Thoughts towards earning domestic airline miles as cheaply as possible

[For reasons I cannot begin to understand, I am camping far from civilization this week. I have a couple posts scheduled, but won't be participating as actively as usual in the comments or on Twitter.]

Last week I received polite notification from Suntrust that my services as a customer would no longer be required, which inspired this post.

My simple heuristic for booking air travel

When booking air travel, I usually follow variations of the following simple decision-making heuristic. First, I ask...:

  1. How much are paid airfares? If American- or Delta-operated flights are near the top of a Flexpoint redemption band, I'll redeem Flexpoints for paid, mileage-earning airfares in order to credit them to Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan. If American- or Delta-operated flights are less than $300 or so, I'll redeem Ultimate Rewards points for 1.25 cents each for paid, mileage-earning airfares. If neither of those are true, I ask...
  2. Is there Delta low-level availability? Since for a little over a year I've been able to manufacture SkyMiles at such a trivial cost, Delta low-level availability will almost always offer me the cheapest out-of-pocket cost. If there isn't Delta low-level availability, I ask...
  3. Is there American low-level availability? Since I can transfer Ultimate Rewards points to British Airways for cheap short-haul flights, and get preferred seating with my Alaska Airlines MVP Gold 75K status, American is often a convenient and even comfortable way to travel. For the longer flights that make Avios redemptions impractical, I can use the Alaska Airlines miles I still have left over from the days of the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card.

Those three simple questions cover the vast majority of my air travel needs.

No more cheap Delta and Alaska miles; what next?

With my Alaska Airlines debit card closed along with everyone else's, and my Suntrust card retired a little ahead of schedule, I no longer have access to unlimited, virtually free domestic airline miles.

That got me thinking that it might be worth doing a little math on the cheapest way to earn redeemable domestic airline miles through manufactured spend.

  • United Mileage Plus. United is in an interesting position, since it's a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards. The Chase Ink Plus (and Sapphire Preferred) cards offer an unusual dual value proposition: Ultimate Rewards points are both worth 1 cent each and also entitle the cardholder to buy United miles for 1 cent each. Many readers don't like it when I draw attention to this dual functionality, but that doesn't keep it from being true: the ability to redeem Ultimate Rewards points for cash means you face a tradeoff between cash and Mileage Plus miles. That creates the following dynamic: if you value United miles at between 1 and 1.25 cents each, you are best off redeeming your Ultimate Rewards points for paid airfare at 1.25 cents each; if you value United miles at between 1.25 and roughly 1.5 cents each, you're best off transferring Ultimate Rewards points to United; and if you value United miles at more than 1.5 cents each, it may start to make sense to sign up for a Chase United Club card, which earns 1.5 United miles per dollar spent, depending on how much unbonused spend you're willing to manufacture with the card. Here's a chart which illustrates the principle:

In this chart, every dollar you spend above the "Breakeven spend" point generates profit, having already paid off the card's annual fee with the Club card's "Excess value."

The key is that whether you like it or not, you're buying Mileage Plus miles for 1 cent each when you transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to United.

  • American AAdvantage. This one's simple: since no credit card earns more than 1 AAdvantage mile per dollar spent, the American Express Starwood Preferred Guest is the cheapest way to earn AAdvantage miles through manufactured spend: it earns 1.25 AAdvantage miles per dollar spent when you transfer Starpoints to American in increments of 20,000 Starpoints.
  • Alaska Mileage Plan. As above, so below. No (currently-available) cards earn bonus Mileage Plan miles, so Starwood Preferred Guest transfers offer the best earning rate at 1.25 Mileage Plan miles per dollar.
  • Delta SkyMiles. Here we can get some more traction, since SkyMiles is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards at a 1-to-1 ratio. The cheapest option depends on your ability to buy and liquidate prepaid Visa debit cards at gas stations. If you have access to unlimited gas station manufactured spend, the $95 Amex EveryDay Preferred card gives 3 flexible Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at gas stations (when you make more than 30 purchases during your statement cycle). If you don't have access to gas station manufactured spend, the $175 Premier Rewards Gold card offers 2 Membership Rewards points per dollar spent at grocery stores. Both are better values than the $195 American Express Delta Platinum or $450 Delta Reserve cards, unless you don't have access to either gas station or grocery store manufactured spend. In that case, the slight difference between the 1.4 SkyMiles per dollar (at $25,000 and $50,000 in spend) earning rate of the Platinum card and 1.5 SkyMiles per dollar (at $30,000 and $60,000 in spend) rate of the Reserve card usually makes the Platinum card the better bet, unless you're gunning for Delta Medallion elite status.


Now that my fountain of Delta miles has dried up, I'll likely rely more and more on Flexpoints (for more expensive flights) and Ultimate Rewards points (for cheaper ones) when booking domestic travel and international economy travel.

The ability of airline miles to offer out-sized value when booking international premium cabin travel is often exaggerated (ignoring things like availability constraints), but it's not a fabrication: there really are trips where miles, when earned cheaply enough, offer a much greater value than equivalent flights booked using rewards currencies like Flexpoints, Arrival+ miles, or Ultimate Rewards points.

So with those flights in mind, I'll continue building up modest balances in a variety of domestic rewards programs, while always remembering that the least valuable mile is the one I don't redeem.

Suntrust has politely asked that you step up your game

It seems that in the last few days Suntrust has been mailing letters to holders of Delta SkyMiles-earning debit cards, notifying them of a radical devaluation in the terms of the program, effective July 25, 2015.

Via Doctor of Credit, for cardholders who don't have a Signature Advantage account with Suntrust:

  • the annual fee will rise to $95 from $75;
  • earning will be cut to one SkyMile per $2 spent with the card from one SkyMile per $1 spent with the card;
  • and earning will be capped at 2,000 SkyMiles per rolling 30-day period.

Signature Advantage accountholders will have slightly more favorable terms, but pay a $25 monthly maintenance fee.

Confession: I've been slacking off

I've had a SkyMiles check card since last April, and have earned a few hundred thousand SkyMiles with it since then. But I could have been earning far, far more, and I wasn't.

The reason is somewhat risible, though it seemed to make sense at the time: Suntrust caps free, next-day inbound transfers from external accounts at $20,000 per rolling 30-day period. After that, the only free option for inbound transfers is 3-business-day transfers, which would involve tying up funds for days at a time without anything to show for it.

There have always been other options for transfers: I could use a third-party banking platform like Google Wallet or Amazon Payments, or pay a nominal fee for external ACH "pushes" from one of my local banks or credit unions. But that would also take additional time and raise the price I paid for miles for which I didn't have any specific redemption in mind.

So I didn't, and instead limited myself to $20,000 in SkyMiles check card purchases per rolling 30-day period.

But no more!

I'm not aware of any volume limits on Suntrust's 3-business-day transfers, so once I hit the $20,000 monthly limit on next-day transfers, I'll be aggressively using the longer, less-convenient, but still-free transfers. By initiating a transfer each day I should (after the first 3 days) have funds available for my SkyMiles check card each business day.

By my reckoning, I have 10 weeks and 3 days to earn as many SkyMiles as possible under the program's current terms and conditions.

Since I just paid the current, $75 annual fee in April, I'll probably hold onto the card until April, 2016, earning 2,000 SkyMiles per month at a cost of approximately $13.40. It won't make me rich, but I like flying Delta, and that's a price I'm willing to pay for the additional miles each month.


What do my readers think? Have you been using the Suntrust SkyMiles World Check Card as aggressively as you could have been? Will you start, now that we have just 73 days to take full advantage of it?

Update: Suntrust lets me make next-day transfers

Earlier this month I mentioned in passing that ACH pulls to my Suntrust checking account invariably took 3 business days to process, unlike the next day transfers I was able to request with my Bank of America checking account.

I assumed that was a deliberate choice Suntrust made, perhaps because next-day ACH transfers are more expensive, or perhaps simply because the Automated Clearing House makes the funds available to them immediately and they prefer to hold them for a few days before releasing them to clients.

Lo and behold, I logged into my Suntrust account today to transfer some money in from my local, money-order-friendly credit union and found that a new option had appeared: free next-day transfers!

Why me? Why now?

I asked on Twitter whether anyone else noticed the new external transfer option appear recently, and heard from one reader who had been using it for some time and one who still didn't have it.

My best guess at this point for what triggered its appearance on my account is simply the passage of time. I initiated the process of opening my account in early April, and had my first account activity on May 5 (it took me a long time to receive all my credentials). That gives a timeframe of 2.5 to 3.5 months months before next day transfers became available for me, depending on when the clock started.

The other alternative is that Suntrust has a risk model that combines age of account with other factors: number of transactions, average daily balances, or others.

Are there limits?

I'm not embarrassed in the slightest to say that I have so far pushed far less money monthly through my Suntrust account than other players; the only absolutely essential thing in this game is to know the limits of your own comfort, and I'm very, very comfortable with mine.

However, an additional limit to the amount of spend I could put on the Suntrust card each month was that 3-business-day waiting period between initiating a transfer and the funds becoming available. Next day transfers mean there are fewer tradeoffs between Suntrust spend and transactions made through other sources (since less money is ever held out of play in ACH Limbo).

On the other hand, while Bank of America clearly publishes the limits for 3-day and next-day external transfers, Suntrust does not appear to (although I'd be happy to be corrected in the comments). That doesn't mean such limits don't exist but rather that, if they do, additional experimentation is required to discover them.


Of course, this post is only relevant to those readers who listened to my exhortations to apply for a Suntrust Delta Skymiles Check Card before they stopped accepting applications. For those of you who did, congratulations, and as your account ages watch for the appearance of online, next-day transfers.

Additional datapoints are, as always, welcome in the comments. See you there!

Update: Emerald loads at Walmart

Back in April I reminded my readers that under the right circumstances, it might be worth loading HR Block Emerald cards at Walmart, claiming that paying $3.74 per $999 load could be justified if your earning rate were high enough.

Since then, I've run several experiments with my trusty new Suntrust check card, and found that things aren't quite as rosy as I had hoped.

The terms and conditions

As I wrote in the comments to that earlier post:

"[The $999 load limit] is my belief based on the Emerald T&C's:

'The maximum amount of cash value you may load to your Card each day is $999.99.'

And this Green Dot website (among others):

'The cashier will swipe your card and add cash directly to your card (up to $1,000 at Walmart as long as you do not exceed the card load limits). A service fee of $3.74 applies.'

Unfortunately, I appear to have been overly optimistic.

My experience

My first attempt was to load $996 at a regular Walmart register. The register beeped and alerted the cashier that the maximum load was $500. I loaded that amount, and the cashier told me that if I wanted to load more than $500, I needed to do it at the Customer Service desk, which also functions as the Money Center at that Walmart location.

On my trip to Walmart today, I started off at the Customer Service center and had the same experience: I couldn't load more than $500 at a time. This Walmart, however, had a separate Money Center, and I asked the cashier there if she could load more than at the Customer Service center. She told me the limits were the same at both counters.

Since I had already loaded $500 I couldn't try and load another $996 today anyway, because of HR Block's daily load limits.


While it's certainly possible to conjecture that higher loads might be possible at the Money Center at Walmart locations that have both a Customer Service desk and Money Center, I'm personally inclined to doubt it.

My preliminary conclusion is that in fact the Emerald can only be loaded with up to $500 at a time, at a cost of $3.74.

What does that mean for us? Paying 0.748 cents per Skymile is pressing against the upper bound of what you should consider worth paying. Yes, Skymiles can be redeemed for 1 cent each against the revenue cost of Delta tickets, and when booked in First Class, such Pay With Miles tickets even earn Skymiles and Medallion Qualification Miles. If you book a lot of paid First Class tickets, this is a decent way to get a 25% discount on those reservations.

In general, however, I wouldn't consider this an opportunity worth scaling as long as there are so many other, cheaper ways to generate the same number of miles.

Suntrust online banking errors are a feature, not bug

Ten days ago, I passed along a working link to a signup page for the Suntrust Delta Skymiles World Check Card. When I shared that link, I had just called the number on that page to open a "balanced banking" account over the phone.

Today, my account is finally up and running, and I wanted to share the timeline for opening new accounts in case anyone else is as confused by it as I was.

Wednesday, April 9

10 days ago I:

  • Called and opened a "balanced banking" account over the phone;
  • Was told to wait for a "signature card" to arrive in the mail, sign it, and mail it back in the provided envelop;
  • Was given an online banking "password" to configure my online profile;
  • Set up an online username and password;
  • But was unable to log into my new account. Instead, I received an error stating that "This service is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later."

Monday, April 14

On Monday:

  • I received, signed, and mailed back my signature card;
  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking.

Tuesday, April 15

On Tuesday:

  • I received my Delta Skymiles World Check card;
  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking;
  • And I was unable to call into their phone system for help, because that required my PIN number, which I hadn't yet received.

Thursday, April 17

On Thursday:

  • I was still unable to log into Suntrust's online banking;
  • I received my PIN number in the mail, and attempted to call into the Suntrust phone tree, but after entering my check card number and PIN was not connected to a representative;

I used the online banking "live chat" feature and had the following conversation with a customer service representative, "Tera:"

Tera: Good afternoon. Thank you for contacting SunTrust. How may I assist you today?

Free-quent Flyer: I am not able to set up my online account. At Step 3: Services & Agreement I just get an error page: "This service is temporarily unavailable. Please try again later." This has been going on for a week or so

Tera: It sounds like your temporary internet files and cookies need to be deleted. Do you know how to clear those?

Free-quent Flyer: Yes, I've already done so multiple times

Tera: Are you making sure to close the browser after clearing those then open a new one?

Free-quent Flyer: Yes, and I've tried private and incognito browsing as well

Tera: There is something in your browser that is causing the page to do that. Are you able to use a different browser such as Internet Explorer or FireFox?

Free-quent Flyer: I get an identical error in Chrome and Safari and Firefox

Tera: Our services are not down. Your browsers seem to have a bad file that is blocking the site. Let me set up the profile for you. So that I may bring up your profile may I please have your full account or card number and the last four digits of your Social Security Number?

Free-quent Flyer: [numbers]

Tera: Thank you, let me pull up your profile. I will be right back with you.

Tera: Your profile has already been created. You will need to log in through using the user id and password that you chose however that will not be accessible until the "no debit" status is removed from your account. That will be removed once we receive your signature cards.

Free-quent Flyer: I am logging in using the user id and password I chose

Free-quent Flyer: That brings me to this error screen

Tera: I'm sorry, I thought you mentioned you were just setting that up. Sorry for the confusion. The Online Banking is set up however you will not be able to log in until the "no debit" status is removed from your account.

Free-quent Flyer: So I'm supposed to be receiving this error screen? Perhaps the text could be changed so it doesn't look like a generic error page

Free-quent Flyer: Will I be notified when you receive my signature cards? Or am I supposed to just try every day until one day it suddenly works?

Tera: Yes, I am sorry. I will submit your feedback on that. Sorry for the confusion.

Tera: You will not be notified when those are received.

Saturday, April 19

I was able to log into my Suntrust online banking account, and everything looks to be correctly configured.


As frustrating and ridiculous as it seems, this appears to simply be Suntrust's standard operating procedure for new accounts. Instead of a specific error message telling you to wait until your signature cards have been processed, they return what looks like a website error.

The take-home advice from this is: wait at least 10 days, and perhaps as long as 12-14 days, to have online access to your Suntrust account. And try not to worry too much about it in the meantime!

Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check Card being (gradually) retired

While the community's attention is focused on the betrayal and heartbreak caused by this week's American Airlines devaluations, allow me to pass along some thoughts on a slightly different topic.

The Alaska Airlines debit card was real

For as long as I can remember, I've been the biggest cheerleader for the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card. Believe it or not, all the way back in May, 2013, bloggers were already claiming the card was no longer available, but there was still a working link that I included in every blog post I could – no matter how tenuous the connection – because I believed the card was one of the best methods available to earn travel, while paying next to nothing.

Finally, it was announced that existing cards would no longer earn Alaska Airlines miles starting May 31, 2014over a year after my post letting readers know the card was still available. A year of $0.70 money orders, $1 and $1.88 credit card bill payments, and a year of free, $3,000 Venmo transactions up to 4 times per month.

That's a lot of miles.

It's still possible to apply for the Suntrust Delta debit card – but not for long

The Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check Card is still available — today — for new accounts being opened online and over the phone. Your humble blogger just opened an account over the phone an hour ago.

The card earns 1 Skymile per dollar spent on PIN-based and signature transactions.

But it has disappeared from Suntrust's website, and certainly will stop accepting new applications sometime in the coming days, weeks, or months. Until that day comes, I'll continue including the link to the card in every post I can – no matter how tenuous the connection – because I believe it's one of the best methods currently available to earn travel, while paying next to nothing.

Have you let the last week teach you anything?

With the end of CVS reloadables nationwide and the unannounced American devaluation, the last week has given every travel hacker an opportunity to reevaluate their entire system from the ground up: what's working, what's not? What entails too much risk, and what's worth the risk? Where do I go from here?

Are you taking advantage of that opportunity?

I don't give advice — but I don't entertain complaints

I don't know how long currently-existing Suntrust Delta World Check Cards will continue to issue Skymiles. It might be months and it could be years.

I do know that when they finally close existing accounts, a lot of people are going to regret not trying their luck to see just how many Skymiles they could earn in that crazy period in the early 2010's when debit cards still earned rewards on PIN transactions.

When that day comes, are you going to be complaining – or bragging?

Travel hacking is for lovers

At the beginning of the month I wrote up three techniques for manufacturing spend that

form a solid backbone of manufactured spend that is open to all US citizens and (I believe) virtually all resident aliens, as long as they have a tax ID number.

I got a lot of great responses and fielded a lot of questions about that post, but one question that came up a number of times was whether I could write a similar primer for those who aren't going it alone: techniques that are available to travel hackers with a partner, friend, or significant other who's willing to participate — at least to the extent necessary to score some free travel or cash rewards.

Of course, you can start by doubling the values I gave in that post, since your partner can sign up for accounts with all the same services you did. But there are other games which are better played together; let's now take a look at those.

Amazon Payments

This one's easy. You and your partner will need to enroll your respective Amazon accounts in the Amazon Payments service. After enrolling, one of you can send the other up to $1,000 each calendar month. I really like Amazon Payments not because it's insanely lucrative, but because it's insanely useful for making those odd-denomination purchases that periodically come up. For example, after being approved for the Chase British Airways Visa Signature and the Citi Platinum Select / AAdvantage World MasterCard a few weeks ago, I made $1,511.85 in purchases on the former and $2,519.75 on the latter. To trigger the 50,000 mile signup bonus on each card, I needed to reach $2,000 and $3,000 in purchases, so I just "topped off" the accounts with purchases of $488.15 and $480.25, respectively, using Amazon Payments.

Warning: under no circumstances send money back and forth between the same two Amazon Payments accounts. All payments should flow in only one direction. Deal?

The Southwest Companion Pass

Your humble blogger does not fly Southwest. But that's neither here nor there: the Southwest companion pass is an amazing value if you do, and if you have a partner you travel with on a regular basis. If you're not familiar with it, it's even better than it sounds. Unlike the companion tickets you earn on each account anniversary with the Delta Platinum and Reserve American Express cards, the Companion Pass is exactly that: whenever you buy — or redeem miles for — a Southwest ticket, you have the option of including a free ticket for your designated companion as well (although you're still responsible for airport taxes and fees, I believe, up to $10 or so per ticket).

There is only one correct way to get the Southwest Companion Pass: wait for the periodic 50,000 point signup bonuses from the Chase Rapid Rewards Premier Visa and Business Credit Card (currently available). Then spend $2,000 on each card to secure the signup bonuses and $6,000 on one or both cards to get you the rest of the way to the 110,000 points needed to secure the Companion Pass for the rest of the current calendar year and all of the next calendar year. For obvious reasons you'll want to get the Pass as early in the current year as possible to maximize the length of your Pass's validity.

Southwest points are fixed-value, meaning they can be redeemed for any seat on any flight, but the number of points required depends on the cost of a paid seat on that particular flight. As a point of reference, advance "Wanna Get Away" fares cost 70 Southwest points per dollar, so each point is worth roughly 1.43 cents each for those fares. That means that if you plan to redeem your entire signup bonus for flights with your companion, those points are worth $1,430 (in Southwest "Wanna Get Away" fares), and the card earns about 2.86% (ditto) on all purchases.

For answers to questions it would never occur to me to ask, head over to The Points Guy and read their great FAQ.

US Bank Visa Buxx

Unlike the Nationwide Visa Buxx that I covered last time, US Bank more-or-less strictly enforces the requirement that the "parent" and "teen" identities you give when signing up do not match. However, they don't have any restrictions on the age of the "teen" user. That means whoever your partner is, he's eligible! Read more about the US Bank (and Nationwide) Visa Buxx card in the refresher course I wrote last fall. I've been using both cards with a 100% success rate since then, so I don't believe there have been any relevant changes (though read through the comments for some corrections to my inadvertent errors).


I've written a lot about Venmo since I've enjoyed using it with my Bank of America Alaska Airlines Debit Card (unfortunately no longer offered – existing cards will be retired in May, 2014). Using Venmo, you're allowed to send up to $3,000 per week using any true, bank-issued, checking-account-linked debit card.

In the travel hacking community we spend a lot of time talking about "PIN-enabled debit cards," but Venmo enforces a stricter standard than Walmart or Evolve Money. As far as I know (I'm sure you'll let me know in comments if I'm wrong), only real debit cards, linked to checking accounts, work with Venmo. That means your best options are the remaining mileage-earning debit cards. Here are the existing options that I know of:

Neither of the first two cards is perfect in the way the Bank of America Alaska Airlines debit card is: the Suntrust card has a high annual fee, and a bad reputation for shutting down accounts that are opened outside Suntrust's physical banking footprint, while the Bankoh card earns HawaiianMiles which, while they can be transferred to Hilton HHonors points at a 1 : 2 ratio, are not especially valuable for award redemptions. I'm prepared to be convinced otherwise, though — take a look at their award charts and let me know what I'm missing.

I know a lot of members of the community have had a lot of success with the ufb direct card, which I think is probably the best currently-available card to use with Venmo.


Travel hacking is a case study in synergy: the whole can be much more than the sum of its parts. The techniques above, plus authorized user cards when necessary, allow you to more than double your manufactured spend for each partner you add to your group. With new techniques being discovered every day, I truly believe that we are living in the golden age of travel hacking. Why not invite a friend?