Breaking: internet censorship, or, is Capital One history's greatest monster?

How low can you go? Try Capital One, whose agents allegedly sent a letter to Personal Finance Digest's hosting provider telling them to remove his site from the internet.

It's unclear from PFD's post whether the letter was a "takedown notice" within the meaning of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the abuse of which is a violation of federal law ("Any person who knowingly materially misrepresents under this section—(1) that material or activity is infringing...shall be liable for any damages...incurred by the alleged infringer...who is injured by such misrepresentation, as the result of the service provider relying upon such misrepresentation..."), or merely a threatening letter. However, based on the agent's admission — in writing! — that:

The website in discussion did not host, nor hosting [sic] fraudulent content against Capital One.

It seems to me that PFD has an airtight defamation case at least against the "RSA Anti-Fraud Command Centre," whatever that is, and Capital One if RSA was actually acting as their agent in this case.

I don't have any Capital One cards, but if I did I'd shut them immediately and tell the CSR why I was doing so. In the meantime, I'm removing all links to Capital One from my permanent pages until I see an explanation for this abhorrent behavior. It's not much, but it's what I can do to show solidarity with PDF on my little corner of the web.

Read Personal Finance Digest's post for all the gruesome details.

Maximizing fixed-value travel rewards points

Today I'd like to take a closer look at the value proposition offered by some of the cards discussed in Chapter 2 of my book: fixed-value travel rewards cards.  When looking at any card, you should ask three questions: is it worth signing up for; is it worth making purchases with; and is it worth renewing when the annual fee is due?

Signup Bonuses

The first question is easy to answer: since the annual fee is waived for all these cards, you can apply for any of them when the signup bonus is high enough to justify the hard credit inquiry, and you aren't applying for any other cards from the same issuer in your current application cycle.

Here are the current signup bonuses available for these cards: 

  • Capital One Venture Rewards.  10,000 Venture miles after $1,000 in spending within 3 months.  Earn 2 points per dollar, redeem them at 1 cent each for statement credits against travel purchases made with the card.  No partial redemptions (you must have enough points to pay for the entire travel purchase).  $59 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa Signature.  17,500 FlexPoints after $2,500 in purchases within the first 5 months.  Earn 1 point per dollar, 2 points on airfare, groceries, or communications expenses, 3 points per dollar for transactions coded as charity.  Redeem points for travel redemptions using the Flexperks travel booking tool at up to 2 cents per point, in defined tiers.  No partial redemptions.  $49 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • Citi ThankYou Premier.  25,000 ThankYou points after spending $2,000 in the first 3 months.  Earn 1 point per dollar, 1.2 points at supermarkets, gas stations, commuter transportation and parking.  Redeem points at 1.33 cents each for travel purchases using the ThankYou Rewards booking tool, with partial redemptions allowed.  $125 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • BarclayCard Arrival World Mastercard .  40,000 points after $1,000 in spending within 90 days.  Earn 2 points per dollar spent on the card.  Redeem points for statement credits against travel purchases made on the card at 1 cent per point, and receive a 10% rebate after each redemption.  No partial redemptions.  $89 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • Priceline Rewards Visa Signature.   5,000 points after first purchase.  Earn 2 points per dollar spent on the card, and 5 points per dollar spent on Name Your Own Price reservations.  Redeem points at 1 cent each for statement credits against purchases made on the card, with no partial redemptions.

As you can see, the Priceline Rewards card has a signup bonus worth $50, the Venture Rewards card's signup bonus is worth about $100, the Flexperks card $260-$350, ThankYou Premier $332, and Arrival World $444.  In general, it's never worth signing up for the Venture Rewards card except during the periodic promotion when they offer a signup bonus of twice the number of miles you earned on a competing card during the previous calendar year, which can be quite lucrative.

Earning Points

All these cards, except the Venture Rewards and Priceline cards, are worth applying for and spending enough on to earn the signup bonus.  But are any of them worth making purchases on after you've spent enough to trigger the signup bonus?  The answer is usually no, since the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express card offers 2% cash back on all purchases and the Fidelity Visa Signature card offers 1.5% cash back on the first $15,000 in spending each calendar year, and 2% thereafter, while also having no annual fee. The chart below illustrates the value proposition offered by spending on each of these cards:

This chart makes clear that the standout value among these cards is the US Bank Flexperks Travel card, which offers up to 6% back on charitable spending (which earns 3 Flexpoints per dollar), but also up to 4% back on airfare, gas, or groceries (whichever you spend most on each billing cycle), plus telecommunications expenses, when you redeem your points using the Flexperks booking tool.  

Redeeming Points

This brings us to the most fundamental difference between these cards: the method of redemption.  As you saw above, fixed-value rewards points are divided into two groups: those that require you to make prospective bookings using your points through their travel tools (ThankYou, Flexperks) and those that allow you to redeem your points for a statement credit against a purchase you've already made with the card.

When you have a choice, you should redeem for statement credits against paid hotel stays, and use rewards booking tools for airline reservations.  This is for the simple reason that unlike airline frequent flyer programs, hotel loyalty programs generally only award points for paid reservations made through the hotel's own website.  By booking a paid hotel reservation through the hotel's website, then redeeming your points for a statement credit against the cost of that reservation, you'll earn hotel loyalty points for your reservation, while you won't do so when you make a hotel reservation through a loyalty program's award booking tool.  This increases the value of your fixed-value points by allowing you to double-dip.

Summary

For everyday purchases, only the US Bank Flexperks Travel card can compete with the Fidelity Rewards 1.5% (Visa) and 2% (American Express) cash back cards.  However, several of the other cards discussed here can offer great value when you take advantage of their lucrative signup bonuses.  Just don't be suckered into paying an annual fee for a card that isn't worth keeping!

 

Avoiding foreign transaction fees

Using rewards-earning credit cards for overseas purchases can incur foreign transaction fees which cost more than the value of any rewards you earn on your purchases.  To avoid these fees, it's best to use either cash, or a card that doesn't charge such foreign transaction fees.  Today we'll take a look at a few such cards.

American Express Bluebird

The Bluebird, which is technically a prepaid debit card, charges no foreign transaction fees on foreign purchases or foreign ATM transactions.  To earn rewards on your overseas purchases made with the Bluebird, you can load the card with Vanilla Reload cards purchased in the US, for example at drugs stores like CVS; you can load the card at Walmart using a rewards-earning debit card; or you can simply transfer in money from a linked US bank account.  However you choose to load the Bluebird, you won't pay foreign transactions fees when you use it overseas for purchases or ATM withdrawals.  You can also order a Bluebird card without any impact on your credit report, since it's a prepaid debit card, not a credit card.

Discover Cards

Since 2008, when Discover acquired the Diners Club overseas credit card network, Discover cards have had increasingly wide acceptance internationally, and all Discover cards have no foreign transaction fees.  I recommend the Discover it card (formerly known as Discover More) since it has no annual fee and potentially lucrative rotating 5% cash back categories.  For example, in the last quarter of 2012, Discover gave 5% cash back on all "online purchases," a very broad category!

Capital One

Like Discover, all Capital One cards have no foreign transaction fees.  These cards include the Capital One Venture Rewards card, which allows you to redeem your points for travel expenses.

Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Ink Bold/Plus

These premium credit cards, which earn flexible Ultimate Rewards points, incur no foreign transactions fees on purchases made outside the United States.  The Sapphire Preferred has a $95 annual fee after the first year, as do the Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards.

American Express Platinum

While this card with its $450 annual fee certainly isn't worth getting just to avoid foreign transaction fees, if you already have a Platinum card you can use it overseas and earn Membership Rewards points without incurring any additional fees.

Co-branded Credit Cards

If you're interested in earning points with a specific rewards program, the following cards also have no foreign transaction fees:

Chase

Citi