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!

Conclusion

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. 

Conclusion

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").

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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

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

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

Two cautionary tales

I've been blessed multiple times to unknowingly move to communities that had favorable environments for manufactured spend. Now, that's not exactly a "coincidence," since many of the most hostile environments for manufactured spend are also the most expensive cities in the country (New York City, San Francisco), and my income doesn't support living there, so I've never lived there.

But I freely admit that it means this blog focuses more on successful manufactured spend techniques than unsuccessful manufactured spend techniques, since most of my techniques are successful!

MasterCard gift cards issued by U.S. Bank are a problem at Walmart

With that in mind, I took the recent occasion of fee-free MasterCard gift cards at Staples to deliberately revisit an old problem: can you use MasterCard gift cards at Walmart?

For several years after the Federal Reserve required prepaid debit cards to be PIN-enabled, MasterCard gift cards issued by U.S. Bank worked differently than Visa prepaid debit cards issued by Metabank at Walmart. Unless you knew about, and were able to convince your cashier to go along with, the "change payment" trick, MasterCards were unusable for money orders or bill payments.

This history means most people, under most circumstances, simply avoid MasterCard gift cards. After all, most merchants that sell MasterCards also sell Visas, and if a credit card or rewards program bonuses spend at a particular merchant, then your natural preference should be to buy the easy-to-liquidate Visa rather than the hard-to-liquidate MasterCard.

However, that natural preference hits a snag when a promotion comes along that targets MasterCard gift cards directly. For example, for folks who drive a lot, the cost of gas can make up a big part of their monthly budget, so when Stop&Shop offers bonus points on MasterCard gift card purchases, folks are understandably conflicted. How does the (relative) difficulty of liquidating MasterCards weigh against the accelerated earning when you pile gas rewards on top of the bonus credit card rewards you're already earning at grocery stores?

Plastiq isn't a good liquidation technique; Plastiq referrals are a good liquidation technique

This came up over the weekend when I asked a fellow travel hacker how he'd fared during the fee-free Staples MasterCard promotion mentioned above, since I'd only been able to grab 3 $200 cards (3,000 Ultimate Rewards points with my Ink Plus). He responded smartly, "what am I supposed to do with a bunch of MasterCard gift cards?"

I mentioned Plastiq, which allows you to you make payments to a variety of payees using prepaid debit cards, including bills that can amount to thousands of dollars per month: student loans, rent, mortgage, cable, and insurance payments, among others.

My friend again pointed out that under normal circumstances, Plastiq's 2.5% liquidation fee made the service scarcely worth using, let alone worth driving around town searching for gift cards.

The trick, of course, isn't that Plastiq is a good liquidation technique, the trick is that if you're good enough at promoting Plastiq as a liquidation technique, you get to liquidate an unlimited number of your own cards for free.

Affiliate bloggers rely on a constant stream of vulnerable newbies

The only income I get from this site comes from my loyal blog subscribers, Google Adsense, my Amazon Associates link, and the personal referral links I put on my Support the Site! page.

This gives me complete editorial freedom (manufactured spend is good, Membership Rewards points are bad, free night certificates are bad, companion tickets are bad), but it also means my income doesn't depend month-to-month on driving people to sign up for particular cards, chasing bounties or fretting when lucrative payouts go away.

It also means that I don't need to recruit any new travel hackers. My basic view is that most people who are mentally configured to be travel hackers are pretty easy to identify. You can give the absolute simplest task to someone: "buy a Visa gift card," and if they come back with a Home Depot gift card, you know they don't have the attention or precision to be a travel hacker.

That's not to say I "hoard" information; I love sharing information! I just don't have a rooting interest in recruiting additional travel hackers just because they happen to be eligible for new referral bonuses.

But if, on the contrary, your income depends on getting people to sign up for the first time for something, whether it's a Chase Sapphire Preferred card or a Plastiq account, then newbies are the world's most precious resource, and there is nothing more inevitable than a blogger trying to extend their appeal deeper and deeper into less and less appropriate target audiences.

That is to say, a blogger who successfully refers 100 people to Plastiq is correct when they say Plastiq is a good way to liquidate MasterCard gift cards fee-free, because they have $10,000 in fee-free dollars, but incorrect when they tell newbies, about whom they know nothing, to go out and buy a bunch of MasterCard gift cards and to liquidate them through Plastiq.

If you don't understand this reasoning, then a lot of blogger behavior looks absurd. Even setting aside the blogs that are actually owned and operated by credit card affiliate companies, why would Rich Weirdo Ben Schlappig participate in this humiliating spectacle for Rolling Stone? But if you understand that he needs to fish where the fish are, then it makes perfect sense that the more outlandish the venue, the more likely he is to find vulnerable newbies! After all, if your livelihood depended on it, you too would prefer to attract 10 signups from Brides.com than 1 signup from Flyertalk.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, even with a patient cashier and plenty of tries, I wasn't able to make the "change payment" trick work at my local Walmart. Thank God for grocery stores (and Plastiq)!

How I talked myself around on Chase ending pooled Ultimate Rewards points

When the travel hacking blogosphere erupted in recent weeks with "rumors" that Chase might, maybe, eventually end the ability to combine points between fixed-value Ultimate Rewards accounts and flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, I met the rumors with a yawn, for two reasons:

  • such a change would smash the value of their credit card portfolio and cause many heavy spenders to move their purchases to more valuable rewards programs, which you'd think Chase would want to avoid, or at least avoid admitting to their shareholders;
  • and as a travel hacker, there's no use whining about how great things used to be, how terrible they are now, and how much worse they're going to be in the future.

The second point is still true, but over the weekend I had the chance to chat with a couple fellow travel hackers while up in Boston and managed to talk myself around to Chase's logic in ending points pooling, should they ever choose to do so.

Chase Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash are bad cashback cards

I love my Freedoms, with which I max out the bonus categories 3-4 quarters each year, and I love my Freedom Unlimited, which gets a lot of my unbonused spend, but we need to clearly understand that they are lousy cashback cards.

The golden standard for a cashback credit card is 2% cashback on all purchases, with no annual fee. There are several such cards; the two I happen to carry are the Citi Double Cash and Fidelity Rewards cards, but there are others.

Note, however, that 2% cashback credit cards with no annual fee are invariably somewhat cumbersome: the Double Cash pays out 1% on purchases and 1% on payments. Fidelity Rewards have to be redeemed into Fidelity accounts, and you have to meet payout minimums and deal with their somewhat primitive rewards site. Both cards charge foreign transaction fees, as well.

In other words, 2% is the ceiling on the value banks are willing to offer their customers in cashback on purchases made with a no-annual-fee card, and even then, they do so only under duress and in the expectation they'll earn at least some of that value back in interest charges and ancillary fees.

Freedom, Freedom Unlimited, and Ink Cash cards fall far short of that ceiling. Instead of offering 2% cashback, Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn just 1% cashback. Instead of 2% cashback, Freedom Unlimited cards earn just 1.5% cashback. The gimmick — and let's be clear: it's a gimmick — is that Freedom and Ink Cash cards earn bonus points in certain categories, with the idea that a person who carries the card to make bonused purchases will also reach for it when making unbonused purchases, giving up a whole 1% cashback on those unbonused transactions.

With the launch of the Freedom Unlimited offer for 3% cashback the first year, we see something similar: if you can convince someone to use their Freedom Unlimited for all purchases the first year, when it's a good deal, then maybe they'll keep using it in later years, earning just 1.5% cashback and leaving 0.5% cashback for Chase to pocket.

Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus/Bold, and Ink Preferred cards are replacement-level travel cards

All three of Chase's "premium" travel credit cards are middle-of-the-pack offerings for business travelers and other heavy spenders. If you don't manufacture spend, then deciding between the flexible travel rewards cards offered by Chase, American Express, and Citi is just an exercise in optimizing between imperfect airline and hotel chain combinations.

This gives us access to what I think of as one of the most valuable insights of the economics profession: revealed preferences.

Since the Sapphire Preferred and premium Ink cards earn just one flexible Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused purchases, but the Freedom Unlimited pays 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar on unbonused purchases, we know for a fact that Chase values flexible points at least 33% higher than fixed-value points.

That is to say, if Chase has determined that a dollar of unbonused spend is worth, at a maximum, 1.5 cents in rewards, then a dollar spent with the premium cards earns 1 cent in cashback plus 0.5 cents in flexibility (adjusted for the hefty annual fees you have to pay whether you get any value from the cards or not).

This makes pooled points a problem for Chase

If fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points can be freely converted into flexible Ultimate Rewards points, then a dollar spent with the Freedom Unlimited costs Chase not the 1.5 cents they're willing to pay out on unbonused spend, but 2.25 cents: 1.5 cents in cashback plus 0.75 cents in flexibility.

It literally makes no sense that for a single $95 annual fee, someone can earn 2 flexible Ultimate Rewards points using a Sapphire Preferred for their travel and dining purchases and 1.5 flexible Ultimate Rewards points on all other purchases using a Freedom Unlimited. Even if the $95 annual fee covers the cost of making the Sapphire Preferred points flexible, it can't also cover the cost of making the Freedom Unlimited points flexible.

Points that are easy to earn are easy to redeem

Everybody knows my maxim that the least valuable point is the one you don't redeem. But for banks, it's just the opposite: when you redeem a point, they actually have to cut a check, whether it's to the airline or hotel you book a paid reservation with, or the partner you transfer your points to.

That means folks who redeem points confident that they'll be able to easily earn many more are much more expensive to a bank than the folks who, in making sure they only redeem points when they're able to get the "maximum possible value," never redeem their points at all.

So if Chase knows what they're doing, as I suspect they do, they've noticed that folks who are transferring in big balances from Freedom and Freedom Unlimited cards to flexible Ultimate Rewards accounts, and especially super-premium Sapphire Reserve accounts, are much more likely to also redeem their points for expensive partner transfers and paid reservations.

While they may be content with the rates they pay their travel partners, and even the redemption rate on paid travel bookings, Chase may not be content with the speed with which folks build up and redeem their balances. Restricting points pooling thus has the added benefit of slowing down redemption rates and leaving more points orphaned, perhaps permanently, or redeemed for cash.

Conclusion

If this change ever comes down in any form, whether it's restricting household pooling, restricting pooling between personal and business cards (forcing some folks to hold 2 premium cards), or eliminating pooling altogether, there won't be anything you can do about it, besides adapting and shifting your spending to more lucrative opportunities.

But in the meantime, you should certainly be combining all your Ultimate Rewards points into your most valuable account on every statement close.

Not because of any potential devaluation or restriction, but because it's common sense.

US Bank Real-Time Rewards: don't learn from your mistakes, learn from my mistakes

Back in March when I first wrote about US Bank's introduction of "Real-Time Rewards" to their Flexperks Travel Rewards and Altitude credit cards, reader Chris left a comment warning about a problem he'd encountered:

"So I just learned the hard way that there seems to be a temporary glitch with real-time rewards. Or at least, this is what I experienced on a purchase a few days ago and how it was explained to me by a CSR. Apparently there is a current glitch in the system where it views (at least some) travel at only 1 cent/point rather than 1.5 cents/point. While you may be able to actually process payment at the correct rate, if you don't have a high enough balance of points in your account, the system will think you don't have enough points (even though you do) and not send out real time text. In other words, say you have a $100 flight. That should cost you 6.667 points. However, the system thinks you would need 10,000 points to buy this flight and thus won't trigger real time rewards unless you have at least 10,000 points. The CSR was also unable to manually process this either. The solution for now is that they gave me enough points to make me whole on the transaction, although I have to wait for the correction to post with my statement at which time I call back and have them make the manual adjustment. There was no word when the correction would occur so be warned - I would say don't use real time rewards unless you also have enough points in your account (at least until there is a correction)."

Being a travel hacker, I sensed an opportunity: if US Bank (or the company they've farmed their rewards programs out to) is aware of the problem, and has a procedure in place to correct it, this had the potential to be a points machine. You could book travel you have enough points for at 1.5 cents each, but not at 1 cent each, call in, have the points manually added to your account, and profit.

The Flexperks Rewards Center has no idea what's going on

I recently thought I spotted an opportunity to try out this technique, booking a $300 hotel stay in Philadelphia, with a little over 20,000 Flexpoints in my account. As expected based on Chris's comment, I didn't receive a Real-Time Rewards text message, since I didn't have enough Flexpoints to cover the purchase at 1 cent each (but did at 1.5 cents each).

I called into the Rewards Center, and the front-line representative told me that Real-Time Rewards were only available at 1 cent each, not at the higher 1.5 cent travel redemption rate. I told him that wasn't right and asked for a supervisor. The supervisor had, if anything, even less of an idea of what was going on, and as she frantically flipped through her troubleshooting manual ended up on, "it says here that you can't use Real-Time Rewards for travel."

At that point I told her we weren't getting anywhere and to open a support ticket for me.

I forgot the "lodging" minimum!

Eagle-eyed readers have no doubt already spotted my mistake: the $500 minimum for "lodging" purchases to trigger Real-Time Rewards!

I don't have any excuse for forgetting about it, except that I was focused on finding the right hotel at the right price, and calculating the Flexpoints I needed to trigger the experiment Chris's experience suggested might be possible.

However, based on my experience with the Rewards Center, I think even if I had purchased a $300 flight or train ticket instead of a $300 hotel room, I would have been out of luck given the incompetence demonstrated by both the front-line representative and supervisor I spoke with.

Conclusion

I still think Real-Time Rewards is a fine idea, but I won't attempt to use the system again for travel purchases unless I have enough points to cover the purchase at 1 cent each, at least until I hear that Chris's problem has been fixed.

And, needless to say, I won't try to use Real-Time Rewards for lodging purchases under $500!

A funny window for stacking World of Hyatt promotions in Las Vegas

I was updating my Hotel Promotions page with the latest Hilton, Starwood, and Marriott promotions when I noticed some overlapping dates during which you should be able to qualify for 3 separate World of Hyatt promotions:

  • Between May 7 and July 31, 2018, earn 20% Bonus Points on eligible spend when you stay at Hyatt Place Las Vegas or any participating MGM Resorts destination in Las Vegas. Register for the promotion here.
  • Between February 20 and June 30, 2018, earn 1,000 American AAdvantage miles per qualifying stay at Hyatt Place and Hyatt House properties worldwide. Register for the promotion here by April 30, 2018.
  • Between February 15 and May 15, 2018, earn either 500 or 1,000 bonus World of Hyatt points for each qualifying stay you complete worldwide. Registration closed March 31, 2018.

If you registered for all three promotions, then for one-night stays between May 7 and May 15, 2018, at the Hyatt Place Las Vegas you should be able to earn 1,000 AAdvantage miles, 500 World of Hyatt points, and 20% bonus points on your room rate.

I also looked up room rates for the relevant dates (these are after tax):

  • May 7, $142
  • May 8, $193
  • May 9, $172
  • May 10, $142
  • May 11, $137
  • May 12, $152
  • May 13, $132
  • May 14, $132

These rates obviously aren't worth flying out to Las Vegas for, but if you were planning a trip to Vegas anyway and didn't mind moving between properties one night at a time, the three promotions mean that on a $132 night ($116 room rate) a Globalist member would earn 1,370 World of Hyatt points (5 base points per dollar, 30% Globalist bonus, 20% promotion bonus) and 1,000 American AAdvantage miles, which is a decent discount even if you value the points at just 1 cent each.

I'll never be a Hyatt Globalist again, but for folks who are chasing it and like visiting Las Vegas, targeting a stay or two at the Hyatt Place there may be worth considering.

If you qualify, Chase Freedom Unlimited might be the deal of the decade

Last week, I saw via Frequent Miler that Chase was offering a new bonus for new Freedom Unlimited customers: 3 fixed-value Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent on all purchases for the first year. It's not for everyone, but for those eligible this has the potential to be one of the greatest deals since Office Depot stopped selling Vanilla Reload cards.

Most churners won't be eligible

The biggest obstacle for folks who chase signup bonuses is that they likely aren't eligible to open new Chase cards if they've opened 5 or more personal credit cards in the last 24 months (the so-called "5/24 rule").

Even if you are eligible for new Chase cards, the terms of the offer state, "This product is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of this credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of this credit card who received a new cardmember bonus for this credit card within the last 24 months."

Under those terms existing Freedom Unlimited cardholders should be eligible for the bonus if they product-changed to the Freedom Unlimited (for example from a Slate, Sapphire Preferred, or Sapphire Reserve card) and therefore didn't receive a new cardmember bonus, but they'd first have to request another product change for their existing Freedom Unlimited, e.g. to a regular Chase Freedom.

This might be a trap

For all my shutdown datapoint needs, I rely on Vinh at Miles per Day, who frequently shares readers' experiences getting the axe. Even if you're eligible for new Chase cards, and eligible for the Freedom Unlimited, just applying for the Freedom Unlimited might be enough to put eyes on your Chase relationship and get all your credit card and bank accounts with Chase closed.

That would suck.

Make no mistake: this is one of the greatest deals of all time

I wanted to get all that out of the way because I know commenters like to snipe whenever I leave caveats like that out. But for those who are eligible for this signup bonus, this is an incredible opportunity:

  • Unlimited 3% cash back on unbonused spend is as good as it gets. If you just redeemed your Ultimate Rewards points for cash, this is would be a phenomenal cashback opportunity, handily beating the BankAmericard Travel Rewards 2.625% cash back, which is only available to folks who qualify for Platinum Honors status with them.
  • Points are awarded monthly, so even if shut down you can lose at most a single month's earnings.
  • If you already have a flexible Ultimate Rewards-earning card, then you can redeem those 3 Ultimate Rewards points for 3.75 (4.5 with the Sapphire Reserve) cents towards paid airfare, or transfer them to Southwest, Hyatt, or United.
  • After the first year you can product change the Freedom Unlimited to a Freedom card and take advantage of that card's valuable quarterly rotating categories.

Conclusion

People sometimes ask me how I think a deal or opportunity is going to play out, and I often find myself giving versions of the same answer:

  • A deal can be shut down immediately, wasting your time and energy getting reimbursed.
  • A deal can be cut off prematurely, pay out less than expected, or end up disappointing in some other way.
  • A deal can pay off exactly as planned, leaving you laughing all the way to the bank (or the beach).

The essential thing to understand is that every deal has all three possibilities built into it from the start. There are no deals so certain of success that they don't contain the possibility of failure or disappointment, and there are no deals so certain of failure they're not worth trying (as long as the stakes of failure are low enough).

For example, a few years ago the shopping portal for Marriott Rewards briefly showed a payout of 120 points per dollar spent with an online merchant. I bought a few thousand dollars of merchandise assuming that the portal would not pay out — I assumed the deal would fail! But since the merchant had a generous return policy, the stakes of failure were low enough to be worth taking the chance of success.

On the flip side, after years of steadily paying off for thousands of travel hackers around the country, Wells Fargo suddenly started sending threatening letters to, and then actually closing the accounts of, folks who manufactured bonus spend on their 5% cash back credit cards. People who, with all the experience and wisdom of the community, were certain of success, nonetheless had the deal pulled out from under their feet!

Success is not a function of picking deals guaranteed of success and avoiding deals certain of failure. Success comes from distributing your time, energy, and of course money across deals, weighted by both their chance of success and their potential payoff.