My version of the co-branded paradox

I was listening to the latest episode of the new Milenomics² podcast, which everyone should subscribe to, and sign up for bonus Patreon content from, and the hosts brought up what they call the “co-branded paradox.” By this they mean the counter-intuitive way that even if you like staying at Hyatt properties, or like flying on Delta, your best bet for a credit card to use on everyday spend is probably not a Hyatt or Delta co-branded credit card.

That’s for the simple reason that while those cards may offer other worthwhile benefits, they actually earn points at a lower rate than other available options. A Chase World of Hyatt credit card may be worth carrying for the annual free night, but for non-bonused spend you’d be better off using a Freedom Unlimited card, which earns 50% more Ultimate Rewards points. At restaurants, the World of Hyatt card earns 2 points per dollar, but so does the Chase Sapphire Preferred, which allows you to transfer your points to Hyatt or any of Chase’s other transfer partners.

Likewise, you might want to carry a Delta Platinum card for the annual companion ticket or to take advantage of free checked bags, but that card only earns 1 SkyMile per dollar spent, while a no-annual fee Amex EveryDay earns 1.2 Membership Rewards points everywhere when you use the card 20 times per month (and the $95 EveryDay Preferred earns 1.5 points everywhere when you use it 30 times per month).

This is even more true in the case of products like the Chase IHG Rewards Club credit cards, which earn just 1 point per dollar spent on unbonused purchases: the more you value IHG Rewards Club points, the less you should be willing to spend on their co-branded credit cards, for the simple reason that a simple 2% cash back credit card earns almost 3 points per dollar, given that points can be purchased year-round for 0.7 cents or less.

All this produces a simple conclusion: get co-branded credit cards if you like their benefits, but don’t use them for actual purchases, where you can earn more points, more valuable points, or both using other products.

This is fine as far as it goes, but I actually think the logic of the co-branded paradox can be taken one step further.

Put everyday purchases on the card that earns the least useful rewards

What listening to the Milenomics podcast got me thinking about was the fact that most frequent travelers are usually already optimizing their earning of their most useful loyalty currencies. If you’re a paid business traveler that likes flying on United, you’re already earning United miles every time you fly. The fact that you like flying United shouldn’t encourage you to earn more United miles because your paid travel is already taking care of that. Likewise if you’re spending 55 nights a year at Hyatt properties for work, you’re likely already earning somewhere in the neighborhood of 100,000 points per year, plus two annual free nights (at the 30-night and 55-night thresholds) and any points earned from seasonal promotions.

To me, this is the real co-branded paradox: if your paid travel and manufactured spend are already optimized around the most useful rewards currencies, then your everyday spend should be going to the least useful rewards currencies, the ones that are nice to have lying around but that you don’t count on for your major travel needs.

A few examples off the top of my head:

  • Barclaycard Choice Privileges Visa. If you’re like me, you don’t stay at Choice Hotels properties very often. But when you do want to stay at a Choice Hotel, you can get terrific value from having a handful of Choice Privileges points lying around.

  • Bank of America Amtrak Guest Rewards MasterCard. This is another card that doesn’t make any sense to put hundreds of thousands of dollars in spend on, but if you do like to occasionally ride on Amtrak, you might like to have 20 or 30 thousand points kicking around so you don’t have to pay cash for what would be an especially high-value redemption, like 2.9 cent-per-point long-haul sleeper accommodations.

  • US Bank Radisson Rewards cards. I don’t carry any of these cards anymore because, with the exception of the Radisson Blu Aqua in Chicago, I have mostly found Radisson properties to be trash heaps. However, if you do still carry any of these cards due to their anniversary point bonanzas, you might also consider using them for everyday spend, earning as they do 5 points per dollar on unbonused spend.

Conclusion

Of course in one sense I’m being a bit tongue-in-cheek: obviously you shouldn’t prioritize earning less-useful currencies over more-useful currencies. But this is another way of expressing my long-standing observation that people really are inclined to earn too much, and redeem too little, of the currencies they consider most valuable. If there’s one good thing about the end of the Starwood Preferred Guest program it will be that we won’t have to listen to people complain that Starpoints are “too valuable to redeem” ever again!

If you’re maxing out a couple of Ink Plus cards at office supply stores every year and sitting on a million Ultimate Rewards points already, then I think it can make perfect sense to put away the Freedom Unlimited card when you go out to eat and pulling out something a little more exotic. Not because Amtrak Guest Rewards points are more valuable than Ultimate Rewards points in the abstract, but because they might be more valuable to you at the frontier you are personally operating at.

Redeeming US Bank Flexpoints in any amount for any ticket

This weekend, I noticed something interesting while booking a couple upcoming trips over the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, something that might increase the value of US Bank Flexpoints for certain redemptions.

Prior to 2018, US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa points could be redeemed for up to 2 cents each in airfare in $200 redemption bands through the US Bank’s contracted “Travel Rewards Center.” You could book multiple tickets on the same reservation, but you needed to pay for at least one ticket entirely with Flexpoints. For example, you could book two $500 tickets for 60,000 Flexpoints, or for 30,000 Flexpoints and $500.

On Sunday, I logged in to set about redeeming about 47,000 Flexpoints for two reservations with two tickets each. One reservation had two $200 tickets and the second, two $500 tickets. If you run the numbers, you notice this was the ideal situation for me: 47,000 Flexpoints are worth $700, so I’d be able to pay for one ticket on each reservation entirely with Flexpoints, and the second ticket with cash.

But oddly, when I actually went to book the ticket, US Bank offered to let me apply all 47,000 Flexpoints to the $1,000 reservation (leaving $300 leftover to pay in cash). I fiddled around with several options, and it seems to me US Bank no longer requires you to choose between paying with Flexpoints or paying with cash: you can now use any combination of Flexpoints and cash for any number of tickets, through the US Bank travel portal.

Why it matters

There are two key reasons you might be interested in this change, if you weren’t already aware of it:

  • It’s the easiest way to completely empty your Flexperks balance. Since you can redeem any number of Flexpoints, up to your entire balance, for 1.5 cents each towards travel through the Travel Rewards Center, you never need to worry about having too many points or leaving orphaned points in your account. By contrast, Real-Time Rewards redemptions require you to have enough Flexpoints to cover the entire amount of your purchase, possibly causing you to over-earn, or orphan, small Flexpoint balances.

  • US Bank still offers $25 airline allowances “with each redeemed airline award travel ticket.” Since you can now book any number of tickets with any number of Flexpoints, I don’t see why you shouldn’t be able to request a $25 allowance per ticket booked through the US Bank Travel Rewards Center, regardless of the number of Flexpoints you redeem for that reservation.

Conclusion

While a minor change to the overall Flexperks programs, which already offered a fixed 1.5 cents per Flexpoint in redemption value, the ability to redeem any number of Flexpoints up to your account balance is a modest improvement in the overall value proposition, since it virtually guarantees you’ll be able to redeem your entire balance at its maximum possible value, eliminating the risk of orphaned points as your manufactured spend or travel hacking practice changes over time.

US Bank Real-Time Rewards are growing on me

I wrote back in April about my misfired attempt to use US Bank Real-Time Rewards to pay for a hotel stay, learning the boring way that they really do enforce the $500 minimum on hotel Real-Time Rewards redemptions. But since then, I've had quite a few successful experiences with them, and have basically come around to the concept, despite my initial skepticism.

Three successful Real-Time Rewards redemptions

Since my Citi American AAdvantage credit card was shut down for boring reasons, I've flown a few times on American and had to find the best way to pay baggage fees, because I love checking bags.

It turns out, US Bank Real-Time Rewards redemptions are perfect for paying checked bag fees. In each case, the text message was immediately delivered to my phone, offering me the option of redeeming 1,667 Flexpoints for my $25 checked bag fees.

A third recent redemption was of 16,633 Flexpoints against a $249.50 Amtrak reservation (to Atlantic City).

The checked bag fees are things I would ordinarily just pay with cash, since the Barclay Arrival+ minimum redemption is $100, while I'd usually pay for the Amtrak ticket with Arrival+ and hope to earn enough points to redeem against the transaction sometime in the next 120 days (indeed, that's how I paid for our return tickets).

The key insight here is that while grocery store manufactured spend is somewhat more expensive than unbonused manufactured spend, it can be more lucrative (the equivalent of 3% cash back with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card) by more than it is more expensive. That difference can be expanded if you are also able to take advantage of things like periodic gas promotions on prepaid debit card purchases (I don't drive so that consideration doesn't directly affect me, but I'm aware that gas can make up a big part of many reader's budgets).

As always, use the right tool for the right job

Developing a travel hacking practice is about putting together the constellation of programs that help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take. That can be frustrating at first if you want to know what the "best" credit card or rewards currency is (and there are dozens of bloggers well-compensated to give you one answer or another).

If you asked me, or almost any honest travel hacker ("honest" is doing a lot of work here), what the best rewards currency is, 9 times out of 10 you'd hear Chase Ultimate Rewards. They're easy to earn, and very valuable when transferred to partners like United, Hyatt, or Southwest under some circumstances. However, no currency is perfect, and that's just as true of Ultimate Rewards as any other currency.

Consider a typical combination of a Chase Freedom Unlimited and Sapphire Reserve card. That combination gives you the flexibility of transferring to partners where appropriate, plus the equivalent of 2.25% on unbonused spend when you book through the Ultimate Rewards portal (1.5 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar, worth 1.5 cents each through the portal).

But of course, there are reservations you can't or don't want to make through the Ultimate Rewards portal. For example, you can't book Amtrak tickets through Chase's travel portal, and if you want to pay cash for a stay at a chain hotel (for example to receive elite-qualifying nights or stays, or to receive elite status benefits) you will usually need to book directly. Likewise if you want to use a service like Autoslash to monitor the price of a car rental and rebook it as it falls, you probably don't want to book through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

A final use case for Real-Time Rewards is when you want to be sure you're earning revenue-based and not distance-based redeemable miles on paid airline tickets. While revenue-based earning was generally considered a devaluation, especially for long, cheap flights, for expensive short-haul flights (precisely the kind of flight you'd want to save as much money as possible on by redeeming points) you may well find yourself better off earning redeemable miles based on the fare paid. I was recently disappointed to see an Ultimate Rewards travel portal redemption booked into a consolidator fare class, and I earned just 500 miles each direction instead of the several thousand miles I would have earned based on my fare. It wasn't the end of the world, but in general if you're concerned about maximizing the redeemable miles you earn on paid tickets it's something to be aware of, and Frequent Miler has a 2016 post describing the issue in much more detail.

So, Real-Time Rewards seem like a good opportunity to realize the Flexperks Travel Rewards full 3% value (or the Altitude Reserve's full 4.5% on mobile wallet purchases) when you want or need to book direct.

US Bank Real-Time Rewards: don't learn from your mistakes, learn from my mistakes

Back in March when I first wrote about US Bank's introduction of "Real-Time Rewards" to their Flexperks Travel Rewards and Altitude credit cards, reader Chris left a comment warning about a problem he'd encountered:

"So I just learned the hard way that there seems to be a temporary glitch with real-time rewards. Or at least, this is what I experienced on a purchase a few days ago and how it was explained to me by a CSR. Apparently there is a current glitch in the system where it views (at least some) travel at only 1 cent/point rather than 1.5 cents/point. While you may be able to actually process payment at the correct rate, if you don't have a high enough balance of points in your account, the system will think you don't have enough points (even though you do) and not send out real time text. In other words, say you have a $100 flight. That should cost you 6.667 points. However, the system thinks you would need 10,000 points to buy this flight and thus won't trigger real time rewards unless you have at least 10,000 points. The CSR was also unable to manually process this either. The solution for now is that they gave me enough points to make me whole on the transaction, although I have to wait for the correction to post with my statement at which time I call back and have them make the manual adjustment. There was no word when the correction would occur so be warned - I would say don't use real time rewards unless you also have enough points in your account (at least until there is a correction)."

Being a travel hacker, I sensed an opportunity: if US Bank (or the company they've farmed their rewards programs out to) is aware of the problem, and has a procedure in place to correct it, this had the potential to be a points machine. You could book travel you have enough points for at 1.5 cents each, but not at 1 cent each, call in, have the points manually added to your account, and profit.

The Flexperks Rewards Center has no idea what's going on

I recently thought I spotted an opportunity to try out this technique, booking a $300 hotel stay in Philadelphia, with a little over 20,000 Flexpoints in my account. As expected based on Chris's comment, I didn't receive a Real-Time Rewards text message, since I didn't have enough Flexpoints to cover the purchase at 1 cent each (but did at 1.5 cents each).

I called into the Rewards Center, and the front-line representative told me that Real-Time Rewards were only available at 1 cent each, not at the higher 1.5 cent travel redemption rate. I told him that wasn't right and asked for a supervisor. The supervisor had, if anything, even less of an idea of what was going on, and as she frantically flipped through her troubleshooting manual ended up on, "it says here that you can't use Real-Time Rewards for travel."

At that point I told her we weren't getting anywhere and to open a support ticket for me.

I forgot the "lodging" minimum!

Eagle-eyed readers have no doubt already spotted my mistake: the $500 minimum for "lodging" purchases to trigger Real-Time Rewards!

I don't have any excuse for forgetting about it, except that I was focused on finding the right hotel at the right price, and calculating the Flexpoints I needed to trigger the experiment Chris's experience suggested might be possible.

However, based on my experience with the Rewards Center, I think even if I had purchased a $300 flight or train ticket instead of a $300 hotel room, I would have been out of luck given the incompetence demonstrated by both the front-line representative and supervisor I spoke with.

Conclusion

I still think Real-Time Rewards is a fine idea, but I won't attempt to use the system again for travel purchases unless I have enough points to cover the purchase at 1 cent each, at least until I hear that Chris's problem has been fixed.

And, needless to say, I won't try to use Real-Time Rewards for lodging purchases under $500!

US Bank Real-Time Rewards are good, not great

I've seen a few posts from folks lately about US Bank's introduction of so-called "Real-Time Rewards," which allow you to book travel reservations with your card directly instead of using US Bank's third-party "Rewards Center" travel agency.

While I am always enthusiastic about banks adding additional benefits, now that I've looked into it a bit, my tentative conclusion is that while the new feature is good, it's probably not going to be a game-changer for me. Here's why.

Real-Time Rewards are a good way to liquidate Flexpoints for 1.5 cents each

The clearest use case for Real-Time Rewards is redeeming Flexpoints for cash at their higher "travel" redemption value. Simply book a fully refundable flight far enough in the future, redeem your Flexpoints against the purchase for 1.5 cents each, wait for the statement credit to appear on your account and then cancel the flight for a full refund.

That turns the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card into a true 3% cash back card at grocery stores and gas stations, and the Altitude Reserve card into a true 4.5% cash back card on mobile purchases (note that card is vulnerable to shutdowns for rewards abuse).

US Bank credit cards aren't ideal for airfare purchases

The Flexperks Travel Rewards card doesn't offer a trip delay benefit, so if your flight is delayed you'll be at your airline's mercy when it comes to accommodation and reimbursement for meals or other expenses during your delay. That's no different if you book flights through the Rewards Center.

Unless airfare happens to be your largest category of bonused spend during your statement cycle, the card will earn just 1 Flexpoint per dollar spent, the equivalent of 1.5% in cash back. Plenty of cards are more generous than that for airline purchases, and many of them offer trip delay insurance as well.

The Altitude Reserve card does have a good trip delay benefit of up to $500 for delays lasting at least 6 hours or requiring an overnight stay, and earns 3 Flexpoints per dollar spent on travel, the equivalent of 4.5% cash back, so Real-Time Rewards can be a solid deal if used with the Altitude Reserve.

Real-Time Rewards redemptions aren't eligible for Flexperks Travel Rewards travel statement credits

When you redeem Flexpoints out of a Flexperks Travel Rewards account through the Rewards Center, each reservation you make is eligible for a $25 statement credit for purchases made with your card during travel. If your flights cost the same whether booked as one-way tickets or round-trip tickets, you can double this benefit by booking your outbound and return flights separately. US Bank makes clear that this benefit is not available on Real-Time Rewards redemptions:

"If you purchase airfare from an airline and use Real-Time Mobile Rewards to pay for the airfare, you will not be eligible to receive the $25 Airline Allowance benefit that is available with this Account; the $25 Airline Allowance is only available for travel rewards FlexPoints redemption made through the Rewards Center online or by phone."

Real-Time Rewards would be ideal for Altitude Reserve award bookings, if trip delay insurance applies

Over the course of writing this post I spent several hours trying to figure out how the Altitude Reserve's trip delay insurance benefit works. Eventually I even found an online copy of the card's Guide to Benefits, which is where US Bank instructs cardholders to find details on the trip delay benefit.

The guide to benefits says a flight is covered by trip delay reimbursement if "you charge your trip's entire Common Carrier fare to your eligible Visa Infinite card and/or with rewards points earned on your covered account." That's it.

Are the taxes and fees charged on an award ticket a "Common Carrier fare?" Frequent Miler has done yeoman's work on this question (see also here), but until we see people actually filing claims for delays on trips they've booked with miles, we're not going to have a definite answer.

This matters because if award tickets aren't covered by the Altitude Reserve's trip delay insurance benefit, you need to either pay with a different credit card (foregoing a Real-Time Rewards redemption) or forego trip delay coverage, losing a valuable benefit you've already paid for with your $450 annual fee.

Conclusion

All this can be boiled down to a few basic considerations:

  • if your only Flexpoint-earning credit card is the Flexperks Travel Rewards, then book flights through the Rewards Center, preferably as separate one-way tickets, in order to claim one or more $25 travel statement credits;
  • if you don't have a card that offers trip delay insurance on award flights, then Real-Time Rewards should allow you to pay for the taxes and fees on award redemptions with a Flexperks Travel Rewards card and redeem your Flexpoints at full value;
  • if your only Flexpoint-earning card is the Altitude Reserve, then Real-Time Rewards can potentially save you a phone call and unwanted aggravation by allowing you to pay for the exact ticket you want on your choice of carrier while redeeming your Flexpoints at full value and triggering trip delay insurance;
  • if paying for the taxes and fees on an award ticket does not trigger the Altitude Reserve's trip delay benefit, then you should pay with a card that does have trip delay insurance and either monetize your Flexpoints through fully refundable reservations or on non-award tickets;
  • if you have both cards, then whether to book through the Rewards Center with your Flexperks Travel Rewards card or through Real-Time Rewards with your Altitude Reserve properly depends on how much you value trip delay insurance. If you value $500 in trip delay coverage at more than $25 in travel statement credits (or $50 if you're able to book each leg separately at the same price), then you should book with the Altitude Reserve. If you value it at less than $25 ($50) then you should book with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card.

More benefits and options for redeeming points are always better than fewer, so kudos to US Bank for continuing to experiment with additional benefits, but there's just nothing game-changing about Real-Time Rewards.

How worried should Delta American Express cardholders be about RAT?

I've been watching with interest as datapoints have rolled in of American Express signup bonuses being denied to people who meet the minimum spend requirement with manufactured spend techniques, particularly gift card purchases at unbonused merchants like Simon Malls and GiftCardMall.com. I was disappointed to see another datapoint yesterday from Vinh at Miles per Day, who keeps close tabs on this stuff, reporting that a promotional high spend offer on the Starwood Preferred Guest Business American Express card wasn't triggered by Simon Mall gift card purchases.

Will gift card purchases count towards Miles Boost?

I'm about halfway to my first 2018 $25,000 spend threshold on my Delta Platinum American Express card, and have seen my miles post as normal on my first two statements this calendar year. Additionally, my statement accurately shows my year-to-date purchases.

That makes me modestly confident that I'll earn my 10,000 bonus SkyMiles and 10,000 Medallion Qualification Miles when I reach $25,000 in spend — I'll post an update in April or May when I hit that threshold.

Will gift card purchases count towards Medallion Qualification Dollar waivers?

There is a potentially confusing coincidence for Delta Platinum American Express cardholders, since the card accelerates your path to Medallion status in two totally distinct ways:

  • at $25,000 and $50,000 in annual spend, you receive 10,000 bonus Medallion Qualification Miles;
  • at $25,000 in annual spend, you receive a Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver for the Silver, Gold, and Platinum Medallion tiers (a Diamond Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver requires $250,000 in purchases across all your co-branded Delta American Express cards).

For Delta Reserve cardholders the situation is less confusing, since the Miles Boost thresholds are at $30,000 and $60,000, while the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver is still triggered at $25,000.

While my purchases have so far been earning miles and my year-to-date purchases have been shown on my credit card statements, my Delta SkyMiles account has not been updating to show any progress towards the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver. That makes me modestly confident that my manufactured spend will not trigger a Medallion Qualification Waiver this year.

Which combination of benefits would justify keeping a co-branded Delta American Express card?

My Delta Platinum American Express card is easily the card I have the most trouble deciding whether or not to keep each year. So far, I've narrowly come down on the side of keeping it, due to:

  • the annual economy companion ticket (subject to fairly onerous fare bucket restrictions);
  • the Miles Boost benefit which brings the earning rate on $25,000 and $50,000 in spend up to 1.4 miles per dollars;
  • the Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver.

I fly Delta often enough and exclusively enough that those benefits have so far convinced me to keep the card.

However, without a Medallion Qualification Dollar waiver, I would only occasionally qualify even for Silver Medallion status, which requires $3,000 in MQD's each calendar year. That would neuter the value of Miles Boost since my Medallion Qualification Miles would expire at the end of any year I didn't reach at least Silver Medallion.

And while I have so far been able to redeem the annual economy companion ticket for flights which retail for more than $195, $195 in airfare is worth just a small fraction of that to me, given my ability to manufacture cheap paid airfare with the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card and Chase Freedom Unlimited and Ink Plus cards. In fact, the new ability to redeem US Bank Flexpoints at full value for flights under $400 makes the companion ticket even less valuable since, as I've explained at length in the past, "companion tickets are a bad deal because they require you to purchase a revenue ticket directly from the airline."

If you can sell your companion ticket to someone planning to purchase an eligible Delta economy ticket for $195 or more, then that's an easy workaround. However, note that friends and family tend to be extremely unamused by such antics!

Conclusion

Delta's exclusive partnership with American Express puts folks who fly Delta by preference or necessity in a bind. If it's not worth carrying a high-annual-fee co-branded Delta credit card, it might still be worth carrying a Membership Rewards-earning credit card, especially one that earns bonus points in easily manufactured categories like supermarkets, since those points can be transferred to SkyMiles (with the payment of an additional excise tax).

However, if American Express is serious, as they seem increasingly to be, about cutting down on the rewards they grant for manufactured spend, then the Delta flyer is ultimately fighting a rearguard action. If manufacturing SkyMiles becomes too onerous, the obvious solution is to stop manufacturing SkyMiles.

I've resisted that step so far because of my fondness for Medallion status, but at the end of the day, if they're not willing to play along, $195 per year can buy a lot of status, and I have plenty of other options to pay for the flights I want or need.

2018 New Year roundup

Well, we made it. It's 2018, so here's a roundup of thoughts, ideas, and observations that I haven't got around to posting yet.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards changes are in effect

Flexpoints are now worth 1.5 cents each when used to book travel through the US Bank Flexperks travel portal. The search engine defaults to basic economy fares when they're available, so if you want to book main cabin or regular economy fares, you'll have to call. Be sure they don't charge you a booking fee if your fare isn't bookable online.

I assume it will be possible soon to transfer Flexpoints both directions between Flexperks Travel Rewards and Altitude Reserve accounts, if it isn't already (transfers to Reserve accounts were already allowed).

Register for hotel promotions

I've updated my Hotel Promotions page with all the global hotel promotions I'm aware of. Be sure to let me know if I've missed any.

Note that I was able to register for all 4 of the current Club Carlson promotions, although since I don't have any Club Carlson stays planned I'm not sure if a single stay would really trigger a 15,000-point bonus, Silver elite status, and a 50% off e-certificate (and count towards the multiple-night promotion).

RIP my SkyBonus account

For the last few years I've kept my Delta SkyBonus account alive by scrounging Delta ticket numbers from friends, acquaintances, and out of the trash cans at baggage claim. In 2017 I definitively fell short of the $5,000 in Delta revenue needed to keep my account alive, so I assume they'll be closing it one of these days. I redeemed my points for a final domestic economy ticket and 30(!) drink tickets, which I'll give out to blog subscribers whenever they arrive (the drink tickets, that is).

Follow-up to MERRILL+ guest post

A number of people pointed out in the comments and on Twitter that the executive Delta Sky Club membership provided by the MERRILL+ credit card after spending $50,000 during the calendar year will not provide lounge access starting in 2019 when you are not flying on Delta.

How much that affects you depends on when you decide to trigger your membership year. Obviously if you trigger your membership in January, 2018, you'll only be affected by the changes for a single month of 2019. If you trigger your membership in December, 2018, you'll be affected by the changes for the entirety of your membership year.

Conclusion

So, like I said, we made it. Congratulations are obviously due all around.

What kind of content are folks interested in seeing more of in 2018?

How to plan out your last 2017 US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards redemptions

I know my readers are some of the biggest fans of US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards, given their convenient bonus earning categories and potentially generous redemptions rates of up to 2 cents per Flexpoint when redeemed for paid airfare.

On January 1, 2018, the redemption rate will fall from up to 2 cents per Flexpoint for paid airfare redemptions and up to 1.5 cents per Flexpoint for hotel redemptions to a flat 1.5 cents per Flexpoint for all redemptions. That's a devaluation for folks who are good at maximizing the value of their Flexpoints, and more or less a shrug for folks who redeem Flexpoints aggressively for paid economy fares because they're so easy to earn.

If you're concerned about the coming devaluation, this last quarter of 2017 is a good opportunity to lock in your Flexpoints' higher value. Here are a few suggestions.

Book high-value Southwest fares

Since Southwest flights can be refunded to your Rapid Rewards account up until the time of departure, an easy way to lock in the highest possible value of your Flexpoints is to book Southwest flights (which unfortunately has to be done over the phone) near the top of a Flexperks redemption band. As long as you fly Southwest often enough to be sure you'll use your credit before it expires, this can be an easy way to prepay for flights using the maximum value of your 2017 Flexpoints.

Book Alaska Airlines flights (much) more than 60 days in the future

Alaska Airlines has a similar policy to Southwest, in that they allow you to redeposit the cash value of your flights into your Mileage Plan "travel bank." However, Alaska Airlines' policy is in some ways more and in some ways less restrictive.

It's more restrictive because non-elite members of Mileage Plan can only redeposit a ticket's value into their account more than 60 days before departure, while Southwest lets you redeposit your ticket's value up until departure.

On the other hand, Alaska opens their flight booking window much further into the future, so you have the option of booking flights deep into 2018, while Southwest opens their booking window by what feels like just a few weeks at a time (although in reality I suppose it's more than that).

Don't forget your airline fee credit!

If you plan to simply redeem Flexpoints for a flight and cancel it 24-48 hours later, you would probably be justified in forgetting the original dates you scheduled your flight for.

But that would be a mistake!

On the day or days of your original Flexpoint flight redemptions, you're eligible for a $25 credit for each ticket you booked using your Flexpoints. So that would be a good day to pay some checked bag fees, the taxes and fees on an award ticket, or simply buy an airline gift card. After the transaction posts, don't forget to call in and request the $25 fee waiver — it's an extremely manual process.

Conclusion

I think there are good arguments on both sides for keeping or cancelling US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards cards after January 1, 2018, but there's no excuse for letting your points suddenly lose their value on that date! It's time to start thinking about 2018 travel plans which will let you lock in your Flexpoints' current, higher value.

Quick hit: changes to US Bank Flexpoint transfers

In the last few years US Bank has made a number of negative tweaks to the Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa Signature card. They restricted the once-generous "grocery" bonus category to a more restrictive definition of "grocery stores." They limited the number of points that could be transferred in or out of a Flexperks account to 20,000 per year (although see here for a possible workaround). And starting January 1, 2018, Flexpoints will be worth a fixed 1.5 cents each for flight redemptions, rather than being redeemable in $200 "bands" as they have been to date.

There is another change I have not seen discussed elsewhere, which was quietly implemented relatively recently.

Online Flexpoint transfers now require the recipient's credit card number

The Flexperks rewards interface is run by a third-party fulfillment center, and internally they assign accounts a 12-digit account number. As recently as January 7, I used that Flexpoints account number to transfer points between accounts. It seems that as late as March either the Flexpoints account number or the Flexperks credit card number could be used to transfer points.

At some point since then, they've changed the "Transfer Points" form (found under the "Manage Points" heading) to request the "credit card account number where the FlexPoints will be transferred."

And sure enough, attempting to transfer points to a Flexpoints number online now returns an error, while using a credit card number results in success.

Conclusion

The cynic in me naturally suspects that US Bank implemented this change in order to slow down the rate of Flexpoint redemptions, figuring that fewer people are willing to share their credit card number than were willing to share a single-use account designator. The fewer points are shared, the less efficient redemptions become and the more points will tend to go unredeemed.

On the other hand, while US Bank may internally treat Flexpoint redemptions as a cost center, I have to wonder what their ultimate goal is with these steady, piecemeal attacks on the program's value. It may be that each one of these changes individually shaves off another few hundred of the bank's most expensive customers, but it also leaves the rest of their cardholders rightly feeling like the remaining value of the program is being nickle-and-dimed away. I'll keep the card for now, but even so they've left a bad taste in my mouth, which seems suboptimal for a medium-sized regional bank trying to grow its credit card portfolio.