewards as soon as I hit that threshold.

Giving up on Drop? Unlink your accounts!

For the last few weeks a lot of us have been messing around with the "Earn With Drop" smartphone application.

As you may have seen around the blogosphere (Miles to Memories, Angelina Travels), Drop has suddenly cracked down on potentially lucrative uses of the application, as well as on folks who were just using it to grind out worthless points here and there on their everyday purchases.

It doesn't matter what I think, but...

Whenever these opportunities come along people get into the speculation game, and trust me, I'm no exception.

So let's speculate.

First of all, the company's current business model is clearly unsustainable, which they discovered (along with the rest of us) when they found they couldn't meet the redemption requests coming in for gift cards out of the limited amount of venture capital they had raised so far.

Second, the company may be in violation of certain banking and international currency rules, since they're based in Canada and for some reason have failed to incorporate a US-based subsidiary. That means not only are they transmitting bank transaction data internationally but they're also sending money across the border in the form of gift cards to folks who have inputted nothing more than an e-mail address. I'm not a lawyer (and I'm definitely not your lawyer), but there are rules on cross-border financial flows that this gift card nonsense is clearly indifferent to. 

Third, they've changed their Terms and Conditions page to exclude the kinds of transactions many of us were doing after the relevant transactions had occurred. Ordinarily I would say that's a violation of US law, except it's a Canadian company acting as a fly-by-night operation in the United States, so who knows what laws it violates?

All this stuff will get to court eventually, probably civil, maybe criminal, and I'll cash my $0.85 settlement check when it arrives.

That's not what this post is about.

Unlink your accounts before you delete Drop!

This post is about reminding you, before you delete the Drop app, to unlink any bank and credit card accounts you had linked inside the app! If the company does have a business model (an open question), it revolves around monetizing your transaction history. If you delete the app without unlinking your accounts, they'll keep monitoring and monetizing your transaction history until they go bankrupt and get acquired by someone even less scrupulous than them (if that's possible), who will do even more terrible things with your transaction history.

Don't let that happen. Unlink your banks and credit cards as soon as you suspect your account has been frozen.

Then grab some popcorn and wait for the fireworks.