Gary Leff is right that a ban on usury will make his scam harder to run. But should you care?

There was an interesting scrum this week as New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders introduced bills to place a cap on the interest rates charged by revolving credit facilities like credit cards and short-term “payday” loans.

Long-time reader and blog subscriber JC asked me to respond to Gary Leff’s take on the possible implications of such a law for travel hackers, and I’m happy to take the chance to revise and expand my response to him here.

Three channels a federal interest rate cap would operate through

If the federal government banned consumer interest rates above 15%, you’d see a few direct and indirect effects immediately:

  • Interest rates would be capped at 15%. Economists and pundits are eager to rush to second- and third-order effects, but I prefer to linger on first-order effects: a law banning interest rates above 15% will eliminate interest rates above 15%. The law might be well-drafted to create sufficient enforcement and penalties, or it might be poorly-drafted and allow loopholes and exceptions, and of course it might be shredded entirely once our amateur judiciary gets done with it, but there’s no obvious reason to believe a law capping interest rates at 15% wouldn’t succeed in capping interest rates at 15%.

  • Access to credit would be limited. It’s worth looking at this process in detail. The simplistic version would be that everyone who currently has an interest rate below 15% would be left alone, since the lender’s credit algorithm has determined that a sub-15% interest rate is appropriate for their risk profile, while everyone with an interest rate above 15% would be cut off completely. But this isn’t right: credit scores and credit profiles just aren’t accurate enough to make sure every single borrower has “exactly the right interest rate.” Instead, lenders know that some 14.5% borrowers are “really” 15.5% borrowers, and some 15.5% borrowers are “really” 14.5% borrowers. When you can’t overcharge good credit risks, but have to continue undercharging bad credit risks, your overall willingness to extend credit will fall. In some cases that will mean cutting borrowers off entirely, and in other cases simply reducing their credit lines to amounts the lender can live with under conditions of uncertainty.

  • The rewards ecosystem would be completely changed. Today, high interest rates and easy access to credit (which go hand-in-hand) have created an enormous pool of profits that banks and loyalty programs fight over good-naturedly. Sometimes a bank will bail an airline out of bankruptcy by buying a billion miles up front, and sometimes an airline will twist a bank’s arm to squeeze out a slightly higher revenue-sharing rate, but at the end of the day, there’s plenty of profits to go around. A smaller (reduced access to credit), less profitable (lower interest rates) industry would by definition have less money to fight over. That would likely mean consolidated credit card portfolios (one or two Marriott Bonvoy cards instead of 9), reduced signup bonuses, closer scrutiny of manufactured spend, and of course lower referral and affiliate payouts.

A transformed credit card industry would definitely hurt Gary Leff. What about you?

A consumer lending industry that had been “right-sized” (no doubt through several years of painful adjustments) around a 15% interest rate cap would almost certainly make it hard for Gary to make as much money as he does today selling credit cards to gullible newbies, for the mechanical reason that he’s paid for credit card approvals. Even if affiliate payouts remained the same on a per-approval basis, a 25% drop in credit card approvals due to tougher underwriting would represent a 25% drop in revenue. If affiliate payouts also dropped due to the industry’s lower profitability, he’d be slammed twice, with lower approval rates and lower payouts per approval.

But how would a transformed credit card industry affect you? It’s a very different question. Personally, in the last 5 years I’ve migrated almost entirely into fixed-value currencies like US Bank Flexpoints and Chase Ultimate Rewards to book my flights because of the difficulty finding award space. High revenue passenger loads account for part of that problem, but I assume flooding the world with cheap miles accounts for part of it as well. A world with a permanently lower rate of miles being awarded each year seems naturally like a world with more award availability and less pressure on airlines to inflate away the value of their miles.

Won’t somebody think of the poor?

It’s naturally a tad revolting to respond to a libertarian maniac like Gary’s “concern for the poor” because it’s being made in such obviously bad faith, but I don’t want anyone to walk away from his post concluding there are “good arguments on both sides.”

The poor need money, not credit. High interest rates reduce the amount of money the poor have. Easy access to high-interest debt reduces the amount of money the poor have. Emergency medical bills reduce the amount of money the poor have. No-cause eviction reduces the amount of money the poor have. Universal health insurance, affordable housing, free public transit, paid family and medical leave, universal pre-kindergarten, tuition-free higher education, and generous universal public pensions are how you help the poor, if you’re so inclined (I am not aware of any evidence Gary is so inclined).

If you want to help the poor, you need to increase the amount of money they have, not the amount of debt they have.

But Gary Leff is obviously paid to see it otherwise.

Quick hit: Ultimate Rewards points transfers are available instantly when you add an authorized user

This isn’t exactly news, but since I encountered it for the first time the other day, I wanted to pass it along to anyone else who might find themselves in the same situation I was in.

Expiring points are a constant nuisance if you have a lot of loyalty accounts

In general there’s no rhyme or reason to points expiration policies, with some being based on periods of inactivity, some being based on calendar years, some on program years, and some points coded to expire a fixed number of months or years after being earned. There are services that promise to track your expiring points, AwardWallet being the most prominent because they offer an affiliate program, but at the end of the day you’re responsible for your own points.

My biggest expiring-point mishap was with my HawaiianMiles account, where I had earned a sizable balance during a short-lived period when a mainland grocery store was both selling high-denomination prepaid Visa debit cards and participating in HawaiianMiles in-store mileage earning. After the grocery store withdrew from the program and stopped selling high-denomination cards, I lost interest and eventually forfeited almost 25,000 HawaiianMiles simply through years of inattention.

Ultimate Rewards transfers reset inactivity periods

If you see an expiration coming a long way off, there are plenty of ways to trigger activity. Buying a $1 Wall Street Journal subscription through a shopping portal would be enough to save your points, as long as you did it far enough in advance.

If you put it off, or don’t notice an upcoming expiration until it’s close at hand, you’ve got a different problem. Points purchases and transfers will usually reset expiration dates, but they’re preposterously expensive. For example, buying United Mileage Plus miles costs a minimum of $70, plus tax, for 2,000 miles, and transferring miles is almost as expensive.

Fortunately, transfers from Ultimate Rewards to their travel partners are free and instantaneous, starting at 1,000 points, and those transfers also reset expiration due to inactivity.

Ultimate Rewards transfers are available immediately after adding an authorized user

There’s a catch, however: you can only transfer Ultimate Rewards points to the travel partner loyalty account of an authorized user on your own flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning account, whether that’s a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Preferred, Ink Plus, or Ink Bold.

With my partner’s Mileage Plus balance expiring in just a few days, that got me worried. Would she be added as an eligible recipient in time for the transfer to go through before her balance expired?

Fortunately, after just a few clicks adding her as an authorized user on my Ink Plus account, she immediately appeared in the list of eligible transfer recipients, and I was able to instantly transfer 1,000 Ultimate Rewards points into her Mileage Plus account, pushing the expiration of her miles back another few years.

Conclusion

As I said up top, this won’t be news to heads of household that diligently manage their entire family’s travel finances. But if your family members maintain separate loyalty accounts and don’t carefully follow each other’s expiration dates, it’s good to know that Ultimate Rewards can serve as a quick and easy solution for some soon-to-expire miles and points.

Four possible deals spotted in the first three weeks of Daily Getaways

As predictably as the tides, summer approaches and the US Travel Association launches their “Daily Getaways” in an attempt to promote travel within the United States. And just like clockwork, the offers mostly generate a yawn from the travel hacking community. As usual, this year USTA is mostly just selling points and discounted theme park tickets. However, I did glance through the Las Vegas vacation packages and spotted a few offers that struck me as potentially good deals.

May 7: 4 nights at the Luxor for $500

The Luxor has a reputation as one of the more run-down properties on the Strip, and I’m sure that’s true, so ignore the value of the room itself: this package comes with a $400 food and beverage credit, and the credit can be used however you wish, while other Daily Getaway packages offer, for example, a $150 credit for a single meal. That reduces the chance of breakage (not using the full value of the credit) and overages (ordering a meal that exceeds the value of the credit), which means it should be worth very close to face value, assuming you value food at the Luxor at face value. Note that according to the terms and conditions the credit can’t be used at Diablo's Cantina or Public House, I assume because they’re owned by a third party, but can be used at Luxor’s TENDER Steakhouse, where entrees start at around $42, so a party of two should be able to get at least two or three meals from a $400 credit.

The Daily Getaway also includes two tickets to Blue Man Group. I know there are lots of options for discounted show tickets in Las Vegas, so it’s fair to value those tickets at perhaps $25 total.

If you get $400 in value from the dining credit, and $25 in value from the show tickets, you’ll be paying $75 total for four nights accommodation. That’s less than the resort fee you’ll pay at most Las Vegas hotels, even on a complimentary stay.

The other thing I liked about this offer is that it specifies the blackout dates in the terms and conditions, instead of simply saying “blackout dates apply” and leaving it up to the discretion of the hotel. The deal can be redeemed through January 31, 2020.

May 23: 4 nights at the Excalibur for $500

A similar deal to the Luxor, but with more restrictions: the $400 dining credit can only be used at the Camelot Steakhouse, which increases the chances of breakage and overages, but $25 per night is still lower than most Las Vegas resort fees, which means this has the opportunity to be a good deal — especially if you like steak!

May 14th: 2 nights at Harrah’s for $299

While not as good a deal as the Luxor or Excalibur, the Harrah’s offer again looks more competitive when you take the food benefit into account: it includes two “Buffet of Buffets” passes (as usual, upgrading to the Caesar’s Bachannal Buffet comes with an additional charge). If you want to try the Buffet of Buffets anyway (I did it once — it’s alright), then this deal will save you $120 plus tax, meaning you’ll pay $180 for two nights and roundtrip airport transportation.

I don’t like that the terms and conditions don’t mention the resort fee, which is $35 per night. Whenever a resort fee isn’t explicitly included, I assume it will be added, although it would be a pleasant surprise if not.

Like the Luxor deal, this offer explicitly names the blackout dates, “New Year’s weekend or Super Bowl weekend.” And finally, this deal has a much longer expiration date than some of the others, since you can book through July 1, 2020.

May 23: 3 nights at Circus Circus for $200

The Circus Circus offer is in some ways the most limited of the Daily Getaways, but also the one I’m most carefully considering buying for myself. It’s by far the cheapest, and explicitly includes the resort fee, so there’s no chance of surprise fees on checkout. The $75 Steak House credit is only good for a single visit, but is also low enough that there’s no chance of breakage. Likewise, it should be easy to get one breakfast buffet and one dinner buffet in over a 3-night stay.

The last time I stayed at Circus Circus they had a pitiful outdoor swimming pool, but it appears they’ve completely redesigned it. Since swimming is one of the funnest things you can do in Las Vegas, I’m considering this package if only to check out the reinvented waterpark.

Attractive duds

  • May 7: 2 nights at New York New York for $549+. The resort fee is explicitly added to this deal, meaning the $475 price has to be adjusted upwards by $74, plus tax. December 28 expiration date and 3 long blackout periods mean there’s virtually no chance you’ll save money buying this deal, even taking the $400 dinner for two at Gallagher’s Steakhouse into account.

  • May 14: 2 nights at Bally’s for $500. A $150 dining credit, airport transportation, and two show tickets still make this a $350 two-night stay. You can do better.

  • May 14: 2 nights at Paris for $500. Ostensibly a better deal than Bally’s, but splitting up the $150 dining credit and $150 spa credit increases the chance of breakage and overages. $200 for two nights at Paris just doesn’t add up.

Conclusion: at peak periods, these are all good deals

The fundamental problem with trying to save money in Las Vegas is that 300 or so days a year, Vegas just isn’t that expensive. Between status matches, chain hotel partnerships, and other promos and gimmicks, my airline ticket is usually my biggest travel cost when visiting.

On the other hand, during peak periods, when the biggest national conferences and events come to Vegas, the deals dry up and the hotels and resorts actually try to make a profit from room rates instead of just relying on the slot machines. If you know you’ll visit Vegas during one of those peak periods, and are confident you’re not going to be locked out by limited availability and blackout dates, then jumping on a room rate of $25 or even $100 per night may end up saving you a lot of money.

A legal riddle: what's the difference between avoiding and evading a reporting requirement?

For years, I’ve held what I think is the mainstream view in the travel hacking community:

But I recently ran into a situation that has me somewhat baffled.

I want to comply with reporting requirements but Walmart won’t let me

As many readers know, Walmart recently started requiring cashiers to input data from a government ID for money order purchases over $1,000. This slowed down the process of liquidating high-denomination Visa debit cards, but since my stores only allow one transaction with up to 4 debit card swipes, it wasn’t the end of the world, just adding 2-3 minutes per day to my liquidation routine.

The other day, I ran into a different problem: after inputting all the information from my ID, the computer simply dumped the cashier back into her main screen, without allowing the purchase to proceed. No explanation was given, so I have no idea if this was a one-time glitch or if my information has been flagged for some reason.

However, purchases below $1,000 don’t require ID, so I’m still able to liquidate, for example, three $300 Visa debit cards or two $499 Visa debit cards.

Now you can start to see the problem: if a store has a reporting requirement, but does not allow you to fulfill the reporting requirement, does it constitute structuring to instead make transactions that don’t trigger the reporting requirement? In other words, if I’m avoiding triggering, rather than evading complying with, the reporting requirement?

You can imagine more clear-cut cases. Since even nearby Walmart stores can have vastly different store policies, you might have access to one store that allows 4 debit swipes per day, one that allows 2, and one that only allows 1 swipe. If you want to liquidate a stack of $500 debit cards, you could visit each store once per day, triggering the reporting requirement at two of the stores ($2,000 and $1,000 transactions) and not triggering it once (the $500 transaction). There would clearly be no problem in this situation since you’re in full compliance with each store’s policy on transaction limits and company policy on reporting requirements. I actually used to do something like this fairly regularly.

You can also imagine clear-cut cases of violations. If a store has a policy of only allowing one swipe per day, you might visit the same store once on your way to work to liquidate one $500 card, and the same store on your way home to liquidate another. In this case you’d obviously be exhibiting a pattern of behavior deliberately intended to evade both the store’s one-swipe policy and the company’s reporting requirements. Don’t do that.

But my case seems to fall right in between those two bright lines. If I’m in full compliance with store policy (using only 2 or 3 of my four allowed swipes), and company policy (reporting requirements are only triggered for transactions above $1,000), then is it legitimate or illegitimate to keep my transactions below the reporting requirement, with which I am more than happy to comply? In other words, I’m not trying to evade the reporting requirement, I’m trying to avoid triggering what is, for all I know, simply a bug in their reporting software.

Conclusion

Vinh at Miles per Day mused the other day that 2019 will see more people questioning their ethical lines and delving deeper into gray zones, and I suppose this is a version of that. Structuring is a bright line that I have no interest or willingness to cross, and that hasn’t changed. Rather, I’ve run into a new situation and I simply don’t know which side of that bright line it falls on.

All travel hackers are amateur lawyers, so I trust you’ll sound off in the comments.

Success removing a disputed item from my Experian credit report

Last month I explained the process I followed to dispute a derogatory remark on my Experian credit report. Experian told me it would take a month to resolve, and sure enough, when I logged on exactly a month later, I saw two alerts, that my dispute had been “updated” and that it had been “resolved.”

Commenters had me convinced I didn’t stand a chance

I encourage readers to go back and read the comments to my earlier post, because there’s some valuable information there about best practices in pursuing a dispute. The basic idea seems to be that as easy as it is to dispute items online, it’s just as easy for creditors to certify their original submissions are accurate, leaving you right back where you started, while if you want to make a creditor actually document their claim, you need to resort to an exchange of hand-written, certified letters. One commenter even suggested using non-white paper to get a better result!

But my dispute was resolved frictionlessly

Fortunately, in my case it didn’t come to that. My assumption is that the small credit union in question either didn’t know how or didn’t care enough to respond at all, so I won the dispute by default, the two sweetest words in the English language.

The status of the dispute now simply says, “This item was removed from your credit report.” Experian also allows me to view how the derogatory item was reported before being removed, which is a nice touch.

Conclusion

Disputing derogatory items online with Experian is so easy that I think it’s probably worth doing even for disputes you think will probably be rejected, but it’s obviously worth doing for well-founded claims and those against smaller creditors that may not have the willingness or sophistication to follow through with the process.

But be aware of the two-track online and snail-mail processes, since if the first doesn’t work, you may need to resort to the other.

The current Choice Privileges promotion is so stupid I expect it to become the norm

I was rummaging around on my Hotel Promotions page (check it out if you have any upcoming stays; current promotions are running as late as June 4, 2019) and noticed some funny language in the terms and conditions of the current Choice Privileges promotion. Once I understood what was going on, I groaned at both the idiocy and genius of the promotion design.

The first “top-up” promotion I’ve seen

How the Choice Privileges promotion works is that you are guaranteed to receive a total of at least 8,000 points when you complete two qualifying stays (a qualifying stay being one booked through the website, app, or over the phone). Your stays should still be eligible for the promotion if you book through an online shopping portal, where Choice has quite broad participation. You’re also guaranteed to receive a minimum of 5,000 bonus points. Here’s what the terms and conditions say:

“Registered members will be awarded a minimum of 5,000 to a maximum of 8,000 bonus points after the second qualifying stay. The number of bonus points awarded depends on the number of base points earned from the two separate qualifying stays, with points varying by hotel. The total of base points plus bonus points awarded, however, will be at least 8,000 points.”

To see how this works, take a real-life example: my two-night stay at the Quality Inn Harpers Ferry in October of last year. I paid $236.55 in room charges on that stay, which as a non-elite member earned me 2,360 Choice Privileges points (I guess they’re so stingy they round down).

If I’d had a second, identical stay, I’d earn another 2,360 points, for a total of 4,720 points, leaving me 3,280 points shy of the 8,000 minimum total points. In that case, I’d earn the promotion minimum of 5,000 bonus points, for a total of 9,720 points. If I’d booked a room rate half as expensive, earning just 2,360 points on my two stays, I’d earn 5,640 bonus points, for a total of 8,000 base points plus bonus points.

As this example makes clear, the value of the promotion (as opposed to the value of the program itself) is higher the lower your room rate: 640 bonus points higher.

A promotion design this dumb has to be a sign

Once I realized what was going on, I knew immediately this won’t be an isolated promotion. After all, despite the assurances of airline executives that they’ll never lose money ever again, nothing has fundamentally changed about the airline industry: it requires enormous, up-front, long-term capital investments and finances those investments by selling individual tickets to customers that are extremely sensitive to prices and the overall condition of the economy.

In other words, when the next recession comes, airlines will lose money hand over fist, just like they have in every previous recession, and will do anything possible to get more customers on their planes. The “rationalization” of frequent flyer programs into revenue-based earning will go out the window, and airlines will start shoveling miles towards anyone willing to buy a ticket.

The “top-up” promotion model is optimized to precisely target the marginal traveler: the airline can still award you 5 miles per dollar you spend on airfare, but, for example, guarantee you’ll receive at least one redeemable mile per mile traveled. Last-minute and business travelers can be handed a nominal minimum (like the 5,000-point minimum Choice is offering), while those buying cheap tickets and without elite status can have their balance “topped up” to the promotion maximum.

What the New York Times got wrong about long-haul Amtrak travel

Last week’s New York Times Magazine featured a long article about long-haul Amtrak travel that somehow managed to get almost everything wrong about the advantages and disadvantages of train travel. As a life-long enthusiast of train travel, I thought it might be helpful to correct some of the more common and absurd myths perpetuated in the article.

Myth #1: Amtrak travel is expensive

Behold the feigned horror the Times Magazine author imputes to her hypothetical friends:

“Depending how you slice it — time or money — there are either 61 or 960 immediate reasons not to travel by Amtrak trains from New York City to Los Angeles. Those are the extra hours and dollars, respectively, that you might reasonably expect to forfeit if you forgo a six-hour $129 nonstop flight and opt instead for an Amtrak sleeper car. Covering the interjacent 2,448.8 miles can easily consume some 67 hours for a mind-boggling $1,089.”

Unfortunately for the Times Magazine, these numbers are easily checked. For non-stop flights between New York City and Los Angeles 6 months from now, I actually found slightly cheaper economy flights than the ones that Weaver reports, starting at just $127:

But the identical Amtrak route she took between New York City’s Penn Station and Los Angeles’s Union Station doesn’t cost $1,089. It costs just $232:

Why the difference? Because Weaver is comparing Amtrak’s sleeper car accommodation to American Airlines’s economy cabin (I actually found sleeper car accommodation on the same date in October not at $1,089 but at $914 — Weaver should start booking further in advance!):


The deliberate confusion of economy-class airline fares with sleeper car Amtrak fares is journalistic malpractice, but that doesn’t stop us from untangling it a little bit more.

First, let’s take note that an economy-class airfare between New York City and Los Angeles International Airport requires you to travel to one of New York City’s regional airports from your residence, and from LAX to your final destination in Southern California. I don’t live in New York City or in Los Angeles, so I’m not going to pretend to venture a guess at that final cost, besides spitballing that it’s in the high 2 figures, depending on your origin and final destination. Remember you’re only working with $105 in “profit“ to begin with by flying instead of taking Amtrak.

Second, what do you get for your fare in each case? In the case of the airfare, you get the convenience of same-day arrival. In the case of Amtrak travel, you also get 3 nights of accommodation on board the train. If we insist on only comparing airfares and Amtrak fares, that leaves you paying $35 per night for a place to sleep (assuming in each case that your flight and your train arrive on time — no sure thing). Amtrak also includes free checked bags and much more in-cabin storage space than the typical US airline, a potential additional source of savings.

Of course, I don’t recommend traveling on long-haul Amtrak routes in coach. The sleeper cars are far preferable! That brings us to the third piece of the cost puzzle: sleeper car accommodations include the same 3 nights of sleep, but on what an airline blogger would insist on calling “lay-flat seats,” plus 9 cooked-to-order meals in the Amtrak dining car (dinner on day of departure, 6 meals en route, breakfast and lunch on day of arrival).

For a single traveler between New York City and Los Angeles, we can finally make a clear comparison: $127 is the underlying cost of transportation, with the option to pay $262 per night for three hot meals per day and private sleeping quarters.

Is that a good deal or a bad deal? Well, that depends on how much you planned to pay for room and board in New York City and Los Angeles, which I’m in no place to judge. But the math changes a final time when you book a sleeper car with multiple people, as intended.

That’s because when you travel on Amtrak, you pay a fixed price for each sleeper car room, up to the maximum number of passengers that room type accommodates. The cheapest roomettes on this route accommodate two passengers, which means two people can buy 3 nights of room and board for a total of $892, or $446 each, $149 per day (remember we’ve assigned an underlying value to the transportation itself of $127 per person):

Suddenly it become clear that when used as intended, Amtrak long-haul travel isn’t outrageously expensive. Booked far enough in advance, it starts to look like a steal.

Myth #2: Amtrak travel is inconvenient

Weaver gave herself a bit of an unfair advantage by selecting a particularly illogical route to go by train: between two cities served by multiple airports and multiple airlines, but only an awkward train connection. Personally, I would not book an Amtrak trip with just a 5-hour connection window, as hers does in Chicago. In the waning days of the old Amtrak Guest Rewards program I booked an itinerary from Chicago to Los Angeles on the Southwest Chief, connecting to the Coast Starlight. Over the next 3 days the train was predictably delayed, we missed our Coast Starlight connection, and had to be rerouted by bus and regional rail upstate to where the Coast Starlight ultimately caught up to us.

But there are lots of routes where Amtrak is not only convenient, but indispensable. Someone living in Seattle or Portland who wants to take a New Year’s ski vacation at Whitefish Mountain Resort, near Whitefish, MT, can sit down on New Year’s Day on the Empire Builder at 4:40 pm and arrive in Whitefish the next morning at 7:21 am for $77; they could be on the slopes by 9 am. The next best alternative I found is a $139 Alaska flight, not to Whitefish but to Kalispell, arriving at midnight (requiring another night of lodging), and a 15 mile car or shuttle to Whitefish. Which do you think is more convenient?

Now head the other direction: 6 months out, you can book a 7 hour, 47 minute flight from Chicago to Wolf Point, MT, for $381 per person, with (pretty tight) connections in both Denver and Billings. Or you can sit down on the Empire Builder at 2:15 pm and arrive in Wolf Point around noon the next day for $110. Which do you think is more convenient?

Let’s do one more fun one. If you want to get from Mattoon, IL, to McComb, MS, you can drive 2 hours to Indianapolis International Airport, pay $94 to fly to New Orleans, connecting in Atlanta, then drive another 2 hours or so to McComb. Or you can sit down on the City of New Orleans in Mattoon and step off in downtown McComb 13-and-a-half hours later for $111. Which do you think is more convenient?

You can see from these examples the obvious convenience of Amtrak, and train travel in general: it makes the intermediate stops that other forms of long-haul transportation don’t. To put it another way, Amtrak is only inconvenient if you aren’t using it as intended. For folks without impaired mobility, It’s incredibly inconvenient to ride a municipal bus two blocks. You have to find the right stop, figure out whether a bus is a local or express, wait for it to come, then it might drop you off on the wrong end of your destination block. How inconvenient! But that’s because you’re using it wrong, not because municipal buses are an outdated or unnecessary form of transportation.

Myth #3: There is No Reason to Cross the U.S. by Train

Near the beginning of her article, Weaver notes in passing:

“The most unifying characteristic of my fellow passengers was not age (although, as a rule, the sleeping cars skewed retired), race (very mixed), income (while sleepers are astronomically priced, coach seats can be downright economical for shorter segments) or even fear of flying (no one I spoke to had it).”

This is best understood as a passive-aggressive swipe at a 2013 Times article about Amtrak travel, which explains perfectly clearly why people take Amtrak: if you have a fear of flying, you have a fear of flying no matter how much longer train travel takes. If you’re unable to fly for medical reasons, you’re unable to fly no matter how much cheaper it would be. If you’re undocumented, you’re unable to fly (and often unable to drive) no matter how much more convenient it would be. Train travel doesn’t serve those populations as a “backup” option; it serves those populations as the only option.

Conclusion: if you don’t like train travel, don’t travel by train. But don’t tell me there’s something wrong with trains

I’m perfectly aware of confirmation bias, and the fact that I love train travel obviously makes me seek out the most convincing arguments in favor of train travel. If you think train travel is a poor substitute for flying or driving, then you won’t find these arguments convincing.

Writing this post, I was reminded of my notorious screed about Galveston, TX, where I wrote extensively about how hard it is to get there, and reader stvr commented, “Do you not have a driver's license?” To stvr, renting a car for a weekend is a totally normal and good way to get around, whereas to me it’s an almost unfathomably annoying prospect.

Whether it’s flying, car rental, or train travel, issues where people have strong feelings are opportunities for disagreement, but also a chance to exercise some epistemic humility. I hate renting cars, but I’m not crusading for the destruction of the car rental industry; I know that many people believe it serves a useful function, and I’m not willing to say with certainty that those people are wrong. Likewise, even if you hate traveling by train, before destroying America’s passenger rail network once and for all, do me a favor and take the opportunity to step back and ask how certain you really are that all of us who love it are wrong.

Disputing derogatory remarks with Experian, a developing story

If you entered the travel hacking game through the big credit card affiliate bloggers, you probably know that folks who rely on credit card signup bonuses to build their points balances closely monitor and protect their credit reports, sometimes going to outlandish lengths like paying off credit card balances before their statements close, hoping that low reported balances will make them ever more creditworthy, eligible for more exclusive cards and higher credit limits.

Since I earn the overwhelming majority of my miles and points through manufactured spend, I find these antics to be mostly amusing (and mostly harmless). Indeed, since I aggressively take advantage of offers like the Chase Slate introductory $0 balance transfer fee and 0% APR on balance transfers, my credit utilization rate is often at or above 90% on one or more of my open credit cards.

That doesn’t mean I don’t really screw up sometimes: I recently discovered Barclaycard doesn’t allow you to make same-day payments after 8 pm Eastern time, which left me paying my balance off a day “late,” with Barclay’s cheerfully chalking a late payment up on my credit report.

However, I recently found a much more serious derogatory remark on one of my credit reports, which I decided to dispute.

Reminder: which credit cards monitor which credit reports?

There are three major credit bureaux, and each calculates a separate FICO score based solely on the information reported to that bureau. While a number of banks and credit cards now offer free access to your FICO score, each typically partners with only a single bureau. That means to get free access to all your FICO scores, you need to know which credit cards track which bureaux:

  • Experian: Chase Slate (FICO)

  • TransUnion: Chase Slate (VantageScore), American Express (VantageScore), Discover (FICO), Bank of America (FICO), Barclaycard (FICO)

  • Equifax: Citi (FICO)

As a victim of the Chinese cyberattack on the Office of Management and Budget, I also have free access to MyIDCare, which monitors all three credit bureaux and alerts me to any changes on my reports (and a bunch of sillier stuff like when sex offenders move into my neighborhood).

The credit union, the negative balance, and the charge-off

Back in November or December of 2018, I started getting automated calls from a credit union I had experimented with for a manufactured spend liquidation strategy, telling me my account had a negative balance and asking that I call back immediately.

When I did, the young man on the other end told me a complicated story about my account being mistakenly credited multiple times for the same transaction, all the way back in the summer of 2018. Since I had withdrawn the money already, when the credit union discovered the “error” and debited my account, it created a negative balance they were now trying to collect.

This all seemed quite plausible. The only problem was, the young man was unwilling to provide any documentation of this curious series of events. The amount of money involved wasn’t enormous, but I have a general principle to not give people money unless they can have some sort of evidence that they’re actually owed it, the subject of a delightful book about the financial crisis by the journalist David Dayen, “Chain of Title.”

Disputing Experian derogatory remarks is fast and easy

That brings me to this February, when MyIDCare reported that a new derogatory remark had appeared on my Experian credit report: the credit union had charged off my negative balance. Interestingly, so far the charge-off has been reported only to Experian, and my other scores haven’t been affected (keep in mind they were nothing special to begin with).

Since the credit union had never been able to provide any documentation, I decided this would be an interesting opportunity to learn how to dispute credit information. And it turned out to be a breeze!

A simple Google search took me to Experian’s main dispute page. At this point, you have the option of creating a “free” account or a “limited” account. This is a little bit confusing because neither account costs any money. The difference is the “free” account is used to upsell you additional Experian services, while a “limited” account is used only to dispute items on your Experian record. I created a limited account.

This took me directly to the Experian Online Dispute Center, and my new charge-off was sitting right at the top of the page. After selecting it, I was given five dispute options:

  • "Payment never late”

  • “Not mine or No knowledge of account”

  • “Account paid in full”

  • “Account closed”

  • “Unauthorized charges”

I thought “Unauthorized charges” most closely resembled my complaint (since I’d never authorized the debit), so I selected that. On the next page, a comment box let me explain what happened in a few words, and then I submitted the dispute. The whole process took perhaps 10 minutes.

Conclusion

I’ve heard horror stories about how difficult it is to remove false information from a credit report, and indeed I’m not particularly optimistic that I’ll succeed in having the charge-off removed. On the other hand, I’m fairly impressed with how streamlined Experian’s dispute process is, so if you’ve been dreading figuring out how to dispute derogatory or incorrect information on your credit report, take heed: it’s easier than you think.

Experian estimated the dispute would take about a month to resolve, and I’ll keep readers updated as the situation develops.

Hyatt is burying Small Luxury Hotels, so keep an eye out for good values

Over at Running with Miles, Charlie Barkowski has been doing yeoman’s work tracking the “Small Luxury Hotels” eligible for Hyatt Category 1-4 free night certificates, meaning properties that cost up to 15,000 points per night. Check that out if you’re struggling to figure out where to redeem your Hyatt free night certificates.

Today, I want to make a few unrelated points about Small Luxury Hotels.

Non-Globalist World of Hyatt members should slightly prefer Small Luxury Hotels

All else being equal, World of Hyatt members, and Explorist and Discoverist elites, should prefer Small Luxury Hotels stays over otherwise-identical Hyatt properties. That’s because World of Hyatt reservations at Small Luxury Hotels come with continental breakfast for two, and at least the possibility of a 2 pm late checkout.

That shouldn’t be decisive for Globalist elites who receive breakfast and late checkout anyway, or if the Small Luxury Hotel property is more expensive, a worse value, or is much more inconvenient. But as a tiebreaker for the casual Hyatt traveler, it’s worth keeping in mind.

Hyatt buries Small Luxury Hotels at the end of search results, but it’s worth digging

If you search for Hyatt stays in New York City, you’ll see an ocean of properties stretching from the Grand Hyatt on East 42nd Street to the Hyatt Place in Princeton, New Jersey, before you’ll see the HGU NEW YORK, at 34 East 32nd Street.

That’s because all Small Luxury Hotels results are buried at the very end of the search results, long after most people stop looking. Slightly better is the map view, which shows all the properties in a given city, but which makes it more difficult to compare their relative value.

In destinations without Hyatt properties, Small Luxury Hotels are a potential game-changer

Since Manhattan offers a range of Hyatt properties, Small Luxury Hotels aren’t likely to play a huge role in a travel hacking strategy there. But in other areas, they’re potentially decisive. Consider a stay in the center of London next month. There are only two Hyatt properties, the Hyatt Regency London - The Churchill and the Andaz London Liverpool Street, both at 25,000 World of Hyatt points.

But there are 6 Small Luxury Hotels properties, ranging between 20,000 and 25,000 points, in or near the center of London. On a smattering of sample dates, I saw redemption rates at those properties between 1.58 and 2.84 cents per World of Hyatt point. Not breathtaking, but properly calibrated to the value of the program as a whole.

Compare that to Hilton’s central London properties on the same dates. From a high of 0.61 cents per point at the DoubleTree by Hilton Hotel London - Kensington (50,000 points for a 231 GBP stay) to a low of 0.45 cents per point at the London Hilton on Park Lane (80,000 points for a 273 GBP stay), what you see across the board from Hilton is replacement-level redemptions. There’s nothing wrong with those redemptions — I would make them myself in a pinch, and a 5th-night-free redemption would improve the value further — but the Small Luxury Hotel redemptions offer the kind of outsized value we’ve come to expect from Hyatt points.

Conclusion

The addition of Small Luxury Hotels as a redemption option in World of Hyatt hasn’t increased the value of individual Hyatt points (still worth between 1.5 and 3 cents each), nor has it increased the value of individual Hilton points (still worth about 0.5 cents each).

What it has done is increase the value of a portfolio of both Hyatt and Hilton points, allowing Hyatt points to be redeemed more readily in cities like London and New York where Hilton points are typically redeemed at their replacement value, while allowing Hilton points to be saved up for redemption at the very few properties and redemptions where they get outsized value.