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.