To my reader who mistyped his own e-mail address, Starwood edition

I recently received a question from a reader using the "Contact" page, but the reader seems to have mistyped their e-mail address, which I discovered only after writing my reply. Hopefully reader TF will stop by and find my answer here instead:

"If you have multiple millions of SPG points and tons of airline miles already then it’s not obvious that you should do anything.

"If there’s a particular airline currency you redeem more than any other, you might consider transferring your SPG points to Marriott and booking a bunch of Hotel + Air redemptions (90k SPG -> 132k United miles or 120k Alaska/Delta/American miles). It’s not clear how Amtrak transfers will work after August 1, so if you like taking Amtrak you can also get a good value transferring your SPG points to Amtrak (note that you don’t get the 5k bonus when transferring 20k points to Amtrak).

"However, it’s not like your points will vanish on August 1. If you have been earning your SPG points through hotel stays, well, you can redeem your new Marriott points for hotel stays going forward. A million SPG points will become 3 million Marriott points, which will be enough for 50 nights at any top-tier Marriott property in the world after August 1 (and a whole lot more nights than that at lower-tier properties).

"If you truly cannot imagine needing any more airline miles, and you truly can’t imagine needing any more Marriott/SPG hotel stays, then you could try to sell points or reservations to other people, or through a points broker. Even if you don’t need a stay or flights, perhaps you have friends or family members you could sell redemptions to at a discount, or be the cool aunt or uncle and send your nieces and nephews on an exotic vacation?

"Let me know if I can help with anything else.


So, there you go TF.

I try to respond to everyone who leaves comments, e-mails me, or submits a contact form, but if you would like to ask a question in private and not have my answer blasted on the internet, be sure to use a working e-mail address.

Using Chase Ink Business Unlimited to rejigger your Ultimate Rewards card portfolio

Chase has been fiddling with both their personal and business credit card lineup for a few years now, introducing both the personal Freedom Unlimited credit card, which earns 1.5 fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points on all purchases, and the small business Ink Business Preferred, which earns 3 flexible Ultimate Rewards points on "travel, shipping purchases, Internet, cable and phone services, and on advertising purchases made with social media sites and search engines."

The recent launch of an Ink small business version of the Freedom Unlimited means there's potentially an opportunity to use an Ink Business Unlimited card to rejigger your current lineup of Ultimate Rewards-earning credit cards.

Signup bonuses

I don't chase signup bonuses, but I know a lot of my readers do, so if you're eligible for an Ink Business Unlimited credit card, you might want to sign up for one just for its 50,000-point signup bonus after spending $3,000 within 3 months. Ultimate Rewards points are probably the most valuable single currency out there right now, so it's always worth at least considering applying for a signup bonus when a new Ultimate Rewards product is launched, as long as you're eligible.

Product changes

However, not everyone is eligible for new Chase credit cards due to the "5/24 rule," but it should still be possible to get an Ink Business Unlimited card by requesting a product change from an existing Ink credit card.

Personally, I like the ability to earn plentiful Ultimate Rewards points buying Visa prepaid debit cards at Staples and (during promotions) Office Depot and OfficeMax, but if you have several Ink Bold, Ink Plus, or Ink Cash cards you're not maxing out at office supply stores, you might consider requesting a product change from one of those products to an Ink Business Unlimited.

Why? Because the 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar earned is unlimited, so you only need one of either the Freedom Unlimited or Ink Business Unlimited credit cards. If you're not using the bonus categories on an existing Ink card (even a no-annual-fee Ink Cash card), then switching to an Ink Business Unlimited might free up a personal Freedom Unlimited to be product changed to a valuable Freedom card offering 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar at quarterly rotating merchants, or even a Sapphire Preferred or Sapphire Reserve card if you're interested in the travel protection, bonus earning, or redemption uplift of those cards and aren't eligible to apply for them directly (due to 5/24 or simply having already earned the signup bonus too recently).

Referral bonuses

While not necessarily a reason to sign up in its own right, it's also true that Ink Plus and Ink Bold cardmembers can currently only refer friends and fellow business owners to the Ink Business Preferred, while I assume Ink Business Unlimited customers will eventually be able to generate links to Ink Business Unlimited applications (if they can't already).

So if you like earning referral bonuses but don't think the Ink Business Preferred is worth referring people to, you might want a card that can generate links to the no-annual-fee Ink Business Unlimited instead.


Many, if not most, long-time travel hackers are so far above Chase's 5/24 restriction that applying for new Chase credit cards isn't an option. But that's no excuse to ignore the launch of new credit cards, since additional cards open up new opportunities for product changes, and under almost no circumstances should you close a Chase credit card, given the difficulty you might have in opening additional ones in the future.

Did the Marriott Hotel + Air arbitrage opportunity just get even better?

All the way back in September, 2016, I wrote that Marriott Hotel + Air packages offered an outlandishly good opportunity to transfer Starpoints to certain airline (but not train!) partners, even if you never intended to redeem the attached 7-night stay certificate.

A curious post by a Starwood employer on FlyerTalk suggests the deal might have gotten even better.

Use Marriott to transfer Starpoints to certain airline partners

Starpoints can be redeemed in multiples of 20,000 points (up to 80,000 points at a time) to receive the following number of points with a number of airline programs (this is a just an illustrative sample):

  • United MileagePlus: 12,500
  • Alaska Mileage Plan: 25,000
  • Delta SkyMiles: 25,000
  • American AAdvantage: 25,000

Because Starpoints can be converted into three Marriott Rewards points each, Marriott Hotel + Air redemptions allow you to transfer Starpoints into the same programs at slightly different ratios. 270,000 Marriott Rewards points (90,000 Starpoints) can be converted into:

  • United MileagePlus: 132,000
  • Alaska Mileage Plan: 120,000
  • Delta SkyMiles: 120,000
  • American AAdvantage: 120,000

When making these redemptions, you'll also receive a 7-night certificate good at a Category 1-5 property. Due to the fifth night free on award stays, that stay is worth between 45,000 (7 nights at a Category 1 property) and 150,000 points (at a Category 5 property) according to the current award chart.

"Outstanding Marriott Travel Packages will be cancelled and converted to equivalent points"

One thing that could happen after August 1 is that Marriott Travel Packages would be mapped to the new categories, with Category 5 certificates mapped to the new Category 4, Ritz-Carlton Tier 5 certificates mapped to the new Category 8, and the other certificates falling somewhere in between.

But according to Starwood's representative on Flyertalk, that's not the case. Instead:

"Floater certificates, including outstanding Marriott Travel Packages, will be cancelled and converted to equivalent points, credited to the member’s account for future redemption."

You might say (or sing, if you're so inclined), "what do you mean by that? That is not an answer."

And you'd be right! We have no idea how many points Marriott thinks are "equivalent" to a 7-night stay certificate. But instead of whining about uncertainty, I want to walk through a simple exercise thinking instead about the distribution of possibilities:

  • Low-value outcome: Category 1-5 certificates are converted to 45,000 points each;
  • Mid-value outcome: Category 1-5 certificates are converted to between 60,000 and 120,000 points each;
  • High-value outcome: Category 1-5 certificates are converted to 150,000 points each.

This exercise illustrates that just being a "pessimist" isn't enough. Even If you think there's an 85% likelihood of the low-value outcome, a 10% chance of a mid-value outcome, and just a 5% chance of the high-value outcome, you should estimate the value of a 7-night certificate to be around 55,000 Marriott Rewards points, which means you're almost (5,000 transferred Ultimate Rewards points away) at another 25,000-mile transfer under the new Marriott Rewards program.

Of course, the more confident of the mid- or high-value outcomes you are, the more such redemptions you should be willing to make before August 1.

But no matter how you assess the distribution of possibilities, if you typically redeem your Starpoints by transferring them to airline partners, you should consider leaning into this one-time opportunity.

Yes, collecting SkyMiles still makes perfectly good sense, you dolt

Just my luck. The very weekend after I wrote that I was cancelling my Delta Platinum Business American Express because I'd given up on American Express's games awarding high spend bonuses on manufactured spend, Thought Leader From Behind Gary Leff posted another one of his moronic screeds against collecting SkyMiles.

Most people don't know what they're doing, and rightly so

The reason "I started this blog for friends and family" became an immediate cliche to describe affiliate bloggers is that it has a hint of truth in it: our friends and family have no clue what travel hacking is about, and don't have any interest in learning.

What it misses is that it is good and right that most people have not the slightest interest in travel hacking, not because it keeps the game alive, but because most people have better things to do.

Among the 95%+ of the population that doesn't — and shouldn't — care about travel hacking, there's nothing wrong with "collecting" SkyMiles because there's nothing wrong with virtually anything you could suggest.

Obviously at the extreme you could suggest a manifestly inappropriate credit card like a American Express Platinum card, or a Citi Prestige, or a non-rewards credit card like Chase Slate, but the difference between a civilian using a 2% cash back credit card, or an airline credit card, or a hotel credit card, is simply a rounding error to a normal travel budget, and if they prefer to fly on Delta, or prefer to stay at Marriotts, there's no harm in using a co-branded credit card because there's no benefit to using any other card.

Among people who know what they're doing, people will still make mistakes

That brings us to travel hackers, who presumably are Gary's target audience with his harangue, and there are only three logical categories a person can fall in:

  • they can overvalue SkyMiles;
  • they can properly value them;
  • or they can undervalue them.

In other words, when a person decides where a dollar in annual fees, or a dollar in credit card spend, or a dollar in shopping portal purchases, is going to be most lucrative, they can earn more SkyMiles than would be platonically "correct," the correct number of SkyMiles, or fewer SkyMiles than they really ought to.

Gary's whole rant is focused on the mere existence of the first group, those who overvalue SkyMiles. And the first group no doubt exists! I've probably fallen into this group for the last year or so, finding it harder and harder to redeem SkyMiles for the flights I want, while stubbornly sticking with my Delta American Express card to meet the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver each year.

The problem for Gary's argument is that the second and third groups also exist, and there is no reason obvious to me that the first group is sufficiently larger than the other two groups to merit special attention.

Someone who puts $50,000 in qualifying spend on a Delta Platinum American Express earns 70,000 SkyMiles. To break even against a 2% cash back card they'd need to get an average of 1.43 cents per SkyMiles (weighted by redemption size). But remember, the floor on the value of SkyMiles is 1 cent each when redeemed against paid Delta fares, so the lefthand tail of the distribution of redemptions isn't at 0.0 cents each; it cuts off abruptly at 1.0 cents.

Meanwhile, it's easy to imagine that someone who is able to flexibly and strategically redeem SkyMiles for long-haul and premium cabin seats may not be earning enough SkyMiles. Just like in the case of the over-valuers, a travel hacker may be stuck in the rut of a single Delta Platinum card while they really should be earning many times more SkyMiles using a full suite of personal and business Platinum and Reserve cards, possibly even doubling up with a partner to gift themselves even more Reserve miles.

The existence of errors isn't informative unless you know the distribution of the errors

The reason I don't give advice is that I don't know your circumstances. I think Membership Rewards points, companion tickets, and annual free hotel nights are worth much less than face value, but whether they're worthwhile for you depends on your specific circumstances, about which I have no insight.

I believe many people make the mistake of collecting these instruments because they overvalue them, based on many interactions with my friends and readers.

But I also believe many people properly value them, and I believe many people undervalue them, and don't collect enough of them.

How is this miracle possible? How can I say in the same breath that some people overvalue companion tickets and other people undervalue them? Because they are worth different amounts to different people, and different people value them differently!

A currency is only overvalued if someone puts more value on that currency (sacrifices more value from alternatives) than it is worth to that person. And to know that, you need to know both what they are sacrificing (what their next best alternative is), which we can mostly approximate using widely-available 2%/2.5%/3% cashback credit cards, and how much the miles they earn are "really" worth, which depends on their particularized travel and booking patterns.


I'm the last person I expected to come to the defense of SkyMiles, and hopefully it's obvious I've more or less given up on the program for my own needs. But let's dispel with this fiction that Gary Leff has any insight into the value SkyMiles have in meeting your specific travel needs. If anybody tries to tell you the right program to meet your travel needs without knowing anything about you, it's a sure bet they're looking out for somebody besides you.

Confirmed? American Express is killing the golden Delta goose

I wrote back in February that I was concerned the unbonused manufactured spend I put on my Delta Platinum Business credit card wasn't counting towards my annual Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, but that since it still appeared properly on my statement I hoped it would at least still earn me a "Miles Boost" of 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles and 10,000 SkyMiles.

It didn't.

Avoid Simon Malls if you're chasing Amex high spend bonuses

I manufacture most of my unbonused spend at a local Simon Malls location, and obviously American Express has flagged Simon Malls as a merchant where people were buying PIN-enabled prepaid Visa debit cards.

While Simon Malls aren't a bonused merchant with any cards I know of, the activation costs are low enough that it's potentially worth manufacturing spend there with cards that offer a decent return on all spend.

For me, that included the Delta Platinum American Express card, not because 1.4 Delta SkyMiles were worth more than 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points, or 2 cents, but because the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver and bonus Medallion Qualification Miles made it close enough that I was willing to play along.

While my grocery store spend is still working to trigger the high spend bonuses on my Hilton Honors Ascend card, and so I presume would also trigger Miles Boost with the Delta card, that's a totally unreasonable tradeoff since the spend on the first is bonused and on the second unbonused.

An unreliable card is worse than a bad card

There are still options for manufacturing unbonused spend that may still work to trigger the high spend requirements on American Express cards, like and, but the problem is that once a company starts targeting obviously manufactured spend, there's no telling where they'll stop.

I was happy to take this chance for the edification of my readers, but you can't build a strategy around praying that a merchant will keep working long enough for you to meet a spend threshold. If you put $25,000 on a Delta Reserve card before the axe falls on your preferred merchant, there's no partial credit; you've wasted the entire $25,000 in spend that could have been put on a more lucrative card.

If reselling is the future, the future is getting closer

I'm not a reseller, except for the occasional stunt or proof of concept, but that's not because I don't think reselling is an important or useful strategy. It's just a strategy for rich folks with garages, and I'm poor and live in an apartment, so have neither the float nor the storage capacity to process the kinds of volume heavy hitters deal in.

Besides its favorable cost structure, the other obvious advantage of reselling in this context is that a reseller's purchases are of actual merchandise from real merchants. That makes unbonused, high-spend opportunities like the Delta American Express cards easy to meet with purchases that have no chance of being flagged as "cash equivalents" or the like.


I find American Express's situation peculiar.

First off, cardholders pay an annual fee, $195 in the case of the Delta Platinum card or $450 for the Delta Reserve. Then merchants pay an additional fee based on the transactions made with the card. Then if the customer doesn't pay their bill off in full each month, they also pay additional interest charges on their balance.

Meanwhile, American Express pays some amount for the SkyMiles they tell Delta to award to customers, plus perhaps an additional bounty when customers trigger their annual high spend thresholds. And, of course, American Express bears the risk of customer defaults on outstanding balances.

It seems to me there are three logical possibilities: either American Express is so bad at negotiating that they are paying more for the SkyMiles awarded on spend than they are earning on that same spend, or they think manufactured spend materially increases the likelihood of default, or both.

Then, of course, there's the illogical possibility: that American Express is making plenty of money off manufactured spend but is cutting off its nose to spite its face anyway.

Non-London American Airlines routes to Europe

A few weekends ago I held one of my notorious subscribers-only meetups in Philadelphia, and a long-time reader mentioned that American Airlines was launching non-stop service from Philadelphia to Budapest. I more or less gave up on American years ago since their miles are so difficult to earn and their award availability is so terrible.

But I was at least willing to entertain the possibility that a oneworld route to Europe that avoided London might be a good use of Avios, since it might mean avoiding Heathrow's high surcharges on premium cabin award redemptions. So, I decided to check it out.

British Airways is not showing American award availability

The British Airways search engine is having one of its periodic fits, making it extraordinarily annoying to find American SAAver award space. One trick that worked for me on some searches (but not others) was to click back and forth between dates in your search results, which after 2-20 clicks sometimes makes American award space magically appear.

Iberia is showing American award availability

Fortunately, Iberia Plus is showing American award availability normally, and you can transfer British Airways Avios to Iberia Avios, and now you can even transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points directly to Iberia Plus without using British Airways Avios as an intermediary.

Nonstop Iberia Plus awards cost the same number of Avios as nonstop British Airways awards (adding connections creates complications, and opportunities), but the cash component of award tickets can differ for reasons I don't yet fully understand.

On the flip side, Iberia requires you to book roundtrip itineraries, which neither American nor British Airways does.

Tax and surcharge roundup

With that out of the way, we can compare the value of American miles and Iberia Avios for roundtrip flights between Philadelphia and Europe that avoid London. All these flights cost 60,000 American miles roundtrip in economy and 115,000 American miles in business, so what I want to get at is what additional cost you pay booking using Iberia Avios, a currency that for most folks is much easier to earn than AAdvantage miles.

I searched for business class award availability between Philadelphia and every city in Europe served nonstop from there, avoiding American's close-in booking fee wherever possible, and plugged them into this spreadsheet. Where you see a mileage cost of 87,500 I was unable to find a single business class award seat in one direction and selected a mixed economy/business award instead. I was unable to make Iberia show Shannon itineraries at all.

I've helpfully color-coded the chart, but you can make a copy and sort it differently if you're so inclined. A few things immediately pop out of these numbers:

  • There are still several sweet spots when redeeming Avios for business class to Europe, even after accounting for carrier surcharges. If you have a healthy balance of Avios or Ultimate Rewards points, you should prefer to redeem those for business class flights to Spain and Portugal, since the amount you'll save in transferred Ultimate Rewards more than makes up for the increased carrier surcharges, even if you just redeem your Ultimate Rewards for the cash to pay the associated fees.
  • Paris is a good deal in business, and an even better deal in economy, costing just 42,000 Avios and $390 roundtrip, although if you're flying in economy you'll usually just want to book a paid fare, which can be as low as $579 on this route.
  • The flip side is that some routes cost so much more in both Avios and cash that you should save your AAdvantage miles to redeem for those flights. Basically everything East of the Rhine is better booked with AAdvantage miles or another zone-based currency instead of distance-based Avios. Of course, a $2,000 roundtrip business class ticket to Europe isn't exactly "expensive," but the point here is to use the right currency for the job, and when booking award tickets to Rome Avios are definitely the wrong currency for the job!


I don't think you should hoard your American AAdvantage miles. Heaven knows I don't hoard them, which is why I only have about 15,000 in the bank. But you shouldn't hoard your Ultimate Rewards points either!

So if you do manage to find low-level American award space that works for you, it's probably worth at least popping over to the British Airways (if it ever starts working) or Iberia (if you're booking a roundtrip) websites to see if your itinerary happens to fall into one of their distance-and-surcharge sweet spots.

Let's talk about the Visa Infinite companion discount

[edit 5/15/18: read the comments for warnings from folks who have tried to game their Ritz-Carlton credit limits.]

In response to yesterday's post about some new and upcoming credit cards, reader Andy commented:

"You are missing two of the bigger benefits of the Ritz Card. First, you get $100 off airfare for 2 or more people via the Visa Infinite Portal, which you can use that an unlimited amount of times. Second, you get priority pass access with unlimited guests [ed: Andy is correct that I omitted this from my original post; it's now been fixed]. Plus, if you don't want to pay the annual fee, drop your credit limit to $1,500 and Chase will refund the entire annual fee. I haven't paid the annual fee in two years on the Ritz card."

The Visa Infinite discount has always seemed like a bit of a canard to me, but at Andy's invitation, I did some research, and am happy to share what I found.

$100 off two cash tickets isn't much of a deal

I always like to start looking at a deal through the lens of how it is supposed to be used, and here you can see the Visa Infinite companion ticket doesn't offer much to a travel hacker. The discount can only be used on roundtrip, economy class tickets within the United States, so it's easy to do the math for yourself how that works out. $100 off two $200 tickets is a 25% discount, but $100 off two $600 tickets is a discount of just 8.3%. And since you have to pay for your tickets with your Visa Infinite card, you don't have the opportunity to apply fixed-value points like Barclays Arrival miles, US Bank Flexperks Real Time Rewards, or Bank of America Travel Rewards points to the cost.

$100 off two $100 tickets is a killer deal

On the other hand, if you frequently buy extremely cheap tickets for two passengers on an airline included in the Visa Infinite booking portal, you can easily make a killing. Using Google Flights I found 2 basic economy tickets on United from Boston to Chicago for $221. With a $100 discount, you'd pay just $121, a 45% discount. Now, I wouldn't recommend anybody fly United, or fly in basic economy, but obviously some people fly United, and some people fly basic economy, and for those folks this might be the deal of a lifetime.

Note that the Visa Infinite portal will apparently only show fares above $100 per ticket; previously folks were booking sub-$100 fares and paying less than $100 total for two tickets.

After June 5, you'll need elite status to really hack Visa Infinite

Until June 5, 2018, Alaska Airlines will continue to allow all reservations more than 60 days in the future to be cancelled and their value returned to the passenger's "My wallet" travel bank. That's historically been an easy way for folks to combine the maximum value of several fixed-value rewards currencies into a single ticket (as long as they were interested in actually booking an Alaska Airlines ticket eventually).

Starting June 5, only Alaska Mileage Plan MVP Gold and MVP Gold 75K members will be able to cancel tickets without penalty.

Likewise, JetBlue Mosaic members have change and cancellation fees waived for themselves and anyone traveling on the same reservation.

Does the Visa Infinite companion discount redeem the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card?

At the end of the day, there are two ways to frame this question:

  • can you get more value from the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card than the $450 annual fee?
  • will you get more value from the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card than the $450 annual fee?

The answer to the first question is an unequivocal "yes." Even without the card's $300 travel credit, $450 represents just 4.5 roundtrip domestic economy trips for two before you've recouped the annual fee entirely.

But the second question is trickier. If you're already buying tickets for two people to fly out of Boston to Chicago in basic economy at 5:11 am, and returning at 6:00 am (the $221 roundtrip referenced above), then you'd be hard pressed to do much better than a 45% discount, all without leaving the comfort of your own home (until you have to get up at 3 am to head to the airport).

Likewise, if you're already earning JetBlue Mosaic status by spending $50,000 on the Barclays JetBlue Plus Card, then through multiple changes and cancellations you might be able to generate an arbitrary amount of JetBlue flight credit at up to 50% off.

Those are obviously not conditions that apply to most, or even many, travel hackers, but if they apply to you, then the Ritz-Carlton card is well worth considering. 


At the end of the day I don't think domestic economy roundtrip fares are cheap enough that I'd save more money paying a $450 annual fee than I would by tactically redeeming miles, fixed-value points, and companion tickets. But that's not a question about program design, that's a question about the reservations you actually make and the trips you actually take.

And of course you can always ask Chase to drop your credit limit to $1,500 and enjoy what our financiers like to call "optionality."

Is there any value in the latest crop of new credit cards?

[edit 5/14/18: added unlimited Priority Pass Select membership to list of Ritz-Carlton card benefits.]

Several banks have let out a steady trickle of new credit cards and announcements in the last few months, so I thought I'd run through a few of them and see if there are any offers worth signing up for or keeping.

Barclays Arrival Premier

I have had an Arrival Plus card for years, and use it for all my non-manufactured, non-bonused spend, as well as manufacturing spend on it. It has an $89 annual fee, for which you can redeem 8,900 miles as a statement credit. Since it earns a 5% rebate on all the miles you redeem, it functions as a 2% cash back card when you spend "about" $85,000 per year, since when you redeem those 170,000 miles you'll earn 8,500 in rebated miles and another 425 rebated miles when you redeem those, for a total of $89.25 in rebated miles. I also use the card's chip-and-PIN functionality to buy public transit tickets overseas, and Barclays recently added a flight delay benefit.

The new Barclays Arrival Premier has a number of differences from the Arrival Plus:

  • $150 annual fee;
  • no rebate on redeemed miles. Instead, earn 15,000 bonus miles when you spend $15,000 per cardmember year, and another 10,000 bonus miles when you spend a total of $25,000 per cardmember year;
  • $100 Global Entry fee credit every 5 years;
  • transfer miles to airline partners (Aeromexico, Air France/KLM Flying Blue, China Eastern, Etihad, EVA Air, Japan Airlines, Jet Privilege, Jet Privilege, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas).

This card is strictly superior to the Arrival Plus for annual spend between $15,000 and $85,000:

  • at $15,000 in spend, you receive 15,000 bonus miles, which are enough to cover the $150 annual fee;
  • between $15,000 and $25,000, the card acts as a straight 2% cash back card;
  • at $25,000 in spend, you receive another 10,000 bonus miles, which means the card has earned a total of $600 on $25,000 in spend, or 2.4% cash back.

Only for spend in excess of $85,000 will the Arrival Plus's mileage rebate make the return on unbonused spend, after accounting for the annual fee, exceed the Arrival Premier.

Verdict: I'm not in any rush to sign up for the Arrival Premier since it doesn't have a signup bonus and it's not yet possible to upgrade from the Arrival Plus. I assume eventually Barclays will target existing Arrival Plus cardholders with an upgrade offer, which I'll likely take. If you don't have an Arrival Plus yet, the Arrival Premier seems like a perfectly reasonable way to get 2.4% cash back on $25,000 in spend each year, plus serving as a go-to card you can use when traveling internationally.

Starwood Preferred Guest American Express Luxury Card

I think this is the most interesting of the new Marriott Rewards cards that will be available in August, 2018, since it offers a higher earning rate on Marriott and Starwood purchases than the new Ritz-Carlton card, a more valuable anniversary free night award than the new Premier Plus card, and the ability to earn Platinum status after spending $75,000 during the calendar year.

If you spent $75,000 on the card per year, you'd end up paying a $450 annual fee for:

  • a free night award worth up to 50,000 points;
  • 150,000 Marriott Rewards points;
  • $300 in statement credits against purchases at Marriott and Starwood properties, which should include room charges;
  • Platinum status;
  • and an unlimited Priority Pass Select membership.

Assuming you are able to redeem your free night award at a Category 6 or off-peak Category 7 property each year, your $75,000 in spend will earn the equivalent of 200,000 Marriott Rewards points, or 2.67 points per dollar. That's not quite as good as the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express card currently earns (3 Marriott Rewards points per dollar), but it does reduce the devaluation from 33% to just 11%.

Verdict: this card is too expensive to bother with for a leisure travel hacker, but a reimbursed business traveler who can choose their own hotel, and can therefore redeem the $300 statement credit for their employer's cash, might consider manufacturing up to $75,000 in order to enjoy Platinum status on a 4-night, off-peak Category 7 vacation starting in 2019.

Ritz-Carlton Rewards Credit Card

This card also has a $450 annual fee, but with almost nothing to show for it:

  • a $100 statement credit on two-night paid stays at the Ritz-Carlton;
  • 3 annual Club Upgrades on paid stays;
  • a $300 travel credit;
  • Platinum status after spending $75,000 per account year;
  • and an unlimited Priority Pass Select membership.

It's important to note that even if you're a reimbursed business traveler, and even if you spend $75,000 per year at Marriott Rewards and Starwood properties each year, you should be using the Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card for that spend since it earns 6, rather than 5, points per dollar spent on those purchases. Using the Ritz-Carlton Rewards card would be leaving 75,000 points on the table.

I know families that love using Club Upgrades to save money feeding their kids when staying at Ritz-Carlton properties, but even if you are able to cash out the $300 travel credit, there's no way I'd be willing to pay $150 to pre-commit to a paid stay at a Ritz-Carlton every single year.

Note that, as is typical for Chase, the Ritz-Carlton card's Platinum status qualification is based on cardmember year spend, not calendar year spend, while typically for American Express, the Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card awards Platinum status based on calendar year spend. That means if you sign up for the Ritz-Carlton card for a signup bonus and decide to hit the $75,000 spend threshold to get Platinum status, you'll want to meet the spend requirement early in a calendar year, which should get you Platinum status for the remainder of that year and all of the following year.

Verdict: skip it — nothing to see here.

Marriott Rewards Premier Plus, Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card, and Starwood Preferred Guest Business Credit Card

In addition to the two ultra-premium cards, Chase is also launching a new Marriott Rewards-branded card with a $95 annual fee and an annual anniversary free night award worth up to 35,000 points, and adding that benefit to the existing Starwood Preferred Guest consumer and business credit cards.

On its own these card aren't very interesting, since Marriott is the worst offender in terms of category creep, seemingly deliberately targeting the few valuable properties where free night certificates can be redeemed and moving them out of the eligible redemption categories, so I would never pay $95 for what's essentially a Category 5 free night certificate (or Category 4 peak season award).

However, one strategy that could make sense for some people is to combine one, two, or three of these cards with the Starwood Preferred Guest Luxury Card mentioned above. If you carried all four cards and spent $75,000 per year on the Luxury card, you could pay $735 in annual fees and $1,500 in opportunity cost (assuming a 2% cash back alternative) for:

  • 150,000 Marriott Rewards points;
  • 3 35,000-point free night awards;
  • 1 50,000-point free night award;
  • and Platinum status.

The point is simply that once you've manufactured Platinum status with the Luxury card, you should value the free night awards earned by the other 3 cards more highly than before. A 35,000-point free night award might not be worth $95 with Silver status, but might be worth $95 with Platinum status. Likewise one 35,000-point free night award might not be worth $95, but 3 might be worth $285 (if you can avoid moving hotels or paying cash to stay in the same hotel), and if so, then they should be even more valuable with Platinum status.

Verdict: whether or not stacking free night awards with Platinum status is worth the time and trouble is going to depend on how properties shake out into Marriott's new hotel categories. If, as I suspect, the most appealing city properties start in or quickly move into Category 6 and above, then the 35,000-point free night awards offered under the new program will be as worthless as the Category 5 awards they hand out today are.

Bonus: don't forget to cancel your Citi AAdvantage cards!

Not a brand new credit card, but a few days ago Citi e-mailed to tell me that:

"As a valued cardmember, soon you’ll automatically earn 2X miles at restaurants and at gas stations with the Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite Mastercard.

"You’ll also be able to earn a $100 American Airlines flight discount after you spend $20,000 or more in purchases during your card membership year and renew your card. Your purchases on or after ‌July 22‌, ‌2018‌, qualify toward meeting the minimum spend requirement to receive this benefit."

I didn't have to scroll very far down to also see, "The annual membership fee for this card will be increasing to $99."

The card wasn't worth keeping at $95, so don't let them squeeze another $4 out of you!

Which blackout date policy will the new Marriott Rewards program adopt?

Lots of digital ink has already been spilled over what has been announced regarding the upcoming August 1, 2018, merger of the Marriott Rewards and Starwood Preferred Guest programs. One question we won't know the answer to until the changes go into effect is what the blackout-date policy of the new program will be, and even more importantly, how it will be implemented.

Marriott has a much more restrictive "no-blackout-date" policy than Starwood

As I explained back in 2014, Marriott allows properties to designate "Inventory Control Dates," on which they're allowed to limit the number of standard rooms available for redemptions. The tortured reasoning seems to be that it's not the date that's blacked out, but rather the rooms that are blacked out.

Starwood, on the other hand, states that "As a Starwood Preferred Guest member, you’ll never encounter a blackout date for Free Night Awards at SPG Participating Hotels. Unlike our competitors, we don’t limit the number of standard rooms available for redemption. So, if we have a standard room available at an SPG Participating Hotel, and you have the Starpoints – it's yours."

The merger page simply reads, "No blackout dates to get in your way," without any additional details.

Inventory control dates will infuriate Starwood loyalists

There are many times more Marriott properties than Starwood properties, and Marriott property managers are used to their inventory control dates, so I do not see how it would be possible for the combined program to adopt Starwood's much more generous policy without spending vastly more money reimbursing properties for award nights.

But it almost seems less plausible that starting August 1 Starwood members won't be able to redeem their points without restriction at properties where they can today!

There are ways Marriott could attempt to thread this needle. Since different brands already have different service standards (shampoo, bathrobes, room service), they could simply say that existing Starwood brands will have as one of their service standards a true no-blackout-date policy, while existing Marriott brands will continue to use inventory control dates.

Alternately, they could use Starwood's policy globally, but turn a blind eye to properties abusing the definition of a "standard room" (it may be apocryphal, but my favorite version of this is the property that supposedly put a fax machine in the corner of their standard rooms and called them "executive").


Both Marriott members are rightfully glad they can now book Starwood properties, and Starwood members are looking forward to the big 43% cut to the cost of top-tier properties coming in August. But while Starwood members know to be concerned about the influx of members to their preferred properties, a process that will only accelerate when the programs finally merge and making reservations across brands becomes seamless, the introduction of inventory control dates would mean that bigger pool of members and points will be chasing fewer total available rooms for redemption.

We'll find out soon enough if and how Marriott deals with the problem!

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.


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.