Walmart Money Center debit limit problem solving; gone vacationing

I have never felt the impulse to constantly repeat, here on the blog, every manufactured spend technique that still works. People periodically send me e-mails or leave comments on ancient posts asking, "does this still work?" and my response is usually, "why wouldn't it?" After all, almost everything I know and do is contained here on the blog, and virtually everything else I know is included in my subscribers-only newsletters.

Still, even I occasionally wonder whether a given rule still applies or a given restriction has been loosened or tightened, and I had an experience the other day that provided a funny example.

The Walmart Money Center 4-debit limit

If you're a working travel hacker, grinding out your manufactured spend with money orders and bill payments, you know that Walmart point-of-sale systems will only accept four separate debit payments on a single transaction.

But do you really know that? I mean, if you are going to a Walmart with competent cashiers, making purchases with exactly 4 debit payments on each transaction, how would you know if a the point of sale system were updated to suddenly allow 8, 12, or 20 debit payments per transaction? They wouldn't tell the cashiers, since the cashiers have no reason to know. You'd have to find out for yourself.

Which, the other day, I did!

Walmart Money Center problem solving

In a typical Walmart money order purchase, you might ask for two $1,000 money orders, intending to pay $500 at a time on four PIN-enabled Visa or MasterCard debit cards. Since the amount debited from each card is manually entered by the cashier, that creates the possibility of the cashier manually entering the wrong amount.

In my case the other day, my cashier debited $50, rather than $500, from my first card. That left me with a $450 hole to fill. She offered to let me pay with the remaining balance of my debit card, but she didn't have any say in the matter: the point of sale system spit out a little slip refusing a fifth debit, after I'd paid the remaining $1,500 with my three remaining cards.

At this point, you have a few options. None of them is better or worse than the other, but you need to be ready, because if this happens to you your cashier is going to be very flummoxed and you need to know your options, depending on what they're they're prepared to do:

  • Remove a money order from the transaction to square it up. This is technically the best option if the mistake is made on the first or second debit charge of your transaction. For example, if you have a $2,000 total money order purchase, and the first debit is accidentally made for $50, you can ask the cashier to remove the second $1,000 money order, make a $450 supplemental payment with your first (incorrectly debited) card, and then another $500 payment with a second card. You'll have completely paid for one money order. No harm, no foul.
  • Remove a money order from the transaction to generate a refund. This is actually a variation of the situation most experienced travel hackers have run into, where the money order printer crashes and the store has to give you a refund in cash since they can't refund debit card transactions. If the erroneous debit takes place on the third or fourth debit, this may be your only option. You can either take a cash refund or, if your cashier is game, use it against the cost of the second money order (since most Walmart cashiers don't have that much cash in their drawers anyway).
  • Finally, and this is only for folks who are sure about the competence of their cashiers, you can ask them to add a money order to the purchase in the amount of the mistake, before removing one of the original money orders. For example, if you intended to buy two $1,000 money orders with four $500 debits, but one of the debits was incorrectly entered at $50, you can ask the cashier to add a $550 money order, then remove one of the $1,000 money orders. That would bring your order to $1,550 — the amount you were ultimately able to pay with four debits.

I'm going to Europe!

This afternoon I'm flying to Munich to spend 10 days in France, Switzerland, and Germany. Don't burn the place down while I'm gone!

I guess this is a vacation so I don't expect to post more than once or twice next week, but I do plan to have sporadic internet access so follow me on Twitter for updates, pictures, and rants about how they do things over there, putting mayonnaise on their fries or whatever.

When did Hilton get so bad at processing award stays?

I'm no thought leader in travel, so I'm not going to paint this as a symbolic or meaningful decline in the quality of the Hilton Honors program, but I had a pair of experiences this weekend that together formed one hell of a coincidence. My mom was visiting from Oregon, and together we drove to the Maryland coast to get out of the city for the weekend.

Hilton Honors award reservations are easy for hotels to screw up

Being a travel hacker means never having to share a hotel room with your parents, so I booked us two all-points award stays at a Doubletree property in the Annapolis suburbs, one with my partner as the "additional guest" and one with my mom as the additional guest. The stay went smoothly, but when the folios were emailed to me on the morning we checked out, only one of the rooms had been zeroed out; the other showed a charge to my credit card for the two nights of $480 or so.

The next night, I had booked my mom a room at the Hilton Garden Inn near Washington National Airport, again with her as the additional guest on the reservation, and got a text from her asking whether the stay was a points stay or a points and cash stay. I thought this was a pretty strange question, but she said the front desk clerk had been confused. Sure enough, the next morning the e-mailed folio showed the full room rate had been charged to my credit card!

If it hadn't happened two nights in a row it probably wouldn't have even registered with me; there are all sorts of things you have to call a hotel about to follow up on after a stay, and it only took two 2-minute phone calls to get both sets of charges reversed. The fact that it happened under identical circumstances, however, makes me think there may really be a Hilton reservation issue when the "additional guest" checks in on an award stay without the primary guest. There's no rule against booking such stays (I do it all the time), and the charges are easy to reverse, but the pattern is certainly suggestive.

A more serious concern would be if you booked an award stay for someone and they provided their own credit card on check-in, and that credit card was charged the full price of the stay. If they were nervous talking about money, like many Americans, they might simply pay the charge thinking you'd stiffed them! And of course if the reservation were held with a debit card, you could experience serious cashflow issues or even overdrafts while the refund was being processed, which can take several days.


I don't have any grand unified theories about the source of this issue, and don't have any idea whether it originates on Hilton's side as a reservation software issue or on the properties' side as a training issue or even an attempt to grift unwitting guests. The solution is simply to be aware of it, check your Hilton folio as soon as they e-mail it to you, fix the issue before you check out if possible, and call as soon as you discover it if not!

How might the World of Hyatt-Oasis partnership work?

Via Travel with Grant, I saw the other day that World of Hyatt is planning to partner with a luxury home rental company called Oasis (and that you can use discount code "UnboundxHyatt" for a $100 discount if you book before October 31). Apparently at some point in the near future you'll be able to earn and redeem World of Hyatt points on these stays.

When I first saw this tie-up described, I thought there was no way it could possibly work. After doing a bit of digging, I've actually come around to the idea that it's possible, if well-executed, for the partnership to make sense for customers.

Let's take a look.

World of Hyatt points are very valuable because of the low maximum points redemption

Setting aside for the moment the value of the World of Hyatt program (it's comparable to the other major programs for paid stays, contingent on your elite status and credit card) and focusing on the value of World of Hyatt points, you see that World of Hyatt points are uniquely valuable because of the very low maximum number of points you need to redeem: the most expensive Park Hyatt properties in the world cost no more than 30,000 World of Hyatt points.

Since Chase Ultimate Rewards points can be transferred to World of Hyatt, that puts a hard cap of $300 per night in cash value on the cost of your hotel stays in destinations with Hyatt properties, subject of course to award availability.

Across all redemptions Hyatt presumably turns a profit

While an award redemption during a particularly busy or expensive weekend may require World of Hyatt to pay properties close to retail, most of the time Hyatt pays just a small fraction of the retail cost of your stay (properties sometimes accidentally print on your folio the amount they're paid by Hyatt so it's worth taking a look at your folio on award stays if you're interested).

I don't have any special insight into the economics behind this process, but across all award stays I think it's safe to assume Hyatt makes a modest profit: Chase pays them more for World of Hyatt points than Hyatt pays out on award stays, and Hyatt properties pay more in licensing fees than they get paid for award redemptions (hopefully making up the difference by being able to charge more and attracting customers loyal to the program).

How could World of Hyatt redemptions work with Oasis?

I did some clicking around Oasis to get a feel for the prices these properties typically charge, and they span a pretty wide range. I searched for the 6 US cities on Oasis, for a 3-night weekend stay in November. Here are the rates I found:

  • In Austin, prices range from $110 for a one-bedroom to $1,200 for a 4-bedroom;
  • In New York City, from $222 for a one-bedroom to $1,350 for a 5-bedroom;
  • In Chicago, from $140 for a one-bedroom to $2,160 for a 5-bedroom;
  • In Los Angeles, from $144 for a studio to $6,000 for a 6-bedroom;
  • In San Francisco, from $152 for a one-bedroom to $519 for a 2-bedroom;
  • In Miami, from $180 for a one-bedroom to $4,995 for a 7-bedroom.

To synthesize these rates, in the US market Oasis charges between $110 and $222 per bedroom on the low end, and between $259 and $713 per bedroom on the high end.

My mistake when I first glanced at the Oasis website was to think that there's no way Hyatt could square the circle of paying $4,995 per night to an apartment's owner while charging a low enough number of World of Hyatt points to make the redemption reasonable to their members (who only pay 30,000 points at the most luxurious properties in the Hyatt portfolio, remember).

The answer, of course, is that they'll charge per bedroom per night, as Wyndham Rewards currently does for redemptions at their vacation properties.

If I had to guess I'd say redemptions will start at 12,000 or 15,000 points for the cheapest apartments, and top out at 30,000 points for the most expensive, on a per-bedroom, per-night basis. Redeeming 210,000 World of Hyatt points per night for a 7-bedroom house in Miami obviously isn't something you'd do for a weekend getaway, but for a wedding, bachelor party, or other special occasion it would offer 2 cents per point compared to paying cash. There's no question there would be some takers at that rate (and since each property can only accommodate one reservation per night you only need to book a maximum of 365 nights per year).

I could see this working for family trips

Right now Oasis doesn't have very many participating cities or properties, but presumably they're intent on rapid expansion to new cities and signing on more properties within their existing footprint. Once World of Hyatt redemptions are live, we'll see what kind of value redemptions ultimately offer. The obvious value of these redemptions will be for folks traveling as a family who want additional living, kitchen, and dining space compared to what they'd get at a hotel.

If the alternative is booking multiple hotel rooms and eating out for every meal, or having to spend a lot of time driving between your hotel and your destination, then being able to stay in a single unit, in a good location, with a kitchen and other amenities could be very valuable.

The devil will be in the details

Obviously since the partnership hasn't launched yet, it's impossible to say whether it will "really" be a good deal or a bad deal. There are a lot of ways it could go wrong:

  • World of Hyatt awards include all taxes and fees. Will taxes and fees be included on Oasis awards? If not, they'll become a significant co-pay on award stays, since in addition to taxes Oasis reservations also charge a cleaning fee.
  • Will award availability match paid stay availability? Most (all?) Oasis properties have minimum stay requirements, but will they be longer for award stays than for paid stays? Will there be blackout dates for award stays, or will you be able to book with points any nights available with cash?
  • Will award rates be too high? You can imagine Hyatt investing nothing in this partnership and simply allowing you to redeem World of Hyatt points for one cent each towards Oasis stays. That's an extreme case, but if they set redemption rates too high on a per-bedroom, per-night basis, the whole thing will be a meaningless embarrassment.


While I doubt I'll ever book an Oasis stay with World of Hyatt points, over the course of writing this post I slowly came around to the idea that, if well-executed, the Hyatt-Oasis partnership might provide good value to families under certain circumstances.

But until redemption details are announced, all we can do is speculate.

About Delta Private Jets

Last week I wrote about how I would think about earning Diamond Medallion status with Delta after the changes going into effect for Medallion Qualifying Dollars in January, 2018. I then quipped on Twitter that "If you're just a rich guy who wants Diamond Medallion status just get a Delta Private Jets Card."

I was referring to the ability to deposit $100,000 on a Delta Private Jets card and receive Diamond Medallion status. You would then have 2 years to spend the $100,000, which you can redeem either for private jet flights or for commercial flights marketed by Delta. If you buy full fare commercial tickets you also get a 20% discount (they would still be much, much more expensive than the "discounted" tickets ordinary people buy; I assume this benefit is targeted at companies that insist on booking refundable tickets).

This is, obviously, not worth doing for an ordinary travel hacker. But you can imagine a well-connected rich guy, or even a very frequent reimbursed business traveler who wouldn't earn enough Medallion Qualifying Miles or Segments for Diamond Medallion status, getting quite a lot of potential value from this benefit.

That's because the status you get from Delta Private Jets is supposed to give you "immediate" access to Diamond Choice Benefits, for instance, that could be worth a thousand dollars or so, between Sky Club membership, global upgrades, or just selling Gold Medallion status. If you get Diamond Medallion status for the year you join and the next two years, you could potentially receive three sets of Choice Benefits to offset the cost of prepaying for your Delta travel.

Unfortunately, I haven't seen any reports of how this benefit works in practice. Folks with that kind of money don't spend a lot of time posting on public message boards, I guess.

Two other ways to get Delta Private Jets access (but not Diamond Medallion)

When I started writing this post I hoped to reveal a secret backdoor into Diamond Medallion status. You see, there are two ways to get a Delta Private Jets card without spending $100,000:

  • American Express Platinum cardmembers can deposit as little as $50,000 on a card, and receive a 3% bonus on the card's value (if you were planning to deposit $100,000 you would want to open a Platinum card just for this benefit; paying a $550 annual fee for a $3,000 boost in value);
  • all SkyMiles members can redeem 2,500,000 SkyMiles for a $25,000 Delta Private Jets card.

What the internet couldn't tell me is whether people pursuing either of those options would still receive Diamond Medallion status! So, I picked up the phone and committed journalism: I called Delta Private Jets and asked.

What I found is kind of interesting in its own right. While these three methods of buying a Delta Private Jets card all seem different to a travel hacker, with different thresholds and benefits, Delta Private Jets doesn't actually seem to differentiate between the methods internally. You can redeem SkyMiles in any amount in excess of 2.5 million, and you can use a Platinum card to load any amount in excess of $50,000 to receive a 3% bonus, or both.

But regardless of how you pay for the amount you load, the benefits you receive depend only on the amount you load. There are a few minor differences concerning hourly rates and such, but the two important ones are:

  • Loads of less than $100,000 expire in one year, rather than two years;
  • and loads of less than $100,000 don't grant Diamond Medallion status.

In other words, Diamond Medallion status is a benefit of the amount you load, not a benefit of Delta Private Jets membership (this has been misreported absolutely everywhere I have looked for it).


One hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend on airfare, and it's a hell of a lot of money to loan to Delta interest free for two years in the hopes you'll spend it within 24 months. On the other hand, for somebody rich enough to not mind the float, but not rich enough to actually fly private and shop around for the best private jet pricing, and who knows they'll spend $100,000 on Delta-marketed flights for themselves and their employees, friends or relations in the next 24 months, this is the quickest and easiest path to Diamond Medallion status I know of.

How to plan out your last 2017 US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards redemptions

I know my readers are some of the biggest fans of US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards, given their convenient bonus earning categories and potentially generous redemptions rates of up to 2 cents per Flexpoint when redeemed for paid airfare.

On January 1, 2018, the redemption rate will fall from up to 2 cents per Flexpoint for paid airfare redemptions and up to 1.5 cents per Flexpoint for hotel redemptions to a flat 1.5 cents per Flexpoint for all redemptions. That's a devaluation for folks who are good at maximizing the value of their Flexpoints, and more or less a shrug for folks who redeem Flexpoints aggressively for paid economy fares because they're so easy to earn.

If you're concerned about the coming devaluation, this last quarter of 2017 is a good opportunity to lock in your Flexpoints' higher value. Here are a few suggestions.

Book high-value Southwest fares

Since Southwest flights can be refunded to your Rapid Rewards account up until the time of departure, an easy way to lock in the highest possible value of your Flexpoints is to book Southwest flights (which unfortunately has to be done over the phone) near the top of a Flexperks redemption band. As long as you fly Southwest often enough to be sure you'll use your credit before it expires, this can be an easy way to prepay for flights using the maximum value of your 2017 Flexpoints.

Book Alaska Airlines flights (much) more than 60 days in the future

Alaska Airlines has a similar policy to Southwest, in that they allow you to redeposit the cash value of your flights into your Mileage Plan "travel bank." However, Alaska Airlines' policy is in some ways more and in some ways less restrictive.

It's more restrictive because non-elite members of Mileage Plan can only redeposit a ticket's value into their account more than 60 days before departure, while Southwest lets you redeposit your ticket's value up until departure.

On the other hand, Alaska opens their flight booking window much further into the future, so you have the option of booking flights deep into 2018, while Southwest opens their booking window by what feels like just a few weeks at a time (although in reality I suppose it's more than that).

Don't forget your airline fee credit!

If you plan to simply redeem Flexpoints for a flight and cancel it 24-48 hours later, you would probably be justified in forgetting the original dates you scheduled your flight for.

But that would be a mistake!

On the day or days of your original Flexpoint flight redemptions, you're eligible for a $25 credit for each ticket you booked using your Flexpoints. So that would be a good day to pay some checked bag fees, the taxes and fees on an award ticket, or simply buy an airline gift card. After the transaction posts, don't forget to call in and request the $25 fee waiver — it's an extremely manual process.


I think there are good arguments on both sides for keeping or cancelling US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards after January 1, 2018, but there's no excuse for letting your points suddenly lose their value on that date! It's time to start thinking about 2018 travel plans which will let you lock in your Flexpoints' current, higher value.

Thinking about the 2018 changes to Delta co-branded credit card MQD waivers

I've been reading with interest about the recently-announced change to how Delta will handle Medallion Qualifying Dollar waivers starting with the 2019 qualification year (January 1, 2018). Frequent Miler has an interesting post from the perspective of someone who is already maximizing a set of 4 American Express Platinum and Reserve co-branded credit cards.

I've personally been bouncing back and forth between Silver and Gold Medallion status for the past few years, after two glorious years as a Platinum Medallion, so I don't expect this change to affect me personally unless I suddenly have to start flying a lot more. But I know some readers still gun for top-tier status with Delta, so I thought it'd be worth sharing a few thoughts.

Rollover MQM are very valuable

Delta is the only airline to allow you to roll elite qualifying miles over from one year to the next, but they allow this only if you achieve at least Silver Medallion status each year. In other words, if you only earn 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles in 2017, you'll start 2018 with zero MQM. If you earn 40,000 MQM in 2017 (and meet the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements or have them waived through credit card spend) you'll start 2018 with 15,000 rollover MQM.

When the $25,000 MQD waiver applied to every level of Medallion status, the maximum number of MQM a Platinum Medallion who qualified with a MQD waiver could roll over was 49,999. Any more MQM than that, and they would qualify for Diamond Medallion status, resetting their rollover clock to zero and having to start their requalification from scratch the following year.

With the Diamond Medallion MQD waiver threshold raised to $250,000, Platinum Medallions will be able to rollover an unlimited number of MQM, giving them a big head start in the next year's requalification.

Why does this matter? Because if you experience a variable amount of travel from year to year, you might prefer to smooth it out by remaining Platinum every year (and enjoying free award changes and cancellations), rather than bounce up and down between Gold and Diamond Medallion statuses.

How much do MQM cost?

Frequent Miler did a good job explaining the value he perceives from earning MQM and achieving Medallion status, but I'm naturally much more interested in the cost of doing so. Assuming you have or are eligible for both personal and business Platinum and Reserve Delta American Express cards, it's easy to calculate the cost of chasing Medallion status:

  • Your first 60,000 MQM cost $900 in annual fees ($450 for each Delta Reserve card) and $2,400 in foregone cash back (the value of charging $120,000 to a 2% cash back card instead), for a total cost of 5.5 cents per MQM.
  • Your next 40,000 MQM cost $390 in annual fees ($195 for each Delta Platinum card) and $2,000 in foregone cash back, for a total cost of 5.98 cents per MQM.

This pattern of spend would yield 100,000 MQM and 320,000 redeemable SkyMiles, and leave you 25,000 MQM (and $30,000 in spend) short of Diamond status, and cost a total of $5,690, for an average MQM cost of 5.69 cents and cost per SkyMile of 1.78 cents.

Timing matters

At this point you have two options: you can earn 25,000 MQM through actual flight activity (and spend another $30,000 on your co-branded credit cards) in order to earn Diamond status, or you can roll over 25,000 MQM into the following calendar year.

In my view, which decision is best depends on how long it takes you to meet the high spend thresholds on your credit cards. That's because when you earn Medallion status it's valid through the rest of the year it's earned in and the entire following year.

Consider two cases:

  • You spend all of 2018 meeting your high spend thresholds and flying on paid Delta tickets (foregoing the opportunity to redeem the haul of SkyMiles you're also accumulating) and qualify as a Diamond Medallion on December 31, 2018. Your status is valid through January, 2020.
  • You spend 2018 meeting your high spend thresholds and aggressively redeeming your SkyMiles. You end the year with 100,000 MQM and Platinum Medallion status. Then in January, 2019, you spend $250,000 across your co-branded credit cards. Together with your 25,000 rollover MQM, you now have 125,000 MQM and a Diamond Medallion MQD waiver. Your Diamond Medallion status is valid through January, 2021.

In other words, if you're confident you can meet your high spend thresholds early in the year, either through manufactured spend or legitimate expenses, you only need to actually requalify as a Diamond Medallion (and meet the $250,000 MQD waiver threshold) every 2 years. And during any gap between the expiry of your Diamond status and your requalification you'll still get to enjoy your Platinum Medallion benefits.

Of course you'll only receive your Diamond Choice Benefits every other year, as well.


As I mentioned, it's been a few years since I had Platinum Medallion status, but I was very satisfied with it and think for the casual travel hacker it is probably adequate in terms of domestic upgrade chances, Sky Club access when traveling internationally, and free award changes and redeposits. You can also achieve it with just 3 co-branded credit cards, saving either $195 or $450 depending on whether you decide to cut a Platinum or Reserve credit card (2 Platinums and 1 Reserve will earn you just 70,000 MQM after $160,000 in spend, so you'd also need to earn at least 5,000 MQM from flying each year).

However, I can easily see how international business travelers who want to redeem global upgrade certificates or those forced to travel in domestic economy who want to maximize their chances of an upgrade might decide to stretch for Diamond Medallion. Depending on how much value you get out of Sky Club access and Delta companion tickets, the co-branded credit cards may be a cost-effective — though far from cheap — way of achieving it.

What to do when a Bank of America ATM eats your money orders

Automated teller machines are so fully integrated into American life that it's sometimes difficult to remember just how marvelous the technology is. The fact that the global telecommunications infrastructure enables real-time connections to bank accounts all over the world is incredible enough, but ATM's also perform remarkable, and remarkably consistent, mechanical functions: first dispensing cash in precise quantities, and now even accepting deposits of instantly-counted cash and machine-read checks. Even if the machine-reading isn't yet at 100% accuracy, the cash counting function itself is pretty remarkable.

Of course, no technology is perfect, and most people have wondered at one point or another, "what would happen if an ATM dispensed the wrong amount of cash?" I actually asked a cashier at my local credit union that very question, and she responded that they count the cash at the end of the night and would notice any disparity and correct it. Whether that's true or not, I had my own ATM mishap last week, and I have to confess it was resolved perfectly, at the cost of a single 21-minute phone call.

Here's what happened.

Bank of America ATM's accept money order deposits, but they are not great

I've deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars of money orders in Bank of America ATM's over the years and never run into any problems although, depending on the model of the money order printer and the model of the ATM, I usually have to manually input the amount of the money orders I deposit.

What had never happened to me before last Sunday was for the ATM to accept my money order deposit, go to a "processing" screen for 2-3 minutes, and then "cancel" the transaction without returning the money orders or acknowledging the transaction in any way.

I immediately checked my account online, and when I saw no transaction had been recorded, it was time to get on the phone.

Filing a claim

I used the "contact us" button within the Bank of America iPhone app, which dialed 844-870-8569. After explaining the situation to the front-line rep, I was directed to a department I believe was called "fraud," and given an additional phone number, 877-366-1121. After explaining the situation to that rep, I was then transferred to another department, which I wasn't given the name of. That rep was finally able to open a claim for me. He asked for:

  • the date of the transaction;
  • the approximate time of the transaction;
  • the amount of the deposit;
  • the serial numbers of the money orders I deposited;
  • the ATM's identification code, which was tucked over the ATM's screen and under the ATM's hood (it took me a minute or two to find).

I also asked him how often this kind of thing happened, and he answered that he gets "3-5 calls per day." Naturally, after I tweeted about the situation I heard from several readers who had experienced identical problems. That's what you get when you execute several lifetimes' worth of ordinary ATM usage every year!


As promised, my account was credited with a "temporary credit" on Monday, September 11 (actually one day earlier than promised). On Thursday, September 21, I received an online message that the claim had been resolved and the temporary credit was made permanent. The entire text of the attached PDF was:

"We've concluded our investigation of this disputed transaction. The previously issued credit is now permanent."

I assume I'll receive a paper letter to the same effect in a day or two.


I don't think there's an epidemic of malfunctioning Bank of America ATM's sweeping the country, so I don't think this is something you should be worrying about, let alone obsessing over. The real point of this post is simply to put your mind at ease: there is a system for resolving ATM transactions which malfunction, and it works.

Unlike, for example, claiming credit card trip delay insurance, there's no secret recipe for resolving these problems. Just call immediately, provide as much information as possible, and your claim will be resolved in short order (and you'll have use of the money in the meantime). I imagine that some of the information I provided wasn't even necessary to resolve the claim. Since I called immediately I was able to provide the ATM's identification code, but if I waited until I got home I assume Bank of America would be able to look it up themselves.

Travel hacking without manufactured spend

I was having lunch with a travel hacker in my area the other day and we got to talking about different approaches to the game.

My personal approach depends almost entirely on manufactured spend. I think it's fair to say that if every manufactured spend avenue died tomorrow, I'd close all my travel credit cards and put all my regular purchases on a 2% cash back card (or a 2.625% cash back card if I ever had $100,000 in assets). I don't have any reimbursed business travel, either to generate real credit card spend or to take advantage of the benefits of elite status. And I'm poor, so I don't have enough monthly expenses to meet even a "modest" minimum spend requirement of $3,000 or more. Remember, we're imagining a world without any manufactured spend opportunities, including whatever you're thinking of right now.

That's one extreme, but obviously it doesn't apply to most or all of my readers, especially the well-heeled ones! The fact is, travel hacking is and would be possible without any manufactured spend at all. But the benefits would still depend on the discipline you applied to it. With that in mind, here are a few approaches you could take.

Target individual expenses

The most intuitive way to travel hack without manufactured spend is to target individual expenses on upcoming trips. As I often say, at least for economy travel, your hotel expenses can quickly outstrip your flight expenses, so that's a natural place to start. Once you have a destination in mind, it's easy to find the credit card or cards with signup bonuses that will save you the most money on hotel stays — emphasis on you. I truly do not care what a point is "worth" in the abstract; I care what it's worth to you, and what it's worth to you depends on how much money it's going to save you.

If you are planning a trip with stays at Marriott properties, the Marriott Rewards Premier card can earn you 80,000 points after spending $3,000. That's a minimum of 2 nights at all but their top-tier Category 9 properties, and at least 3 nights at Category 5 properties and below. Category 5 properties are an endangered species these days, which is one reason I cancelled my card; the annual free night certificate is only redeemable at Category 1-5 properties. But if you have upcoming Marriott expenses it's easy to calculate the precise value to you of the 80,000-point signup bonus.

Likewise with the current 100,000-point Hilton Honors Surpass American Express signup offer (you can find my personal referral link on my Support the Site! page), and the Chase Hyatt Visa Signature offer of 40,000 points. If you don't have the ability to manufacture spend, then those one-time points hauls can save you a lot of money on trips involving stays at Hilton or Hyatt.

The point is that this exercise doesn't require figuring out how much points are worth in the abstract. Instead, you can ground the value you're getting from a signup bonus directly in your own experience: the amount of money you would otherwise spend on nights you're able to pay for with a credit card's signup bonus.

Targeting airfare is somewhat more difficult, and should be done cautiously. For example, there's a big difference between cards which only allow you to redeem points for the entire cost of a flight (like US Bank Flexpoints) and cards which allow you to redeem points against the partial cost of a flight (like Chase Sapphire and Ink cards, Barclaycard Arrival cards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and others).

Likewise, there's a difference between airlines that allow you to pay for your flights with miles (Delta), airlines that offer last-seat availability at much higher rates (Alaska and American), and airlines that offer last-seat availability only to certain customers (United). This difference matters less in a world with manufactured spend, since with plentiful points you are always free to use the right points for the right job. In a world without manufactured spend you have much less room for error in earning and redeeming precisely the points you need. United miles simply won't get you where you need to go, if where you need to go is served only by American.

Build trips around the signup bonuses you're eligible for

A totally different approach to travel hacking without manufactured spend is to build your travel around the signup bonuses you have available to you. It often feels like this is the approach implicitly endorsed by affiliate bloggers who, in promoting a given credit card, explain exactly how and where they think you should use the card's signup bonus.

The advantage of this strategy is that you may be able to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses much more than you would with the strategy of targeting individual expenses, since each part of the trip will be designed around a particular points balance.

The disadvantage is that you have much less control over where you go. While to a travel hacker this may sound like a commonsense trade-off, it's worth pointing out how unusual it would seem to a civilian who plans trips around places they actually want or need to visit.

Even reimbursed business travelers need to think carefully

I often hold up reimbursed business travelers as a sort of platonic ideal of a travel hacker, one who is able to spend her employer's money, accrue elite-qualifying miles with the airline of her choice, and earn top-tier hotel status on someone else's dime.

But that's no excuse for reimbursed business travelers to relax: they still have to make decisions about the cards they use to pay for their reimbursed travel, and to a lesser extent which airline and hotel programs to pursue loyalty with. I say "to a lesser extent" because the various loyalty programs have become extremely adept at making the value proposition of their programs closely track each other. In other words, for actual paid hotel stays and for actual paid flights, the rebate you receive will be similar regardless of the program you select, as long as you direct all your paid business to a single program.

When it comes to credit cards, however, slacking off can be expensive. For example, a reimbursed business traveler who spends $1,000 at a Marriott property could earn 5,000 Marriott Rewards points by paying with a Chase Marriott Rewards Premier card, or 2,000 Starpoints with an American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card — which can be instantly transferred to 6,000 Marriott Rewards points. If you aren't aware of that, you're simply leaving points on the table.

Likewise, a reimbursed business traveler who is able to pay for their own flights still has to decide whether to concentrate or diversify. Should a reimbursed Delta flight be paid for with a Delta American Express card in order to earn as many Delta SkyMiles as quickly as possible, or with another card that bonuses airline purchases in order to diversify their points balances, even if that means lower balances across multiple accounts?


At the end of the day, travel hacking means different things to different people. For some people it means manufacturing spend, for others it means earning points cheaply and redeeming them dearly, and for others it just means occasionally signing up for a new round of credit cards in order to chop off a chunk of the cost of their travel expenses.

The thing I think it can't mean, or rather the thing travel hacking is in contrast to, is applying, spending, and traveling without thinking. So: don't do that.