In memoriam: OPEN savings, selling Membership Rewards points for 2.5 cents each

It's been widely reported in recent days that American Express is ending its OPEN savings program for small business credit cards on June 1, 2018. Long-time blog subscribers know that I've played around with the program in the past with some success, but there's a very strange function built right into the OPEN savings program: the ability to sell Membership Rewards points for 2.5 cents each.

Small business Membership Rewards accounts can sell points for 2.5 cents each

All you have to do is navigate to American Express's OPEN savings page to see the opportunity spelled out explicitly:

"How Returns Work
A returned purchase or credit from an OPEN Savings merchant will result in a reversal of your discount or removal of Membership Rewards points depending on your benefit selection at the time of the return or credit. If you change your benefit selection, your new selection will apply to future returns or credits (including returns or credits relating to transactions made before the change). See the example below.

On May 1st, you select the Discount Benefit.
On May 15th, you make a purchase from an OPEN Savings Merchant that would result in either a $5 statement credit or 200 additional MR points, depending on your selection.
Due to your selection, you will receive a $5 statement credit.
On June 1st, you change your selection to the MR Point Benefit.
On June 15th, you return the purchase you made on May 15th.
Due to your new selection, you will have 200 MR points deducted from your MR program account, instead of having the $5 statement credit reversed."

You get to keep the $5 statement credit, and pay just 200 Membership Rewards points for it, essentially selling 200 Membership Rewards points for $5, or 2.5 cents each.

To take a more practical example, you could select the Discount Benefit, make a $1,000 purchase from, and receive a $50 OPEN savings statement credit. Then by changing your selection to the MR Point Benefit and returning the merchandise, you'll have 2,000 Membership Rewards deducted from your account, keeping the $50 statement credit. You've then have sold 2,000 Membership Rewards points for $50, or 2.5 cents each.


I've never had a Membership Rewards-earning credit card, but I have had small business American Express cards and have enjoyed occasionally using and abusing the OPEN savings program.

It'll be a shame to see it go, but if you have a slew of Membership Rewards points you don't plan to redeem for more than 2.5 cents each, this may be your last opportunity to sell them back to American Express at that price.

Assorted 2018 hotel news and program updates

Quite a few changes have been reported to hotel loyalty programs in 2018, so here are a few brief thoughts in case you're wondering what to make of them.

70,000-point IHG Rewards Club properties

IHG Rewards Club has announced the following hotels will cost 70,000 points per night in 2018:

  • InterContinental Paris - Le Grand
  • InterContinental Bora Bora Resort Thalasso Spa
  • InterContinental Le Moana Bora Bora
  • InterContinental Hong Kong
  • InterContinental - ANA Manza Beach Resort
  • InterContinental London Park Lane
  • InterContinental The Clement Monterey (California)
  • InterContinental San Francisco
  • InterContinental Mark Hopkins San Francisco
  • InterContinental The Willard Washington D.C.
  • InterContinental Boston
  • InterContinental New York Barclay
  • InterContinental New York Times Square

I did some award searches and where I found availability, these hotels are still pricing at 60,000 points per night, so the pricing changes seem not to have gone into effect yet.

Using the Points + Cash trick (book then refund Points + Cash reservations until you have enough points for an all-points reservation) you can buy IHG Rewards Club points for 0.575 cents each year-round (and often somewhat cheaper than that), so a 70,000-point property costs roughly $402 per night. The only properties on this list where I'd even consider spending that much money are the French Polynesian resorts in Bora Bora. If you and a partner each had a $49-annual-fee Chase IHG Rewards Club credit card free night certificate, you could combine those with a couple free nights at $402 each and get a 4-night stay, for example, for a total of $902, or $225 per night, which compares favorably to the cost of an award night at the Conrad Bora Bora Nui (without drawing any conclusions about the respective quality of the properties).

Note that award space at those properties can be very difficult to find.

Improved transfer ratio from Membership Rewards to Hilton Honors

Also widely reported has been a permanently improved transfer ratio from flexible American Express Membership Rewards accounts to Hilton Honors, up from 1:1.5 to 1:2. Judging by the complaints I hear from readers, Membership Rewards points are the most difficult flexible points for non-expert users to redeem, so increasing their value when transferred to one of their simplest transfer partners is obviously an unalloyed good.

I don't think Membership Rewards points should be earned speculatively with the intent to transfer them to Hilton (if for no other reason than Hilton Honors points are easier and cheaper to earn with a Surpass/Ascend card), but I also don't think anyone should pay cash for a hotel stay while they have access to cheap and plentiful Hilton Honors points, since the least valuable point is always the one you don't redeem.

Award nights now count towards World of Hyatt elite status

Historically, Hyatt Gold Passport and World of Hyatt elite status could only be earned with nights (and until last year, stays) that had a cash component: only cash and Points + Cash stays earned elite-qualifying credit.

That changed this year, so award nights will also count towards elite status qualification. Unfortunately, it takes 60 nights to qualify for Globalist status, so I doubt this will have much effect except on the margin. An average of 5 nights per month doesn't seem unreasonable in general, but an average of 5 nights per month at Hyatt properties would require booking away from cheaper or better properties, which is a funny way to save money.

Of course, it's easier for some people than others.

Continental breakfast for Gold and Diamond elites at Waldorf Astoria Hotels & Resorts

Hilton has updated their "My Way" choice of benefits for Gold and Diamond elites at Waldorf Astoria properties to include the option of "a daily complimentary continental breakfast in the hotel's designated restaurant for you and up to one additional guest registered to the same room each day of your stay."

Interestingly, they have updated the elite benefits page to reflect the change but have not yet updated the actual My Way options in the app or online, presumably because the only guy who knows how to do so hasn't worked there for years. Hopefully Waldorf Astoria staff have been notified of the change, but I expect elites will have to do some haggling until the system is fully updated.

There are some cool Waldorf Astoria properties but the only ones I can see an obvious reason to choose are the Hawaiian, Caribbean, and Park City locations. Does anybody have a favorite Waldorf Astoria property?

Rewards programs, ranked by reliability

One fun thing about writing a blog is that reader feedback gives you a chance to see how different ideas interact and collide. Last Friday when I wrote "While I'm willing to take unlimited risk in my investment portfolio, I'm willing to take virtually no risk in my travel hacking portfolio," reader Danny commented:

"This seems like an interesting sentiment. I'd be far more concerned with keeping my investments sound than my points balance."

Then on Monday I wrote with respect to my findings on Hilton all-inclusive award pricing that:

"If points costs will fall to match low revenue rates, it is easier to justify earning large quantities of Hilton points knowing that you'll almost always get close to, or above, their imputed redemption value."

I've been thinking about these two ideas, risk and reliability, and how they interact in my travel hacking practice.

Devaluations are the big, unknown risk

For several years, the US Bank Club Carlson credit card offered the last night free on all award stays. Now, this benefit was never quite as good as it was cracked up to be since Club Carlson properties, even or perhaps especially high-end Club Carlson properties, are dumps (true story: months after the Radisson Blu Warwick Hotel Philadelphia finished their renovations to not be a dump any longer they left the program).

Many people, expecting that benefit to continue indefinitely, earned hundreds of thousands, or millions, of Club Carlson Gold Points (trust me — many of them are readers of this blog).

Then the last-night-free benefit ended, and those points could only be redeemed at still-crappy Club Carlson properties. The same spend that earned those millions of points could have been used to earn 2% cash back, unbonused Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards points, or another rewards currency.

That's the kind of risk that I do my best to avoid in my travel hacking practice, by earning the rewards I redeem and redeeming the rewards I earn.

Reliability is the certainty of being able to redeem rewards for the trips you want to take

Reliability is something slightly different than risk. A reliable program offers consistent redemption values, whether or not that value is high or low, attractive or repulsive.

For example, according to Hotel Hustle, the IHG Rewards Club offers quite remarkable consistency, with a median value of 0.58 cents per point, with 75% of award searches above 0.44 cents per point and 75% of awards below 0.68 cents per point. That doesn't make it attractive to manufacture IHG Rewards points, but it gives you a clear view of the value of any points you might earn in one of their periodic sweepstakes or promotions.

My top ten loyalty programs, by reliability

Whether a particular rewards currency is "worth earning" depends on both your cost of acquisition and your particular travel plans, so this is not a list of the top ten most valuable loyalty programs. It's only a list of the top ten rewards programs sorted by my view of their reliability.

  1. Cash. Cash has the great benefit of maintaining its dollar redemption value no matter what happens. It is, in that way, the most reliable rewards currency. Into this category also falls the fixed-value redemption of currencies like Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and other rewards programs with fixed values, like Delta SkyMiles Pay with Points redemptions. Their reliability is unimpeachable.
  2. IHG Rewards anniversary free night certificates. In the several years I've been travel hacking, I've never seen an IHG property that I would be willing to transfer points, buy points, or manufacture points in order to book. But they really do have a Chase IHG Rewards credit card that gives you an annual award night at any IHG Rewards property in the world! I've never seen a report of the certificate not being honored for any reason, except the chain's preposterously loose rules on award availability. As far as I can tell the thing is completely reliable. Compare that to Marriott's anniversary night certificates, which have become almost unredeemable as properties continually migrate up out of Category 4.
  3. Flexible Ultimate Rewards. Chase Ultimate Rewards points held in a Sapphire Preferred, Sapphire Reserve, Ink Bold, or Ink Plus account are more valuable than cash but slightly less reliable, since their value depends in part on the value of transferred points. One component of the value of a flexible Ultimate Rewards point is the value of one United Mileage Plus mile, but the value of a United Mileage Plus mile is highly volatile, so that portion of the value of an Ultimate Rewards point is also volatile. Nonetheless, Chase strongly supports the 1:1 transfer ratio of Ultimate Rewards points to their partners, so the reliability of the program overall is raised by the relative constancy of programs like World of Hyatt and Southwest Rapid Rewards.
  4. US Bank Flexpoints. Long-time readers know I love the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards Visa because of its generous bonused earning categories, but the process of redeeming Flexpoints introduces some unreliability into the system. Flights will sometimes be shown with odd fare differences which push them into a higher redemption band, for example. Nonetheless, the ability to redeem Flexpoints for between 1.33 and 2 cents per Flexpoint makes them one of the most reliable currencies around.
  5. Flexible Membership Rewards. Here the problem of transfer partner volatility is magnified by the eclectic range of partners Membership Rewards has. For example, in 2015 the transfer ratio to British Airways Avios dropped 20%, from 1000:1000 to 1000:800. Then in 2016 British Airways created a special exception to their distance-based award chart in order to charge between 33% (off-peak) and 60% (peak) more for business class flights between Boston and Dublin on Aer Lingus. Today, you may need to transfer 75,000 Membership Rewards points to Avios to pay for a flight that would have cost 37,500 Membership Rewards points before the two devaluations. This doesn't mean that Membership Rewards points themselves have radically decreased in value (how often do you fly between Boston and Dublin?), but the example illustrates the way in which their reliance on transfer partners for value introduces a lot of volatility into the value of their rewards currency, since they don't control their partners' award redemption rates.
  6. Southwest Rapid Rewards. Unlike a true fixed-value currency, Southwest Rapid Rewards points have fixed values only within each fare bucket: Wanna Get Away (between 1.4 and 1.6 cents), Anytime (about 1.1 cents), and Business Select (about 0.9 cents). That means that while you know you'll get one of those three values, which one you get depends on availability, reducing in my view the overall reliability of the program. Southwest enthusiasts avoid this problem by carefully watching the schedule and snapping up Wanna Get Away fares as soon as they become available, increasing the overall reliability of the program for them, at least for flights booked far enough in advance.
  7. World of Hyatt. According to the Hotel Hustle database of search results, the lowest value redemption at Hyatt properties is 0.91 cents per point (the median is 1.78 cents). If my Chase accounts were abruptly closed and I had to speculative transfer my entire Ultimate Rewards balance, I would choose World of Hyatt in a heartbeat. Hyatt doesn't have properties everywhere in the world, which makes it hard to rely on as a first-string hotel rewards program, but if there's a Hyatt in your destination you're exceedingly likely to get a good redemption value.
  8. Starwood Preferred Guest. Starwood has three different sources of value: their points can be redeemed for hotel stays at Starwood and Marriott, they can be transferred to airlines partners (either directly or through a Marriott Hotel + Air package), or they can be redeemed for revenue flights. That makes it almost impossible to get a bad value for your Starpoints, although it also causes the much more serious and common problem of hoarding Starpoints and being unwilling to redeem them for anything but the perfect redemption!
  9. Hilton Honors. As I've been discussing lately, the biggest effect of the recent changes to Hilton Honors is that they've apparently deliberately increased the reliability of the program. While there will always be sub-par redemptions in any non-fixed-value loyalty program, Hilton appears to have increased the number of properties where points redemptions make sense compared to paying cash rates.
  10. Legacy airline programs. I got into travel hacking at the very tail end of the period when, with flexibility and planning, it was still possible to fairly reliably book low-level domestic award tickets. Those days are over. Virtually all of my domestic travel today, in both economy and first class, are revenue tickets, not because revenue tickets have become cheaper but because award tickets have become completely unreliable as a means of booking domestic travel. International travel, especially on partners, hasn't seen quite as bad a gutting, and flexibility and planning still go a long way to booking flights overseas. Having access to legacy airline currencies through Ultimate Rewards, Membership Rewards, and Starpoints is still a reasonable tactic in case you happen to find award availability, but I don't think it can be the cornerstone of a strategy any longer.


There you have it, my completely subjective top ten ranking of rewards programs by reliability. This is certainly not the only ranking possible: those whose travel regularly brings them to expensive cities with Starwood properties will find they're able to get consistent value from Starwood Preferred Guest, and those who live in cities with many international partner airlines will likely get more consistent value from legacy airline programs than I do. But today, a combination of cash back, Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards, and one or two strong hotel programs seems most likely to help you pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

Why I manufacture cash

I was chatting with a blog subscriber the other day who expressed surprise when I told him I was manufacturing spend on a 2% cash back card, rather than a mile- or point-earning credit card.

That exchange made me think I should present my argument for why travel hackers as a general rule either should manufacture cash back, or at least should be willing to manufacture cash back. The simple reason is that doing so keeps you honest.

Bonused spend is capped or limited

There are cards that are straightforwardly superior to cashback-earning credit cards, or may be under certain circumstances. For example, if you have access to grocery store manufactured spend, a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card (2x), Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express (6x), Amex EveryDay Preferred (4.5x), or American Express Premier Rewards Gold (2x) card are either clearly or convincingly worth more than manufacturing spend on a simple 2% cash back card.

But manufacturing spend at grocery stores faces all sorts of obstacles, from daily limits on purchases to annual caps on bonused spend. Whether the limits you face are imposed by the stores you visit, the cards you carry, or the inconvenience of visiting bonused retailers, they leave you with a simple choice: restrict your manufactured spend to bonused retailers, or manufacture unbonused spend as well?

Unbonused spend should present hard choices between rewards currencies

I loosely consider the 3 most lucrative travel rewards-earning credit cards for unbonused spend to be:

  • Chase Freedom Unlimited. 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent, flexible if transferred to Chase Sapphire Preferred, Ink Plus, or Sapphire Reserve.
  • Amex EveryDay Preferred. 1.5 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent.
  • Starwood Preferred Guest American Express. 1 Starpoint (1.25 airline miles) per dollar spent.

You would need to get 1.33 cents per Ultimate Rewards or Membership Rewards point in value, or 2 cents per Starpoint (1.6 cents per mile when transferred in 20,000-Starpoint increments), to break even compared to a 2% cashback-earning credit card.

Those thresholds are, on the one hand, trivially easy to meet. Getting 1.33 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point or United Mileage Plus mile is considered a poor redemption of those currencies since it's so easy to get so much more value from them. Even 1.6 cents per transferred Starpoint is relatively easy to achieve on long-haul flights, especially in premium cabins.

On the other hand, those thresholds are only easy to meet when the points are redeemed for travel. When you earn rewards currencies other than cash because of their possible future value, then fail to redeem them, you are ultimately paying a premium for an inferior product.

Consider two travel hackers, each of whom manufactures $10,000 in unbonused spend each month for a year. The first uses a Chase Freedom Unlimited and earns 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points. The second uses a 2% cash back card, and earns $200 in cash back. Both pay the same purchase and liquidation fees. At the end of the year (in the 13th month), the first travel hacker will have 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points, and the second will have $2,400 in cash.

To make up the $600 in cash value, the first could redeem all 180,000 Ultimate Rewards points for 1.33 cents each — an easy lift, as described above.

But what if the first travel hacker redeems just 120,000 of their Ultimate Rewards points for travel, leaving them with a 60,000-point balance? Now she needs to get 1.5 cents per Ultimate Rewards point — still not too difficult, on long-haul United award redemptions or at mid-tier Hyatt properties. After all, Hotel Hustle pegs the median Hyatt Gold Passport point value at 1.862 cents.

Finally, consider if the first travel hacker redeems just 60,000 of their 180,000 Ultimate Rewards point haul for the year. They still have $1,200 in cash value, but that means they'll need to get 2 cents per Ultimate Rewards point to break even with the 2%-cashback travel hacker. Now we've found ourselves, rather than being safely below the median Hyatt point value, 7.5% above it. Rather than merely looking for a decent United redemption, we need an excellent one. All to break even with the person who's been taking their rewards to the bank in the form of cash each and every month!

This has nothing to with devaluations

When I point out the folly of hoarding miles and points, people often think I'm talking about the risk of devaluations. But as I wrote in the linked post, 

"For all the wailing and gnashing of teeth whenever an airline or hotel devalues its miles, that process is relatively gradual and relatively predictable.

After all these years, despite everything that's happened in the airline loyalty industry, the 25,000 domestic saver award ticket still exists."

If there is never another devaluation of any loyalty program under the sun; if every loyalty program opened up every seat, in every cabin, on every flight, for award redemptions, unredeemed points will still be worth nothing, while cashback earned can still be put to work paying for the expense of your choice, from groceries to retirement savings.


Past performance is no guarantee of future results. But it's as good a place as any to start!

When deciding between a cashback-earning credit card or putting the same unbonused spend on a travel rewards-earning credit card, take a look at your existing balances and your account history. Do you redeem the points you earn? Are you consistently getting the value you need to break even compared to a 2% or higher cashback card, taking into account the orphaned points you don't redeem?

If so, terrific — keep doing what you're doing. If not, then it's time to ask further questions about your manufactured spend strategy.

And those questions are how cashback credit cards keep travel hackers honest.

Membership Rewards points aren't worthless, but they are worth less

If you follow the miles and points bloggers who churn out a constant flood of material on signup bonuses, you already know that earlier this week there was an untargeted offer available for the American Express Platinum card which earned 100,000 Membership Rewards points after spending $3,000 in 3 months of card membership.

After the first day or so of unceasing posts about the offer I responded uncharitably on Twitter.

Since the blogosphere is going to keep trying to shove these offers down your throat, let's do a quick recap of why chasing offers like this is unlikely to be a great use of your travel hacking time and money.

Statement credits are worth (much) less than cash

When I wrote a post of this name, reader MJC helpfully suggested in the comments:

"The Amex Platinum 'airline credit' is also as good as cash, given that you can book a Delta ticket without attaching a Skymiles number to it, then pay for Economy Plus after the reservation is made, then cancel the reservation within 24 hours, and Amex Platinum will always refund your Economy Plus fees even though Delta refunds them as well"

Perfectly true — someone could do this over and over again until they'd redeemed their entire $200 airline fee statement credit each calendar year.

But, and I don't want to sound patronizing, are you going to do this? I ask because a lot of people get into travel hacking thinking they're one type of person, only to discover they are, in fact, the type of person who pays $95 annual fees on the Chase Sapphire Preferred year after year out of habit, fear, and/or greed.

Most importantly, the people trying to convince you to sign up for American Express Platinum cards aren't asking you whether you're the type of person who's actually willing to jump through all those hoops. And if they won't, I'm sure as hell going to.

Global Entry statement credits are worth $100 (to almost no one)

If you don't have Global Entry, and were just about to apply and pay for it, then you are fully justified in treating the American Express Platinum $100 Global Entry statement credit at its face value of $100.

But if you already have Global Entry and are planning to use your statement credit on a friend, or family member, or even sell it online, then it would not make sense to value it at $100. After all, you weren't willing to pay someone else's Global Entry fee if you had to pay out of pocket. That's what we call a "revealed" preference for cash over others' participation in Global Entry.

Membership Rewards points are valuable if you redeem them. Will you?

Finally we've come to the crux of the problem: are 100,000 Membership Rewards points worth a lot, or a little?

And my answer is an emphatic: maybe.

I was speaking yesterday to a subscriber who had already spent $50,000 on his American Express Delta Platinum card, and didn't have any good remaining options for earning large numbers of Delta SkyMiles easily (at least until next calendar year). He applied for the 100,000 Membership Rewards point offer because he knows how valuable SkyMiles are for flying from our local airport, and I congratulated him. That's as good as money in the bank.

Likewise, if you are planning a high-value Hilton vacation, being able to transfer 100,000 Membership Rewards points to 150,000 Hilton HHonors points and pay just $450 in fees (less whatever statement credits you're able to wrangle) is an easy one-off source of points.

But if you're signing up because, as one person responded on Twitter, "Singapore?" then you need to take a nice long walk around the block and decide when, exactly, you are planning to go to Singapore. Next month? The next six months? The next 10 years?

This matters because the longer your time horizon is, the more likely you are to be able to accumulate the needed points in better, cheaper ways than with a one-off Platinum signup bonus. A single Chase Ink Plus lets you earn up to 250,000 Singapore miles per year by manufacturing spend at office supply stores. But even more importantly, the Chase Ink Plus and Ultimate Rewards points in general are more valuable than Membership Rewards points, so you're unlikely to need to do an emergency transfer of points to Singapore (or any other program) in order to avoid paying a second (or third, or fourth) annual fee on the Platinum card.

I'm not angry, I'm just disappointed

Longtime readers know that I do not find arguments centered on "personal responsibility" particularly convincing. But there is one kind of responsibility that you are literally the only person who can take: knowing what kind of person you are.

Bloggers I consider irresponsible promote travel hacking as a way to experience the lifestyles of the rich and famous, as if all we can ask for out of life is a glass of champagne at 35,000 feet. If that is, indeed, all you can ask for out of life, then there's a flight to Singapore with your name written all over it.

But if you never felt the slightest longing to see the storied Singapore food courts before this 100,000 Membership Rewards point offer came around, it would be very strange indeed for such a promotion to instill such a longing in you at this late date.

Is that you, or is that the steady drumbeat of bloggers trying to sell you more and more expensive credit cards?

How much would you pay to be able to book any flight on any day?

Another day, another devaluation.

Yesterday American Airlines announced the changes they'll be making to the AAdvantage program next year. You've likely already read all about them, but in summary, they are:

  • Revenue-based mileage earning (beginning in "the second half of 2016");
  • Award chart devaluation (effective March 22, 2016);
  • Elite status devaluation (effective for qualification after January 1, 2016).

Since I credit my paid American flights to Alaska, I don't care much about the first or third points. But the award chart devaluation is real and, for premium cabin redemptions, significant.

Premium cabin awards are not cheap or easy

With yesterday's announcement, American Airlines joined Delta and United in raising mileage prices for premium cabin awards, in some cases astronomically. For example, a first class award seat on a 3-cabin aircraft to Sydney from the continental United States will cost 110,000 AAdvantage miles starting March 22, 2016, up from the 72,500 miles it currently costs, a 52% increase.

Of course, that's purely academic. There are no first class award seats between the continental United States and Sydney.

Yes, if you're flexible, if you're searching far in advance, close-in, and on every single day in between, you might be able to find one or two seats during the Southern winter. But don't hold your breath.

Premium cabin seats are (not that) expensive

For a lot of people, "travel hacking" is synonymous with "loyalty program hacking." And indeed, historically the loyalty programs operated by hotels and airlines have been a great source of outsized value for people willing to dedicate the time and attention to maximizing the value of their miles and points.

But those airline award seats we hunt down so diligently are also available on the open market! Believe it or not, the airlines just sell them. Of course, in exchange for the flexibility buying revenue tickets grants, you're going to pay a little more.

Or a lot more. That 220,000-mile roundtrip first class award ticket American promised you might cost $10,000 or $15,000 if you choose the flexibility of a revenue ticket.

Well, it might cost someone $15,000. But it doesn't have to cost you $15,000, because you're a travel hacker.

The revenue premium may be smaller than you think

A $15,000 first class flight to Sydney will give about 6.8 cents per AAdvantage mile in value after the March 22 devaluation (if you could find first class award space).

Since the Citi Prestige card allows you to redeem ThankYou points for 1.6 cents each on American-marketed flights, you'd need about 938,000 ThankYou points to purchase your first class revenue ticket. That's a lot of points, but the ThankYou Premier card earns 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent at gas stations, so you'd only need to manufacture $312,666 in gas station spend to make your redemption. That's obviously not something you'll be able to do in a weekend, but it might be a reasonable goal if spread out over a year or two.

Since the Citi and Barclaycard AAdvantage co-branded credit cards earn just one mile per dollar spent everywhere, you'd need to manufacture $220,000 on those cards to make your first class award redemption. In other words, the revenue premium — the additional manufactured spend required to book any seat on any flight — in this case is about 42%.

The $15,000 flight has the additional advantage of earning an Executive Platinum 165,000 AAdvantage miles, enough for another roundtrip to Sydney (albeit in business class instead of first).


Most people aren't going to manufacture enough spend to pay what American is asking for a first class ticket to Australia. Those who do probably don't value a first class ticket to Australia at $15,000, and would rather redeem their fixed-value points for the domestic economy flights they'd book anyway. That's a perfectly reasonable point of view.

The point I want to make is that while I sometimes say that cash is a superior earning choice for manufactured spend unless you have a particular, high-value redemption in mind, it may be a superior earning choice even if you do have a particular, high-value redemption in mind!

In other words, it's not enough to say that an award redemption will get you more value per dollar in manufactured spend than earning a currency like Ultimate Rewards (1.25 cents per point), Flexpoints (up to 2 cents per point, redeemed in tiers), Membership Rewards (1.43 cents per point with the American Express Business Platinum), or ThankYou points. You also have to be willing to redeem your loyalty currencies exclusively on the dates, flights, and times that the airlines choose to make award seats available, and put the time into learning the intricacies of each alliance and each airline.

If you don't find that fun or interesting, you may well be better off saving your time and paying the revenue premium instead.

Should you use super-premium cards to pay for airfare through manufactured spend?

A few months back I wrote a breakdown of three cards which earn bonused flexible points currencies at gas stations: the Chase Ink Plus (and Bold), Citi ThankYou Premier (as of April 19, 2015), and American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred.

While flexible points are terrific for short-haul Avios redemptions and long-haul premium cabin redemptions, I also like to remind readers that sometimes it makes sense to fly on revenue tickets. With the announcement of a new, 30% rebate on "Pay with Points" tickets purchased through the American Express Business Platinum card (via Twitter user @LoyalUA1K), I thought I'd revisit the subject with gas station manufactured spend squarely in mind.

Four ways to buy cheap plane tickets at gas stations

There are four methods I want to consider for buying revenue airline tickets using points earned at gas stations (four methods, and not four cards, for reasons that are about to become clear):

  • Chase Ink Plus/Bold. Earns 2 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations, on up to $50,000 in annual gas station purchases. Points can be redeemed for paid airfare at 1.25 cents each. $95 annual fee.
  • US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards. Earns 2 Flexpoints per dollar spent at gas stations, if you spend more at gas stations than at grocery stores or on airline tickets during that statement cycle. $49 annual fee, which can be waived if you spend $24,000 during the cardmember year.
  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. Earn 3 ThankYou points per dollar spent with the ThankYou Premier, and redeem them through the ThankYou Prestige for 1.6 cents each for tickets issued by American Airlines and US Airways or 1.3 cents each for tickets issued by other carriers. $95 annual fee for ThankYou Premier and $450 annual fee for Prestige (a $350 annual fee version may be available in-branch, although getting it sounds stressful).
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum. Earn 3 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent with the EveryDay Preferred (as long as you make 30 purchases per month), and redeem them through American Express Travel using the Business Platinum card for roughly 1.43 cents each on the same airline you designate for your $200 annual fee reimbursement. $95 annual fee for EveryDay Preferred and $450 annual fee for Business Platinum.

Now I know what you're thinking: "Free-quent Flyer, can't you show the same information in a simple chart?"

As a matter of fact, I can:

How much paid airfare makes premium card annual fees worth paying?

Anyone who's followed my blog for long knows what I think about annual airline fee credits: they're a way for affiliate bloggers to downplay preposterously high annual fees and move more product.

Since I'm not an affiliate blogger and don't have a dog in that hunt, I treat credit card annual fees the same way I suggest my readers do: as upfront expenses that have to be justified by the concrete value delivered by a card.

By concrete value, in this case I mean the actual surplus delivered by a premium card compared to a workhorse like the Flexperks Travel Rewards card.

As the chart above shows, the minimum value of a dollar of gas station manufactured spend with the Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige combination is almost as much as the maximum value of a dollar manufactured with the Flexperks Travel Rewards card, and assuming you're loyal to American Airlines and US Airways, you'll receive a minimum of 0.8 cents more per dollar.

With the American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum combination, you'll only want to redeem Membership Rewards points for airfare on your preferred carrier, since almost all other "Pay with Points" redemptions (except for sub-$300 airfares) will be worse values than a Flexpoint redemption.

On the other hand, those card combinations come with hefty annual fees, meaning that any surplus value earned on the redemption side compared to cheaper cards has to exceed the difference in upfront costs in the form of annual fees.

To arrive at that breakeven point, first we need to find a reasonable valuation for Flexpoints, which can be redeemed in bands at 10,000 Flexpoint intervals. While it's tempting to take a simple average of the top and bottom of each redemption band (i.e. 1.67 cents per Flexpoint), in my experience it's possible to consistently land closer to the top of that range. That being the case, let's use a point three quarters of the way from the bottom, or 1.83 cents per Flexpoint (e.g. a $367, 20,000 Flexpoint redemption).

Here's how much paid airfare you need to fly annually in order to justify $545 in annual fees, compared to the waivable $49 annual fee of the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card:

  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. $2,294 at American Airlines and US Airways ($47,807 in annual gas station manufactured spend)
  • Citi ThankYou Premier and Prestige. $8,856 at other airlines ($227,083 in annual gas station manufactured spend).
  • American Express Amex EveryDay Preferred and Business Platinum. $3,711 with your designated airline ($86,508 in annual gas station manufactured spend).


I'm perfectly aware that these cards offer redemption options that can be more lucrative than redeeming points for airfare at privileged rates. In fact, I wrote a whole blog post comparing their transfer partners in each alliance.

I'm further aware that the super-premium $450-annual-fee cards offer benefits like lounge access, airline fee credits, and Global Entry fee reimbursement.

So any readers who are inclined to hash out the value of those benefits are welcome to do so in the comments.

But I am also certain that simply purchasing paid airline tickets is the single most common method of flying domestically for travel hackers and civilians alike, and an analysis of these cards along those lines was overdue.

Evaluating point transfers to airlines by alliance

Last month I wrote that the addition of gas stations to the Citi ThankYou Premier "travel" bonus category, and raising that bonus to 3 ThankYou points per dollar, had leveled the playing field between that card, the Chase Ink Plus, and American Express Amex Everyday Preferred, all three of which will have $95 annual fees starting April 19, 2015, when the ThankYou Premier card's annual fee is lowered from $125.

Of course, the definition of a card that earns flexible points is the ability to transfer those points to airline and hotel partners. So which airline transfer partners are best for each of the three rewards currencies?


Chase Ultimate Rewards. Here you have just one transfer partner, Korean Air. The good news is, they have a pretty decent, zone-based award chart for SkyTeam partner awards:

The bad news is, they pass along fuel surcharges on their own flights and SkyTeam partner flights. For flights to South Korea from the United States, one interesting option is paying 35,000 Delta SkyMiles and $24 for your outbound ticket, since Delta doesn't pass along fuel surcharges on Korean Air flights, and using SKYPASS miles for the return on Korean Air, where you'll pay just 83,100 Korean Won (about $75) in taxes and fuel surcharges. That's about $266 less than you'd pay booking the entire trip with SKYPASS miles, and only $14 more than you'd pay booking the entire trip with SkyMiles.

American Express Membership Rewards. Membership Rewards points transfer to Delta and a number of other SkyTeam carriers: AeroMexico, Air France KLM, and Alitalia. For most redemptions from the United States, you'll be best off redeeming Delta SkyMiles, unless you want to book First Class tickets, since Delta doesn't have access to those seats (they don't operate a First Class cabin themselves).

For redemptions originating outside the United States, you'll need to consider another carrier (or more realistically, another alliance), since Delta passes along fuel surcharges on those flights. Air France KLM and Alitalia charge punishing fuel surcharges even on their own flights.

Aeromexico is an interesting case. I was unable to price out any SkyTeam partner awards using their online booking engine, so I don't know if they pass along fuel surcharges, although that's my impression from the little information I was able to gather. If any readers have experience booking SkyTeam awards through Aeromexico, I'd love to hear it!

Citi ThankYou. In addition to Air France KLM, here you have the unique transfer partner of Garuda Indonesia. To quote from the GarudaMiles website: "Award Tickets redemption for any of Garuda Indonesia partner airlines, including Air France & KLM, can only be conducted at Garuda Indonesia Sales Offices." Unfortunately, that's not going to be very useful for most people, so your best best will likely still be Air France KLM.


Chase Ultimate Rewards. British Airways is your only option here, and you know what that means: domestic economy flights on American Airlines or US Airways, transatlantic flights on Aer Lingus and air berlin, and transfers to Iberia Avios for redemptions on their own flights.

American Express Membership Rewards. Here you can choose between Cathay Pacific and British Airways (or Iberia) Avios. While both programs are distance-based, and both pass along fuel surcharges from partners, Cathay Pacific's award chart is based on the total distance traveled on an award itinerary, rather than the length of each segment, which should make awards that require connections cheaper. Additionally, on April 28, 2015, Avios redemptions for most long-haul segments in premium cabins will increase by 50% (Business) and 33% (First). That'll increase the value of Cathay Pacific miles compared to Avios. For example, a First Class redemption on American Airlines between JFK and LAX will cost 50,000 Avios (currently 37,500), but just 40,000 Asia Miles, as a "single carrier award." There's additional value in Cathay's multi-partner awards, though you'll see excessive fuel surcharges on many of those awards.

Citi ThankYou. Here you can choose between Cathay Pacific, Malaysia Airlines, and Qatar. Qatar Qmiles appear to be completely worthless. Malaysia Airlines has a distance-based award chart with fairly steep single-partner award redemptions (JFK-LAX on American Airlines would cost 132,000 Enrich Miles in First!), but much more reasonable multi-partner awards. Drew at Travel is Free has looked at a number of routes where Malaysia Airlines miles are competitive, particularly on their own flights, so I'll call this a tie between Malaysia Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

Star Alliance

Chase Ultimate Rewards. Between United and Singapore Airlines, you'll typically want to transfer your Ultimate Rewards points to United, since they don't pass along fuel surcharges on partner awards. The most popular exception is if you're committed to redeeming Ultimate Rewards points for Singapore Airlines Suites Class redemptions, since you may find KrisFlyer miles more useful because of their increased access to those seats.

American Express Membership Rewards. With the same caveat as above, Air Canada Aeroplan miles will usually be more valuable than Singapore Airlines miles, since they don't pass along fuel surcharges on many of their partners, although ANA can make sense on Star Alliance routes with fuel surcharges where their distance-based award chart requires fewer miles than Aeroplan, or on United, where ANA passes along low or no fuel surcharges.

Citi ThankYou. Citi has two unique transfer partners in Star Alliance, Thai Airways and EVA Air, in addition to Singapore. Thai Airways recently gutted their award chart, and EVA Air passes along fuel surcharges, so if you have to redeem ThankYou points for Star Alliance travel, Singapore is likely to be your best bet.


The point of this post is to emphasize that bonused earning rates, like those at gas stations, change the value calculus of various loyalty programs.

Much hay is made of the fact that Starwood Preferred Guest Starpoints have a 20% transfer bonus when transferred in increments of 20,000, or that Membership Rewards points can sometimes be transferred to British Airways with a 40% bonus.

But if you're earning 2 Ultimate Rewards points, or 3 Membership Rewards or ThankYou points, per dollar spent at gas stations, you should be putting equal weight on the 100% or 200% "transfer bonus" that category spend gives you; after all, the Starwood Preferred Guest American Express earns just 1 Starpoint per dollar spent everywhere.

Finally, this is not encouragement to sign up for all three cards that earn bonus, flexible points at gas stations. On the contrary, it's an invitation to take a look at your upcoming trips, the award reservations you intend to make, and the loyalty currencies that can make that possible. Then find the credit cards that offer bonus points in the categories that are going to get you those points as easily and cheaply as possible. If you have access to cheap gas station manufactured spend, it might be one of these cards. If you don't, then you'll need to keep looking!

My next application cycle

Background: What's in my wallet?

Compared to many travel bloggers, I rely on signup bonuses for a relatively small part of my travel needs. For example, my Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard came with a 40,000 "mile" signup bonus, worth $444 in statement credits against travel purchases.

However, since it earns 2 miles per dollar, worth 2.22% cash back against travel purchases, it's also my go-to card for non-bonused manufactured spend, and I've earned and redeemed many tens of thousands of miles with the card. The 40,000 mile signup bonus is a great incentive to include it in any application cycle, but it's not the only reason to get the card, and in a lower-signup-bonus environment the card might still be worth applying for — at least for the first, fee-free, year.

All this leads me to say that since I rely on manufactured spend more than signup bonuses, it's more important for me to find the right combination of cards on the earning side than merely waiting for the highest signup bonuses. For example, I applied for the American Express Blue Cash back in January because of its earning potential, not its signup bonus — then I included a few cards with valuable signup bonuses to round out my application cycle.

The cards I'm waiting for

There are a few cards I don't yet have, which are going to complement my current holdings nicely. I plan to apply for these cards during my next application cycle:

  • Bank of America Alaska Airlines Signature Visa. The signup bonus for this card went as high as 50,000 miles back in December, during what I called a perfect storm of signup bonuses. It's currently stuck at 40,000 miles after spending $10,000 within 6 months, which is a great offer. But I'm hoping it pops back up to 50,000 sometime soon, so I can keep earning Alaska miles after May 31, when the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card finally disappears;
  • American Express Starwood Preferred Guest Personal or Business. This card has a 25,000 Starpoint signup bonus, and the ability to earn Starpoints, which are incredibly valuable for hotel stays, but also transferable to partner airlines and redeemable for paid airline tickets. In other words, if approved I'll be putting this card in heavy rotation, despite its earning rate of just 1 Starpoint per dollar;
  • Chase Ink Bold or Plus. I write about the earning potential of these cards fairly regularly, mainly when I'm envying people who already have them. I've grown increasingly disgusted with my Chase Sapphire Preferred card, since I put my travel purchases on my Arrival card and just don't eat out all that often (no reimbursed business expenses here!). I'm looking forward to changing my Sapphire Preferred to a Chase Freedom card (doubling my quarterly bonus earnings) and adding an Ink Bold or Plus to retain the flexibility of my Ultimate Rewards points.

What's missing

After picking up those three cards I'll have access to virtually all the most valuable points currencies. But there are a few cards I'm still considering for their other benefits:

  • Chase Hyatt Visa. I've written about this card before when contemplating whether it's worth renewing for its annual free night certificate (short answer: yes, if you'll use it). It simply isn't the case that staying at a Hyatt property is the best option for me very often, which makes it a tough decision to spend a hard credit pull on the card without specific upcoming plans;
  • Membership Rewards. American Express has a number of cards with lucrative Membership Rewards earning structures, but until I can find a few reliable venders where I can maximize those bonus categories, I'm not willing to commit to a $95 or $175 annual fee, given the signup bonuses currently available;
  • Club Carlson Premier Rewards Visa Signature. I already have the business version of this card, and I love it. The personal version has a slightly higher annual fee ($75 vs $60), and gives an additional 40,000 Gold Points on each account anniversary. That's a great value, but I'm not convinced it's worth another $75, given that I can manufacture 40,000 Gold Points whenever I want, without paying $75 or waiting for my account anniversary!

Those are the cards that are currently on my mind. What do you think: what cards do I need to include in my next application cycle?

Should you care about the 30,000 Starpoint signup bonus?

 It's no surprise that the travel-hacking blogosphere has lit up this week with links to the Starwood American Express personal and business cards, which through September 3, 2013 offer 10,000 Starpoints after first purchase and 20,000 additional Starpoints after spending $5,000 within 6 months. The card usually has a signup bonus of 25,000 Starpoints, so this is a 20% increase over the standard signup bonus.

I've never had a Starwood American Express, so I'm eligible for both signup bonuses, but I'll probably take a pass this year (the increased signup bonus is typically offered once a year). Since this promotion is getting so much play on other blogs, this is a good time to breakdown who this card might be right for. For more detail on all the information below, check out all the Starwood redemption options I explain here.

Hotel Stays

There's no question that Starwood, along with Hyatt and Club Carlson, has devalued their award chart least among the major chains, although the changes to Cash & Points rates did not win them any new fans.

Category 4 properties can cost many hundreds of dollars per night, but cost just 10,000 Starpoints, which could make this signup bonus worth well over $1,000 if used solely for Starwood reservations you were going to make anyway.

Elite Status

Indeed, if you regularly book paid stays with your own money at Starwood properties, then this card is a no brainer, because you probably value elite status highly. Starwood is exceptional among major hotel programs for awarding elite stay and night credit for award stays, so with the 35,000 Starpoints you'll have after meeting the minimum spending requirement, you could make 8 one-night reservations at Category 1 or Category 2 hotels. Those 8 stays, plus the 2 elite stay and 5 elite night credits you are credited with just for having the card, would already get you to Gold elite status (10 stays or 25 nights).

If you direct a majority of your paid stays towards Starwood properties, then elite status could make these cards worth carrying, thanks to the 50% earning bonus elites earn: 3 Starpoints per dollar spent on paid stays, instead of 2 Starpoints per dollar. Plus you'll earn 2 Starpoints per dollar spent on the card at Starwood properties, bringing your haul to around 5 Starpoints per dollar (slightly less, since you won't earn base Starpoints on taxes charged by the hotel), plus any promotions.

Airline Transfers

Like flexible Chase Ultimate Rewards and American Express Membership Rewards points, Starpoints can be transferred to many airlines at a 1 : 1 ratio, with a 5,000 Starpoint bonus at the 20,000, 40,000, and 60,000 Starpoint levels. This naturally creates the temptation to use this card to manufacture spend in order to secure award tickets. Even better, the Starwood American Express has an annual fee of just $65, compared to the $95 annual fee of Chase's flexible Ultimate Rewards cards, or $175 annual fee of the flexible American Express Membership Rewards cards.

You can find Starwood's airline transfer partners here.  The most important programs to note are Alaska MileagePlan, American AAdvantage, Delta Skymiles, and US Airways Dividend Miles. That gives you coverage in all four major alliances and partnerships, at least until US Airways leaves the Star Alliance for oneworld.

Flight Redemptions

Many Starwood loyalists prefer to transfer their Starpoints to frequent flyer programs to redeem for premium cabin tickets. However, Starpoints do have value beyond Starwood stays and airline transfers, so I always try to mention Starwood Flight Redemptions awards, which allow you to redeem Starpoints for paid airline tickets. 35,000 Starpoints can translate into one paid ticket costing up to $215 (15,000 Starpoints) and another ticket up to $280 (20,000 Starpoints), making this signup bonus worth up to $495 in paid tickets, plus the value of the frequent flyer miles you'll earn for those flights.

That's why even if you don't ever intend to stay at a Starwood hotel or book a premium international flight using frequent flyer miles, you may still want to consider this card since the points are between $315 and $495 in paid airfare. 

Drawbacks and Alternatives

Unfortunately, there's a drawback to this card: the Starwood American Express doesn't have any category bonuses except Starwood hotels, which would also be bonused by the Chase Sapphire Preferred (travel bonus) and Chase Ink (hotel bonus) cards. That makes it difficult to justify abandoning a flexible Chase card in favor of a Starwood American Express purely for the sake of manufacturing spend, since the bonus categories of those Chase cards (especially when combined with a Chase Freedom) can be so much more lucrative.

For example, if you have access to PayPal Cash or Vanilla Reload Network cards at a 7-11 that is coded as a "gas station," a Chase Ink card would allow you to purchase Ultimate Rewards points at a cost of 0.39 cents each, compared to 0.78 cents each with the Starwood American Express. That difference means you can pay for the $30 difference in annual fees after just $3,000 in manufactured gas station spending annually.

I consider Alaska MileagePlan miles to be wildly lucrative, since they can be used for Delta or American award tickets (among many other partners). But if you're interested primarily in earning Alaska miles, you can do so with the Bank of America Alaska Airlines Visa Signature credit card (with its annual companion ticket) or with a Bank of America debit card which gives you virtually unlimited free miles earning potential.


Of the three flexible awards currencies, Starpoints are probably the most valuable – each – because of the redemption options outlined above. However, that doesn't mean that the Starwood American Express is the most valuable credit credit to manufacture spend on: depending on your spend pattern, that distinction probably belongs to the Chase Sapphire Preferred or Ink Bold/Plus. Still, "second most valuable" is a strong endorsement, and this is the right card for a lot of people, especially with the current, higher signup bonus.

Right now I'm happily manufacturing spend at 5% cash back with the now-expired Citi ThankYou Preferred offer; 2.22% cash back with the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, during my first, fee-free year; up to 4% cash back with my US Bank Flexperks Travel card; and 1.4 Skymiles and 0.4 Medallion Qualification Miles per dollar with the Delta Platinum Business American Express card. And frankly, that's about all I can fit into my current schedule. In January and April, respectively, I'll lose the first two opportunities and move that manufactured spending onto other cards. At that point I'll definitely consider making the Starwood American Express one of my workhorse cards for manufactured spend.