Is cash really king for domestic economy travel?

I love cash back. I earn a lot of cash back. Cash back can be used for all sorts of purposes that other currencies are ill-suited for. Things like food and shelter, paying taxes, and saving for retirement. But precisely because my personal preference is to earn as much cash as possible, I like to check in from time to time on exactly how cash back stacks up against other rewards currencies.

For example, that was the inspiration for my imputed redemption value tables, which I use whenever I have to decide whether to book hotel stays with cash or with points.

What's the best credit card?

It doesn't take long after you first get interested in travel hacking for someone to ask, "what's the best credit card?" As your game evolves, the answer naturally changes. If you just got started reading affiliate bloggers, you might confidently state the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the first card anyone should apply for. If you just started manufacturing spend, you might explain the (new) "old" Blue Cash is an easy money maker. And if you just spent an evening chasing phantom award space, you might just answer that it's best to run as fast as possible away from travel hacking.

I've been at this for a few years now, and my approach to advising curious acquaintances is to make sure they have a 2% cash back credit card. It doesn't really matter which one. Neither the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express or Citi Double Cash has an annual fee. Fidelity's card gives you access to Amex Sync offers over Twitter, and the Citi card has slightly wider acceptance. Get either, or get both (I have both, although so far I've only used my Double Cash for the 15-month negative-interest-rate loan).

This isn't because a 2% cash back card is the best way to earn travel. It's because as long as 2% cash back cards exist, that's the standard you should judge all other travel rewards cards against. But if you don't have a 2% cash back card, the exercise is academic!

Is cash back the best way to earn economy travel?

The cliche that cash back is the best way to earn economy travel has two logical bases:

  • co-branded credit cards earn 1 mile per dollar spent;
  • and it's hard to get more than 2 cents per mile on economy redemptions.

The argument is then strengthened with reference to the fact that paying with cash gives you access to the airlines and flights of your choosing and that revenue fares are mileage-earning. It follows that while airline miles may give deep discounts on (capacity-controlled) premium-cabin redemptions, you're better off earning cash back if you're content to fly economy (as I, in fact, am).

It's an elegant argument. But is it true?

Do co-branded credit cards earn 1 mile per dollar?

It's true that most airline co-branded credit cards earn 1 mile per dollar.

But the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card earns 1 Starpoint per dollar, which, when transferred in 20,000 increments, is worth 1.25 American AAdvantage or Alaska Mileage Plan mile.

Meanwhile, the Chase United Club card earns 1.5 Mileage Plus miles per dollar spent everywhere.

Suddenly we don't need to get 2 cents per mile, but just 1.6 (American and Alaska) or 1.3 (United) cents per dollar in order to break even compared to a 2% cash back card — although both the Starwood Preferred Guest and United Club cards have annual fees to beware of.

Is it hard to get 2 cents per mile on economy redemptions?

Because of capacity controls, the hoary wisdom states, award space is typically available only on dates when airlines expect to have unsold inventory, which are also the dates when airlines are supposed to price their seats most competitively.

But in addition to the "low"-level award inventory travel hackers love so dearly, American, United, and Alaska Airlines also offer more expensive awards that escape most capacity controls. While they're much-maligned by those who will pay any price to avoid using their miles on anything but low-level awards, this is in fact precisely the supposed benefit of booking with cash: access to any flight on any day!

Paying with cash, therefore, has to be compared not just to capacity-controlled low-level seats, but also to more expensive last-seat-availability awards. So, how do they compare?

Where do your domestic economy flights fall?

One could imagine four constellations of datapoints when looking at airfares and award availability:

  • Expensive fares with low-level availability. @turnbullben on Twitter suggested American's flight from Richmond to New York City as an example of an expensive fare, and he's right: American wants $405 for a one-way flight on November 2, 2015. But they'll take 12,500 AAdvantage miles, instead! These are the redemptions that are the airlines' worst enemy: when someone who would otherwise spend a lot of cash spends just a handful of miles.
  • Cheap fares without low-level availability. These are the opposite of the above: fares where you'd be crazy to redeem miles, getting well less than 1 cent per mile.
  • Cheap fares with low-level availability. If 12,500-mile seats are available, you need to be saving at least $200 to justify transferring Starpoints in for a low-level redemption. But there are plenty of airfares cheaper than that, and those are the ones cash was made for.
  • Expensive fares without low-level availability. These are the edge cases: do you spend more money than you'd like to spend or redeem more miles than you'd like to redeem? In January, American wants $1,122 for their nonstop flights between Chicago's O'Hare airport and San Jose, California. But they'll take 20,000 AAdvantage miles, instead. That's more AAdvantage miles than you'd prefer to spend on a domestic economy ticket, but it's also a 5.61-cent-per-mile return.

Conclusion

I don't get paid enough to give advice, so don't take this post as an invitation to apply for a $450-annual-fee United Club card. But the cliche that domestic economy flights should be paid for with cash, rather than miles, is treated as such gospel that I wanted to take a step back and interrogate it a little further today.

If your local airport is served by multiple competing airlines, you'll likely find fares too cheap to bother redeeming miles for. If you're a hub captive, you may find yourself buying fares so expensive that even high-level awards give you a better return on your credit card spend.

Booking Iberia award tickets for fun and profit

Before I get started today, it would be irresponsible of me not to state that your Avios are fine. You see, the last time I wrote about Iberia, the travel hacking blogosphere exploded with speculation about an upcoming British Airways Avios devaluation. While British Airways Avios have since been devalued, they weren't devalued in the specific, weird way that Iberia was pricing out oneworld partner awards.

So promise you won't freak out.

Iberia charges lower fuel surcharges on their own flights than British Airways does

Once you've initialized your Iberia account, you can freely transfer Avios between a British Airways, Avios.com, and Iberia Plus Avios account.

The obvious reason to do so is that on identical Iberia-operated flights, you'll be charged lower fuel surcharges using Avios in an Iberia Plus account than Avios in a British Airways account.

For example, here's an Iberia Plus Avios redemption between Chicago and Madrid in early January, pricing out at 20,000 Iberia Plus Avios and €74.20 ($85.54):

And here's the exact same itinerary pricing out at 20,000 British Airways Avios and $275:

Did you see my sleight of hand?

I'll give you a hint: one of the fuel surcharges I cited had to be converted to US dollars. One of them was converted for me.

British Airways has a funny approach to currency conversion

Here's a British Airways-operated flight between Chicago and Budapest in June, 2015. With Great Britain's passenger charges, as expected there are some substantial taxes and fees on such a ticket. It prices out at 19,500 Avios and $321:

Here's the same ticket priced out on Iberia's website, costing 19,500 Avios and €264.34 ($304.70):

I understand, you're not impressed with my saving you $16.30 in surcharges. Now watch this.

British Airways and Iberia both let you buy Avios at deep discounts

Instead of paying 19,500 Avios and $321, British Airways will let you book the same itinerary for just 6,700 Avios and $481, letting you buy 12,800 Avios for $160, or 1.25 cents each:

Meanwhile, Iberia will let you buy 9,750 Avios for €90 ($103), or 1.06 cents each:

At this point you might start to admit that this currency conversion business is at least worth being aware of. Now watch this.

British Airways and Iberia both let you buy lots of Avios for premium-cabin awards

I've been showing you economy cabin redemptions so far. But British Airways also operates premium cabins!

Here are the same Chicago-Budapest flights in business class, priced out at 62,750 British Airways Avios and $491, allowing you to buy 30,950 Avios for $805, or 2.6 cents each:

And here's the same flight priced out for 62,750 Iberia Plus Avios and €412.26 ($475.82), allowing you to buy 30,100 Iberia Plus Avios for €510 ($588.63), or 1.96 cents each:

Conclusion

I would never suggest earning, let alone buying, rewards currencies speculatively: if your account balances are high enough, you'll be better off simply transferring your Membership Rewards or Ultimate Rewards points to Avios and booking traditional award tickets.

On the other hand, if you're diligently keeping your flexible balances as low as possible, and especially if you're planning trips involving high-value Hyatt redemptions (or if you have a Southwest companion pass), you may well find that buying up the Avios you need to complete a redemption makes sense compared to transferring the points in from Chase Ultimate Rewards.

If you happen to find yourself in that situation, do yourself a favor and see if an Iberia Avios redemption will save you a couple hundred dollars.

Personal finance digression: putting Mango in "time out"

I periodically write about high-interest accounts which I think are obvious choices for people with basically unlimited access to cash. In June I wrote that Mango prepaid cards had stopped accepting new applications. Shortly after that, the similar Union Plus Prepaid card was discontinued and cardholders were told that our accounts would be closed and a new prepaid card provider would contact us by September 16, 2015.

Reminder: why these cards were great

Although it was never advertised or clearly communicated, the Mango and Union Plus prepaid cards were great savings vehicles for two reasons:

  • the linked 6% APY savings accounts did not, in fact, require any employer direct deposits to have their well-above-market interest rates triggered;
  • the prepaid card balance allowed Automated Clearing House (ACH) "pulls" initiated by most credit cards and banks.

That meant that simply parking $5,000 (or $15,000 — cardholders were allowed 3 distinct accounts with a $5,000 limit on each 6% APY savings account) in the linked savings accounts allowed cardholders to generate a little over 5% APY (after a $3 monthly fee) on what were completely liquid funds: each month, the interest could be moved from the savings account to the linked prepaid card account and withdrawn as a transfer to most bank accounts or as a credit card payment.

The new Mango product is not the same as the old Mango product

In July, Mango announced that they would transition from their existing MasterCard prepaid product to a Visa prepaid product, and invited existing cardholders to apply for the new product.

I've now completely transitioned one of my accounts to the new Visa prepaid product, and am not impressed. Here's what I know so far about the new product, and about transitioning from the old product:

  • Once you activate your new Visa prepaid card, your prepaid and savings account balances instantly transfer to the account you access at my.mangomoney.com, rather than at rev.mangomoney.com;
  • You can continue to make ACH deposits to your new, Visa prepaid account using the First Bank & Trust routing number you used previously (114994196) using your First Bank & Trust account number;
  • You can no longer make ACH withdrawals using that account information;
  • You can also not make ACH withdrawals using the Sunrise Bank routing number (091017138) that comes with your Visa prepaid card.

The new accounts have been around for too little time to provide definite answers to the following questions:

  • Do you need to receive $500 in direct deposits to qualify for 6% APY on the new savings accounts?
  • If so, what direct deposits qualify?
  • Is the $2,500 daily purchase limit enforced?

The answer to these questions is essential since the principle benefit of using these accounts for your high-interest savings was their liquidity. If the $2,500 daily purchase limit is enforced, than it would take 2 full days to withdraw $2,500 from the prepaid account by buying, for example, money orders. If the daily purchase limit is not enforced, then while there would be a slight inconvenience, you could still withdraw a $5,000 balance by simply buying five $1,000 money orders at a cost of roughly $3.50.

Likewise, if a $500 direct deposit is required to trigger the savings account's high interest rate, that will require also finding the time each month to move that $500 back to cash using a method besides ACH pulls.

Neither of those are deal-breakers, but they're both far short of complete liquidity.

I don't trust this company enough to find out

I'm not planning to close my Mango accounts for now, but I am putting them in "time out:" I'm withdrawing all the money from my accounts and redistributing it. In the case of my "old" MasterCard account, that means simply making ACH withdrawals from the linked checking account. In the case of my "new" Visa account, it means buying cheap money orders, since ACH withdrawals no longer work. Since I haven't maxed out my Consumers Credit Union Rewards Checking account yet, I'll park the money there until the dust settles and earn a "mere" 5.09% APY on it.

I'll keep an eye on the situation and if the state of play evolves significantly I'll be sure to update my readers.

In the meantime, here are two invaluable resources regarding all things Mango (if you don't mind wading through the personal attacks):

Weekend Roundup Roundup for August 23, 2015

A lot of bloggers write weekend roundups of their own posts or posts from other bloggers they found interesting or helpful that week.

So many, in fact, that it can be hard to keep track of them all. To make it easier, here's the inaugural Weekend Roundup Roundup: your roundup of all the weekend roundups you may have missed:

How to get started travel hacking (hint: don't apply for any credit cards!)

A lot of people seem to treat my site as a space for "advanced" travel hackers, but I've never felt that way myself; in fact, I don't think of myself as an "advanced" travel hacker at all!

  • I don't know the first thing about fuel dumps (although I took advantage of one for my January trip to Italy).
  • I don't game voluntary denied boarding vouchers (although I was pleased as punch to take one last Sunday).
  • I don't pore over portal bonuses, buying and reselling gift cards and merchandise in order to manufacture spend (although I'll always use portals and bonus categories to buy the things I need at the steepest discount possible).

I consider myself a working travel hacker. This is my job: I love it, I have a lot of fun, and my readers are the greatest, but I'm no expert.

I wrote my (now quite outdated) ebook, and launched this site, not because I had any special insight into travel hacking, but because all the major existing blogs were so obviously taking advantage of their readers' ignorance.

In other words, I've always thought of this site as a resource to save beginners from experts, not to pile more expert advice on them. With that in mind, here is the best beginner advice I can muster from my experience in the travel hacking game.

Don't apply for credit cards (until you're ready)

Manufacturing spend with the right co-branded and proprietary credit cards is a fantastic way to generate miles and points that you can redeem for travel.

Manufacturing spend with the wrong co-branded and proprietary credits cards is a fantastic way to generate profits for the issuing banks.

There is a whole industry committed to convincing you that what's good for the banks' bottom lines is good for you. It isn't. The only way you'll ever be able to make the right decision about what credit cards should be in your travel hacking portfolio is taking deep dives into the earning and redeeming structure of each card.

A lot of that information is here. A lot of that information is on Google. And if it's not in either place, ask!

Your credit score is not even among your most valuable assets

Bloggers who are paid based on the number of successful credit card applications you complete are naturally game to figure out how to "goose" your credit score as much as possible.

If you're interested in applying for new credit cards, it's worth learning how to improve your credit score in order to ensure those applications are successful.

For example, once you figure out when your credit cards report their balances to the credit bureaux, you can pay off those balances ahead of time: that will ensure that however much you spend each month, other credit card companies will treat you as debt-free.

But unless you're applying for new credit, you should basically not care about your credit score month-to-month. Your credit score does not hover above your head while you go about your daily business.

Plan around (your!) actual travel

One particularly pernicious feature of affiliate blogging is picking random "aspirational" destinations and explaining how the credit cards the blogger is selling will get you there.

But if you weren't interested in traveling to Bali before you discovered travel hacking, why would some random credit card bonus encourage you to go there?

Once you've examined your actual travel plans, you'll likely find that a 2% cash back card serves your needs best.

And when you've come to terms with that, you'll finally be able to calculate how other signup bonuses and earning rates will allow you to save money by leveraging hotel, airline, and proprietary bank points.

Conclusion

My animosity towards the "Big 5" affiliate travel blogs is no secret. But there's no straightforward way to keep folks who are newly interested in the hobby from falling into the same expensive mistakes over, and over, and over again. There may never be.

And as long as that's the case, I'll keep writing.

Using Mint to track travel hacking expenses and returns

The single most important thing you can do to succeed in travel hacking is stay organized. That's true of every single aspect of the game:

  • If you're booking your hotel stays through a portal like Rocketmiles or Pointshound, you have to make sure the correct number of miles post for each and every reservation: miles posting incorrectly or not at all means foregoing hotel loyalty points in vain;
    • If you're chasing elite status, you have to make sure you know the number of elite-qualifying miles you need each year and game out each and every flight you plan to take: falling short by a few hundred — or even just a few — elite-qualifying miles is in most cases a catastrophic failure;
  • If you're manufacturing spend across a number of credit cards, you need to keep track of the statement closing and payment due dates of each and every one of your cards: a single missed payment will result in interest and penalties that can wipe out the returns on months of manufactured spend.

I use a variety of methods to track my manufactured spend, but just one to track my actual income and expenses: Mint.com.

Mint can download most transactions from most banks most of the time

Most major banks and many reloadable prepaid card accounts can be added to your Mint master account. When you do so, each time you refresh your Mint account your balances and transactions are downloaded from each bank's server.

The system's not perfect, and I find that Mint's servers are unable to download transactions from some banks most of the time. US Bank is a particular offender — don't bother using Mint to track business credit card accounts with US Bank.

Tracking transactions is nice in and of itself, but the real genius of Mint is allowing you to recategorize transactions, which is to say reassign them from the category Mint guesses they belong, to the category where you know they really belong.

Recategorizing transactions gives you a concrete sense of your actual income and expenses

Here's a deposit to my primary local credit union checking account. Mint originally categorized it as "Income," but I knew better and recategorized it as "Transfer:"

That keeps Mint from adding that amount to my monthly income statistics.

In addition to recategorizing transactions, Mint also allows you to "split" them. Here's a recent purchase I made at one popular merchant:

Mint, naturally enough, originally categorized the $504.94 transaction as an expense. But, knowing better, I categorized just $5.64 of it as "Fees & Charges," while the remaining $499.30 has no effect on how Mint reports my income and expenses since I recategorized it as a "Transfer."

As a final example, for tax reasons it's necessary for me to track my self-employment income. But I also want to treat things like credit card retention bonuses, statement credits, and cash back as positive income flow. To do that, I use Mint's "bonus" category (you can create your own categories to help refine transaction reporting even further):

Don't worry, I'll be paying self-employment tax on Andy's subscription come April.

Do you need to keep track of your manufactured spend expenses?

This practice gives me an instant grasp each month of every penny I spend on fees while manufacturing spend, and also lets me see at a glance how much of a cash return I get on those fees.

It's also a pain in the ass.

Don't get me wrong: I do all this coding while in bed each morning sipping a cup of coffee or three. But you don't get to sleep in every day, sipping coffee. You have a job. Hell, you may have two jobs!

So should you keep track of your manufactured spend expenses as closely as I do? There are strong arguments on both sides.

On the one hand, as I hopefully made clear, Mint can only keep track of dollar-denominated expenses and returns. It won't tell you how valuable your Hilton HHonors points or United Mileage Plus miles are; it will only tell you how much you paid for them. Since you aren't recording income each time you redeem your miles and points, why should you record your costs each time you earn them?

On the other hand, you really are spending cash money when you manufacture spend. That's money you can't put towards a down payment, towards tuition, or towards retirement. It's gone, and if you use Mint to track your expenses, logic demands that those expenditures be recorded somehow as well.

Conclusion

Ultimately, I come down on the side of meticulously tracking manufactured spend expenses, not because they make a huge impact on my net worth, but because I find it risky to dispense with absolutely rigorous honesty when so much is potentially at stake. I can't help but think that if someone doesn't face the concrete costs they pay when manufacturing spend, they'll be more likely to ignore similar expenses elsewhere in their financial life.

That being the case, I'm happy erring on the side of scrupulous honesty when it comes to my own income and expenses.

Loyalty is an expensive, annoying trap

I shared on Monday that over the weekend I was the proud recipient of $1,300 in Delta voluntary denied boarding compensation, and reflected on some of the possible consequences for the miles and points I'd budgeted for my upcoming travel.

Since I booked some speculative hotel rooms in Eastern Europe for next summer before the latest Club Carlson devaluation, but haven't booked our flights yet, I thought that would be a good place to see how far $1,300 in Delta transportation would get me.

The answer, it turns out, is pretty far! I was able to find this great itinerary flying into Prague and out of Frankfurt, for example, for $1,294, marketed and operated by Delta:

Since there are two of us going, I decided I'd use my Delta transportation voucher to fully pay for my ticket (since the voucher was issued in my name), then redeem FlexPoints or even SkyMiles for the other (if low-level award space opens up — fat chance!).

Silver Medallion status has (a few) privileges

Then I remembered: as a Silver Medallion, I get to choose Comfort+ seats within 24 hours of departure on Delta-operated flights for myself and companions flying on the same itinerary. If I book my partner and I on separate itineraries, I won't be able to select a Comfort+ seat for her without paying $129 for the outbound leg and $99 for the return.

Alternatively, I can book the two tickets on Delta's website, using the transportation voucher to cover the first $1,300 and paying cash for the balance. That would be way too expensive, even if I used my Arrival+ MasterCard to pay the the balance.

On domestic flights, you may or may not care about Comfort+ seating, but on two long-haul international flights, I don't think it's unreasonable to want some additional legroom in economy.

Loyalty makes easy decisions harder

I'll grant that this sounds like a corner case – a curiosity – and not a real problem. But in fact, I find myself in similar situations with some regularity.

Later this year we're flying to Portland to celebrate my partner's birthday. The flights I wanted cost $330, and were pricing out at 20,000 SkyMiles roundtrip. This is basically a wash: redeeming 20,000 FlexPoints would give me the equivalent of 3.33% cash back on $10,000 in spend, while redeeming SkyMiles would get me a 2.3% return on $14,285 in spend (since I earn 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent on my American Express Delta Platinum card).

Both returns exceed the 2.22% I'd earn with my Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, so there's no wrong choice. On the one hand, my preference is to redeem SkyMiles as aggressively as possible, because of their rapidly dropping value. On the other hand, I'd like to keep my Alaska Airlines MVP status next year, and to do so I'll need all the paid Delta flights I can get.

So I split the difference: I redeemed SkyMiles for my partner's ticket, and FlexPoints for mine, for an average return of 2.72% on $24,285 in manufactured spend.

Here again, only I'll have access to Comfort+ seating, but additionally I'll have a free checked bag thanks to my Medallion status, while my partner will have to pile her firearms, knives, and dry ice into my bag in order to avoid Delta's checked bag fees.

Conclusion

Checked bag fees and charges for preferred seating are huge revenue sources for the airlines, and can be huge expenses for passengers willing to pay them. The free checked bags and preferred seats offered to elites are therefore real, tangible benefits of elite status.

But elite status also makes it easier to be guided by motivated reasoning, allowing you to justify decisions you wouldn't otherwise consider.

In my first example, Delta is presenting me with a false choice: buy a second cash ticket in order to secure my partner Comfort+ seating, or redeem Flexpoints for the second ticket and pay to upgrade my partner. It's a false choice because absent elite status we would both be fine sitting in Main Cabin seats!

In my second example, I'm redeeming valuable Flexpoints for my ticket instead of taking the opportunity to empty my SkyMiles account even further, all in order to earn a few thousand more Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan elite-qualifying miles.

How do you react to a shock to your travel budget? How should you?

Yesterday my scheduled flight out from my ancestral homeland was overbooked — very overbooked. They asked for 6 volunteers, and ended up taking 5 of them, each of whom received $1,300 in Delta voluntary denied boarding compensation. I was one of the lucky inconvenienced (my partner was volunteer #6, and had to actually fly home, the poor thing), and the proud owner of $1,300 in Delta travel.

Then I realized that I had a problem. I already manufacture enough miles and points to pay for my planned hotels and air travel. In fact, once my next statement closes and my HHonors points post, I'll have all 5 of my remaining planned vacations this calendar year fully booked.

Moreover, Delta transportation vouchers are non-transferrable: the recipient has to be one of the passengers on the reservation — although excess funds can be used to pay for additional passengers on the same reservation.

Air transportation vouchers are worth (much) less than cash

This is a corollary of my argument that statement credits are worth (much) less than cash: for me, $1,300 in airfare is worth a maximum of $700, since that's the cash value of the 70,000 US Bank Flexpoints I would otherwise redeem for a reservation costing between $1,200 and $1,400, and as little as $350 or so, which is roughly what I paid out of pocket for those Flexpoints.

But does that mean I should take my $1,300 in bump compensation by redeeming 70,000 Flexpoints for $700 in cash?

Thinking about travel budget shocks

With a nod to economics, we can describe what happened yesterday as a positive "shock" to my travel budget. If my miles and points balances, travel needs, and manufactured spend strategy were previously in equilibrium, they are now by definition out of equilibrium: I've now accidentally purchased more (deeply-discounted) travel than I have a current plan for using. Since I try to never earn miles and points speculatively, this disequilibrium requires action.

But what action? Here are four ways I could respond to this travel budget shock.

Monetization

No, I don't mean selling the transportation voucher — it can only be used for reservations where I'm one of the passengers. I have in mind the following logic:

  • I just received $1,300 in airfare.
  • I planned to redeem 70,000 Flexpoints for my next $1,300 in airfare.
  • Instead I'll use the transportation voucher and redeem my Flexpoints for $700 in cash.

It's true that my Flexpoints are worth more than $700 when redeemed for airfare, but that's begging the question: the whole point is that $1,300 in airfare is worth less than $1,300.

Why do you think the airlines are so eager to give it away?

Travel more

I have a strategy for earning all the miles and points I need for the travel I already have planned, but now that I have $1,300 in Delta funny money, I can travel more than I expected. There's always somewhere to go, after all!

The simplest way to do this is to not alter my planned earning and redemption at all: if all my trips are already optimized between revenue fares (paid for with cheap Ultimate Rewards points and Flexpoints) and award trips, then I can convert my Delta transportation voucher directly into airfare for new trips.

A more nuanced (read: time-consuming) approach would be to re-optimize all my refundable and not-yet-booked air reservations. For example, a $450 ticket that I might have planned to reluctantly redeem 30,000 Flexpoints against can now be paid for with my transportation voucher, while I can redeem those Flexpoints for a new trip costing up to $600.

Likewise, a $250 flight against which I might have redeemed 20,000 Ultimate Rewards points can now be paid for with Delta funny money, and I can start looking around for a high-value Hyatt redemption where I can stretch those same Ultimate Rewards points.

Convert to leisure

My current manufactured spend strategy met my current needs before the travel budget shock, but now it exceeds those needs by $1,300. Sounds like it's time for a vacation! For the next 70,000 Flexpoints I had planned to earn, now I get to hit the alarm clock and go back to sleep.

Just kidding. I don't have an alarm clock.

But for those of you who do, if your goal is to earn the miles and points you need to meet your travel needs, a large positive travel budget shock like this is a godsend. Spend the time you would have spent at the grocery store, gas station, or hunting down promising Kiva loans with your kids. They probably won't appreciate it, but you will.

Switch to cash

Everyone has their "best" cash back option. Maybe it's 5% cash back with a US Bank Cash+ Visa card or a "new" "old" Blue Cash card. Maybe it's 2.625% cash back with a Bank of America Travel Rewards card. Maybe it's 2.105% cash back with a Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard. Maybe it's 2%+ with a Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express (or Visa, or MasterCard). Maybe it's a Citi Double Cash (although that's a stretch).

If you don't want to slow down your manufactured spend, and you don't want to monetize the points you've already earned, this is your hybrid option: start earning the most cash back possible with the cards you already have, instead of earning the points you had intended to redeem for your travel.

After all, everyone wants money. That's why they call it money.

What about negative travel budget shocks?

The impetus for this post was a huge positive travel budget shock. But there are other kinds of shocks: you could lose access to a merchant that previously allowed you to manufacture spend; you could suddenly learn of an unanticipated trip you have to take; Delta could stop publishing award charts and your miles could suddenly be worthless for the trips you planned to take.

You don't need to plan for every eventuality, but you should plan for some eventualities.

Conclusion

Don't for a second think that this post is meant to say that you need to treat every "win" as an excuse to lose sleep worrying over how to deal with it. The first thing you need to do is celebrate (I know I did).

But when you're done celebrating, you may want to spend a minute or two figuring out how you're going to work your win, big or small, into your overall miles and points strategy.

New Staples Visa gift cards got you down? Try these two weird old tricks

I like buying Visa gift cards from Staples. I buy a lot of Visa gift cards from Staples. But the new Staples Visa gift card design has been causing me enough frustration that it's started to disrupt my mellow manufactured spend lifestyle.

I was tossing and turning the other night, dreading liquidating the $600 in Visa gift cards I had in my sock drawer, when I had a vision, a vision of restoring my manufactured spend equilibrium.

Background: the new Visa gift card design

Via Miles to Memories, here's a handy picture of the "old" Visa gift card design (on the left) and the "new" Visa gift cards (on the right) that have been costing me so much tranquility:

Problem 1: glue used on new peels is sticky and gross

The previous generation of Visa gift cards could be liquidated right out of the package, once you'd removed any obstructing glue dots. The new card design still has the last four digits of the card number set as the default PIN, but the card number is itself covered by a peel that uses the stickiest, most inconvenient glue I've ever seen on a prepaid debit card. While removing the peel, and while being transported in your pocket or wallet, this glue gets everywhere, and can seriously affect the ability of the card to be swiped smoothly through magnetic readers.

Solution 1: don't remove the peel

Remember, you only need the last four digits of the card number in order to use the card as a PIN-enabled prepaid debit card. So instead of removing the peel completely, just peel back the right corner and jot down the last four digits somewhere — for example, on the card itself:

Once you've noted the last four digits, return the peel to its original position: no muss, no fuss.

Problem 2: stray scraps of terms and conditions coming off on cards

This has happened on one third of the cards I've purchased in the last few weeks: a random glue splotch causes a strip of the paper that the card's terms and conditions are printed on to come off on the card, directly opposite the magnetic strip. This catastrophe causes the card to catch every time it's swiped, making it frustrating or even impossible to liquidate using a magnetic card reader. Here's an offending example:

Solution 2: wrap it in receipt paper

This is a trick I learned years ago, but haven't had occasion to use in a long time. But while tossing and turning last night, I remembered: by wrapping a card in receipt paper, you can prevent irregularities in the card's surface from preventing the card's magnetic strip from being recognized. Just hold the receipt paper folded tight around the magnetic strip, position it at the top of the magnetic reader, and give it a smooth stroke:

Result: success on my first swipe, and no awkward insistence that my Walmart cashiers let me swipe my cards over, and over, and over again.