It seems that the travel hacking community has been thrown into one of its periodic panics, first over the loss of a popular gift card reselling opportunity and then an online bill payment option. I don't participate in such panics myself, but it's an opportunity to ask the question: what would travel hacking look like not in a world without manufactured spend, but in a world with less manufactured spend?
It's a good question because in a world with plentiful manufactured spend, lots of things are worth doing that might not be in a more constrained world. For example, today I happily earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, essentially speculating that I'll get more than 1.3 cents per point when I ultimately redeem them (since I could use a 2% cash back card instead). That wouldn't make any sense (for me) in a world where every dollar manufactured on one card reduces the amount I can manufacture on the others.
So, here's what I would do in a world of severely constrained — but not eliminated — manufactured spend.
Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash for office supply stores
I consider buying $200 or $300 Visa prepaid debit cards from office supply stores with a Chase Ink Plus or, if you're signing up today, Ink Cash, to be the best current opportunity, even though liquidating smaller-denomination gift cards can be time-consuming if you have to do it in-person. Paying $8.95 in activation fees and $0.35 for money orders lets you buy 1,545 Ultimate Rewards for $9.35. That's slightly more expensive than paying $4.30 for 756 Ultimate Rewards points by using a Freedom Unlimited at an unbonused merchant, but it's over twice as efficient, in that a single money order transaction made with four $300 debit cards earns 6,180 Ultimate Rewards points (at 0.6 cents each), while one transaction with four $500 debit cards earns just 3,024 points (at 0.57 cents each). In a world of limited manufactured spend, maximizing the total haul from each transaction would inevitably become a much higher priority.
Since flexible Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each for paid travel, doing this alone would let you earn $3,125 in paid travel each year for about $1,504.
Annual spend: $25,000 (Ink Cash) or $50,000 (Ink Bold or Ink Plus).
"Old" Blue Cash for grocery stores
For reasons that are beyond my petty comprehension, American Express still issues the "old" Blue Cash card that earns 5% cash back on up to $43,500 in purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and "select" drugstores in the United States. That's a devaluation from the previous, unlimited bonus earning, but it's still a lot of money.
Since grocery store spend is somewhat cheaper than office supply store spend, whether you prefer to prioritize Ink Plus or Ink Cash spend or "old" Blue Cash spend properly depends on the value you expect to get from Ultimate Rewards points redemptions.
Annual spend: $50,000.
Amex EveryDay Preferred for grocery stores
I almost hesitate to include this one since the cap on earning is so low, but if you can knock out $6,000 in grocery store purchases, then make enough additional purchases to get to 30 transactions in the same statement cycle, you can earn 27,000 flexible Membership Rewards points per year (and pay an annual fee of $95).
That's not very many Membership Rewards points, so in a world of unlimited manufactured spend you'd want to supplement them with, for example, a Premier Rewards Gold card. But in a world of less manufactured spend, it would roughly add up to a business class international award ticket every 3-5 years. That's not great compared to the status quo, but it's not terrible either.
Annual spend: $6,000
A good cashback card for unbonused spend
So far so good, right? The problem is that all these cards are terrible for anything except manufactured spend. The Ink Cash and EveryDay Preferred have foreign transaction fees (the "old" Blue Cash card does not for some reason), and the Ink Bold and Ink Plus only earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused spend.
Obviously if you have a lot of money the answer is the BankAmericard Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards, which earns 2.625% on all spend, has no foreign transaction fee, and is PIN-enabled for use internationally.
If you don't have a lot of money, you can use the PenFed Credit Union Power Cash Rewards card, which earns 1.5% cash back, or 2% if you have a PenFed Access America Checking Account. It's PIN-enabled and has no foreign transaction or annual fees, although the checking account requires a $500 average daily balance or monthly direct deposit to avoid a $10 monthly fee.
For domestic transactions you might consider using a Chase Freedom Unlimited to top up your Ultimate Rewards balance, but that card also has a foreign transaction fee so shouldn't be used internationally.
I think this is roughly the strategy I would pursue if my access to manufactured spend were suddenly constrained. It's pretty cheap (two $95 annual fees), pretty lucrative, and isn't very time-consuming, requiring only an average of about 6 total trips per month.
It would yield 125,000 or 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points, $2,240 in cash, and 27,000 Membership Rewards points. Whether or not that's sufficient to cover all your travel expenses depends on how many travel expenses you have, but it would certainly make a dent in mine.