Did Barclaycard drop Arrival Plus travel statement credit redemptions back down to $25?

Back in November, 2015, Barclaycard devalued their Arrival Plus card in two ways:

  • they lowered the rebate on points redeemed for travel statement credits from 10% to 5%;
  • and they raised the minimum travel statement credit redemption amount from $25 to $100.

Since then, they have also quietly improved the card, adding a trip delay benefit in 2017.

But it appears they have also very quietly rolled back one of the 2015 devaluations.

I redeemed 2,630 miles against a $26.30 purchase today

Since I made a big purchase with my Arrival Plus card today, I logged into the Barclays mobile app to see if they'd fixed the annoying feature where you could only see your eligible travel purchases if you had 10,000 or more miles.

Sure enough, not only could I see all my eligible travel purchases, but three of them were also shown in bold, i.e., available for redemption: a $26.30 cab ride, a $49 shuttle, and a $61 Uber trip. Thinking the app had simply fixed one error and replaced it with another, I then logged onto the desktop website and saw the same thing: all three purchases were eligible for redemption (I had about 7,000 miles at the time).

This is either a glitch or an unannounced change

At the top of the "Travel statement credits" page you can still find the following text:

"Redemptions for travel statement credits, with the exception of your account annual fee, start at 10,000 miles for $100. Redemptions for your account annual fee start at 2,500 miles for $25. Please note, only qualifying travel purchases made in the last 120 days will display, and you may only redeem against a travel purchase one time."

But I was still able to redeem 2,630 Arrival Plus miles against a $26.30 purchase.

It's possible only "full" redemptions are allowed

Normally when redeeming Arrival Plus miles against a travel purchase you're offered several options. So, for example, when redeeming miles against your $89 annual fee, you might be given the option of redeeming 8,900 miles, 7,500 miles, or 5,000 miles (I happen to forget whether Barclaycard normally offers 3 or 4 redemption options). Due to the 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel statement credits, it's typically ideal to redeem the smallest number of miles possible, in order to trigger as many rebates as possible (and asymptotically approach a 2.105% return on your unbonused spend).

But for the 3 travel purchases I had enough miles to redeem for, I was only offered a single option, to redeem my miles against the purchase in full.

It's possible only surface transportation is allowed

It was an odd coincidence that all three of my over-$25 and under-$100 travel purchases in the last 120 days were various taxis, shuttles, and Uber rides. As a result of that coincidence, I don't know if the new lower minimums only apply to surface transportation expenses, or if all travel purchases over $25 are now eligible for redemption again.


Barclaycard relaunched their overall US brand as Barclays and relaunched the Arrival Plus specifically earlier this year, and it's possible that the changes I've noticed have been in place since then, or they may have been introduced more recently.

Whether the changes are intended and just haven't been publicly announced yet, or are an unintended consequence of some legacy piece of code being reactivated is an open question, but I haven't seen these changes reported anywhere else, so if like me you only log into your Barclaycard account when you have 10,000 miles or more, it may be worth checking to see if you suddenly have some smaller redemption amounts available.

My favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked

I've been thinking lately about the Bank of America Alaska Airlines credit card, since it has a somewhat higher signup bonus than usual, at 30,000 Mileage Plan miles, a $100 statement credit, and a taxes-and-fees-only companion ticket for the first year, instead of the usual $99-plus-taxes-and-fees offer.

Since Alaska companion tickets can be used on any economy fare, and Mileage Plan has last-seat award availability, this is basically a signup bonus of between 1.5 and 2 roundtrips on Alaska or Virgin America, depending on whether you can find low-level award space or have to redeem all 30,000 Mileage Plan miles for a one-way (or possibly a few more if you're flying to Hawaii or Mexico).

Since Bank of America lets you apply for and receive the same card and signup bonus multiple times, it used to be popular to apply for a new Alaska Airlines card every 91 days and then request product changes to the Better Balance Rewards card, which can be automated to spin off $30 every quarter in cash back. I believe that product change is no longer available as the Better Balance Rewards card isn't being offered to new customers, but a product change from a card with a good signup bonus is still likely the best way to get a card like the BankAmericard Travel Rewards card, which only has a standard signup bonus of 20,000 points.

Since ranking stuff is fun, here are a few of my other favorite credit card auxiliary benefits, ranked.

5. Centurion Lounge access

This is technically not one of my favorite auxiliary benefits since I don't have an American Express Platinum or Business Platinum card, but it's one of my favorite auxiliary benefits for other people to have so they can guest me into the lounges.

I've invited subscribers to join me at meetups in the Centurion lounges in Las Vegas, New York La Guardia, and Dallas/Fort Worth, and as someone who would never pay for lounge access I am happy to say they really are terrific lounges. Great food, cocktails, views, seating, and wi-fi. If I lived in or regularly traveled through cities with Centurion Lounges I could certainly see applying for a Business Platinum card. I don't, so I won't, but this benefit still sneaks into the top 5.

4. America Express Delta Platinum and Reserve companion tickets

I don't think the Delta companion tickets, which can both be redeemed for tickets in certain cheap domestic economy fare buckets, and in the case of the Reserve companion ticket in first class, are as valuable as people claim. They essentially function as a not-quite-50% discount on economy tickets, if you are willing to be flexible with your routing and plan far enough in advance, because you still have to pay taxes and fees on the second ticket.

The best value of the companion tickets, of course, is to simply sell them to someone who isn't a travel hacker. That's an easy way to bring down the out-of-pocket cost of your annual fee, if you're primarily interested in the cards in order to earn bonus SkyMiles and waive the Medallion Qualifying Dollar requirements for status.

Finally, Frequent Miler has written about the opportunity to combine Delta companion tickets and the American Express Business Platinum card's 35% Membership Rewards point rebate. Apparently Membership Rewards points can be redeemed against purchases made with the Business Platinum card outside the American Express Travel booking portal. It does require a phone call and is apparently up to the discretion of the phone agent, and I've never tried it, so don't take my word for it. To give a simple example, two $500 tickets with $11.20 in taxes and fees would cost a total of $511.20 if booked with a Delta companion ticket. Since you can pay for Delta companion tickets with any American Express card, you'd then put the charge on your Business Platinum card. Calling into Membership Rewards, you'd redeem 51,120 Membership Rewards points, and eventually receive a rebate of 35% of those points, or 17,892. That would give you a total out-of-pocket cost of 33,228 Membership Rewards points for $1,000 in flights, or 3 cents per Membership Rewards point.

Be careful to note the reason this works: you can't pay for Delta companion tickets with any card that is not an American Express card. If you could, you'd be better off paying with a travel rewards card that you manufacture cheap spend on, or a card that offers free trip delay insurance. But since you have to choose an American Express card, the Business Platinum is the card that lets you leverage the value of your Membership Rewards points against the already-discounted cost of the companion ticket.

3. Trip Delay insurance

Speaking of trip delay insurance, after my experience getting stranded by United in Denver, I've come around to the idea. I'd never pay for it separately, and I probably wouldn't keep a card just because it offers trip delay insurance, but if you already carry a card like the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Barclaycard Arrival+, then you should be booking as many of your flights with it as possible.

That won't always be possible, for example if you're booking tickets using US Bank Flexpoints or Chase Ultimate Rewards points, but for tickets you book with cash, or award tickets that give you a choice of cards to pay with — use the right card! It only takes one claim every few years to pay for many years of $89 or $95 annual fees.

2. Hilton Honors Gold (Diamond) status

Hilton Gold status is notoriously easy to earn, and Hilton Diamond status is notoriously worth little above and beyond the benefits of Gold. Nonetheless, no matter how easy it is to earn, you still want to earn it somehow if Hilton is going to be one of your primary loyalty programs. Personally I carry the American Express Hilton Honors Surpass card, which gives automatic Gold status and Diamond status when you spend $40,000 on the card, although the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve card has the same status earning structure (but earns just 5 Honors points per dollar spent at grocery stores).

1. Hyatt annual free night certificate

The annual free night certificate earned by the Chase Hyatt credit card is the best credit card free night certificate for a few reasons:

  • Unlike the Citi Hilton Honors Reserve free night certificate, it can be used on any day, not just on weekends, and doesn't have a $10,000 spending requirement, allowing that spend to be put on more lucrative credit cards.
  • Unlike the Chase IHG Rewards Club free night certificate, the Hyatt certificate can be combined with valuable World of Hyatt points instead of worthless IHG Rewards Club points. To illustrate this point, a 3-night stay at a top-tier IHG Rewards Club property like the InterContinental Sydney would require the transfer of 120,000 Ultimate Rewards points to IHG Rewards Club, plus the use of an annual free night certificate. A 3-night stay at a top-tier Hyatt property requires just 90,000 Ultimate Rewards points — no certificate required! The corollary of that is the ability to save valuable World of Hyatt points at lower-tier properties by swapping in the free Category 1-4 certificate. The credit card's $75 annual fee buys you a free night certificate worth between $50 and $150 in Ultimate Rewards points.
  • Unlike the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier free night certificate, the Hyatt free night certificate can be used at properties you actually want to stay at. The Marriott Rewards Premier certificate can be used at properties up to Category 5, which would cost 25,000 Marriott Rewards points, if you could find one to stay at. But while Marriott has so totally gutted their categories that there's no reason to count on finding a Category 5 property that's worth an $85 annual fee, there are still plentiful Category 4 Hyatt properties where paying a $75 annual fee will get you a reasonable discount.


Naturally, your ranking should differ based on your own travel needs:

  • if you travel often enough that you are desperate for lounge access, the premium airline credit cards will offer it;
  • likewise Hawaiian travelers may get value from the Barclaycard Hawaiian Airlines credit card's companion ticket;
  • and if you stay at a lot of Sheratons the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Business card gives Sheraton Club Lounge access (I've never stayed at a Sheraton or visited a Sheraton Club Lounge but I'm sure they're nice).

But for my own travel needs, these are the five benefits I value the most.

Well look at Barclaycard adding a trip delay insurance benefit!

I've written before about taking advantage of the Chase Sapphire Preferred trip delay insurance benefit (the same benefit is shared by the Chase Sapphire and Sapphire Reserve cards). I don't think it's as good a benefit as your local affiliate blogger says it is, and like any insurance product they'll do their best to find reasons not to honor your claim, but the benefit is real and if they can't find any reasons not to, they really will honor it.

Good credit card trip delay insurance is good for a couple key reasons:

  • it doesn't cost anything extra: you trigger it when you pay for your flights with the credit card;
  • it's more generous than airline delay benefits: instead of having to eat at the airport Quizno's and make sure you spend less than $12, you can get a proper meal. Chase doesn't even ask for itemized meal receipts for charges under $50;
  • you get to strategically stay wherever you want. I used my trip delay to get another Hyatt Gold Passport stay credit, which meant one less night I needed to mattress run in December.

I'm not trying to sell you anything, and credit card trip delay insurance has a profound shortcoming for a travel hacker: you have to purchase airfare, or at least pay the taxes and fees associated with an award ticket, with the credit card in question. That means:

  • if you're booking flights with US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Flexpoints, you can't pay with another card to trigger trip delay insurance;
  • if you're booking a Delta Platinum or Reserve American Express companion ticket, you have to pay for the ticket with an American Express card;
  • if you're planning to redeem the Membership Rewards points connected to an American Express Business Platinum card against an airfare purchase at 2 cents per point, you can't also put the flight on a card with trip delay insurance.
  • if, like me, you have a Chase Ink Plus but not a card in the Chase Sapphire family, the only way you can redeem Ultimate Rewards points at 1.25 cents each is out of your Chase Ink account, which means you can't also pay with a card that offers trip delay insurance.

I say all this as preface to a pleasant surprise I had this morning: the Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard has added a trip delay insurance benefit!

Barclaycard Arrival Plus World Elite MasterCard adds trip delay insurance

When I logged into my Barclaycard account this morning, I was greeted by a popup saying I was in for some exciting changes:

Needless to say, I found it profoundly unlikely that I would find the updates to my card benefits exciting, but as your dutiful servant I clicked through to find out. The link took me to the Services/Account Settings page (in case you want to navigate back there later), and down at the bottom there were two links: to the old Guide to Benefits (in effect since May 1, 2014) and to the new Guide to Benefits (effective April 1, 2017):

The old Guide to Benefits included a baggage delay benefit, while the new Guide to Benefit also includes a trip delay insurance benefit. It's not quite as generous as the Chase Sapphire benefit, but it's not bad!

Details of the Barclaycard trip delay insurance benefit

The benefit is pretty simple:

  • a trip must be delayed for 6 hours or more. There's no exception for overnight stays, so if a flight is delayed from 1 am to 6 am it won't be covered;
  • the delay must be a result of inclement weather, equipment failure, or lost or stolen passport or travel documents;
  • coverage is limited to $300 in benefits (compared to $500 with the Chase Sapphire cards);

To trigger the trip delay insurance benefit:

"You must purchase the trip entirely with Your covered card for You, or Your family member, and Your traveling companions. If redeemable certificates, vouchers, coupons, or discounts awarded from frequent flier programs are used to purchase the trip, any remaining charge for the trip must be purchased entirely with Your covered card."

I don't understand why credit card companies go to the trouble of writing their terms and conditions in legalese if the legalese is also going to be hopelessly confusing, but that's where we are. From what I can tell, the benefit covers tickets purchased by you for you and your traveling companions (whether or not they're related to you), and tickets purchased by you for family members, but not tickets purchased by you for the traveling companions of family members (if the family member's traveling companions are not related to you).

That's pretty stupid, but it's the best I can disentangle from this document. The benefit also seems to be limited to $300 per trip, while the Sapphire benefit is limited to $500 per ticket, so two people are eligible for $1,000 in reimbursement. That makes a big difference if you're traveling with a big family and need to book multiple hotel rooms. The flip side is that the Sapphire benefit only covers spouses, domestic partners, and dependent children, while the Barclaycard benefit seems to apply to anyone traveling with you, for example coworkers or older children.

Of course you can simply request a Sapphire authorized user card and extend the coverage protection to anyone you like.


For the reasons I laid out in my introduction, I don't find trip delay insurance as valuable as some people claim to find it. But now that I have a card that offers trip delay insurance, there are some no-brainer situations where I'll be using my Arrival Plus card from now on:

  • Award tickets. I usually use my Arrival Plus to cover the taxes and fees on award tickets anyway simply because it's my highest earning card for unbonused spend, but since I have a Delta Platinum Business American Express card, I have been paying the taxes and fees on Delta award tickets with that card. From now on I'll be paying all those piddling award taxes and fees with my Arrival Plus.
  • Flying United. If I had to fly United for some reason, I'd be much more comfortable doing so if I paid with a card that offered trip delay insurance, given my awful track record with them (I was moving across the country on the day their Chicago air traffic control tower spontaneously combusted).
  • Cheap tickets. For tickets in the sub-$300 range, for which I would typically redeem Ultimate Rewards points at 1.25 cents each, I'll strongly consider paying with my Arrival Plus and redeeming points against the charges, saving my Ultimate Rewards points for more lucrative opportunities.

Some bonus categories I never think about

I belong to the noisy-but-unpopular school that believes everyday spending should properly be a rounding error in the typical travel hacker's overall miles and points strategy. That's because more miles can be earned in an afternoon of light manufactured spending than will be earned in a month or year of trying to earn as many points as possible on actual purchases.

The flip side of that is a blind spot when it comes to the bonused categories of spend on cards that I already carry, either for purposes of manufactured spend or recurring annual bonuses. In the interests of keeping my blind spots few and far between, I decided to take a closer look at a few of those categories.


With increasingly limited access to gas station manufactured spend, you may find that you're not able to manufacture $50,000 in spend in a Chase Ink Plus's double point category of "gas stations and hotel accommodations when purchased directly with the hotel."

Since Ultimate Rewards points are worth 1.25 cents each when redeemed for paid airfare, or more when transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport, Southwest Rapid Rewards, and (usually) United MileagePlus, you're strictly better off paying for your hotel stays with a Chase Ink Plus than with the 2% cash back card you use for your other everyday purchases. One possible exception is if you are having trouble finding eligible expenses to redeem your Barclaycard Arrival Plus, Capital One Venture, or BankAmericard Travel Rewards miles against, although you can always consider refundable reservations in that case.

I'm fond of paying the revenue component of my Hyatt stays with Hyatt gift cards purchased at a discount using cashback rewards, but if you pay for Hyatt stays directly, the 3 Hyatt Gold Passport points earned per dollar with the Chase Hyatt credit card are superior to the 2 Ultimate Rewards points earned by both the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Sapphire Preferred — assuming you plan to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport at any point in the future.

The math is somewhat less favorable when paying for Hilton stays with the American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card, which earns 12 HHonors points per dollar spent at Hilton properties. According to the Wandering Aramean visualization tool, 12 HHonors points are worth a median 5.376 cents, while 2 Ultimate Rewards points, transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport, are worth a median 3.724 cents. That's an edge, but it's an edge that's highly dependent on your actual redemption pattern.

Finally, the Chase Marriott Rewards Premier credit card is by and large not worth holding for either its recurring benefit (one free category 1-5 night each account anniversary) nor for manufactured spending (one elite night credit for each $3,000 spent). But if you do have it for one reason, the other, or both, you are still unlikely to get more value from the 5 Marriott Rewards points earned per dollar spent at Marriott properties than you would from 2 Ultimate Rewards points earned on the same spend — unless, of course, you are already planning to transfer Ultimate Rewards points to Marriott for some reason, like booking a 7-night Hotel + Air package.


As I've written before, most of the time one or more rotating cashback bonus card is offering 5% cash back at restaurants, so the idea of needing a particular card "dedicated" to restaurant spend is misleading: you should use your most lucrative card, which will, at least 6 months of this year, be a Discover it or Chase Freedom card. But that leaves the other half of the year, which makes it a legitimate question whether there are better cards than a straight 2% cashback card for use at restaurants.

Using the same median Hilton HHonors point value as above, the 6 HHonors points earned per dollar with the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express at restaurants slightly edges out a 2% cash back card, earning the equivalent 2.688 cents per dollar spent, while the Chase Hyatt credit card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points per dollar spent, or a median 3.724 cents per dollar.

This matters because the Chase Sapphire Preferred, often promoted by affiliate bloggers for its high affiliate payout and earning rate on travel and dining, earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar. In other words, for just $75, rather than $95, you can earn 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points at restaurants with a card that also offers a free night at Category 1-4 Hyatt properties worldwide. That's a fact that's helpful to keep in mind the next time someone tells you the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best card to carry for restaurant spend.

Airline tickets

Finally, I very rarely find myself booking air travel directly through an airline (preferring to use miles, Ultimate Rewards points, or Flexpoints earned with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card), but if you do book air travel directly, or need to pay the taxes and fees attached to award tickets, you can do better than a 2% cashback card with cards you may already carry.

If you periodically sign up for a "spare" US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card, for example during the current Olympics promotion, you can use that extra card to pay for airfare, earning 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent, and transfer the resulting bonus Flexpoints to your primary account for future redemptions.

If you use an American Express Premier Rewards Gold card to manufacture grocery store spend on an ongoing basis, you may as well use it to pay for airfare, earning 3 Membership Rewards points for your airline tickets as well, which can be transferred to potentially lucrative travel partners like Delta SkyMiles. The same goes for a Citi Prestige card you may carry to raise the value of your existing Citi ThankYou points.

And the Chase Hyatt credit card earns 2 Hyatt Gold Passport points per dollar spent on airfare, giving it an edge over a straight 2% cashback card, depending as always on your actual planned redemptions.


I don't think it's useful, let alone necessary, for a travel hacker to stress over every possible bonus point at every possible merchant. But for the kind of purchases that you know you make frequently, it's at least worth considering finding additional value by keeping in mind the bonus categories offered by cards that you already use to manufacture spend, or hold for their recurring annual benefits.

As I indicated above, I don't usually pay for airline tickets or hotel stays with credit cards. But digging into my existing cards' bonus categories, I realized I could replicate the majority of the Chase Sapphire Preferred's "travel and dining" bonus categories with cards I already had: the Chase Ink Plus and Chase Hyatt credit cards. Between the two, they cover hotels, airlines, restaurants, and rental cars.

Obviously that leaves out things like cruises, travel agency bookings, local transportation, and so on. But they do include the bulk of reimbursable business travel, so if you do spend a large amount in those categories each year, you may find yourself coming out ahead by examining the bonus categories on your existing card card portfolio.

When deals don't stack

One of the most popular approaches to travel hacking is finding deals that "stack:" when you can apply multiple techniques to a single transaction, you can bring your out of pocket expenses even lower than you would applying any one of them individually.

Some deals stack

Since stacking deals can amplify total savings, deals that stack tend to get a lot of attention. For a simple example, you might click through a cash back portal to Hotels.com, apply a Hotels.com coupon, and pay for your stay with an Arrival Plus card. The cash back portal and coupon lower the amount you're charged, and then your final out-of-pocket cost is reduced further by redeeming against the transaction Arrival Plus miles you've manufactured as cheaply as possible.

Stacked deals can get much, much more complicated that that: Frequent Miler has painstakingly shown how portal cashback, coupons, credit cards, and even the tax code can be stacked to earn a Southwest Companion Pass with as little out-of-pocket expense as possible.

Most deals don't stack

What's usually glossed over by credit card salesmen is that most deals don't stack, which is important to both understand and take into account when developing a travel hacking strategy.

To take an example from last Thursday's post, the 4th-night-free benefit of the Citi Prestige card gives a roughly 25% discount off paid stays of exactly 4 nights. Ideally, you'd like to stack that with something like the Barclaycard Arrival Plus or BankAmericard Travel Rewards credit card, to redeem cheap points against your final bill. But because the stay has to be paid for with the Citi Prestige, your discount is limited to 25% — less than you'd save simply paying for a 4-night stay with one of those credit cards.

Another example is the American Express Delta Platinum and Reserve credit cards, which offer an annual companion ticket in economy (Platinum) or first class (Reserve). Such tickets offer a discount of almost 50% off 2 domestic tickets (though only the primary ticket earns redeemable and Medallion Qualifying miles). But manufacturing spend at grocery stores with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card offers a discount of, for example, between 53.2% and 68.9% on paid airfare! Buy two tickets with Flexpoints and not only are you unconstrained by fare class, but both tickets will earn miles and be upgrade-eligible, as well.

That doesn't mean the Delta American Express cards are bad cards (I personally have a Delta Platinum small business card). It does mean you need to think critically about the value of the companion ticket, perhaps using it to book travel for friends or relatives who will reimburse you (maybe) rather than using it for your own travel.


The question, "can I stack this deal?" should be one of the first ones you ask whenever you see a pitch for a new credit card or discount on purchased points, but also as you proceed through your everyday routine. If the answer is yes, you can amplify your savings by applying as many angles as possible to each transaction.

If the answer is no, that doesn't render a deal instantly worthless. But it is an invitation to examine the deal more closely, to ask whether and how you'll incorporate it into your overall travel hacking strategy. It may turn out to be superior to your other techniques, and it's those other strategies that should yield to the new, cheaper method of paying for your travel.

But if it offers a smaller discount (like the Prestige 4th-night-free), less-flexible booking options (like the Delta companion tickets), or interferes with your other goals, like elite status requalification, then you should take seriously the possibility that you will get less value, or have greater out-of-pocket expense, then you would pursuing a different strategy that incorporates more, better, and stackable deals.

Is the Citi Prestige a good deal? Compared to what?

This isn't my favorite kind of blog post to write, but I do consider it essential service journalism in the context of a travel hacking blogosphere whose default mode is "breathlessly excited."

The Citi Prestige credit card is often pitched as an essential tool for the sophisticated travel hacker. In this post I want to make the argument that, on the contrary, the benefits of the Citi Prestige are valuable almost exclusively to the least-sophisticated travel hackers, who don't have a well-designed portfolio of credit cards, or to travelers who don't have access to even the most mundane techniques for manufacturing spend.

Let's take each of the benefits of the Citi Prestige card in turn.

Price compression makes airfare cheap

The first thing you hear about the Citi Prestige card is how it multiplies the value of your ThankYou points: with the card, ThankYou points are worth 1.33 cents each towards airfare, or 1.6 cents each towards airfare on American Airlines-marketed flights.

That creates a theoretical cash value of the current 50,000 ThankYou-point signup bonus of $665-$800 in paid airfare.

But $800 in paid airfare manufactured with a Chase Ink Plus card at office supply stores costs $380 in purchase and liquidation fees ($665 in paid airfare costs just $316).

So don't tell me a 50,000 ThankYou-point signup bonus is worth $800; it's worth between $316 and $380, the money you'd spend manufacturing the same airfare with a much more versatile (and, obviously, much cheaper) Chase Ink Plus.

If you have access to manufactured spend at grocery stores, then you'll find a card like the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa runs around the world before the Citi Prestige has even got its boots on.

Compare a 25% discount on paid hotel stays to real travel hacking

The "killer app" of the Citi Prestige is supposed to be its "4th-night-free" benefit, whereby reservations made through Citi's contract travel agency, and paid for with the Citi Prestige, earn a statement credit equal to the amount of the stay's fourth night, including taxes.

In other words, when used for stays of exactly 4 nights, the Citi Prestige offers a discount of 25% on average (the actual discount will vary depending on the distribution of room rates over the four nights; Frequent Miler provides some extreme examples here).

By contrast, using only the most commonly available manufactured spending techniques, the Barclaycard Arrival Plus produces $21.05 in hotel stays for just $11.50 — a 45.4% discount.

A Chase Freedom Unlimited, earning 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent (or 1,515 Ultimate Rewards points for the same $11.50 above), paired with a $95 Chase Sapphire Preferred or Chase Ink Plus, requires just 1.01 cents in value per Ultimate Rewards point transferred to Hyatt Gold Passport point to match the 25% discount offered by the Citi Prestige. You have to look pretty hard to get that little value from a Hyatt Gold Passport point.

Finally, using an American Express Hilton Surpass card, you'll earn 6 HHonors points per dollar spent at grocery stores. Given only the most widely available cost of $6.30 for 3,036 HHonors points, you'll need to get just 0.28 cents per HHonors points to beat the Citi Prestige's 25% average discount on four-night stays. And that doesn't account for the value of 5th-night-free award reservations for Hilton elites.

Which brings me to the most important drawback of the Citi Prestige's "killer app:" it's only useful on stays of 4 nights or more! While all the cards and techniques I described above are useful on stays as short as 1 night, to get even a 25% discount on your paid stays, you'll have to stay for exactly 4 nights: any less, and your stay isn't eligible; any more, and your discount shrinks as a percentage of your total stay.

How does the the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free differ from the Club Carlson last-night-free?

When the US Bank Club Carlson co-branded credit cards offered the last night free on award stays, I was one of their biggest enthusiasts. That's because the last-night-free benefit allowed you to leverage the already generous 5 Gold Points earned per dollar spent on all purchases. In other words, it made valuable manufactured spend more valuable.

The Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit is exactly the opposite: it requires you to pay cash out of pocket for your room, which violates one of the most important principles underlying a successful travel hacking strategy: spend cash last.

Value all the other Citi Prestige card benefits at what you're willing to pay for them: nothing

You can check out the remaining benefits of the Citi Prestige over at Miles to Memories. They include:

  • airline fee credits (worth much less than cash);
  • lounge access (you're not paying for it now, are you?);
  • Global Entry fee credit ($100 every 5 years, so, $20 per year);
  • and 3 rounds of golf (not 3 foursomes, just 3 rounds: your friends will have to pay their own way).

Reimbursed business travelers should ignore everything I've said

Travelers who are reimbursed for their out-of-pocket expenses have opportunities that are, from a normal person's perspective, stratospherically lucrative. If you're able to book Monday-Friday hotel reservations for a product launch, investment banking intervention, or Republican Party platform committee meeting with your own credit card for later reimbursement, you have no excuse not to earn thousands or tens of thousands of dollars per year in 4th-night-free reimbursements from a Citi Prestige card.

But when a rich weirdo like Ben Schlappig tells you how much money he's saved with the Citi Prestige 4th-night-free benefit, remember that you don't have to pay cash for your hotels, and when you do, you can get a much better discount than 25% by developing a credit card portfolio and manufactured spend strategy that meets your actual travel needs.

Making travel free

In my experience there are two broads ways people tend to view the benefits of travel hacking. For fun, let's call the two groups "budgeters" and "savers." Their behavior is not systematically different in any way — they might both apply for the same number of cards each year, manufacture the same amount of spend with them, and redeem their points for the same awards. But they talk about their techniques in very different ways.

Budgeters stretch their budget

You'll catch a budgeter saying something like, "I have 2 weeks of vacation per year, and a $4,000 travel budget. Before I started travel hacking, I could only take $4,000 vacations. Now, my $4,000 budget gets me vacations that would cost $20,000 or $30,000!" These are the kinds of stories you read about on the websites of Bankrate employees Brian Kelly and Daraius Dubash.

In practice, might mean spending $4,000 on fees (or losses if the budgeter is also a reseller), then redeeming the miles and points they earn for international business class or first class flights and five-star hotels, while before they spent the same amount on domestic economy flights and discount hotels.

In this way, the budgeter's travel budget takes them farther and in greater comfort than it did before they discovered the wonders of travel hacking.

Savers spend less for the same amount of travel

A saver says "I can't believe I used to pay full price for my travel. I used to pay $9,421 for my family's annual week-long Christmas trip to the Andaz Maui at Wailea Resort, and now I pay a flat $1,750 in Ultimate Rewards points!"

In other words, the saver takes destinations, comfort, and style as a given, and seeks to pay as little as possible for it by signing up for credit cards, manufacturing spend, and all the other crazy things we do to earn our travel hacker merit badge.

The happy medium is probably somewhere in between

Realistically, most people aren't entirely budgeter or entirely saver: if you generate enough miles and points per year to cover all your travel expenses, you're probably paying slightly less than you would in cash and traveling slightly more, or in greater comfort, than you would if you paid entirely in cash.

You can make travel free (but probably shouldn't)

There's another extreme which I've run into somewhat less often, but has its own special kind of appeal: make travel free by reimbursing yourself for all the fees you incur manufacturing spend.

To make this work, you need to be earning points that can be converted to cash or redeemed for travel in another, potentially higher-value way. Here are a few examples:

  • Manufacturing spend with a Chase Ink Plus at office supply stores, you may pay $27.55 for 4,634 Ultimate Rewards points. If you redeem 2,755 of those Ultimate Rewards points for cash, you've generated 1,879 Ultimate Rewards points worth of travel at no net cost.
  • Manufacturing spend with a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card at a grocery store, you might pay $12.60 for 2,024 Flexpoints. Redeem 1,260 of those Flexpoints for cash, and you're left with 764 Flexpoints at no net cost.
  • Manufacturing spend with a Barclaycard Arrival+ card at an unbonused merchant, you might pay $4.30 for $10.61 in Arrival+ miles. By being sure to redeem 41% of your Arrival+ miles on refundable reservations, your remaining Arrival+ miles are redeemable for truly free travel.

The reason you probably shouldn't do this is that it's not necessary. When you have enough miles and points to pay for your travel, you don't have to manufacture any more — you can simply earn cash back, or redeem your excess points for cash back. By manufacturing your most valuable points first (the points you're actually going to redeem), you need never find yourself in a situation where you're redeeming miles and points for cash, rather than deploying them to save money on more expensive reservations than their cash value — with the exception of points, like Barclaycard Arrival+ miles, which are worth the same when redeemed against refundable reservations as they are against reservations you intend to keep.

Conclusion: how much is your time worth?

There is a very small group of people for whom time is money.

  • For Uber drivers, time is money: every minute spent doing anything but driving for Uber is time that could be spent driving for Uber.
  • For many lawyers, time is money: as long as there's work that can be billed to clients, every 6 minutes doing anything but working for clients is time that could be billed to clients.
  • For waiters at high-end, understaffed restaurants, time is money: as long as there's someone who can't make it into work, there's a shift that could be worked.

But most people have free time.

It may not feel like free time, because there may be a baseball game on you really want to see, and if you really want to see it, you can't exactly be out manufacturing spend during the ballgame.

I love HBO's hit series Game of Thrones. If I had cable TV, and HBO, you better believe I'd watch Game of Thrones every Sunday night — that's time I wouldn't be free to manufacture spend.

But there's a very common tendency for people to describe their time as being "too valuable" to manufacture spend, when what they really mean is they'd prefer not to. Preferring not to manufacture spend is a very understandable impulse — it can be tedious, frustrating, and stressful.

But unless you would otherwise be driving for Uber, billing clients, or picking up extra shifts at Chez Panisse, you should find another word than "valuable" to describe your desire to use your time doing something else. Because in all likelihood, your time is free.

The 5.5 cards I'll use to manufacture spend in 2016

Happy New Year's Eve to all my readers (and especially to my beloved subscribers)!

2016 is almost upon us, so I thought it might be interesting to share my manufactured spend strategy for the first half of next year.

Here are the five cards I'll be doing virtually all my manufactured spend on for the next 6 months, plus a bonus card to fill in the remaining gaps.

Wells Fargo Rewards

I applied for this card back in March while opening my Wells Fargo checking account, but was declined for income verification reasons. When I received a pre-approval offer in the mail, I jumped on it and was approved with a $10,000 credit limit.

This card earns 5 Wells Fargo Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, grocery stores, and drug stores for the first 6 months, making it my manufactured spend workhorse until June, 2016.

Chase Ink Plus

Although gas station manufactured spend is no longer available in my area, I will continue to order $300 Visa gift cards from Staples and earn 1,545 flexible Ultimate Rewards points for $8.95 — about 0.58 cents each.

As a Hyatt Diamond in 2016, I plan to make a lot of Points + Cash reservations, which both earn elite qualifying stays and are eligible for Diamond suite upgrades. For those reservations, I'll be transferring in a lot of Hyatt Gold Passport points from Ultimate rewards.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards

This card earns "up to" 4% at grocery stores when you redeem your Flexpoints for air travel. That's less valuable and less flexible than my Wells Fargo Rewards card, but when that card's credit limit isn't available, Flexperks Travel Rewards will be my backup card at grocery stores.

American Express Platinum Delta SkyMiles Business

Even less valuable than Flexperks, I'll spend $50,000 on this card in order to earn 70,000 redeemable SkyMiles and 20,000 Medallion Qualification Miles, enough to secure Silver Medallion status for 2017. Then I'll call American Express to ask for either a retention bonus or a product change to a more valuable card.

American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass

Thanks to my Hyatt Diamond status in 2016, I won't be staying with Hilton as consistently as I did in 2015. But I still plan to spend $40,000 on the Surpass in 2016 in order to both secure Diamond status for another year and earn another 240,000 HHonors points, which I'll redeem when Hyatt properties aren't available or are too expensive.

Bonus card: Barclaycard Arrival+

I won't be using Arrival+ nearly as much in 2016 as I did in 2015, but there are a few ideal use cases where I'll continue to generate some spend: funding Nationwide Visa Buxx cards, opening bank accounts, and my actual expenses outside of the Wells Fargo Rewards bonus categories.


As you can see, I keep my manufactured spend practice pretty simple: start with the most valuable cards I have available, set realistic goals, and work my way down from there. That has the additional benefit of giving me the clarity to see immediately which cards would see reduced spend if my ability to manufacture spend suddenly contracted.

Quick hit: my annual fees and retention offers

I wrote yesterday that I don't chase signup bonuses as one of my principle methods of earning miles and points. But I also consider recurring annual benefits to be worth almost nothing.

I've written before that companion tickets are scams, with the exception of the very generous version offered by Bank of America's Alaska Airlines — if you happen to live in a city served by Alaska — since it can be paid for with any credit card.

I've written before that annual free hotel nights are scams, although the Citi Hilton Reserve and Chase Hyatt free nights are slightly better than the rest — if you otherwise manufacture Hilton HHonors points or transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt.

And of course, I'm the leading proponent of the argument that airline statement credits are worth (much) less than cash.

Five annual fees I'm willing to pay

As a result, I carry only five cards with annual fees, and I pay those annual fees solely because I believe manufacturing spend on the cards makes them worth keeping for my own miles and points strategy:

  • Chase Ink+. Bonus earning at office supply stores and gas stations, and turns my non-flexible Chase Freedom Ultimate Rewards points into flexible Ultimate Rewards points. $95 annual fee.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Makes flying on paid airfares very cheap. $49 annual fee.
  • Barclaycard Arrival+. Makes hotels, Uber, and taxes and fees on award tickets cheap. $89 annual fee.
  • American Express Hilton HHonors Surpass. Makes hotels cheap. $75 annual fee.
  • American Express Delta Business Platinum. Makes Delta elite status cheap. $195 annual fee.

Even I'm willing to admit the Delta Business Platinum card is a marginal play, but I do really like checking bags, so the elite status is something I'm — for now — willing to pay for, as long as I'm also earning 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar spent with the card.

Don't pay annual fees you don't have to

Those are the annual fees I'm willing to pay. But I mostly don't.

  • On Wednesday I called the number on the back of my Ink+ card and explained I was trying to decide whether to keep the card. The frontline representative (no transfer required) offered me a $95 bonus statement credit to keep the card. $0 annual fee.
  • Every year I spend $24,000 on my Flexperks Travel Rewards card I receive 3,500 bonus Flexpoints, which I redeem against my annual fee. While the Flexpoints themselves are worth up to $70 when redeemed for airfare, this allows me to treat this card as a no-annual-fee card, which is my preference. $0 annual fee.
  • Each year I call Barclaycard and ask them to waive my annual fee. They have been happy to oblige for the last two years. $0 annual fee.
  • Also on Wednesday, I called American Express, told the computer I wanted to close my account, and was immediately directed to a representative who offered me a $50 statement credit to keep the card. $25 annual fee.
  • I haven't yet called American Express about my Delta Business Platinum card, whose annual fee I paid back in May. Hopefully they'll offer me something, although gunning for low-level Delta elite status is such a marginal play that I'll probably cancel the card anyway once I've secured status for the 2016 program year. $195 annual fee, minus a prorated refund.

Conclusion: your miles will vary

I assume one reason I have had luck so far with retention offers is that I spend hundreds of thousands of dollars per year on these cards.

If you spend less — or more — you'll find that the credit card companies have different offers for you, or possibly no offers at all, which is why it's important to know what annual fees you are willing to pay if you can't get them waived.

Only once you know how much you value a card, whether for its recurring annual bonuses or earning rate on manufactured spend, will you be able to decide whether the offers you receive from your credit card companies make it worth paying to keep your accounts open.

What role should non-bonused spend play in your miles and points strategy?

Last week Shawn at Miles to Memories wrote about his experience buying PIN-enabled, Metabak-issued, personalized Visa gift cards from GiftCardMall, after clicking through a cash back portal like TopCashBack.

I responded to him on Twitter, remarking "I think you're begging the question; real issue seems to me what role unbonused spend plays in strategy."

Since I have this blog lying around, I figured I can explain myself more completely.

How is your manufactured spend throttled?

I've written before about the kinds of throttles that prevent us all from manufacturing an unlimited amount of spend. Even with huge credit limits, unlimited stock, and compliant cashiers, you'll still be constrained by the time you're willing to spend manufacturing spend, so in a concrete sense everyone's manufactured spend is throttled.

Of course, most of us don't live in that ideal manufactured spend landscape, and so regularly run into credit limits, dwindling supplies, suspicious cashiers, and a simple shortage of convenient or accessible stores.

Liquidation throttles matter most

There is no way to manufacture, on a monthly basis, more spend than you're able to liquidate, and in a fundamental sense manufactured spend is really manufactured liquidation: the search for more, easier, faster, and cheaper ways to get cash back out of the products we buy. After all, there's no special trick to buying cheap printers; the trick is getting virtually all your money back, so you can pay off your credit card while pocketing the rewards you earned on your purchase.

Different forms of manufactured spend are throttled differently

A few examples illustrate this point clearly:

  • You may be able to buy an unlimited number of OneVanilla prepaid Visa debit cards on credit, earning 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar using a Chase Ink Plus card at 7-Eleven store locations, but if you have only one Serve card, you can only liquidate $5,000 in Vanilla Visa cards per month at Family Dollar. At the same time, you might be able to liquidate an unlimited number of Metabank-backed Visa gift cards at Walmart.
  • If you have a Target Prepaid REDcard, you may be able to liquidate up to $5,000 in PIN-enabled debit cards per month at Target for free, but if your Target store locations require you to use cards that match your ID, you may not be able to liquidate any cards purchased at merchants where your credit cards offer bonused earning.

Match your liquidation bandwidth to bonused spend first

By allocating your liquidation bandwidth to your credit cards' bonus categories, you'll maximize your earning over however much spend you're able to manufacture and liquidate each month.

The logic here is simple: Shawn's personalized GiftCardMall Visa gift cards may cost him just $4.59 each, while a Visa gift card purchased at a grocery store might cost $6.95. But if Shawn uses a Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express card to purchase each, he'll be paying 0.3 cents per HHonors point at GiftCardMall and just 0.23 cents per HHonors point at the grocery store. If he cannibalizes his liquidation bandwidth with "cheaper" GiftCardMall gift cards, he'll end up paying more per point than he would by swallowing the higher per-card charge.

A special note on American Express gift cards

American Express gift cards, purchased after clicking through a portal like TopCashBack, are capable of adding a cash back bonus to any non-bonused spend, which can be well worth doing to diversify your strategy away from just miles and points. On the other hand, you'll only be able to liquidate them at merchants that accept American Express cards and don't specifically prohibit gift cards (like Simon Malls).

If there's room left for non-bonused spend, that's fantastic

There are forms of manufactured spend that are intrinsically unbonusable:

  • Visa Buxx cards can only be loaded with Visa and MasterCard credit cards in the Buxx cardholder's name. If you load them with a Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, for example, you'll earn 2.22% cash back, and there's no way to juice that earning rate with an intermediary step (although you may have a different preference for the funding card).
  • Serve cards can be loaded with third-party American Express cards like the Fidelity Investment Rewards American Express, but not with American Express gift cards. You'll earn 2% cash back on up to $1,000 in online loads each month, and you'll be glad to get it.

Finally, there are forms of manufactured spend like the personalized GiftCardMall Visa gift cards described by Shawn, and Simon Malls Visa gift cards, which can usually only be purchased with credit cards in the purchaser's name. They have the advantage of being relatively cheap and available in relatively large volumes, but the disadvantage of not receiving any spending category bonuses.


By now I hope my point is obvious: while the large volumes possible with those products do represent a real, concrete advantage that I have no intention of minimizing, if you're capable of liquidating such large volumes you have to first ask whether you've really exhausted all your bonused spending opportunities!

If you have, then manufacturing additional, non-bonused spending that fits within your liquidation bandwidth is common sense. But if you haven't, then you're leaving miles, points, and cash back on the altar of volume.