Quick hits: Turkish Airlines, IST, Budapest

Hello from the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava!

It's been a hectic few days, so I'm taking it slow today and thought I'd check in with some thoughts on the first leg of our trip.

Turkish Airlines is very nice

Thursday night, I flew from Chicago to Istanbul on TK6 in the economy cabin. The seats were pretty comfortable but there was not quite enough legroom for me to ever get comfortable enough to sleep for more than a few minutes. Next time: business class (famous last words).

Fortunately, there was a wide selection of movies available on the large seat-back screens, so I got caught up on some movies I'd missed this year. I particularly enjoyed this bizarre Indian television show "Great World Hotels," which follows sultry hostess Elisha Kriis as she coos over fresh fruit and in-room swimming pools at Amansara.

I also enjoyed watching our tiny Turkish flight attendants free-pour cocktails from novelty over-sized bottles of liquor.

Istanbul is a pretty easy place to connect internationally

It's become fashionable in certain circles to lament that US airports are collapsing into rubble around us while international airports are sleek hyper-modern affairs. Not Istanbul!

Istanbul Ataturk Airport still features the teeming mass of humanity and rundown facilities that makes you proud to be an American. I don't think I've ever seen an airport with more toilet facilities, or an airport where such a high percentage of the facilities were closed for "cleaning." It's also been a long time since I've seen someone casually smoking a cigarette in a public restroom!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, as people are fond of remarking in their social media profiles.

Anyway, connecting in Istanbul to our Budapest flight was a cinch, although a mobility-impaired person might struggle with the long walk between gates, and our bags were checked all the way through to Budapest without issue.

Budapest is lovely, and cheap

I had a three-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Hotel Beke, which is a fairly basic business hotel, and like all Club Carlson properties featured a range of confusing amenities:

  • Treadmills and other workout equipment were placed poolside in the basement athletic center;
  • The health center prominently advertised massages, but when I inquired about a massage with the attendant, he explained that his colleague used to provide the massages, but he doesn't work there anymore;
  • Our room featured a real king-size bed, but with two twin comforters;
  • When our room was made up, the housekeeper didn't replace the coffee — but did artfully rearrange the empty plastic packets we'd already used.

We spent a few days exploring Budapest, and visited the Széchenyi bathing complex, which was a very interesting experience. I've never seen so many pools with such slight differences in temperature before. Pro tip: either bring your own towel, or bring cash to rent one. You'll pay 3,000 Hungarian forints and receive a towel, then get 2,000 forints back once you return it.

Speaking of forints, Hungary still hasn't adopted the Euro, and at this rate it seems unlikely to ever do so, making visiting Budapest ludicrously cheap. Over 3 days in the city, I spent $308 total, including our pre-arranged (i.e., overpriced) cab to the hotel, train tickets to Bratislava, and some pretty thorough minibar-raiding at the hotel, and I don't think I could have spent any more money if I were trying to.

That's it for now; I'm off to see what I can see in Bratislava!

Well, I'm going to Europe

As much as it pains me to say this, having dropped out of the formal labor force a few years ago, for the last few months I've been busy.

The bulk of that business has been maximizing the value of my Wells Fargo 5% cash back offer. But as of tomorrow, my 6 months of Wells Fargo 5% cash back will be at an end, and I'll be flying to Europe to spend a few weeks jaunting around Hungary, Slovakia, Austria, and Germany.

Since I'll be staying at perfectly normal hotels the entire time I'll be in Europe, I tentatively plan to continue updating the blog a few times per week, but while I'm overseas the focus may shift from day-to-day manufactured spend and loyalty strategies to my first-hand experiences in Europe.

But who knows?

In any case, I don't have any vacation posts scheduled or anything like that, so you can still expect my unvarnished opinions on whatever happens to be going on in Eastern Europe and the travel hacking universe.

By the end of June blog programming should return to normal, as long as you don't go and ruin manufactured spend while I'm gone.

Paid flights are not a strategy for earning redeemable miles

This week as the blogosphere erupted like a school of piranhas around the bloody calf of the American AAdvantage devaluation, I quipped on Twitter that "'Where to credit your paid flights' should be of tertiary interest to travel hackers. Interesting question, but not very lucrative."

Let's break that down.

Primary interest: how much are you paying?

Due to the phenomenon I call price compression, how much you pay for your flights has only a glancing connection to the retail price.

  • If you manufacture spend on a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, you'll enjoy a discount of 62-75% off of retail, depending on where in a redemption band your flight falls.
  • A Citi Prestige credit card gives a 37.5% discount off ThankYou point redemptions on paid American flights, which increases to 79% if you're able to manufacture spend with a Citi ThankYou Premier card at gas stations.

Paying less for your travel may not be your only interest, but it should be a primary interest for the simple reason that the less you pay for your travel, the more of it you can afford!

Secondary interest: what are you getting?

Of course there's a difference between being frugal and being cheap: what you get for your money matters too, or we'd all be flying in the back of Spirit Airlines planes with our knees pressed against our chests (once — never again!).

In my experience, Delta Airlines is the domestic carrier most likely to get me where I'm going on time and in comfort. That doesn't mean I'll go out of my way to book Delta flights, but once price compression levels the differences in fares, Delta is far and away my preferred carrier.

Tertiary interest: where should you credit?

The reason I call the decision of where to credit paid flights of tertiary interest is that it's difficult to imagine a situation in which it would outweigh the factors of cost and convenience. In other words, there's no reason a travel hacker should pay more for less convenient flights that happen to earn a particular rewards currency.

There are two reasons for this. First, redeemable miles are cheap. When you can manufacture spend to earn exactly the number of redeemable miles you need, whenever you need them, miles earned through paid flights should be a rounding error in your overall rewards portfolio. Admittedly, it's a rounding error in your favor, and I'm not suggesting flying without a frequent flyer number attached at all. But if you have an award redemption in mind, it would be strange to count on your revenue flights to earn the needed miles.

Second, I'm happy to admit that elite status is valuable. But under most circumstances, it's unpredictably valuable. Here's a real-life example: I'm currently booked in economy on a United award reservation to Europe. I've been occasionally checking for business class award availability, and yesterday it suddenly appeared. For 40,000 more United miles, I can move to a premium cabin on a flight over 10 hours. Good deal! But as a MileagePlus general member, United also wants to charge a $100 change fee for each ticket. As a Premier Silver, I'd pay $50 per ticket, a Premier Gold would pay $25, and Premier Platinum and 1K members would pay nothing. That's real value: not some kind of squishy mental accounting, but cold hard cash that would be left in my pocket due to elite status.

The same example shows the problem with counting on elite status to generate big savings: to get predictable value from elite status you would need to know in advance which reservations, booked with which miles, are likely to require changes. If you spread your award reservations around between Alaska, Delta, American, and United, let alone the other transfer partners of your flexible rewards currencies, you will be left paying change fees (or keeping suboptimal reservations) on all the ones you don't earn elite status on.


When elite status is the natural byproduct of your travel hacking practice, it's a fine way to stretch the value of your rewards. As a checked-bag enthusiast, I enjoy my Delta SkyMiles Silver Medallion status, which saves me a few hundred dollars a year in checked bag fees.

But the less a person flies, the less value they receive from elite benefits. The problem with chasing elite status is not that there's anything wrong with elite status, but that it's expensive and inconvenient. If you live in a city where two or more airlines battle each other constantly on price and convenience, then it makes sense to pick one with which to run up your elite-qualifying tally.

Otherwise, chasing elite status and redeemable miles is playing the airlines' game, not ours.

Earn valuable points, or expensive points?

I've been messing around with shopping portals for the past few days, which is always a good opportunity to reflect on deeper questions about the miles and points lifestyle.

Manufactured spend gives one vision of cost

As a manufactured spend enthusiast, I spend a lot of time comparing different credit cards, merchants, and earning rates to make sure I'm getting the most value for each of my manufactured dollars in spend. Using that perspective, every mile or point I manufacture costs precisely the dollar value of the cash rewards I would otherwise earn on the same spend. That's my opportunity cost: the value I need from a non-cash currency to justify earning it instead of cash.

Portal spend can turn things sideways

What I started thinking about while mucking about on shopping portals was this question: should you earn the most valuable points (usually the points you'll actually redeem), or the most expensive points when clicking through a shopping portal?

Here's a simple example: according to Cashback Monitor, you can earn 5% cash back when clicking through the Discover Deals portal to purchase Apple merchandise. Alternatively, you can earn 1 United MileagePlus mile per dollar spent at the Apple store.

Paying 5 cents per MileagePlus mile is a preposterously bad deal, since United miles can be purchased for 3.76 cents each any day of the week directly from United.

Now take a look at a merchant like eBay, where we can earn either 1.3% cash back or 0.5 United miles per dollar spent. At 2.6 cents each that's a little below the retail price of United miles, so you might consider using the United portal instead of earning cash back.

How opportunity cost differs from price and value

At this point you should be asking yourself, "why would I pay 2.6 cents per Mileage Plus mile when I can pay 1 cent per mile by transferring flexible Ultimate Rewards points into my United account?"

And that's exactly right — if you would, in fact, redeem your Ultimate Rewards points for cash, then the price you would pay for United miles would be 1 cent. But if you would otherwise redeem your Ultimate Rewards points by transferring them to another travel partner, like Southwest or Hyatt, then your opportunity cost isn't 1 cent — it's one Rapid Rewards point or one Hyatt Gold Passport point.

This matters because you may get more value from a Rapid Rewards point (for example, if you have a Southwest Companion Pass) or a Hyatt Gold Passport point (by redeeming at expensive properties or taking advantage of Points + Cash redemptions) than you do from a United Mileage Plus mile. Using the example above, the opportunity cost (2.6 cents) of earning United miles rather than cash back may be lower than the opportunity cost (1 Rapid Rewards point or 1 Hyatt Gold Passport point) of transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United.

United miles aren't valuable, but they are expensive

I don't like United Airlines. I find them consistently rude and unreliable, so I don't fly them if I can help it. But even I admit that their miles can be useful for redemptions on their Star Alliance partners, like my upcoming Turkish Airlines flight to Europe. The problem is that United miles transferred from Ultimate Rewards are expensive, because I place a lot of value on the ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport, and each point I transfer to Mileage Plus is one I can't transfer to Hyatt.

This creates the kind of situation I've described, where it may be worthwhile to pay a high price for each United mile, since doing so preserves the ability to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt, where I'll get more value, instead.

For the sake of completeness (and to silence quibblers), I do want to mention that Hyatt also sells points (up to 55,000 per year before bonuses are added) for 2.4 cents each. So it's not strictly speaking worthwhile to pay 2.6 cents per United mile just to "save" your Ultimate Rewards points since your total cost will be lower simply earning cash back, transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United, and using the cash to buy Hyatt Gold Passport points. Using other merchants and portal payout levels, and accounting for bonuses on purchased miles and points, the numbers will naturally be different.

Making travel free

In my experience there are two broads ways people tend to view the benefits of travel hacking. For fun, let's call the two groups "budgeters" and "savers." Their behavior is not systematically different in any way — they might both apply for the same number of cards each year, manufacture the same amount of spend with them, and redeem their points for the same awards. But they talk about their techniques in very different ways.

Budgeters stretch their budget

You'll catch a budgeter saying something like, "I have 2 weeks of vacation per year, and a $4,000 travel budget. Before I started travel hacking, I could only take $4,000 vacations. Now, my $4,000 budget gets me vacations that would cost $20,000 or $30,000!" These are the kinds of stories you read about on the websites of Bankrate employees Brian Kelly and Daraius Dubash.

In practice, might mean spending $4,000 on fees (or losses if the budgeter is also a reseller), then redeeming the miles and points they earn for international business class or first class flights and five-star hotels, while before they spent the same amount on domestic economy flights and discount hotels.

In this way, the budgeter's travel budget takes them farther and in greater comfort than it did before they discovered the wonders of travel hacking.

Savers spend less for the same amount of travel

A saver says "I can't believe I used to pay full price for my travel. I used to pay $9,421 for my family's annual week-long Christmas trip to the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, and now I pay a flat $1,750 in Ultimate Rewards points!"

In other words, the saver takes destinations, comfort, and style as a given, and seeks to pay as little as possible for it by signing up for credit cards, manufacturing spend, and all the other crazy things we do to earn our travel hacker merit badge.

The happy medium is probably somewhere in between

Realistically, most people aren't entirely budgeter or entirely saver: if you generate enough miles and points per year to cover all your travel expenses, you're probably paying slightly less than you would in cash and traveling slightly more, or in greater comfort, than you would if you paid entirely in cash.

You can make travel free (but probably shouldn't)

There's another extreme which I've run into somewhat less often, but has its own special kind of appeal: make travel free by reimbursing yourself for all the fees you incur manufacturing spend.

To make this work, you need to be earning points that can be converted to cash or redeemed for travel in another, potentially higher-value way. Here are a few examples:

  • Manufacturing spend with a Chase Ink Plus at office supply stores, you may pay $27.55 for 4,634 Ultimate Rewards points. If you redeem 2,755 of those Ultimate Rewards points for cash, you've generated 1,879 Ultimate Rewards points worth of travel at no net cost.
  • Manufacturing spend with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card at a grocery store, you might pay $12.60 for 2,024 Flexpoints. Redeem 1,260 of those Flexpoints for cash, and you're left with 764 Flexpoints at no net cost.
  • Manufacturing spend with a Barclaycard Arrival+ card at an unbonused merchant, you might pay $4.30 for $10.61 in Arrival+ miles. By being sure to redeem 41% of your Arrival+ miles on refundable reservations, your remaining Arrival+ miles are redeemable for truly free travel.

The reason you probably shouldn't do this is that it's not necessary. When you have enough miles and points to pay for your travel, you don't have to manufacture any more — you can simply earn cash back, or redeem your excess points for cash back. By manufacturing your most valuable points first (the points you're actually going to redeem), you need never find yourself in a situation where you're redeeming miles and points for cash, rather than deploying them to save money on more expensive reservations than their cash value — with the exception of points, like Barclaycard Arrival+ miles, which are worth the same when redeemed against refundable reservations as they are against reservations you intend to keep.

Conclusion: how much is your time worth?

There is a very small group of people for whom time is money.

  • For Uber drivers, time is money: every minute spent doing anything but driving for Uber is time that could be spent driving for Uber.
  • For many lawyers, time is money: as long as there's work that can be billed to clients, every 6 minutes doing anything but working for clients is time that could be billed to clients.
  • For waiters at high-end, understaffed restaurants, time is money: as long as there's someone who can't make it into work, there's a shift that could be worked.

But most people have free time.

It may not feel like free time, because there may be a baseball game on you really want to see, and if you really want to see it, you can't exactly be out manufacturing spend during the ballgame.

I love HBO's hit series Game of Thrones. If I had cable TV, and HBO, you better believe I'd watch Game of Thrones every Sunday night — that's time I wouldn't be free to manufacture spend.

But there's a very common tendency for people to describe their time as being "too valuable" to manufacture spend, when what they really mean is they'd prefer not to. Preferring not to manufacture spend is a very understandable impulse — it can be tedious, frustrating, and stressful.

But unless you would otherwise be driving for Uber, billing clients, or picking up extra shifts at Chez Panisse, you should find another word than "valuable" to describe your desire to use your time doing something else. Because in all likelihood, your time is free.

Excited about Ultimate Rewards transfers to Flying Blue? Let's talk about it

In case you've been staying in a buddhist travel hacker monastery for the last week, the big news to come out of the loyalty world this week was the unannounced addition of Flying Blue, the loyalty program of Air France and KLM, as a transfer partner for "flexible" Chase Ultimate Rewards points.

This post is going to come across as a bit cynical, so in the hopes of heading off sniping in the comments, let me first explain why this is phenomenal news.

Korean Airlines is not a great Skyteam program

While it's true that Ultimate Rewards already had transfer partners in oneworld (British Airways), Star Alliance (United), and Skyteam (Korean Airlines), Korean Airlines SKYPASS is a notoriously complex program to work with, with the gaping drawback that you can only book award tickets for relatives — and if you take them at their word, that even excludes stepchildren!

By contrast, Flying Blue has an online award search engine that allows you to book award tickets for anyone you like (as long as you don't get caught in one of their fraud traps).

Ultimate Rewards is a vibrant and growing program

Any expansion of a loyalty program to include new ways to earn or redeem points is an objective positive. If I never book a Flying Blue award ticket, I'll still be glad to know that it's someone's job at Chase to hunt down loyalty programs, negotiate transfer agreements, and implement the technology required to expand our Ultimate Rewards redemption options. To me that's a sign that the program still has a degree of vibrancy and is not yet ready to stagnate, like American Express Membership Rewards.

With that out of the way, let's talk about Flying Blue redemptions.

Delta makes life as hard as possible for their partners

To understand how difficult it is to redeem Flying Blue miles on Delta, it's important to understand how Delta makes award space available to its own members and to partners.

Delta dynamically prices awards for its own members. It's no longer rare to find cases where the constituent flights on a connecting award ticket are more or less expensive than the complete itinerary. Here's an itinerary connecting in Minneapolis that's more expensive than either of the constituent flights on their own:

The constituent flights price at 12,500 SkyMiles:

And 11,500 SkyMiles:

Unrelated to SkyMiles pricing for their own members, Delta makes some seats on some flights available to partners for awards.

Let's see those same three searches using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. Here's the first leg (it's 25,000 instead of 12,500 because I'm searching for one-way flights):

Here's the second leg:

Here's the catch: Delta doesn't make that complete itinerary available to partners, which we can only surmise is because it prices higher at the 15,500-mile level. Here are the only options Alaska shows when doing a one-way search between BWI and MSO on September 19:

Fortunately, Alaska allows you to construct your own Delta routing as a "Multi-city" flight search. By feeding Alaska the flights I know have award space (because I checked earlier), I can easily produce my desired award:

It's important to understand exactly what's happening here: Delta is making its cheapest award space available to its own members and to partners on individual segments, but charging its own members more on the complete itinerary and not making that complete itinerary available to partners. The reason the Alaska workaround works is that Alaska is willing to search for each leg individually in a multi-city search, and then price the entire itinerary according to its own routing rules, which make it a valid one-way itinerary.

Flying Blue does not allow multi-city awards to be booked online

This is what Flying Blue's multi-city search engine looks like:

Flying Blue doesn't let you construct Delta itineraries online because your final destination must be your originating airport.

I assume you could construct this itinerary over the phone

Good luck with that.

Conclusion: how I'll be using Flying Blue

So Flying Blue isn't the key to unlimited cheap flights on Delta. That doesn't mean it's useless! On the contrary, it's going to be one of my first stops along with Alaska, British Airways, and United, each time I start planning a new trip. The search engine makes it easy to see at a glance whether there are award seats available, and if there are, they will usually be among the cheapest, not because of their great award chart or their low fuel surcharges (on the contrary, they have a fairly standard award chart and pass along fuel surcharges to customers), but because the miles themselves are so cheap when transferred from a Chase Ultimate Rewards account.

To make the same point another way, a redemption of 12,500 SkyMiles manufactured with a Delta Platinum American Express card costs $188 in opportunity cost ($8,929 manufactured on a 2.105% cash back card), while a 12,500-mile Flying Blue redemption costs just $125 in Ultimate Rewards points: a 33.5% discount.

I don't expect those redemption to be very frequent — but I do expect to make them each and every time the opportunity presents itself!

Techniques I don't write about (but you should know about!)

The range of topics I write about here is pretty freewheeling. I have an open mind about any and all approaches to travel hacking and manufactured spend, and am willing to at least dabble in anything that sounds lucrative enough.

On the other hand, my own travel needs are met almost exclusively with US Bank Flexpoints, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Delta SkyMiles, and Hilton HHonors points. All four are cheap and plentiful, and between the four currencies cover easily 90% of my annual travel budget at discounts of 75-85% off retail.

Consequently, I'm perfectly aware that the blog has developed a few blindspots: programs that are objectively lucrative, but which I don't interact with on a daily or monthly basis. With that in mind, here are a few programs that I've "undercovered" compared to their objective utility.

Southwest Airlines Companion Pass

Obviously there's no shortage of Southwest Companion Pass coverage thanks to their periodic 50,000 Rapid Rewards-point signup bonuses. But even if, like me, you don't chase signup bonuses, you should still consider simply manufacturing $110,000 per year on Chase's co-branded credit cards.

Why? Because if you fly Southwest regularly (and would otherwise pay cash), you're earning over 3 cents per dollar of unbonused manufactured spend. Using the linked example of 1.59 cent per point, you'll earn 3.18% cash back on your Southwest credit card spend, compared to the 2.105% cash back of a Barclaycard Arrival+ or 2.625% cash back of a Bank of America Travel Rewards card (enhanced with Preferred Rewards at the Platinum Honors level).

Thanks to Southwest's annual devaluations, this isn't a strategy you should use to earn Rapid Rewards points speculatively (I don't think you should earn miles or points speculatively at all!), but if you redeem Southwest points aggressively, this is a great deployment of your unbonused manufactured spend.

Interestingly, once you've earned 110,000 Companion Pass qualifying points, you're actually better off manufacturing your unbonused spend on a Chase Freedom Unlimited and then simply transferring the 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with that card to your Southwest account.

So why don't I write about the Companion Pass more? Because Southwest doesn't serve my local airport!

Reloadit cards

If you have access to accommodating or oblivious cashiers, and registers that haven't been hard-coded against accepting credit cards, then Reloadit cards can provide access to cheap, or even free, bonused manufactured spend.

I actually do have access to accommodating cashiers, and cash registers that aren't hard-coded against credit cards. But I still don't buy Reloadit cards.

The reason is that you're now required to liquidate Reloadit cards using the official Reloadit website — you can no longer load prepaid cards through those cards' own portals. This matters because the Reloadit website is terrible.

First, each Reloadit account has a limited number of "devices" that can be registered to it. To track these "devices," Reloadit installs a cookie in your web browser and asks you to name your device.

Now, I do all my browsing in incognito mode, so all my cookies are deleted each time I close my browser. Which leads Reloadit to ask me to register my device again. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.

To incorporate Reloadits into my manufactured spend practice, I would have to either start using a special browser just for Reloadits, or muck about with different user profiles in Google Chrome. And the payoff? Saving $50 or $60 per month on activation and liquidation fees.

If that's worth it to you, you should definitely shop around for Reloadits and friendly cashiers. But it's not worth it to me, so you won't find many breaking news updates about Reloadit on this blog.

Citi ThankYou Rewards

With the slow but steady demise of manufactured spend at gas stations, the best current combination of Citi ThankYou cards seems to be the Citi AT&T Access More card combined with a Citi Prestige card. The former earns 3 points per dollar spent on online retail purchases, and the latter allows you to redeem those points for 1.6 cents each towards paid American Airlines tickets, or transfer them to one of Citi's travel partners.

This combination is tailor-made for resellers who source their products online and know how to get good value from their ThankYou points. It is expensive, though, with a $95 annual fee on the AT&T Access More card and a $450 annual fee on the Citi Prestige.

I personally don't pursue this strategy because US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards give me a roughly similar value (up to 4 cents towards airfare on any airline per dollar of spend, compared to 4.8 cents on American Airlines or 3.75 cents on other carriers), at a far lower cost (a single $49 annual fee). Moreover, I do my best to avoid flying American Airlines, and I don't engage in more than a cursory amount of reselling.

It's a potentially powerful combination, but it's not for me, so I don't write about it much here on the blog!


In the real world, people constantly operate under misinformed, poorly-informed, or uninformed prejudices. That's to be expected.

But we don't have to do so blindly! By being aware of my prejudices, like my preference for lower annual fees over higher ones, I can consciously work to evaluate conflicting ideas on their merits, instead of on my own preconceived notions.

The payoff of that work may take a long time to appear, but it's ultimately a concrete improvement in the quality of my decision-making.

Anniversary post: what I've learned in two years of blogging full time

How time flies. It's been an entire year since I wrote my first anniversary post, about your economy, which means I must be due for another post commemorating my second year of working for myself — and working for you!

If my first anniversary post was a retrospective on how I came to be where I am, then I want to use this post to reflect on everything I've learned in the two years since I left graduate school and started blogging full time.

Lesson: the world is hungry for quality content, because there is almost no visible supply

I started this website because, after a year or so of reading FlyerTalk and visiting the most popular travel hacking blogs, I realized that it was almost impossible to find answers to the simple question: "how does it really work?"

The people who knew were too busy promoting their credit card affiliate links, and the people who didn't know weren't curious enough to ask the right questions. But I was curious, so I started investigating and writing about how loyalty programs work in practice.

For example, how do refunds from US Bank Flexperks redemptions work? There's only one place on the web to find out.

And of course, once you spend any time at all sincerely investigating how loyalty and rewards programs work in practice, you invariably stumble over unadvertised opportunities to save money or get outsized value from them.

If you have something good and true to say, and it's not being said elsewhere, you're likely to be able to find an audience of people eager to listen.

Lesson: changing minds is impossible

My goal in my travel hacking practice is simple: to travel whenever and wherever I want, and no more.

To that end, I advocate that readers honestly assess their travel goals and plan out the cheapest possible way to achieve them, using all the techniques I write about here and in the newsletters I periodically send out to blog subscribers.

In two years of full-time blogging and, before that, 16 months of blogging as a side gig while I was in graduate school, I do not believe I have convinced a single person of the merits of my approach, and no longer believe that changing minds is a realistic or even desirable goal.

People who come to my blog intent on experiencing every A380 first class seat will leave with the same goal in mind. Likewise readers who come interested in earning cash back to supplement their income will leave with, hopefully, a useful trick or two for doing so.

Being able to engage readers is an honor, even when you never change a single mind.

Lesson: you can encourage people to think harder and better

While you may never change anyone's opinion, that doesn't mean you can't encourage them to examine their settled opinions more critically.

When people angrily disagree with me, I'm happy to see them angrily disagree with me by subjecting their assumptions to the same analytical scrutiny I apply to my own views.

When I compare that to affiliate bloggers who make a practice of assigning garbage "values" to different point currencies based on which way the credit card payout wind is blowing, I'm satisfied that even readers who don't agree with a single word I write are at least doing the hard work of developing a rewards strategy that works for their actual lifestyle — not some affiliate blogger's.

Challenge people to be their best selves, not your best self.

Lesson: my readers are the best

It's no secret that the internet, like middle school, is full of trolls anxious to tear down anyone who shows a glimmer of creativity or outside-the-box thinking.

As long as I've been writing this blog I appear to have been blissfully exempt from that rule. My readers furiously disagree with me all the time, and very occasionally call each other names, but in over 3 years of blogging I've never felt the urge, let alone the need, to delete or censor any comments here.

I don't know why I'm not subject to constant internet harassment, but I like it.

Lesson: every deal dies eventually

If a travel hacker went to sleep in January, 2012, and woke up today, there's scarcely an element of the landscape they'd recognize. Vanilla Reload Network reload cards off-limits at CVS. OneVanilla prepaid debit cards useless at Walmart. Bluebird and Serve shut down for many or most (they would have slept through Target Prepaid REDcards, of course). Formerly cooperative 7-Eleven store locations refusing credit cards for prepaid debit cards. ISIS!

The lesson some people take from this experience is to not depend excessively on any one deal, but I don't think that's quite right. Leaning heavily on each of those deals as long as it lasted was a fantastically lucrative choice, which I wouldn't dream of second-guessing.

It's a mistake is to believe that any given deal will last forever — it won't.

Lesson: there will always be more deals

Looking at a list of the deals that have died in the last 4 years, you might despair that manufacturing spend must, today, be completely impossible!

I don't think it's interesting or necessary to compare the atmosphere today with that of any previous era.

But I will say that every serious travel hacker I know is manufacturing more, not less, spend today than they were even in the era of unlimited CVS Vanilla Reload Networks cards. They may be doing so at greater (or lesser) expense and greater (or lesser) convenience, but there is no obstacle for a serious US-based travel hacker to manufacture as much spend as they need to meet their travel goals.

Travel hacking is a game that rewards long-term, reciprocal relationships — one more reason you're unlikely to get good advice from affiliate bloggers.


I've come a long way since I started blogging, and even further since I started blogging full time.

I have a lot more respect for deals that give access to a steady stream of moderately-priced points, rather than big, cheap windfalls.

I've become more realistic about the few rewards currencies that give me consistent access to the flights and hotel properties I need, rather than accumulating large speculative balances across programs.

And, as this post suggests, I've become a lot humbler about my role in this travel hacking ecosystem: on my best days, I can help people arrive at the right conclusion for their situation, but on no day will I convince anyone that my approach is the right one for them.

That's a little bit sad (since I'm right!) but it's also a little bit of a relief: we're all stumbling our way forward together, and at the end of the day there are no bonus points for being right first or penalties for being right last.

Membership Rewards points aren't worthless, but they are worth less

If you follow the miles and points bloggers who churn out a constant flood of material on signup bonuses, you already know that earlier this week there was an untargeted offer available for the American Express Platinum card which earned 100,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $3,000 in 3 months of card membership.

After the first day or so of unceasing posts about the offer I responded uncharitably on Twitter.

Since the blogosphere is going to keep trying to shove these offers down your throat, let's do a quick recap of why chasing offers like this is unlikely to be a great use of your travel hacking time and money.

Statement credits are worth (much) less than cash

When I wrote a post of this name, reader MJC helpfully suggested in the comments:

"The Amex Platinum 'airline credit' is also as good as cash, given that you can book a Delta ticket without attaching a Skymiles number to it, then pay for Economy Plus after the reservation is made, then cancel the reservation within 24 hours, and Amex Platinum will always refund your Economy Plus fees even though Delta refunds them as well"

Perfectly true — someone could do this over and over again until they'd redeemed their entire $200 airline fee statement credit each calendar year.

But, and I don't want to sound patronizing, are you going to do this? I ask because a lot of people get into travel hacking thinking they're one type of person, only to discover they are, in fact, the type of person who pays $95 annual fees on the Chase Sapphire Preferred year after year out of habit, fear, and/or greed.

Most importantly, the people trying to convince you to sign up for American Express Platinum cards aren't asking you whether you're the type of person who's actually willing to jump through all those hoops. And if they won't, I'm sure as hell going to.

Global Entry statement credits are worth $100 (to almost no one)

If you don't have Global Entry, and were just about to apply and pay for it, then you are fully justified in treating the American Express Platinum $100 Global Entry statement credit at its face value of $100.

But if you already have Global Entry and are planning to use your statement credit on a friend, or family member, or even sell it online, then it would not make sense to value it at $100. After all, you weren't willing to pay someone else's Global Entry fee if you had to pay out of pocket. That's what we call a "revealed" preference for cash over others' participation in Global Entry.

Membership Rewards points are valuable if you redeem them. Will you?

Finally we've come to the crux of the problem: are 100,000 Membership Rewards points worth a lot, or a little?

And my answer is an emphatic: maybe.

I was speaking yesterday to a subscriber who had already spent $50,000 on his American Express Delta Platinum card, and didn't have any good remaining options for earning large numbers of Delta SkyMiles easily (at least until next calendar year). He applied for the 100,000 Membership Rewards point offer because he knows how valuable SkyMiles are for flying from our local airport, and I congratulated him. That's as good as money in the bank.

Likewise, if you are planning a high-value Hilton vacation, being able to transfer 100,000 Membership Rewards points to 150,000 Hilton HHonors points and pay just $450 in fees (less whatever statement credits you're able to wrangle) is an easy one-off source of points.

But if you're signing up because, as one person responded on Twitter, "Singapore?" then you need to take a nice long walk around the block and decide when, exactly, you are planning to go to Singapore. Next month? The next six months? The next 10 years?

This matters because the longer your time horizon is, the more likely you are to be able to accumulate the needed points in better, cheaper ways than with a one-off Platinum signup bonus. A single Chase Ink Plus lets you earn up to 250,000 Singapore miles per year by manufacturing spend at office supply stores. But even more importantly, the Chase Ink Plus and Ultimate Rewards points in general are more valuable than Membership Rewards points, so you're unlikely to need to do an emergency transfer of points to Singapore (or any other program) in order to avoid paying a second (or third, or fourth) annual fee on the Platinum card.

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed

Longtime readers know that I do not find arguments centered on "personal responsibility" particularly convincing. But there is one kind of responsibility that you are literally the only person who can take: knowing what kind of person you are.

Bloggers I consider irresponsible promote travel hacking as a way to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as if all we can ask for out of life is a glass of champagne at 35,000 feet. If that is, indeed, all you can ask for out of life, then there's a flight to Singapore with your name written all over it.

But if you never felt the slightest longing to see the storied Singapore food courts before this 100,000 Membership Rewards point offer came around, it would be very strange indeed for such a promotion to instill such a longing in you at this late date.

Is that you, or is that the steady drumbeat of bloggers trying to sell you more and more expensive credit cards?