What I learned from a week using Autoslash

Long-time readers know I detest driving, which can lead to funny situations like taking an Uber from Houston to Galveston, but due in large part to lifecycle effects I’ve recently found myself renting cars more and more. With newly limited vacation time (out of grad school) and increased income (thanks, Obama), it can make much more sense to rent a car than to rely on public transportation or put-upon relatives.

For reimbursed business travelers, car rentals can play an important role in a travel hacking practice, since they’re a bonus category on many credit cards (either as part of the “travel” category or as a bonus category in their own right), you can easily earn free rental days to use for personal travel, and the car rental agencies also partner with other loyalty programs like airlines, hotels, and Amtrak if you prefer those rewards.

But since I’m not a reimbursed business traveler, my focus is on keeping costs as low as possible. That’s where Autoslash is supposed to come in.

What is Autoslash?

Autoslash has gone through a number of iterations over the years. I believe they used to automatically rebook car rental reservations as lower rates became available, but lost the ability to do that some time ago, so now they offer two slightly different features:

  • “Get a Quote” allows you to submit a request for specific rental dates and times. A few hours after submitting a request, they e-mail a link to their results, which then send you to Priceline to complete the reservation.

  • “Track a Rental” allows you to submit existing reservation details, and Autoslash will send an e-mail if they detect lower prices. This feature works the same as “Get a Quote,” except that it will continue to monitor your reservation so if even lower rates become available you’ll be notified.

I’m not 100% sure if you book through a “Get a Quote” Priceline link if Autoslash automatically also creates a “Track a Rental” submission. I’m not sure about that because, as we’ll get to shortly, Autoslash has some shortcomings.

Rental #1: Minivan Success for Thanksgiving

Of my three recent experiences using Autoslash, this was by far the most successful: the system worked exactly as it was supposed to:

  • I submitted the dates and time I needed through the “Get a Quote” function, and received my quote an hour or so later.

  • I then pulled the corporate account number and coupon codes out of the Priceline reservation and plugged them into a new National Car Rental reservation, after clicking through to National from Lemoney, which offered the highest cashback earning rate (after applying my “Turbo Credits”).

  • I found the same rate and completed the reservation with National.

I then submitted my reservation details as a “Track a Rental” request to Autoslash, and a few hours after that they found an even lower rate, which I was able to use to rebook my rental.

This was Autoslash at its best: it found a low price for an oddball vehicle type I never would have thought to search for, found and applied a corporate code and a coupon code, and delivered a lower price than I would have found on my own.

Rental #2: Autoslash Errors over Christmas

If Rental #1 was an unqualified success, Rental #2 was a bust. The Autoslash e-mail linked to rates that weren’t available on Priceline or on National’s own site. I ended up copying over Autoslash’s rate codes to get the same rate available on Priceline, which was $50 or so higher than the rate Autoslash was advertising.

I then plugged the rate details into the “Track a Rental” feature, and quickly got another e-mail from Autoslash with the same advertised rate they couldn’t actually produce once I clicked through to Priceline!

So, I might have booked a better rate than I could have found on my own, but a higher rate than the one Autoslash was promoting. Call this one a wash.

Rental #3: Autoslash Breakdown for Halloween

This week we made a last minute decision to drive out to West Virginia for some birthday leafing, so I hopped onto Autoslash to see what our options were. A nearby hotel has a Hertz office, so I plugged in the address and our dates to see what was available.

A few hours later, I got the usual Autoslash e-mail, clicked through, and saw the only rental options were miles away. I tinkered with Priceline’s search options, and submitted another, even more specific Autoslash request, but simply couldn’t find our local Hertz office listed.

So, I headed over to the Hertz website, plugged in the same address, and was immediately informed that the local Hertz office is only open until noon on Sundays. Once I submitted a third Autoslash “Get a Quote” request with noon as the return time, I received another Autoslash quote I was able to successfully plug into the Hertz website, again after clicking through the Lemoney cashback portal.

Conclusion: all this is fine except…the Autoslash folks are weird jerks

If you’re bored by this point, that’s fine. I was bored by this point too: I hate driving, I hate renting cars, I hate the work that goes into hunting down discounts, and I hate the fact that I do it anyway because if I don’t I’ll feel like I got ripped off.

The most straightforward thing you can say about Autoslash is that it was supposed to solve that problem, and it doesn’t.

Using Autoslash made booking my rental cars take hours and hours longer than it would have otherwise. Thankfully, I have a travel hacking blog, so I get to write it up for the edification of my readers.

But if you don’t have a travel hacking blog, this is just work, and it’s not work that pays very well. And making it all even better, the Autoslash team themselves seem like total jerks. After spending hours figuring out why they weren’t returning rentals at my local Hertz office, I asked for help on Twitter, and they immediately replied:

“Shouldn't be any need to recreate our rates @ Hertz—you get the exact same rates and Gold bennies via our links to Priceline *and* you get to support a small bootstrapped startup that employs fellow @FlyerTalk members you prbly know personally. Pls don't steal use of our service!”

So I went from being pissed off by how bad their service was to being accused of “stealing” use of their service! Not a great look, as they say.

Conclusion

I’ll keep using Autoslash for my increasingly-frequent car rental needs, but it’s just one tool, and hopefully this post has spelled out some of the things you need to watch out for: advertised rates that aren’t actually available, Autoslash not knowing the working hours of local rental offices, and the amount of portal cashback you’re sacrificing by using their Priceline affiliate links. In other words, it’s not a tool you can rely on exclusively, but needs to be combined with your own outside research.

On that last point: if Autoslash worked consistently well, I wouldn’t mind giving up a few bucks in portal cashback by using their affiliate links. But the fact that they don’t work consistently well and fly to the attack against users who are troubleshooting their errors doesn’t exactly endear them to me.

If you’ve had better luck than me using Autoslash, feel free to sound off in the comments.

Some recent redemptions, from good to mediocre

I usually try to write up a post for each award trip I take, both to share my thinking about my points and miles strategy and to keep myself honest about the value of the rewards currencies I earn. I've been doing quite a bit of redeeming lately, so I thought I'd cobble together those redemptions into an overview of the value I've been getting from my points lately.

Hilton Prague Old Town

After spending a few days in Karlovy Vary, we're going to return to Prague to use as our base for the last part of our trip this summer. Back in the days of last-night-free Club Carlton stays my go-to property in Prague was the Park Inn, but that property has no appeal whatsoever if you're not paying half price (although cash rates are just $166 for the nights of our stay).

That left a few options:

  • InterContinental Prague for 40,000 IHG Rewards Club points per night, or $260 per night if buying points at 0.65 cents each.
  • Hilton Prague for 40,000 points per night, or $200 per night if buying points for 0.5 cents each.
  • Hilton Prague Old Town for 36,000 points per night, or $180 per night.

There are also two Marriott properties in the city centre, but a quick glance showed both their points and cash rates were too high, as usual.

The Hilton options were especially appealing because our stay will be exactly 5 nights, making this possibly the first time I'll ever have taken advantage of Hilton's fifth-night-free benefit on award stays.

By the way, I'm using 0.5 cents per point as the price I purchase Hilton Honors points at, since a dollar spent at grocery stores earns either 6 Hilton Honors points or 2 US Bank Flexpoints, worth 3 cents towards travel. In other words, the opportunity cost, not the out of pocket cost, of the Hilton Honors points.

In this case the decision was easy to redeem 180,000 Hilton Honors points for 5 nights at the Hilton Prague Old Town. The actual paid rate for the room I booked was almost $2,000 after taxes, giving a shocking 1 cent per point redemption value, but even using the more realistic $1,200 total at the Hilton Prague yields a redemption value of 0.67 cents per point, or the equivalent of 4% cash back on grocery store spend.

One interesting thing this highlights is the difference between the absolute number of high-value redemptions you make and the volume of high-value spend you do. For example, if you only make a single high-value Hilton redemption each year, whether it's the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island (3.8 cents per point in December), or the Grand Wailea Waldorf Astoria (1.9 cents per point over New Year's), you may be earning a substantial return on a high amount of spend — $63,000 in the case of those two properties, which cost 380,000 points for a 5-night stay.

Many travel hackers think of Hilton as a "backup" chain to their preferred program, whether that's World of Hyatt or Starwood Preferred Guest. What I'm trying to point out is that Hilton Honors points may be worth earning even if it's just for the occasional stunt redemption, and not as a core part of your travel hacking practice, precisely because those high-value redemption turn the Hilton Honors Ascend American Express card into a powerhouse for uncapped grocery store bonus spend.

Park Hyatt New York

Since my World of Hyatt Globalist status is ending this month, I decided to put together a final stunt redemption as a Globalist and took the train up to New York City for Presidents Day weekend.

The Park Hyatt New York costs 30,000 World of Hyatt points per night, and the cash rate for our stay was about $860, giving a respectable 2.9 cents per transferred Ultimate Rewards point. We were upgraded to a one-bedroom suite and abused the hell out of the breakfast benefit, so in terms of maximizing the value of Globalist status, mission accomplished.

However, I can't imagine any reason to go back to this hotel. Besides the unavoidable Hyatt service gaffes, the room's elaborate electronic bells-and-whistles were a source of constant frustration, and the location doesn't have any particular advantage over the 25,000-point Andaz 5th Avenue a mile away.

Obviously a $300 hotel night in New York City isn't unreasonable, especially with $100+ of breakfast included every morning as a Globalist, but there's no way to argue the Park Hyatt New York is a value play.

Hyatt Regency Lexington

For an April trip to Lexington, Kentucky, I booked four nights at the Hyatt Regency Lexington, which is my preferred place to stay in Lexington during Keeneland. They didn't have points-only award availability, but I was able to book a Points + Cash stay for 16,000 World of Hyatt points and $255. A cash stay would cost $900, for a respectable 4 cents per transferred Ultimate Rewards point.

The Hilton across the street wants 160,000 points for my stay, which would give a value of just 0.56 cents per Honors point, so the Hyatt was clearly the way to go.

Note that if points-only award space was available for 8,000 points per night, I would have made a Guest of Honor reservation instead, even though the per-point redemption value would fall to just 2.8 cents each.

Mediocre Delta redemptions

Finally, I've made a few sad-sack Delta redemptions lately:

  • I redeemed 80,000 SkyMiles and $55 for my partner's roundtrip flight to Prague. As I noted in my original post about the redemption, the price jumped from $953 to $1409 while I was watching it, which changed it overnight from a terrible 1.12 cent per mile redemption to a mediocre 1.7 cent per mile redemption.
  • For my flight to Lexington I redeem 23,000 SkyMiles for flights that would have cost $321 in cash, for a 1.4 cent per mile redemption. It would have been narrowly superior to redeem US Bank Flexpoints for the flight at 1.5 cents each, but I chose not to in order to build a bigger, more versatile Flexpoints balance. Since Flexpoints can only be redeemed for the full price of an itinerary, the risk of having too few Flexpoints is the total inability to redeem them, while the risk of having too many is having some leftover for a future redemption. Delta SkyMiles, on the other hand, are not valuable enough to hoard, so redeeming them is always my first choice, within reason.

The forgotten joy of booking independent hotels

I'm currently in the middle of planning a summer trip to the Czech Republic to revisit some of my old haunts and check out the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival. The plan is to spend a few nights in Karlovy Vary before returning to Prague. This gave me the occasion to do something I haven't done in years: book a non-chain hotel!

Chain hotels are great

For many people, it's become easier and more desirable than ever to avoid chain hotels. AirBNB is a popular option for parents traveling with kids since you often get more space and the use of a kitchen, and in many places it's also cheaper than whatever chain hotels are available. And of course if you're going on safari, camping with bedouins, or hiking Kilimanjaro you're not likely to have options when it comes to accommodations.

But personally, I like chain hotels. Of course there are exceptions, but you can generally count on clean beds, hot water, and decent service. Manufacturing spend on Hilton Honors and Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards lets me prepay for discounted stays at Hilton and Hyatt properties, and those two chains account for the overwhelming majority of my annual stays.

While there are a lot of hotels in Karlovy Vary, not one of them belongs to a chain. That means while planning this trip I got to brush up on the art and science of booking independent hotels.

Booking independent hotels is tricky

The biggest problem going in is that there's no floor for hotel quality. While hotel chains impose standards (that are occasionally not met), non-chain hotels don't even have standards to fall short of, so filtering a search by number of stars is the beginning, not the end, of finding a suitable room.

I started my search on TripAdvisor to get a sense of the price range available during our stay. After filtering for four-star and five-star hotels, it became a game of trying to make an optimal choice across the variables of price, location, and quality. The third-ranked hotel in town costs $196 per night while the fourteenth-ranked costs $148. I'd surely pay something to move up 11 spots, but would I pay $50 per night? Probably not.

TripAdvisor is a decent way to get a sense of prices and narrow down your options, but you probably don't want to book directly through TripAdviser. That's because you want to lower the final price you pay as much as possible. There are two obvious ways to do so.

Book using credit card rewards

The premium Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards, US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, Citi ThankYou Premier, and I'm sure some other cards offer increased value when you redeem your points for travel booked directly through the credit card company. That means if a property is available for the same (or a lower) price through a credit card portal, you can get more than 1 cent per point in value.

In my case I'd like to redeem my Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each for my stay, but the property I identified as the best value wasn't available through Chase's travel portal (in such cases you may still be able to book by calling the bank in question).

Book through a shopping portal

Another great option is using a shopping portal like TopCashBack to click through to a online travel agent like Hotels.com. When you do that, you're able to earn both cashback and Hotels.com Rewards free nights. TopCashBack pays out less when you choose to collect Rewards nights (5% instead of 9%), but the two programs together still offer the equivalent of 15% off the price of your stay (once you accumulate 10 Hotels.com Rewards nights).

A drawback of making reservations at chain hotels through Hotels.com is that you typically don't get elite status benefits. But if you're staying at an independent hotel, that's no drawback at all!

Pay with discounted gift cards

Finally, you can save even more by paying with Hotels.com gift cards bought at a discount. For example, the cashback portal Lemoney pays 11% on the first $100 in Hotels.com gift cards you buy each month (and you can stock up when Lemoney periodically lifts the limit on the number of times you can earn "Turbo Cashback"), and Hotels.com gift cards are available through Raise for 7% off.

You can apparently combine the balances of Hotels.com gift cards on this page, although I've never used that feature myself.

Conclusion

So, that's how I plan on booking our independent hotel in Karlovy Vary to hopefully get the equivalent of a 26% discount off the room rate. What other tips are there for saving money on independent hotels?

Sleeping the rails

As some readers may know, in a former life I worked as an English language teacher in Russia. At that time, it was typical for expats to arrive on a business visa, which as a rule only allowed you to be present in the country for 91 out of every 180 days. The idea was, you'd arrive on a business visa, get a job, and then switch over to the appropriate visa at some later date (I think of this whenever I hear about unauthorized immigrants who "overstay" their visas to the United States — that was me and most of my friends, and it was simply the way things were done).

In the winter of 2007-2008, rumors started to spread that the Russian Foreign Ministry had issued a new decree that visas could only be issued in the home country of foreign passport holders. While previously people had hopped over the border to the Baltic states, those Russian embassies were refusing to issue visas to third-country passport holders. However, we were hearing reports that the Russian Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, was still issuing visas to third-country passport holders — for now.

With that in mind, my company bundled me off to Kiev to spend the Christmas vacation waiting for a visa. The embassy was no longer issuing one-day visas, so I would have to spend 10 days in the country while my visa was prepared. In Kiev, the hostel I ended up in was owned and operated by a fanatically racist Englishman (this is a common problem in expat communities), and after a day or two I decided I couldn't stay there any longer. But where to stay? Having just gotten off an overnight train ride, I quickly arrived at a solution. Here's a map of Ukraine:

Glancing at this map, you can immediately see there are four cities located roughly equidistant from one another: Kiev, Lviv, Odessa, and Dnipro (still called Dnepropetrovsk while I was there). Not only are they roughly equidistant, but they're also all about 7-9 hours apart by train. The solution to my housing problem was obvious: I'd board a train about midnight each night, sleep on the train, and arrive in a new city around 8 am. I could spend the day exploring the city and get back on the train that evening.

I eventually got back to Kiev, got my visa, and headed back to Russia. But that adventure has always left me wondering: could it work here?

Using Amtrak for both housing and transportation

Trying the same thing in the United States poses several difficulties:

  • our trains are far less frequent than trains in Eastern Europe, often passing through a given community as rarely as once a day;
  • our trains are more expensive than trains in Eastern Europe (although often less expensive than you think, and very often less expensive than flying);
  • and our network of train stations is more limited, with routes that typically either feature very frequent stops or very infrequent stops.

So, I decided to investigate if it's possible to replicate something like what I did in Ukraine, and if so, at what cost?

Back and forth

Due to less frequent US train schedules, the easiest way to do what I'm describing is simply to go back and forth on the same route. Head north, south, east, or west one night, and head back the next night.

For example:

  • Northeast Regional 65/67 southbound from Boston to Richmond, leaving 9:30 pm and arriving 9:29 am, and Northeast Regional 66 northbound from Richmond to Boston, leaving 7:00 pm and arriving 7:58 am, roundtrip (2 nights) from $166;
  • or City of New Orleans 59 southbound from Chicago to Jackson, MS, returning on City of New Orleans 58, roundtrip from $196.

This is, obviously, a pretty boring way to travel since you'd be bouncing back and forth between the same cities. It is cheaper than a typical downtown hotel, though, at less than $100 per night.

Hub and spokes

A more interesting way to sleep the rails would be starting at an Amtrak hub and taking individual routes out and back each day. This would give you the benefit of a little variety in your site-seeing. Amtrak, unfortunately, is a little short on hubs, with the only ones I can think of worth mentioning being Chicago (11 routes), Los Angeles (5 routes), and New York (14 routes). New Orleans is another possible option with 3 routes.

I think all three hubs are fairly promising, depending on the part of the country you want to see. For example, from Chicago you can overnight to Denver on the California Zephyr ($97), Pittsburgh on the Capitol Limited ($57), West Virginia on the Cardinal ($62), Memphis or Jackson on the City of New Orleans ($86), North Dakota on the Empire Builder ($102), Buffalo or Rochester on the Lake Shore Limited ($59), Colorado on the Southwest Chief ($102), or Texas on the Texas Eagle ($98).

Circle the country

To circle back to my original anecdote: is it possible to spend time around the country while spending every night on a train, instead of in a hotel?

The short answer is no: long-haul train schedules are too infrequent in the United States to give people the opportunity to arrive in the morning and leave the same night on most routes. Here's one option I found that illustrates the network's limitations:

  • Empire Builder westbound from Chicago, leaving 2:15 pm and arriving in Portland 10:10 am 2 days later;
  • Coast Starlight southbound from Portland, leaving 1:50 pm and arriving Los Angeles 9:00 pm one day later;
  • Sunset Limited eastbound from Los Angeles, leaving 10:00 pm and arriving in New Orleans at 9:40 pm two days later;
  • Overnight in New Orleans;
  • City of New Orleans northbound from New Orleans, leaving 1:45 pm and arriving in Chicago at 9:00 am the next day.

The route described above would cost, if booked sufficiently far in advance, about $483, and would take 7 nights to complete, from beginning to end, although you'd be on the hook for one night in New Orleans. That would give you a cost per night spent in the coach car of a train of $80.50. Not a bad deal, and a much better set of views than a roach motel in Chicago (I've seen my fair share).

Don't forget Amtrak unreliability

Of course, the stylized route above assumes that four different Amtrak trains all run on schedule. This will not happen, because Amtrak trains don't run on schedule. On most versions of this run you would end up spending many more nights on trains than I indicated, which would drive down your per-night cost of sleeping on Amtrak trains.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, American cities and Amtrak routes aren't very accommodating to the kind of tour I was able to take of Ukraine. Only rarely are cities served by the kind of morning and evening trains that are typical in Eastern Europe. But if you have to spend 10 days in the United States waiting for a consular official to stamp a visa in your passport, remember that we do have trains, and you can see a lot of the country in 10 days without spending very much money.

Thoughts and feelings about BankAmericard Travel Rewards

The best deal in travel

In my opinion the best deal in travel hacking is likely the BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card with Bank of America Preferred Rewards Platinum Honors. That combination turns every dollar in unbonused spend into 2.625 cents towards future travel redemptions.

That's not to say there isn't competition for best deal:

  • A Chase Ink Plus and Sapphire Reserve combination allows you to earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at office supply stores and redeem them for 1.5 cents each on paid travel.
  • Likewise an Ink Plus combined with the Southwest Companion Pass allows you to redeem those 5 Ultimate Rewards points for (very roughly) 3.2 cents each on Wanna Get Away fares with Southwest when flying with your designated companion, the equivalent of earning 16% on your office supply store spend.
  • An American Express Premier Rewards Gold card and Platinum Business card would let you earn 2 Membership Rewards points at supermarkets and redeem them for 2 cents each towards premium-cabin airfare, plus enjoy the flexibility of Membership Rewards points transfers.

That said, I don't personally have a Travel Rewards card, and suspect the vast majority of travel hackers either don't have or don't use one. Here's everything you need to know about the pros and cons of BankAmericard Travel Rewards and Preferred Rewards with Bank of America.

You need to have a lot of money (occasionally)

To qualify for Platinum Honors with Bank of America Preferred Rewards, you need to have $100,000 in combined balances with:

  • Bank of America;
  • Merrill Lynch, the bank's full-service brokerage business;
  • and Merrill Edge, the bank's self-directed brokerage service.

Sound simple? Hang on tight.

To initially enroll in the program, you need to have an average daily balance over the preceding 3-month period of $20,000 or more (the minimum to qualify for the Gold tier in Preferred Rewards). Each month after that Bank of America checks to see if you're eligible for a higher tier: if you enroll with a 3-month daily average balance of $20,000, you'll be upgraded to the Platinum tier when your 3-month daily average balance reaches $50,000 and to the Platinum Honors tier when your 3-month daily average balance reaches $100,000. That "check" only happens once per month.

After you've reached a tier in Preferred Rewards you keep that status for 15 months. Technically you earn the status for 12 months and then have a 3-month grace period to requalify before being moved to a lower tier or removed from the program. [Edit 1/7/16: Please see Robert's comment for clarification on how the enrollment period and grace period work in practice.]

Three-month average daily balances are a funny thing. You could meet the $100,000 requirement over 3 months in any number of ways, including:

  • Month 1: $100,000. Month 2: $100,000. Month 3: $100,000.
  • Month 1: $0. Month 2: $150,000. Month 3: $150,000.
  • Month 1: $0. Month 2: $0. Month 3: $300,000.

All three variants produce an average daily balance of $100,000 over a 3-month period, but you must have an account for 3 months to qualify. You can't just deposit $300,000 in a new account and enroll in the Platinum Honors tier the following month.

Most people don't have that kind of money in cash, but you might. If you just sold a house or inherited some money, for example, you might have $300,000, and if you aren't in a rush to spend it, parking it with Bank of America for a month would qualify you for the Platinum Honors tier for the next 15 months.

Investing with Merrill Edge

Obviously, most people don't meet the Platinum Honors tier requirements that way. Instead, they open up a Merrill Edge account and move $100,000 or more in cash or securities into their account, and leave them there.

Note: I'm a passive, indexed investor, so all of the following is going to be from the point of view of passive indexed investing.

In writing this post I scoured the ends of the internet to find as complete and accurate information as possible regarding how to transfer, buy and hold Vanguard mutual funds and ETFs with Merrill Edge. Here's what I found.

  • Merrill Edge accountholders can buy shares of Vanguard ETF's and "Investor" shares of most if not all Vanguard mutual funds.
  • As a Platinum Honors accountholder you receive 100 free stock and ETF trades per month, so there would be no cost to purchase Vanguard ETF's with cash. Purchasing new Investor shares of Vanguard mutual funds has a $19.95 fee.
  • This creates an obvious chicken/egg problem: to get free ETF trades, you have to be Platinum Honors, but to be Platinum Honors, you have to have funds in your account.
  • Unless you want to park $100,000 in cash in your account, the obvious solution is to transfer $100,000 (or more) in existing securities from their current custodian.
  • Merrill Edge allows some, but not all, "Admiral" shares to be transferred in-kind from Vanguard. That means you are able to hold in a Merrill Edge account shares that cannot be purchased in a Merrill Edge account.
  • Once you hold Admiral shares with Merrill Edge you can reinvest dividends and capital gains, but you still can't purchase new shares. Admiral shares have the advantage of being lower cost than Investor shares and, in some cases, ETF shares (VTIAX is cheaper than VXUS, for example). You can read way more about this issue here.
  • If your Admiral shares can't be held by Merrill Edge, or if you intend to use Merrill Edge for ongoing contributions and don't want to hold two different share classes in your account, you can convert Admiral shares in all but four Vanguard mutual funds into ETF shares. You can also convert Admiral shares into Investor shares, but since Investor shares have higher fees than ETF's that's unlikely to be your lowest-cost move.
  • ETF shares can be moved in-kind from Vanguard to Merrill Edge, although fractional shares will be sold, not transferred. This may produce a taxable capital gain if the transfer is between taxable accounts.
  • [Edit 1/6/16: See reader EightBall's comment below for more on this issue, and this Boglehead forum post.]If you elect to reinvest dividends from an ETF, Merrill Edge will charge a 10% "fractional share liquidation fee" on any partial shares. In other words, they buy the whole number of shares your dividends can afford, then charge you 10% of the remainder as a convenience fee before depositing the rest in cash. To avoid that fee, you can elect to receive dividends in cash and manually purchase whole ETF shares, which sounds hellishly annoying. This is one reason I personally prefer Admiral shares to ETF's.

This may seem like a lot of trivia. But I'm laying it all out here for two reasons. First, it took me a couple hours of searching and reading to find the answers to all these questions, so hopefully putting it in one place saves somebody else the same trouble. Second, I truly believe the best way to build wealth is the long-term, automated, low-cost purchase of mutual funds tracking broad market indices.

Merrill Edge, like all brokerages, would like you to do as much short-term, manual, high-cost buying and selling of speculative securities as possible.

Merrill Edge new account bonuses

So you're a mid-career upper-middle-class professional, or early-career FIRE enthusiast, and you've got $100,000 sitting in your Vanguard account. You're intrigued by what your humble blogger earlier called "the best deal in travel hacking." The next step is to open a Merrill Edge account and transfer $100,000 in securities in-kind, right?

Not so fast.

Like many online brokerages, Merrill Edge offers signup bonuses for new customers who open accounts with qualifying balances. The standard Merrill Edge bonus is $100-$600 depending on the amount you deposit within 45 days of opening your account.

But that offer periodically goes as high as $1,000 for deposits of $200,000 or more. There's even a landing page for the higher offer, although it includes an expiration date of December 31, 2016.

If you're eager to get the process started of earning Preferred Rewards status and triggering the highest payout on the Travel Rewards credit card, then go ahead and get started. But if you're not in any hurry, then it may be worth waiting for that higher signup bonus to come around again. Even if you just deposit $100,000, the higher bonus pays out $250 more than the standard one, which it would certainly be nice to have in your retirement accounts happily compounding away.

Conclusion

I'm a long way from having $100,000 in my retirement account, so I won't personally be taking advantage of this deal any time particularly soon. But in this era of cheap and plentiful, but unbonused, manufactured spend I do believe earning 2.625% in travel rewards on all purchases is one of the best opportunities widely available — to those who can afford it.

Booking Southwest flights with Flexpoints and Ultimate Rewards

I previously wrote up my experience booking a Hyatt all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. That left the question of how to get there. While I'm not ready to be seduced by Southwest, I waited to pull the trigger a bit too long and the price difference between the nonstop Southwest flight and one-stop options on real airlines shrank enough to convince me to give them a shot, despite my reservations.

Chase Ultimate Rewards points and US Bank Flexpoints can be used to book Southwest flights

Southwest famously doesn't participate in the public Global Distribution System that real airlines use, which is why their fares don't show up on ITA Matrix, Google Flights, and online travel agencies (Google Flights will show you Southwest routes, but not fares).

But the Chase Ultimate Rewards travel center and US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards travel contractor can book Southwest fares over the phone.

Redeeming Chase Ultimate Rewards points for travel on Southwest

To make an Ultimate Rewards redemption on Southwest call 866-951-6592.

Like all Ultimate Rewards travel redemptions, points are worth 1.25 cents each for travel on Southwest, and you can use any number of Ultimate Rewards points against the purchase price and pay the remainder in cash. After transferring points to Hyatt to pay for our stay in Jamaica, I didn't have quite enough Ultimate Rewards points left to pay for my partner's ticket, so I redeemed my entire Ultimate Rewards balance and paid the remaining amount with my Chase Ink Plus card, which should earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar if the purchase codes correctly as a Travel Center reservation.

Theoretically I could have redeemed my Ultimate Rewards balance for a cheaper Southwest fare, then cancelled that flight and used the value towards the ticket I really wanted while paying the difference with the card of my choice. Since this was my partner's ticket and as far as I know she doesn't even have a Rapid Rewards account, I decided to keep it simple and just book the tickets I really wanted.

After feeding the Ultimate Rewards agent the dates and flights I wanted, she came back with a price about $90 cheaper than the fare available online. I had heard of this happening before, so told her to go ahead and make the reservation. After giving her all of my partner's information and my credit card information, and waiting on hold for a while, she came back and told me that flight was not available.

After going back and forth a few times, it turned out what she really meant was that that fare wasn't available, which didn't surprise me, and she was ultimately able to book the fare I had found online.

The call took a total of 45 minutes.

Redeeming US Bank Flexpoints for travel on Southwest

To redeem Flexpoints for travel on Southwest call 888-229-8864. The "Rewards Center" US Bank uses is not open 24 hours a day, but has pretty reasonable hours, something like 7 am to 11 pm, Monday through Saturday (I didn't catch their Sunday hours, but they were closed at 10:50 pm Eastern on Sunday).

After taking down my trip details, the agent explained that in order to book international travel on Southwest he had to call them, get a fare quote, put the reservation on hold, and then return to confirm the fare and itinerary with me. He asked me if there was a particular fare I was expecting, which seemed like a common sense precaution to make sure we were looking at the same flights and dates. It was unclear to me whether the same procedure is required for domestic travel on Southwest.

While the Southwest Anytime fare I booked for my partner was still available for about $900, a Business Select fare was also available for $950. Since I was redeeming Flexpoints, I knew that either itinerary would cost 50,000 Flexpoints and I told the agent to look for the Business Select fare. He was happy to do so and, after putting me on hold for 25 minutes or so, returned with the same fare I had found online.

Since Southwest flights can't be booked online, he also waived the $25 phone booking fee.

The call took a total of 44 minutes. If it seems strange that the call took almost as long as my call with Chase did even though the agent was able to accurately find the correct fare on his first try, the reason is the two lengthy holds he placed me on while calling Southwest.

Adding your Rapid Rewards number

Neither agent asked for a Rapid Rewards number to add to the reservations, and I didn't ask since I was getting pretty bored of waiting on the phone. However, both agents provided the Southwest confirmation number, which made it easy to pull up the reservations on Southwest.com. The Flexperks Rewards Center also provided an "agency" confirmation number they use internally — be sure you get the Southwest confirmation number as well.

Strangely, I was unable to add my Rapid Rewards number to my reservation while logged into Southwest.com. After logging out, however, I was able to pull up my reservation and manually add my Rapid Rewards number, and the reservation immediately appeared in my account.

[updated] Automate Twitter American Express offers the (really) easy way

[updated 1/6/2016: this technique is working again.]

[updated 12/30/15: this technique is no longer working.]

[updated 11/30/15: update the RSS feed your Twitterfeed points to to this URL.]

[updated 8/2/15: apparently a number of people didn't read the Devil's Advocate post I linked to closely enough, and did not follow the instructions there, so I'll repeat the relevant ones here. When configuring your Twitterfeed account:

"You’ll also want to change a few settings by clicking on that 'Advanced Settings' link at the bottom. This will open a whole slew of options, but you only need to adjust two of them. Unclick the 'Post link' checkbox so that it’s empty, and change the 'Post Content' option to “description only.'"

By doing this, you won't be mentioning my Twitter account every time you tweet out an Amex Sync offer.

Thanks.]

Hat tips go to William Charles, Devil's Advocate, and Amit Agarwal at Digital Inspirations for this post.

Introduction

In the last few weeks there have been a flurry of posts about methods of automating enrollment in American Express offers available through Twitter.

All the methods have one thing in common: they require you to open separate Twitter accounts for each American Express card you have, and sync each Twitter account to a single American Express card, as described here.

One method, described by William Charles at Doctor of Credit, is to set up an additional, separate account with the service IFTTT for each of your newly linked Twitter accounts, then retweet each tweet from the Twitter account @OffersBot that includes the hashtag "#available".

That's a pretty good method, but involves a lot of brute force and a lot of new IFTTT accounts that you'll only ever use for a single purpose.

A second, more elegant method, described by Devil's Advocate, involves:

  1. Setting up a single IFTTT account linked to a "master" Twitter account that tweets out all available American Express offers;
  2. Creating an RSS feed of that Twitter account using the technique described by Amit Agarwal;
  3. Then linking all your "slave" Twitter accounts to that RSS feed using Twitterfeed.

However, since the RSS feed created in step 2 is public, there's actually no need for you to create your own.

Feel free to use my RSS feed to automate your American Express offers

I set up one of my Twitter accounts as a "master" account, which all of my other American Express-linked Twitter accounts automatically retweet. You can use it too!

To be clear, you'll still need to set up unique Twitter accounts for each one of your American Express cards.

But once you've done that, you can skip to creating a Twitterfeed account and using the URL of my RSS feed, as described by Devil's Advocate in this post (skip down to "Option #3: Twitterfeed."

Once you've opened a Twitterfeed account, use the following URL as the "Blog URL or RSS Feed URL:"

https://script.googleusercontent.com/macros/echo?user_content_key=N_k_NWvLE-yMX85cDVGchXEJ1AWmYB-Id1fkw7MKPMd1IbYDyg568VEjW-JDjrzjEOwCYGopqhEBPk7bZMUWqkAYnwADx9pDOJmA1Yb3SEsKFZqtv3DaNYcMrmhZHmUMi80zadyHLKCzniYmIAKERg17xiLfYcbFU4hYwYLUc2VoAPxoDu5zV7-AlymaS3_oxWSqwvZphMa1UvnaGu-CRLuzKH9hWLZv2DJBNgH3uNGbUlc-DMMiftPKuzvYGGE2o00lmP9351dL7y6l43CLNy40VzKAMHpU&lib=Mn4xCJMdCZdQdN_YOKukP6Lfh5YOtzaZT

Then follow the rest of the steps Devil's Advocate lists, and you'll be all set.

One note: Devil's Advocate doesn't make clear that you need to repeatedly sign in, validate, add, and sign out of each of your Twitter accounts while still within "Step 2" of the setup process. It's time-consuming, but not too hard as long as you have all your Twitter passwords handy.

Conclusion

I had fun hacking together my automated Twitter sync machine, but I understand that not everyone has the time and patience to set up their own. Hopefully those readers will find this streamlined method easy enough to implement.

Note that if you choose to do this you are giving me and, vicariously, @OffersBot, control over your American Express-linked Twitter accounts! This is another excellent reason to never, ever use your actual personal or professional Twitter accounts for American Express offers, although an even better reason is that it drives me, and everyone else you know, absolutely crazy.

Quick hit: activating Sam's Club gift cards

Back in June I wrote about my super-boring strategy to take advantage of an American Express Offer for You of $20 off $20 or more spent at Sam's Club.

It turned out to be anything but boring: only today was the last of my $50 Sam's Club gift cards activated. Here's the story, and some advice on how to proceed if you've been having trouble with your own gift cards.

Activating Sam's Club gift cards is supposed to be easy

When $50 Sam's Club gift cards are shipped, you receive two e-mails, confusingly with almost identical subject lines:

  • Your UPS shipping confirmation and tracking number is in an e-mail with the subject line "Your SamsClub.com order has shipped‏;"
  • The link to activate your Sam's Club gift cards is sent almost simultaneously, and has the subject line "Your Sam's Club Gift Card has Shipped‏."

If you don't know that Sam's Club gift cards require activation in the first place, you might be forgiven for not even opening the apparently-duplicate e-mails.

Guilty.

Here's what my inbox looked like:

As you can see, half are actual shipment notifications, and half are activation codes.

The activation process is unreliable

Sometimes clicking on the activation link works. Sometimes it doesn't. Sam's Club is aware of the problem.

When cards won't activate, you need to call

To have your cards manually activated, call the number on your receipt (888-537-5503) and select menu options 3, 5, and 7, in that order. You'll be connected very quickly (within a few seconds) to a representative, who will ask for your order number, shipping and billing address, and the gift card number.

The gift card number they need is the number underneath the silver strip

Sam's Club phone representatives have apparently never actually seen Sam's Club gift cards, and every single representative I spoke to asked me for "the number on the back of the card." If you look at an actual gift card, however, you'll immediately see that there are 3 "numbers on the back of the card," and not one representative knew which number they needed to send an activation request.

It turns out it's the gift card number located under the scratch-away silver strip.

If at first you don't succeed, call, call again

My orders were shipped between June 3 and June 5, and were just finally activated on July 6 and July 7. That's a long time, and I wasn't sitting idle; I was calling every 2-3 days in order to find out the status of the activation request. In fact, I didn't make any progress until I had the phone representative open an actual support ticket, which finally seemed to set the gears in motion, and my cards were all activated within 5-6 days after that.

Conclusion

At the end of the day (or, in this case, the end of a month of waiting), I got a few hundred dollars of household supplies from Walmart at a generous 70% discount through this American Express Offer for You, and I'd do it again in a heartbeat, even knowing how much of an aggravation it would turn out to be. Walmart sells a lot of useful things!

I hope this post will reduce any readers' aggravation if they find themselves going through the same process, now or in the future.

Using US Bank Flexpoints for hotel stays

Flexpoints, US Bank's proprietary rewards currency, are famously most valuable when redeemed for airfare: they're worth between 1.33 and 2 cents each, which makes the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card an (almost) unlimited 2.66% to 6% rewards card, depending on the flights you ultimately redeem your Flexpoints for, as long as you're sure to spend exclusively in the card's bonus categories.

In addition to flights, Flexpoints can also be redeemed for hotel stays, and if Flexpoints are the points you happen to have while booking a trip, they may be worth redeeming. There are a few nuances to doing so, however, which you should know before getting started.

Prices are after-tax

This may go without saying, but before calculating the number of Flexpoints required for a stay, US Bank adds the taxes and fees for the reservation.

What didn't occur to me until I started researching this post is that the Flexperks Travel website presents the total cost, including taxes, up front, which is information that is typically hidden on both online travel agencies and the websites of hotels themselves. Instead of having to click all the way through to the reservation screen to see how much you'll actually be paying for a stay, you can search using the Flexperks portal and see the total cost of your different hotel choices presented on one screen:

Redemption values are lower

While you can get up to 2 cents per Flexpoint in value when redeeming for paid airfare, Flexpoints are only worth up to 1.5 cents each when redeemed for hotel stays. However...

Redemption thresholds are lower

Flexpoint redemptions for airfare start at 20,000 Flexpoints, for flights costing up to $400. When redeemed for hotel stays, you can redeem as few as 10,000 Flexpoints for stays costing up to $150, and in 10,000/$150 intervals thereafter. While your value per Flexpoint is lower, if you're Flexpoint-rich and cash-poor, it could be a great way to get value from large, unused balances.

Redemption prices are based on the total cost of your stay

In other words, while a one-night, $200-after-taxes reservation costs 20,000 Flexpoints, a two-night, $400-after-taxes reservation costs just 30,000 Flexpoints, since the total cost falls within the $301-$450 band.

I assume my astute readers will see where this is going: a way to goose the value of your Flexpoints on longer stays is break down your stay into multiple, shorter reservations to test different permutations of your reservation with "breakpoints" that bring each component reservation as close to the maximum allowed value as possible.

Another trick is to book the most expensive room that doesn't bump you into a higher price band. In other words, rather than booking a $200 stay for 20,000 Flexpoints, see if there's a bigger room or one that includes breakfast or parking, that won't raise your total cost above $300.

Stays probably won't earn points or elite-qualifying nights and stays

The Flexperks Travel portal is "powered by Orbitz," so unlike with airline redemptions, you probably won't earn points on your hotel stays, and they won't count towards elite status. You may or may not receive your elite benefits, depending on the elite program's policies. [Side note: I understand there are ways to get around these restrictions. I don't know any of them.]

While that doesn't sound ideal from a travel hacking point of view, you can also use the opportunity to stay in boutique hotels you don't get a chance to enjoy if you're usually too busy redeeming hotel points or chasing hotel elite status.

Conclusion

Unlike some bloggers, I choose not to pretend to live in a universe full of "ideal" redemptions. Instead, I choose to live in the real world, where points lose value the longer they go unredeemed. In that world, every trip presents a choice between spending cash that could be invested, used to pay off debt, or spent on all the other expenses of daily life, or spending points that have already been acquired, whether advisedly or not.

If you find you're consistently redeeming your Flexpoints for less than the opportunity cost of acquiring them (2% or 2.22% in cash back or statement credits, for example), then you should at least think about earning fewer of them. But don't let the perfect $799 airfare redemption be the enemy of the perfectly adequate $599 hotel redemption.

Quick hit: free money from American Express and Marriott Hotels

I don't write about (or take advantage of) deals like this very often anymore, but this one is easy enough to be worth a quick mention.

If you registered in time for the current American Express "Offer For You" at Marriott Hotels, you can get a $50 statement credit when you make a single purchase of $200 or more at Marriott Hotels (excluding all their other brands: "The Ritz-Carlton®, EDITION®, AC Hotels by Marriott®, Autograph Collection®, JW Marriott®, Renaissance Hotels®, MOXY(TM) Hotels, Courtyard®, SpringHill Suites by Marriott®, Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott®, Protea Hotels(TM), Residence Inn by Marriott®, TownePlace Suites by Marriott®, Marriott Executive Apartments®, Gaylord Hotels® and Marriott Vacation Club®").

If you have a local Marriott Hotel (or if you'll be traveling near one before December 31, 2014) you should be able to buy a $200 Marriott gift card at the reception desk. Then use TopCashBack to click through to Cardpool.com and earn an additional $8 per $200 card, on top of the $176 Cardpool will mail you as a check. Earn $34 profit per registered American Express card (I have 5).

Cautious as I am, I'll be buying one $200 gift card first to make sure the statement credit posts properly. If it doesn't, I do have an upcoming Marriott stay which I can pay for with the gift card, rather than the points I was planning to use. That's less than ideal, but since Marriott Rewards points are seldom worth even a cent each on award night redemptions, I don't consider it a great sacrifice given the potential upside of the experiment.

Naturally, I'll report back once my statement credit posts (or doesn't).