When do you contact the hotel, or, living gratefully

The feeling I most associate with travel hacking is "gratitude." That's because before I discovered the world of miles and points, or at least before I knew just how big and beautiful that world is, I still traveled all the time.

Back then I traveled "on the cheap," the same way many people travel today: booking flights based on the price of a ticket, regardless of the number or inconvenience of the connections, and booking noisy, inconvenient hostels. That wasn't all bad — I once stayed in a trailer park reconfigured as a hostel on the far, far, far outskirts of Amsterdam and had a great time biking around the Dutch countryside. But it also wasn't great (the steel trailer got up to 100 or so degrees in the sun).

Altogether, that means I'm sometimes confused about what conditions rise to the level of a "complaint."

Club Carlson properties are confusing

Last month we stayed in two Club Carlson properties, the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel in Budapest and Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava, and both properties had an ice situation that was confusing (remember, I'm easily confused).

The Radisson Blu Beke Hotel had an ice machine on our floor that appeared to me to be a Soviet relic. After I tweeted about the thing, someone apparently managed to get it working and it was full of ice the next day. Although in all honesty, I'm fairly sure they just filled it with ice from the restaurant to get me to shut up.

The beautiful old Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel in Bratislava upped the weirdness ante: every single floor of the hotel had an ice machine in a specially designed cabinet across from the elevators, and every single ice machine was unplugged, apparently permanently. I called the front desk for an explanation and the young lady working was happy to send up a bucket of ice from the bar. So that was terrific service, on the one hand, but on the other hand what were the ice machines doing there on every floor?

Hyatt Diamond food and beverage amenities are confusing

One of my favorite things I learned last month was the neologism "regranding." It's when, well, it's when this happens.

But that's neither here nor there. What I find confusing is when a Hyatt property has already installed some fruit basket or something in your room, then asks whether you'd like the Diamond points amenity or the food and beverage amenity. As a rule, I always take the food and beverage amenity.

At both the Park Hyatt Vienna and Grand Hyatt Berlin, the property then sent up a bottle of wine, which was much appreciated after a day of travel.

But under those circumstances, does the already-existing bowl of fruit in the room count as the food amenity? If I selected the points, would someone come up and take the fruit away? At the Grand Hyatt Berlin I simply told the agent at checkout that we'd never received a food amenity and he gave me the 1,000 Gold Passport points instead. Was I wrong?

What kind of feedback do hotels appreciate?

The waiters at the Park Hyatt Vienna breakfast buffet are absolutely incompetent (with one marvelous exception). The first day, we got a cup of coffee from our waiter and never saw him again. The second day, I managed to place an order with my waiter from the à la carte menu, and never saw him again. Only on our third morning in Vienna was I able to actually receive eggs Benedict cooked to order from the à la carte menu, once I shanghaied the only competent waitress in the entire restaurant (if you're staying there, e-mail me and I'll let you know which one she is).

Why I started this post by mentioning "gratitude" is that none of these things bother me at all. I tweet about stuff because it amuses me, or because I think my readers will find it amusing, but the fact that I'm able to stay in a hotel with a spa (even if the guy who does massages no longer works there) is a radical improvement over the kind of travel I did before I learned about the game.

But the response on Twitter from the brands themselves is invariably, "did you contact the hotel?" And that's a question I never have a good answer to. The Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel presumably knows that its ice machines don't work, but does the Park Hyatt Vienna know that its service staff is incompetent?

What helps improve the experience of guests, and what is just another box the property has to check when the chain's social media team tells them a guest is complaining?


I never "contact the hotel" unless my comfort is directly impacted in some way, like the time we had to get a maintenance man to fix the lights in our very strange room at the very weird Grand Hyatt New York. So I'm just throwing this out there: when do you "contact the hotel," and when do you just enjoy the ride?

Redeeming rump point balances

If having too many points in a single program is one kind of problem, both because of the increased exposure to devaluations and the fact that the least valuable point is the one that is never redeemed, then having just a few points in a program is a slightly different kind of problem.

The remaining points left in an account, whether "orphaned" there when you moved your earning activity to another program or the "rump" points left after a big redemption, can be difficult to redeem for anything: too few points for a big, valuable redemption and too many points to simply redeem for magazines.

Since I redeem my miles and points as aggressively as possible, I'm often faced with this problem of rump points. I thought it might be useful to go through my balances and see what I can get with my current account balances, without earning any additional points.

Club Carlson: 13,248 points

After my windfall back in January, I rebooked a couple of stays and ended up with a rump balance of just over 13,000 Gold Points. This is enough for a single night at a Category 1 property.

Club Carlson's Category 1 offers very slim pickings. The Park Inn by Radisson Puerto Varas, in Chile, looks adorable, and there are a few properties in Eastern Europe that seem fine (although I'm not sure the Park Inn Danube, Bratislava, will still be Category 1 after they finish their renovations on September 1, 2016).

There are 3 Radisson Blu properties on the list, in Egypt, Turkey, and India.

But since none of those options work for me, I'll likely redeem my remaining Club Carlson points for airline miles. As you'd expect, the transfer ratio is terrible, with 2,000 Gold Points transferring to 200 airline miles with their partners. Still, it's clear that I'm much more likely to redeem 1,200 airline miles than 13,000 Gold Points.

IHG Rewards Club: 55,380 points

"FQF," I imagine you asking, "how can you call 55,000 points a rump balance? That sounds like a ton of points!"

Well, it's a rump balance because IHG is a terrible program. 55,000 points isn't enough for a single night at one of their top-tier properties. If I were skipping around the world living in PointBreaks properties it would be enough for 11 nights at one of those, but I already pay rent on a perfectly nice apartment, so I'm not keen on moving to Browning, MT, for 11 days.

Having said all that, IHG's huge footprint makes it easy to find properties to fill in the little gaps in an itinerary. I currently have a one-night stay booked at the Grand Hyatt New York for $202.27 (as part of my tentative plan to requalify for Hyatt Gold Passport Diamond status). Instead, I'll buy 5,000 IHG Rewards Club points for $40 and stay at the InterContinental New York Times Square, getting 0.3 cents per point, which is slightly below the Hotel Hustle median value for IHG Rewards Club points.

American Airlines AAdvantage: 13,917 miles

Despite having had a Citi / AAdvantage World Elite MasterCard for several years (since they keep waiving the annual fee), I only recently booked my first reduced mileage award.

This is how reduced mileage awards work: if you're redeeming miles for a one-way or roundtrip itinerary within the contiguous United States, and your origin or destination is on the list of eligible "destinations," you receive a 2,500- or 3,750-mile discount on the miles required in each direction. The discount is applied immediately over the phone, which is the only way to book these awards, and it can't be combined with the new short haul awards going into effect March 22, 2016, although American promises that "New reduced mileage award levels will be introduced for these shorter flights on April 1st."

All of this is just to say that when applying the 3,750-mile discount I'm eligible for, one-way awards to and from eligible cities cost just 8,750 miles. Moreover, since American's co-branded credit cards also offer a 10% mileage rebate on all redemptions (up to 10,000 rebated miles per year), that rebate immediately brings the total cost of such flights down to 7,875 in each direction in economy (19,125 in first class).

One interesting possibility with these awards is to use them for hidden city ticketing. Since every American Airlines itinerary from my home airport requires a connection in Charlotte, Chicago, or Dallas, I could theoretically use a reduced mileage award to fly there and simply exit the airport or continue on to a different destination on a different carrier.

In any case, I'll likely kill two birds with one stone and transfer 12,000 Club Carlson Gold Points to AAdvantage, leaving me just 633 AAdvantage miles short of a roundtrip reduced mileage award redemption (n.b. actually slightly more than that since the 10% discount is applied only after booking, so I'll actually need 1,508 AAdvantage miles to make the second one-way redemption. The proof of this is left as an exercise for the reader).

Entitlement is only the start of a loyalty conversation

Sometimes travel hacking is about figuring out what you're entitled to and how to get it. It's not unusual to read blog posts about Starwood Preferred Guest elites searching for suites right up until the minute they check in, to make sure that the front desk staff give them the very best room they're entitled to.

Likewise, you're entitled to use Delta voluntary denied boarding vouchers for other passengers, as long as the person the voucher was issued to is one of the passengers on a single reservation. In practice, Delta makes that difficult, but not impossible.

Other times, what you're entitled to is just the starting point of a conversation.

Background: tour of Central Europe, 3 nights at a time

Before the June 1, 2015, Club Carlson devaluation, I booked a 9-night trip through Central Europe, with 3 nights at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest, 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube, Bratislava, and 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna.

The 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube cost 18,000 Gold Points total, for one 2-night reservation and one 1-night reservation.

The Park Inn Danube closed out from under me!

On Tuesday the manager of the Park Inn Danube e-mailed me to say:

"We hope this mail finds you well and we take this chance to wish you a fantastic start of New Year

We are happy to inform you [editor's note: I have no idea why he's "happy" to inform me of this] that our property, Park Inn Danube Bratislava, will go under full refurbishment from 1st of March 2016 until 1st of September 2016.

Due to this we are, unfortunately, not able to provide you with hotel accommodation as per your reservation...as the hotel operations will be completely ceased for the mentioned period.

We suggest you cancel your reservation trough Club Carlson in order to retrieve your Club Carlson points and we apologize for the short notice.

If you will still be interested to come to Bratislava, we strongly suggest booking the Radisson Blu Carlton that is located in the same area of Park Inn Danube."

How to turn 18,000 Gold Points into 84,000 Gold Points

When I found out my hotel had been closed, I immediately sized up the situation: I had 18,000 Gold Points locked up in my existing reservation. Bratislava doesn't have a ton of hotels in the old city, but as the general manager of the Park Inn Danube pointed out, it does have another Club Carlson property about a block away. Without the last-night-free benefit, three nights at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel would cost 84,000 Gold Points.

When I first called the Park Inn reservations line, the best suggestion the representative came up with was to cancel my existing reservations, and use the points for a cash and points reservation at the Radisson Blu. That would have left me out 15,000 Gold Points and $300.

And in fact, that's likely all I was entitled to.

So I took off my travel hacker hat and put on my civilian hat. If a civilian had a 3-night award stay planned a year in advance, and the hotel closed out from under them, they wouldn't agree to replace 3 free nights with a $300 paid stay! Instead, I explained the situation to the phone representative again, and told her I expected Club Carlson to reaccommodate me at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel.

She transferred me to their "Customer Care" department, and after a mere 30 minutes on hold, Club Carlson had deposited 66,000 additional Gold Points into my account and made me a 3-night reservation at the Radisson Blu:


Whenever I get a points windfall like this, I take the opportunity to think through my existing reservations to see if there's any way to optimize them for price or comfort.

For example, I could cancel the new award reservation, rebook the hotel with cash (about $300), then use 70,000 of the Gold Points for a third night at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna. But hotels in Vienna aren't that expensive! The Park Hyatt Vienna costs just $250 in Ultimate Rewards points or $269 for a Points + Cash redemption (plus a Diamond suite upgrade, naturally).

In fact what I'm likely to do is cancel my existing 2-night reservation at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna, upgrade our stay to a premium award redemption at the Radisson Blu Carlton Hotel, and book all three nights in Vienna at the Park Hyatt.

Anatomy of an Award Trip: Summer in Europe

I've written a few times about this trip before (as recently as yesterday), but now that it's locked down, I thought I'd share one of my patented Anatomies of an Award Trip!

Getting there: Turkish Airlines to Budapest

Turkish Airlines economy award space is wide open for next summer, so I transferred 50,000 Chase Ultimate Rewards points from my Ink+ account to United Mileage Plus, where I already had 10,000 orphaned miles. The ticket is booked out of Chicago, since there's never any award space on United from our hometown to O'Hare, so we'll pay an additional $60 for two bus tickets, which I included in the total cost below.

Total cost: 60,000 Mileage Plus miles and $81.80. Total value: $2,449.20. Value per point: 3.95 cents per Mileage Plus mile.

Getting back: Air Berlin to New York City

Air Berlin award space isn't as good as Turkish Airlines award space next summer, but I didn't have too much trouble finding two economy award seats, which I booked using a combination of Avios and cash. I actually don't have our tickets home from New York City yet, but I assume I'll just throw some Delta Skymiles or US Bank Flexpoints at that problem eventually.

Total cost: 26,000 Avios and $358.18. Total value: $1,539. Value per point: 4.54 cents per Avios.

Staying there (1): 9 nights in Central and Eastern Europe

I pieced the bulk of this trip together by first booking 3 pre-devaluation pairs of nights at Club Carlson properties in Central and Eastern Europe, then filling in the gaps with post-devaluation points, plus one paid night. Here are the totals:

  • 3 nights at the Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest. Total cost: 45,000 Club Carlson Gold Points. Total value: $294.54. Value per point: 0.65 cents per Gold Point.
  • 3 nights at the Park Inn Danube, Bratislava. Total cost: 18,000 Gold Points and $2.12. Total value: $239.05. Value per point: 1.32 cents per Gold Point.
  • 2 nights at the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna. Total cost: 50,000 Gold Points. Total value: $475.53. Value per point: 0.95 cents per Gold Point.
  • 1 (paid) night at the Hilton Vienna Danube Waterfront. Total cost: $146.

Staying there (2): 6 nights in Germany

From Vienna, our plan is to spend 6 nights in Germany, split between Berlin and the home of my partner's relatives in Bavaria. I recently orchestrated a complicated trade for 2 free Hyatt credit card signup nights, so I'll likely redeem those for two nights at the Grand Hyatt Berlin, a $458.05 value.


Looking over the awards I booked to piece this trip together, I see that I'm consistently getting more value from my miles and points redemptions than I would by booking my flights and hotels with fixed-value points like Barclaycard Arrival+ miles and US Bank Flexpoints. That's the kind of ongoing feedback I continually use while deciding whether to collect airline and hotel loyalty currencies, versus more flexible fixed-value points.

Breaking: Hotel IT is not very good

One reason I love meeting travel hackers is that every one has a unique "origin story" for how they became interested in the game in the first place. For example, I accidentally earned elite status with Delta one year, and in the course of searching out the benefits of my Silver Medallion status began to learn about and get involved in the community, as well.

Often an initiation into travel hacking comes with the discovery of a new trick. A friend discovered that his United global upgrade certificates weren't actually disappearing from his account when he redeemed them. He was sure no one else on Earth could possibly know about this bug (I believe it was actually quite widely known among travel hackers who fly United).

Hotel loyalty programs have pretty bad IT

In many ways this is understandable: Hilton HHonors has to design systems that allow both the Hilton Garden Inn DFW Airport South and Conrad Maldives Rangali Island to interact with Hilton's sprawling reservation system — and Hilton doesn't even own most of the properties using their software!

Sometimes bad IT just makes interacting with the chain more of a nuisance — IHG Rewards turns something as simple as signing up for a promotion into a Herculean achievement, and Hyatt doesn't allow award stays to be changed or canceled online.

But at other times, bad hotel loyalty software design can be turned to your advantage. Here are a few questions you might ask as you make your way through the world of hotel loyalty programs. 

How do hotels batch nights into stays?

Every hotel loyalty program I'm aware of "batches" consecutive nights at the same property into a single stay for the purposes of earning elite status and qualifying for promotions. For example, pre-devaluation a single Club Carlson credit cardholder couldn't book multiple pairs of award nights and receive every other night free. For stays longer than 2 nights, people developed workarounds like having a spouse book every other pair of nights, or booking the first two and last two nights before booking a fifth night connecting them to receive 5 nights for the price of 3.

Another workaround was to simply pay cash for a third night, which gave you the added flexibility to make your cash reservation for either the first or last night — whichever was cheaper. In one of my very first subscribers-only newsletters, I shared my experience doing so during a promotion that gave 38,000 bonus Gold Points after 3 paid stays. Even though only one of my 3 nights was paid, my theory was that since my first night was paid, when the two reservations were batched together all three nights were treated as paid nights and I earned the bonus Gold Points — enough points to cover the entire 2-night award reservation!

I don't know how other loyalty programs batch nights into stays — but I'd like to find out.

How do hotels determine if a stay is eligible or not?

Marriott has recently run a series of promotions where bonus points are earned starting on your second eligible stay with Marriott. Besides being another example of how poorly Marriott Rewards treats its members, it also raises the question of how Marriott determines if a stay is eligible or not. After all, even if you stay with Marriott frequently, you want to start earning those double points as soon as possible. It may be that Marriott requires you to stay on a paid rate. It may be that Marriott will treat stays as eligible if you simply charge a movie or a beer to your room on an award stay.

I don't know how Marriott determines if stays are eligible — but I'd like to find out.

Peak under the hood whenever possible

I hope you're already logging into your hotel loyalty accounts after your stays are completed in order to make sure you received your earned points. Instead of just making sure stays appear, you should also do your best to understand why you earned the exact number of points you did. One of the reasons I developed my points density charts is precisely how difficult the chains make it to determine how they award points.

For example, Hilton awards 10 "base points" per dollar spent. If you select the "Points & Points" earning style, you earn a 50% bonus on those base points. If you're a Diamond elite, you earn another 50% bonus, but only on those base points, not the Points & Points bonus points. In other words, Diamond elites earn 20 HHonors points per dollar spent at Hilton properties — plus 1,000 extra bonus points at many Hilton brands!


In many ways these are the same kinds of questions we ask about airline loyalty programs (if I'm rebooked on an award ticket into a paid fare class, will I earn miles? Can I apply upgrades?) and manufactured spend (are these debit cards PIN-able?).

On the other hand, hotel loyalty programs are different in that consolidation has been much more gradual than what we've seen in the airline industry and that hotels are, by and large, not owned by the chains that administer their loyalty programs. Meanwhile, hotels constitute a large part of my travel budget; as I sometimes point out, I only need one or two plane tickets, but I might need 5 or 10 nights in a hotel.

That increases my incentive to be more aggressive with hotel loyalty programs than I am with airlines — I often simply pay whatever the airlines are asking for, but almost never stay at hotels on paid rates.

Retiring to hotels: good idea, or great idea?

After a prominent miles-and-points blogger cast off the chains of the rental housing market I wrote a light-hearted piece about manufacturing enough spend to, with the help of the Club Carlson last-night-free benefit, spend 30 days in one of their Category 1 properties.

Since that benefit can no longer be used on new reservations, I thought I'd revisit the topic, but cast a wider net this time: how many points would be needed to live in each chain's cheapest properties year-round? In other words, should you retire to hotels?

Starwood Preferred Guest

As a rule I don't find Starwood Preferred Guest's co-branded American Express card to be a great way to manufacture points for hotel stays (it's great for manufacturing Alaska Mileage Plan and American AAdvantage miles). The exception is Category 1 and 2 hotels, where weekday nights cost 3,000 and 4,000 Starpoints and weekend nights cost 2,000 and 3,000 Starpoints, respectively.

That puts the weekly cost of a Category 1 stay at 19,000 Starpoints. Manufacturing those Starpoints has an opportunity cost of $380 — that's how much you'd earn using a 2% cash back card, instead. So what can we get for a little over $1,520 in monthly rent?

Well, there are a lot of Category 1 properties in China and India. Since we're retiring, beaches should be considered, like the Four Points by Sheraton Puntacana Village in the Dominican Republic, where $1,520 is little over a 50% discount for the dates I checked in September. The Sheraton Ambassador Hotel in Monterrey is "within walking distance of the city center." But the winner for me is the Sheraton Catania Hotel & Conference Center in Sicily, which actually looks extremely comfortable. It's a bit of a hike to the city center, but it's important to stay active in retirement.

Retirement savings: 912,000 Starpoints annually ($18,240 in imputed redemption value).

Hilton HHonors

Unlike Starwood Preferred Guest, Hilton HHonors their elites the fifth night free on all award stays — including Category 1 stays. That makes five-night stays at Category 1 properties cost just 20,000 HHonors points, or $3,333 in manufactured spend at gas stations or grocery stores.

With 5-night Category 1 redemptions having an imputed redemption value of $66, our monthly rent will be 120,000 HHonors points or $400 in foregone cash back. But what does that get us?

Hilton's Category 1 properties actually include a few Hiltons, like the Hilton Alexandria King's Ranch and Hilton Hurghada Resort, so if you're really committed to Peter Thomas Roth bath products those are options. In Poland you have your choice of the Hampton by Hilton Krakow and Hilton Garden Inn Rzeszow, while over the border in Russia you can stay at the Hilton Garden Inn Ufa Riverside or Hampton by Hilton Samara. Personally, I'm leaning towards the Hampton by Hilton Panama, which seems to have a pretty good location in downtown Panama City. $400 per month is a roughly 85% discount off retail for the dates I checked, and in fact on the dates I checked HHonors redemptions gave an astonishing 2.17 cents per HHonors point.

Retirement savings: 1,440,000 HHonors points annually ($4,800 in imputed redemption value).

Marriott Rewards

Marriott offers the fifth night free on all redemptions, even for non-elites, so five-night Category 1 stays cost 30,000 Marriott Rewards points.

Since Marriott Rewards points cost one cent each when purchased with flexible Ultimate Rewards points, but 2 cents each in foregone cash back when manufactured using a Marriott Rewards co-branded credit card, we're realistically looking at 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month, or $1,800 in monthly rent. Are there any properties that would make that redemption worthwhile?

The Courtyard Kazan Kremlin has a nice location right on Karl Marx Street, but $1,800 will rent you a lot of house in Kazan, and I suspect that's true of most of Marriott's Category 1 properties.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Marriott Rewards points annually ($21,600 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Hyatt Gold Passport

While Hyatt redemptions start at 5,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points, they don't offer a fifth night free, so it'll cost us 150,000 Ultimate Rewards points per month to live in a Category 1 property — a $1,500 value.

The Hyatt Regency Kuantan Resort in Malaysia looks superb, as does the Hyatt Regency Kathmandu, and neither is so isolated that you'd be stuck buying food in the hotel, plus Hyatt Diamond elites would receive free breakfast at either property. The Hyatt Regency Bali is currently being renovated, but when it reopens it should be beautiful — if it's still a Category 1 property!

Retirement savings: 1,800,000 Hyatt Gold Passport points annually ($18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

IHG Rewards

Here the situation is even bleaker, since Category 1 properties cost 10,000 IHG Rewards points per night, and there's no fifth night free benefit. Instead you can chase the 5,000-point PointsBreaks list around the world, in which case the math is the same as above, since IHG Rewards is also a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards.

The current PointsBreaks list includes gems like the Holiday Inn Andorra and Holiday Inn Trnava, in Slovakia.

Retirement savings: 3,600,000/1,800,000 IHG Rewards points annually ($36,000/$18,000 in Ultimate Rewards points).

Club Carlson

Category 1 Club Carlson nights cost 9,000 Gold Points, or $1,800 in manufactured spend per night. At a $36 nightly imputed redemption value, our monthly rent will be a little over $1,000. Not as bad as Marriott, Hyatt, or IHG, but also not great.

The Park Inn by Radisson Budapest (where I have a reservation next June) has a great location, and I've enjoyed all the Park Inns I've stayed at so far. There are two Radisson Blu properties, the Radisson Blu Resort, El Quseir in Egypt and Radisson Blu Hotel, Mersin in Turkey. Both are great deals at $36 per night. I like the Country Inn & Suites By Carlson, San Jose, Costa Rica, since it includes breakfast, but it's not terribly close to downtown San Jose.

Retirement savings: 3,240,000 Gold Points annually ($12,960 in imputed redemption value).

Choice Privileges

Choice Privileges hotels start at 6,000 points, which can theoretically be earned for as little as 2,000 Ultimate Rewards points if you're able to transfer Amtrak Guest Rewards points to Choice Privileges. At $20 per night we can figure $600 in monthly rent, the second-lowest value so far, after Hilton HHonors. To get that value month after month, however, you'd need to first rail run your Amtrak elite status up to Select Executive status, which allows you to transfer an unlimited number of Amtrak Guest Rewards points to their hotel partners.

Choice Privileges doesn't share a consolidated list of their properties by point cost, so it takes a little bit of work on AwardMapper to find 6000-point properties.

In Sweden, the Quality Inn Hotel Prince Philip offers a free buffet breakfast, and $600 is a steal in famously-expensive Scandinavia. The Clarion Suites Roatan at Pineapple Villas seems like a lovely resort in Honduras, although close-in availability was spotty for the dates I checked. Personally, I'd probably splurge the extra $200 monthly and move into the Clarion Congress Hotel Prague, an 8,000-point property.

Retirement savings: 2,160,000 Choice Privileges points ($7,200 in Ultimate Rewards points, with Amtrak Select Executive status).


This was a fun exercise, but there are a few problems which make it impractical to permanently retire to hotels, as opposed to moving into one for a month or two. First, you face the problem of award availability: at chains that don't guarantee standard room availability, you might be stuck paying cash for a hotel room if award availability suddenly dries up. Second, over the longer term you face the risk of devaluations: properties themselves can move up or down in award categories and new categories can be introduced, but rewards programs also sometimes go through wholesale devaluations, for example shifting to a revenue-based redemption model that would leave you stuck with much less valuable points.

Still, if I ever need to spend a month in Krakow, I know where I'll be spending it!

How does the Club Carlson annual free night benefit work?


On June 1, the US Bank Club Carlson co-branded credit cards underwent a serious devaluation: the last-night-free benefit was eliminated, and replaced with a single, domestic award night each year cardholders spend $10,000 on the credit cards.

I wrote in April that I would keep the card, spending exactly $10,000 on the card in order to earn 50,000 Gold Points from spend, 40,000 anniversary Gold Points, and an annual free night, all of which I'd redeem at the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel Chicago for a long weekend.

Then Club Carlson devalued again, lifting many of their 50,000-point properties into the 70,000-point tier, including the Radisson Blu Aqua Hotel, Chicago and Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel, Philadelphia. That meant my 90,000 annual Gold Points would barely cover a second night at those properties, let alone a third.

Since I never actually received any new terms and conditions for the annual free night benefit, yesterday I decided to call US Bank and find out how the annual free night benefit actually works.

The annual free night benefit was implemented in an obvious, but disastrous, way

The annual free night eCertificate is awarded on your first, post-devaluation anniversary, if you spent $10,000 in the preceding 12 months. That means that if, like me, you paid your annual fee in April, you won't receive your first annual domestic free night certificate until April, 2016.

This is a terrible way to reward high-spending customers, since it detaches the reward (a free night) from the spend, which could have occurred as many as 12 months earlier.

I cancelled my Club Carlson Business Rewards card

Even after the dual devaluation, I fully expected to keep my US Bank Club Carlson credit card. It still earned 5 Gold Points per dollar spent, it still offered 40,000 anniversary Gold Points, and spending $10,000 on the card would get me an additional free domestic award night each year.

But I haven't spent a dime on the card since May, and once I found out that I won't see my annual free night certificate until next April, I lost what was left of my interest in the card.

Foregoing $200 in cash back on $10,000 in manufactured spend, plus paying a $60 annual fee, for 2 nights in Chicago or Philadelphia doesn't make any sense in a world where Hilton and Hyatt points are so easy to come by; I would have to start planning my Club Carlson redemptions years in advance, even while my Hilton and Ultimate Rewards accounts are being continually replenished.

I'm getting some kind of annual fee refund

It's been over 3 months since I paid my annual fee, so I don't expect a refund of the full $60 annual fee, but I asked my phone agent and he said that I'd receive some kind of refund check as soon as the annual fee refund hits my account.

I couldn't product change to the much better Business Edge Cash Rewards card

Likewise in April, I wrote that a phone representative had told me I could product change my Club Carlson card to a Business Edge Cash Rewards card. Once I decided to cancel my Club Carlson card, I asked whether that was possible, and my agent yesterday told me it was not — I'd have to apply for a new card. Needless to say, I passed.


The best case scenario for the dual devaluation was folks who had account anniversaries after June 1 and who could fit $10,000 in manufactured spend in before that anniversary. They got to maximize the last-night-free benefit, run up spend one last time, then get another 40,000 Gold Points and a free domestic night certificate.

As for me, I don't trust Club Carlson enough to keep the card, let alone put any spend on it, knowing that anything could happen between now and April, 2016.

Down to the wire: booking speculative Club Carlson vacations, with examples

As faithful readers know, in the next few days the Club Carlson program will undergo two catastrophic devaluations: co-branded credit card holders will lose the free last night on award reservations of two or more nights; and a vast swath of Club Carlson's lame mid-tier properties are being bumped up to their highest rewards category, and will cost 70,000 Gold Points per night.

As has been pointed out ad nauseam, going from being able to book 2 nights for 44,000 or 50,000 Gold Points to being forced to spend 140,000 Gold Points is a disaster for those of us who have been taking advantage of Club Carlson's generosity for the past few years.

Fortunately, we were given enough notice to mitigate the pain somewhat, since we can continue to book last-night-free reservations for the next few days.

Club Carlson properties can be booked far in advance

It's an interesting fact that I find it psychologically easier to book trips speculatively far in advance than concrete plans in the near future. After all, to go on a trip next weekend we need to check out social calendar, the schedule of local music and food festivals, etc. To book a trip for next summer, we just have to come up with something that would be fun to do.

Fortunately, Club Carlson allows their properties to be booked far — in some cases years — in advance.

The Club Carlson program is not going away

The next thing to keep in mind is that the Club Carlson program is not going away. They'll continue to operate a loyalty program and you'll still be able to earn Gold Points with their co-branded credit card and redeem them for free nights at their properties all over the world.

The only thing that's going away is the last-night-free benefit, so that's the only benefit you need to worry about maximizing before June 1.

Use Award Mapper to find clusters of Club Carlson properties

Award Mapper has a terrific advantage compared to Hotel Hustle: your hotel selections persist when changing your city search term, so in order to develop a Club Carlson redemption strategy, you can just select Club Carlson as your hotel chain choice and start searching.

There are two ways to go about planning a Club Carlson vacation. You can find clusters of Club Carlson properties within a single city, like London:

If you want to spend any even number of nights in London, you could book alternating pairs of dates at next-door properties like:

  • Radisson Blu Edwardian, Kenilworth & Radisson Blu Edwardian, Bloomsbury Street (100,000 Gold Points for 4 nights);
  • Radisson Blu Edwardian, Hampshire & Radisson Blu Edwardian, Leicester Square (94,000 Gold Points for 4 nights);
  • Park Plaza Westminster Bridge London & Park Plaza County Hall London (100,000 Gold Points for 4 nights).

Or you can look for regional clusters of Club Carlson properties, like this one in Eastern Europe:

Or this one in the Baltic States:

I ultimately decided to pursue the regional option, since I find it endlessly annoying to switch hotels in the middle of a visit to a city.

Think strategically about how long you'll stay in each city

Just like in London, it's possible to plan an Eastern European vacation (Budapest-Bratislava-Vienna-Prague) or Baltic vacation (Vilnius-Riga-Tallinn) using only 2-night stays to maximize your pre-devaluation Club Carlson points.

But that's not actually necessary, because of the point I made above: the Club Carlson program is not disappearing on June 1, and (except for property-specific changes in prices) you'll still be able to redeem your Gold Points for free nights. The only benefit you need to maximize today is the last-night-free benefit.

Here's a Baltic vacation I was considering with my remaining Club Carlson points:

  • June 10-12, 2016: Radisson Blu Astorija Hotel, Vilnius
  • June 13-15, 2016: Radisson Blu Hotel Latvija, Riga
  • June 16-18, 2016: Radisson Blu Hotel, Tallinn

As you can see, each individual reservation is 2 nights long, since that's the benefit I need to maximize before June 1. Once it comes time to actually plan the trip, we could add an extra night in Vilnius before or after our reservation, an extra night at the beginning or end of our stay in Riga, and an additional night before or after the final stay in Tallinn. There's no point tying up Gold Points reserving those third and fourth nights now: there's plenty of time for that after June 1, even if it's at annoyingly-higher rates.

In addition to two two-night stays I already had booked, here is the vacation I ultimately designed with my remaining Club Carlson points:

  • June 10-12: Radisson Blu Beke Hotel, Budapest
  • June 13-15: Park Inn Danube, Bratislava
  • June 17-19: Radisson Blu Style Hotel, Vienna

As in the example above, this itinerary both maximizes the last-night-free benefit and leaves flexibility should we decide to extend our stay in any of the 3 cities. The longer gap between Bratislava and Vienna is in case we decide to take a trip to Brno or Prague, two relatively-close Czech Republic cities I love and where I've spent a fair amount of time.


After booking a few close-in trips to Texas, I only had about 82,000 Club Carlson points left in my account. Now that I've got our Central European trip squared away, here's how many points I'm left with:

Getting as close to that number as possible should be everyone's goal in the time we still have left.

Should US Bank product changes be a part of your game?

When I wrote yesterday's post, I wasn't planning to make this a series! But ever since a US Bank representative told me it was possible to request a product change from a Club Carlson Business Rewards card to the Business Edge Cash Rewards card, I've been pondering the possibilities that would open up.

I haven't requested a product change yet (in anticipation of the June 1, 2015, change to the free domestic award night bonus) but there are some strong theoretical advantages to working regular US Bank product changes into your game.

Examples of strategic product changes

A good example of integrating product changes into a strategy is offered by Chase, with their personal Sapphire Preferred and Freedom cards and business Ink Plus and Cash cards. After receiving a signup bonus on the premium, $95-annual-fee card you can request a product change to the free version, wait a suitable amount of time, and apply again. With this method you can accumulate a stable of Freedom and Ink Cash cards, allowing you to increase bonused spend as a proportion of your total manufactured spend.

Does US Bank offer similar opportunities?

As I explained in an update shortly after yesterday's post went live, the US Bank representative I spoke to offered me a product change from the Club Carlson Business Rewards card to the Business Edge Cash Rewards card, which offers 3% cash back at gas stations (redeemable in $25 increments) and an annual 25% bonus on all cash back earned, for a maximum of $250 in bonus cash back.

While gas station manufactured spend isn't available to everyone, or in every part of the country, that theoretical 3.75% cash back is extremely competitive with the $95-annual-fee Citi ThankYou Premier card — but with no annual fee.

If a product change were also possible from the personal Club Carlson Premier Rewards card, you could request a product change to either the Cash+ or Flexperks Travel Rewards card. Two Flexperks Travel Rewards card would let you earn double Flexpoints at both gas stations and grocery stores each month (and both annual fees would be waivable if you spend $24,000 per cardmember year).

Beyond that, additional Cash+ cards would let you earn 5% cash back on up to $2,000 in charitable spending per quarter, per card.

Why start with Club Carlson?

After June 1, 2015, Club Carlson credit cards will no longer offer the last night free on award stays of two or more nights.

But starting June 1, 2015, they will offer a free domestic award night each cardmember year you spend $10,000 or more on the card, and there's no reason to believe their extremely generous signup bonuses will change: up to 85,000 for both the Business Rewards card and Premier Rewards cards after spending $2,500 in the first 90 days of card membership.

There's no small business credit card offered by US Bank with a similarly generous signup bonus. On the personal side, the Flexperks Travel Rewards card has long offered 20,000 Flexpoints as a signup bonus, worth up to $400 in paid airfare. That's a strong candidate as well, depending entirely on your own air travel and hotel needs.

But most importantly, on June 1, 2015, the Club Carlson Premier Rewards and Business Rewards card will begin to offer a free domestic award night after spending $10,000 on each card each cardmember year. In other words, the signup bonus will change from 85,000 Gold Points after spending $2,500 to 85,000 Gold Points plus a free domestic award night after spending $10,000 (of course, you'll continue to earn 5 Gold Points per dollar spent as well). In my mind that slightly edges out the Flexpoint signup bonus.

So, is it possible?

There are a lot of moving parts to this scheme, any one of which would bring down the whole:

  • My representative might have been wrong: product changes from Club Carlson cards to proprietary rewards cards may not be allowed.
  • It may not be possible to receive Club Carlson signup bonuses more than once. I was able to receive a Flexperks Travel Rewards signup bonus twice in extremely short order in 2012, but that may have been a temporary glitch or a bug that has since been fixed.
  • US Bank representatives may balk at allowing you to request a product change to a credit card product you already have.


On the business side, I'll be trying this in June or July, after I spend $10,000 on my Business Rewards card and my free domestic reward night posts to my Club Carlson account. I don't have a burning need for additional personal cards from US Bank, but if this technique works on the business side, I'll be more confident that it will work on the personal side as well.

If any readers decide to try it out, be sure to share your results in the comments!

Deciding between, applying for, and changing between US Bank credit cards

[update 4/29/15: I just called into US Bank to ask for compensation for the loss of the last-night-free benefit on the Club Carlson Business Rewards card. Instead, the representative offered me a product change, including to the Business Edge Cash Rewards card, which earns an uncapped 3% cash back at gas stations and a 25% bonus on all cash back earned during the calendar year, which is capped at $250. A quick calculation shows that you can maximize the value of that card by manufacturing $33,334 in gas station spend annually ($2,7778 per month), yielding $1,000 in cash back and a $250 bonus, for a total of 3.75% cash back. That's a phenomenal deal.

Additionally, the offer of a product change to a proprietary rewards card from a co-branded credit card is contrary to what I reported below from the myFICO fora. I don't know whether such changes are only possible for small business credit cards, or whether personal credit cards can also be changed from co-branded to proprietary rewards programs. YMMV.]

I currently carry all three of the US Bank-issued credit cards which I consider the most valuable for my current miles, points, and cash back strategy:

  • Cash+. Has historically offered 5% cash back on up to $2,000 spent in the "charity" category each quarter. If you don't have ethical problems with Kiva (many of my readers do!), you can strategize to find high-quality, short-term loans, and earn 5% cash back each quarter on loans that last 3-7 months. That can work out to quite high annualized interest rates, although you will take on the risk of your borrowers defaulting.
  • Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa Signature. I write about this card all the time, since it earns two Flexpoints per dollar spent at gas stations or grocery stores each month (wherever you spend more), worth up to 2 cents each for airfare and up to 1.5 cents each for hotels.
  • Club Carlson Business Rewards. Until May 28 (or May 31 — reports are mixed) offers the last night free on award reservations. After that it will continue to earn 5 Gold Points per dollar spent everywhere, and a free domestic award night after spending $10,000 on the card each year.

Getting started

Back in May, 2013, I first shared my experience freezing my IDA and ARS credit reports. In March, 2015, Kenny over at Miles4More described his experience achieving the same result through the mid-20th century magic of the telecopying transmitter-receiver (for some reason Kenny insisted on called this "the easy way").

There's no reason to believe the fundamental situation has changed: if US Bank has access to your IDA and ARS credit reports when you apply for credit through them, they will take into account factors that those agencies use and that the major credit reporting agencies do not. If US Bank does not have access to those credit reports, they'll rely on your credit report with a major credit reporting agency.

Whether that matters to you depends on your overall credit profile, but if you apply for new credits cards several times throughout the year, you'll want to freeze your IDA and ARS credit reports before applying for a US Bank credit card.

Deciding on cards

The most important thing to know about applying for US Bank credit cards is that you're eligible for as many signup bonuses as you're able to get approved for. They have somewhat vague terms and conditions prohibiting this, but my experience was those conditions are not enforced, and I haven't seen a single report to the contrary (of a signup bonus being denied for previously carrying the card).

For example, I applied for the Flexperks Travel Rewards card for the first time in the Spring of 2012, just before US Bank announced their promotion connected to the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, under a 17,500 Flexpoint signup bonus. When the promotion was announced, I applied again and was approved for what ultimately turned out to be a 33,150 Flexpoint signup bonus.

In other words, you should apply first for cards with the most valuable signup bonuses, regardless of your ultimate plans, since the total amount of credit US Bank will extend you is limited while the number of signup bonuses you can receive is not.

Applying for cards

Doctor of Credit has noted that credit reporting agencies combine same-day credit pulls that appear to them as duplicates, which US Bank credit pulls appear to do. That means there's no risk to your credit score in applying for multiple US Bank-issued credit cards in a single day (there may be a risk to your relationship with US Bank, of course).

Requesting product changes

[Please see the update at the top of this post.]

The good folks at the myFICO fora report that It appears that US Bank, like Chase but unlike, for example, Citi, will not do product changes between co-branded credit cards and proprietary rewards cards.

So product changes between Cash+ and Flexperks Travel Rewards cards are possible, while product changes between a Club Carlson co-branded credit card and either of the former are not.


Your overall US Bank credit card portfolio has to depend on your goals.

For example, in the near term I intend to keep the Club Carlson Business Rewards credit card despite its devaluation since I take at least one weekend trip to Chicago each year; I'll certainly be able to use the free domestic award night and 40,000 Gold Point anniversary bonus at the Radisson Blu Aqua in downtown Chicago, where my partner and I have enjoyed our 3 stays so far.

If you're more interested in using credit card rewards as a way to generate cash back, redeemable each statement cycle in any amount, the Cash+ is a terrific card.

But the Cash+ card is even better if you get it through a product change from the Flexperks Travel Rewards credit card, where you'll receive a more valuable year-round signup bonus — and an even more valuable one if US Bank renews their Summer Olympic promotion in 2016.

Finally, if you tend to travel on domestic economy flights, the Flexperks Travel Rewards card gives you an opportunity to buy those tickets at a very steep discount by manufacturing spend at gas stations or grocery stores, or by making Kiva loans, which earn 3 Flexpoints (worth up to 2 cents each) per dollar lent.


Of course, no post about US Bank would be complete without noting that dealing with US Bank is never a walk in the park. Forewarned, forearmed, etc., etc.