Hotel benefits by length of stay

The other day I was looking at hotels for an upcoming weekend trip with flexible dates. I settled on a convenient Hilton property, and was immediately annoyed that I only really needed 4 nights, even though the fifth award night would be free. I vented on Twitter and Milenomics contributor Robert Dwyer pointed out that if I had a Citi Prestige card I'd be sitting pretty with that card's fourth-night-free benefit.

That got me to thinking about the connection between length of stay and optimal booking options.

One-night stays

One-night stays are great because they're opportunities to redeem free night certificates at chains where you don't otherwise have any points or status. For example:

  • Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier cards offer an anniversary free night certificate good at properties costing up to 40,000 points;
  • the new suite of Marriott and Starwood credit cards will offer anniversary free night certificates good at properties costing between 35,000 points and 50,000 points, depending on the card;
  • Chase Hyatt credit cards offer anniversary free night certificates good at category 1-4 properties (up to 15,000 points per night).
  • For stays within the United States, the US Bank Radisson Rewards ($50 annual fee) and Radisson Rewards Premier ($75 annual fee) cards offer up to three anniversary free night certificates valid only at Radisson Rewards properties in the United States when spending $10,000, $20,000, and $30,000 on the cards each cardmember year. If you're going to spend $30,000 on one of these cards my general feeling is that you may as well pay the extra $25 annual fee and get 75,000 additional points annually between the two additional points per dollar the Premier card earns and the 15,000 additional anniversary points.

For longer stays, I don't like free night certificates because they force you to overpay for the nights that aren't covered by the certificate, or move between properties during your trip. But for one-night stays they're ideal, and I often use them for things like airport properties before an early morning flight.

Another option for one-night stays, depending on the property, is booking through one of the luxury travel portals:

  • the Visa Signature Luxury Hotel Collection offers a package of benefits including free Wi-Fi, breakfast for two guests, and a $25 food and beverage credit. If the price is the same as through other booking channels, then on a one-night stay the food and beverage credit can handily offset things like resort fees (which would also be owed on award stays), while on longer stays, the resort fees continue to mount while the food and beverage credit can be used only once.
  • likewise American Express offers a Fine Hotels and Resorts booking channel to their Platinum cardholders, which offers a more generous $100 food, beverage, or spa credit at some properties. Just as above, on a one-night stay that credit naturally goes further than on longer stays.
  • Finally, you can use a Virtuoso travel agent like classictravel.com to secure similar benefits while booking with the card of your choice.

Two- and three-night stays

This is the real wheelhouse of hotel points and fixed-value points, especially if you're able to redeem cheap fixed-value points like US Bank Flexpoints against your stay (if the total cost is above $500), since you'll also earn points on the room rate you pay. If you'd otherwise pay cash, redeeming points is usually a good idea in this window, since easily-earned points like Hilton Honors, World of Hyatt, and (under certain circumstances) IHG Rewards Club points don't offer any advantages, and the resort fees at luxury properties eat up the potential value of the food and beverage credits discussed above.

Some third-night-free offers may also be available through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts, but unless you've done your research in advance I wouldn't sign up for a Platinum card just in hopes of capitalizing on third-night-free offers.

Four-night stays

At the four-night mark, three additional opportunities open up:

  • fourth-night-free booking options through American Express Fine Hotels and Resorts. These are somewhat more common than third-night-free offers, so for four-night stays in cities served by Fine Hotels and Resorts this may be worth checking since the free night and on-property benefits may lower the total cost below any points redemption you'd otherwise consider.
  • the Citi Prestige fourth-night-free benefit allows you to book four-night stays while only paying the room rate on 3 nights (although taxes and fees are still owed on the fourth night).
  • the Chase IHG Rewards Club Premier card fourth-night free benefit on award stays, which means that otherwise-marginal redemptions may be worthwhile, if the free fourth award night boosts you well above your points' imputed redemption value.

Five-night stays

Presumably because their Top Men told them that virtually no one books five-night award stays, Hilton Honors, Marriott Rewards, and Starwood Preferred Guest all offer the fifth night free on awards stays (Hilton only in the case of elites, but if you're not a Hilton elite I don't know what to tell you).

Seven-night stays

Finally, if you actually have a seven-night stay with Marriott planned at a Category 5 or higher Marriott Rewards property, you should consider booking it with a Hotel + Air Package before August 1, 2018, in order to receive 120,000 or more airline miles alongside your hotel redemption.

Conclusion

I give most people the benefit of the doubt that they understand their travel needs better than I do, so I try not to tell people what they should or shouldn't do. The flip side of that is that you should take the time to assess your own travel needs and figure out which configuration of airline, hotel, and credit card programs works best for you.

For example, if you take the occasional five- or seven-night international trip, but are putting your manufactured spend on a Radisson Rewards credit card, that's not an indictment of the program, it's a mismatch between what you're doing and what you need to be doing to pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Likewise, if your travel consists of taking the occasional road trip to Chicago, you may well want to be earning free night certificates and points you can redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua, one of the few really great hotels in the Radisson Rewards program in the United States.

Pro tip: an easy Amtrak Guest Rewards mistake to make

Amtrak Guest Rewards, the loyalty program for the United States' national passenger rail system, underwent a dual devaluation in 2015/2016 which made Amtrak Guest Rewards points much more difficult to earn (with the end of Chase Ultimate Rewards transfers) and somewhat less valuable (with the zone-based award chart replaced with a revenue-based redemption scheme).

As an Amtrak enthusiast, this was disappointing to me, since in just my first few years of travel hacking I had been able to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for phenomenal value in bedrooms on long-haul routes like the Empire Builder, Southwest Chief, City of New Orleans, and Coast Starlight, not to mention saving hundreds or thousands of dollars on Northeast Regional trips.

Since the devaluation, Amtrak Guest Rewards points can still be very valuable for Amtrak redemptions, in my experience ranging from 1.71 to 2.9 cents each, depending on the route and class of service. The problem is that earning them has become so onerous that the program has lost even more value than the points themselves.

Three ways to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points

The three easiest ways to earn Amtrak Guest Rewards points are:

  • The Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards World Mastercard, which earns 1 Amtrak Guest Rewards point per dollar spent on onbonused purchases.
  • The American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, which earns 1 Starpoint per dollar spent on unbonused purchases, which can be transferred 1:1 to Amtrak Guest Rewards.
  • And the American Express Hilton Honors Ascend Card, which earns 6 Honors points per dollar spent at (more expensive) supermarkets, which can be transferred to Amtrak Guest Rewards at a 10,000:1,500 ratio, or the equivalent of 0.9 Amtrak Guest Rewards points per dollar spent at bonused merchants.

The Starwood Preferred Guest option may be time-limited by the impending merger of that program with Marriott Rewards, but if you have a lot of Starwood Preferred Guest points you're anxious to get rid of, Amtrak Guest Rewards is worth considering as a pressure valve for those large balances.

The third option, the Hilton Honors Ascend Card, is not time-limited but the unfavorable transfer ratio and high cost of grocery store manufactured spend will likely turn most people off unless they're in particularly dire straits.

Don't forget: Starwood Preferred Guest transfers to Amtrak do not earn bonus points

In complete fairness to Starwood, they have always made clear in the description of the program itself that only "Transfer Air Miles" redemptions are eligible for a 5,000-Starpoint bonus when you transfer multiples of 20,000 Starpoints: "Transfer your Starpoints directly to miles with your frequent flyer program. Even better: We'll add 5,000 bonus Starpoints for every 20,000 you transfer at a time."

Meanwhile, "Rail Miles" redemptions read simply, "Transfer Starpoints to Amtrak Guest Rewards at a 1:1 ratio and get on the next train."

However, someone on the backend had the brilliant idea of using the same interface to order both redemptions. And, as you may have guessed by this point, they screwed it up:

So we find ourselves in this situation where the terms of the program clearly say one thing, but the implementation of the program clearly says something completely different. You can even reproduce the same effect by submitting a transfer of 80,000 Starpoints and be told 20,000 Bonus Starpoints will be added to the transfer.

But to be clear: this is not how the program actually works, and you will not receive the bonus Amtrak Guest Rewards points automatically when transferring multiples of 20,000 Starpoints to Amtrak.

Conclusion

I know folks who are rightly concerned about losing out when Starwood Preferred Guest irrevocably transitions into Marriott Rewards in August, and I think Amtrak Guest Rewards is a sensible place to stash at least some points, given their relatively high, relatively consistent value, even post-devaluation.

But this post is a warning not to go overboard on those transfers when you see Bonus Starpoints in the dialog box since you won't, actually, receive them.

At least, not automatically. What you can or can't convince Starwood's agents to do, as a one-time courtesy to you, is entirely between you and them.

The logic and illogic of Delta award pricing

I mentioned earlier in the week that I'm planning a summer trip to the Czech Republic, and discussed some different strategies I'm considering for booking our first few nights in Karlovy Vary (check out the comments to that post for some great reader suggestions for saving money at independent hotels).

Today I finally pulled the trigger on our airline tickets, about one day later than would have been ideal, but you book tickets at the prices you have, not the prices you might want or wish to have at an earlier time.

Because I'd been watching the ticket prices so closely, I noticed an odd price move.

Delta award tickets are not perfectly aligned with prices

While Delta has adopted revenue-based earning on paid tickets, they've only fitfully moved towards revenue-based redemptions. More expensive award tickets do tend to cost more miles than cheaper tickets, but the relationship isn't linear, which means Delta SkyMiles still offer a range of redemption values, rather than a fixed redemption rate.

Today I saw that the cash price of our ideal itinerary had moved from $953 to $1,409, while the award price remained at 80,000 SkyMiles (plus $55 in taxes and fees). Since I was planning to book my partner's award ticket with miles anyway, I did so immediately. Theoretically, this begs the question of whether I got $1,354 in value or $898 in value, but that part doesn't worry me too much, since the revenue price had already increased by the time I decided to book it, turning the decision to book with miles from a head-scratcher into a no-brainer.

What interested me was how I was going to book my own revenue ticket now that the price had shot up.

It still pays to search one leg at a time

I already knew our outbound itinerary was the ideal one, with a short connection at New York's JFK airport and a nonstop flight to Prague, and that itinerary is still available for 30,000 SkyMiles. But perusing Google Flights, I realized that there were still cheap itineraries including our transatlantic return leg.

And that's when it hit me that the final, domestic leg was the one messing up the pricing. The itinerary including the domestic leg priced out at $1,408:

While the same itinerary without the final domestic leg cost just $1,013:

Given those conditions, I booked my international itinerary to end at JFK, and I'll figure out my own way home from there. Revenue flights are just $216 (compared to the full itinerary price difference of $456), and I can redeem Chase Ultimate Rewards or US Bank Flexpoints for that leg.

Or I'll just catch a Chinatown bus if I have to!

Conclusion

I went into this booking with a pretty restrictive set of constraints, so I didn't initially do as much work as I should have figuring out which flights were available at high and low revenue and award prices. Once I realized my mistake, I was able to immediately save hundreds of dollars by stopping short of my final destination and figuring out my own way home from there.

The lesson is clear: search multiple combinations of routes and itineraries in order to identify which legs are the most expensive, and see if you can find alternate methods of transportation to avoid them.

One weird old trick for cancelling the most annoying subscriptions

Back in November several shopping portals started running promotions offering bonus points if you signed up for an 8-week digital trial subscription to the Wall Street Journal and Barron's. The terms were a bit tricky: you had to keep the subscription for 45 days, but if you kept it for 56 days (8 weeks) you'd be charged for another month. That created a small window (which we're currently in) where you can cancel your subscription, keep the points, and not be charged for another month.

The points haul wasn't huge, but my purchases did track, and each batch cost me $1.06 after taxes, which I thought was a pretty good deal.

Dow Jones subscriptions are not meant to be cancelled

The Wall Street Journal and Barron's are both Dow Jones publications, and while you can manage your subscription online, you cannot cancel your subscription online. You need to call 1-800-JOURNAL for the Wall Street Journal or 1-800-544-0422 for Barron's, although in practice it seems the agents at either number can manage subscriptions to the other.

The Wall Street Journal call center combines the absolute worst elements of the call center experience: the lengthy script begging you not to cancel ("your subscription is paid up through the 27th, you can cancel until then, are you sure you want to cancel now?"), the terrible connection, the language barrier.

I was ultimately able to successfully cancel one subscription that way with a phone call that lasted 19 minutes, although it felt much longer. On Sunday I mustered up the resolve to make another round of calls, which is when I discovered the call center isn't open on Sundays.

That was the last straw for me.

Citi and Bank of America still offer disposable virtual credit card numbers

Virtual credit card numbers are a fairly old gimmick introduced by a few banks in the early days of online retail so that customers wouldn't have to share their "real" credit card number with online merchants. I don't know if they were ever "popular," but now they're distinctly unpopular, with to the best of my knowledge Bank of America and Citi being the only remaining card issuers that allow you to generate single-use credit card numbers for online transactions (let me and fellow readers know if the comments if you know of any other issuers).

To access virtual credit cards in Citi online banking open any card, then click on "Get Virtual Account Number" in the righthand pane. To access them in Bank of America, navigate to your account activity, scroll all the way down, and look for "Use ShopSafe."

Both banks appear to use the same technology, and I want to stress again, it is old. But it still works, and you can still generate disposable credit card numbers with customized spending limits and expiration dates. These numbers can only be used online.

Use virtual credit card numbers to auto-cancel subscriptions

The $0 liability offered by virtually all credit cards today on unauthorized charges has made the original purpose of virtual credit cards fairly remote from the modern experience. While you should still review your credit card activity carefully for unauthorized charges, it's trivially easy to get such charges reversed (some merchants would say too easy!).

But when you're dealing with sketchy merchants like Dow Jones and their outsourced call center, virtual credit card numbers offer a commonsense way to make sure you're not charged for subscriptions you don't want. Just change your billing method to a virtual credit card with a low limit and early expiration date, and your subscription will cancel itself.

Is this right?

I'm not a priest or a lawyer, and I'm especially not your priest or lawyer, so I don't have any insight into whether giving a sketchy merchant a credit card number you know (but they don't know) they won't be able to charge is legal or ethical or whatever.

I know it wouldn't be my first choice, which is why I tried to cancel my subscriptions the "right way." But when I realized I was not being dealt with in good faith, I no longer felt any compulsion to deal in good faith with them.

But even if you decide not to use virtual credit card numbers in this way, remember that Citi and Bank of America credit cardholders still have this potentially useful tool at their disposal.

How to make Delta's (bad) squeaky wheel policy work for you

If you spend much time around here, you know that I like flying on Delta. There are some catches, of course: if you prefer flying on Delta you'll probably want to get an American Express Delta Platinum or Reserve card and meet the high spend threshold in order to secure a Medallion Qualifying Dollar waiver (plus bonus Medallion Qualifying Miles). It's become harder to secure domestic First Class upgrades, but I've had great luck being upgraded to Comfort+ on leisure trips, even as a Silver Medallion (though I'll be a Gold Medallion next year).

But there's one area where Delta drives me positively nuts: their policy on meal vouchers for delayed and misconnected passengers.

Delta agents absolutely can issue meal vouchers

One of the great things about flying back to my hometown in Montana is that the outbound flights are inevitably overbooked. On my last two trips home I've taken voluntary denied boarding compensation of $1,300 and $800, so basically each trip I take home pays for another couple trips on Delta. Agents in my hometown also love printing out meal vouchers, so in addition to getting to relax at the downtown Hilton, I also get 3 $15 coupons to eat at the steakhouse there. Good deal, right?

Somebody told Delta's agents they can't issue meal vouchers

On my last flight back from Montana, my plane went mechanical and they had to fly a replacement jet in from Minneapolis, causing me to miss my connection back to the East Coast. When we finally arrived late at night in Minneapolis, Delta had already set us up with hotel reservations and boarding passes for flights the next day. Naturally, I asked the agent, "what about meal vouchers?" and he replied with a straight face, "no, we don't do that anymore."

Keep in mind that 36 hours earlier I'd received $45 in meal vouchers printed on Delta ticket stock out of a Delta agent's computer.

So, being me, I started bitching about it on Twitter, and after I explained the situation over DM, Delta's Twitter agent replied:

"I will have to get more information on that because you were just offered a voucher for meals on yesterday. I will reach out to airport Leadership to get some additional information on that. It may be only certain stations that offer meals. Corporate will definitely reimburse under the circumstances."

Reimbursement procedure

This wasn't exactly tricky but I'd never done it before so I want to spell it out for my readers. To get reimbursed for my meals, I did the following:

  1. Visit Delta's "comment/complaint" page here.
  2. Select "voice a complaint," then "after trip."
  3. Fill out the personal information and flight information.
  4. Explain the situation, ask for reimbursement, and attach any supporting documentation.

For my supporting documentation I attached both the receipt for my meal at the hotel bar that night and screenshots of my entire exchange with Delta's Twitter team, stating the bill would be reimbursed. I don't know if the Twitter screenshots were strictly necessary, but I wasn't going to take any chances. I did not include the itemized receipt, just the credit card receipt showing the total amount charged (useful if you remember the details of my Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance post).

Timeline

I filed my complaint on September 29. On October 14, I received an e-mail stating they had issued me a check for the entire restaurant bill I submitted, and the check I am now holding in my hands was dated October 16 (I was out of the country last week and only just checked my mail).

This is bad

Now I know how to do this, and since you're a faithful reader, now you know how to do it too. But of the 100+ passengers on my misconnected Delta flight, all of whom were owed meal reimbursement, how many of them got it? I'd be stunned if you told me a single other person on that flight went through this procedure and received the reimbursement they were entitled to.

Were they lazy? Were they stupid? No, they were just told by an authority figure that they weren't entitled to anything, and they accepted it, because what else were they going to do?

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

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

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

Here's what happened.

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

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

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

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

Filing a claim

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

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

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

Resolution

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Pro tip: Flexpoints can only be redeemed online for most international travel 7 days in advance

Here's a new one for me. A long-time reader reached out to me, as the biggest fan of US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards in the blogosphere, to ask whether I'd had any experience booking close-in tickets using Flexpoints. He was trying to book a ticket to the Caribbean in exactly one week, and wrote that "the website will not show me anything prior to [one week out]."

I wasn't sitting at my computer so couldn't see exactly what he was seeing, but replied that while Flexpoints could not be redeemed for same day travel (and indeed, neither can Ultimate Rewards points), they certainly can be redeemed for travel within a week.

It turns out, we were both right: Flexpoints can be redeemed for next-day domestic travel but can only be redeemed online for travel 7 or more days in advance to international destinations excluding Canada. Next-day flights to Canada are fine (I couldn't find any other exceptions, but if you know of another country that's an exception, let me and other readers know in the comments).

While researching this post I also came across another curious restriction:

"Travel itineraries booked online require at least one USA or Canadian airport. To book a travel itinerary that does not include a USA or Canadian airport, you may contact a Travel Rewards Agent at 1-866-814-1293."

My reader was ultimately able to call and book his close-in Caribbean flight, but was charged an additional $25 phone booking fee for each ticket, which he couldn't convince the representative to waive. It's not clear to me how much discretion agents have to waive those fees — I did have a $30 change fee waived in the past.

Out of curiosity, I also checked the Ultimate Rewards booking portal and they have no trouble booking next-day international flights online. Between the $25 per ticket booking fee, and the superior travel insurance offered by the Chase Sapphire Reserve, that may be a better option than US Bank Flexpoints when booking close-in paid international travel, depending on where the fare falls in a Flexpoint redemption band (and what other uses you have planned for your Ultimate Rewards points).

Quick hits: hijinks booking Mileage Plan awards on Virgin America

In the last few months I've written a couple posts about booking award travel on Virgin America, with Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles and with HawaiianMiles, mentioning a few things I had come across doing everyday research.

Lo and behold, I actually just had occasion to book a Virgin America ticket with Mileage Plan, and found a quirk that might cost you thousands of Mileage Plan miles if you aren't paying attention.

Virgin America sometimes only makes one First Class award seat available to Mileage Plan at a time

I was searching for two tickets between the East Coast and San Francisco for June, and saw two First Class seats available for 60,000 Mileage Plan miles on Virgin America's nonstop flight:

After running the dates by my partner, I decided to just book one ticket for myself and book hers later. After running a search for one passenger, I found a First Class ticket available for just 25,000 miles:

While selecting my seat, I noticed that the First Class cabin was completely empty. After booking my ticket, I decided that booking a refundable 60,000-mile ticket for my partner made sense to make sure we were on the same flight. But when I searched again, another First Class ticket had become available at the 25,000-mile level!

Then I remembered that all Alaska Airlines tickets are refundable greater than 60 days before departure, so I went ahead and booked her a low-level ticket as well.

Out of curiosity, I searched again and yet another 25,000-mile ticket had become available. In other words, Alaska Airlines was only showing one low-level First Class award seat at time, but immediately made an additional seat available each time one was booked.

This doesn't seem to be a universal phenomenon, since I was able to find 7 First Class seats simultaneously on the same route on January 18, 2018, but it does seem fairly common for dates in June, when I'm planning my trip.

Since Alaska award tickets are refundable within 24 hours of booking, and outside of 60 days, there's no risk booking low-level award tickets one at a time to see if additional seats become available. If they don't, and you'd like to make different plans, you can quickly cancel all the reservations you were able to make.

The Mileage Plan search engine shows incorrect fees on Virgin America

For some reason the Mileage Plan search engine shows fees and charges of $19, but once you select a flight and continue the correct fees and charges, in this case $5.60, are shown.

My only theory is that the engine might be adding half the $25 partner booking fee, $12.50, to the security fee of $5.60, and rounding up to $19.

In any case, when you proceed to checkout you'll see the correct, lower fee before paying.

Maybe just show up to a Global Entry interview without an appointment

I've never had a card that offered Global Entry or Precheck fee reimbursement because I don't pay $450 annual fees, but a generous reader with many, many more such credits than he could ever use insisted I use one to pay my Global Entry registration fee (thanks, SD!).

This being the federal government, all the Global Online Enrollment System, or GOES, requires is the credit card number and verification code of the credit card used to pay the enrollment fee; they don't verify the billing address or zip code of the credit card.

I have three regional Global Entry interview locations relatively close to me, but since I wasn't in any rush I didn't shop around and simply selected the first interview time available in downtown DC. It was months in the future, and I completely forgot about it.

After I rescheduled the appointment to yesterday, I diligently set up calendar reminders on my phone so I'd be sure to make it. I had a 2:45 pm appointment, and gave myself plenty of time to get there, arriving at 2:19 pm. By 2:39 pm, I had completed my interview and was walking out the door.

Maybe just show up?

As far as I can tell, the Global Entry interview appointment system allows one interview to be scheduled every 15 minutes at a given location. But at an actual Global Entry interview location, there are multiple agents working and interviews take much less than 15 minutes.

I don't know if there's an official protocol, and frankly I don't know if the agents know if there's an official protocol either: when I showed up at my interview location there was just a ratty paper book where you wrote down your name and the time you arrived. There's also a line for "notes," where people at my location wrote down their scheduled interview time or "walk-in," but that appeared to have been made up completely by the people being interviewed; there were no instructions to that effect.

This is an extremely common phenomenon, where the objects of bureaucratic indifference organize their experience so it makes more sense than it, objectively speaking, does.

Agents have access to an eclectic range of data

The first question my agent asked me was "what was the purpose of your trip to Turkey?" My totally truthful response was, "I was connecting on a flight to Budapest."

Then he asked me about my business, and I told him about this blog, so he asked me, "so is your travel for business?" My totally truthful response was, "I try to be scrupulously honest about only deducting legitimate business trips."

Only as I was walking home did I realize all he was asking me was, "business or pleasure?"

So don't overthink the agent's questions. Just say "business" or "pleasure."

The agent also asked me if I'd ever been arrested "regardless of the outcome of the case." I told him I had and he asked me if it was for a DUI (drunk driving). It wasn't (I don't drive drunk), and I told him so, and he told me that his system was showing him "some notes." It didn't keep me from being approved so I have no idea what his "notes" were showing him, but the point is, their system has more-or-less real-time access to criminal databases, so don't lie if you've ever been arrested for anything!

Pro tip: booking premium cabins with US Bank Flexpoints

As fans of US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards know, and people who recently applied for a personal or business card during the recent Summer Olympics promotion will soon find out, the third-party travel provider US Bank uses no longer allows multi-city itineraries to be booked online through their travel portal, although such tickets can still be booked over the phone at no additional charge.

Booking premium-cabin tickets is possible to do online, although you need to be extremely careful while doing so, and under most circumstances I think you'll be better off booking such tickets over the phone as well.

Here's how I found that out while making a first class reservation over the weekend.

US Bank allows you to search for "business class" flights

When conducting a search for flights through US Bank's travel provider, you can no longer search for multi-city itineraries, but if you select "Advanced Search" you can search for "Business Class:"

Check your search results carefully for class of service

Here's the first search result for a "Business Class" flight between Washington and Lexington, KY:

There's something that should be immediately suspicious about this search result, but which I missed the first time: there are 9 seats available. What Delta Connection flight has a First Class cabin with 9 or more seats?

The answer is revealed when you expand the flight details:

This flight books into the "W" Comfort+ fare class, not into the correct "P" First Class fare bucket.

The key takeaway here is that this is your one and only chance to see what cabin you're booking into: on none of the subsequent checkout screens is the class of service listed.

"Business Class" search results are all over the place

At first I thought this was a Delta-specific situation, in which you can book Comfort+ but not First Class seats online.

But no! Here's a flight correctly pricing out in Business class between JFK and LAX:

Basically it seems like a combination of sloppy programming on the part of the travel agency and the exploding number of fare classes and cabin configurations by the airlines. On 3-cabin aircraft you can book into the Business cabin, and on 2-cabin aircraft you might be booked into First class or Comfort+ depending on what fare classes are available and on how the online search engine is feeling that day.

You can change flights within 24 hours for $30 (or free)

After realizing I had mistakenly booked a flight in Comfort+, instead of First Class, I called US Bank's travel agency, QualityRewardTravel, at 1-866-814-1293. After waiting on hold for 5 or 10 minutes, I explained the situation and gave my Agency Record Locator to the phone agent. She told me that within 24 hours of booking, flights could be changed or cancelled for a fee of $30.

I told her I was calling because their website had made a mistake, and that I wasn't going to pay to fix it.

After asking her supervisor, she made a "one-time" exception and changed the flight into First Class for free, noting that the flight cost the same number of points as my original reservation.

Make multi-city and premium-cabin reservations over the phone

Multi-city Flexperks reservations already have to be made over the phone, but I would suggest that any premium cabin flight involving a connection should also be booked over the phone, since the flight search results do not show the class of service available on each leg. It seems likely that they show itineraries where business or first class seats are available on only some of the flights. Alaska Airlines is notorious for doing this in their search results, although they at least alert you when you select a mixed-cabin itinerary.

Of course, when the cabin you want simply doesn't appear in the online search results, you'll also need to call to book.

Conclusion

One of the great things about US Bank Flexpoints is that they allow you to take advantage of price compression, when nonstop, more convenient, or premium cabin itineraries cost the same number of Flexpoints as inconvenient or economy class flights. However, US Bank's travel agency doesn't make it as easy as it should be to take advantage of that key feature of the program.