Finding the constellation of rewards programs that's right for you

I do very little speculative earning of miles and points, which doesn't mean that I always earn miles and points with specific redemptions in mind. Rather, it means I earn the points that I know I'm consistently going to be able to redeem for good value and for the kinds of trips I want to take.

When I see a large balance sitting in an account for an extended period of time, it usually means I'm doing something wrong, since it means I earned those points instead of the cash back I could have earned instead — cash back that I know I would have been able to use by now. That's why speculative acquisition of miles and points, even at seemingly cheap prices, usually looks very expensive to me.

Of course there are exceptions: I participated in the IHG Priceless Surprises promotion without any specific plan or intention to redeem the resulting points, mainly because gambling is fun (and I won a sound system!). When I had the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card, I cheerfully earned Mileage Plan miles at rock-bottom prices, tens of thousands of which I have yet to redeem even now, years later. Now THAT'S speculative!

Still, my general rule is: I prefer to focus on a few programs, where I tend to rapidly cycle my points balances up and down, rather than spread myself thin chasing every increased credit card signup bonus that comes along.

Find travel rewards programs that work together

If you don't collect miles and points speculatively, then it helps to focus on miles and points that work together, rather than at cross-purposes.

For example, Starwood Preferred Guest runs an excellent hotel loyalty program, and allows Starpoints to be transferred to many airlines at a 1-to-1 ratio, with an additional 5,000 bonus miles added each time you transfer multiples of 20,000 Starpoints. But Starpoint transfers to United Airlines MileagePlus miles are at a mere 2-to-1 ratio! That makes it more expensive for Starwood Preferred Guest to be your main hotel chain if United is your primary airline, since you'll give up more potential hotel nights when transferring Starpoints to United than you would to American, Delta, or Alaska.

On the other hand, since Chase Ultimate Rewards points transfer to Hyatt Gold Passport and both Southwest Airlines and United Airlines, focusing your mile earning and redemption on one of those airlines, and your hotel point earning with Hyatt, allows you to top up both your primary travel rewards accounts with points in a single Ultimate Rewards account.

Find credit cards that work together

It's not just travel rewards programs that can work together, but credit cards as well.

For example:

  • Your primary premium Ultimate Rewards account might be linked to a Chase Ink Plus card, which allows you to earn 350,000 Ultimate Rewards points per year in its bonus categories of office supply stores and gas stations.
  • Knowing it's one of the best cards out there for earning Ultimate Rewards points, you can apply for a Chase Freedom card as well, and earn an additional 15,000-30,000 Ultimate Rewards points per year, depending on the year's bonus categories.
  • Next, tempted by the signup bonus, you might apply for a Chase Sapphire Preferred. After meeting the minimum spend requirement and waiting a suitable period of time, you can product change the Sapphire Preferred to another Freedom card and double each year's bonus Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Finally, you can take out a 0% interest rate loan from the Chase Slate, and at the end of the promotional period product change that card to Freedom as well.

This procedure would give you access to a huge pool of bonus and annually recurring Ultimate Rewards points, and would at no point violate Chase's strict "5/24" rule for approval of their own-brand credit cards.

I've written before about other potentially lucrative card combinations, like combining the Citi Premier and Prestige cards, or the American Express EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum cards, for manufactured spend at gas stations.

If you use United MileagePlus as your primary airline rewards program, it can even be worth signing up for one of their co-branded credit cards just for access to last-seat "Standard"-level award availability, even if you never spend a dollar on the card, since access to those Standard awards can increase the value of Ultimate Rewards points transferred in from Chase.

If Hilton is your primary hotel program, you could carry both the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card and the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card. While manufacturing gas station and grocery store spend with the Surpass, you could add on $10,000 per calendar year in unbonused spend to the Reserve card and earn 30,000 HHonors points and a free weekend night certificate on each account anniversary.

I'm not the biggest fan of the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card because of its $95 annual fee. However, if you consistently redeem your HHonors points and free night certificates at top-tier properties, then paying $95 in cash and $200 in foregone cash back offers a 29% discount compared to manufacturing 125,000 additional HHonors points on the Surpass (which bears $416 in opportunity cost compared to a 2% cash back card).

The breakeven point comes when redeeming the Reserve's free night certificate at 60,000-point properties: at that point you see a wash between manufacturing $15,000 on the Surpass (earning 90,000 HHonors points and foregoing $300 in cash back) or paying a $95 annual fee and manufacturing $10,000 on the Reserve (earning the equivalent of 90,000 HHonors points, paying a $95 annual fee, and foregoing $200 in cash back).

The point here is that it can be worth carrying co-branded cards that see little or no use if they provide ancillary benefits that supplement the value of your other activity.

Conclusion

As I wrote on Monday, in general I find high balances in a few programs to be more valuable than small balances spread across a number of programs. In fact, even when a narrow earning focus causes you to pay more for a flight or room than you would if you had access to the "right" points currency, you can still be saving money after taking into account the annual fees you'd pay for that access.

And of course, most people are busy, and cramming more and more knowledge of increasingly esoteric loyalty programs into your head will eventually reach a point of diminishing returns. That point may come sooner or it may come later, but knowing when you've reached it is the beginning of travel hacking wisdom.

What to do with IHG Priceless Surprises points

At this point I assume everyone who is planning to participate in the IHG Priceless Surprises promotion has done so, which means you either are or will soon be in possession of roughly 50,000 IHG Rewards points (assuming you scored at least one or two 1,000 and 2,000 point prizes).

If, like me, those 50,000 points are your entire IHG Rewards balance, then three possible approaches to redeeming them suggest themselves.

At the low end: PointsBreaks list and more remote properties

Everyone knows about the IHG Rewards PointsBreaks list, a rotating list of properties which can be redeemed for just 5,000 points per night. It's always worth a quick glance on the off-chance that you're planning to visit an area with a participating property. I was living in Brno one summer when the Holiday Inn there was on the list and considered simply moving in for 5,000 IHG Rewards points per night!

Besides that promotional list, there are properties which belong to the lowest rungs of IHG's award chart. If you're passing through Sheridan, Wyoming, why not stay at the Candlewood Suites for 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night?

Your Priceless Surprises points haul will even get you 5 nights at The Lodge At Eagle Crest Holiday Inn Resort in central Oregon. The place looks nice!

In the middle: Category 4 and 5 properties

Category 4 IHG Rewards properties cost 25,000 points, meaning your 50,000-point Priceless Surprises haul will get you 2 nights at places like the Intercontinental Presidente Merida in Mexico, the InterContinental Mar Menor Golf Resort & Spa in Spain or the InterContinental Bucharest.

I always find it annoying when bloggers treat being married as a travel hack, but if you participated in Priceless Surprises with a partner/child/dog, you might have enough points for 4 nights at one of those properties. That begins to sound like a real vacation, or at least a long weekend.

Unfortunately, 25,000 IHG Rewards points isn't even halfway up the IHG Rewards chart, and most centrally located or desirable properties are going to be more expensive than that. One popular option to widen your options is purchasing additional IHG Rewards points for as little as 0.6 cents each. Buying an additional 15,000 points at that rate would get you above 60,000 points, allowing you to book 2 nights at a Category 5 property like the InterContinental Fiji Golf Resort & Spa or InterContinental Kuala Lumpur.

At the top: Category 11 properties

Meanwhile, 50,000 IHG Rewards points isn't even enough for one night at top-tier IHG Rewards properties after their February 17, 2016, devaluation. After that date, you'll have to buy an extra 10,000 IHG Rewards points to get up to the 60,000 points required for a single night at properties like the InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa or InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora.

Alternatively, if you had a willing partner, you could imagine both applying for the IHG Rewards credit card and receiving 80,000 IHG Rewards points each. If you were willing to wait until your first account anniversary to receive two additional bonus night certificates, you'd end up with enough points and certificates for a six-night stay between the two of you. That wouldn't be too bad a redemption for a $49 annual fee and $46 in stamps per person.

That Rube Goldberg machine requires you to assume, of course, that IHG Rewards won't devalue again before your plans come to fruition!

Other redemptions

Of course, if you don't actually have any upcoming hotel needs and just participated in Priceless Surprises on a lark, you may just be looking to cash out your points at a profit. In that case, you could pick up two $50 Walmart gift cards for 40,000 points, or transfer your IHG Rewards points to airline miles at a 10,000-point to 2,000-mile ratio.

Buying 10,000 miles for $46 and a few hours of work may not sound like a great deal, but it's better than letting your IHG Rewards points sit in your account unredeemed. After all, your least valuable point is always the one you don't redeem.

Understanding booking channels

Judging by the headlines I see in my RSS reader, Bank of America is running a bounty for Alaska Airlines credit card applications. Internet Brands went ahead and declared it the best travel credit card of 2016 on their Frugal Travel Guy storefront, while Thought Leader From Behind Gary Leff managed to shoehorn it into a post ostensibly about an unrelated Virgin America promotion.

This got me thinking about an issue I've touched on periodically and that I think needs to be thoroughly understood to get the most value from travel hacking: booking channels.

What is a booking channel?

A booking channel is any method you use to purchase airfare (or make hotel or car reservations, although I'll set that aside for now).

For example, when purchasing airfare with Ultimate Rewards points in a Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus account for 1.25 cents each, you're required to use the Ultimate Rewards travel portal.

Likewise when redeeming an American Airlines voluntary denied boarding voucher, you're required to make a reservation through American Airlines' website or phone agents, then mail the voucher to Florida (or drop it off in person at an American Airlines office).

Your choice of booking channel restricts your options for savings

I've written before that statement credits are worth (much) less than cash and that the Delta Platinum and Reserve American Express companion tickets have to be paid for with American Express cards, which are both examples of the general rule that your options to save on flights are limited by the booking channel you're required to use.

Better fewer, but better

That suggests a general rule that small balances spread across a number of booking channels are less valuable than high balances in a single booking channel.

For example, while US Bank Flexpoints are worth up to 2 cents each when redeemed for airfare (and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card earns 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent at either gas stations or grocery stores each month), and Citi ThankYou points in a Citi Prestige account are worth 1.6 cents each when redeemed for American Airlines-marketed flights, you can't combine both Flexpoints and ThankYou points on a single reservation: 20,000 Flexpoints and 25,000 ThankYou points won't buy you an $800 reservation, while 40,000 Flexpoints or 50,000 ThankYou points will.

Understand booking channels to manage exceptions

If that's the general rule, then in reality things are much more complicated.

Let's take another look at that Bank of America Alaska Airlines companion ticket. It has three important restrictions:

  • It takes the form of a "discount code" that has to be entered on Alaska Airlines' website. That makes it impossible to directly redeem any points currency for an Alaska Airlines companion ticket (or use an Alaska voluntary denied boarding voucher, since those also take the form of a discount code).
  • The Bank of America credit card holder has to be one of the two passengers on the companion ticket, or the ticket has to be booked with a credit card in the Bank of America credit card holder's name (read that three times).
  • If paying with funds in an Alaska Airlines "My Wallet," it has to be the "My Wallet" of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card holder.

Now let's square the circle: up to 60 days before departure (up to departure for MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K elites), Alaska Airlines flights can be cancelled and the full value of the flight redeposited into the passenger's "My Wallet" for use on future flights.

Another typical situation comes up if you've earned a Southwest Airlines companion pass. That pass allows you to add your companion to any Southwest Airlines revenue or award reservation for no additional airfare (you pay just the taxes and fees for your companion's ticket). There are two difficulties here:

  • Southwest doesn't publish its fares on the unified airfare platform most other airlines use, which means you have to call to redeem third-party loyalty currencies like Flexpoints.
  • And third-party loyalty programs can't book companion tickets!

Just as in the case of Alaska, one solution might be to redeem your third-party currency for a ticket of any value, have the value refunded to your Southwest account, and then book your own companion ticket using that value.

Conclusion

If you want to use an American Airlines voluntary denied boarding voucher to pay for part of your airfare, you can't pay for the rest by redeeming Citi ThankYou points for 1.6 cents each. Likewise you can't combine a Delta voluntary denied boarding voucher with an American Express Business Platinum discount on Membership Rewards redemptions.

But by learning the nuances of each loyalty program — and thinking outside the box — you can start to identify the ways in which seemingly rigid booking channels may be more flexible than they appear, allowing you to stack certificates, coupons, and other discounts with your already-heavily-discounted rewards currencies.

Thinking about buying HHonors points for 0.56 cents each? Read this first.

I couldn't help but notice as I recently skimmed my RSS subscriptions that Hilton HHonors is running a promotion offering an 80% bonus on purchased HHonors points until 11:59 pm, Eastern time, on February 8, 2016.

That means you can buy 80,000 HHonors points for the normal $800 purchase fee, while receiving an additional 64,000 bonus points (there doesn't seem to be an excise fee charged on these transactions, unlike airline mile purchases). That brings your total cost per point to 0.56 cents each.

There are two ways of looking at a purchase opportunity like this.

How much are HHonors points worth?

The first, and most conventional, way of judging a purchase opportunity like this is to judge the out-of-pocket cost of the points against their potential or actual redemption value. A randomly selected June night at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island costs 95,000 HHonors points or $883.80 after taxes and fees. Purchasing the same 95,000 HHonors points for $528.20 during this promotion is, strictly speaking, a 40% discount off the retail price of the property.

Taking advantage of the fifth-night-free benefit for HHonors elites amplifies the discount further: 5 random nights at the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island in June cost 380,000 HHonors points, while the same 5 nights would cost $4,419 in cash. Getting 1.16 cents per point in value makes this purchase opportunity a full 52.2% discount off the retail cost of the same nights.

How much do HHonors points cost?

The problem with the elegant picture I've painted above is that it uses the price Hilton is willing to sell HHonors points at as a fixed input.

But in fact, HHonors points have a range of prices, and that range doesn't depend on Hilton at all — it depends on your own circumstances and the best alternatives you have to purchasing HHonors points outright.

That's because when you manufacture spend on a Hilton HHonors co-branded credit card, you're passing up the opportunity to manufacture the same spend on a cashback-earning credit card. If you pay more in foregone cash back than you would to Points.com directly, then you're overpaying for your stay. If Points.com is charging less than you would pay in foregone cash back, they're offering a true discount.

Unbonused spend

We have brothers and sisters out there who only have access to unbonused categories of manufactured spend. For those who don't have access to gas station or grocery store manufactured spend, a single HHonors point costs 0.66 or 0.7 cents each.

The logic here is simple: the best cash back credit cards for unbonused spend earn 2.105% or 2% in cash back, and Hilton HHonors co-branded credit cards earn just 3 HHonors points per dollar spent in unbonused spend categories. If the same dollar in manufactured spend can produce either 2.105 cents in cash or 3 HHonors points, you're paying 0.7 in foregone cents per HHonors point you manufacture.

If you have a high-value HHonors redemption in the works, and manufacturing spend on a HHonors co-branded credit card will cost you more than 0.56 cents per HHonors point, you'll be better off purchasing the points from Hilton during this promotion.

Bonused spend

Of course there's scant reason anyone would manufacture HHonors points in unbonused spend categories, which means the true tradeoff is between earning 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores and earning another bonused rewards currency.

What we really want to know is whether we're better off earning cash back or cash equivalents – and simply buying the points we need – or earning the HHonors points we need for a redemption directly through a co-branded Hilton HHonors credit card. 

Here's a rundown of 3 possible scenarios to illustrate the idea. Is it cheaper to manufacture cash and buy points, or manufacture points directly?

  • 5% cash back (American Express "old" Blue Cash, capped at $50,000 in spend per cardmember year, or other time-limited promotional offers). Opportunity cost: 0.83 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture cash back and buy HHonors points.
  • 4% cash back (US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, points worth "up to" 2 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare). Opportunity cost: 0.67 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture spend for airfare, use cash savings to buy HHonors points.
  • 3% cash back (US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, points worth "up to" 1.5 cents each when redeemed for hotel stays). Opportunity cost: 0.5 cents per HHonors point. Result: manufacture HHonors points on co-branded credit card instead.

The inflection point between 3% and 4% cash back is the result of the fixed 0.56 cent per point price established by Hilton during the current promotion. Whenever manufacturing spend on a co-branded credit card costs you more than 0.56 cents per HHonors point, you should simply manufacture cash and buy the discounted points.

On the other hand, when the same dollar in manufactured spend could earn either 6 HHonors points or 3% cash back, you are buying HHonors points for just 0.5 cents each — even cheaper than Hilton is currently selling them.

Conclusion

The thrust of this post is simple: the price you should be willing to pay airline and hotel loyalty programs for their miles and points should not depend on their value. Instead, every purchase decision should depend on whether the total number of miles or points received is more cheaply earned through manufacturing cash back (used to purchase cheap miles or points) or through manufacturing those points directly.

The more lucrative your bonused gas station and grocery store manufactured spend is in cash back terms, the more willing you should be to simply buy miles and points where necessary, rather than forego lucrative cash back opportunities in favor of airline and hotel loyalty currencies.

FoundersCard: the single most expensive way to buy Hilton HHonors Gold status

There are smart, thoughtful guys who think loyalty programs are a scam and the best way to made clear-headed decisions is to opt out of the loyalty economy completely.

Then there are Thought Leaders From Behind who respond that while it's possible for loyalty arrangements to lead to bad decision-making, if you're flying or staying or renting and not participating in those schemes you're still paying for benefits you don't get to enjoy.

My attitude is simple: the house can be beat. But it can't be beat with wishful thinking and hand-waving — you can only beat the house with math.

What is FoundersCard?

FoundersCard is not a credit card. It's a bundle of benefits negotiated on an annual and quarterly basis for members of the program. It's targeted at entrepreneurs and startups, hence the "Founders" in the name of the product.

FoundersCard is a very expensive gimmick

The first gimmicky thing to know about FoundersCard is the price. In principle they charge $795 per membership year, plus a one-time $95 enrollment fee.

But no one pays that price, because new members who are referred by existing members pay just $395 annually, plus the $95 enrollment fee. Bankrate currently dominates the Google search rankings for FoundersCard, but we don't want to shovel any more money in that direction, so if you do decide to apply for FoundersCard, you can use my buddy's referral code instead (feel free to leave yours in the comments): "FCTREVOR531".

FoundersCard travel benefits are a joke compared to actual travel hacking

If you click around enough you can view the FoundersCard travel benefits without logging in, and they're pretty milquetoast. Here's a sampling of the ones that jumped out at me:

These discounts are just unacceptably small to justify paying $395 per year. The only reason you should be paying cash — rather than a fixed-value currency or redeeming miles — for these flights is if the airlines are offering an unusually low or mistake fare. But the lower the underlying fare, the less valuable a percentage discount will be!

Hilton HHonors Gold status can be quite valuable

It's hard for a travel hacker not to stumble into Hilton HHonors Gold status at some point. If you have an HHonors Surpass American Express, you get it automatically. It's also a benefit of the American Express Platinum and Citi Hilton Reserve cards.

The timing of those status benefits is odd enough that getting one of those cards could get you Gold status for 2 or 3 years — practically a lifetime in the travel hacking world!

But it's also possible you just don't have or want any of those cards, but are going to be staying in enough Hiltons to make the free breakfast benefit a valuable perk. Here I'm thinking of a stay somewhere like the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, where a week's breakfast for a family could set you back hundreds of dollars.

If you really just want Hilton HHonors Gold status, you can buy it for $395 with a FoundersCard membership.

You shouldn't be on an AT&T contract, but if you are...

I use AT&T's GoPhone prepaid service. It costs me $55 per month, and I get unlimited minutes, texts, and 5 gigabytes of data per month, the unused portion of which rolls over from one month to the next. You don't have to use AT&T GoPhone, but you should be using some prepaid phone service.

But you might not be! And if you're using a postpaid (contract) AT&T phone service, FoundersCard will save you 15% off "standard rates on all voice plans and on data plans greater than $30 in value, excluding unlimited voice and iPad data plans." So that's worth a couple shekels per month too.

Resort fees in Las Vegas are expensive

Another potentially valuable benefit currently available from FoundersClub is Diamond status with Total Rewards, the gaming loyalty program of the Caesars Entertainment hotel group, because their Vegas properties waive resort fees for Diamond elites.

When staying at Total Rewards properties in Las Vegas, regardless of your room rate, you'll pay $32.48 per night after tax in resort fees ($28 at Rio). As a Total Rewards Diamond member, those resort fees are waived. This benefit pays for the total cost of a FoundersClub membership after 13 nights (16 nights the first year due to the $95 enrollment fee).

13 nights can be a lot of nights or a few nights, depending on how much you like going to Las Vegas.

But if you do spend 13 or more nights per year in Las Vegas, and are willing to commit to spending them at Total Rewards properties, the FoundersCard can pay for itself.

There are lots of ways to get elite status with gaming programs if you actually gamble, so this should be considered only if you primarily go to Vegas for reasons besides playing the slots, like conferences, performances, and swimming pools (I famously like swimming pools).

FoundersCard benefits change often

Some of the benefits of FoundersCard are negotiated on an annual basis, while others change as frequently as every quarter. When calculating whether FoundersCard makes sense for you, you should focus on those annual benefits. Then if you do get any additional value from the quarterly rotating benefits, you can treat that as icing on your value cake.

On communities and responsibilities

I try not to get too worked up over other bloggers' behavior. If you want to throw up a generic Wordpress template with a creditcards.com affiliate link, you'll never hear a peep out of me.

Of course, I make an exception for the very small number of credit card affiliate bloggers who dominate the credit card affiliate space, because the nature of the internet tends to concentrate their popularity and wealth far beyond their contributions to the genre. So when a Thought Leader From Behind misbehaves, I'll sometimes throw out some well-deserved snark on Twitter.

Yesterday was interesting

I spent most of the day yesterday in the car, so it wasn't until I got home in the afternoon that I discovered that a minor affiliate blogger had written a post describing how, in the course of manufacturing spend, she was splitting up and concealing money order deposits in order to avoid federal transaction reporting requirements.

The internet being the internet, the comments section of that post exploded with criticism, mockery, and derision. Likewise apparently the entire Twitter travel hacking community chimed in on various sides of both the substantive question of whether what she was describing was the federal crime of structuring and with more emotionally-charged personal attacks.

Individual responsibility is a weird concept

Two sentiments stood out to me in the course of that wide-ranging conversation. First, in two tweets Matt from Saverocity tried to explain to the blogger that she needed to "stop arguing and start thinking if your post can do harm to your readers" and then reiterated "This isn't about you."

The second sentiment that stood out to me was that the blogger wasn't responsible for what her readers did, and that it's everyone's individual responsibility to do their own research to determine if what they're doing is legal or not. That's something I see frequently when larger affiliate bloggers are criticized for peddling bad advice: readers have only themselves to blame if they follow the advice of these jet-setting clowns.

There's an obvious tension between those two sentiments: either we are in a constant war of all against all and answer to no one, or we're responsible for the consequences of our actions — particularly when they cause harm to others.

If you know anything about me, you can guess I fall on the side of taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions.

People have been recording their thoughts, ideas, and experiences for a long time in private and professional journals, diaries, and logs. And a diarist who never publishes a word of her diary really can write anything they want and answer to no one!

But publishing those logs online, and especially doing so for commercial purposes, moves you into the public sphere and embeds you in a community of people. To then suggest that you're not accountable to anyone for anything you write, and placing the onus of judgment entirely on your readers, strikes me as a deeply cynical approach to life.

The blogger's aggressive reaction to criticism treated that criticism as a personal attack on her strong lady blogger identity. But Matt wasn't trying to convince her to get married, pregnant, and join the PTA; he was trying to convince her to take responsibility for correcting her error as quickly as possible, to avoid additional harm to innocent people who might take her advice at face value!

Conclusion

There are as many different approaches to travel hacking as there are travel hackers, and it's not surprising that different bloggers will take a variety of different approaches. In that context I think everyone has responsibilities: bloggers should exercise judgment in putting their readers' interests first, and readers should exercise judgment in both identifying and sharing the blogs they find helpful and steering others away from blogs that are mercenary, unhelpful, or, as in this case, downright dangerous.

Easy wins: Saint Kitts edition

I was initially going to roll this into last Friday's post on the Park Inn Danube closing out from under me, since it's a related topic: looking for easy wins whenever possible. There's nothing wrong with Rube Goldberg gift card reselling machines — I occasionally indulge — but you want to go after those after you've cashed in your easy wins.

Every hotel loyalty program has regular property turnover

Someone once explained to me that hotels actually get some kind of tax benefit from leaving one loyalty program and entering a new one, but regardless of the back office details, it's a fact that properties periodically move from one chain's loyalty program to another's.

For example, the Radisson Aruba Resort, Casino & Spa was recently rebranded as the Hilton Aruba Caribbean Resort & Casino.

When that happened, guests who had redeemed Club Carlson Gold Points using their last-night-free benefit were suddenly booked at a newly refurbished Hilton rather than an aging Radisson!

That was an easy win.

The Park Hyatt St. Kitts is scheduled to open in December, 2016

When the Park Hyatt St. Kitts opens, it is going to be spectacular. It's scheduled to open in December, 2016, and they plan to start accepting reservations a few months before that.

And they might, in fact, open in December! They might, in fact, honor every reservation that's made through Hyatt as soon as reservations become available.

They also might not. And if they don't, you better believe that they're going to be offering points, nights, upgrades, and amenities to anyone who can't complete a stay they booked months in advance.

That's an easy win.

Conclusion: keep an eye out for new and renovated properties missing their deadlines

Hotels, especially new hotels, really want to put heads in beds. So they tend to err on the side of opening their reservation windows earlier, rather than later, to make sure they get the kind of occupancy rates they need to satisfy their anxious investors. That makes it worth scoping out upcoming properties and putting a reminder on your calendar to book rooms as soon as they become available.

Then put another reminder on your calendar to cancel the room within the cancellation window if the property ends up opening on schedule!

Entitlement is only the start of a loyalty conversation

Sometimes travel hacking is about figuring out what you're entitled to and how to get it. It's not unusual to read blog posts about Starwood Preferred Guest elites searching for suites right up until the minute they check in, to make sure that the front desk staff give them the very best room they're entitled to.

Likewise, you're entitled to use Delta voluntary denied boarding vouchers for other passengers, as long as the person the voucher was issued to is one of the passengers on a single reservation. In practice, Delta makes that difficult, but not impossible.

Other times, what you're entitled to is just the starting point of a conversation.

Background: tour of Central Europe, 3 nights at a time

Before the June 1, 2015, Club Carlson devaluation, I booked a 9-night trip through Central Europe, with 3 nights at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest, 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube, Bratislava, and 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna.

The 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube cost 18,000 Gold Points total, for one 2-night reservation and one 1-night reservation.

The Park Inn Danube closed out from under me!

On Tuesday the manager of the Park Inn Danube e-mailed me to say:

"We hope this mail finds you well and we take this chance to wish you a fantastic start of New Year

We are happy to inform you [editor's note: I have no idea why he's "happy" to inform me of this] that our property, Park Inn Danube Bratislava, will go under full refurbishment from 1st of March 2016 until 1st of September 2016.

Due to this we are, unfortunately, not able to provide you with hotel accommodation as per your reservation...as the hotel operations will be completely ceased for the mentioned period.

We suggest you cancel your reservation trough Club Carlson in order to retrieve your Club Carlson points and we apologize for the short notice.

If you will still be interested to come to Bratislava, we strongly suggest booking the Radisson Blu Carlton that is located in the same area of Park Inn Danube."

How to turn 18,000 Gold Points into 84,000 Gold Points

When I found out my hotel had been closed, I immediately sized up the situation: I had 18,000 Gold Points locked up in my existing reservation. Bratislava doesn't have a ton of hotels in the old city, but as the general manager of the Park Inn Danube pointed out, it does have another Club Carlson property about a block away. Without the last-night-free benefit, three nights at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel would cost 84,000 Gold Points.

When I first called the Park Inn reservations line, the best suggestion the representative came up with was to cancel my existing reservations, and use the points for a cash and points reservation at the Radisson Blu. That would have left me out 15,000 Gold Points and $300.

And in fact, that's likely all I was entitled to.

So I took off my travel hacker hat and put on my civilian hat. If a civilian had a 3-night award stay planned a year in advance, and the hotel closed out from under them, they wouldn't agree to replace 3 free nights with a $300 paid stay! Instead, I explained the situation to the phone representative again, and told her I expected Club Carlson to reaccommodate me at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel.

She transferred me to their "Customer Care" department, and after a mere 30 minutes on hold, Club Carlson had deposited 66,000 additional Gold Points into my account and made me a 3-night reservation at the Radisson Blu:

Conclusion

Whenever I get a points windfall like this, I take the opportunity to think through my existing reservations to see if there's any way to optimize them for price or comfort.

For example, I could cancel the new award reservation, rebook the hotel with cash (about $300), then use 70,000 of the Gold Points for a third night at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna. But hotels in Vienna aren't that expensive! The Park Hyatt Vienna costs just $250 in Ultimate Rewards points or $269 for a Points + Cash redemption (plus a Diamond suite upgrade, naturally).

In fact what I'm likely to do is cancel my existing 2-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna, upgrade our stay to a premium award redemption at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel, and book all three nights in Vienna at the Park Hyatt.

Your humble blogger's IHG Rewards Club Priceless Surprises datapoints

Since November, IHG Rewards Club has been running a promotion called "Priceless Surprises." Under the terms of that promotion each time you stay at an IHG Rewards property, starting with your second stay, you are entered into a sweepstakes to earn at least 500 bonus IHG Rewards points, and potentially much more valuable prizes.

Since the promotion is a sweepstakes, there's a way to enter without staying at an IHG Rewards Club property, which many travel hackers have been taking advantage of.

How to enter (1)

In order to enter the Priceless Surprises sweepstakes, you must register your IHG Rewards Club account for the promotion at https://pricelesssurprises.ihg.com/. Go do that now, I'll wait here.

How to enter (2)

Once you've registered, you can enter the sweepstakes by doing the following:

Hand print on a 3" x 5" piece of paper:

  1. your full name
  2. complete mailing address
  3. day and evening phone numbers
  4. valid email address
  5. member number
  6. the first six (6) digits of your MasterCard
  7. and date of birth

Then mail that piece of paper in an envelope with proper postage to:

“IHG and MasterCard® Priceless Surprises® Promotion"
c/o HelloWorld, Inc.
P.O. Box 5996, Kalamazoo, MI 49003-5996

You don't have to number or label the 7 required pieces of information in any way: you can just list them in the designated order on a 3" x 5" piece of paper. But you must submit each entry in a separate envelope.

You can enter the sweepstakes using this method a total of 94 times.

What happens once you enter

Once you enter the promotion, you wait. Even though the promotion's rules say that "Once your mail-in request is received, you will receive an email within five (5) business days from the Administrator inviting you to play the Game," that is false.

You will wait, and wait, and wait.

And then one day, a month or so later, you will receive all your contest entries simultaneously:

I mailed my entries in on or about December 14, 2015, and received all my e-mails overnight on January 20, 2016.

Each e-mail has an entry link, which takes you to an animated elevator. You click "play," then a floor button, and you're told whether you won 500 IHG Rewards Club points (almost every time) or some other, higher-value prize.

Incidentally, each e-mail entry doesn't have a unique URL attached — as far as I can tell you can keep clicking the same link in the same e-mail until you run out of free entries (you'll receive an error message when that happens).

What are the prizes

There are a variety of prizes, but every entry receives at least 500 IHG Rewards Club points.

Today I won 39 prizes of 500 IHG Rewards Club points, and one prize of a $1,099 Bose home stereo system. So the prizes vary in value considerably.

How to claim prizes

If you win anything besides 500 IHG Rewards Club points, you'll immediately be sent an e-mail with a "declaration form" for claiming your more valuable prize. You have to list your Social Security number and mailing address so they can send you an IRS 1099 form declaring the value of the prize you won.

Oddly, they claim to need to receive that form within 5 calendar days of notifying you of your prize, or they'll give the prize to someone else. It's unclear to me whether that language is actually enforced, since it's obviously amateur hour at this sweepstakes administrator. To be on the safe side, I mailed my "declaration form" by priority mail, with a tracking number showing it will be delivered on January 22, 2016.

Conclusion

That was my experience mailing in entries to the IHG Rewards Club Priceless Surprises sweepstakes. Let me know if you have any questions or additional datapoints in the comments.

Comparative advantages of Hyatt and Hilton: beach edition

[editor's note: my worthless MacBook Pro has finally stopped working completely, so I'm using an aged clamshell laptop for my blogging this week. Grammar and punctuation will suffer, and pictures will be minimal/nonexistent.]

Since getting a tier match to Hyatt Diamond status, I've reconfigured quite a few trips this year to maximize the value of my Diamond benefits, like suite upgrades and complimentary breakfast. In many cases that means replacing Hilton HHonors points redemptions with Hyatt Points + Cash reservations, which are eligible for Diamond suite upgrades.

That's left me with an unexpectedly high HHonors point balance. For example, instead of redeeming 240,000 Honors points for 5 nights at the Hilton San Francisco Financial District, I booked a Points + Cash stay at the Grand Hyatt San Francisco and immediately redeemed a Diamond suite upgrade certificate.

That naturally got me wondering: what should I do with all these HHonors points?!?

Let's go to the beach

My partner and I have never gone on a beach vacation by ourselves (we went to Kauai with my family, but we filled up 2 condos with people, so it wasn't exactly tranquil).

That left me with today's question: what are the best beach vacation destinations served by either Hyatt or Hilton, but not both chains? If I can answer that question, I can just book a stay at the nicest Hilton property without a nearby competing Hyatt property, and feel good overall about my life decisions.

Methodology

To start with, I searched Google for top beach destinations. The first page of search results had three seemingly reputable resources:

After listing those 55 beaches, I eliminated all the duplicates as well as beaches with no nearby Hyatt or Hilton properties at all. Then I narrowed it down further to beach destinations with only one of either Hilton or Hyatt properties.

There are two legitimate concerns to be raised about this research method:

  • Why would I use some crappy clickbait slideshows as my resource for deciding on what's a "good" beach destination?
  • Why would I exclude destinations that are served by both Hyatt and Hilton? After all, the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island might be a better hotel than the Park Hyatt Maldives, in which case I should choose it anyway, even if it means passing up a Hyatt stay credit.

Those are legitimate concerns, and my only answer is that the alternative is using lists of properties that are curated by bloggers who receive money from one or both chains for promoting their co-branded credit cards. A long advertiser-supported list of properties seems marginally more objective than a long affiliate-supported list, although I'm willing to be proven wrong on that point.

Here are my results.

Beach resorts served exclusively by Hilton

  • Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa. 80,000 HHonors points in June and July, 70,000 HHonors points the rest of the year.
  • Hilton Bora Bora Nui Resort & Spa. 80,000 HHonors points all year.
  • Hilton Waikoloa Village. 50,000 HHonors points all year.
  • DoubleTree Suites by Hilton Hotel Doheny Beach - Dana Point. 50,000 HHonors points May-August, 40,000 HHonors points the rest of the year.
  • DoubleTree by Hilton Ocean Point Resort & Spa - North Miami Beach. 70,000 HHonors points December-March, 50,000 HHonors points the rest of the year.
  • Hilton Tel Aviv. 70,000 HHonors points all year.

Beach resorts served exclusively by Hyatt

  • Andaz Maui at Wailea. Category 6, 25,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.
  • Hyatt Ziva Puerto Vallarta. All-inclusive, 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.
  • Hyatt Playa del Carmen. Category 5, 20,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points.

Conclusion

This was a fun exercise, and it gave me a few ideas for award availability and destinations to keep an eye out for. In particular, the Hilton properties in Moorea, Bora Bora, and Waikoloa Village all seem like great hotels, and I hope to end up at one soon!