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.

More digging under the hood of Choice Privileges

The difficult thing about writing about Choice Privileges is that they have so many properties it can be tough to know precisely where to focus: the 6,000-point Quality Inn in Wilsonville, Oregon, the 30,000-point Port Inn Kennebunk in Maine, the 35,000-point Quality Hotel View in Malmo, Sweden, or the 55,000-point "Preferred Hotels & Resorts" Myconian Naia in Mykonos, Greece?

That being said, let's see what we can say about the value proposition of the program as a whole.

The Choice Privileges Visa Signature Card has a strong earning rate on unbonused spend

Barclaycard used to issue Wyndham Rewards credit cards that earned two points per dollar spent everywhere. Before 2015, that wasn't particularly remarkable: Hilton Honors cards earn 3 points per dollar spent everywhere, Marriott Rewards cards will soon offer 2 points per dollar spent everywhere, and so on. The important question is always a card's earning rate compared to the cost of redemptions you actually want to make. But in 2015, that changed: all Wyndham properties now cost 15,000 points per night, which means legacy cardholders can stay at any Wyndham in the world for just $7,500 in unbonused spend.

While Choice Privileges isn't as generous as Wyndham, they do have a "flatter" rewards structure than many other programs:

  • a bottom-tier Choice Privileges property costs 6,000 points, or $3,000 in unbonused spend, while a bottom-tier Hilton property costs 10,000 points ($3,333 in unbonused spend) and a bottom-tier Marriott property costs 7,500 points ($3,750 in unbonused spend).
  • a top-tier standard Choice property, which I consider the equivalent of a mid-tier Hilton or Marriott property, costs 35,000 points, or $17,500 in unbonused spend, while a mid-tier Hilton property costs 40,000-60,000 points ($13,333-$20,000 in spend) and a mid-tier Marriott property costs roughly 30,000 points ($15,000 in spend).
  • the most expensive Preferred Hotels & Resorts properties cost 55,000 Choice Privileges points ($27,500 in spend), while top-tier Hilton properties cost 95,000 points ($31,667 in spend) and peak top-tier Marriott properties will eventually cost 100,000 points ($50,000 in spend).

I want to note that in this analysis I'm actually tilting the playing field slightly away from Choice. There are New York City properties (in Brooklyn, not New Jersey) that are bookable today for 6,000 Choice Privileges points per night, and in Manhattan for as little as 12,000 points per night. Neither Marriott nor Hilton offer anything like those rates, with Marriott starting at 35,000 and Hilton starting at 70,000 points per night.

Earnings on paid stays are relatively weak

The Barclays Choice Privileges Visa earns 5 points per dollar spent at Choice Privileges properties, or 2.5 times the unbonused earning rate. Compare that to:

  • 4 points per dollar spent at Hyatt properties with the Chase World of Hyatt credit card (4 times the unbonused rate);
  • 12 points per dollar spent at Hilton properties with the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend card (4 times the unbonused rate);
  • 6 points per dollar spent at Marriott properties with the Marriott Rewards Premier Plus and Starwood Preferred Guest credit cards (3 times the unbonused rate).

Unless you're fully committed to Choice Privileges as your primary hotel program, you're almost certainly better off putting paid stays on a more valuable card like a Chase Ink Plus that earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on hotel stays, or charging your paid stays to a cashback card like the Bank of America Travel Rewards card with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards status.

Choice is currently running a timeshare scam you might want to get in on

Like many hotel chains, Choice operates a "vacation ownership" (timeshare) company as well, and you can redeem your Choice Privileges points at those properties. They're currently running a promotion at 6 of those properties where you can redeem 16,000 points for a two-night stay (which would otherwise cost 32,000 points) and receive a $50 MasterCard gift card, in exchange for sitting through a 2-hour sales pitch and going on a tour.

I don't see any limitations on participation (as long as you're 25 years old), so I think you could theoretically visit all 6 properties at the discounted rate and earn $300 in gift cards for your trouble.

Conclusion

Choice Privileges is the first program I've considered adding to my travel hacking practice in a long time. I've mostly been happy using a combination of Chase Ultimate Rewards, US Bank Flexpoints, and Hilton Honors for virtually all of my travel. However, I think adding Choice Privileges to my arsenal will help fill in the gaps where Hyatt properties aren't available and Hilton offers only their standard 0.5 cent per point redemptions, allowing me to save those points for higher-value luxury redemptions.

I'm not terribly impressed with most of Choice's brands, but even focusing exclusively on their Ascend and Cambria hotels, putting $10,000 or so per month of spend on their no-annual-fee co-branded credit card will open up access to a vast number of properties offering outstanding imputed redemption values. Fortunately, I've always had a good relationship with Barclays, so I'm optimistic I won't have any trouble getting approved with a decent credit line.

A positive change to Choice Privileges

A few years back I went on a bit of a kick about Choice Privileges, the loyalty program of Choice Hotels International. My conclusion was that while the program wasn't for me, its very low starting redemptions (just 6,000 points per night) and decent earning potential on the Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa made it a decent option for some folks under some circumstances.

One of the key problems with the program was their terrible award availability, since they allowed non-elite members to book award nights just 30 days in advance, which basically required non-elite members to book backup reservations at other properties in the hopes award space would still be available when the 30-day mark came around.

The other day, reader rap commented that Choice had changed their award booking policy: now, all members have access to the same 100-day award window.

And it turns out, rap was right! I've been plugging in award searches for late November (100 days from now) and have found award night availability in destinations like London, Paris, San Francisco, Tokyo, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, and so on at virtually every Choice Hotels property in each city, with just a few claiming they're already "sold out."

I haven't found a single property charging more than 35,000 points per night, a $350 imputed redemption value if you're earning Choice Privileges points on unbonused spend with their co-branded Barclaycard credit card, which earns 2 points per dollar everywhere.

In principle their terms still say properties in Australasia can cost up to 75,000 points per night but I'm not sure which property or properties that is supposed to apply to. I wasn't able to find any such properties in Australia or New Zealand.

Conclusion

The most stunning thing about Choice Hotels International is still their comprehensive footprint — they're everywhere. Good award availability and a global footprint makes them worth thinking about for folks who rely on unbonused manufactured spend and don't worry about the perks of elite status (many Choice Hotels seem to include breakfast for all guests anyway, and you can always ask for late checkout).

As long as you're willing to speculatively book awards exactly 100 days in advance, I think Choice Privileges has been upgraded from a solid to a great choice for no-frills hotel stays in every corner of the globe.

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.

More great Atlantic City status match promotions (up to 6 free nights?)

All the way back in November, 2016, I took advantage of an Atlantic City Borgata promotion for free slot play and made a few hundred dollars during a weekend trip to Philadelphia.

Last night I saw over at Frequent Miler two more potentially lucrative status match promotions are available for another few weeks.

Up to 4 free nights and $150 Bonus Free Play at Hard Rock

The problem with these casino loyalty status matches is that unlike airline or hotel status matches, they invariably have to be done in person, usually at a "loyalty counter" somewhere on the casino floor. That means you have to either take a day trip in order to get your status matched and then another trip to actually use your free nights, or cross your fingers and hope free nights are available once you arrive.

After reading Frequent Miler's post I called up Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City (at 833-448-8436) to see how the status match would work in practice, and the receptionist volunteered to book me two complimentary nights independent of the status match (though with $22.31 per night in "resort fees").

Then she told me to find a loyalty counter when I arrive in order to request the status match and get another two complimentary nights (which can only be used through September 3, 2018). You can find the terms of the status match promotion here.

This is ideal for me since I should be able to use the $150 in Bonus Free Play immediately, and I'll probably let the 2 additional free nights expire worthless.

Check your Mlife tier status

When I took advantage of the short-lived status match that was available to Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status, I was also able to request my Mlife account be upgraded to Platinum status. That was all the way back in January, 2016, and my Mlife status is still Platinum (I did requalify for Diamond status in 2017 so this is not quite as strange as it sounds, although it is strange).

Mlife Gold, Platinum, and Noir members are eligible for the more generous Rock Royalty status match at the Hard Rock, so if you're not sure what status you have, it's worth logging into all your hotel loyalty accounts to make sure you aren't sitting on a more generous match opportunity.

As Stephen Pepper pointed out at Frequent Miler, all Hyatt cardholders are eligible for at least Pearl status with Mlife, which is still good for the less-valuable Hard Rock Elite status.

Stack with Ocean Resort Casino Premier status match

While you're in town staying at the Hard Rock, take a walk up the boardwalk to Ocean Resort Casino and request another status match (your new Hard Rock status should work) to Ocean Premier Platinum or Black status, and get another one or two free nights, plus $50 or $100 in free play.

The current status match promotion runs through September 30, 2018, although I'm not sure if the complimentary nights are also only valid through that date.

Conclusion

I don't know how widely available the "two free nights just for calling" Hard Rock promotion is, but it's certainly worth a try if you want to stay in Atlantic City during your status match and don't want to take any chances on complimentary night availability.

If you want to spend 6 nights in Atlantic City in the next few months, triggering all three of these promotions would mean you only have to pay out of pocket for resort fees. In any case, up to $250 in free play is worth something if you have any reason to be in the area.

Stupid or liar: why does Ben Schlappig keep telling his readers things that aren't true?

I'd like to briefly enter five pieces of evidence into the record.

On April 2, 2018, Ben Schlappig wrote for the first time about about Hyatt's "Hyatt Prive" travel agent partnership. He wrote:

And added:

On May 19, 2018, he wrote about a publicly-available deal at the Park Hyatt St. Kitts for 25% off paid stays of 4 nights, and a $300-per-person stay credit.

On May 22, 2018, he wrote another post observing that Hyatt Prive benefits can be combined with the publicly-available deal in order to get free breakfast, room upgrades, and other benefits, adding that:

On May 29, 2018, he wrote a generic follow-up post about the deal, including:

On June 25, 2018, he wrote a final post about the deal:

This timeline is important, because on May 19, May 23May 24, and May 29, readers commented on Ben Schlappig's blog that they were, in fact, able to combine the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit and the Hyatt Prive offer, an opportunity that Robert Dwyer at Milenomics spelled out in detail just this week.

That means 3 of the posts linked above were written after Ben Schlappig:

  • knew or should have known the original information he gave his readers was wrong;
  • did not correct the original information;
  • and continued to direct his readers towards his travel agent partner who earns a commission on stays booked at a higher rate based on the misinformation Schlappig originally provided.

I don't know why Ben Schlappig does this. I don't know if he actually holds his readers in contempt, or if he thinks they get so much value from his trip reports they owe him vacation reservations made through his travel agent partner.

Someone even suggested to me he might be doing this in order to generate Citi Prestige applications after he "discovers" there's an even better version of the deal available. That's possible; I can't say and am not prepared to speculate.

But if you're a Citi Prestige cardholder who's booked a stay in St. Kitts through Ben Schlappig's travel agent partner (or any other Hyatt Prive travel agent), please rebook your reservation taking advantage of the 4th-night-free you're already paying a $450 annual fee for, cancel your reservation with Ford, and tell him FQF sent you.

How looking at reservations in isolation makes me overpay for travel

There is a mistake I consistently make in my travel hacking practice: I compare every travel purchase I make to its lowest-cost alternative in isolation. For example, take an airport like LAX with nearby properties in multiple hotel chains. Glancing at a site like Awardmapper, you can compare these locations:

  • Hilton Los Angeles Airport (32,000 — 40,000 points);
  • Hyatt Regency Los Angeles International Airport (12,000 points);
  • a couple of Wyndham properties (15,000 points);
  • Four Points by Sheraton Los Angeles International Airport (10,000 points);
  • and Holiday Inn Los Angeles - LAX Airport (30,000 points).

You can do a quick calculation based on your own travel hacking practice, but using my values I'd come up with a cost of $160, $120, $150, $200, and $210, respectively, as the imputed redemption value for each of those properties. That's not the out-of-pocket cost of acquiring the points, but rather the foregone rewards on a 3% cash back card in the case of Hilton, a 2% cash back card in the case of Wyndham and Sheraton, a 1 cent cash back redemption of Ultimate Rewards points in the case of Hyatt, or a 0.7 cent-per-point purchase of IHG Rewards points in the case of the Holiday Inn (although you can almost always do a bit better than that).

So far, so good. If the cost of a suitable hotel were less than $120, I'd book with cash, and if more, I'd book with points, in this case probably 12,000 Ultimate Rewards points transferred to World of Hyatt.

This makes me too hostile to rewards gimmicks

I've written plenty of times about how much I dislike the annual companion ticket that comes with my Delta Platinum Business American Express card. The problem with it is simple: you have to pay for the primary passenger's ticket (and the taxes and fees for the companion) with an American Express card, and that means paying cash. If you'd otherwise buy your ticket with US Bank Flexpoints, for instance, then a sub-50% discount (with only one ticket earning flight credit) just isn't that impressive compared to the roughly 58% discount I'd get on a pair of Flexpoint redemptions, both of which would be eligible for earning and upgrades. Adding in the $195 annual fee makes the companion ticket an even worse value.

Likewise I have no use for annual free night certificates at chains I wouldn't otherwise stay at, since the additional cost of staying more than one night would eat up any potential savings on the first night.

This is fine, as far as it goes, but is also the source of the mistake I'm talking about: I also have to pay with cash if I don't have enough points to redeem for my airline tickets, or hotel rooms, or car rentals, or whatever. Now, I can put the charge on my Arrival Plus card and get trip delay insurance, and maybe redeem $100 in rewards as a statement credit against the purchase sometime in the future, but that's no substitute for an up-front 58% discount.

Travel hacking ideally reduces your total out of pocket costs

That brings me to the point of this post, and what I'm sure is a better way to ultimately implement a travel hacking strategy than mine: getting the biggest discounts on the expenses that are hardest to hack, and accepting smaller discounts where necessary in order to reduce your overall travel costs.

Some stylized facts demonstrate this clearly:

  • Two $400 roundtrip tickets booked using a Delta Platinum companion certificate would cost $405.60 (depending on connections), plus a $195 annual fee, for a total of $600.60, a 25% discount.
  • The same two tickets would cost 53,333 Flexpoints, representing $26,667 in grocery store spend, costing roughly $337 in activation and liquidation fees, a 58% discount.

If your only travel expense during the year is buying two $400 Delta tickets, then you're obviously better off redeeming Flexpoints and realizing a 58% discount than using a companion ticket and saving just 25%. And indeed, this is my main argument against companion tickets that require you to pay cash.

The problem with this logic is that the 58% Flexperks travel discount can be applied to a whole range of travel expenses, now even including travel expenses made directly with the vendor under certain circumstances.

If you had unlimited access to manufactured spend, you would always have enough points to redeem and pay the lowest possible amount out of pocket. Whenever Hilton, or Hyatt, or IHG offered the largest discount, you'd book with those points, and book flights with miles, Flexpoints, Ultimate Rewards points, or whatever other currency offered the lowest out-of-pocket cost.

But if you have finite access to signup bonuses, manufactured spend, airline credit, etc., then misallocating those currencies can mean paying cash and realizing no discount at all on some expenses. To return to the example above, if in addition to your $800 in airfare you also need an $800 hotel room, then you'd be better off taking the 25% discount on your flights and applying the 58% discount to your hotel, instead of taking 58% off your flights and 0% off your hotel: $937 is less than $1,137.

Framed in this way the solution is obvious because both expenses are connected to the same trip. Over an entire year, that won't be the case: sometimes you'll fly American instead of Delta, you'll fly internationally instead of domestically, you'll have sub-$500 hotel stays that won't qualify for Real-Time Rewards redemptions, etc.

It's that inter-temporal coordination problem that causes my sloppy thinking and leads me to pay more than I would if I optimized my redemptions across longer planning periods.

Conclusion

I don't think there's any shame in being wrong, but you do tend to run into problems when you refuse to admit you're wrong, so I fully admit this is something I'm wrong about: I try to redeem miles and points as aggressively as possible, even when it leaves me holding the bag and paying cash for tickets or hotel rooms I could have gotten a better deal on if I sorted my redemptions by value ahead of time.

I'm so resistant to paying cash that I deliberately book my Delta companion ticket on the cheapest flights possible, even if that means redeeming far more Flexpoints or Ultimate Rewards points on more expensive flights in the future.

But you don't have to be as dumb as me! By planning ahead and creating even a crude demand schedule, you're much more likely to lower your out of pocket costs by using the right rewards tool for the right job.

Marriott Travel Packages are getting more expensive (also maybe more valuable)

I saw Spencer Howard post on Twitter a seemingly-official (or at least well-spoofed) document listing the new prices of Marriott Hotel + Air packages when the combined Marriott, Starwood, and Ritz-Carlton program goes into effect on August 1.

Let's talk about it.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages today

Today, Marriott Hotel + Air packages offer a discount of roughly 24 to 38% when redeeming Marriott Rewards points for 7 consecutive nights and a variable number of miles transferred to one of their partner airlines:

  • The smallest package offers 7 nights at a Category 1-5 property (worth up to 150,000 Marriott Rewards points since the 5th night is free in any case) and 50,000 miles, worth 120,000 Marriott Rewards points (since that amount can be converted into 40,000 Starpoints and transferred to many of the same airline partners, although the Starwood transfer ratio to United is much worse), but costs just 200,000 points, a 26% discount.
  • What seems to be the most popular package among travel hackers offers the same 150,000-point, 7-night stay plus 120,000 miles, worth 288,000 Marriott Rewards points using the same calculation above, but costs just 270,000 points, a 38% discount (giving rise to the odd situation discussed here).
  • Finally, the largest package offers a 7-night Tier 5 Ritz-Carlton stay, worth 420,000 Marriott Rewards points, plus the same 288,000-point mile transfer, but costs just 540,000 points, a 24% discount.

Again, these calculations are based on the current Hotel + Air award chart.

Marriott Hotel + Air packages after August 1, 2018

Now let's apply the same logic to the Hotel + Air chart Spencer posted for redemptions after August 1, 2018.

  • At the low end, you can redeem 255,000 points for a 7-night Category 4 stay plus 50,000 miles, which would otherwise cost 270,000 Marriott Rewards points: 150,000 points for the 7-night stay, and 120,000 points for the mileage transfer, a mere 5.6% discount.
  • The same stay certificate plus 100,000 miles costs 330,000 points, raising the discount to 15.4%.
  • At the high end, a 7-night Category 8 stay (starting in 2019) plus 50,000 miles costs 675,000 points and is worth 630,000 points, a 7% premium over making the two transactions separately!
  • Transferring 100,000 miles instead raises the value of the package to 750,000, which is, in fact, what the most expensive package costs.

This pattern repeats itself for the other packages as well: discounts are small or negative at the 50,000-point redemption level, and range from 5% to 15% at the 100,000-point level.

Marriott Hotel + Air Packages after January 1, 2019

While losing an opportunity to book hotel stays and buy airline miles with a 38% discount is unambiguously a devaluation, I think the explanation is not what will happen in August, but what will happen next January, when Off-Peak and Peak pricing goes into effect. These 7-night stays make no sense at almost category property during Off-Peak periods (an Off-Peak Category 6 redemption would cost just 360,000 points booked separately, but Marriott charges 415,000 points!).

But during peak periods, the discount can be noticeable even at Category 8 properties, where a 50,000-point package will cost 675,000 points but is worth 720,000 points (6.3% discount) and a 100,000-point package costs 750,000 points but is worth 840,000 points (10.7% discount). Note also that these Category 8 properties will include Starwood's current top-end properties in addition to Marriott's.

And if you book a Peak Category 4 hotel with a 100,000-point package, the discount rises to 21.4%, which is at least in the same ballpark as the existing packages.

However, these are still much lower discounts than those offered by the current Hotel + Air packages, so you should certainly book any packages you're interested in before the August 1 changes go into effect. There's been a lot of speculation about how unredeemed stay certificates will be treated after August 1, but given the discounts currently available I think it's largely irrelevant: getting back any points at all from unredeemed certificates will make them an even better deal, and updated points-based certificates would still be able to be used at the much larger joint Marriott-Starwood hotel footprint.

Not too many Ultimate Rewards points angles

Since I get any Marriott Rewards points I need through Ultimate Rewards transfers, I'd like there to be some way to take advantage of Hotel + Air packages that way, but the fundamental problem is that Ultimate Rewards points can already be transferred to programs in each airline alliance, Southwest, and Hyatt at a 1:1 ratio, while Marriott Rewards points can only be transferred at a 3:1.25 ratio.

That means while Hotel + Air packages are good redemptions of Marriott Rewards points (improving their value over individual stay redemptions and individual airline transfers), they're bad redemptions of Ultimate Rewards points.

The exception is if you already have a large Marriott Rewards balance you're considering transferring to Starwood Preferred Guest in order to make an airline transfer. In that case, you should consider instead transferring over Ultimate Rewards points in order to redeem a Hotel + Air Package. For example, 240,000 Marriott Rewards points are worth 80,000 Starpoints, which can be redeemed for 100,000 miles. But transferring 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points over to Marriott will allow you to receive the same number of miles (or more in the case of United MileagePlus), but also a 7-night Category 1-5 certificate.

No matter what Marriott decides to do with those certificates on August 1, it's virtually guaranteed to be worth more than 10,000 Ultimate Rewards points.