FoundersCard: the single most expensive way to buy Hilton HHonors Gold status

There are smart, thoughtful guys who think loyalty programs are a scam and the best way to made clear-headed decisions is to opt out of the loyalty economy completely.

Then there are Thought Leaders From Behind who respond that while it's possible for loyalty arrangements to lead to bad decision-making, if you're flying or staying or renting and not participating in those schemes you're still paying for benefits you don't get to enjoy.

My attitude is simple: the house can be beat. But it can't be beat with wishful thinking and hand-waving — you can only beat the house with math.

What is FoundersCard?

FoundersCard is not a credit card. It's a bundle of benefits negotiated on an annual and quarterly basis for members of the program. It's targeted at entrepreneurs and startups, hence the "Founders" in the name of the product.

FoundersCard is a very expensive gimmick

The first gimmicky thing to know about FoundersCard is the price. In principle they charge $795 per membership year, plus a one-time $95 enrollment fee.

But no one pays that price, because new members who are referred by existing members pay just $395 annually, plus the $95 enrollment fee. Bankrate currently dominates the Google search rankings for FoundersCard, but we don't want to shovel any more money in that direction, so if you do decide to apply for FoundersCard, you can use my buddy's referral code instead (feel free to leave yours in the comments): "FCTREVOR531".

FoundersCard travel benefits are a joke compared to actual travel hacking

If you click around enough you can view the FoundersCard travel benefits without logging in, and they're pretty milquetoast. Here's a sampling of the ones that jumped out at me:

These discounts are just unacceptably small to justify paying $395 per year. The only reason you should be paying cash — rather than a fixed-value currency or redeeming miles — for these flights is if the airlines are offering an unusually low or mistake fare. But the lower the underlying fare, the less valuable a percentage discount will be!

Hilton HHonors Gold status can be quite valuable

It's hard for a travel hacker not to stumble into Hilton HHonors Gold status at some point. If you have an HHonors Surpass American Express, you get it automatically. It's also a benefit of the American Express Platinum and Citi Hilton Reserve cards.

The timing of those status benefits is odd enough that getting one of those cards could get you Gold status for 2 or 3 years — practically a lifetime in the travel hacking world!

But it's also possible you just don't have or want any of those cards, but are going to be staying in enough Hiltons to make the free breakfast benefit a valuable perk. Here I'm thinking of a stay somewhere like the Conrad Maldives Rangali Island, where a week's breakfast for a family could set you back hundreds of dollars.

If you really just want Hilton HHonors Gold status, you can buy it for $395 with a FoundersCard membership.

You shouldn't be on an AT&T contract, but if you are...

I use AT&T's GoPhone prepaid service. It costs me $55 per month, and I get unlimited minutes, texts, and 5 gigabytes of data per month, the unused portion of which rolls over from one month to the next. You don't have to use AT&T GoPhone, but you should be using some prepaid phone service.

But you might not be! And if you're using a postpaid (contract) AT&T phone service, FoundersCard will save you 15% off "standard rates on all voice plans and on data plans greater than $30 in value, excluding unlimited voice and iPad data plans." So that's worth a couple shekels per month too.

Resort fees in Las Vegas are expensive

Another potentially valuable benefit currently available from FoundersClub is Diamond status with Total Rewards, the gaming loyalty program of the Caesars Entertainment hotel group, because their Vegas properties waive resort fees for Diamond elites.

When staying at Total Rewards properties in Las Vegas, regardless of your room rate, you'll pay $32.48 per night after tax in resort fees ($28 at Rio). As a Total Rewards Diamond member, those resort fees are waived. This benefit pays for the total cost of a FoundersClub membership after 13 nights (16 nights the first year due to the $95 enrollment fee).

13 nights can be a lot of nights or a few nights, depending on how much you like going to Las Vegas.

But if you do spend 13 or more nights per year in Las Vegas, and are willing to commit to spending them at Total Rewards properties, the FoundersCard can pay for itself.

There are lots of ways to get elite status with gaming programs if you actually gamble, so this should be considered only if you primarily go to Vegas for reasons besides playing the slots, like conferences, performances, and swimming pools (I famously like swimming pools).

FoundersCard benefits change often

Some of the benefits of FoundersCard are negotiated on an annual basis, while others change as frequently as every quarter. When calculating whether FoundersCard makes sense for you, you should focus on those annual benefits. Then if you do get any additional value from the quarterly rotating benefits, you can treat that as icing on your value cake.