Let's talk about the Hyatt signup bonus change

As I first saw on Wednesday afternoon via Charles Barkowski's Running With Miles, but which you can now read about everywhere fine affiliate links are sold, starting June 29, 2017, the Chase Hyatt credit card will apparently come with a signup bonus not of 2 free nights at any Hyatt in the world, but rather 40,000 World of Hyatt bonus points.

This is being treated in most corners of the blogosphere as a simple question of whether 40,000 World of Hyatt points are worth "more" or "less" than 2 free nights, which leads to the simple answer that the new signup bonus is worth "less" if you were planning to redeem your 2 free nights at properties that cost more than 20,000 points per nights (category 6 and 7 World of Hyatt properties), and they're worth "more" if you were planning to redeem your 2 free nights at properties that cost 20,000 or fewer points per night (since you would have points left over).

That's fine, as far as it goes. What this changeover does give me the occasion to mention is my general preference for points over free night certificates. I already have a Hyatt credit card, but for people considering whether to apply before or after the changeover, here's my logic.

There are three possible situations in which you might redeem Hyatt free night certificates, good at any Hyatt in the world:

  • A stay in a city with only a category 6 or 7 property. If you're flying into Milan for two nights, you can redeem your two free night certificates for two nights at the Park Hyatt Milan, which retail for hilariously large sums, and are worth $300 per night in transferred Ultimate Rewards points. Here, your two free night certificates are worth $600, the value of the Ultimate Rewards points you don't have to transfer to World of Hyatt. This is a straightforward savings of $200 compared to the 40,000 World of Hyatt points available under the new offer. The same logic applies to Hyatt's luxury resort in the Maldives. If you're going anyway, you should pay less, rather than more, for your stay.
  • A stay in a city with properties in categories 6, 7 and below. Take a destination like Paris, home of the notorious Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome, a category 7 property. Paris is also the home of, a few blocks away, the Hôtel du Louvre-Paris, a category 5 property. If you are staying for exactly two nights, then you are perfectly justified in preferring two nights at the category 7 property over the same two nights at a category 5 property. But what happens on the third night? The Park Hyatt Paris-Vendome costs an additional 30,000 World of Hyatt points, while the Hôtel du Louvre costs just 20,000 additional points. On longer stays, choosing to redeem your free night certificates for "maximum value" costs an additional 10,000 points per night, unless you're interested in moving between hotels during your stay.
  • A stay in a city with properties only in categories 1-4. Here the advantage of the 40,000-point signup offer is obvious: in categories 1-4, 40,000 points go further than 2 free night certificates do. Seattle is an example of a city with a slew of downtown Hyatt properties, all of which cost less than 20,000 points per night. If that's where your next trip is planned, you'll be better off with the new signup bonus rather than sitting on free night certificates waiting for the "perfect" high-value redemption.

I don't have anything against luxury travel, if that's what you're interested in, and the current two-free-night offer is worth up to 20,000 more World of Hyatt points than the upcoming 40,000-point offer for travel to the most expensive Hyatt properties.

But it's also worth up to 30,000 points less, if you tend to redeem your Hyatt points at category 1 properties that cost just 5,000 points per night.

If you trade 8 nights at a category 1 property for 8 nights at a category 7 property (with two nights free), you'll find yourself spending 180,000 World of Hyatt points or tens of thousands of dollars in cash.

Call that an extreme example if you like, but I've always found spending money is damned strange way to save money.

Pro tip: Flexpoints can only be redeemed online for most international travel 7 days in advance

Here's a new one for me. A long-time reader reached out to me, as the biggest fan of US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards in the blogosphere, to ask whether I'd had any experience booking close-in tickets using Flexpoints. He was trying to book a ticket to the Caribbean in exactly one week, and wrote that "the website will not show me anything prior to [one week out]."

I wasn't sitting at my computer so couldn't see exactly what he was seeing, but replied that while Flexpoints could not be redeemed for same day travel (and indeed, neither can Ultimate Rewards points), they certainly can be redeemed for travel within a week.

It turns out, we were both right: Flexpoints can be redeemed for next-day domestic travel but can only be redeemed online for travel 7 or more days in advance to international destinations excluding Canada. Next-day flights to Canada are fine (I couldn't find any other exceptions, but if you know of another country that's an exception, let me and other readers know in the comments).

While researching this post I also came across another curious restriction:

"Travel itineraries booked online require at least one USA or Canadian airport. To book a travel itinerary that does not include a USA or Canadian airport, you may contact a Travel Rewards Agent at 1-866-814-1293."

My reader was ultimately able to call and book his close-in Caribbean flight, but was charged an additional $25 phone booking fee for each ticket, which he couldn't convince the representative to waive. It's not clear to me how much discretion agents have to waive those fees — I did have a $30 change fee waived in the past.

Out of curiosity, I also checked the Ultimate Rewards booking portal and they have no trouble booking next-day international flights online. Between the $25 per ticket booking fee, and the superior travel insurance offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve, that may be a better option than US Bank Flexpoints when booking close-in paid international travel, depending on where the fare falls in a Flexpoint redemption band (and what other uses you have planned for your Ultimate Rewards points).

Playing defense and avoiding unforced errors

When in comes to travel hacking, I personally believe that defense offers more consistent opportunities for gains than offense. If offense is making bold speculative plays that you know might not pan out, due to clawbacks, accounts closures, or rejected applications, defense means, above all, avoiding unforced errors. If you don't have the discipline to pick low-hanging fruit and avoid unforced errors, it's vanishingly unlikely you'll have the discipline to maximize the value of more speculative plays.

With that in mind, here are the most common unforced errors that travel hackers of all experience levels are prone to, and how to avoid them.

Register for hotel promotions

Most hotel chains run periodic promotions, whether they call them quarterly or seasonal promotions, which invariably require you to actively register in order to receive the benefits of the promotion. Registering for these promotions isn't just a matter of going on "offense," although I've done that in the past in order to trigger particularly high payouts from hotel chains that work with my existing plans.

It's also a matter of defense: if you find yourself stranded at an airport overnight trying to book a paid reservation before all the airport hotels have sold out, you're not likely to also remember to register for that particular chain's current promotion. Registering in advance is a way of protecting yourself against that kind of unforced error.

There are a few sites that track such promotions, although none of them are perfect. I maintain a list of mostly-up-to-date hotel promotions, and try to periodically remind readers to register for current promotions. Loyalty Lobby maintains a more comprehensive list, but since he includes every single "buy 3 nights get the 4th night 20% off in the Middle East from Thursday to Saturday" promotion it's wickedly difficult to navigate and find the actual promotions you're both eligible for and interested in.

Activate bonus cash back

This is another low-hanging fruit that shouldn't pose much of a difficulty, but I've confessed to forgetting to activate the bonus cash back on my Discover it card before spending $1,500 at the beginning of a quarter.

Be smarter than me: before each quarter starts, be sure to activate the cash back bonus on each one of your Chase Freedom, US Bank Cash+, Discover it, and Citi Dividend cards.

Charge purchases to the right card

As a general rule, the credit card you use to pay for actual purchases is of next to no interest. Sure, there are banks that offer "price rewind" or extended warranties, but you, in fact, will likely never take advantage of those benefits.

There are a few situations, however, where it becomes essential to charge your purchases to a particular card.

  • If you're renting a car, and have a credit card that offers primary rental car insurance (like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Reserve, or the Chase United MileagePlus card), you should be sure to pay for your rental car with that credit card. Primary rental car insurance doesn't matter as much as affiliate bloggers want you to believe, but it's also not nothing. If you have the benefit, use it.
  • If you're redeeming a Delta Platinum or Reserve American Express companion ticket, you're forced to pay with an American Express card. According to Frequent Miler, if you pay with an American Express Platinum Business credit card (and Delta is your selected carrier), you're able to redeem Membership Rewards points against the cost of the ticket at your Platinum bonus rate. If you're in that situation, be sure to pay with the right credit card!
  • Pay award booking fees with a card that offers trip delay insurance. I've written before about taking advantage of the Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance benefit to score a free Hyatt elite-qualifying stay, and about the recent addition of a (somewhat less generous) trip delay insurance benefit to the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard. If you're talking about $10 or $20 in award booking fees, and you have the option of charging them to a card with trip delay insurance, you'd be crazy not to; it's all upside.

Trigger all credits

Folks always pile on when I say that a statement credit is worth much less than cash, so please trust me when I say I understand both sides of the argument.

But where we can all agree is that a statement credit that you never trigger is worth much less than cash: it's not worth anything at all.

So when you sign up for your second, or third, or fourth, or tenth credit card within the same year that offers a $100 Global Entry application fee credit, make sure you use it! Is there anybody in your family that doesn't have Global Entry yet? Anybody at work? Anybody at the gym?

Likewise, your premium credit cards might offer hundreds of dollars of airline fee credits that you're confident you can redeem for cash with refundable seat upgrades, gift cards, or some other wizardry. And it's true: you can. But only if you actually do it!

So be sure to trigger those credits — and the sooner the better.

Avoid point and mile expiration

Since I advocate earning the miles you redeem and redeeming the miles you earn, I never run into the problem of points and miles expiring from my primary rewards accounts. But my secondary accounts, like United MileagePlus and British Airways Avios, certainly can go for a year or more without any natural earning or redemption activity. Avoiding expiration is normally as simple as ordering a newspaper subscription or transferring in 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points, but it's not something you want to put off, in case you forget.

If you have account balances that are going to expire anytime soon, either make a small redemption or activity through a flexible transfer or shopping portal.

Don't pay annual fees

Finally, there's no fruit lower-hanging than cancelling credit cards with annual fees. Bloggers sometimes turn this into some advanced calculation that is designed to leave you so confused you keep worthless cards year after year.

But there's no secret, and you should know the answer to these two questions within seconds: did you get more excess value from the credit card last year than you paid in annual fees? Do you expect to get more excess value from the credit card in the next year than you will pay in annual fees?

If the answer to one or both questions is "no," cancel the card and don't give it another thought.


At the end of the day, I love making big speculative plays for big points hauls, like the IHG Priceless Surprises promotion of late 2015. They're fun and exciting, and sometimes you hit the jackpot (or at least win an expensive sound system). But your travel hacking practice will net you much more travel, at much lower cost, if you can maintain the discipline to avoid the kinds of unforced errors I've described here: the ones that are entirely within your control.

Hotel cashback portal participation (it's complicated)

I've recently had occasion to take a look at a few options for booking paid hotel reservations, and have come across a peculiar situation on several cashback portals. Today I want to share a few observations and offer some suggestions.

Booking portals penalize rewards-earning stays

I came across this issue because the Citi Dividend card (no longer available to new applicants) is offering 5% cashback (up to $300 cashback per calendar year) on airline reservations and Hilton stays during the third quarter of 2017. While I personally reached my cashback maximum in the second quarter (at drug stores) I thought some readers who don't manufacture spend might still be able to earn cashback during the third quarter on paid Hilton stays. After all, even if you have a Hilton Surpass card earning 12 points per dollar spent at Hilton properties, you'd have to consistently value Hilton points above 0.42 cents each to prefer the Hilton points.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at some booking portals you could use to make your Hilton reservations, and discovered that the two portals offering the highest payouts included similar restrictions. In the case of BeFrugal, the payout is:

  • 7% Cash Back on Non-HHonors Rate Completed Stay
  • 6% Cash Back on HHonors Blue Rate Completed Stay
  • 2% Cash Back on HHonors Silver Rate Completed Stay
  • 1% Cash Back on HHonors Gold Or Diamond Rate Completed Stay

And in the cash of TopCashback:

  • 7% Confirmed Booking for Non HHonors Members and Blue Tier HHonors Members
  • 2% Confirmed Booking for Silver Tier HHonors Members
  • 1% Confirmed Booking for Gold and Diamond Tier HHonors Members

In other words, Hilton doesn't want to pay out big cashback rebates to customers to whom it's also paying out big Hilton Honors points rebates.

The reason this is necessary is because once you've clicked through the cashback portal, you land directly on the hotel's website, which means your stay is eligible for hotel rewards as well.

Knowing that some online travel agencies allow you to pay for hotel stays in person on arrival, my first thought was to work around this problem by using an online travel agency with its own rewards program. But the same problem pops up there!

BeFrugal offers to pay out on Hotels.com bookings at the following rates:

  • 9% Cash Back on Completed Hotel Stay - Not A Hotels.com Rewards Rate Customer
  • 3% Cash Back on Completed Hotel Stay - Hotels.com Rewards Rate Customer

In other words, you can earn 9% cash back without earning Hotels.com Rewards nights, or 3% cash back if you choose to earn Hotels.com Rewards nights.

TopCashback offers:

  • 9% Completed Stay without earning Hotels.com Rewards
  • 5% Completed Stay with earning Hotels.com Rewards

Since Hotels.com Rewards nights are worth "about" a 10% rebate, you're better off earning both cashback and Hotels.com rewards nights, if and only if you're sure you'll reach 10 Hotels.com Rewards nights and thus be eligible for a redemption.

Possible workarounds

In the case of online travel agencies, you can stack rewards by choosing the highest cashback portal payout that still earns the OTA's own rewards currency, choosing a rate that's paid in-person, and then paying with a credit card that offers the highest earning rate, like the Citi Dividend in the example I mentioned above. In the case of Hotels.com this might add up to a total rebate of something like 20%: 5% through TopCashback, 10% through Hotels.com, and 5% through the Citi Dividend.

If you want to take advantage of your status with a hotel chain, for example receiving room upgrades or breakfast, as well as earning points or elite-qualifying nights, you'll want to book through the cashback portal that offers the highest payouts on elite-qualifying stays. For example, the Upromise portal offers 5% cashback on Hilton stays and doesn't include restrictions on participation in Hilton Honors.

Finally, if you want to earn the highest payouts, don't need elite status benefits, and are willing to take a chance, you could try booking a paid stay through the highest-paying portal (BeFrugal or TopCashback in the case of Hilton) without logging into your hotel rewards account, and after your stay has completed and your cashback has posted request retroactive points from the hotel chain. Of course that means being unable to take advantage of rates exclusively available to Hilton Honors members.

What's the 5th-best American Express card?

Last Friday I posted a quick analysis of the American Express Blue Business Plus card, which earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, on up to $50,000 in purchases per calendar year.

It got a lot more comments than posts which I would have considered more controversial! There were a few exchanges in the comments that I want to draw out and consider individually.

Opportunity for a negative interest rate loan

I've written before about negative interest rate loans and their value to a travel hacker, and as reader Amol pointed out in the comments, the Blue Business Plus offers such an opportunity: with a 0% APR on purchases for the first 12 months, you should be able to max out your credit limit (up to $50,000) and make only minimum payments for a year. In the last month, you can pay off the card and, since the $50,000 limit is based on the calendar year you'll still be able to spend another $50,000 for a second 100,000 Membership Rewards points in your second calendar year of cardmembership.

Earning 100,000 Membership Rewards points upfront as negative interest on a 12-month loan is a good deal, especially if you have a particularly lucrative redemption opportunity in mind.

Business credit card

As a business credit card, the Blue Business Plus has a few advantages:

  • participation in American Express's OPEN savings program;
  • high balances not reported on personal credit report (helpful if you max out your card as described above);
  • business cards shouldn't count against Chase's approval limit for certain credit cards.

What's the 5th-best American Express credit card?

Several readers commented that they found the $50,000 limit on calendar year purchases that earn 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar too low to make the card worth considering.

There's one sense in which this is strictly true: if you have a card that has a higher earning rate, on an unlimited amount of spend, then you should use that card instead of a Blue Business Plus card. For example, if you have a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and $100,000 of eligible deposits, and you value Membership Rewards points at less than 1.31 cents each, then you should not put any spend on a card that earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent, since you'll get more value earning 2.625% cash back with your Travel Rewards card.

On the other hand, most travel hackers I know accumulate multiple rewards currencies in multiple different ways: paid travel, manufactured spend, reselling, and signup bonuses, to mention a few.

If that's the case, then you don't need to ask if the Blue Business Plus card is the best credit card, or even the best American Express credit card: you only need to ask if it's the 5th-best American Express credit card, since you can have 5 total American Express credit cards.

If you could only have one credit card total across every issuing bank, you'd insist on carrying the single best credit card, which for me would probably be the Chase Ink Plus (no longer available to new applicants, unfortunately). If you could only card one credit card from each bank, you'd need to carefully select the American Express card that best suited your needs: if you wanted to trigger a Delta Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, it would have to be a Delta American Express card. If you wanted to earn points that could be redeemed for hotel rooms and flights, or transferred to partner airline programs, you'd likely choose a Starwood Preferred Guest card.

But in the real world, you can create a portfolio of credit cards that serves a range of functions: you can carry a Delta SkyMiles card for the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, a Starwood Preferred Guest card for hotel stays and transfers to programs like Alaska Mileage Plus and Lufthansa Miles and More, and a Membership Rewards-earning card for transfers to Singapore KrisFlyer, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, or Air Canada Aeroplan.


I don't personally have any intention of signing up for a Blue Business Plus card, since I don't see Membership Rewards as a currency that my readers have reported being able to get a lot of value out of, and I don't see any upcoming opportunities to get outsized value from them in the immediate future. Realistically, I'd probably end up transferring them to Delta and redeeming them for 1 or 2 cents each, which doesn't entice me to go out of my way to earn them.

However, if you consistently get 2 or 3 cents per point in value from Membership Rewards points, then I don't think the $50,000 cap on purchases should pose a serious obstacle, unless it pushes the card below 5th place in your personal ranking of American Express credit cards.

Excited about Amex Blue Business Plus? Let's talk about it

You may have heard that American Express has launched a new business credit card that earns 2 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent everywhere, on up to $50,000 in calendar year spend.

You may also have heard that the 20,000 Membership Rewards-point signup bonus after spending $3,000 on the card is only available through affiliate links, but that's false. I've helpfully stripped the affiliate information off the signup link, so anyone can sign up here without triggering a payout to an affiliate blogger.

Easy to earn is good

The easier points are to earn on unbonused categories of spend, the better. That's true whether we're talking about Ultimate Rewards points, Membership Rewards points, hotel or airline loyalty currencies, or cash back.

The fact that it's now possible to earn 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar on unbonused spend, instead of the 1.5 Membership Rewards points that could be earned on unbonused spend with the Amex Everyday Preferred (after 30 transactions in a given billing cycle), is an unalloyed good.

Hard to redeem is bad

The problem is, making Membership Rewards points easy to earn doesn't make them easy to redeem, and thus can't increase the value of a given Membership Rewards point. If you're the kind of person who regularly gets great value from Membership Rewards points, then earning them at an accelerated rate will get you more of the redemptions you already find valuable. If you're the kind of person who finds Membership Rewards points singularly difficult to redeem, then earning somewhat more of them on your unbonused spend is unlikely to offer much marginal value.

Amex Blue Business Plus Membership Rewards use cases

I'm not here simply to snipe, however. I want to spell out what really are some obvious use cases for the Amex Blue Business Plus. These use cases are obvious because they take into account the decisions you've already made about the value of various rewards currencies.

  • If you are willing to earn 1.4 Delta SkyMiles per dollar spent on an American Express Delta Platinum card, or 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar spent on an American Express Delta Reserve card, you should be willing to earn 2 SkyMiles per dollar spent on an Amex Blue Business Plus card.
  • If you're willing to earn 1.5 British Airways Avios per dollar spent on a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, you should be willing to earn 1.6 Avios per dollar spent on an Amex Blue Business Plus card.
  • If you're willing to earn 1.5 Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles or Air France/KLM Flying Blue miles per dollar spent on a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, you should be willing to earn 2 KrisFlyer or Flying Blue miles per dollar spent on an Amex Blue Business Plus card.


If you are already earning these currencies or transferring your flexible points to these currencies, then being able to earn them with less unbonused spend than you're already doing is a clear win. On the other hand, if spending $50,000 per cardmember year on the Amex Blue Business Plus card simply generates 100,000 Membership Rewards points you have no intention to spend, you'll have found yourself to be the butt of yet another credit card marketing joke.

Hyatt takes suite upgrade awards seriously. Be sure to use them!

On my recent trip to Lexington, Kentucky, I stayed at my favorite downtown hotel, the Hyatt Regency Lexington. It's got a great central location and a decent restaurant downstairs where Hyatt Globalists can take their free breakfast, either from the buffet or off the menu.

Since award stays are now eligible for suite upgrade awards, I called Hyatt as soon as mine posted on March 1 to upgrade my room to a "Junior Suite." The upgrade was confirmed and the suite upgrade award was deducted from my account.

Now, I wasn't traveling with my extended family — I wasn't traveling with my family at all! But I was pretty excited about finally being able to stay in a suite at this property which I've stayed at umpteen times before, so I was naturally disappointed when I checked into my room and discovered it was...a standard room.

Round 1: Hyatt Twitter customer service

My friend and I were anxious to go out that evening so I sent a direct message to Hyatt's Twitter account explaining the situation. Their first reply was:

"I'm very sorry to hear that you did not get the suite that we confirmed with the front desk prior to your arrival. I attempted to call the front desk to assist with the situation, and was told that there is not a manager on duty to assist with the situation, and was unable to garner assistance from the front desk associate. I am emailing the hotel's executive management team to have them assist with the situation directly, and they should reach out to you tomorrow to assist with the situation."

I asked if they could refund the suite upgrade award, and they replied:

"At this time, we are unable to return the suite upgrade to your account, as we sincerely hope the hotel will be able to rectify the situation, and get you into your suite as soon as possible. If, in the course of correcting the situation, the hotel feels that it is best to return the award to your account, they will contact us directly, and we will return the award to your account."

Round 2: Hotel customer service

The next day at brunch I received a call from the Hyatt Regency's general manager. He apologized profusely, explaining that I hadn't received a suite because my reservation "had a lot of touches" from Hyatt central booking. He offered me two options:

  1. he could move me to a suite for the remaining 3 nights of my reservation;
  2. or he could refund me the entire points cost of my reservation (32,000 points) and give me a $50 credit in the hotel's restaurant.

After about 2 seconds of deliberation I chose the second option. For your future reference, I only used about $46 of the $50 credit and the remaining $4 was refunded to the credit card I had provided on check-in.

Round 3: Hotel follow-up

After checking out, I watchfully waited to see if the promised 32,000-point refund would post automatically. Once I saw it still hadn't after a few days, I called the hotel, and the evening manager transferred me to the general manager's voicemail. I briefly summarized the situation and asked him to let me know the status of the refund. The next day he e-mailed me that he had requested the refund of the points and the suite upgrade. A few days later, all 32,000 points had posted back into my Hyatt account.

Round 4: Hyatt follow-up

The points posted back to my account, but my account still showed 1 of my suite upgrade awards as having been redeemed and no longer available. I placed another call to Hyatt and explained the situation, and was told they would look into it and get back to me. The next day I received the strangest e-mail:

"Thank you for your message regarding your stay at Hyatt Regency Lexington.

I am sorry to hear that your suite upgrade award was redeemed by the hotel although you did not stay in a suite. I contacted the executive management team at Hyatt Regency Lexington on your behalf. By sharing your experience, you have a direct positive impact on future stays, which allows us to maintain the level of service that Hyatt is known for.

In an effort to make things right, I would like to upgrade your room accommodations for your next stay at a full service Hyatt Hotel to a suite based on availability. We ask that you make your reservations for a standard room and then call Hyatt Guest Relations at (800) 323-7249/(402) 592 6465. Provide us the reservation confirmation number, refer to case number CASxxxxxxx, and we will work with the hotel to provide an upgraded room for the duration of your stay. This offer is valid for one year and is based on availability."

In other words, instead of simply changing the "available" counter in the suite upgrade award database from "3" to "4," they decided the best method would be create and annotate a case number which I have to hope a future customer service representative will be able to locate and handle correctly.

Strange way to run a railroad.


The reason I have laid out this situation in such detail is not to complain about Hyatt or the Hyatt Regency Lexington. While their methods certainly seem odd, I have no complaints about either: I got a free four-night stay at a downtown Lexington property. I hope every hotel I stay at treats me so "poorly!"

The reason this story may be relevant to you is that it appears that when Hyatt confirms a suite upgrade award, they mean it, and they expect properties to do absolutely everything in their power to honor the upgrade or make it right with the customer, all the way up to refunding the entire cost of the stay during an extremely busy weekend (it was a race weekend in Lexington).

So use your suite upgrade awards! They'll either be honored and you'll get a nice suite upgrade, or they won't and you'll walk away with a free stay or a points windfall.

Use Korean Air SKYPASS to piece together low-level Delta award availability

In April I wrote a post trying to figure out what kind of award space Delta makes available to their partners, since the space they make to their own members is priced so inconsistently, not to say erratically. In the comments to that post, Frequent Miler asked:

"Sometimes Delta has saver award space for married segments but not for the individual segments. I've seen this frequently with gso-dtw-buf. I'm curious whether Skypass sees the individual segments. I'll try it, but curious if you came across this already?"

A year ago I wrote about being able to piece together low-level Alaska redemptions on Delta by entering segments individually in a multi-city search, so I knew that it used to be possible, at least with that one partner. The question is whether it's still possible in general and still possible with Korean Air in particular.

The good news is, it is.

Use SKYPASS multi-city search to piece together low-level Delta legs

On October 6, the best connection between Greensboro and Buffalo costs 20,000 SkyMiles:

The first leg, between Greensboro and Detroit, is just 12,5000 SkyMiles:

As is the second leg, between Detroit and Buffalo:

Using Korean Air SKYPASS's multi-city search function, I am able to input the first leg, second leg, and then a return flight (SkyPass doesn't offer one-way partner redemptions), and select each leg individually. Such an itinerary prices out correctly at 25,000 SKYPASS miles:

As was the case in my post last May about using Alaska's multi-city search tool, you do have to use the Korean Air multi-city search tool — a simple roundtrip search did not return the desired routing.

Amazingly, you can do this in both directions

If the route you're flying is one targeted by Delta for price gouging, you'll naturally want to know if you can piece together segments in both directions in order to secure low-level space and your preferred routing on the entire trip.

The answer is, yes, you can. Here is a Korean Air SKYPASS routing I constructed using the multi-search function to specify each flight I wanted:

As hoped, the entire itinerary priced out at 25,000 SKYPASS miles:

Korean Air's award routing rules seem to be written in machine-translated Korean, so I don't have a firm grasp of whether a stopover is allowed in each direction and the manually selected segments use up that stopover, or whether the connections are so short that they don't count as stopovers, meaning you could also add one or two stopovers. This would be extremely valuable if you lived in Detroit or another Delta hub, since it would mean you could get up to 4 unrelated one-way flights to and from your home airport for the price of one roundtrip.

Again, I just don't know if that's the case or not, but if you have experience piecing together such itineraries, be sure to let me and other readers know in the comments!

My good Delta companion certificate redemption proves how bad companion certificates are

I rarely pretend that my posts are supposed to be "timely," but since the new Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card, with its $0 base fare companion ticket, instead of the $99 base fare companion ticket the card has traditionally offered, has occupied the blogosphere for the last few weeks, and since I just received and redeemed my American Express Delta Platinum Business credit card companion certificate, this seems as timely a moment as any to revisit the issue.

The problem with Delta companion certificates

There are two conflicting issues when redeeming the Delta companion certificates offered by the American Express personal and business Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards:

  • Certificates can only be redeemed for flights in fare classes L, U, T, X, and V. Those are, naturally, the cheapest 5 fare classes (plus E), which sell out first as people book their tickets and the departure date approaches.
  • Flights in those fare classes are, as you'd expect, cheaper than flights in the more expensive fare buckets.

In other words, Delta and American Express have contrived to "cap" the cost of offering free companion tickets by allowing their redemption only on flights that are far enough in the future, and empty enough, that they're unlikely to cost very much.

To maximize the value of a Delta companion ticket redemption, therefore, you'd want to find a flight sufficiently far in the future that "cheap" fare buckets are still available, but to an expensive destination in the continental United States.

My Delta companion certificate redemption was close to ideal

Fortunately, I grew up in Montana and while my hometown is served by several airlines, including Delta, tickets there are unspeakably expensive. I've been watching tickets home for the Western Montana Fair for the last month or so, until my companion fare certificate finally posted last week to my Delta account (the last two years, my companion certificate has posted on May 4, while my anniversary statement closes on May 20; do with this information what you will).

On May 4 the two tickets I needed were retailing for $774, which meant I could redeem my companion certificate and get $1,548 in airfare for $824 (after taxes and fees are applied to the second ticket).

Of course, I'm also due to pay a $195 annual fee for the credit card, bringing my total out-of-pocket expense to $1,019, roughly a 34% discount off the retail price of both tickets.

Not bad! Unless you're a travel hacker.

I overpaid by $219

The key insight travel hacking provides is that two $774 tickets are not worth $1,548. They're worth $800. That's because I can redeem 40,000 US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Flexpoints for each ticket, or I can redeem those points for 1 cent each, i.e., $800 in total. In other words, I paid $1,019 for $800 in airfare.

What companion certificates are and aren't good for

I stand by my decision to redeem this particular companion certificate for this particular flight, primarily because Delta companion certificates are so difficult to use, given the fare class restrictions, that there's no certainty of being able to redeem them at all (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to pawn off my certificates to family members in the past).

There's a sort of core logic to redeeming your most restrictive travel instruments (free night certificates, companion certificates) where possible before redeeming more flexible instruments (miles, points, and fixed-value award currencies).

And indeed, by securing a "mere" 34% discount on this pair of flights, I'm left with the same 80,000 Flexpoints, worth up to $1,600 in airfare, that I would have otherwise redeemed. I haven't "lost" anything by redeeming the companion certificate instead.

However. This game of rolling forward "more valuable" points currencies while redeeming "less valuable" travel instruments is just another way of keeping large, unredeemed (and therefore worthless) points balances and reducing your total return on your travel hacking practice. Your travel hacking objective should not be to get the most value possible from your least valuable rewards, but to identify and get the most value possible from your most valuable rewards!


The point of this post isn't to say that "companion tickets are worthless." Companion tickets aren't worthless, but they're valuable only to the extent they can be integrated into a coherent travel hacking practice.

That means, for the most part, that they're best redeemed for cheaper, rather than more expensive flights. The logic should be obvious: more expensive flights are more target rich environments, where airline miles and fixed-value currencies like US Bank Flexpoints are likely to shine.

Cheaper flights pose a real problem: you can redeem fixed-value currencies like Chase Ultimate Rewards for 1.25 cents each, or Membership Rewards points for 2 cents each (for certain American Express Business Platinum customers), but those are also currencies with more potential upside on more expensive tickets and other kinds of travel redemptions.

Paying $200 for two $200 tickets won't save you much cash, because it's hard to save much cash on tickets that cheap. However, it's likely to be a better use of a companion certificate than a 34% discount on an $800 ticket, for the simple reason that on an $800 ticket you can do better.