My (boring) Citi shutdown story

For the past few years, I've carried three credit cards issued by Citibank:

  • Double Cash;
  • Dividend Platinum Select;
  • and AAdvantage Platinum Select.

These are all middling credit cards I held onto for no particularly good reasons. The Double Cash is a replacement-level 2% cash back card, the Dividend used to be good for $300 in annual cash back (although recent bonus categories have been fairly boring), and the AAdvantage card was good for free checked bags, generous retention offers, and periodic promotional interest rates on purchases, plus American's poorly-publicized "reduced mileage awards" to certain cities, which I've taken advantage of perhaps a total of 2 times in my life.

Now they're all closed

When my Double Cash statement closed at the beginning of June, I noticed I wasn't able to redeem my cash back rewards through the app as I had in the past, but I wasn't sure if I'd actually been shut down or if the app was just malfunctioning, as it does more or less constantly.

When I got back to a computer and logged into my Citi account they helpfully suggested I remove my credit cards from my login, which was my first definite clue I'd been shut down. Yesterday, I finally got a bunch of letters regretfully informing me my accounts had been closed as of June 7.

What should have, and what ultimately did, cause my shutdown

When I first moved back to the East Coast from the Midwest, I was glad that I had a Citibank branch a few blocks from my apartment. I started dropping off money orders there regularly in order to pay off my credit card bills, until I got a very odd phone call from a Citi employee who insisted everything I was doing was totally fine...she just had some questions.

After that phone call, I expected my accounts to be closed in short order, but they weren't. I stopped paying off my balances in-branch, and never heard from them again, until I received notice in June that my accounts had all been closed.

The proximate cause of my shutdown seems to be that back in March I started making payments to my Double Cash card using Walmart's in-store bill pay service. I only made four total payments, but that was enough to reanimate Citi's anti-fraud department and close all my accounts just a few short months later.

Conclusion

Citi has never been one of the banks I rely on in my travel hacking practice, and I suppose I've been a dead man walking with them ever since I started making what are sometimes facetiously called "anonymous payments" to my cards (there's nothing anonymous about them, of course).

But if you do rely on Citi ThankYou cards like the Premier or Prestige, or churning AAdvantage signup bonuses, to pay for your own travel, don't be stupid: make all your payments to your cards through Citi's bill payment service, and keep your head down.

It's the tall grass, after all, that gets mown.

One weird old trick for cancelling the most annoying subscriptions

Back in November several shopping portals started running promotions offering bonus points if you signed up for an 8-week digital trial subscription to the Wall Street Journal and Barron's. The terms were a bit tricky: you had to keep the subscription for 45 days, but if you kept it for 56 days (8 weeks) you'd be charged for another month. That created a small window (which we're currently in) where you can cancel your subscription, keep the points, and not be charged for another month.

The points haul wasn't huge, but my purchases did track, and each batch cost me $1.06 after taxes, which I thought was a pretty good deal.

Dow Jones subscriptions are not meant to be cancelled

The Wall Street Journal and Barron's are both Dow Jones publications, and while you can manage your subscription online, you cannot cancel your subscription online. You need to call 1-800-JOURNAL for the Wall Street Journal or 1-800-544-0422 for Barron's, although in practice it seems the agents at either number can manage subscriptions to the other.

The Wall Street Journal call center combines the absolute worst elements of the call center experience: the lengthy script begging you not to cancel ("your subscription is paid up through the 27th, you can cancel until then, are you sure you want to cancel now?"), the terrible connection, the language barrier.

I was ultimately able to successfully cancel one subscription that way with a phone call that lasted 19 minutes, although it felt much longer. On Sunday I mustered up the resolve to make another round of calls, which is when I discovered the call center isn't open on Sundays.

That was the last straw for me.

Citi and Bank of America still offer disposable virtual credit card numbers

Virtual credit card numbers are a fairly old gimmick introduced by a few banks in the early days of online retail so that customers wouldn't have to share their "real" credit card number with online merchants. I don't know if they were ever "popular," but now they're distinctly unpopular, with to the best of my knowledge Bank of America and Citi being the only remaining card issuers that allow you to generate single-use credit card numbers for online transactions (let me and fellow readers know if the comments if you know of any other issuers).

To access virtual credit cards in Citi online banking open any card, then click on "Get Virtual Account Number" in the righthand pane. To access them in Bank of America, navigate to your account activity, scroll all the way down, and look for "Use ShopSafe."

Both banks appear to use the same technology, and I want to stress again, it is old. But it still works, and you can still generate disposable credit card numbers with customized spending limits and expiration dates. These numbers can only be used online.

Use virtual credit card numbers to auto-cancel subscriptions

The $0 liability offered by virtually all credit cards today on unauthorized charges has made the original purpose of virtual credit cards fairly remote from the modern experience. While you should still review your credit card activity carefully for unauthorized charges, it's trivially easy to get such charges reversed (some merchants would say too easy!).

But when you're dealing with sketchy merchants like Dow Jones and their outsourced call center, virtual credit card numbers offer a commonsense way to make sure you're not charged for subscriptions you don't want. Just change your billing method to a virtual credit card with a low limit and early expiration date, and your subscription will cancel itself.

Is this right?

I'm not a priest or a lawyer, and I'm especially not your priest or lawyer, so I don't have any insight into whether giving a sketchy merchant a credit card number you know (but they don't know) they won't be able to charge is legal or ethical or whatever.

I know it wouldn't be my first choice, which is why I tried to cancel my subscriptions the "right way." But when I realized I was not being dealt with in good faith, I no longer felt any compulsion to deal in good faith with them.

But even if you decide not to use virtual credit card numbers in this way, remember that Citi and Bank of America credit cardholders still have this potentially useful tool at their disposal.

Techniques I don't write about (but you should know about!)

The range of topics I write about here is pretty freewheeling. I have an open mind about any and all approaches to travel hacking and manufactured spend, and am willing to at least dabble in anything that sounds lucrative enough.

On the other hand, my own travel needs are met almost exclusively with US Bank Flexpoints, Chase Ultimate Rewards points, Delta SkyMiles, and Hilton HHonors points. All four are cheap and plentiful, and between the four currencies cover easily 90% of my annual travel budget at discounts of 75-85% off retail.

Consequently, I'm perfectly aware that the blog has developed a few blindspots: programs that are objectively lucrative, but which I don't interact with on a daily or monthly basis. With that in mind, here are a few programs that I've "undercovered" compared to their objective utility.

Southwest Airlines Companion Pass

Obviously there's no shortage of Southwest Companion Pass coverage thanks to their periodic 50,000 Rapid Rewards-point signup bonuses. But even if, like me, you don't chase signup bonuses, you should still consider simply manufacturing $110,000 per year on Chase's co-branded credit cards.

Why? Because if you fly Southwest regularly (and would otherwise pay cash), you're earning over 3 cents per dollar of unbonused manufactured spend. Using the linked example of 1.59 cent per point, you'll earn 3.18% cash back on your Southwest credit card spend, compared to the 2.105% cash back of a Barclaycard Arrival+ or 2.625% cash back of a Bank of America Travel Rewards card (enhanced with Preferred Rewards at the Platinum Honors level).

Thanks to Southwest's annual devaluations, this isn't a strategy you should use to earn Rapid Rewards points speculatively (I don't think you should earn miles or points speculatively at all!), but if you redeem Southwest points aggressively, this is a great deployment of your unbonused manufactured spend.

Interestingly, once you've earned 110,000 Companion Pass qualifying points, you're actually better off manufacturing your unbonused spend on a Chase Freedom Unlimited and then simply transferring the 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with that card to your Southwest account.

So why don't I write about the Companion Pass more? Because Southwest doesn't serve my local airport!

Reloadit cards

If you have access to accommodating or oblivious cashiers, and registers that haven't been hard-coded against accepting credit cards, then Reloadit cards can provide access to cheap, or even free, bonused manufactured spend.

I actually do have access to accommodating cashiers, and cash registers that aren't hard-coded against credit cards. But I still don't buy Reloadit cards.

The reason is that you're now required to liquidate Reloadit cards using the official Reloadit website — you can no longer load prepaid cards through those cards' own portals. This matters because the Reloadit website is terrible.

First, each Reloadit account has a limited number of "devices" that can be registered to it. To track these "devices," Reloadit installs a cookie in your web browser and asks you to name your device.

Now, I do all my browsing in incognito mode, so all my cookies are deleted each time I close my browser. Which leads Reloadit to ask me to register my device again. Etc., etc., ad nauseam.

To incorporate Reloadits into my manufactured spend practice, I would have to either start using a special browser just for Reloadits, or muck about with different user profiles in Google Chrome. And the payoff? Saving $50 or $60 per month on activation and liquidation fees.

If that's worth it to you, you should definitely shop around for Reloadits and friendly cashiers. But it's not worth it to me, so you won't find many breaking news updates about Reloadit on this blog.

Citi ThankYou Rewards

With the slow but steady demise of manufactured spend at gas stations, the best current combination of Citi ThankYou cards seems to be the Citi AT&T Access More card combined with a Citi Prestige card. The former earns 3 points per dollar spent on online retail purchases, and the latter allows you to redeem those points for 1.6 cents each towards paid American Airlines tickets, or transfer them to one of Citi's travel partners.

This combination is tailor-made for resellers who source their products online and know how to get good value from their ThankYou points. It is expensive, though, with a $95 annual fee on the AT&T Access More card and a $450 annual fee on the Citi Prestige.

I personally don't pursue this strategy because US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards give me a roughly similar value (up to 4 cents towards airfare on any airline per dollar of spend, compared to 4.8 cents on American Airlines or 3.75 cents on other carriers), at a far lower cost (a single $49 annual fee). Moreover, I do my best to avoid flying American Airlines, and I don't engage in more than a cursory amount of reselling.

It's a potentially powerful combination, but it's not for me, so I don't write about it much here on the blog!

Conclusion

In the real world, people constantly operate under misinformed, poorly-informed, or uninformed prejudices. That's to be expected.

But we don't have to do so blindly! By being aware of my prejudices, like my preference for lower annual fees over higher ones, I can consciously work to evaluate conflicting ideas on their merits, instead of on my own preconceived notions.

The payoff of that work may take a long time to appear, but it's ultimately a concrete improvement in the quality of my decision-making.

Starting from scratch: airline tickets

Travel hacking is an iterative game: the options you have available today are restricted by the decisions you made in the past. That's one reason I avoid giving advice whenever possible: your situation is different from mine, not just depending on the merchants you have available geographically, but also depending on which banks you have relationships with, which products you've already had or lost, and the amount of time you have available to dedicate to the game.

Having said that, I do sometimes think about how I would design a travel hacking strategy from scratch: with a blank slate, what approach would I take to the loyalty ecosystem to get the most value for my travel hacking dollar?

Today's post is about how I would approach booking airline tickets if I were starting from scratch. Tomorrow's will be about hotel stays.

Revenue versus award

Starting from scratch, there's a basic decision you have to make about how to pay for the flights you're responsible for securing each year: will you book revenue tickets or award tickets? Once you're deeply involved in the game you may have large balances across a range of programs you can deploy for their optimal uses. But when you're just getting started, it's much easier to focus on this stark choice.

When booking revenue tickets, you'll usually get a fixed return on your travel hacking dollar, or one that falls in a relatively narrow band: US Bank Flexpoints are worth 1.33 to 2 cents each, Chase Ultimate Rewards points in a premium (Ink Plus or Sapphire Preferred) account are worth a fixed 1.25 cents each, and Citi ThankYou points are worth between 1.25 cents and 1.6 cents depending on whether you have a Premier or Prestige card, and the airline marketing the flight.

When booking award tickets, there's no such band of values: points can range in value from a fraction of a penny up to 10 cents or so depending both on the cash price of the flight and the number of miles required to book it.

Note that neither of these options is any more or less "free" than the other. Since you should be manufacturing spend furiously, you're paying acquisition and liquidation fees for whichever currency you happen to choose. The only question is which strategy will bring the cost of your travel down the most.

Revenue tickets are cheap

On the revenue side, there are lots of good options depending on your situation:

  • Citi ThankYou Premier. A fixed 3.75 cents in airfare per dollar spent at gas stations. At $5.75 in "all-in" cost for $505 in spend, a 69.6% discount off retail.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Up to 4 cents in airfare per dollar spent at grocery stores or gas stations (wherever you spend more each month). At $6.30 in "all-in" cost for $506 in spend, an "up to" 68.9% discount off retail.
  • BankAmericard Travel Rewards. For those with $100,000 on deposit with Bank of America, Merrill Lynch, and MerrillEdge, a fixed 2.625 cents in airfare per dollar spent everywhere. At $4.30 in "all-in" cost for $504 in spend, a 67.5% discount off retail.
  • Chase Ink Plus. For small business owners, a fixed 6.25 cents in airfare per dollar spent at office supply stores (and 2.5 cents per dollar spent at gas stations). At $9.18 in "all-in" cost for $309 in office supply spend, a 52.5% discount off retail.

When I say "depending on your situation," I mean to draw attention to the fact that you when starting from scratch, you shouldn't pursue all four options! If you don't have access to gas station manufactured spend, the Citi ThankYou Premier won't work for you. If you don't have access to grocery store manufactured spend, the Flexperks Travel Rewards card isn't for you. If you don't have access to $100,000, the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card won't give you the same value it will someone who does. And if you don't own a small business, Chase probably won't give you an Ink Plus.

Award tickets are cheap and (can be) hedged

On the award side, the picture looks radically different. Three of the four major domestic airlines offer some form of "last-seat" availability on their own flights: Delta, American, and Alaska will sell almost any seat on almost any date for some number of miles, while United reserves last-seat "standard" availability to their co-branded Chase credit cardholders. Thus there are three pots airline rewards currencies fall into:

  • Delta. When starting from scratch, there are two main ways into the Delta ecosystem: their own co-branded credit cards, and American Express Membership Rewards co-branded credit cards. Unfortunately, neither of them is cheap. The American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards offer 1.4 (Platinum) and 1.5 (Reserve) SkyMiles per dollar spent everywhere when you spend exactly $25,000 (Platinum) and $30,000 (Reserve) and $50,000 (Platinum) and $60,000 (Reserve) each calendar year. But the Delta Platinum card costs $195 per year and the Reserve $450 per year! Meanwhile, the American Express Premier Rewards Gold costs $175 per year and earns 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations and supermarkets. Those points can then be transferred to Delta on a 1-to-1 basis. Moreover, Membership Rewards points let you hedge your downside risk: if a particular Delta award redemption gives you less than 1 cent per Membership Rewards point, you can book it as a revenue ticket. If it gives you more than 1 cent per point, you can book it as an award ticket.
  • Alaska and American. Advanced travel hackers muck about with applying for Alaska and American co-branded credit cards over and over again at various intervals. But when starting from scratch, there's a simple way into both ecosystems at the same time: with the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. When transferred to either Alaska or American, the card earns 1.25 miles per dollar spent everywhere, which is higher than the amount you can earn directly with either airline's co-branded credit card. Like Membership Rewards points, Starwood Preferred Guest also offers a hedged downside risk, since you can redeem their points for between 1 and 1.43 cents per point for revenue tickets using "SPG Flights."
  • United. If you're able to make United your main airline, then you'll never do better than with a Chase Ink Plus small business credit card, because of its bonused earning rate at office supply stores and 1-to-1 transfer ratio to United MileagePlus. But if you can't get a small business credit card, then you have some hard decisions to make. You could get a Chase Freedom Unlimited, which earns 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points everywhere, and a Chase Sapphire Preferred, which enables the transfer of Ultimate Rewards points to United, but that combination comes with a $95 annual fee. Alternatively, a Chase United MileagePlus Club card earns 1.5 United miles on all purchases but has a $450 annual fee. That's the kind of up-front expense that's not precisely crazy, but needs to be well-justified before taking it on.

Your situation should drive your decision between revenue and award tickets

As I mentioned, I try not to give advice.

Your situation is different from mine: your award availability, typical revenue flight prices, and airline service have nothing to do with mine.

But in my experience, for many people, much of the time, a focus on revenue tickets will generate bigger savings than a focus on award tickets, and if I were starting from scratch, that's where I'd start.

Fortunately, you don't need to take my word for it: all the numbers are above. Look at your own travel needs and it should quickly become obvious whether revenue flights or award flights will generate more value for your travel hacking dollar.

Tomorrow, I'll take the same approach to hotels: starting from scratch, are award nights really cheaper than just paying for your hotel stays?

Should you use super-premium cards to pay for airfare through manufactured spend?

A few months back I wrote a breakdown of three cards which earn bonused flexible points currencies at gas stations: the Chase Ink Plus (and Bold), Citi ThankYou Premier (as of April 19, 2015), and American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred.

While flexible points are terrific for short-haul Avios redemptions and long-haul premium cabin redemptions, I also like to remind readers that sometimes it makes sense to fly on revenue tickets. With the announcement of a new, 30% rebate on "Pay with Points" tickets purchased through the American Express Business Platinum card (via Twitter user @LoyalUA1K), I thought I'd revisit the subject with gas station manufactured spend squarely in mind.

Four ways to buy cheap plane tickets at gas stations

There are four methods I want to consider for buying revenue airline tickets using points earned at gas stations (four methods, and not four cards, for reasons that are about to become clear):

  • Chase Ink Plus/Bold. Earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, on up to $50,000 in annual gas station purchases. Points can be redeemed for paid airfare at 1.25 cents each. $95 annual fee.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Earns 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent at gas stations, if you spend more at gas stations than at grocery stores or on airline tickets during that statement cycle. $49 annual fee, which can be waived if you spend $24,000 during the cardmember year.
  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. Earn 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent with the ThankYou Premier, and redeem them through the ThankYou Prestige for 1.6 cents each for tickets issued by American Airlines and US Airways or 1.3 cents each for tickets issued by other carriers. $95 annual fee for ThankYou Premier and $450 annual fee for Prestige (a $350 annual fee version may be available in-branch, although getting it sounds stressful).
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum. Earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent with the EveryDay Preferred (as long as you make 30 purchases per month), and redeem them through American Express Travel using the Business Platinum card for roughly 1.43 cents each on the same airline you designate for your $200 annual fee reimbursement. $95 annual fee for EveryDay Preferred and $450 annual fee for Business Platinum.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Free-quent Flyer, can't you show the same information in a simple chart?"

As a matter of fact, I can:

How much paid airfare makes premium card annual fees worth paying?

Anyone who's followed my blog for long knows what I think about annual airline fee credits: they're a way for affiliate bloggers to downplay preposterously high annual fees and move more product.

Since I'm not an affiliate blogger and don't have a dog in that hunt, I treat credit card annual fees the same way I suggest my readers do: as upfront expenses that have to be justified by the concrete value delivered by a card.

By concrete value, in this case I mean the actual surplus delivered by a premium card compared to a workhorse like the Flexperks Travel Rewards card.

As the chart above shows, the minimum value of a dollar of gas station manufactured spend with the Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige combination is almost as much as the maximum value of a dollar manufactured with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card, and assuming you're loyal to American Airlines and US Airways, you'll receive a minimum of 0.8 cents more per dollar.

With the American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum combination, you'll only want to redeem Membership Rewards points for airfare on your preferred carrier, since almost all other "Pay with Points" redemptions (except for sub-$300 airfares) will be worse values than a Flexpoint redemption.

On the other hand, those card combinations come with hefty annual fees, meaning that any surplus value earned on the redemption side compared to cheaper cards has to exceed the difference in upfront costs in the form of annual fees.

To arrive at that breakeven point, first we need to find a reasonable valuation for Flexpoints, which can be redeemed in bands at 10,000 Flexpoint intervals. While it's tempting to take a simple average of the top and bottom of each redemption band (i.e. 1.67 cents per Flexpoint), in my experience it's possible to consistently land closer to the top of that range. That being the case, let's use a point three quarters of the way from the bottom, or 1.83 cents per Flexpoint (e.g. a $367, 20,000 Flexpoint redemption).

Here's how much paid airfare you need to fly annually in order to justify $545 in annual fees, compared to the waivable $49 annual fee of the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card:

  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. $2,294 at American Airlines and US Airways ($47,807 in annual gas station manufactured spend)
  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. $8,856 at other airlines ($227,083 in annual gas station manufactured spend).
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum. $3,711 with your designated airline ($86,508 in annual gas station manufactured spend).

Conclusion

I'm perfectly aware that these cards offer redemption options that can be more lucrative than redeeming points for airfare at privileged rates. In fact, I wrote a whole blog post comparing their transfer partners in each alliance.

I'm further aware that the super-premium $450-annual-fee cards offer benefits like lounge access, airline fee credits, and Global Entry fee reimbursement.

So any readers who are inclined to hash out the value of those benefits are welcome to do so in the comments.

But I am also certain that simply purchasing paid airline tickets is the single most common method of flying domestically for travel hackers and civilians alike, and an analysis of these cards along those lines was overdue.

Earning flexible points at gas stations

Via Doctor of Credit, the Citi ThankYou Premier card is apparently lowering its annual fee and significantly changing its bonus earning categories by including gas stations in its bonused "travel" category, while increasing its earning rate to 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent there.

This is potentially a huge deal: beginning April 19, 2015, Citi, American Express, and Chase will all offer flexible-point-earning credit cards with sub-$100 annual fees, and all three will bonus purchases at gas stations.

Since the ThankYou Premier card is currently issued as a Visa, my expectation is that in-store purchases at 7-Eleven store locations, whether or not they sell gas, will earn points at the accelerated rate.

The Cards

Here are the cards I have in mind:

  • Chase Ink Plus Visa. 2 flexible Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations. $95 annual fee;
  • American Express Amex Everyday Preferred. 2 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, with a 50% bonus during statement cycles you make 30 or more purchases (anywhere) with the card. $95 annual fee;
  • Citi ThankYou Premier. 3 flexible ThankYou points per dollar spent at gas stations. $95 annual fee starting April 19, 2015. Wait until then to apply in order to maximize your earning during your first cardmember year.

Analysis

Let me be clear that it makes no sense to carry all three of these cards on an ongoing basis. On the other hand, both the Chase Ink Plus and Citi ThankYou Premier periodically (for example, right now) offer 50,000 point signup bonuses which may entice you to apply. Once you've crossed the hurdle of signing up for the card, you may well decide to incorporate it into your manufactured spending strategy.

Only Chase Ultimate Rewards points are directly redeemable for cash, while all three points currencies can be redeemed for paid, mileage-earning airline tickets. Additionally, Citi ThankYou points can be redeemed for mortgage or student loan "rebate checks" made out to your loan holder. Membership Rewards points can be monetized by redeeming them for American Express gift cards, although you'll have to pay any costs involved in liquidating them.

Since monetizing these points will yield a maximum value of 1 cent per point, you'll probably be best-served earning these flexible currencies with the intention of redeeming them for flights through their airline transfer partners.

With that in mind, I created this chart to incorporate the relevant information about the three cards:

Conclusion

A glance at this chart suggests a few obvious conclusions:

  • All three flexible points currencies have transfer partners in all three airline alliances;
  • Only Ultimate Rewards can be transferred to United or Korean Air;
  • But only ThankYou and Membership Rewards points can be transferred to Air France KLM Flying Blue points.

Which cards, if any, you decide to apply for and use to manufacture spend at gas stations should depend on the redemptions you plan actually plan to make. But Citi's changes to the ThankYou Premier card are a big step towards leveling the playing field between these three cards.

American and US Airways award discounts

As I've mentioned, in January I was approved for both the Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World MasterCard and Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard. Having met the minimum spending requirements for both cards, I paid them off and stuck them in a drawer.

Of course, now I've got all those miles on my hands! Since I have an expensive domestic roundtrip coming up in March, I thought I'd check out what kind of award availability the airlines had on the dates I needed (hint: not much!).

That got me to wondering about the award discounts offered by the two airlines to their co-branded credit card holders. I found it intensely confusing, so I thought I'd throw up a quick summary in case any of my readers recently signed up for the same cards.

American Airlines: 10% mileage rebate & reduced mileage awards

There are two kinds of discounts you get as a Citi / AAdvantage cardholder. First, there's a 10% mileage rebate on all the miles you redeem out of your account each calendar month, up to 10,000 total miles (on 100,000 in mileage redemptions). Second, there are "reduced mileage awards" which are offered to a changing list of (domestic) destinations throughout the year. That program is clearly decided to be as difficult to take advantage of as possible: you need to look up the eligible cities for each month, copy down the code, and input it when making your award reservation.

Oddly, the terms and conditions of the 10% rebate program don't even require these redemptions to be for flights, so if you find a good redemption for hotels or car rentals, or if you redeem your miles for an Admiral Club membership, you should receive the rebate on those redemptions as well (I don't know how this works in practice).

Finally, for bookings made through February 27 for flights through April 4, there's another active promotion whereby non-stop MileSAAver economy award flights between Los Angeles and cities in the continental United States, and all MileSAAver economy award trips between Las Vegas and cities in the continental United States cost 10,000 AAdvantage miles each way, instead of 12,500. The 10% mileage rebate should apply to the final (post-discount) cost of each flight.

US Airways: 5,000 mile award discount

When you're a Barclaycard US Airways cardholder in good standing, you are designated "Dividend Miles Select." As far as I can tell the only benefit of that "status" is that you receive a flat, 5,000 Dividend Mile discount on all US Airways-operated flights.

I'm not going to lie, I've been messing around on US Airways' website for the last hour and I cannot for the life of me get the 5,000 mile discount to apply to any award tickets. Presumably if I actually wanted to book an award I could call in and have a phone agent apply the discount.

Analysis

The added wrinkle in all this is that starting a few weeks ago, you've been able to use American miles to make award reservations on US Airways, and vice versa. That means that it's possible to receive a 10% discount on US Airways award reservations by making the reservation through your American AAdvantage account. So when deciding which account to make a reservation through, you need to ask yourself the following questions:

  • Have I already received 10,000 miles through the AAdvantage rebate program this calendar year? If so, you won't receive any additional discount this calendar year.
  • Is this award ticket operated entirely on US Airways aircraft? If not, it's not eligible for the 5,000 mile discount.
  • If it is operated entirely by US Airways, is it more or fewer than 50,000 Dividend Miles? If it's more, you'll be better off using AAdvantage miles. If it's fewer, use your 5,000 Dividend Mile discount and save your rebate headroom for a more expensive redemption.

Finally, consider checked bag fees. The US Airways MasterCard famously does not include free checked bags, while the AAdvantage card does. American's website currently has the following helpful information:

"Q: Do the First Bag Checked Free Waiver and Group 1 Boarding (or Priority Boarding) benefits on select Citi®/AAdvantage® cards apply to US Airways flights?

"A: Not at this time. These benefits will not be available for travel on any US Airways flights, including any codeshare flights."

That means that if you're deciding specifically between American-operated and US-operated flights, booking the American flight with a 10% discount may be more economical than booking the US Airways flight with a 5,000 mile discount; it depends on whether the difference in miles is worth more or less than the $50 you'll pay roundtrip per first checked bag and $70 per second checked bag on US Airways.

Confused yet? Me too. Let me know in the comments if I'm missing anything obvious.

Quick update: my impromptu January application cycle

[update 1/11/14: I never got around to calling Chase about my British Airways application, but today I saw that it had been added to my online accounts with a $2,000 credit line.]

Yesterday I announced that in honor of the 5% cash back "old" Blue Cash card still being available, I was moving my next round of applications up from the beginning of February. That meant scrounging around for the best, currently-available, signup bonuses. Unfortunately, the Alaska Airlines offer I wrote about in my "perfect storm" post is no longer available. Here's what I ended up applying for:

  1. American Express "old" Blue Cash. No signup bonus, no minimum spend requirement, no annual fee. 5% cash back at drug stores after spending $6,500 each year. Result: immediate online approval, $1,000 credit limit.
  2. Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World MasterCard. 50,000 miles after spending $3,000 within the first 3 months. Result: approval after calling the "status check" number, (888) 201-4523, $3,000 credit limit.
  3. Barclaycard US Airways MasterCard. 35,000 miles after first purchase. Result: immediate online approval, $1,000 credit limit.
  4. Chase British Airways Visa Signature. 100,000 miles after spending $20,000 within 12 months. Result: application pending. I called into the application status line today, (800)-436-7927, but have still been unable to get a decision or shuffle my credit limits around to secure approval. I'll wait and call back on Monday.

As you can see, because this application cycle was impromptu, I didn't have a chance to massage my credit by making sure all my credit card statements closed with a low or zero balance. My day-to-day high utilization rate negatively impacts my score between application cycles, making me look less credit-worthy (even though I always pay off my balances in full).

However, this doesn't bother me. I intend to only use the US Airways card once, to secure the signup bonus, and spend just $3,000 on the American Airlines card, so those low credit limits aren't a problem.

The $1,000 credit limit on the Blue Cash card, on the other hand, would be an issue except for the fact that American Express makes it easy to shuffle your credit limits between cards, so I'll be able to move all but a small part of my $10,000 Hilton HHonors American Express credit limit over to my new Blue Cash card (this is only possible within personal and business cards, not between them). That'll give me more than enough room to manufacture spend on my new 5% cash back card.

All in all, I'm pleased with the results of this application cycle, and hopefully I'll get approval for my British Airways application in the next day or two, possibly after moving part of my credit limit over from my Chase Sapphire Preferred card.

Breaking: Citi ThankYou 5x is still available

In my January application cycle I applied for the Citi ThankYou Preferred card through an offer that gave 5 ThankYou points per dollar spent at drug stores, grocery stores, and gas stations for the first 12 months of card membership. I was instantly approved and began using the card to manufacture student loan rebate checks, which I use to pay off loans at a rate of 1 cent per ThankYou point.

That online offer soon died, but today I woke up to find Frequent Miler reporting via the Miles Professor that a very similar offer is still alive and well. The catch? It's only available at brick-and-mortar Citibank locations.

The offer is for the Citi ThankYou card, instead of the ThankYou Preferred card. Using Citi's online credit card comparison tool, it appears to me that the only difference between the two cards is that the Preferred card doesn't have a preset spending limit, while the regular ThankYou card does. So keep that in mind.

It's hard to say how long this offer will be available. I never recommend rushing into a credit card application cycle, but if you have one coming up anyway and haven't applied for another Citi card in the last 3 months or so, I can tell you this is the most lucrative offer you will see this year and you should strongly consider applying. Check out Citi's branch locator to see if there's a branch near you, or in an area you might be traveling to soon.

Three cards worth manufacturing spend on

Last Wednesday I laid out a simple, reproducible method for manufacturing spending at no net cost. Then on Friday I explained why for most travel hackers, it's not necessary to reduce net costs to zero. Rather, it makes more sense to use 2% cash back cards to merely reduce your net costs so that your individual travel hacking budget takes you farther.

Today I'd like to give an overview of some of the best cards to use when manufacturing spending in order to maximize your travel rewards. Some of this material will be familiar from my article in February on "true" credit card earning rates.

Here are 3 cards that I think have annual fees worth paying in order to manufacture spending using the card.

1. Delta Platinum American Express cards (personal and business)

First, a caveat: these cards are only relevant if you are interested in achieving a higher Delta Medallion elite status than you can earn through flight activity alone. However, if you are a Delta frequent flyer then one or both of these cards is indispensable for the ability to earn up to 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles per card each year.

  • How much you should spend: $25,000 or $50,000
  • How much you'll pay (at .79 cents per dollar): $197.50 or $395, plus a $150 annual fee
  • What you'll get: 35,000 or 70,000 Delta Skymiles and 10,000 or 20,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles
  • Why it's worth it: paying $545 for the 20,000 MQM alone is a good deal, since that's just 2.7 cents per MQM, which is very respectable as a mileage run alone.  The fact that you also receive 70,000 Skymiles, which are worth a minimum of $700 (because you can use them to Pay With Miles at a value of 1 cent each), makes this deal unbelievably good. Additionally, starting in 2014 it'll be necessary to spend at least $25,000 on a Delta co-branded credit card in order to escape the onerous new Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements for Medallion status.

As I mentioned last month, I picked up the business version of this card during my April application cycle, and I'll get the personal card in January, once 12 months have passed since I canceled my last card, if there's still a lucrative enough signup bonus.

2. Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve

  • How much you should spend: $10,000
  • How much you'll pay: $79, plus a $95 annual fee
  • What you'll get: 30,000 Hilton HHonors points and a free weekend night certificate, good at any Hilton property in the world with the exception of Hilton's all-inclusive resorts and Hilton Grand Vacation properties
  • Why it's worth it: the free weekend night certificate is doing most of the work in this calculation. Since the certificate can be used at almost any Hilton property in the world, you can wait until your travels take you to a particularly expensive city during a weekend and score a free room at the most expensive Hilton in town. That kind of flexibility is worth an incredible amount to me.

I haven't had a chance to apply for this card yet, but I certainly will during my next application cycle, if a more lucrative Citi offer doesn't come along before then.

3. US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa

his is an interesting card because it offers two different opportunities to manufacture unlimited quantities of US Bank's fixed-value rewards currency, Flexpoints. The card has an annual fee of $49, which you can also pay by redeeming 3,500 Flexpoints.

Opportunity #1: Grocery Store Gift Cards

As described in Chapter 2 of my book, if grocery stores are the bonus category you spend the most in during a statement cycle, you'll earn 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent in that category. You can take advantage of this bonus category by buying Visa or Mastercard gift cards which can be used to fund a Bluebird or Gobank account at any Walmart register.

The objective is to purchase a high-denomination gift card with as low a fee as possible. Since your 2 Flexpoints are worth up to 4 cents each when redeemed for airfare, if the fee is less than 2% of the face value of the card (for example a $5.95 fee for a $500 gift card, or 1.1%), you'll earn more net value than you would by buying a Vanilla Reload Network reload card using a 2% cash back card.

Opportunity #2: Kiva Loans

Since Kiva loans are processed as "charitable contributions," loans funded using your Flexperks Travel Rewards card earn 3 Flexpoints per dollar loaned. Using this technique you can manufacture as many Flexpoints as your risk tolerance allows. Kiva loans have a repayment period of 6 to 60+ months; you receive the amount of your loan back as the borrower makes loan payments. If the borrower defaults, you lose your remaining loan amount. You can select short-term, low-risk Kiva loans using Kiva's tools or the tools available at kivalens.org.

I have 2 of these cards: US Bank allows you to apply for and carry as many of the same card type as your credit history allows you to be approved for. I applied for my first card under the standard signup bonus of 17,500 Flexpoints, and then again during the Summer Olympic Games promotion, where I ended up earning an additional 33,150 Flexpoints. When my first annual fee is due, I'll ask for a product change to the lucrative, no-fee US Bank Cash+ card.

Conclusion

Each of the cards in this post offers out-sized value when used to meet specific travel goals. The Delta Platinum cards allow you to jump almost an entire Medallion tier by aggressively manufacturing credit card spend; the Citi Hilton HHonors Reserve card offers a free weekend night that is begging to be redeemed for a super-expensive night at a property in the center of one of the world's reat cities; and the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card lets you buy paid tickets at a huge discount, while earning elite-qualifying and redeemable miles for your flights.