Microhacking fixed-value prepaid debit cards: when is it worth it?

Long-time readers know that for many years my main method of prepaid debit card liquidation was through Walmart money orders, which typically allowed me to liquidate $2,000 in debit cards per trip, and if the cashier was in the right mood, potentially even more than that. The game is always changing, and that avenue has lost most of its interest for me in the last few months: having a blocked ID meant making smaller transactions, if I was able to liquidate anything at all. What makes sense at one success rate and volume makes less sense under different conditions, and that’s fine (if regrettable).

The key advantage of Walmart money orders was volume. Even total costs as high as a penny per point might conceivably be worth paying if you can buy enough miles and points at that rate: $1,600 for a round-trip flight to Europe or Asia in business class is a pretty good deal, after all (with economy even cheaper).

With that liquidation opportunity in my past, I naturally got to thinking about other opportunities, and when and whether they’re worth pursuing.

Office supply stores

Office Depot/OfficeMax and Staples both regularly run promotions on Visa and MasterCard prepaid debit cards. The OD/OM promotions typically offer $10 or $15 off $300 or more in gift card purchases, and the Staples promotions usually waive the activation fee, which amounts to the same thing within a dollar or two. If you have a legacy Chase Ink Plus/Bold or Ink Cash card, these promotions are always worth emptying out the shelves of your local stores for: 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar are worth at least 5% cash back and potentially much more than that if transferred to a high-value travel partner.

The current promotion is for $15 off $300 in Visa purchases, though the only store in my area was wiped out on the first day.

Grocery store fixed-value cards

For the last week I’ve been taking advantage of Safeway’s promotion for $10 off fixed-value prepaid MasterCard debit cards, which brings the total price of a $100 gift card down to $95.95 (after the $5.95 activation fee). This is a good opportunity to illustrate the value of volume:

  • purchasing a $100 prepaid card for $95.95 using a credit card that earns 3% in rewards at grocery stores yields a profit of $6.93 before liquidation.

  • purchasing a $1000 prepaid card for $1003.95 using a credit card that earns 2% in rewards yields a profit of $16.13 before liquidation.

Mechanically, paying full price for a higher value card yields more profit than paying a discounted price for a lower value card.

In general, I don’t try to put a value on the time I spend manufacturing spend. After all, I like getting out of the house and going for walks, so it would seem strange to “bill” myself for the time I spend doing something I enjoy.

It’s equally true that if the same time can be spent doing something more profitable, rather than less profitable, it would be more profitable to do that instead! That brings us to another interesting question.

Grocery store variable-value cards

Grocery stores also sometimes offer discounts on variable-value cards, and when they do it’s almost always worth maximizing the value of those promotions, whether it takes the form of gas points or grocery discounts.

The interesting thing is that depending on your liquidation costs, it may still be more profitable to buy unbonused variable-value cards than discounted fixed-value cards. Using the same logic as above:

  • purchasing a $100 prepaid card for $95.95 using a credit card that earns 3% in rewards at grocery stores yields a profit of $6.93 before liquidation.

  • purchasing a $500 prepaid card for $505.95 using the same credit card yields a profit of $9.23 before liquidation.

Consequently, if your liquidation costs are low and fixed for each card, you’re better off buying the more expensive, high value card. If your liquidation costs are high and variable, the discounted, lower-value card may be more profitable.


These three examples aren’t meant to be comprehensive, but rather to spell out the logic I use when deciding which opportunities are worth pursuing. Travel hacking is not just intensely localized, it’s also intensely personalized: the opportunities I have available aren’t the same ones you do, not just because we live in different regions of the country, but because we have different abilities and responsibilities. A person with limited mobility may need to do as much volume as possible in as few trips as possible, while a traveling salesman may have the opportunity to visit dozens of different stores per day.

And to me, that’s not just fine, it’s great! If we didn’t know different things, we wouldn’t have anything to learn from each other.

Barclaycard gutting Arrival+ travel benefits November 1

I’m not sure how old this news is since I rarely log into my credit card accounts on my desktop, but when I logged into my Barclaycard account the other day I was greeted by a foreboding message:

Never a message you want to see from your primary credit card, and sure enough, a quick comparison of the old (current) and new Cardholder Guide to Benefits reveals the damage is near-total. Here’s are some of the most important changes.

Trip Delay

Most travel hackers prefer the more generous trip delay insurance provided by the Chase Sapphire family of cards, but since I don’t have one of those (I use a legacy Ink Plus to make my Ultimate Rewards points transferrable), I put most of my travel charges on my Arrival+ card, which currently offers a benefit of up to $300 for delays of 6 hours or more.

I can’t say that I “rely” on Barclay’s trip delay coverage since I’ve never actually used it (my only experience was using the Sapphire Preferred trip delay coverage), but the ability to earn some points, and possibly trigger a hotel promotion, on someone else’s dime at least partly makes up for the inconvenience of a long flight delay.

On November 1, the benefit disappears (it’s possible trips purchased before November 1 will still be covered, but I wouldn’t rely on that possibility).

Purchase Protection Benefits

I don’t know what else to call the suite of current benefits, which include “Extended Warranty,” “Price Protection,” “Purchase Assurance” (goods stolen or damaged within 90 days of purchase), and “Satisfaction Guarantee” (the ability to return items that the retailer refuses to refund).

These benefits all disappear November 1, and are replaced with “Cellular Telephone Protection.” Besides the obvious requirement you charge your monthly bill to the credit card in order to qualify, there are a number of additional requirements that I think would make my phone ineligible, particularly the exclusion of “Eligible Cellular Wireless Telephone(s) purchased from anyone other than a cellular service provider’s retail or internet store that has the ability to initiate activation with the cellular service provider.”

Since I bought my iPhone directly from Apple, which is not a cellular service provider, the question of whether my phone would be covered depends on precisely what work the word “or” is doing. In other words, is a phone eligible if it is purchased from a cellular service provider’s retail store or a cellular service provider’s internet store (the obvious grammatical reading), or is it eligible as long as it is purchased from a cellular service provider’s retail store, or from any internet store that has the ability to initiate activation with the cellular service provider?

Phones purchased directly from Apple would be excluded under the first reading but covered under the second.

The maximum benefit is $800 per claim and $1,000 per 12-month period, after a $50 deductible per claim, and you can make a maximum of 2 claims per 12-month period.

Unchanged Benefits

The card will continue to offer “Baggage Delay,” “Trip Cancellation and Interruption,” and “Travel Accident Insurance” (this is not medical insurance — it’s basically an accidental death and dismemberment policy that only applies during your trip), although there may be some changes to the coverage terms and amounts. The rental car collision damage waiver benefit also remains, and is still secondary to your primary auto insurance policy.


Obviously the loss of the trip delay benefit is the worst of these changes, and if you’re the kind of person who relies on trip delay reimbursement, you’re going to need to find another card. Besides the Sapphire family of cards, there are several more cards from Chase (United Explorer and Club, Marriott Bonvoy Bold and Boundless), US Bank (Altitude Reserve), that offer a trip delay benefit and that you might already carry for one reason or another. Additionally, American Express is reported to be adding a trip delay benefit to certain cards beginning January 1, 2020.

I don’t think it is reasonable for most people to pay an annual fee on a credit card they wouldn’t otherwise carry exclusively for the trip delay benefit, but if you’re already paying for it, you had better be using it!

Chase's missed opportunity to do the right thing

I mentioned in Friday’s post that the airport transfer I ordered through the Chase Ultimate Rewards portal to pick us up at the Sofia airport never arrived, and that we ended up taking the (cheap, convenient) subway instead. I wrote, “I have a request in with Ultimate Rewards to refund the points, so hopefully this mistake will end up being free, but overall it was a silly experience and waste of time.”

Oddly, that’s not how it worked out.

Chase wanted the transfer company’s permission to refund me

On my first call with Chase, on Thursday, October 10, I was placed on hold several times as the representative tried to contact the transfer company, but wasn’t ultimately able to. She told me they would contact the company and be in touch by phone or e-mail once they’d resolved the issue.

I received the first e-mail followup on Saturday, from the e-mail address “VNA-INTL.chasetravel@customercare.expedia.com,” which is obviously the e-mail address for the person at Expedia that handles Ultimate Rewards reservations:

“Thank you for contacting Chase Travel about Refund Request for your Budapest Express - Transfers on travel in dates Sep 08,2019 and travel out dates Sep 28,2019 .

“We have made multiple attempts but are still in the process of making contact with [Budapest Express - Transfers] for your Refund Request. Please expect an email update from us within 24 hour.

“Thank you for choosing Chase Travel.

”Arnold Fajardo
”Travel Consultant Supervisor
”Chase Travel”

Ignoring Arnold’s grammar, this is a very strange e-mail for multiple reasons: the dates of my trip were not September 8-September 28, they were September 27-October 9. The name of the transfer company is given as “Budapest Express - Transfers,” when the pickup was at the Sofia airport in Bulgaria, and the company in my original reservation was “P-Airbus,” which is obviously a nonsense, but it’s a different nonsense than “Budapest Express - Transfers.”

The transfer company didn’t give it

The next e-mail, from the same Expedia e-mail address, tried to break the news to me gently:

“Thank you for contacting Chase Travel about your cancellation request for your reservation at Budapest Express - Transfers.

“We have advocated your case with Budapest Express - Transfers and due to their policy in relation to your reason for cancelling your reservation, they have unfortunately denied your request.

“We apologize that their response was not more favorable.

“We apologize for the delay in answering your e–mail. We are currently experiencing an extremely high volume of e–mail requests preventing us from responding within our normal standards.

“Thank you for choosing Chase Travel.

”Alvin Elona
”Travel Consultant Supervisor
”Chase Travel”

Again, obviously I did not cancel my reservation for any reason. They simply never showed up.

I’m not mad about the points, I’m confused about the missed opportunity

Obviously, in the grand scheme of things, 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points aren’t that big a deal to me, and they certainly aren’t that big a deal to Chase. But in its own way, that makes the situation more, not less, confusing. I understand Chase doesn’t have any way to exercise control over the service providers Expedia uses. But when you’re putting your customers, with whom you have a direct relationship, completely in the hands of your partners, the obvious way to resolve partner disputes is to err on the side of caution. Instead, Chase decided to very mildly annoy me in order to save $25 because they’re not willing to stand up to their partner.

Like I say, I’m not mad, I’m just confused.

I would have been better protected using a credit card

The final piece of this microdrama is that if I had simply booked an airport transfer with a credit card, and they didn’t show up, my credit card company would have cheerfully reversed the charge within minutes. By putting customers through this absurd three-step dance, where Chase contacts Expedia, Expedia contacts their in-country partner, and then it’s up to the partner whether or not to grant a refund, Chase may save 25 bucks here and there, but also sends a loud and clear message not to trust them with third-party reservations.

It’s not going to bankrupt them, and it’s not going to bankrupt me, but that doesn’t make it a good business decision.

Balkans travel: don't make my mistakes, learn from them!

When I wrote up my then-upcoming trip to the Balkans, I was still a bit vague about how I planned to get around once we were there. I had previously traveled between Zagreb, Ljubljana, and Belgrade by train, so my hope was that we’d be able to do as much travel as possible that way. Ultimately, that’s not how it worked out, and the result was two pretty expensive mistakes (and one cheap one).

In the interest of making sure nobody else makes the same mistakes I did, here’s my guide to how I’d suggest putting together our trip the right way.

Sofia airport transfer

The right way to do it: Sofia’s international airport has a subway station just steps from the arrival hall. Simply follow the blue line marked with a capital “M” to either of the two exits it leads to (you’ll see what I mean when you get there). Tickets cost 1.60 leva each, and there’s a vending machine that accepts credit cards in the station so there’s no need to change money at extortionate airport rates.

What we did: remembering that Robert Dwyer at Milenomics had recently written about using Ultimate Rewards points for airport transfers, I thought it would be a nice treat to have a guy waiting in the arrival hall for us, given our late night arrival and unfamiliarity with the city. As Robert explains, the Ultimate Rewards booking process is a bit complicated, and I think I ultimately had to disable some security settings to complete the reservation, but I was ultimately able to pay about 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points for a $25 transfer. When we arrived around 9:00 pm, we dutifully followed the instructions to find the meeting point. Then we waited. And waited. And waited. Then we took the subway. I have a request in with Ultimate Rewards to refund the points, so hopefully this mistake will end up being free, but overall it was a silly experience and waste of time.


The right way to do it: there are three ways to get between Sofia, Bulgaria, and Belgrade, Serbia.

  • There is a train once per day, departing Sofia at 9:30 am (and departing Belgrade at 6:10 in the off-season and 9:12 during the summer). Tickets can only be bought with cash, and are about 40 leva each. In the summer (between roughly mid-June and mid-September), there is a direct train, while the rest of the year requires two transfers. The transfers are at the tiny stations of Dimitrovgrad and Nis and are very simple, since everyone is going to the same destination as you — just follow the most confident-looking person. The direct train takes about ten hours (there’s a one-hour time change), and the off-season trip takes about 11 and a half due to the added wait time. Unfortunately, the direct train terminates at the less-convenient Topcider train station in Belgrade, so while we were able to walk to our hotel from the Beograd-Centar station, you will probably need to take a cab from Topcider (unless you’re staying in that neighborhood).

  • There is a bus company called Florentia Bus that operates one, non-stop bus per day between Sofia and Belgrade (continuing on to Zagreb, Ljubljana, and ultimately Italy). It departs Sofia at 2:30 pm and arrives in Belgrade around 10:00 pm local time (remember the time zone change). Tickets cost between 20 and 30 euros. However, and I cannot stress this enough, you must book these tickets in advance. If you do not book your ticket in advance, you will not be able to buy a ticket, and you will not be taking this bus from Sofia to Belgrade. Every bus is sold out, every day, so if you think you might want to take this bus, book your ticket at least a week ahead of time. If you’re not sure which day you will want to travel, book tickets for multiple days. Just don’t try to buy tickets in person, because an extremely impatient woman who speaks exclusively Bulgarian is not going to sell you tickets in person. Trust me on this.

  • The right way to get to Belgrade, however, is to book a door-to-door minivan shuttle. There are a ton of “companies” that offer this service, but your best bet is simply to ask the concierge at your hotel in Sofia to arrange it for you. The cost shouldn’t be higher than 50 euro per person, so if it’s higher than that, ask at somebody else’s hotel.

What we did: as you may have gathered by now, we took the train. We arrived in Sofia Saturday night and planned to go down to the bus station Sunday morning to buy bus tickets for that afternoon. When we got there around 10:00 am (after the morning train to Belgrade had already departed, unfortunately), the woman at the Florentia Bus desk said that while the bus was full, we could come back at 2:00 pm to see if everyone with reserved seats had checked in. This, and I cannot stress this enough, was a lie, and you should not believe her if she says this to you. This fiasco meant that we had to spend an extra night in Sofia (fine), no-show the first night of our Belgrade reservation (expensive, although the Hilton Honors points I redeemed for the reservation were eventually automatically refunded), and take the indirect train the next morning (long, hot, and boring, although cheap).


The right way to do it: in the recent past, minivan operators offered door-to-door transportation from Belgrade to Sarajevo as they do between Sofia and Belgrade, but apparently Bosnia and Herzegovina has now banned those transfers, so the best way is the once-a-day bus. It leaves Belgrade’s central bus station at 4:00 pm and arrives at a poorly-lit parking lot in Sarajevo around 10:45 pm. Tickets cost 2,630 Serbian dinar each, about $25. The bus ride is fairly unpleasant, especially in October when you’re taking narrow mountain roads in the dark, so the truly ambitious might consider renting a car and driving themselves.

What we did: fortunately, we got this one right. The morning after we (finally) got to Belgrade, we sauntered down to the central bus station and were able to easily buy tickets for the next day. For some reason in order to reach the busses themselves, you need to go through a turnstile, so when you buy your ticket the cashier will give you one turnstile token for each ticket. I have no idea if this is supposed to be security theatre of some kind, or simply a way to keep the loading and unloading area from getting too crowded with friends and family, but that’s what the token she gives you is for.


The right way to do it: there are two daily trains from Sarajevo to Mostar, leaving at 7:15 am and 4:49 pm and arriving about two hours later in each case. Tickets cost 11.90 Bosnia and Herzegovina convertible marks, or a bit less than $7. You can book tickets in person, or make a reservation online and pick up your tickets at the station, from the window with an “online tickets” sign barely taped to it. There, an elderly gentleman will go through dozens of loose-leaf sheets of paper looking for your reservation until he eventually asks for help and finds it and hands you your ticket. Then you’re good to go!

What we did: we got this one right. The train between Sarajevo and Mostar was easily the most modern and comfortable piece of transportation we used during this entire trip. The train even supposedly had wifi on board, although I was never able to get it to work. I have no idea whether Bosnia and Herzegovina’s entire train network has been retrofitted with these trains or if only the Mostar route got them, but the whole region would be well-served if they followed this example.


The right way to do it: unfortunately, Mostar is the end of the train line, so if you’re traveling onward as we were, you need to take to the roads. There are several busses a day departing Mostar’s main bus station for Dubrovnik, with the latest departing at 12:30 pm during the off-season (there’s also a mid-afternoon bus during the summer). Due to the political geography of the Balkans, the bus crosses the Croatian border twice, and makes a stop in Neum, so a lot of the trip is spent waiting at international borders. Busses are apparently forbidden from taking the more direct route that crosses the Croatian border only once at Orahov Do. If you want to take the more direct route, you’ll need to rent or hire a car.

What we did: we got this one right as well. There was plenty of space on the bus and I booked our tickets the morning of our departure. Importantly, the Mostar-Dubrovnik bus does not stop at the location labeled in Google Maps when you search for “Dubrovnik bus station.” Instead, it stops at the “Autobusni Kolodvor” shown here. This is walking distance (we walked it) from central Dubrovnik, but it’s a pretty intense walk so if you’re staying near the Old City and have any mobility or health issues I’d strongly consider taking a bus or taxi instead.


The right way to do it: at the most basic level, the right way to do it is to not do it at all. The only reason we needed to get back to Sofia is that due to procrastination I’d waited too long to book award tickets and was stuck booking a paid (albeit cheap) round-trip itinerary: since we flew into Sofia, we needed to fly out of Sofia as well. What you want to do is plan far enough in advance that you can book award tickets into Sofia (or Dubrovnik) and out of the other. That would let you follow the same trail through the Balkans we took, without having to double back in order to catch your return flight. Alternatively, this is an itinerary tailor-made for United’s “Excursionist” routing rules: if you are already booking an award itinerary between the US and Belgrade, it doesn’t cost any more Mileage Plus miles (although there will be some additional taxes and fees) to add an additional award leg between Dubrovnik and Sofia. If you are on a paid reservation like we were, then your only option may be a paid flight, but that can also be fairly cheap if you’re able to book it far enough in advance.

What we did: this was easily my most expensive mistake of the trip. I did end up booking a paid one-way back to Sofia, where we ended our trip, but I booked it so close in that it ended up costing an embarrassing amount of money. Don’t be like me.


I’m going to squeeze this trip for some more content next week, but I want this post to stand alone as a beginner’s guide to the logistics of Balkans travel. It is cheap to travel around the Balkans, which is great, but it is not fast and it is not particularly comfortable. You can pay more to get somewhat more comfort, and somewhat more speed, but it’s not a place you should try to visit in a rush.

And obviously, the fewer dumb mistakes you make, the cheaper and more comfortable your trip will be.

Anatomy of a not-really-award trip; what should I do in the Balkans?

While most of my travel is domestic, I try to plan at least one big international trip every year. When my partner and I were both on academic calendars, that trip usually fell during the summer, but this year my planning kept getting pushed back, to the point that if we were going to go anywhere at all, I needed to just pull the trigger. What we decided on was a 12-day trip to the Balkans.

Getting there: good award space, but cheap flights

Since I was sitting on a few hundred thousand Ultimate Rewards points, I first checked out award availability using United Mileage Plus miles. Economy award space (30,000 miles in each direction) was great, and there were several business class seats that would work for the outbound flight (60,000 or 70,000 miles depending on carrier).

There were a few obvious advantages to booking award tickets: we wouldn’t have to fly in and out of the same city, which would help us plan our travel around the Balkans. It would also save Ultimate Rewards points, since we each already have a starting balance of Mileage Plus miles, in my case about 25,000, which I would love to redeem down to zero.

Unfortunately, to maximize that strategy would also mean booking two separate reservations, topping up each of our balances and redeeming miles out of each account separately. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as nothing goes wrong, but for long international trips I’m more comfortable staying on the same reservation as my partner.

Ultimately, I decided to save the Mileage Plus miles for another day and redeemed about 110,000 Ultimate Rewards points directly for 1.25 cents each.

There are two ways to look at this decision: on the one hand, 110,000 points is fewer than it would have cost to book round-trip economy flights (120,000). On the other hand, 110,000 points is more than it would have cost me to book round-trip economy flights because I already had a Mileage Plus balance I could have topped up with a 95,000 point transfer.

Note that I also could have booked a free segment under United’s new routing rules, but that wasn’t relevant for this trip.

Staying there: still working on it!

Hilton has properties in Sofia, Belgrade, and what looks like a gorgeous old hotel in Dubrovnik where I’ll redeem a couple free weekend night certificates, but other than that the region is pretty light on the hotel chains I’m active with. So if there’s a property or destination you love in the Balkans, let me know in the comments and I’ll probably take your suggestion!

Getting around: hopefully mostly trains?

I’ve visited the Balkans before and had fun traveling between Ljubljana, Zagreb, and Belgrade by train, but for some reason in a couple hours of light Googling I’ve been unable to find any current information on train schedules, so at this point it looks like there’s going to be a certain amount of improvisation involved once we’re on-site. I understand there are some cities served only by bus but ideally I’ll be keeping that to a minimum.

Share your recommendations!

We deliberately built a lot of flexibility into this itinerary to give ourselves plenty of time to get around and explore, but that also means we will have a lot of time on our hands, so any and all recommendations are welcome from folks who love, hate, or are indifferent to the Balkans!

Bank of America's disappearing ShopSafe benefit

So-called “virtual credit card numbers” were widely adopted in the early days of online shopping to give consumers confidence when placing orders online. The logic was simple: by allowing customers to create a single-use, time-and-balance-limited credit card number for a single purchase, banks eased customer’s fears of their payment information being compromised, making them more likely to use their credit card online rather than, heavens forfend, using cash at a physical retailer. Between interchange fees and interest charges, issuers calculated they could easily afford the additional overhead if virtual credit card numbers were able to drive increased credit card usage.

That calculus changed over the years as card issuers eliminated liability for unauthorized purchases, cardholders became more accustomed to disputing purchases, and 24/7 access to transaction history became near-universal. Few people today need to pore over their paper statements each month matching receipts to transactions in order to detect fraud, and disputing transactions has become a matter of a few mouse clicks with most of the major card issuers.

Consequently, over the years most banks stopped offering virtual credit card numbers, and newer banks never started. That left Bank of America, Citi, and Capital One as the three major card issuers that still offered them with all their credit card products.

But on September 5, 2019, Bank of America announced they would retire their virtual credit card number system “ShopSafe” two weeks later, on September 20.

Why I love virtual credit card numbers

Like a normal person, I don’t use virtual credit card numbers for “online shopping.” Instead, I’ve found them most useful for subscriptions to services that are cumbersome to cancel. The Wall Street Journal and Barron’s periodically offer increased portal bonuses for creating a digital subscription, and you can earn the bonus for each subscription through each shopping portal, making for a cheap 10,000+ miles and points, albeit spread across multiple programs. And of course spouses, kids, and pets are also welcome to participate.

So far so good. The problem is that these subscriptions can only be cancelled over the phone, and these calls can last for a very long time as you try to communicate your subscription information to the underpaid call center employee on the other side of the world.

The solution, for me, is virtual credit card numbers. Create a number with $10 or so on it, pay for all the subscriptions you need (they cost me about $1.06 each with tax), then delete the number. No muss, no fuss.

Unfortunately, my Citi accounts were closed last year, and I’ve never had a Capital One credit card, so Bank of America was my go-to source of free virtual credit card numbers.

Virtual credit card workarounds

Obviously the most straightforward solution if you’re in my position is to open a Capital One credit card, which I suppose I’ll do when the right signup bonus comes along, although I don’t spend very much time chasing signup bonuses in general. If you still have Citi credit cards, then nothing at all will change for you for now. Unfortunately, there’s no reason to believe those products aren’t on borrowed time as well.

A more straightforward option is to use prepaid debit cards. You may have to register the card online to use it to create subscriptions (although you may not), but once the initial transaction has been processed you can empty the remaining balance through your normal liquidation channels.


The loss of Bank of America ShopSafe virtual credit card numbers isn’t the end of the world, but it’s as good an opportunity as any to remind readers that Wall Street Journal and Barron’s subscriptions are great opportunities to score plenty of miles from home on the cheap — as long as you can get around calling in to cancel your subscription.

The travel hacking resources I rely on today

Sorry to regular readers for the shortage of posts lately, I’ve been suffering from a combination of computer trouble (nothing new there) and website trouble (my Google ads started breaking the site) which together made it increasingly frustrating to do anything but basic maintenance.

But I appear to have rendered the website usable again, so hopefully it will get a little livelier around here!

Today I thought I’d share some the travel hacking resources I get the most value out of. This list has changed a lot over time. When I first got into the game, my primary resources were other blogs and the FlyerTalk forums. That’s changed for two reasons: the FlyerTalk forums were redesigned and are now agonizing to navigate, which drove away users and reduced their value further, sending the site into a kind of death spiral; I haven’t visited FlyerTalk in months, if not years.

Meanwhile, I’ve mostly stopped visiting even the high-quality blogs I used to rely on, since they’ve all undergone a kind of homogenization. My working theory is that all the bloggers read the same “how-to” guide on building a reputation as an influencer, and they all adopted the exact same techniques. The most obvious example is the difference between a blog that posts when the author has something to say, and a blog that posts whether or not the author has anything to say. Worse, when a blog goes on to hire two or three additional writers it will inevitably end up with page after page of clutter before you’re able to find any useful information.

Anyway, enough grousing. While I don’t read many blogs anymore, I still consume a lot of travel hacking content. This is where I get it.

Static pages

Fresh content can be overrated; I created a lot of static pages around here (sadly, now mostly out-of-date) because I wanted to be able to easily find the exact information I needed. I still rely on two static resources all the time:

  • My Hotel Promotions page is the first place I go when I’m planning a hotel stay. I try to keep it up-to-date, and briefly describe each promotion with a link directly to the registration page. There are a few other sites that try to do something similar, like Loyalty Lobby, but their formatting drives me nuts, and they include targeted and hyper-specific promotions (earn 500 points when you stay at a Holiday Inn Express in Mainland China!), and usually link to their own blog posts about each promotion instead of directly to the registration site itself.

  • Frequent Miler’s best credit card offers. The page has gotten somewhat more annoying to use over the years, but he still does a good job keeping it up-to-date, so when I just want to find out what the highest current sign-up offer is for a given credit card is, I almost always start here. Once you know the offer, if you don’t want to use an affiliate link you can usually just Google the offer terms and find a direct link to the application.


They’re not for everyone, but if you’re a podcast addict like me these are no-brainers:

  • Dots, Lines & Destinations. Not strictly speaking focused on travel hacking, but travel-hacking adjacent, with coverage of loyalty programs, aircraft interiors, and aviation news, along with trip reports and interviews. It’s been around at least as long as I’ve been travel hacking, and the hosts’ experience and comfort shows.

  • Saverocity Observation Deck. More focused on travel hacking, credit cards, reselling, and family travel (Joe also hosts a Disney-specific podcast, Disney Deciphered, for the Mouse-lovers out there). Patreon subscribers get bonus content at the end of most episodes.

  • Milenomics Squared. From the brains behind the Milenomics blog, this has quickly become one of my favorite travel hacking resources, as it’s focused almost entirely on earning and redeeming points. Patreon subscriptions are fairly expensive, but the additional podcast content is simply indispensable and you get access to their lively Slack channel which is a great source of datapoints for all things miles-and-points. Let me put it this way: I’m cheap, and I’m still happy to pay for this subscription.

Twitter accounts

The flip side of blogs becoming less valuable as resources is that Twitter has become much more valuable, since most bloggers tweet out a headline and a link to each new post, letting you quickly identify the ones worth reading and acting on, and the ones you can skip. I find this infinitely more convenient than subscribing to each blog in an RSS reader, which quickly fills up with all the clutter big blogs pump out these days (“The Pan Am Flight Attendant Who Gave Her Life Saving Passengers on a Hijacked Flight 33 Years Ago”).

There is a lot of repetition and clout-chasing on Twitter, so you should be sure to follow sparingly and unfollow easily. Trust me, as long as you follow 5-6 accounts, you’re not going to miss anything. With that said, here’s a starter kit for travel hacking Twitter:

  • @FrequentMiler. Of the biggest travel hacking blogs, still the most narrowly focused on miles and points, with very few breathless headlines about people taking their shoes off on planes or whatever. The blog is cluttered but the Twitter feed lets you focus on the deals relevant to you.

  • @milestomemories. Coverage of broader travel deals and news.

  • @Drofcredit. Covers absolutely everything, which makes the blog unusable (he posts dozens of things each day) but makes the Twitter feed a great one-stop resource to keep track of current and upcoming deals. Follow @Chucksth for bonus Doctor of Credit content.

  • @dannydealguru. I’m not an extreme couponer but I’ve come to really appreciate Danny’s laser focus on discounts. I don’t use his deals very often, but I’m always glad to know about them.

  • Finally, if you end up liking the podcasts I recommended above, you should follow the hosts: @WandrMe, @ssegraves and @fozzm for Dots, Lines & Destinations, @asthejoeflies and @tmount for the Saverocity Observation Deck, and @Milenomics and @RobertDwyer for Milenomics Squared.

You are also free to follow me on Twitter, but about 2% of my tweets have anything remotely to do with travel hacking, so you probably have better things to do.

Two current and upcoming bonused manufactured spend opportunities

Today I want to flag a couple manufactured spend opportunities to make sure readers are aware of them.

$15 off $300 in Office Depot/OfficeMax MasterCard gift cards

Through August 24, 2019, automatically receive $15 off purchases of $300 or more in MasterCard gift cards at OfficeDepot and OfficeMax store locations. $200 fixed-value MasterCard gift cards have an activation fee of $6.95, so the purchase of two $200 cards comes to a total of $398.90. I’ve seen reports that the credit is only applied once per transaction, so your best bet is to either visit multiple locations or hope that your cashier will allow you to ring cards up in multiple, separate transactions.

Using a legacy Chase Ink Plus or Bold card, or a Chase Ink Cash, you’ll earn 5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar, for a total of 1,995 negative-cost points (depending on the liquidation methods you have available).

$15 in free groceries after $150 or more in Visa or MasterCard gift card purchases at Giant/Stop & Shop/Martin’s, plus cheap or free gas

Via Doctor of Credit, the East Coast Giant/Stop & Shop/Martin’s grocery store chain is offering a version of their periodic promotion for free groceries when you purchase prepaid debit cards. These promotions have taken several forms over the years, but this is one of the most generous versions I’ve seen:

  • it applies to purchases of both Visa and MasterCard gift cards. Some people find it cheaper or more convenient to liquidate one type of card rather than the other, and this promotion gives them a choice.

  • it offers $15 in free groceries, while previous versions of the promotion sometimes offered just $10.

  • it offers a printed coupon to be used on a future purchase, which makes the coupon transferable and means you can ring up your gift card purchase at customer service and not hold up the ordinary checkout lanes.

  • and finally, if you choose to buy MasterCard gift cards, you’ll also earn 2 gas points per dollar. For folks that spend a lot on gas, that may be a very valuable incentive to buy MasterCards over Visas.

The offer is supposed to run between August 23 and August 29, 2019, and the coupons can be redeemed for groceries through September 5, 2019.

Conclusion: Visa or MasterCard?

The manufactured spend landscape has become so fractured that there’s no one strategy that is going to work for everyone. For a long time, conventional wisdom had it that Visa prepaid debit cards were easier to liquidate due to Walmart’s almost-universal geographic footprint. But with their obnoxious new ID requirements and restrictions, that wisdom has become less conventional.

As you seek out as many cost-effective liquidation methods as possible, you’ll just need to stay even more aware of which methods might make preferring one card network or issuer or another more or less profitable and convenient given your specific circumstances.

No, you don't need to buy fixed-value gift cards for the Giant/Stop & Shop/Martin's grocery promotion

Doctor of Credit is one of my favorite resources for news about promotions (although they post so much stuff the website is almost unusable; I prefer their Twitter and RSS feeds). However, one consequence of the sheer breadth of their coverage is they aren’t specialists, which sometimes gets them tripped up when similar promotions come along from different merchants. I think that’s what happened this week when they wrote about the current Visa gift card promotion at Giant, Stop & Shop, and Martin’s store locations.

As a button on the post, William Charles wrote, “Will probably only work on a $100 fixed value card.”

The promotion: $10 off your next $10 grocery purchase when you buy $100 in Visa gift cards

This promotion may seem similar to last month’s promotion for $15 off $15 in groceries, but is actually superior in three key ways:

  • the promotion is automatically triggered when you use your Giant card during a Visa gift card purchase. There’s no need to create multiple accounts, add digital coupons to each account, and keep track of multiple alternate ID’s.

  • the promotion produces a coupon to use on a future shopping trip, so you don’t have to ring up your gift card and groceries together. That means you don’t have to check out with a cashier, who may be unfamiliar with the procedure for selling gift cards, and in any case requires summoning a supervisor and holding up shoppers behind you.

  • the coupon can be used at self-checkout stations, which gives you breathing room to troubleshoot any problems you have using the coupon, like unadvertised discounts that might bring your grocery total below $10.

Of course, the drawback is that the discount is just $10 off $10 in groceries, rather than $15 off $15. Whether the increased simplicity outweighs the lower value is an exercise left to the reader.

The confusion: some promotions require fixed-value Visa gift cards, intentionally or not

There are two ways to get confused about what gift cards are eligible for which promotions. First, promotions may explicitly target fixed-value cards. For example, Safeway gift card promotions frequently specify that the promotion applies exclusively to $100 MasterCard gift cards. Second, promotions may not explicitly require fixed-value gift cards, but a store’s own policies mean they’re the only cards eligible. For example, during a lucrative promotion a few years back, a Office Depot stores sold both fixed-value and variable Visa gift cards, but only fixed-value cards could be purchased with credit cards. That wasn’t a restriction in the promotion (and indeed, some folks realized the promotion was worth doing even if you had to pay in cash for variable loads), but it was a restriction that applied to the promotion.

In the case of the current Giant promotion, the coupon is triggered by the purchase of $100 in Visa gift cards, not the purchase of $100 Visa gift cards; variable Visa gift cards work fine, and most (if not all) store locations will sell variable cards by credit card.


I don’t mean to give the DoC team a hard time for the mistake; like I said, I think they’re one of the most valuable resources in the community. I just want to make sure folks who were surprised or confused after reading their post know that this promotion is indeed available to those who find it more lucrative and convenient to purchase and liquidate variable value Visa gift cards rather than fixed-value ones at grocery stores.