Hotel cashback portal participation (it's complicated)

I've recently had occasion to take a look at a few options for booking paid hotel reservations, and have come across a peculiar situation on several cashback portals. Today I want to share a few observations and offer some suggestions.

Booking portals penalize rewards-earning stays

I came across this issue because the Citi Dividend card (no longer available to new applicants) is offering 5% cashback (up to $300 cashback per calendar year) on airline reservations and Hilton stays during the third quarter of 2017. While I personally reached my cashback maximum in the second quarter (at drug stores) I thought some readers who don't manufacture spend might still be able to earn cashback during the third quarter on paid Hilton stays. After all, even if you have a Hilton Surpass card earning 12 points per dollar spent at Hilton properties, you'd have to consistently value Hilton points above 0.42 cents each to prefer the Hilton points.

With that in mind, I decided to take a look at some booking portals you could use to make your Hilton reservations, and discovered that the two portals offering the highest payouts included similar restrictions. In the case of BeFrugal, the payout is:

  • 7% Cash Back on Non-HHonors Rate Completed Stay
  • 6% Cash Back on HHonors Blue Rate Completed Stay
  • 2% Cash Back on HHonors Silver Rate Completed Stay
  • 1% Cash Back on HHonors Gold Or Diamond Rate Completed Stay

And in the cash of TopCashback:

  • 7% Confirmed Booking for Non HHonors Members and Blue Tier HHonors Members
  • 2% Confirmed Booking for Silver Tier HHonors Members
  • 1% Confirmed Booking for Gold and Diamond Tier HHonors Members

In other words, Hilton doesn't want to pay out big cashback rebates to customers to whom it's also paying out big Hilton Honors points rebates.

The reason this is necessary is because once you've clicked through the cashback portal, you land directly on the hotel's website, which means your stay is eligible for hotel rewards as well.

Knowing that some online travel agencies allow you to pay for hotel stays in person on arrival, my first thought was to work around this problem by using an online travel agency with its own rewards program. But the same problem pops up there!

BeFrugal offers to pay out on bookings at the following rates:

  • 9% Cash Back on Completed Hotel Stay - Not A Rewards Rate Customer
  • 3% Cash Back on Completed Hotel Stay - Rewards Rate Customer

In other words, you can earn 9% cash back without earning Rewards nights, or 3% cash back if you choose to earn Rewards nights.

TopCashback offers:

  • 9% Completed Stay without earning Rewards
  • 5% Completed Stay with earning Rewards

Since Rewards nights are worth "about" a 10% rebate, you're better off earning both cashback and rewards nights, if and only if you're sure you'll reach 10 Rewards nights and thus be eligible for a redemption.

Possible workarounds

In the case of online travel agencies, you can stack rewards by choosing the highest cashback portal payout that still earns the OTA's own rewards currency, choosing a rate that's paid in-person, and then paying with a credit card that offers the highest earning rate, like the Citi Dividend in the example I mentioned above. In the case of this might add up to a total rebate of something like 20%: 5% through TopCashback, 10% through, and 5% through the Citi Dividend.

If you want to take advantage of your status with a hotel chain, for example receiving room upgrades or breakfast, as well as earning points or elite-qualifying nights, you'll want to book through the cashback portal that offers the highest payouts on elite-qualifying stays. For example, the Upromise portal offers 5% cashback on Hilton stays and doesn't include restrictions on participation in Hilton Honors.

Finally, if you want to earn the highest payouts, don't need elite status benefits, and are willing to take a chance, you could try booking a paid stay through the highest-paying portal (BeFrugal or TopCashback in the case of Hilton) without logging into your hotel rewards account, and after your stay has completed and your cashback has posted request retroactive points from the hotel chain. Of course that means being unable to take advantage of rates exclusively available to Hilton Honors members.

Starting from scratch: hotel stays

In yesterday's post I talked about how to develop a strategy for booking airline tickets that works for you. As I said then, "the options you have available today are restricted by the decisions you made in the past." For example, your ability to get approved for new American Express credit cards depends on the number of American Express credit cards you currently have (in general folks are restricted to 4 total American Express credit cards each).

Hotels are cheap, if you ignore loyalty

Yesterday I explained that airfares are cheap, if booked using cheaply acquired fixed-value points. The opposite is true of hotels: while you can redeem fixed-value points for hotels, you'll be redeeming them against the full retail price of the hotel room, which means you're virtually certain to overpay.

For example, it's possible to use a cashback portal like TopCashBack to click through to and earn 9% cash back from TopCashBack, plus 10% back in the form of a award night when you book and stay 10 nights through

There are additional benefits to booking through an online travel agency: you'll be able to pay with the credit card of your choice, meaning you'll earn that credit card's reward points as well, while redeeming US Bank Flexpoints, Citi ThankYou Points, or Chase Ultimate Rewards points through their booking tools necessarily keeps you from earning credit card rewards on your reservations.

But the most important benefit of booking through an online travel agency, rather than a hotel chain's own website, is that it frees you to book the cheapest hotel available (that meets your other requirements like location and amenities)!

To see how this works, let's take the example of a weekend stay in Portland, OR, from May 20-22, 2016. Once I've filtered by 3-star hotels in the downtown neighborhood, I find that the cheapest Hilton property is $189 per night, the cheapest Marriott property is $213 per night, and the cheapest Starwood property is $269 per night, before taxes.

Now, clicking through TopCashBack and booking through will save you 19% off whichever property you choose. But being agnostic as to the chain you're staying with saves you even more: an additional 11.27% compared to being loyal to Marriott and an additional 29.7% compared to Starwood loyalty.

Loyalty programs: cheap, but loyal

Hotel loyalty programs can also bring down the cost of your stays from retail, but only under certain conditions.

The biggest problem with hotel loyalty programs is that if you're not saving money on every single stay (compared to the online travel agency method described above), then you're faced with the unpleasant choice of deciding between overpaying for a hotel stay within the loyalty program or saving money but earning online travel agency rewards too slowly to notice your savings, or, God forbid, even wind up seeing a message like this:

Having said that, there are 3 principle ways to use hotel loyalty programs to consistently bring down the price of your stays:

  • Wyndham Rewards. The Barclaycard Wyndham Rewards credit card earns 2 Wyndham Rewards points everywhere, and Wyndham has a huge global footprint. Since all Wyndham Rewards properties cost 15,000 Wyndham Rewards properties per night, if your hotel stays typically cost more than about $150 per night (or about $180 before accounting for cash back portal and online travel agency rewards), you'll save money manufacturing spend on the Wyndham Rewards credit card compared to a 2% cash back card.
  • Hyatt Gold Passport. If your travel takes you primarily to the kinds of mid-size European cities or larger American cities served by Hyatt, then you can often save money by transferring Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport from a Sapphire Preferred or Ink Plus credit card, earned with a Chase Freedom Unlimited card. Compared to paying with cash back earned on a 2% cash back card, you need to get a consistent value of at least 1.59 cents per Hyatt Gold Passport point to break even, since cash back is worth roughly 19% more than face value when spent on hotels at
  • Hilton HHonors. The good thing about Hilton's program is that, like Wyndham, Hilton has a huge global footprint, so it's not unreasonable to expect you'll be able to find Hilton properties to accommodate you almost anywhere you travel. Since the Hilton HHonors Surpass American Express earns 6 HHonors points per dollar at supermarkets and gas stations, you'll need to consistently get about 0.4 cents per HHonors point in order to come out ahead compared to a 2% cash back card, with the cash back spent at an online travel agency like The $189 room we found in Portland above would cost about $186 after discounts and taxes, or 50,000 HHonors points, giving a value of 0.37 cents per HHonors point — in other words, you'd be better off earning cash back and using it to make a reservation at the same hotel, which happens to be the cheapest option for the weekend I searched.

It's not unreasonable to suggest that the Club Carlson Premier Rewards credit card, which earns 5 Gold Points per dollar spent everywhere, might be a competitive option for manufacturing unbonused spend. But due to the heavy discount afforded when using cash to book stays through online travel agencies, you'd need to consistently get 0.48 cents per Gold Point on all your Club Carlson award stays to break even compared to cash. Club Carlson is simply not a program that affords that kind of value anymore: Hotel Hustle's average value found for Club Carlson is 0.41 cents per point, with a median value of 0.379 cents per point.


As you can see, just as I showed yesterday, the best approach to booking hotel stays as cheaply as possible will depend on your situation: the fixed cost of hotel award nights can be an argument in their favor if you typically travel to expensive cities during peak travel times, or it can be an argument against them if you're a flexible leisure traveler who travels when hotels are cheap in dollar terms, and can be made even cheaper using online travel agency rewards.

Tomorrow I'll conclude this series with a look at the prepaid and alternative banking products I would use differently if I were starting out from scratch.

Cash back at

First of all, check out my spiffy new disclosure policy which should now be found at the top of each blog post when you visit my website. It reads:

"Disclosure: to the best of my knowledge, I receive no third-party affiliate revenue for any of the content on this site. I do occasionally include my own personal referral links for products and services, many of which you can find on my Support the Site! page. I am also theoretically paid for clicks through the Google Adsense ad found in the righthand sidebar (theoretically since I haven't actually hit a payment threshold yet) and for purchases made through my Amazon Associates referral link."

I don't know if there's anything else anyone has any questions about, but obviously it's a work in progress so do let me know if there's any ambiguity or anything like that.

HawaiianMiles for shopping at

All the way back in the day, Hawaiian Airlines was the only shopping portal that awarded miles for shopping at through their HawaiianMiles shopping portal (the "online eMarket"). I earned a whole 982 HawaiianMiles which, I noticed while researching this post, expired back in July:

This is obviously fairly embarrassing, since I could have redeemed them for something exciting like a subscription to All You magazine.

After HawaiianMiles cut from their shopping portal, I pretty much gave up on cash back while shopping there, and focused other ways to maximize my purchases, like rotating credit card categories with Chase Freedom or Discover it, or the "bookstore" 5% bonus category with the US Bank Cash+ card.

It's worth using cashback portals to shop at

For some reason I was recently clicking around TopCashBack and discovered that the "limited" departments TopCashBack pays out on are actually the very categories I do most of my shopping in!

TopCashBack pays 8% cash back for purchases in the following departments:

  • Home & Kitchen;
  • Women's Fashion;
  • Men's Fashion;
  • Kid's & Baby Fashion.

That's an incredibly generous range, and includes virtually everything I buy from If you're combining it with a card that pays 5% cash back (or gift cards purchases at a bonused merchant), you'll increase your savings even more.


My Amazon Associates referral link pays me much less than 8% for purchases made by my readers, so if you're shopping in one of the 8% cash back categories you have my blessing to collect portal cash back instead!

A quick update on affiliate links & how to support the site

Back in June I wrote a post about being approved for affiliate links through one of the many credit card marketing companies out there. They had a terrible selection of credit cards and signup offers, but their links for the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard and Discover it cards were as good as the best available offers, so I went ahead and changed my links on this site to those affiliate links.

Long story short, I never made any money, and then they fired me.

I bring this up now because they recently got back in touch with me and told me to remove the links that I had put on various pages and blog posts. Weirdly, it turns out that a large number of the different credit card affiliate marketers on the internet are all owned by the same people,

So I removed all those links too.  If you happen to notice any changes to where my links direct you, it's because they should all now point to the applications hosted by the credit card companies themselves (unless there's a better offer available elsewhere).

The affiliate link thing was an interesting experiment, but it was pretty much doomed to fail since there was no way I was ever going to change my website or style in order to secure more signups or meet their requirements for affiliates.

How can you support the site?

This leaves the question of what you can do to support the site, if you're so inclined, and I'll be floating some ideas and asking for feedback as I approach my 1-year anniversary, when I need to decide whether to renew this project for another year.

If you haven't already then you can first and foremost buy or borrow my Kindle ebook, The Free-quent Flyer's Manifesto. If you really can't come up with $2.99 to buy the book, but have an Amazon Prime account, don't worry, I also get a small royalty when the book is borrowed, and it doesn't cost you anything!

If you've already bought or borrowed the ebook, please consider leaving a review. I absolutely love hearing from readers by e-mail and in the comment threads, and it would be terrific if you can share what you think with even more people by leaving a review on Amazon.

Finally, there are a few signup links scattered around the website:

Some of the most popular cash back portals offer referral credit as well:

Thanks again to everyone who has supported the site. I adore my readers, and hope that together we can keep this project going for a long time to come!


Manufacture small amounts of spend with Plink

There have been a couple fun articles recently about the new rebate service Plink, which allows you to earn points worth one cent each towards gift cards (Amazon and Walmart being two of the gift card options). For example, everyone should be doing this, and this is a fun way to get discounts on Sears merchandise.

I want to point out that is it also possible to manufacture spend using Plink and get virtually all your money back (partly in the form of Amazon credit), or turn a small profit. As Frequent Miler describes in this post, first add Kmart to your Plink wallet, since Sears gift cards appear as Kmart purchases on your credit card statement. Then, click through to Sears from the ShopDiscover mall, where you earn 10% cash back on Sears purchases. Then, order a physical gift card for exactly $50. So far, you'll have earned $5 in cash back through Discover, plus 300 Plink points, worth $3 in Amazon credit. Then, go to to a gift card reseller and sell the $50 gift card for $42 (you'll have to mail the card in). For example, here are the current rates offered by a number of gift card merchants for Sears gift cards, according to Gift Card Granny:

Thus, after buying a $50 gift card, you'll receive back $47 in cash and $3 in Amazon credit.  Of course, you'll have to pay for postage to mail in the gift cards. On the other hand, you can do slightly better than this by clicking through to Cardpool through TopCashBack to earn another $2 in cash back through that site.

Of course, this is a wildly inefficient way to manufacture spend, and there's a lot that can go wrong: Cardpool in particular has a reputation for "losing" gift cards that are mailed in for sale: I myself won't be doing it myself.

Keep in mind that the value of any technique like this depends on the value of each dollar of manufactured spend, and there are cards that would make it somewhat more lucrative: if you ran this hack through the US Bank Cash+ card and had "department stores" selected as one of your 5% cash back categories, you could earn $100 per quarter this way.

Likewise one of the 4th quarter bonus categories for the Chase Freedom card is "select department stores," and it might be worth running $1,500 through this technique for 7,500 Ultimate Rewards points, especially if you can transfer them to a flexible Ultimate Rewards account.

At any rate, I wanted to make readers aware of this opportunity.

Pro Tip: Buy 3,500 Flexpoints (worth up to $70) for $7.50

It appears that most olders of the US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards card have now received offers for 3,500 Flexpoints after spending $50 at Neiman Marcus between May 6 and May 19 (the blogosphere has lit up with this offer, for example here, here, and here).

The powerplay here, if you hold the Flexperks Travel Rewards card, is obviously not to buy $50+ worth of junk you don't need from Neiman Marcus, but rather to buy a $50 gift card, and then esell it for as much as possible through a gift card merchant.

I can now report that Plastic Jungle (which offers an additional 1% cash back when you click through TopCashBack), accepts the "virtual" gift cards sold through, and pays 85% of the value of the card in cash.  Plastic Jungle verifies card values instantly and sends payments by check or via PayPal.

Since I hold 2 Flexperks Travel Rewards cards, I was able to pay $15 for 7,000 FlexPoints, which are worth up to $140 when redeemed at their maximum value.