No, buying miles and points still (usually) doesn't make sense

On Sunday I described a mistake I made when making an upcoming Marriott reservation: since Marriott allows you to purchase points for 1.25 cents each, if a Marriott redemption makes sense on the merits (I wanted to stay at the airport the night before my departure) then you should buy any points you need. Instead, I transferred super-valuable flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards points from my Sapphire Preferred account, even though those points are worth at least 1.25 cents each when used to purchase paid airline tickets through the Ultimate Rewards portal.

That reminded me of an e-mail I received recently from reader Kimberly in San Diego. She asked:

When I checked in for a united flight from San Diego to Chicago they asked if I want to get double miles (over 1700 extra) for around $60 I think. The ticket was $400. Should I do it?

This is the kind of split-second decision that frequent flyer programs love forcing their customers to make. After all, checking in at the airport you might not have any idea whether this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stock up on points, or even whether it's a better deal than buying points online at That's one reason why you should always have a general idea of what a mile or point is worth to you.

Now, some travel hackers take this to extremes and try to establish specific prices they're willing to buy points at and specific values they're willing to redeem points at. Those travel hackers also accumulate vast quantities of miles and points because they're always waiting for the perfect redemption. 

My approach is slightly different, and it works better for my lifestyle: I'm always eager to redeem my miles and points instead of spending cash, but I also only acquire them at the lowest cost possible: that's why I have a single-minded focus on my cost per point. For example, when the no-fee Hilton American Express card gave 6 Hilton HHonors points per dollar spent at drug stores, it was possible to earn HHonors points at a cost of 0.13 cents each. For me, that makes it academic whether I'm redeeming my HHonors points for 0.55 cents each or 0.8 cents each: either way I'm beating the house every time.

That brings me back to Kimberly's question: should she buy 1,700 United MileagePlus miles for $60 when she checks into her Chicago flight? For me there are three numbers that make this decision easy:

  • 25,000: the number of MileagePlus miles required for a domestic round-trip award ticket;
  • 60,000: the number required for an economy transatlantic award ticket;
  • 100,000: the number required for a business class transatlantic award ticket. 

Those are the three awards I redeem my MileagePlus miles for most frequently. And purchasing United miles for 3.5 cents each would value those tickets at $875, $2,100, and $3,500, respectively.  Since I know I would never spend that much money on one of these tickets, I know that I should pass on the offer to buy miles.

Is the best card to buy Vanilla Reloads with...

[updated 8/25/13: reader Eric pointed out an error in my calculations below: buying $1,000 in Vanilla Reload cards with the PayPal Debit MasterCard will earn $10.08 in cash back, not $10.79 as I originally wrote. The post has been updated to reflect the slightly higher cost per dollar of manufactured spend.

...the PayPal Business Debit MasterCard?

As readers know, I'm fairly obsessed with lowering my cost per dollar of manufactured spend. That's why I've long been intrigued by the PayPal Business Debit MasterCard. The card offers a unique value proposition: it's a 1% cash back card (on signature purchases), that can itself be loaded by credit card (using PayPal Cash reloads).

PayPal Cash reloads are very similar to Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, and in fact are sold in many of the same places, like gas stations and drug stores.  However, they have different limitations: they can only be used to load a PayPal account, loads are limited to $500 per day and $4,000 per rolling 30-day period, and most importantly PayPal will immediately send a warning, then close your account, if you load your PayPal account with a PayPal Cash card and immediately withdraw the money to your linked bank account.

Enter the Business Debit MasterCard. By using this card for online load to my Nationwide and US Bank Visa Buxx cards, I earn 1% cash back on $3,014 ($3,000 in loads, $14 in fees) each month, bringing my total cost for $3,024 in manufactured spend to $7.56, or 0.25 cents per dollar.

That accounts for $3,000 of my monthly load allowance – but PayPal allows up to $4,000 in monthly loads. This has left me scratching my head about what to do with the last $1,000 in PayPal Cash loads, since May 1, when the Wells Fargo Prepaid card lost its usefulness .

The solution was staring me in the face the whole time: buying $1,000 in Vanilla Reload Network reload cards, at a cost of $7.90 in fees, will yield $10.08 in cash back. The $2.18 in profit from that transaction reduces your total cost for the $1,000 in PayPal Cash reload cards to $5.72: a respectable 0.57 cents per dollar in manufactured spend. If you buy your PayPal Cash cards at a store in one of your cards' bonus categories, this can push your cost per point into the low tens of a cent.

Before the comments erupt with sarcasm, let me be perfectly clear: this is not a technique for earning more miles and points, it's a technique for earning miles and points at a lower cost per point. If you're more interested in the number of points you earn, rather than the cost you pay per point, then you're better off simply buying a $0.70 Walmart money order with your remaining $1,000 in monthly PayPal Cash loads. This will raise your cost per dollar to 0.85 cents per point, but you'll be able to manufacture an additional $1,000 per month by purchasing your Vanilla Reloads with a points- or miles-earning credit card instead.

The point is, using techniques like this, and others like it, you control the cost you pay per manufactured mile or point – and that's worth a lot to me.

(N.B. You can also fund your $1,000 monthly free Amazon Payment with your PayPal Business Debit MasterCard and pocket $10, manufacturing $1,000 in spend AND earning $2.10.)


PIN-based Visa Prepaid Debit Cards

There are a number of products which can help when meeting high minimum spending requirements or generating spend on cards that earn valuable points.  Today I want to discuss three of them.  These cards have a number of benefits: they can be loaded either directly or indirectly using points-earning credit cards, and they can be unloaded at ATMs, by buying money orders, or used to fund the American Express Bluebird card at any Walmart and used to pay bills, including credit cards.

For the first two options, the Nationwide Visa Buxx and Wells Fargo Prepaid cards, the transaction can be classified differently by different card issuers.  For example, Citibank classifies all such transactions as cash advances, which incur high fees and interest charges, and there are some reports that Bank of America classifies the transactions as purchases, but doesn't award points.  The best bet is to first do a trial load with any card you're considering using, wait for your statement to close, and see if points are rewarded.

Nationwide Visa Buxx

The Nationwide Visa Buxx is an excellent starter card for anyone considering entering the miles and points game.  

  • It can be loaded using any Visa or Mastercard.
  • You can load up to $500 at a time, up to twice per month, at a cost of $2 per load.
  • There's no monthly fee.

If you max out this card, you can manufacture $1000 in spending at a cost of $4 per month, which is worth doing for almost any points currency.

There are two things to be aware of when using this card.  First, ATM withdrawals (limited to $200 per week) at MoneyPass ATMs are not free, they cost $1.  No one has any explanation for this, since they are advertised as free.  There have been reports of success having the charge reversed by calling into Customer Service, although this is a long, annoying process.

Second, there is a daily purchase limit of $800.  This means you can either load $800 onto a Bluebird card, or purchase a money order at Walmart for $799.30.

My approach is to withdraw $200 from a Moneypass ATM and purchase a money order for $798.30 (since my balance is only $799 after paying $1 for the ATM withdrawal).

Wells Fargo Prepaid Visa

This card is good for a more experienced hacker who wants to make some bigger moves.

  • Load using any Visa or Mastercard
  • $4500 rolling monthly load limit.
  • Load up to $2500 per day.
  • $5 fee per load.
  • $3 monthly fee.
  • $600 transaction limit.

Because of the $600 transaction limit it can take a while to unload this card.  Purchasing 8 $599.30 money orders at 70 cents each brings the total cost for $4500 in spending to $18.60, or .4 cents per dollar.

MyVanilla Debit

The MyVanilla Debit card is a more marginal play, but can be useful for meeting minimum spending requirements or reaching bonused spending thresholds.

  • Load using Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards.
  • Load up to $2,500 per day.
  • No monthly fee.

You have to buy a MyVanilla Debit card in a store, like CVS, that sells temporary cards.  After buying a temporary card, you can register it online and you'll receive a permanent card in the mail within a few weeks.  You can register up to 3 cards per social security number. Once you have the permanent card, you can then load it by buying Vanilla Reload Network Prepaid Reload cards, which you can load with up to $500 in value for a fee of $3.95.

To unload the MyVanilla Debit, you can purchase money orders, load a Bluebird card, or ask for a cash advance from a bank teller.  All three options currently cost 50 cents, plus any other fees charged by merchants.