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.

Quick hit: when are you eligible for your first Hilton Honors Aspire American Express resort credit?

I started writing this blog because I was frustrated by how imprecise and inaccurate the mainstream travel hacking bloggers I was reading at the time were. In some ways that situation has gotten a lot worse, as credit card affiliate blogs have consolidated and become ever more limited in what kinds of deals they’re able to talk about, while in other ways it’s improved, as more independent bloggers have started writing without relying on affiliate revenue.

As careful as I am to be as accurate and precise as possible, I got caught out on Wednesday by two commenters asking versions of the same question: when are you eligible for your first $250 Hilton Honors Aspire American Express resort credit? This is a question it genuinely hadn’t occurred to me to ask.

The source of the confusion

The reason my commenters were confused arises from the fact that the resort credit is described in at least 2 different ways in different places:

  • on the American Express credit card application: “With your Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card, enjoy up to $250 in statement credits each year of Card Membership for eligible purchases at participating Hilton Resorts.”

  • on the American Express “benefits” tab for existing cardholders: “Upon renewal of your Card, enjoy $250 in Hilton Resort Credits each year when you stay at a participating resorts within the Hilton portfolio.”

This raises the question, is the resort credit an anniversary benefit (like the bonus Radisson Rewards points offered by US Bank, or the Alaska Airlines companion ticket offered by Bank of America), or an annual benefit? If it’s the former, the value of the card drops enormously, since the credit would only be available if you kept the card or were able to make an eligible resort charge shortly after your first anniversary. If it’s the latter, you have an entire year of card membership to find a chance to use the credit before canceling the card.

My answer to this very good question

I was so flummoxed by these commenters I started to believe I may have actually misunderstood the terms of the benefit, something that has happened before and will happen again (always for the benefit of my readers). Had I relied too much on the seductive prose of affiliate bloggers? Had I, the anti-affiliate-blogger, become a pawn in their game?

But I quickly oriented myself and realized my original interpretation of the benefit, that it is available during your first year of card membership, had to be correct for a simple reason: the card is less than a year old, and people have already received resort credits. The relevant FlyerTalk thread has datapoints from as early as March, 2018, less than 3 months after the card was launched, so the benefit has to be available during the first year of card membership.

Conclusion: banks and loyalty programs love to out-legal themselves

If you squint at the conflicting language just right, you can start to see what American Express and Hilton were thinking: they wanted to make it as clear as possible that unlike the card’s $250 airline fee credit, which resets on January 1 of each year, the $250 resort credit is a cardmember year benefit, and they tried to express that concept in slightly different, slightly contradictory ways. While lawyers have fun pretending to speak with precision, English simply isn’t a surgical language. Here’s my modest attempt at reformulating the resort benefit:

“Each year of card membership, beginning with your first year, and continuing each additional year upon the anniversary of your account opening, enjoy $250 in Hilton Resort Credits each year when you stay at a participating resorts within the Hilton portfolio.”

As always, you can find my personal referral link on my Support the Site! page (feel free to use either my Hilton or Delta referral link, since they should both give you access to the same cards).

My version of the co-branded paradox

I was listening to the latest episode of the new Milenomics² podcast, which everyone should subscribe to, and sign up for bonus Patreon content from, and the hosts brought up what they call the “co-branded paradox.” By this they mean the counter-intuitive way that even if you like staying at Hyatt properties, or like flying on Delta, your best bet for a credit card to use on everyday spend is probably not a Hyatt or Delta co-branded credit card.

That’s for the simple reason that while those cards may offer other worthwhile benefits, they actually earn points at a lower rate than other available options. A Chase World of Hyatt credit card may be worth carrying for the annual free night, but for non-bonused spend you’d be better off using a Freedom Unlimited card, which earns 50% more Ultimate Rewards points. At restaurants, the World of Hyatt card earns 2 points per dollar, but so does the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which allows you to transfer your points to Hyatt or any of Chase’s other transfer partners.

Likewise, you might want to carry a Delta Platinum card for the annual companion ticket or to take advantage of free checked bags, but that card only earns 1 SkyMile per dollar spent, while a no-annual fee Amex EveryDay earns 1.2 Membership Rewards points everywhere when you use the card 20 times per month (and the $95 EveryDay Preferred earns 1.5 points everywhere when you use it 30 times per month).

This is even more true in the case of products like the Chase IHG Rewards Club credit cards, which earn just 1 point per dollar spent on unbonused purchases: the more you value IHG Rewards Club points, the less you should be willing to spend on their co-branded credit cards, for the simple reason that a simple 2% cash back credit card earns almost 3 points per dollar, given that points can be purchased year-round for 0.7 cents or less.

All this produces a simple conclusion: get co-branded credit cards if you like their benefits, but don’t use them for actual purchases, where you can earn more points, more valuable points, or both using other products.

This is fine as far as it goes, but I actually think the logic of the co-branded paradox can be taken one step further.

Put everyday purchases on the card that earns the least useful rewards

What listening to the Milenomics podcast got me thinking about was the fact that most frequent travelers are usually already optimizing their earning of their most useful loyalty currencies. If you’re a paid business traveler that likes flying on United, you’re already earning United miles every time you fly. The fact that you like flying United shouldn’t encourage you to earn more United miles because your paid travel is already taking care of that. Likewise if you’re spending 55 nights a year at Hyatt properties for work, you’re likely already earning somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 points per year, plus two annual free nights (at the 30-night and 55-night thresholds) and any points earned from seasonal promotions.

To me, this is the real co-branded paradox: if your paid travel and manufactured spend are already optimized around the most useful rewards currencies, then your everyday spend should be going to the least useful rewards currencies, the ones that are nice to have lying around but that you don’t count on for your major travel needs.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa. If you’re like me, you don’t stay at Choice Hotels properties very often. But when you do want to stay at a Choice Hotel, you can get terrific value from having a handful of Choice Privileges points lying around.

  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. This is another card that doesn’t make any sense to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in spend on, but if you do like to occasionally ride on Amtrak, you might like to have 20 or 30 thousand points kicking around so you don’t have to pay cash for what would be an especially high-value redemption, like 2.9 cent-per-point long-haul sleeper accommodations.

  • US Bank Radisson Rewards cards. I don’t carry any of these cards anymore because, with the exception of the Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago, I have mostly found Radisson properties to be trash heaps. However, if you do still carry any of these cards due to their anniversary point bonanzas, you might also consider using them for everyday spend, earning as they do 5 points per dollar on unbonused spend.

Conclusion

Of course in one sense I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek: obviously you shouldn’t prioritize earning less-useful currencies over more-useful currencies. But this is another way of expressing my long-standing observation that people really are inclined to earn too much, and redeem too little, of the currencies they consider most valuable. If there’s one good thing about the end of the Starwood Preferred Guest program it will be that we won’t have to listen to people complain that Starpoints are “too valuable to redeem” ever again!

If you’re maxing out a couple of Ink Plus cards at office supply stores every year and sitting on a million Ultimate Rewards points already, then I think it can make perfect sense to put away the Freedom Unlimited card when you go out to eat and pulling out something a little more exotic. Not because Amtrak Guest Rewards points are more valuable than Ultimate Rewards points in the abstract, but because they might be more valuable to you at the frontier you are personally operating at.

How bad would a Hyatt devaluation need to be?

I’ve been following with interest the changes Hyatt has made to certain types of award reservations. To roughly summarize the changes:

  • points can now be redeemed for “premium” suite award nights;

  • Points + Cash can now be redeemed for standard and premium suites;

  • qualifying paid stays can now be upgraded to premium suites with points;

  • the cash co-pay on Points + Cash stays is now 50% of the “standard” room rate for the room type you’re booking instead of a fixed amount based on hotel category;

  • a new 40,000-point redemption tier will be introduced to cover certain newly-acquired luxury properties.

I’m frankly not sure if it was part of this update or not, but I also noticed recently that award nights at Hyatt Ziva and Zilara all-inclusive properties can now be booked online (you used to have to call to book).

Hyatt is a competitive program for travel hackers

If you earn miles and points mostly or exclusively through manufactured spend this shouldn’t come as surprise, but to break it down simply:

  • a Category 1 Hyatt property costs 5,000 points per night, or $3,333 in spend on a Chase Freedom Unlimited or $1,000 on a Chase Ink Cash or Ink Plus at office supply stores;

  • a Category 4 Hyatt property costs 15,000 points per night, or $10,000 in spend on a Freedom Unlimited or $3,000 in spend on Ink Cash or Plus;

  • a top-tier Category 7 property costs 30,000 points per night, or $20,000 on Freedom Unlimited or $6,000 on Ink Cash or Plus.

We can break down Hilton’s award chart in the same way:

  • a bottom-tier Hilton property costs 5,000 points per night, or $833 in grocery store or gas station spend on an American Express Ascend card;

  • a mid-tier Hilton property costs 50,000 points per night, or $8,333 in bonused spend;

  • and a top-tier Hilton property costs 95,000 points, or $15,833 in bonused spend.

(Note that since grocery store spend costs about 50% more than in-person unbonused spend, the out-of-pocket costs for the same spot on the Hilton award chart end up being somewhat more expensive than Hyatt).

This is what I mean by a “competitive” program: Hyatt properties won’t always be cheaper than Hilton properties in a specific city or on particular dates, but having access to both programs gives you a better chance of paying as little as possible for the trips you want to take than relying solely on one program or the other and being stuck paying cash when it fails you.

Likewise, having credit cards that are useful for unbonused spend, office supply store spend, and grocery store spend means you’re able to take advantage of more promotions and opportunities, instead of relying on a single merchant or bonus category.

That brings me to today’s topic.

How bad would a Hyatt devaluation need to be to make the program uncompetitive?

I think it’s useful to think through questions like this ahead of time, so you don’t fall into the trap of motivated reasoning once a devaluation actually happens (something credit card affiliate bloggers are especially vulnerable to, but a risk for anyone).

You can imagine multiple forms a Hyatt devaluation might take:

  • Hyatt could change or end their transfer relationship with Chase. This is the least likely situation in the short term since Chase loudly promotes its uniform transfer ratio, but there’s no natural law that says Hyatt will remain a Chase partner forever, or that Chase will never revamp the Ultimate Rewards program.

  • Hyatt could introduce higher award categories and steadily shift properties upwards. Hyatt told Pizza in Motion that they have “no plans for any Hyatt-branded hotels or resorts to move to a new Category 8,” but all that wording requires is that the Park Hyatt sign come down and be replaced with a Small Luxury Hotels of the World or Joie de Vivre sign. No Hyatt branding? No problem.

  • Hyatt could restrict award space or introduce dynamic pricing. This is in many ways the most likely or even inevitable form a devaluation will take, since Hilton has had dynamic pricing for years and Marriott will launch it in 2019. 30,000-point properties might limit their availability to a few low-season weeks per year, while mid-tier properties might cost a few thousand points less for part of the year and tens of thousands of points more when people actually want to visit.

A change to the relationship with Chase would be the most catastrophic from a travel hacker’s point of view. Changing the transfer ratio or perhaps capping annual points transfers would make Hyatt a truly niche program, still worthwhile under specific conditions but uncompetitive with Hilton or even Radisson Rewards, which has US Bank co-branded credit cards that still earn 5 points per dollar on unbonused spend and a much larger footprint than Hyatt.

Meanwhile, category inflation isn’t the end of the world as long as the Chase relationship remains the same, although eventually you might see your favorite properties inflated out of eligibility for annual credit card free night certificates (currently good at Category 1-4 properties).

Conclusion

There should be no question in your mind that something will eventually give in the World of Hyatt program, and this post isn’t about predicting whether or not it will happen — it definitely will. There has to be enough money to go around between Chase, Hyatt, and Hyatt’s owner-operators, and a fixed credit card earning ratio and fixed award chart are simply incompatible with that. I don’t know which piece will buckle first under the pressure, but the transmission mechanism between Chase Ultimate Rewards, World of Hyatt, and award availability and price will change because it has to change.

The point of this post is to encourage you to think in advance about what kinds of changes would make you walk away from the program, or at least radically reduce your dependence on it. How bad would the transfer ratio have to become? How hard would it have to be to find award availability? How low would your typical redemption value have to fall?

If you don’t think about it in advance, then when the devaluations do start to roll in and you’re bombarded with affiliate bloggers explaining how “it’s not really that bad,” you’re not going to be ready to tell if they’re right or not.

Gaming out my Waldorf Astoria stay

As I wrote last month, this January I’m heading to Maui for what I’m expecting to be an unusually-for-me expensive vacation, so I’ve spent some time in the past few weeks gaming out what the options are to save money on the trip without annoying my partner too much along the way.

Shorter car rental

Since we plan to drive around and explore Maui, I had initially planned to rent a car at the airport and drive to the Grand Wailea. I quickly realized this made no sense: not only would I pay for 5 days of car rental, but I’d also pay for five days of valet parking, since the Grand Wailea doesn’t have a self-park option.

By taking a cab or shuttle from and to the airport, I’ll save on both daily rental costs and daily valet parking: a roundtrip shuttle for two from the Grand Wailea’s preferred vendor costs just $99, and I may be able to shop around to bring that down even lower.

Amex Offer of $70 off $350

I was targeted for the current Amex Offer of $70 off $350 spent at “Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts in the US, Amsterdam, Berlin, Edinburgh, and Paris; and, Conrad Hotels & Resorts in the US.” While such promotions sometimes exclude Hawaii, this one doesn’t seem to, so I’ll use my Hilton Ascend American Express card to check in and put the first $350 of room charges on that card.

As I wrote in my original post, the Grand Wailea currently claims to give a $15 per person daily in-room dining credit as their Diamond breakfast benefit. Readers quickly pointed out in the comments that with a $7 delivery charge and 20% fixed gratuity, that works out to about $19 in actual food if you’re trying to spend the exact amount of the credit.

Instead of trying to game the room service menu to spend exactly $19 per day, I figure we’ll just order what we want and let the excess count towards the $350 threshold for my Amex Offer.

Hilton Honors American Express Aspire Card Referral

Thanks to American Express’s “universal referral” system, I can refer my partner to an Aspire card despite not having one myself (you can find my universal referral links on the Support the Site! page). I’ve written about it before, but it’s worth spelling out again just how good this deal is:

  • I receive 20,000 Hilton Honors points for referring my partner;

  • My partner receives 150,000 Hilton Honors points after spending $4,000 within 3 months;

  • My partner gets a $250 airline fee credit in 2018 and another $250 airline fee credit in 2019;

  • We already have an eligible stay planned where we’ll be able to use the $250 Hilton Resort statement credit (a cardmember year, not calendar year, benefit);

  • And she’ll get an unlimited Priority Pass membership that allows up to 2 guests, so if I ask nicely she might take me with her into lounges when we travel.

182,000 Hilton Honors points (after earning 3 points per dollar on $4,000 in spend) are over half the points cost of our stay at the Grand Wailea, which I jokingly valued at $8,500 but realistically value at around $2,000. Valuing the airline and resort statement credits at half of face value, this works out to roughly $1,375.

I don’t like paying $450 annual fees. I’ve never paid a $450 annual fee. But this is a no-brainer for us since we already have a stay at an eligible resort booked.

Conclusion

There is one interesting question you might have after reading this: my Ascend card will get a 20% discount on exactly $350 in spend, while my partner’s Aspire card will get a 100% discount on up to $250 in spend, so which card should the first Grand Wailea room charges go on, and which card should be the backup?

In part, the answer is that we don’t have to decide until we know the final room charge. If it’s less than $350, we’ll put the entire charge on the Aspire card and get $250 back. If it’s more than $600, we’ll put $350 on the Ascend and the remainder on the Aspire, maximizing both opportunities (and the higher Hilton earning rate on the Aspire).

But for final charges between $350 and $600, what’s the right order to place the charges in? I think my preference is to put $350 on the Ascend and receive $70 back, then put the remainder on the Aspire, because the remaining cardmember year Aspire credit will remain available for later use.

But there’s a good argument, an argument I might even agree with depending on the day, that the Aspire resort credit is available at such a limited footprint of properties that maximizing that credit when we do have the opportunity is a much higher priority than triggering a piddling 20% discount, the kind of discount I can beat 365 days a year through manufactured spend.

Sound off in the comments if you feel strongly about it one way or the other.

Redeeming US Bank Flexpoints in any amount for any ticket

This weekend, I noticed something interesting while booking a couple upcoming trips over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, something that might increase the value of US Bank Flexpoints for certain redemptions.

Prior to 2018, US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa points could be redeemed for up to 2 cents each in airfare in $200 redemption bands through the US Bank’s contracted “Travel Rewards Center.” You could book multiple tickets on the same reservation, but you needed to pay for at least one ticket entirely with Flexpoints. For example, you could book two $500 tickets for 60,000 Flexpoints, or for 30,000 Flexpoints and $500.

On Sunday, I logged in to set about redeeming about 47,000 Flexpoints for two reservations with two tickets each. One reservation had two $200 tickets and the second, two $500 tickets. If you run the numbers, you notice this was the ideal situation for me: 47,000 Flexpoints are worth $700, so I’d be able to pay for one ticket on each reservation entirely with Flexpoints, and the second ticket with cash.

But oddly, when I actually went to book the ticket, US Bank offered to let me apply all 47,000 Flexpoints to the $1,000 reservation (leaving $300 leftover to pay in cash). I fiddled around with several options, and it seems to me US Bank no longer requires you to choose between paying with Flexpoints or paying with cash: you can now use any combination of Flexpoints and cash for any number of tickets, through the US Bank travel portal.

Why it matters

There are two key reasons you might be interested in this change, if you weren’t already aware of it:

  • It’s the easiest way to completely empty your Flexperks balance. Since you can redeem any number of Flexpoints, up to your entire balance, for 1.5 cents each towards travel through the Travel Rewards Center, you never need to worry about having too many points or leaving orphaned points in your account. By contrast, Real-Time Rewards redemptions require you to have enough Flexpoints to cover the entire amount of your purchase, possibly causing you to over-earn, or orphan, small Flexpoint balances.

  • US Bank still offers $25 airline allowances “with each redeemed airline award travel ticket.” Since you can now book any number of tickets with any number of Flexpoints, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to request a $25 allowance per ticket booked through the US Bank Travel Rewards Center, regardless of the number of Flexpoints you redeem for that reservation.

Conclusion

While a minor change to the overall Flexperks programs, which already offered a fixed 1.5 cents per Flexpoint in redemption value, the ability to redeem any number of Flexpoints up to your account balance is a modest improvement in the overall value proposition, since it virtually guarantees you’ll be able to redeem your entire balance at its maximum possible value, eliminating the risk of orphaned points as your manufactured spend or travel hacking practice changes over time.

Free Hilton Honors transfers and my 2.2 cent per point redemption

As we near the winter holiday season, I’ve started planning a New Year jaunt to celebrate my recent nuptials. We already planned to visit the West Coast after Christmas, and since there was an expiring Alaska Airlines Companion Ticket in the mix, I decided to see if I could use the West Coast as a stopover to one of Alaska’s more far-flung destinations. Alaska offers nonstop flights from Portland to several Hawaiian islands, so I checked award availability at one of Hilton’s top-tier, 95,000-point properties: the “Grand Wailea, A Waldorf Astoria Resort.”

Transferring Hilton Honors points is now free and fast (but not instant)

I was surprised to see that for 5 nights right after the New Year, the Grand Wailea had wide open award availability for their standard “Terrace View” room. There was no way I was going to book anything less than a 5-night stay at a 95,000-point property, thanks to Hilton’s fifth-night-free policy on award stays for elite members. But a 5-night stay would still cost 380,000 Hilton Honors points, more than I happened to have in my account. Even after cancelling a couple Hilton reservations and rebooking those stays at Hyatt properties, I was about 100,000 points short.

That’s when I remembered that as part of the April 2, 2018, revamp of the Hilton Honors program, “points pooling” and “points transfers” are now free between all members. Let me start by saying it’s not immediately clear to me exactly why Hilton distinguishes “pooling” from “transfer” transactions: in both cases only the recipient of the transfer, or the creator of the pool, is able to redeem the points, and in both cases the contributor of the points is able to select the number of points they want the recipient to be able to redeem.

The limits on transfers and pooling are somewhat complex, so let me start by sharing the terms and conditions as they’re presented on the Hilton website:

“Hilton Honors Members can transfer Hilton Honors Points to another Hilton Honors Member through Points Pooling or 1-to-1 transfer in increments of 1,000 Points and up to 500,000 Points. Each Hilton Honors Member is limited to sending no more than five hundred thousand (500,000) Points and receiving two million (2,000,000) Points via Points Pooling or Transfers combined per calendar year. Each Hilton Honors Member is limited to making six (6) transfers to other member accounts and six (6) Hilton Points Pooling transactions per calendar year. Invitations to join a Points Pool is not considered transactional. Transactions refer to the transfer of Points to another member account either through 1-to-1 account transfers or through Points Pooling.”

There are three moving pieces here:

  • The total number of points you can send in either transfer or pooling transactions per calendar year (500,000);

  • The total number of points you can receive in either transfer or pooling transactions per calendar year (2,000,000);

  • The total number of outbound transfer and outbound pooling transactions you can make per calendar year (6 transfer and 6 pooling transactions).

That’s my plain English reading of the terms and conditions, but if anyone has run up against these limits in practice or found a way around them, let me and your fellow readers know in the comments.

All that being said, yesterday I asked a travel hacking buddy to transfer over the points I needed to book my 5-night stay at the Grand Wailea. Then I waited. And waited. And waited.

Ok, I only waited about 11 hours, but the point is, don’t expect points transfers to take place immediately, and don’t count on them if you need points for an immediate redemption.

I received a confirmation e-mail (as did the person sending the points) a few minutes after noon the day after the request, so it’s possible they run a batch process every day at noon to execute the previous day’s transfers.

I redeemed 380,000 points for a $8,466 stay

The stay I redeemed 380,000 points for would otherwise cost:

  • $7,199 room rate;

  • $200 resort fee;

  • and $1,067 taxes.

That gives an almost comical 2.2 cent per Hilton Honors point redemption, or 13.2% in value on my grocery store manufactured spend, where I earn 6 Hilton Honors points per dollar on my American Express Ascend card.

You may remember that as part of the April revamp of the program, Hilton no longer excludes Waldorf Astoria resorts from the Gold and Diamond elite breakfast benefit. After reaching out to the property for an explanation of their benefit, the “Room Reservations Agent” explained that:

“You would receive a daily $15.00 per day up to 2 person a in room dining credit. Unfortunately the $15.00 in Only for in Room dining" [sic].

Being a pedant, I looked up the Grand Wailea’s in-room dining menu, and there actually are several items at or below the $15 price point. I hope you like avocado toast as much as I do!

Did I overpay?

To be clear, I booked this particular top-tier property mainly for the blog content, since I couldn’t find any useful information online about how Diamond benefits there work in practice.

But, being me, I also did a quick rundown of alternate properties, in case you want to go to Maui for some reason besides getting a couple good blog posts out of it. Here are the properties that still have award availability as of today:

  • Wailea Beach Resort - Marriott, Maui. 200,000 Marriott Rewards points for a 5-night stay.

  • Days Inn by Wyndham Maui Oceanfront. 75,000 Wyndham Rewards points for a 5-night stay.

Of course, money can also be exchanged for goods and services, and some light browsing turned up what seems like a pretty good deal through Agoda.com, for a total of $2936.03 for five nights at the Hyatt Regency Maui Resort and Spa, a rate that even includes breakfast.

Using 200,000 Marriott Rewards points (worth $2,000 in cash if transferred from Ultimate Rewards) and $2,936 as my most likely alternatives, I redeemed 380,000 Hilton Honors points at between 0.5 and 0.77 cents each, a solid but unremarkable redemption.

Obviously that’s not going to stop me from bragging to friends and family about my $8,500 honeymoon.

Conclusion

I’m very curious how this trip will work out, since after reading a slew of reviews online it seems like the Grand Wailea changes their policies every few weeks. My conservative hope is an upgrade from our standard “terrace view” room to at least an ocean view room, since that was one of the delights of our stay at the Hyatt Zilara Rose Hall. The property also has what looks like an all-suites tower, which Hilton Diamonds seem to very occasionally be upgraded to for free (paid upgrades are also available).

We plan to rent a car in order to see some other parts of the island, which means at a bare minimum paying $30 per day for valet parking, since the hotel doesn’t have a self-park option. Given the certainty of those expenses, plus any food and drinks we charge to our room, I’m thinking hard about whether to sign up for an Aspire card before we make the trip. I have the option of upgrading my Ascend card, which would sacrifice my bonused grocery store earning rate, so that’s of marginal interest. But my partner has never had a Hilton credit card and she’d be eligible for the current 150,000-point signup bonus, plus a $250 resort credit during our stay.

Rewards programs offering rebates on point redemptions

A few days ago I saw Frequent Miler post some datapoints describing how folks who carry both the personal Barclays JetBlue Plus Mastercard and the JetBlue Business Card were receiving a total of 20% of the TrueBlue points they redeem back as a rebate (each card normally earns a rebate of 10%).

While that doesn't exactly put the JetBlue cards on the map for unbonused spend, it may be worth considering for folks with a lot of paid JetBlue travel, since a 20% rebate on redemptions is functionally the same as a 20% boost to your earning rate: if you ordinarily earn 6 TrueBlue points per dollar spent on JetBlue fares, but when you redeem those 6 points you receive a rebate of 1.2 points, and another 0.24 points when you redeem that rebate, your earning rate is functionally 7.44 points per dollar spent on JetBlue fares.

Likewise, the 10,000 anniversary points awarded by the cards would earn an additional 2,400-odd TrueBlue points when redeemed, which even at a conservative 1.5 cents per point would be worth another $36 against your combined $198 in annual fees. After running through that analysis, I thought it might be useful to put all the programs offering similar rebates together in one place.

Other rewards programs offering rebates on redemptions

  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus. Unlimited 5% rebate when points are redeemed for travel statement credits, $89 annual fee.
  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World and Platinum MasterCards. Unlimited 5% rebate on all Amtrak Guest Rewards redemptions for Amtrak travel. I don't know if holding both the World and Platinum MasterCards would trigger a double rebate (let me know in the comments or by e-mail if you hold both cards).
  • Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, Barclays AAdvantage Aviator Red and Aviator Silver MasterCards. 10% rebate on all AAdvantage redemptions, up to 10,000 miles rebated per calendar year (on 100,000 in redeemed miles). This benefit is not supposed to be stackable, although if your cards are linked to separate AAdvantage accounts you might be able to earn a total of 30,000 rebated miles on 300,000 in redemptions, at least until you get caught.
  • (Closed to new applicants) Chase IHG Rewards Club Select. 10% rebate, up to 100,000 rebated points (on 1,000,000 redeemed points). This benefit should be stackable with the new IHG Rewards Traveler and Premier cards' 4th-night-free benefit, for a total "rebate" of 32.5% off stays of exactly 4 nights.
  • American Express Business Platinum. 35% rebate on Membership Rewards points redeemed for premium cabin travel on all airlines, or economy travel on a single airline of your choice each year, up to 500,000 rebated points (on 1.43 million redeemed points). This can also be stacked with a fairly bizarre coding issue on the American Express personal Platinum card.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. $25 rebate (the equivalent of 1,667 Flexpoints) when booking flights through the Flexperks travel portal, but not when booking flights through other channels and redeeming Real-Time Rewards against the purchase.

You can see these rebates vary along a number of axes:

  • is the rebate capped or uncapped? An uncapped rebate is better if it's a program you use heavily. Someone whose primary airline in American might not even notice a 10,000-mile rebate each year, while the $25 Flexperks rebate can be ransacked by, for example, booking flights one direction or even one leg at a time whenever the price is the same as booking a round-trip (for example with Alaska or Southwest Airlines).
  • is the rebate in points or cash? Given a fixed value, you should theoretically prefer a points rebate since you will earn another rebate on the redemption of the rebated points, as I described in the case of JetBlue: a 20% rebate is "really" closer to a 24.8% rebate after you complete enough redemptions.
  • is the rebate stackable? Most of these rebates are nominal on their own, but they can become more valuable if they can be combined with other discounts or benefits, as in the case of the legacy and relaunched IHG credit cards. To give another example, the AAdvantage cards also give you access to American's reduced mileage awards, giving you the combination of a lower sticker price and a 10% rebate off that lower price.

Conclusion

This was an interesting exercise for me, because while it's second nature to me to describe, for example, the Arrival Plus card as earning 2.105% cash back on unbonused spend, that precise logic applies equally well to all these programs.

For example, if the United and American shopping portals are both paying out 20 miles per dollar, and you value the miles equally, an American AAdvantage credit cardholder should prefer the American portal, since you know you'll actually receive 22 miles per dollar: 20 up front and another 2 after redeeming them.

US Bank Real-Time Rewards are growing on me

I wrote back in April about my misfired attempt to use US Bank Real-Time Rewards to pay for a hotel stay, learning the boring way that they really do enforce the $500 minimum on hotel Real-Time Rewards redemptions. But since then, I've had quite a few successful experiences with them, and have basically come around to the concept, despite my initial skepticism.

Three successful Real-Time Rewards redemptions

Since my Citi American AAdvantage credit card was shut down for boring reasons, I've flown a few times on American and had to find the best way to pay baggage fees, because I love checking bags.

It turns out, US Bank Real-Time Rewards redemptions are perfect for paying checked bag fees. In each case, the text message was immediately delivered to my phone, offering me the option of redeeming 1,667 Flexpoints for my $25 checked bag fees.

A third recent redemption was of 16,633 Flexpoints against a $249.50 Amtrak reservation (to Atlantic City).

The checked bag fees are things I would ordinarily just pay with cash, since the Barclay Arrival+ minimum redemption is $100, while I'd usually pay for the Amtrak ticket with Arrival+ and hope to earn enough points to redeem against the transaction sometime in the next 120 days (indeed, that's how I paid for our return tickets).

The key insight here is that while grocery store manufactured spend is somewhat more expensive than unbonused manufactured spend, it can be more lucrative (the equivalent of 3% cash back with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card) by more than it is more expensive. That difference can be expanded if you are also able to take advantage of things like periodic gas promotions on prepaid debit card purchases (I don't drive so that consideration doesn't directly affect me, but I'm aware that gas can make up a big part of many reader's budgets).

As always, use the right tool for the right job

Developing a travel hacking practice is about putting together the constellation of programs that help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take. That can be frustrating at first if you want to know what the "best" credit card or rewards currency is (and there are dozens of bloggers well-compensated to give you one answer or another).

If you asked me, or almost any honest travel hacker ("honest" is doing a lot of work here), what the best rewards currency is, 9 times out of 10 you'd hear Chase Ultimate Rewards. They're easy to earn, and very valuable when transferred to partners like United, Hyatt, or Southwest under some circumstances. However, no currency is perfect, and that's just as true of Ultimate Rewards as any other currency.

Consider a typical combination of a Chase Freedom Unlimited and Sapphire Reserve card. That combination gives you the flexibility of transferring to partners where appropriate, plus the equivalent of 2.25% on unbonused spend when you book through the Ultimate Rewards portal (1.5 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar, worth 1.5 cents each through the portal).

But of course, there are reservations you can't or don't want to make through the Ultimate Rewards portal. For example, you can't book Amtrak tickets through Chase's travel portal, and if you want to pay cash for a stay at a chain hotel (for example to receive elite-qualifying nights or stays, or to receive elite status benefits) you will usually need to book directly. Likewise if you want to use a service like Autoslash to monitor the price of a car rental and rebook it as it falls, you probably don't want to book through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

A final use case for Real-Time Rewards is when you want to be sure you're earning revenue-based and not distance-based redeemable miles on paid airline tickets. While revenue-based earning was generally considered a devaluation, especially for long, cheap flights, for expensive short-haul flights (precisely the kind of flight you'd want to save as much money as possible on by redeeming points) you may well find yourself better off earning redeemable miles based on the fare paid. I was recently disappointed to see an Ultimate Rewards travel portal redemption booked into a consolidator fare class, and I earned just 500 miles each direction instead of the several thousand miles I would have earned based on my fare. It wasn't the end of the world, but in general if you're concerned about maximizing the redeemable miles you earn on paid tickets it's something to be aware of, and Frequent Miler has a 2016 post describing the issue in much more detail.

So, Real-Time Rewards seem like a good opportunity to realize the Flexperks Travel Rewards full 3% value (or the Altitude Reserve's full 4.5% on mobile wallet purchases) when you want or need to book direct.

My experience with the current Atlantic City status matches and promotions

I just got back from a weekend in Atlantic City, where I took advantage of the status match promotions I wrote about a few weeks ago.

Getting there and back

Once I made my reservation I looked into train tickets to Atlantic City, and found they were somewhat more expensive than I usually pay. Leaving Friday evening left us only a few Amtrak departures that would allow us to connect to New Jersey Transit, and I ended up paying $249.50 for two tickets from Washington Union Station to Atlantic City, and $228 for two tickets from Philadelphia 30th Street Station back to Washington.

Note that Amtrak will sell tickets to Atlantic City, including the $21.50 fare from Philadelphia, but it won't sell return tickets originating in Atlantic City unless you're willing to pay a $15 "express delivery fee," I assume because New Jersey Transit conductors aren't able to accept Amtrak eTickets, so your trip needs to originate somewhere with an Amtrak ticketing kiosk.

Note that beginning Wednesday, September 5, 2018, and continuing "until early 2019," the Atlantic City Line will not operate between Philadelphia and Atlantic City. They apparently plan to replace train service with comparable bus service, but it seems to me most people would be better off simply renting a car and driving or taking a bus straight from their origin to Atlantic City while the maintenance work is being done.

If you want to take the train, go soon!

Both the Hard Rock Hotel & Casino and Ocean Resort Casino wanted a physical, unexpired status card

When I status matched to Borgata Black Label status in 2016, they were happy to accept a screenshot of the status page on my account, but this time both the Hard Rock and Ocean loyalty desks insisted on seeing a physical, unexpired elite status card (I only had a card showing a 2017 expiration).

Fortunately, the Borgata has gotten rid of their bespoke loyalty program and aligned with Mlife status tiers, so I was able to get a physical Mlife Platinum card printed there.

Unfortunately, the Borgata is located in a weird corner of Atlantic City that took probably 20 minutes to get to on one of the city's "jitney" microbusses, and cost $4.50 to boot. The Uber ride back cost $9.03, which I strongly recommend doing instead. As far as I can tell the property is inaccessible by foot.

As I mentioned on Twitter, everyone who opens a Ocean loyalty account gets $15 in slot play, so you'll probably want to open an account and then match to Ocean Black, for a total of $115 in free slot play.

For my troubles, I got $150 in free Hard Rock slot play and $115 in free Ocean slot play, which I was able to convert into $147.50 in folding money. I also scored another $40 playing craps, but obviously that doesn't count.

My comped stay was, in fact, comped

As I wrote earlier this month, when I called to ask about the Hard Rock status match I was offered a free two-night stay, apparently just for calling. That free stay was the one I used on this trip, and I ultimately owed something like $46 in resort fees.

When I successfully completed my status match, I was then given another free two-night stay, as I'd anticipated. While I was a bit unclear initially about the expiration date of the free stay, the loyalty desk told me that while I had to book the stay by September 3, the stay doesn't have to be completed by September 3; I can apparently book it anytime in the future.

The Legends Lounge is nice

As part of the status match to "Rock Royalty" I also received entry for 2 to either the buffet or the Legends Lounge, which is Hard Rock's smaller, more "exclusive" lounge, and which normally costs 10 comp dollars to enter. It was honestly pretty great. I assume it has a much smaller selection of food than the buffet, but I've never really enjoyed casino buffets anyway, so the limited selection worked fine for me, balanced as it was with a very open bar.

There was a selection of 2-3 salads, hot sliced ham and New York strip steak, sides like mashed potatoes and mushrooms, and a dessert bar. If you get a waiter like ours who had no idea what he was doing, I'd recommend just ordering cocktails at the bar and cutting out the middle man.

When I completed my status match to Ocean Black, I was also given (possibly unlimited?) access to the Ocean Premier Player's Lounge, but we didn't actually make it in there so I can't say how it stacks up. Oops.

The Hard Rock is a dump, but what kind of a dump depends on how lucky you get

Since the Hard Rock took over the building of the former Taj Mahal, naturally the remodel was constrained to a large degree by the existing architecture. Our first night we were assigned a room in the "North Tower," which judging by cultural cues I would assume is the nicer, newer tower. It had double sinks in the bathroom, a walk-in shower, separate toilet, a full desk, etc.

Unfortunately, it also was an adjoining room, and the doors to the adjoining room were apparently thin as tissue paper, so when the psychopaths next door turned on Cartoon Network at 3 am at maximum volume, it was like Hank Hill was screaming directly at us. I even called the front desk to see if there was anything they could do, but after a security guy went to their door, knocked politely, and waited around for a few minutes, he left without even speaking to our neighbors, let alone resolving the noise issue.

The next afternoon I went down to the lobby to see if we could move to a non-adjoining room, and was told, "no, they're all adjoining." Nonetheless, she was able to relocate us to the "South Tower," which I gather must be the older, original hotel building. We were given a room on the fourth floor of the South Tower, which happens to be the same floor the pool is on. 

The thing is, it was actually nicer and more comfortable in many ways than the flashier North Tower. The bedroom was larger, or at least configured in a more comfortable way, since the bed wasn't wedged into a corner and jutting into the middle of the room. The bathroom had a single sink and bathtub, which if you like taking baths is of course a feature, not a bug. And while the furniture seems "dated," it also had a kind of classic aesthetic I didn't mind at all.

Our South Tower room also did have an adjoining room, but fortunately they seemed to get to bed earlier than us and I didn't hear anything from next door until 9:30 or 10 in the morning.

Conclusion

I am, in general, quite fond of Atlantic City and its overall seediness and degeneracy, so I'm not likely to turn down an opportunity to pop up for a weekend whenever the price is right. That was even more true when I lived in Philadelphia and Atlantic City was a day trip, and before gaming expanded to more cities and states on the East Coast.

Now that the MGM National Harbor and Maryland Live! have opened nearby, the cost of getting to and from Atlantic City has made it more of a special occasion destination for me, which makes it unfortunate the Hard Rock isn't better; it's hard to justify a special trip to a place where you can't sleep because of your neighbor's TV!

But, if I'm able to plan a trip before my Ocean free stay expires, I'll give them a try and report back if the experience is any better.