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.

Conclusion

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.

East Coast Alaska Airlines companion fare strategies

As I mentioned last week, In order to get to Maui and back I stitched together 3 legs using a single Alaska Airlines companion ticket. While folks on the West Coast are probably familiar with Alaska and their companion ticket, now that the merger with Virgin America is complete it might be time for residents of some East Coast cities who had ruled out Alaska because of its limited route network to take another look.

Two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares

There are technically two flavors of Alaska Airlines companion fares. For the past several years Bank of America has offered a taxes-and-fees-only companion fare to new Alaska Airlines Visa cardmembers after spending $1,000 on the card within 90 days.

Then, on each account anniversary, you’ll receive another companion fare for $99 plus taxes and fees.

Besides the $99 co-pay for anniversary companion fares the two are otherwise identical.

What’s so great about Alaska Airlines companion fares?

Three features make Alaska companion fares unique:

  1. they can be used systemwide;

  2. they can be used on any economy fare;

  3. and both passengers receive mileage credit as if they were both flying on paid tickets.

In fact, the only restriction I’ve ever encountered using a companion fare is that the Bank of America cardholder has to be either one of the two passengers traveling on the fare or have their name on the credit card used to make the reservation.

The fare does not have to be paid for with the Bank of America credit card that triggered the fare. You can even use an authorized user card, as long as it has the name of the Bank of America cardholder, and even that isn’t required if the Bank of America cardholder is one of the passengers.

That means using an Alaska companion fare isn’t mutually exclusive with many methods of payment, for example using a Chase Sapphire or Barclaycard Arrival Plus card for trip delay insurance, or a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card for a Real-Time Rewards redemption.

A final note on fares: since the companion fare can be used to book any economy fare class, and both tickets book into the same fare class, you can use the companion fare to book tickets that are upgradeable using miles or MVP Gold guest upgrades. However, that upgrade space is extremely limited so I would not suggest paying more for an upgradeable fare speculatively if upgrade space is not available at the time of your booking; it likely never will be.

Alaska Airlines routes from the East Coast

Alaska serves a surprisingly large number of cities, especially now that Virgin America’s routes have been integrated into the system, but they are almost entirely reliant on five West Coast hubs: Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego.

That means flying from the East Coast to anywhere in the middle of the country will require backtracking: flying first to the West Coast, then connecting to a flight retracing your steps. You probably won’t want to do that — Seattle is a long way out of the way if you want to fly between Washington, DC, and Cancun.

However, lots of people fly to the West Coast as their final destination, and others fly onward to points West, North, or South, and for those folks the companion fare can still provide a fantastic value.

What I’ve done is break up Alaska Eastern time zone airports into six buckets, based on which of Alaska’s hubs are served from that airport.

Seattle

  • Tampa (TPA)

  • Atlanta (ATL)

  • Charleston (CHS)

  • Indianapolis (IND)

  • Columbus (CMH)

  • Detroit (DTW)

  • Pittsburgh (PIT)

Seattle and San Francisco

  • Raleigh/Durham (RDU)

Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Fort Lauderdale (FLL)

  • Washington (IAD)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles

  • Washington (DCA)

  • Philadelphia (PHL)

  • New York City (JFK) (plus San Jose and Las Vegas)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and San Diego

  • Orlando (ORL)

Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego

  • Baltimore (BWI)

  • Newark (EWR) (plus San Jose)

  • Boston (BOS)

Three strategies for East Coast companion fares

If you live in or near one of those Eastern cities, I think there are at least three useful ways to judge the value of Alaska Airlines companion fares: connecting onward, backtracking, and non-stops.

Connecting onward is the most obviously high-value use: if you fly to Hawaii or the Pacific coast of Mexico at least once per year, and are willing to do so in economy, the ability to book any economy fare in the system can give you enormous value and flexibility. For example, from Washington, DC, there are no non-stop flights to Hawaii, so you’ll have to make a connection somewhere. If that’s the case, why not Seattle instead of Atlanta? Over the Thanksgiving dates I checked from DC, Alaska flights to Hawaii were already the cheapest options — adding a companion fare is icing on the cake. From New York, Alaska was the cheapest option to every Hawaiian island but Kauai (Delta undercut them by $15).

Backtracking is a less obviously appealing option, as I gestured at above. However, for many destinations in the Mountain West, it can still make sense. For example, my hometown of Missoula, MT, is a notoriously expensive city to fly in and out of (fortunately flights are also very often overbooked, and I received my only $1200 voluntary denied boarding voucher there). Over the Thanksgiving weekend, for example, Delta isn’t selling fares eligible for American Express companion tickets, so two tickets would cost $1,596, while two Alaska tickets would cost just $1,373 with a companion fare. A $223 savings isn’t revolutionary, but it’s still more than the Alaska Airlines Visa’s $75 annual fee.

Finally, obviously a lot of people have perfectly good reasons to fly between the East and West coasts without connecting at all. If you live in Baltimore, New York, or Boston, you might simply use Alaska companion fares to pay for the occasional trip to the West Coast. It’s lovely there!

The point is, the Alaska companion fare is such a good deal it’s worth considering even if you don’t think of yourself as a “typical” Alaska passenger, which is to say someone who commutes up and down the West Coast.

Alaska Companion Fare routing rules

Here I’m leaning entirely on Scott Mackenzie at Travel Codex, who is the authority on all things Alaska Airlines:

“Although the terms and conditions say the fare must be for round-trip travel, this isn’t strictly true. You can book one-way travel. You can book open jaws. You can book multi-city travel between completely different cities. I’ve confirmed that Austin to Seattle, Portland to Maui, and Honolulu to Sacramento — all on different dates — will qualify…

What you can’t do is book travel that is clearly not anything close to round-trip. In the example of AUS-SEA//PDX-OGG//HNL-SMF we flew west and then flew east. Kinda sorta maybe round-trip, even if we never hit the same city twice.”

Since Alaska allows up to 4 entries in a multi-city itinerary (not four legs — Alaska will add connections on its own as necessary), my itinerary IND-PDX-OGG-DCA wasn’t entirely optimized. I could have added a longer stopover in Los Angeles on the way back, or a longer layover in Seattle on our outbound itinerary.

Ultimately, because of Alaska’s strong North-South axis on the West Coast, a truly optimal itinerary would need to include several West Coast stops. For example, this is a valid companion fare itinerary:

  • JFK-SEA//PDX-SFO//LAX-LIH//OGG-LAX

You can put an unlimited amount of time between each of these legs, meaning as Scott points out, these are really “four one-way fares booked on a single ticket.”

Of course, that begs the question: why would you want to book four unrelated one-way fares on a single ticket? First of all, the fares don’t have to be unrelated. Our flights from Indianapolis to Portland, Portland to Maui, and Maui back home were not “unrelated,” after all. But even in the case of totally unrelated fares, there are reasons you might consider it.

Since Alaska prices out all itineraries as one-way fares, it’s not uncommon to find a situation where one leg of your trip is expensive with cash and cheap with miles, while the other leg is cheap with cash and expensive with miles. If the dates and directions all line up properly (no small feat), you could use a single companion fare to book four one-way fares, then fill in the rest of the itinerary with miles or cash as you see fit.

Likewise, especially frequent travelers might consider “nesting” different trips inside a single itinerary. Someone traveling frequently between Washington and Los Angeles, for instance, might book:

  • DCA-LAX//LAX-OGG-LAX//LAX-DCA

If you squint at this just right you see it’s actually two unrelated roundtrips: one between DCA and LAX, and one between LAX and OGG. To make this work you’ll need to book an additional roundtrip between LAX and DCA, of course, but in exchange you get can get two companion fares for the price of one.

Conclusion

Bank of America has added some restrictions in recent years to who is eligible for certain new credit cards, unfortunately including the personal Alaska Airlines Visa card. The business card is supposedly unaffected for now, so even if you don’t have any Bank of America Alaska Airlines cards you should be able to sign up for one personal and at least one business card, naturally conditional on your creditworthiness.

The main effect of those changes should be to discourage folks who already have multiple personal Alaska Airlines cards from cancelling them, unless they’re absolutely certain they won’t be flying Alaska anytime in the near future, since it seems that it will be increasingly difficult to collect new companion fares going forward.

April 2018 credit card applications

It's been a long time since I've applied for a new credit card. So long, in fact, that I was astonished to log into the credit monitoring service I got for free from one of our semiannual security breaches (or maybe from one of the semiannual security breaches of the credit monitoring services; who can say at this point?) and see that I've only signed up for one new credit card in the last two years.

This practically puts me in the position of a complete newbie to the travel hacking game, albeit a complete newbie who already has a ton of credit cards. So I thought I'd take the opportunity to run down a list of the credit cards I'm considering and give readers a chance to chime in — especially if they have a particularly brilliant powerplay I should consider!

Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa

I've never had one of these cards (not that that particularly matters given Bank of America's approval process), but virtually all my family members are on the West Coast and the 30,000-mile and $0 first-year companion fare ($99 after the first year) are both good deals for a $75 annual fee.

While I'm generally a very strong skeptic of companion tickets, the Alaska Airlines companion ticket differs from the companion fares offered by the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards because you can use any credit card to book it (as long as the ticket is for the Alaska Airlines credit cardholder or the credit card used is in the Alaska Airlines cardholder's name). That means it's easy to combine with travel statement credit cards like the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card (with Real-Time Rewards), Barclaycard Arrival Plus, or Bankamericard Travel Rewards card.

Chase Slate

I don't want to bore longtime readers with everything I love about the Chase Slate card, but for new readers, it offers:

  • no balance transfer fees for the first 60 days;
  • 0% APR on up to $30,000 in balance transfers for 15 months ($15,000 cap per 30 days, but you have 60 days to transfer with the $0 balance transfer fee);
  • ability to product change to a new Chase Freedom (or Freedom Unlimited if you don't have one already).

I don't know how valuable 15 months of free money is to you, but 15 months of free money is extremely valuable to me.

Consumers Credit Union Visa Signature Cash Rebate Card

I've had a Consumers Credit Union Free Rewards Checking account for years, since it offers 3.09% APY on balances up to $10,000 when you make 12 $0.50 Amazon balance reloads per month (yes, this process is exactly as boring as it sounds).

But the account really shines when you combine it with a credit card, since spending $1,000 per month on that card increases the interest rate to 4.59% APY on up to $20,000 in deposits.

Unfortunately, they seem pretty stingy with credit card approvals, and I haven't been able to get approved for one of those cards yet. Now that my credit report is practically clear, hopefully they'll give me a chance.

American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred or Premier Rewards Gold

These two cards offer flexible Membership Rewards points and bonus points at US supermarkets, which make them obvious candidates to rack up some big Membership Rewards balances, even if I were just to transfer them to Delta SkyMiles.

The Premier Rewards Gold has a $195 annual fee, but it's waived the first year, which makes it a possible candidate for a one-year effort to accumulate a big balance before cancelling.

Meanwhile, the EveryDay Preferred card is the kind of low-key card I can imagine keeping for the long term, even though its $95 annual fee isn't waived the first year, since it can earn 27,000 Membership Rewards points per year with minimal time or effort.

Conclusion

It's no secret that most professional travel hackers pursue big signup bonuses much more aggressively than me. But it's also no secret that they constantly have big unredeemed and unredeemable points balances!

Simpleton that I am, my view has always been that your least valuable mile or point will always be the one you don't redeem, and so I devote all of my energy towards earning miles and points I'm sure to redeem, instead of accumulating them speculatively.

With that in mind, what big signup opportunities do readers see out there that my personal blinders have kept me from noticing?

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.

Guest post: Triggering MERRILL+ Delta SkyClub membership

Today's post was written by friend and longtime reader of the blog Robert Dwyer, about his experience with the no-annual-fee Merrill Lynch MERRILL+ Visa Signature card, which many people signed up for when it was offering a signup bonus of 50,000 points, which could be redeemed for two tickets worth up to $500 each.

You can find Robert on Twitter @RobertDwyer.

Merry Christmas and happy holidays to one and all!

—The Free-quent Flyer

Guest post: Triggering Merrill+ Delta SkyClub membership

The Merrill Lynch MERRILL+ Visa Signature card is an oddly charming credit card. For such an obscure product it has proven to be quite popular. And it was gone, at least for new signups, before we knew it.

But thanks to its generous 50,000 point signup bonus (worth 2 airline tickets up to $500 each, a combined value of up to $1,000) and no annual fee, a lot of people still have this card.

Full review over at Doctor of Credit.

Before you cancel it or entertain the thought of product changing to another BofA credit card, you might consider keeping it for the bonuses it offers for spending $50,000 each calendar year. You get your choice of:

  • A $200 air travel incidental credit -OR-
  • A Delta Sky Club Executive membership (which costs $745 or 70,000 Delta miles otherwise).

I like cards like this with a threshold bonus, especially since the points it earns for spend are worth up to 2 cents each towards air travel booked through their portal.

I opted to spend $50,000 on the card this year for the Delta Sky Club membership.

Why do this?

Pretty simple really: although the AmEx Platinum cards (the ones with $450+ annual fees) offer Delta lounge access, it’s not full-fledged access. You can’t bring guests. Not even your spouse, and definitely not your kids. The same is true of the AmEx Delta Reserve card: no guests for those who gain access through a credit card.

A full-fledged Delta SkyClub membership also means you can visit the Delta lounge when flying other airlines. You can’t do that if you gain access through a credit card: you must be flying Delta that day.

Although we’ve carried an AmEx Platinum card (or three) in one form or another over the past few years we’ve never been able to take advantage of Delta lounge access while traveling with our boys. That’s a bummer because I actually appreciate lounge access more when traveling with family than on business.

And given the routes Delta serves I’m more likely to be flying with them when traveling with my family than for business.

So although the full-fledged Delta SkyClub membership that comes with spending $50,000 on the MERRILL+ card is a seemingly minor delta (ha ha) over what you get with AmEx Platinum it actually takes me from a situation where I’ll rarely visit a Delta lounge, to being able to take advantage of it most times we fly.

How to do this

Frequent Miler wrote a piece on whether it was worth it to spend $50,000 on the card. His conclusion: It’s not worth it. What a killjoy!

But his post was helpful thanks to a screenshot describing how to activate the SkyClub membership.

  1. Call 800-419-0000 and ask for “Benefits”
  2. Tell the rep you’ve spend $50,000 on the card this calendar year and would like to take advantage of the SkyClub membership benefit
  3. They’ll confirm that your spend level, ask for your SkyMiles membership number, and activate your membership

My experience leveraging this benefit

We were flying Delta for Thanksgiving with a connection so I called to active the SkyMiles membership about a week in advance. I was pleased that the rep I spoke to (on a Saturday morning no less, no bankers' hours for these guys) knew exactly what I was talking about and swiftly activated my SkyClub membership. He told me that my membership materials would arrive in a couple weeks but that if I was visiting a lounge in the next week or so I could give them my SkyMiles number and I’d be able to get into the lounge.

I was leery of this going through without incident so I checked my Delta profile the day we were set to fly, both on my computer and the Delta app. I didn’t see any indication the access had been activated so I called Delta to check. They didn’t have any record of it, but hinted that the SkyMiles desk isn’t so tightly linked with the SkyClub people so I might want to just give it a go at the airport and see what happens.

When we got the airport I provided my SkyMiles number and we were welcomed in without incident. The whole family! Take that, overcrowded Delta lounge.

A week or so later my membership card arrived, indicating an activation date roughly 2 weeks after my initial call to MERRILL+ to activate the membership with an expiration date a year out.

The timing of the start of the membership is a little strange. The Merrill rep told me the membership would start on the first day of the month in which I called. Yet the activation date on the card I received coincided with the date of my first visit, which was not the first day of the month.

Not sure what to say there in terms of optimizing the start time of a membership, but the upshot is it’s nice that you can call ahead of your first planned use and access the club without the physical card. And now that my membership is active I see it in My Wallet within the Delta app.

Now I’m free to enjoy Delta’s network of mostly mediocre, sometimes overcrowded lounges. With the whole family!

Bottom line

Earning full-fledged Delta lounge access through spend on the MERRILL+ card might be worth it for some, especially those who travel with family or colleagues.

The opportunity cost of spending $50,000 on the card isn’t so bad when you consider:

  1. the card has no annual fee;
  2. and the card earns up to 2 cents per point towards airfare (so it isn’t that far off the earn rate of the top cashback cards).

Sure there are better cards that earn 2.6525% or even 3% cashback (for some period of time after signup, with barriers to entry getting and maintaining eligibility for those cards). But I find it’s a good practice to spread your spend around. It’s theoretically possible, but practically difficult to put 100% of your spend on a single card.

If you’ve got an existing MERRILL+ card and a Delta SkyClub Executive Membership appeals to you, I think this can be a nice play.

FQF's wrapup

For me the biggest takeaway from Robert's post are that while the "Plus Level" benefit is earned on a calendar year spending basis, it's valid for one year from when you redeem it. While that doesn't increase the value of the membership ($745, or however much you choose to value a SkyClub Executive Membership), it does increase the value of the benefit, since you can time the activation of the benefit so that as many of your trips through airports with Delta SkyClubs fall within the benefit year as possible.

Additionally, note that according to the Doctor of Credit post linked above you can "top up" airfares in excess of $500 by redeeming MERRILL+ points for one cent each for the excess amount. That means you should always at least consider booking more convenient or premium cabin airfares in order to get the price of your ticket up to at least $500 in order to get the full 2 cents per point in value from the first 25,000 points of your redemption.

Travel hacking with less manufactured spend

It seems that the travel hacking community has been thrown into one of its periodic panics, first over the loss of a popular gift card reselling opportunity and then an online bill payment option. I don't participate in such panics myself, but it's an opportunity to ask the question: what would travel hacking look like not in a world without manufactured spend, but in a world with less manufactured spend?

It's a good question because in a world with plentiful manufactured spend, lots of things are worth doing that might not be in a more constrained world. For example, today I happily earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card, essentially speculating that I'll get more than 1.3 cents per point when I ultimately redeem them (since I could use a 2% cash back card instead). That wouldn't make any sense (for me) in a world where every dollar manufactured on one card reduces the amount I can manufacture on the others.

So, here's what I would do in a world of severely constrained — but not eliminated — manufactured spend.

Chase Ink Plus or Ink Cash for office supply stores

I consider buying $200 or $300 Visa prepaid debit cards from office supply stores with a Chase Ink Plus or, if you're signing up today, Ink Cash, to be the best current opportunity, even though liquidating smaller-denomination gift cards can be time-consuming if you have to do it in-person. Paying $8.95 in activation fees and $0.35 for money orders lets you buy 1,545 Ultimate Rewards for $9.35. That's slightly more expensive than paying $4.30 for 756 Ultimate Rewards points by using a Freedom Unlimited at an unbonused merchant, but it's over twice as efficient, in that a single money order transaction made with four $300 debit cards earns 6,180 Ultimate Rewards points (at 0.6 cents each), while one transaction with four $500 debit cards earns just 3,024 points (at 0.57 cents each). In a world of limited manufactured spend, maximizing the total haul from each transaction would inevitably become a much higher priority.

Since flexible Ultimate Rewards points can be redeemed for 1.25 cents each for paid travel, doing this alone would let you earn $3,125 in paid travel each year for about $1,504.

Annual spend: $25,000 (Ink Cash) or $50,000 (Ink Bold or Ink Plus).

"Old" Blue Cash for grocery stores

For reasons that are beyond my petty comprehension, American Express still issues the "old" Blue Cash card that earns 5% cash back on up to $43,500 in purchases at supermarkets, gas stations and "select" drugstores in the United States. That's a devaluation from the previous, unlimited bonus earning, but it's still a lot of money.

Since grocery store spend is somewhat cheaper than office supply store spend, whether you prefer to prioritize Ink Plus or Ink Cash spend or "old" Blue Cash spend properly depends on the value you expect to get from Ultimate Rewards points redemptions.

Annual spend: $50,000.

Amex EveryDay Preferred for grocery stores

I almost hesitate to include this one since the cap on earning is so low, but if you can knock out $6,000 in grocery store purchases, then make enough additional purchases to get to 30 transactions in the same statement cycle, you can earn 27,000 flexible Membership Rewards points per year (and pay an annual fee of $95).

That's not very many Membership Rewards points, so in a world of unlimited manufactured spend you'd want to supplement them with, for example, a Premier Rewards Gold card. But in a world of less manufactured spend, it would roughly add up to a business class international award ticket every 3-5 years. That's not great compared to the status quo, but it's not terrible either.

Annual spend: $6,000

A good cashback card for unbonused spend

So far so good, right? The problem is that all these cards are terrible for anything except manufactured spend. The Ink Cash and EveryDay Preferred have foreign transaction fees (the "old" Blue Cash card does not for some reason), and the Ink Bold and Ink Plus only earn 1 Ultimate Rewards point per dollar on unbonused spend.

Obviously if you have a lot of money the answer is the BankAmericard Travel Rewards with Platinum Honors Preferred Rewards, which earns 2.625% on all spend, has no foreign transaction fee, and is PIN-enabled for use internationally.

If you don't have a lot of money, you can use the PenFed Credit Union Power Cash Rewards card, which earns 1.5% cash back, or 2% if you have a PenFed Access America Checking Account. It's PIN-enabled and has no foreign transaction or annual fees, although the checking account requires a $500 average daily balance or monthly direct deposit to avoid a $10 monthly fee.

For domestic transactions you might consider using a Chase Freedom Unlimited to top up your Ultimate Rewards balance, but that card also has a foreign transaction fee so shouldn't be used internationally.

Conclusion

I think this is roughly the strategy I would pursue if my access to manufactured spend were suddenly constrained. It's pretty cheap (two $95 annual fees), pretty lucrative, and isn't very time-consuming, requiring only an average of about 6 total trips per month.

It would yield 125,000 or 250,000 Ultimate Rewards points, $2,240 in cash, and 27,000 Membership Rewards points. Whether or not that's sufficient to cover all your travel expenses depends on how many travel expenses you have, but it would certainly make a dent in mine.

What to do when a Bank of America ATM eats your money orders

Automated teller machines are so fully integrated into American life that it's sometimes difficult to remember just how marvelous the technology is. The fact that the global telecommunications infrastructure enables real-time connections to bank accounts all over the world is incredible enough, but ATM's also perform remarkable, and remarkably consistent, mechanical functions: first dispensing cash in precise quantities, and now even accepting deposits of instantly-counted cash and machine-read checks. Even if the machine-reading isn't yet at 100% accuracy, the cash counting function itself is pretty remarkable.

Of course, no technology is perfect, and most people have wondered at one point or another, "what would happen if an ATM dispensed the wrong amount of cash?" I actually asked a cashier at my local credit union that very question, and she responded that they count the cash at the end of the night and would notice any disparity and correct it. Whether that's true or not, I had my own ATM mishap last week, and I have to confess it was resolved perfectly, at the cost of a single 21-minute phone call.

Here's what happened.

Bank of America ATM's accept money order deposits, but they are not great

I've deposited hundreds of thousands of dollars of money orders in Bank of America ATM's over the years and never run into any problems although, depending on the model of the money order printer and the model of the ATM, I usually have to manually input the amount of the money orders I deposit.

What had never happened to me before last Sunday was for the ATM to accept my money order deposit, go to a "processing" screen for 2-3 minutes, and then "cancel" the transaction without returning the money orders or acknowledging the transaction in any way.

I immediately checked my account online, and when I saw no transaction had been recorded, it was time to get on the phone.

Filing a claim

I used the "contact us" button within the Bank of America iPhone app, which dialed 844-870-8569. After explaining the situation to the front-line rep, I was directed to a department I believe was called "fraud," and given an additional phone number, 877-366-1121. After explaining the situation to that rep, I was then transferred to another department, which I wasn't given the name of. That rep was finally able to open a claim for me. He asked for:

  • the date of the transaction;
  • the approximate time of the transaction;
  • the amount of the deposit;
  • the serial numbers of the money orders I deposited;
  • the ATM's identification code, which was tucked over the ATM's screen and under the ATM's hood (it took me a minute or two to find).

I also asked him how often this kind of thing happened, and he answered that he gets "3-5 calls per day." Naturally, after I tweeted about the situation I heard from several readers who had experienced identical problems. That's what you get when you execute several lifetimes' worth of ordinary ATM usage every year!

Resolution

As promised, my account was credited with a "temporary credit" on Monday, September 11 (actually one day earlier than promised). On Thursday, September 21, I received an online message that the claim had been resolved and the temporary credit was made permanent. The entire text of the attached PDF was:

"We've concluded our investigation of this disputed transaction. The previously issued credit is now permanent."

I assume I'll receive a paper letter to the same effect in a day or two.

Conclusion

I don't think there's an epidemic of malfunctioning Bank of America ATM's sweeping the country, so I don't think this is something you should be worrying about, let alone obsessing over. The real point of this post is simply to put your mind at ease: there is a system for resolving ATM transactions which malfunction, and it works.

Unlike, for example, claiming credit card trip delay insurance, there's no secret recipe for resolving these problems. Just call immediately, provide as much information as possible, and your claim will be resolved in short order (and you'll have use of the money in the meantime). I imagine that some of the information I provided wasn't even necessary to resolve the claim. Since I called immediately I was able to provide the ATM's identification code, but if I waited until I got home I assume Bank of America would be able to look it up themselves.

BankAmericard Travel Rewards is probably the best single credit card

I've written before about the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, which I think is probably the best card for unbonused spend, assuming you can put an average of $100,000 into an eligible account for an average of 3 months. Other good candidates are the Discover it Miles card which doubles 1.5% cash back after 12 months (for a total of 3% cash back, if you don't mind the wait) or the USAA Limitless Cashback Rewards card which earns 2.5% cash back with far fewer hoops to jump through (if you're eligible for the card).

While working on a different project, I realized the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card has a different distinction: I think it might be the single best credit card. I mean, if for some reason you only carry one credit card, I think it might be the best one to carry.

To be clear, most travel hackers don't carry only one credit card, and someone who already carries a wide variety of cards for a variety of purposes shouldn't necessarily apply (unless they're able to trigger the higher earnings described in the link above).

What's so great about the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card?

Here's my case for the Travel Rewards card being the best credit card:

  • No annual fee. $0 is the lowest an annual fee can be.
  • No foreign transaction fee. If you travel outside the United States, a card that charges no foreign transaction fees is strictly superior to a card that charges foreign transaction fees.
  • Chip-and-PIN enabled. I did not realize until recently that most (all?) BankAmericard credit cards with chips are PIN-enabled, making it possible to use them at unmanned kiosks outside the United States. You can set the PIN on your BankAmericard credit cards by logging into your account, selecting "Information & Services," and then "Manage card settings."
  • 1.5% cash back rewards (unless you're able to trigger higher earning with Bank of America and affiliate account balances). This is lower than many other credit cards, but not that much lower, which will become important.

What's wrong with the rest?

BankAmericard Travel Rewards has a lot of competition for best single credit card. What's wrong with them?

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited. No annual fee, 1.5% cash back, but with a 3% foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Citi Double Cash. No annual fee, 2% cash back, but with 3% foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Capital One Venture Rewards. $59 annual fee and 2% cash back, no foreign transaction fee and not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Fidelity Rewards Visa. No annual fee, 2% cash back, and 1% foreign transaction fee. Not chip-and-PIN enabled.
  • Barclaycard Arrival Plus. $89 annual fee, 2.105% cash back, no foreign transaction fee. Chip-and-PIN enabled.

The 1.5% cash back earning rate on the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card is lower than the maximum cash back available on unbonused purchases, but in each case you can see you're making an explicit tradeoff: you can pay an annual fee, a foreign transaction fee, or give up chip-and-PIN capabilities.

Conclusion

At this point I assume my readers are boiling over with outrage about not considering this, that, or the other thing in the world of travel and travel hacking.

Which brings me all the way back to my point. If you know anything about travel hacking this recommendation is absurd; there are so many better cards to apply for first, so many bonus categories to maximize, so many spending requirement thresholds to trigger! But most people don't know anything about travel hacking, and they need recommendations too.

To those people this is my recommendation: sign up for a BankAmericard Travel Rewards card and never think about it again.

For the sake of full disclosure, I personally don't carry this card since I don't have $100,000 in assets I can house with Bank of America, but am planning to product change my Better Balance Rewards card to Travel Rewards as soon as I hit that threshold.

Foreign airline co-branded credit cards, #8: Conclusions

Reviewing the 7 foreign airline co-branded credit cards issued by US banks that I covered in this series, the cards can be handily arranged into 3 groups:

  • Cards worth getting and keeping for manufactured spend;
  • Cards worth getting for the signup bonus and cancelling;
  • Cards that are probably not worth getting.

Manufactured spend powerhouses

When looking at a card's value for manufacturing spend, it's essential to look at both the earning and redemption rates the card offers. For example, a Marriott Rewards point is more valuable than a Hilton Honors point, but not 6 times more valuable — that makes a dollar spent in a bonus category with the Hilton Honors Surpass American Express more valuable than the same dollar spent with a Marriott Rewards credit card that earns just 1 point per dollar.

Similarly, the two co-branded credit cards in this series that are valuable for ongoing spend are the US Bank AeroMexico Visa cards and the Barclaycard Asiana Visa Signature card. The former earns 3.2 AeroMexico kilometers per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores, which can be redeemed on SkyTeam carriers (with fuel surcharges) and the latter earns 2 Asiana miles per dollar spent in the same categories, which can be redeemed on Star Alliance carriers and their non-alliance partners.

It's especially worth noting that the recent increases in Delta redemption rates on SkyTeam partners make it even more likely that redeeming other SkyTeam partner miles, even ones that pass along fuel surcharges, will be more valuable than earning and redeeming Delta SkyMiles.

Valuable signup bonuses

Three of the cards I covered in this series have signup bonuses you might find valuable, depending on your situation:

  • The British Airways Visa Signature card earns 100,000 total bonus Avios after spending $20,000 on the card within one year. Those Avios can be extremely valuable if redeemed on US flights without fuel surcharges or on certain off-peak sweet spots.
  • The Miles & More World Elite MasterCard offers 50,000 bonus miles after spending $5,000 within 90 days, which can be extremely valuable for domestic first class redemptions, including to Hawaii.
  • The "Black" Virgin Atlantic World Elite MasterCard offers 75,000 Flying Club miles after spending $12,000 within 6 months and adding two authorized users. If nothing else, those miles can be moved to Hilton Honors points at a 1:1.5 ratio, earning you 9.4 Honors points per dollar on unbonused spend.

Cards that are worthless, or at least worth less

Finally, the LANPASS Visa Signature Card and SKYPASS Visa Signature Card, both from US Bank, offer minimal signup bonuses and weak earning rates, so even in the case of SKYPASS, where points can be valuable on certain routes, their co-branded credit card is unlikely to be the most efficient way to earn them. However, it's worth being aware of the cards and their potential redemption opportunities in case the signup bonuses on either card are temporarily or permanently increased.

Foreign airline co-branded credit cards issued by American banks, #7: Asiana by Bank of America

Here we are, number 7, the final foreign airline co-branded credit card in this series. Today we tackle what might be the best foreign airline co-branded credit card of all: the Asiana Visa Signature Credit Card issued by Bank of America.

Asiana by Bank of America

Bank of America issues one co-branded credit card that earns Asiana Miles:

  • the Asiana Visa Signature Credit Card has a $99 annual fee (not waived the first year) and a signup bonus of 30,000 Asiana Miles after spending $3,000 within 90 days. It earns 3 Asiana Miles per dollar spent on Asiana Airlines purchases, 2 Asiana Miles per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores, and 1 Asiana Mile per dollar spent everywhere else. It also offers a 10,000-Asiana Mile anniversary bonus and 2 Asiana Airlines lounge passes.

Earning Asiana Miles

Like the AeroMexico Visa Signature card by US Bank, the Asiana Visa Signature card earns 2 miles per dollar spent at gas stations and grocery stores. If you have access to gas station or grocery store manufactured spend, that creates an opportunity to earn Asiana Miles at an accelerated pace.

Asiana Miles are also a transfer partner of Starwood Preferred Guest, but since Starpoints transfer at a 1:1.25 ratio (when you transfer them in blocks of 20,000 Starpoints) you'd generally be better off earning 2 Asian Miles per dollar than 1 Starpoint per dollar (depending on your specific situation).

Whether it's worth doing so depends on the opportunities for...

Redeeming Asiana Miles

Asiana is a Star Alliance carrier, and should have access to Star Alliance partner award space, which you can generally search for on the websites of United or Air Canada. Compared to United MileagePlus, there are a few sweets spots for flights originating in the United States:

  • Business and first class flights on Star Alliance partners from the United States to Europe cost 70,000 and 110,000 MileagePlus miles each way, respectively, while Asiana charges just 40,000 and 50,000 Asiana Miles each way.
  • to Southern South America, United charges 55,000 miles for business class and 70,000 for first, while Asiana charges 35,000 and 45,000 miles, respectively.

The same pattern repeats elsewhere, and it's relatively easy to compare Asiana's award chart with United's.

On the flip side, Asiana passes along fuel surcharges on most partner award flights, while United generally doesn't. That means the very best Asiana redemptions will be on Star Alliance carriers with low or no fuel surcharges, like United itself, but also Copa, Avianca, and TACA, according to MileValue.

Stopovers on partner award tickets are allowed, but cost additional Asiana Miles, and open jaws are allowed.

Partner awards have to be booked over the phone, as Scott at MileValue describes here. The process seems to have improved considerably since Lucky documented his frustration in 2012.

Is it worth it?

Over the course of this series I've attempted to be scrupulously neutral, explaining the pros and cons of each credit card and loyalty program. So it's my pleasure to be a little more decisive about the Asiana Visa Signature card: if you have access to plentiful gas station or grocery store manufactured spend, and travel on Star Alliance carriers with some frequency, this card is very likely to offer considerable value.

There are two ways to anchor the value of this card: the next cheapest method of earning Asiana Miles, and the next cheapest method of earning Star Alliance miles.

As indicated above, it's possible to earn Asiana Miles with a Starwood Preferred Guest card earning 1.25 Asiana Miles per dollar spent on otherwise unbonused spend. If your unbonused spend costs roughly 33% less than your grocery store spend and earns you 38% fewer Asiana Miles (1.25 versus 2 Asiana Miles per dollar), then you're facially better off earning the Asiana Miles directly. But in reality, a travel hacking practice that includes both unbonused spend and bonus spend would allow you to deploy your bonused spend towards cards like the Asiana Visa Signature, which earn bonus miles, and your cheaper unbonused spend towards flexible currencies like Starpoints. Doing so gives you access to Asiana's cheap Star Alliance awards and Starpoints that can be redeemed for hotel stays or transferred to other partners.

On the other hand, a Chase Ink Plus card would earn 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, which could be transferred to United MileagePlus. In this case, putting the same spend on a Asiana Visa Signature card would cannibalize your access to United MileagePlus miles: you can't put the same gas station dollar on two different credit cards!

But for many Star Alliance partner awards, even taking into account the fuel surcharges that Asiana passes along, it will take far less gas station spend to break even compared to a MileagePlus award: just $50,000 for a first class roundtrip flight to Europe, compared to $110,000 to earn the required number of United MileagePlus miles. Under most circumstances that $60,000 difference more than makes up for any fuel surcharges paid on the Asiana award.