The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express Priority Pass Membership "Year"

Unlimited access to the Priority Pass network of airport lounges, which was long an afterthought compared to airline lounges and, more recently, the superb American Express Centurion lounges, has quietly become an impressive benefit of many super-premium credit cards, like American Express Platinum cards, the Chase Sapphire Reserve, and the Citi Prestige. In part that’s because Priority Pass has aggressively added airport restaurant locations where you can typically receive about $28 towards your food and drink bill (excluding gratuities). When I first started tracking that option, I recorded just 23 participating restaurants. The number is now up to 49!

Credit cards issued in the United States have typically offered either unlimited Priority Pass memberships or, like the Chase Ink Plus, “memberships” in name only where “members” pay $32 or so for lounge access. Obviously those memberships don’t offer any value at all at non-lounge locations, since the benefit is usually capped at $28-$30, although they might theoretically still be useful on long international layovers.

The Hilton Honors Ascend American Express struck an interesting compromise, offering a Priority Pass membership that includes 10 free visits per year, a benefit I enjoyed last year (although my partner’s new Hilton Honors Aspire card will give us both unlimited free visits while traveling together).

If you have an Ascend card and don’t otherwise have unlimited Priority Pass access, you should already be asking an important question: what’s a “year?”

Three ways a year could be defined

The two most common ways credit card benefits are restricted are by cardmember year and by calendar year. For example, American Express airline fee reimbursements are offered on a calendar year basis, while American Express Delta companion tickets are offered on a cardmember year basis, with the companion ticket appearing in your SkyMiles account shortly after your annual fee is charged each cardmember year.

There’s a third option, however, when benefits are provided by a third party: third-party program year benefits. For example, American Express Platinum cards offer Hilton Honors Gold status as an incidental benefit, but your Hilton Honors Gold status doesn’t depend on either the calendar year or your cardmember anniversary. Instead, it depends on the Hilton Honors program year, and your Gold status will continue for a year or longer even if you don’t renew your Platinum card.

American Express claims Priority Pass membership is based on a third-party program year

You can find American Express’s description of the Ascend Priority Pass benefit on the online application or by logging into your account. It’s more or less identical in both cases, and crystal clear (this text comes from the description in my online account, emphasis mine throughout):

Your Priority Pass Membership year begins on the date you enroll. Once enrolled, you will receive your Priority Pass Select card directly from Priority Pass within 10-14 business days. There is no membership fee with your Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card. With your Hilton Honors American Express Ascend Card you will receive 10 complimentary lounge visits each Priority Pass Membership year. Once your 10 complimentary lounge visits are used, all subsequent lounge visits during the remainder of the Priority Pass Membership year are subject to a fee equal to the amount of the guest visit fee of the Priority Pass Standard program per person per visit, which will be automatically charged to your Card. To check on your remaining complimentary visit balance, please contact Priority Pass directly. Any unused complimentary lounge visits will be forfeited at the end of each Priority Pass Membership year.”

In other words, whenever you get around to enrolling in Priority Pass, the clock starts on your Priority Pass membership year, during which you can make 10 total visits, including guests. This would theoretically be gameable, for example by waiting until a few weeks before the first trip you expect to use Priority Pass on, thereby delaying the start of your Priority Pass membership year.

But it’s not true.

The Hilton Honors Ascend Priority Pass membership is a calendar year benefit

I know travel hackers all fancy themselves jailhouse lawyers, so before anyone starts commenting about how crystal clear the terms and conditions are, let me say: I know how crystal clear the terms and conditions are. But if you rely on the terms and conditions, you’re going to end up with a bunch of $32 credit card charges before you know it.

Fortunately, I only ended up with one, but it illustrates the issue perfectly:

  • My Hilton Honors Ascend annual fee was charged on January 19, 2018;

  • I registered for Priority Pass on February 7, 2018;

  • I made 11 visits between August 20, 2018, and December 26, 2018, and was charged $32 for the 11th visit;

  • I made another visit on January 2, 2019, and was not charged.

There’s simply no other way to explain this set of facts than the benefit being based on the calendar year, contrary to the explicit terms and conditions of the benefit.

My secondary piece of evidence is that I called Priority Pass today to ask how the benefit works, and spoke to a lovely woman with a perfect British accent who nevertheless understood no English. After both of us shouted at each other in perfect English long enough, she finally understood my question and told me I get 10 free visits per calendar year, I’ve used 1, and I have 9 remaining. At that point I politely thanked her and she politely hung up on me, to both of our relief.

Conclusion

For me, travel hacking is about staying focused on a simple question: how does it really work? The systems we take advantage of lie on the intersection of marketing, engineering, and law. Sometimes the marketers talk to the engineers, sometimes the engineers talk to the lawyers, and sometimes nobody talks to anybody at all. It isn’t enough to ask what the marketers intended, or what the lawyers wrote, if you don’t pay attention to what the engineers actually programmed.

An annoying (but probably good) change to Visa gift cards from Staples.com

Like most (all?) travel hackers, I consider flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points to be the most valuable currency for hotels (World of Hyatt) and award tickets (United Mileage Plus and Southwest Rapid Rewards), and even find myself redeeming them for paid airfare periodically at 1.25 cents each through my Chase Ink Plus card.

That means it’s a no-brainer for me to spend $50,000 per cardmember year at office supply stores, to earn 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points. That’s not the only way I earn Ultimate Rewards points (I also have two Chase Freedom cards and a Freedom Unlimited), but it’s a commonsense way to make sure I have a steady stream of points coming in each month.

Staples.com Visa gift cards can no longer be activated by Blackhawk phone reps

While I stock up on prepaid debit cards at Staples and Office Depot during promotions, my city unfortunately only has one of each, and they quickly sell out, so I top up my spend with monthly purchases of $300 Visa gift cards from Staples.com.

Those cards are mailed unactivated and unusable, and for each order, a separate letter is mailed with activation codes that can be entered online or over the phone.

In my experience, those activation codes typically arrive a day or two after the physical cards, and Blackhawk has long offered a workaround if the activation codes are delayed: after verifying your identity, their phone reps were able to submit manual activation requests without the activation codes.

Sometime between the beginning of October (my last order) and this week, that process stopped working. You can still activate gift cards using their phone system, but only using the automated phone tree; there’s no longer an option to speak to a phone rep to request manual activation of cards (or anything else).

This is annoying, since I typically order 18 cards per month, and waiting for the activation codes to arrive and then manually activating them is a pretty tedious chore, especially since the website makes you complete a “captcha” for every single card you activate. I’ve spent so much time looking for traffic lights and bicycles I can’t tell them apart anymore.

The previous system was extremely vulnerable

While phone reps previously “verified” your identity before submitting activation requests, the information needed to verify your identity was delivered along with the physical gift cards: your name, mailing address, order number, and the last four digits of the cards themselves (depending on the phone rep).

That meant anyone who knew what was in the envelope (anyone who knows what Blackhawk sells) could steal the cards and call in to have them activated using only the information in the gift card package itself.

It’s possible this threat was finally realized, or that enough such thefts actually occurred, and that led Blackhawk to make the change. It’s also possible, and perhaps more likely, that they decided to lay off some of their call center workers and needed to reduce the number and type of calls they handled.

Conclusion: probably for the best

If you manufacture a lot of spend, wasting a day or three waiting for activation codes to arrive can feel like an eternity, and I was definitely frustrated trying to find a way to talk to a phone rep until I realized the option had been completely removed.

But the frustration of not being able to immediately liquidate cards pales in comparison to the frustration of trying to get your money back if one or more orders of gift cards were stolen and liquidated.

Having gift cards and activation codes arrive on separate days is a fairly primitive form of one-factor identification (you have to be able to check the mail at the same address on two separate days), but since the previous system was zero-factor identification, on balance I think the inconvenience isn’t worth complaining about too much.

On the other hand, if your activation codes never arrive, then the inability to speak with a phone rep to resolve the issue is going to get very annoying, very quickly.

Product review: what is a Torro bracelet and who wants one?

Welcome back, folks. The past few weeks have been extremely annoying and frustrating for me, which was not helped in the slightest by my birthday falling in the middle of last week. However, that’s all behind us now, so I’m moving my birthday to this week and to celebrate I’m back in the saddle, grabbing the blogging bull by the horns, wrangling some fresh content, and no doubt additional rodeo metaphors as well.

The 21st century economy is a strange, dreary place

Back in October, I got an e-mail from “Houston Golden,” “Co-Founder at BAMF Media and Head of PR for Torro Bracelets,” offering to send me something called a “Torro bracelet” to review. I get a surprising amount of unsolicited e-mails like this given how small the site is, but who am I to turn down some free blog content? So I said I’d be happy to take one of these gadgets and write a review, although first I did warn him the review would be honest.

A few strange e-mail exchanges led me to wonder, what is BAMF Media and why is its co-founder also the head of PR for a jewelry company? The answer, you may have already guessed, is that BAMF Media is a marketing company and I assume its co-founder is the “head of PR” for all their clients.

So if you want to buy a white label product from China, stamp it with your company’s logo, and market it in the United States, you hire BAMF Media to engage in some “PR hacking” to make sure everyone in the “BAMF influencer program” tells their followers to go buy your product.

I find this entire ecosystem unspeakably depressing, but on the other hand I have a giant stack of drained gift cards by my desk so I’m not exactly in a position to judge.

Torro is a product you never knew you needed because you don’t

I can be a bit slow, so it took me a little while browsing the Torro website for my free item to realize what the product actually is, and I had to confirm it with the founder (and I assume sole employee) to make sure I understood.

So, deep breath: Torro bracelets are USB charging cables. But they’re USB cables you can wrap around your wrist. That’s it. Take a look:

The model I selected is the “Penny II” (sadly seems to have since sold out) in the medium size, and you can see it’s a bit tight on my extremely narrow wrist, so I’d suggest ordering a large no matter how small you think your wrists are.

Torro bracelets aren’t even very good charging cables

If you squint just right you can kind of see the logic behind the product.

If you’re going out on the town and don’t want to carry a bag, you might find a regular-length charging cable cumbersome to bring with you, but since we all live on our mobile devices these days, you might also reasonably worry about your phone dying, for example if you plan to call a car in order to get home.

Likewise, if you’re traveling (they reached out to me specifically to describe this as a “travel hack”) you might get robbed and lose your regular charging cable, and need to power up your phone in order to cancel your credit cards or whatever.

Which is why it’s notable that Torro bracelets aren’t very good charging cables. There’s probably a more technical way to put it, but the phone end of the cable is both stubby and bulky, like Danny DeVito. It literally does not fit into the charging hole of my iPhone case. Here’s a comparison with my normal charging cable (Torro on the left in both pictures):

It’s both too wide to fit into the charging gap on my case, and too short to reach the charging port on my phone from outside the case. Now, some cases are easy enough to pop off it might not matter one way or the other to you. But if your product is only supposed to do one thing, you’d hope it could at least do that one thing with a minimum of fuss.

They also sent me an external battery, which seems to work ok, although unlike my Limefuel battery (an excellent product that does not seem to be manufactured anymore) it doesn’t have any way of indicating the remaining charge.

So, who wants it?

I told BAMF Media that if they sent me two bracelets I’d do a reader giveaway for the second, but they didn’t seem to think that was a good enough “PR hack,” so I just have the one. However, I’m not using it, so if anyone wants it, wish me happy birthday in the comments and include your best throwaway e-mail address and I’ll pick somebody to bestow it on. Free USPS shipping within the United States! Terms and conditions don’t apply.

Did Barclaycard drop Arrival Plus travel statement credit redemptions back down to $25?

Back in November, 2015, Barclaycard devalued their Arrival Plus card in two ways:

  • they lowered the rebate on points redeemed for travel statement credits from 10% to 5%;
  • and they raised the minimum travel statement credit redemption amount from $25 to $100.

Since then, they have also quietly improved the card, adding a trip delay benefit in 2017.

But it appears they have also very quietly rolled back one of the 2015 devaluations.

I redeemed 2,630 miles against a $26.30 purchase today

Since I made a big purchase with my Arrival Plus card today, I logged into the Barclays mobile app to see if they'd fixed the annoying feature where you could only see your eligible travel purchases if you had 10,000 or more miles.

Sure enough, not only could I see all my eligible travel purchases, but three of them were also shown in bold, i.e., available for redemption: a $26.30 cab ride, a $49 shuttle, and a $61 Uber trip. Thinking the app had simply fixed one error and replaced it with another, I then logged onto the desktop website and saw the same thing: all three purchases were eligible for redemption (I had about 7,000 miles at the time).

This is either a glitch or an unannounced change

At the top of the "Travel statement credits" page you can still find the following text:

"Redemptions for travel statement credits, with the exception of your account annual fee, start at 10,000 miles for $100. Redemptions for your account annual fee start at 2,500 miles for $25. Please note, only qualifying travel purchases made in the last 120 days will display, and you may only redeem against a travel purchase one time."

But I was still able to redeem 2,630 Arrival Plus miles against a $26.30 purchase.

It's possible only "full" redemptions are allowed

Normally when redeeming Arrival Plus miles against a travel purchase you're offered several options. So, for example, when redeeming miles against your $89 annual fee, you might be given the option of redeeming 8,900 miles, 7,500 miles, or 5,000 miles (I happen to forget whether Barclaycard normally offers 3 or 4 redemption options). Due to the 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel statement credits, it's typically ideal to redeem the smallest number of miles possible, in order to trigger as many rebates as possible (and asymptotically approach a 2.105% return on your unbonused spend).

But for the 3 travel purchases I had enough miles to redeem for, I was only offered a single option, to redeem my miles against the purchase in full.

It's possible only surface transportation is allowed

It was an odd coincidence that all three of my over-$25 and under-$100 travel purchases in the last 120 days were various taxis, shuttles, and Uber rides. As a result of that coincidence, I don't know if the new lower minimums only apply to surface transportation expenses, or if all travel purchases over $25 are now eligible for redemption again.

Conclusion

Barclaycard relaunched their overall US brand as Barclays and relaunched the Arrival Plus specifically earlier this year, and it's possible that the changes I've noticed have been in place since then, or they may have been introduced more recently.

Whether the changes are intended and just haven't been publicly announced yet, or are an unintended consequence of some legacy piece of code being reactivated is an open question, but I haven't seen these changes reported anywhere else, so if like me you only log into your Barclaycard account when you have 10,000 miles or more, it may be worth checking to see if you suddenly have some smaller redemption amounts available.

If I were starting a travel hacking blog today

I started this blog (and wrote my always-soon-to-be-bestselling e-book) because I was frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere. A tiny amount of actual information trickled out over and over again, mixed in with enthusiastic praise for credit cards that no one, let alone a travel hacker, should ever carry.

It hasn't gotten any better since then, but the landscape has changed. Many blogs that had a single author when I got started have either hired more writers or been consolidated into the ever-growing credit card affiliate empires, in both cases with the goal of being all things to all people.

I haven't changed though and, realistically, at this point I never will. I write about manufactured spend, about minimizing the price I pay for the trips I want to take, and about gaming loyalty programs, because that's who I am.

But if I were 25 again and frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere, I think the blog I'd start would look very different from this one, because the problems in the travel hacking blogosphere look different than they did back then.

Organize content differently

Actual travel hacking practices are fragmented between a bunch of different techniques, while blogs are almost all organized chronologically. On omnibus blogs like Doctor of Credit (who covers topics that can range very far afield from travel hacking), that makes it tiresome to scroll through pages and pages of posts to find out when the latest Kroger gas promotion ends, or the next Giant gas promotion begins.

If I were creating a website from scratch, I'd organize my posts differently. For example, Safeway Visa gift card discounts, Kroger fuel rewards promotions, and Giant fuel rewards promotions are all "grocery store" promotions: they're interesting to people who want to manufacture spend at grocery stores, and they're boring to people who don't.

By separating different kinds of content into separate sections, you could make the most relevant content immediately available to the people who want it. When was the last Office Depot gift card promotion? What are the best IHG Rewards Pointsbreak destinations (if any)? How about American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards? These aren't exactly secrets, but it's information that would be much more valuable if organized in a coherent, persistent way by someone who knew what they were talking about, instead of in the chronological, stream-of-consciousness way we see on blogs today.

Keep timely content visible

Likewise, high-interest bank accounts and new account bonuses are variations on a theme: putting excess cash in accounts where it earns the most interest. But on a site like Doctor of Credit, which I rely on for such things, posts like "[NY, NJ] Northfield Bank $350 Checking Bonus" just disappear between "The Amex Offers Multi-Tab Trick is Dead, There’s Now a Hard Limit of One Offer per Person" and "Get $5 Amazon, Target, Home Depot Card with Verizon Up Rewards Program [YMMV]." These are all perfectly good posts, but they don't have anything in common with each other. Not to pile on DoC, but even the post category classification isn't intuitive. The assigned categories of those posts are, respectively, "bank account bonuses," "deals," and "loyalty programs."

Purely for my own benefit, I try to keep my Hotel Promotions page updated, so if I have a last-minute stay or unexpected layover I can quickly check my site to see if there are any promotions I have the opportunity to maximize. The opposite of that are the Loyalty Lobby hotel promotion pages (this is Hilton's, do yourself a favor and don't open it), which are inscrutable and unusable, besides consuming all your browser's memory to render.

How does it really work?

The question I got frustrated asking after reading travel hacking blogs for over a year, before starting my own, was "how does it really work?" Not "how is it supposed to work," or "how do people say it works," but "how does it really work?" So I do frankly nutty stuff like getting on a train to Philadelphia in order to buy a Momentum prepaid card to find out how the attached high-interest savings account worked (spoiler: it didn't).

That basic question, "how does it really work?" is the same question I ask today, and it's an incredibly powerful question, because almost nothing works the way it's supposed to. Sometimes the error works in your favor and sometimes it works against you, but to this day, almost no one is writing about the way things really work, and telling people about the world as it really is will always be an opportunity to build an audience.

Work for your readers

The one thing that hasn't changed in all the years I've been writing here is that the only way to serve your readers responsibly is to work for your readers. If you work for anybody else, you have no choice but to put your readers second, third, or last.

I'm absolutely open-minded about revenue models: I make money (enough to keep me writing at least) from blog subscriptions, from Google Adsense ads, and from Amazon Associates purchases. Somebody even once bought ad space on the site, which is very much for sale, if anyone is interested.

But the one thing that's impossible is adhering to content restrictions imposed by the people who pay your bills while giving your readers the best possible information they need to succeed. No one has ever explained to me how a person can both accept money from a credit card company, accept content restrictions from that credit card company, and plausibly hope to serve their readers' needs. If they ever do, I'll update this post.

If you're reading this, hopefully I'm in the Czech Republic

I've heard that our top scientists, in their wisdom, have determined that people enjoy the anticipation of a holiday even more than they enjoy the holiday itself. I'm no scientist, so I'm prepared to believe that they've crunched the numbers accurately.

On the other hand, I've anticipated this trip long enough, and I can't wait to spend the next 10 days in the Czech Republic.

I expect I'll have access to the internet much of the time I'm there, but unless something dramatic happens I'll mostly be posting about weird train-riding practices and whatnot.

If you want real-time updates from the trip I'd suggest following me on Twitter at @Freequentflyr, where I'm sure I'll be posting photos and cracking wise whenever I get a Wi-Fi signal.

My (boring) Citi shutdown story

For the past few years, I've carried three credit cards issued by Citibank:

  • Double Cash;
  • Dividend Platinum Select;
  • and AAdvantage Platinum Select.

These are all middling credit cards I held onto for no particularly good reasons. The Double Cash is a replacement-level 2% cash back card, the Dividend used to be good for $300 in annual cash back (although recent bonus categories have been fairly boring), and the AAdvantage card was good for free checked bags, generous retention offers, and periodic promotional interest rates on purchases, plus American's poorly-publicized "reduced mileage awards" to certain cities, which I've taken advantage of perhaps a total of 2 times in my life.

Now they're all closed

When my Double Cash statement closed at the beginning of June, I noticed I wasn't able to redeem my cash back rewards through the app as I had in the past, but I wasn't sure if I'd actually been shut down or if the app was just malfunctioning, as it does more or less constantly.

When I got back to a computer and logged into my Citi account they helpfully suggested I remove my credit cards from my login, which was my first definite clue I'd been shut down. Yesterday, I finally got a bunch of letters regretfully informing me my accounts had been closed as of June 7.

What should have, and what ultimately did, cause my shutdown

When I first moved back to the East Coast from the Midwest, I was glad that I had a Citibank branch a few blocks from my apartment. I started dropping off money orders there regularly in order to pay off my credit card bills, until I got a very odd phone call from a Citi employee who insisted everything I was doing was totally fine...she just had some questions.

After that phone call, I expected my accounts to be closed in short order, but they weren't. I stopped paying off my balances in-branch, and never heard from them again, until I received notice in June that my accounts had all been closed.

The proximate cause of my shutdown seems to be that back in March I started making payments to my Double Cash card using Walmart's in-store bill pay service. I only made four total payments, but that was enough to reanimate Citi's anti-fraud department and close all my accounts just a few short months later.

Conclusion

Citi has never been one of the banks I rely on in my travel hacking practice, and I suppose I've been a dead man walking with them ever since I started making what are sometimes facetiously called "anonymous payments" to my cards (there's nothing anonymous about them, of course).

But if you do rely on Citi ThankYou cards like the Premier or Prestige, or churning AAdvantage signup bonuses, to pay for your own travel, don't be stupid: make all your payments to your cards through Citi's bill payment service, and keep your head down.

It's the tall grass, after all, that gets mown.

There are no off-the-shelf travel hacking strategies

Last week I wrote what I thought was a commonsense corrective to the din of blogger voices encouraging readers to sign up for the IHG Rewards credit card before it was replaced with a couple of somewhat-more-expensive co-branded credit cards.

The post attracted a fair amount of disagreement (mostly polite disagreement, because my readers are phenomenal) by folks who had the card and enjoyed the annual free night benefit.

But, of course, people who already hold the card could not possibly have been the audience for a post titled "No, you shouldn't rush to sign up for IHG's crappy credit card." You can't sign up for a (Chase) card you already have. The post was explicitly addressed at people who had not yet signed up for the credit card, to discourage them from making a rash decision based purely on the fact that the card was going away.

Money is a sensitive subject, but travel hacking is about money

I understand perfectly well why folks who already carry the $49-annual-fee IHG Rewards credit card were upset by my criticism of it. How people earn, spend, and save their money is an area of almost-religious devotion among Americans, so if I say you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you don't hear that I think you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you hear that as criticism of your judgment or intelligence.

Unfortunately, that's just not going to work if you want my unbiased advice about travel hacking. You're going to have made mistakes in the past, you're making them right now, and you're going to make them in the future. If, every time you disagree with me, you treat it as a personal attack on you, you're inevitably going to experience this blog as a series of personal attacks.

I'm not here to tell you what you want to hear. I'm here to help you spend as little money as possible on the trips you want to take.

And, to be perfectly clear, I'm just as critical of my own decisions as I am of your decisions. The Delta Platinum American Express card is a tough card to justify keeping (impossible to justify if manufactured spend no longer counts towards MQD waivers), but I still have it. I'm just as much of a sucker for the overstated, overwrought, underperforming Platinum companion ticket as you are for your free IHG night.

Using someone else's travel hacking strategy is an expensive mistake

I can and do write about my travel hacking strategy:

  • Grocery store manufactured spend on my US Bank and American Express cards;
  • Office supply store manufactured spend on my Chase Ink Plus card;
  • Unbonused manufactured spend on my Chase Freedom Unlimited and 2% cash back cards.

But it makes no sense for me to recommend that strategy to an anonymous reader:

  • The Chase Ink Plus is no longer available to new applicants;
  • Not all grocery stores allow PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards to be purchased with credit cards;
  • Not every community has access to convenient liquidation strategies;
  • Some people have enough money with Bank of America to qualify for Platinum Honors rewards and earn 2.625% cash back with the Bankamericard Travel Rewards card.

I don't know you, I don't know your travel habits, I don't know your credit score, I don't know your net worth, how can I possibly give you advice about the right travel hacking strategy?

I can say under what circumstances a card is useful. A lot of readers seem to have glossed over my endorsement of the IHG Rewards credit card: "If you've got a favorite IHG property you stay at every time you visit your family, don't let me stop you from knocking off a couple bucks by using a credit card free night certificate."

I can say under what circumstances a card is worthless, like a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards credit card in a city without grocery store or gas station manufactured spend.

But I'm never going to try to tell you the best credit card, travel hacking, or manufactured spend strategy for you without a long, expensive conversation about your travel needs and opportunities.

Footnote: it doesn't matter if I was "right"

Today it came out that even existing cardholders will have their free nights limited to properties costing 40,000 points or fewer per night, and you might have seen Nick Reyes scrambling to cancel his son's now-worthless application, but I'm not gloating that I "called it" or that this somehow proves me "right." As a travel hacker and friend of travel hackers, I wish existing cardholders got their uncapped free night certificates grandfathered from here until the end of days.

But if I was "right," I was only right because you shouldn't apply for cards you're not interested in just because there's a sudden blogger pressure campaign, whether it's based on a card's upcoming retirement or the periodic higher affiliate payouts that send them into paroxysms of prose.

And all it took to be "right" was applying the same logic over and over again: pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

2018 New Year roundup

Well, we made it. It's 2018, so here's a roundup of thoughts, ideas, and observations that I haven't got around to posting yet.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards changes are in effect

Flexpoints are now worth 1.5 cents each when used to book travel through the US Bank Flexperks travel portal. The search engine defaults to basic economy fares when they're available, so if you want to book main cabin or regular economy fares, you'll have to call. Be sure they don't charge you a booking fee if your fare isn't bookable online.

I assume it will be possible soon to transfer Flexpoints both directions between Flexperks Travel Rewards and Altitude Reserve accounts, if it isn't already (transfers to Reserve accounts were already allowed).

Register for hotel promotions

I've updated my Hotel Promotions page with all the global hotel promotions I'm aware of. Be sure to let me know if I've missed any.

Note that I was able to register for all 4 of the current Club Carlson promotions, although since I don't have any Club Carlson stays planned I'm not sure if a single stay would really trigger a 15,000-point bonus, Silver elite status, and a 50% off e-certificate (and count towards the multiple-night promotion).

RIP my SkyBonus account

For the last few years I've kept my Delta SkyBonus account alive by scrounging Delta ticket numbers from friends, acquaintances, and out of the trash cans at baggage claim. In 2017 I definitively fell short of the $5,000 in Delta revenue needed to keep my account alive, so I assume they'll be closing it one of these days. I redeemed my points for a final domestic economy ticket and 30(!) drink tickets, which I'll give out to blog subscribers whenever they arrive (the drink tickets, that is).

Follow-up to MERRILL+ guest post

A number of people pointed out in the comments and on Twitter that the executive Delta Sky Club membership provided by the MERRILL+ credit card after spending $50,000 during the calendar year will not provide lounge access starting in 2019 when you are not flying on Delta.

How much that affects you depends on when you decide to trigger your membership year. Obviously if you trigger your membership in January, 2018, you'll only be affected by the changes for a single month of 2019. If you trigger your membership in December, 2018, you'll be affected by the changes for the entirety of your membership year.

Conclusion

So, like I said, we made it. Congratulations are obviously due all around.

What kind of content are folks interested in seeing more of in 2018?

Lifecycle effects, Thanksgiving car rental edition

I often talk about lifecycle effects when it comes to travel hacking. That's what I call the phenomenon of people believing that travel hacking has become objectively more difficult when in fact it's their own lifecycle progression that has made them subjectively experience travel hacking as more time-consuming, laborious, or downright boring than when they had more time and fewer responsibilities.

This is a totally normal and indeed ubiquitous phenomenon in all fields of human endeavor, but it's important to keep in mind when you hear a retiree explain how much better everything used to be: sure, travel hacking might have been easier, but he also had more hair, better joints, and fewer kids.

I had my own lifecycle effect moment the other day while renting a car for a Thanksgiving trip.

How I think you're supposed to rent cars

Travel hackers have a lot of options when it comes to minimizing the cost and maximizing the value of car rentals:

  • Redeem Discover cash back for car rental certificates. You can redeem $20 in Discover cash back for a $40 certificate with National, Alamo, and Enterprise.
  • Earn frequent flyer miles by using airline promo codes when booking. I often see Frequent Miler posting these codes, for example here and here, but you can also earn miles by booking through airline car rental portals, e.g. Delta's.
  • Use Autoslash to track car rental prices. Autoslash has changed quite a bit through the years but you can still use it to track your car rental reservation and alert you when the price drops, so you can make a new reservation at the lower price.

Five years ago I probably would have done all that, and made sure to minimize the price I paid and maximized the rewards I earned on our 4-day rental.

How I actually rented a car for Thanksgiving

I logged onto Chase Ultimate Rewards and redeemed 15,840 Ultimate Rewards points for a rental that priced out at $198, which seemed in line with the prices I saw glancing at Kayak.

I did create a Hertz account and earned 275 points for the rental (worth approximately $0), but I didn't bother searching for referral codes or promo codes to apply to the reservation.

Coming to terms with lifecycle effects

There are still lots of marginal travel hacking techniques I pursue. I still credit all my paid flights to a frequent flyer program, even if it's a program like United's that doesn't offer me much if any value. I still try my best to keep my Delta SkyBonus small business account active in order to gradually earn points towards redemptions like drink coupons and domestic flights. I use shopping portals when I buy stuff online, even if the rewards end up being just a few thousand points per year.

But when it comes to renting a car once a year, I can't bring myself to care the way a younger me probably would have.