Washtubs, not teaspoons

A few years back, reclusive travel hacking personality Mr. Pickles started tweeting pictures of a gas pump dispensing hundreds of gallons of gas for free and asking "what am I filling up?" Twitter's an elusive medium and I can't dredge up the actual thread (send me a link and I'll update this post!), but as I recall it ended up being a large wheeled diesel generator of some kind. There's nothing special about a travel hacker being able to buy gas for next to nothing, if they have access to the right stores during the right promotions, but Mr. Pickles didn't just have free gas: he had a plan.

In Warren Buffett's latest shareholder letter he wrote:

"Every decade or so, dark clouds will fill the economic skies, and they will briefly rain gold. When downpours of that sort occur, it’s imperative that we rush outdoors carrying washtubs, not teaspoons. And that we will do."

Many people in the country today are in the midst of such a downpour, which has got me thinking about the ways a travel hacker can equip herself with washtubs, not teaspoons.

Maintain a diverse collection of credit cards

I've been taking advantage of the current promotion with my Hilton Surpass American Express and US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards, which I consider worth manufacturing spend on even in the absence of a promotion. But reasonable people disagree, and might instead manufacture spend primarily at unbonused merchants using cards like the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express or Chase Freedom Unlimited. Most of the time, that's a perfectly defensible decision. But when an opportunity like the current one comes along, it leaves those people at a disadvantage compared to people who keep one or more credit cards bonusing grocery store spend.

Manage credit lines

Like most travel hackers I have a general awareness of my reported credit card utilization rate, but unlike many travel hackers I don't really care about that rate, since my practice focuses mainly on manufacturing spend, not accumulating signup bonuses. However, being sure that you have the credit lines available to maximize an opportunity while it exists is a totally separate question. It's absolutely worth thinking in advance about how you'll open up credit limits suddenly when a unique opportunity emerges. How fast can you liquidate your spend in order to create additional headroom? Even if you manufacture relatively little spend, you might consider having a plan in place when a particularly lucrative opportunity comes along.

Come up with a plan

The benefits of the current promotion expire on April 6, which means there are two different timelines: the deadline to earn additional benefits and the deadline to redeem them. There's no point earning benefits that won't be used, or using benefits for things you don't want. That means I've been spending a lot of time looking around my apartment thinking, "what can I buy today that I'm certain to use eventually?" If you're hitting this opportunity hard, you may need to think further outside the box than usual. A few suggestions:

  • Paper goods: Paper towels, toilet paper, facial tissue, coffee filters.
  • Occasionally used products: batteries, lightbulbs.
  • Toiletries: toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, feminine hygiene products, razors, deodorant, shampoo.
  • Canned goods.

Of course, the best time to come up with a plan is in advance, which is what Mr. Pickles did. I'm not saying you should buy a diesel generator just in case an unlimited free gas opportunity arises. But I am saying Mr. Pickles did and was able to hit that opportunity as hard as humanly possible.

Give stuff away

Once you've stocked up on everything you can possibly imagine needing, it's as good a time as any to think about folks who have unmet needs. I don't particularly care if you think of this as "charity" or as "paying it forward" or as "sticking it to the man," but if you have the ability to make somebody's day by giving them free gas, free groceries, or whatever else your travel hacking practice gives you free or cheap access to, then I think it's worth considering.


I happen to be in a position to take advantage of the current promotion fairly aggressively, but it should be obvious that I'm trying to frame this discussion in more general terms. If you don't have a plan in place in advance of a promotion, you're more likely to waste valuable time coming up with one while the promotion is ongoing.