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.

Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance for authorized users

When I periodically trash the Chase Sapphire Preferred as inferior to the Chase Ink Plus (because of its better bonused earning categories) and the Chase Freedom (because of its better earning and lower annual fee) readers invariably come back at me with the Sapphire Preferred's supposedly superior trip delay and car rental insurance benefits.

What does insurance cover?

With respect to rental car insurance, and any other insurance policy, it's important to understand what the policies do and do not cover. Credit card insurance policies, whether "primary" like the Sapphire Preferred or "secondary" like virtually every other credit card, do not cover personal liability, so if you don't have another car insurance policy you'll need to buy one from the rental car agency anyway, and if you do have another car insurance policy you'll still need to make a claim, thereby "revealing" the accident and subjecting yourself to higher future rates, if your car insurance company works like that.

In other words, the supposed advantage of "primary" rental car insurance applies exclusively to situations where you run into a tree or snowbank or something.

That happens!

My dad once backed a rental car into a tree. But it's a silly thing to claim is worth paying a $95 annual fee for, let alone foregoing a more lucrative credit card like the Chase Freedom.

As I explained shortly after my Labor Day itinerary was delayed, trip delay insurance doesn't cover the consequences of your delayed flights — it only covers the costs. That's better than nothing, but what it's worth depends on how much value you get out of the coverage. Since my trip delay insurance claim has now been paid, I can finally shed some additional light on that.

Who is covered by Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance? It's complicated.

Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance covers the cardholder, the cardholder’s spouse or domestic partner, and dependent children under age 22.

Importantly, authorized users count as cardholders for the purposes of Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance.

However, coverage eligibility is not transitive.

Consider two almost-identical situations:

  1. Primary cardholder Alice buys tickets home from college for her dependent son Bob and his domestic partner Carol. Bob and Carol's flight is delayed, requiring an overnight stay. Since Bob is Alice's dependent child, his trip delay is covered. But since Carol is not a cardholder, cardholder's spouse or domestic partner, or a cardholder's dependent child under age 22, Carol's trip delay is not covered.
  2. Primary cardholder Alice makes Bob an authorized user, and Bob books tickets home from college for himself and his domestic partner Carol. In this case, Bob is a cardholder and Carol is the domestic partner of a cardholder, so both of their trip delays are covered by Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance.

Like I said, it's complicated.

One possible takeaway is that if you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card, you can make all your friends and family authorized users and have them pay you back for flights they book with the card. You get the points, they get the trip delay insurance. Whether that's worth doing or not is up to you.

What documents are required for a trip delay insurance claim?

To file a trip delay insurance claim, you need to provide documents verifying 4 broad categories of information:

  • Proof of purchase (1). You must prove that you paid for the original ticket with a Chase Sapphire Preferred card. You'll need to upload the receipt for your ticket, showing the ticket was paid for with a Sapphire Preferred card and the credit card statement the purchase originally appeared on.
  • Proof of purchase (2). You must also provide receipts for the purchases you're making the trip delay insurance claim against. That means hotel receipts, meal receipts, cab receipts, and receipts for any other covered "reasonable additional expenses incurred for meals, lodging, toiletries, medication, and other personal use items due to the covered delay."
  • Proof of eligibility. You must prove that you are either the primary or authorized user on a Sapphire Preferred card.
  • Proof of relationship. If you are filing a claim for the itinerary of a passenger who isn't a primary or authorized user on a Sapphire Preferred card, you must prove that person is a covered individual as described above.

What did I submit to get my claim approved?

The best way I can think of to illustrate this process is to list the 11 files I had to upload to get my claim approved (I uploaded all these documents as .pdf files):

  1. original itinerary. The e-mail from United listing my original flights.
  2. delayed itinerary. The e-mail from United showing my updated flights after the mechanical delay forced an overnight in Denver.
  3. credit card receipt. The credit card statement showing the original purchase of the ticket.
  4. MSO-IAD MSO-DCA boarding passes. The original and reprinted boarding passes from before and after the mechanical delay caused us to be rebooked.
  5. MSO-supper. The e-mail from Uber showing the amount paid for our car from the airport to the restaurant where we ate dinner.
  6. supper-MSO. The e-mail from Uber showing the amount paid for the trip back to the airport.
  7. meals. Scanned images of the credit card receipts for all our meals after the delay was announced.
  8. hotel receipt. The folio from the Hyatt House Denver Airport where we spent the night.
  9. united flight delay letter. The letter from United giving the reason for our delay and restating our original itinerary and the flights we ultimately took (see how to request your own flight delay letter here).
  10. verification of authorized user. A scan of the back of my authorized user card.
  11. verification of relationship. A lease co-signed by my partner and I.

Where the value is hiding

Now that you've read this post, you know infinitely more about this process than I knew when I went into it. That means it probably won't take you a full month to get your trip delay insurance claim approved. But I want to dig into how much value there is in trip delay insurance, and where it is.

  • Meals and booze. When a trip is significantly delayed, airlines will sometimes offer airport funny money that can be used for meals at participating restaurants. Those vouchers exclude alcohol, and are normally in the single-entree range of $5-15. On the other hand, as explained to me, Chase's trip delay insurance provider will cover meals up to $49.99 without an itemized receipt (I've seen mixed reports of whether alcohol was reimbursed on itemized receipts).
  • Hotels. Likewise, when itineraries are delayed overnight, airlines will often accommodate customers at contract rates at nearby hotels. Those rates typically don't earn elite-qualifying nights or points. On the other hand, if you book your own hotel room as soon as you find out your flight is delayed, you get to book at the chain of your choice, maximizing the value of any current promotions while earning elite-qualifying stays and nights.
  • Miscellaneous expenses. There's no better time to buy toothpaste, a fancy new electric toothbrush, or any other expensive toiletries than during a covered trip delay!

Conclusion: if you are willing to pay for trip delay insurance, you have to be willing to take advantage of it

Each purchased ticket during a trip delay is covered for up to $500 by Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance. If you're holding onto a Sapphire Preferred card, instead of product changing it to a Freedom or Freedom Unlimited, then when an eligible trip delay occurs you need to be ready to get your money's worth. That means booking hotels, buying toiletries, and eating meals that aren't just expensive, but worthwhile.

In other words, if you use your trip delay insurance claim to eat at the airport Qdoba and stay at the airport Ramada, you're paying $95 per year for what United will give you for free.