Yes it’s ethical to open a card you have no intention of keeping long-term.

Recently, a reader sent me an article called “What is Credit Card Churning” that was published on Experian’s blog and sent out to their email list. It’s full of pretty good advice, like that you shouldn’t go into debt chasing sign-up bonuses, shouldn’t overspend, and shouldn’t run around pants-less inside a bank branch daring them to shut you down. However, the article kind of posits that opening a card you have no intention of keeping long term may be unethical, so let me just say… it’s not. There’s also an analogy of a supermarket that I can’t not respond to:

Okay, so imagine you visit a supermarket that is offering a five-course meal by a Michelin-starred chef in exchange for buying your normal groceries. Most people would happily sit down for that meal, and some might even ask if they could come back tomorrow and have another meal in exchange for another round of groceries. And pretty much everyone would try to do it every day of the week, since five-course meals by Michelin-starred chefs are fucking awesome and buying groceries is something most people do anyway.

Or, more accurately, imagine you visit a supermarket that has a separate door for poor people and for rich people. In the poor people door, you have to pay to get in line, you have to pay a surcharge if you can only buy a few groceries, and the groceries you get are mostly bruised or spoiled. In the rich people door, you get money back for every item you purchase, you get the highest quality food, and instead of waiting in line for a half hour, you can walk right in and get waited on hand and foot. Now imagine that there’s a magic way for anyone to enter the rich people door, and it’s just sitting there in plain sight. Of course, management frowns on people using this door, because the supermarket is existentially dependent on using its service as a provider of food to maintain separate economic classes.

However, the Experian article cautions that taking advantage of this loophole-in-plain-sight is potentially unethical, because you’re pretending to be interested in the bank, when in reality you’re only interested in financial gain…

“Some would argue.” I’ve seen this line before, that sign-up bonuses are meant to encourage long-term business, and opening a card for the sole purpose of getting a bonus and then closing it is unethical. Let me be very clear: this argument is 100% horseshit, in every respect, from every angle. (Note that I’m not criticizing the author of the Experian piece, since he’s not the one making the argument. I’m railing against the “some” that “would argue” this point.)

First, let’s not forget that we’re talking about BANKS! You know, those financial institutions who have a nasty habit of doing things like expropriating people by force, opening credit card accounts in their customers’ names without permission, oh and developing financial products so exotic that they crash the entire financial system. Back when I worked a shitty job for shitty pay and my employer announced a 2-year wage freeze due to the financial crisis, I felt like I had no other choice but to go into credit card debt. Sure, it was my fault that I went into debt (it’s not as if elves took my credit card to Baby Gap every night to buy new elf clothes), and I’m pretty sure that Chase didn’t sit around wringing their hands wondering if it was ethical to collect thousands of dollars in interest from me. That’s the game, and I was on the losing side for a LONG time.

Second, in theory a bank could always require you to remain loyal in the long term… That’s why years ago Citi waited until your cardmember anniversary to give you the other half of your sign-up bonus on the Premier card. (But then they stopped, because they were getting lapped by other card issuers.) That’s why Barclays introduced a card with no sign-up bonus and instead rewarded you for meeting spending targets throughout the year. (But then they discontinued that card after only a few months because it was a wet turd, and they raised the sign-up bonus (and waived the first year’s fee) on the Arrival+.) It sure seems like banks feel like they have to offer cards with attractive sign-up bonuses in order to be competitive, which means that they have evaluated the costs of evil churners like me cockteasing them and decided that it’s still worth playing the sign-up bonus game.

I get why Experian would take the banks’ side… after all, those banks are their biggest customers. And like I said, for the majority of consumers it’s good advice to remind them that credit cards are like edibles — you can always eat more, but you can’t eat less, and when you’re in over your head, it’s going to be a shitty ride. I realize I’m probably reading WAY too much into this, but I really chafe at the idea that giant mega-banks are equivalent to corner grocers just trying to make ends meet. Or that consumers are the ones with the ethical duty not to take advantage of what banks give them, rather than the ethical burden being on the banks themselves to not drive people into neverending debt spirals and bankruptcy (and then offering them horrible secured cards with downright usurious fees so those folks can build up their credit again).

There’s no such thing as “the spirit of the offer” when it comes to banks. They exist to make money off of my money, either by siphoning fees out of it or lending it to someone else. If they don’t have any of my money, they’ll try to get it by enticing me to borrow someone else’s money. This idea that a bank is a loyal financial partner through all the stages of my life is, to put it politely, a steaming crock of fetid dog diarrhea. A bank is going to offer me rewards because they’re hoping to trap me into a situation where they can earn more money off me. This and only this is the spirit of any offer they make me, regardless of what their marketing department may try to insinuate. If I can accept an offer, avoid the debt trap, and cost the bank more money than they earn from me, then they made a poor financial calculation in extending that offer to me. However, I’m just some douchebag with a comparative literature degree, so if they lose money on me, that’s on them. Sorry brah, that’s the game, but I’m not on the losing side anymore.

EDITED TO ADD… I totally left out the fact that it’s EXTREMELY rich for Experian to mention ethics at all, given that their entire business model is to vacuum up all my data and sell it to banks without my consent or ability to opt out. At least they haven’t handed my social security number to Russian hackers on a flash drive (yet), but I’d sooner drink turpentine than take ethical advice from a credit bureau.

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A guy points a gun to your head and tells you to pick between Flying Blue and Sky Miles. But here’s the catch: YOU HAVE TO PICK ONE.

It’s ironic given how many posts I’ve written against both Flying Blue and Sky Miles that I get a lot of use out of both programs. Delta’s actually not bad if you’re trying to use it for domestic redemptions — the flights are more expensive, but the fact that they’re available in the first place makes a pretty big difference. (I have called this the “Delta Availability Tax” in the past). I don’t know if this is quite as much of a competitive advantage anymore, since the other US airlines are making more space available these days… well, American definitely is, and as long as United releases a couple saver seats a month, that would still count as “more” given their piss-poor history. But my point is that Sky Miles can be useful if you stop trying to hold it to the standard that loyalty programs established ten years ago.

I know we’ve all seen the famous “Loyalty Programs Should be Loyal” ad, and it’s certainly ironic given how relentlessly Delta has devalued their miles. However, they’ve also provided opportunities to keep up with the point deflation by stockpiling Amex cards. Between personal and business cards, you can vacuum up a half million Delta miles in fairly short order, which is something you most certainly can’t do with United, American, or Alaska (thanks to 5/24, Citi’s one-bonus-per-family rule, Barclay’s unwritten 6/24 rule, and BofA sucking, respectively). And while Amex’s once-per-lifetime bonus restriction is the most draconian on paper, they’re very liberal in how they target people for special offers that don’t include that once-per-lifetime language. To wit: this week I applied for my third Delta Gold card in three years, which is honestly pretty shocking.

Plus, the “best ever” bonuses for those cards have ballooned like crazy in that period, to the point that 50k used to be remarkable whereas now anything under 75 is a snoozer (unless of course it’s one of those glistening targeted offers like the one I got this week, in which case I’ll happily settle for 60k). And these days, the Reserve card, which used to only award MQMs as a sign-up bonus and made waves when they offered 45k redeemable miles, is also getting in on the 75-80k action. So while the miles have admittedly wilted, the credit card situation is at least providing somewhat of a counterbalance. Sure, when Amex inevitably implements a once-per-family rule, my tune will change in a hurry… but we’re not there yet (thankfully).

One thing about Sky Miles that’s easy to forget about, however, is that despite having unpublished award pricing levels (that change without notice), they very much are a revenue-based program. In practice, this means that awards are always priced from origin-to-destination and not according to regions in an award chart. That means that it can sometimes be difficult to change award itineraries, since changes will affect the origin and destination pair, causing the whole itinerary to re-price at the current rate. This happened to me recently with an itinerary from SFO-LAX-CDG in which I was trying to change the origin from SFO to DEN. In a chart-based program, as long as your origin and destination regions don’t change (AND there’s saver space on the new leg AND you follow the other routing rules), you would be able to make that change after paying the change fee. (For what it’s worth, I confirmed this with United and American before writing this post, just to be sure I wasn’t making shit up.)

However, since Delta doesn’t really have “award space” to begin with, it operates differently. There aren’t region-based rules or anything like that, there’s just the cost between two cities. Honestly, I’m pretty stupid for thinking I could make that SFO/DEN swap in the first place, since I’d never make the same assumption when changing a revenue ticket. It’s basically like asking the airline to let me do hidden city ticketing or something, but I was thinking of my award ticket as being different from a revenue ticket, and the way Delta’s program works, there’s no real difference. That’s important to keep in mind, since it makes Delta award tickets less flexible than those from chart-based programs. Sometimes plans change and you need to suck it up and pay a change fee, which is fine. But with Delta, it’s not just the fee you need to pay, since it’s pretty likely that the cost of your trip will quadruple as well.

In this specific case, I went ahead and just canceled the reservation. I hate coughing up $150 in cases like this, but sticking to the original routing would have made for a really stressful trip, so it was worth it just to eat the $150 and start over. The problem is that I was trying to fly transatlantic in business class in peak season on a specific day, and awards were pretty much non-existent. Direct flights were a non-starter, given that I’d be limited to United (no availability) or British Airways. While I’d probably pay BA’s fuel surcharge for first class out of desperation, there weren’t any seats on the day I needed. Business was available as usual, but I just can’t debase myself enough to spend $600 + a bunch of miles + another $150 to select a seat (IN BUSINESS CLASS). I poked around various programs and didn’t find anything good, but then I decided to check on Flying Blue as a last resort.

Speaking of Flying Blue, they recently went to a system that looks a lot like Delta’s, with dynamic pricing, multiple price levels, and plenty of origin-destination pricing quirks that you can leverage to get some unexpected great deals. What I’m not fully clear on is how programs with this sort of structure handle partner awards, since those awards are much simpler — either the airline releases saver inventory on a particular flight to its partners, or it doesn’t. When I started researching this post, it occurred to me that I hadn’t seen an Air France or KLM saver award on Delta in a long time, so I started to worry that both programs shifting to dynamic pricing made partner saver awards a thing of the past. Thankfully that isn’t true (I found some SFO-CDG business class awards on Air France for 75k Sky Miles in January 2020 as proof), but it doesn’t exactly answer my question either.

(As an aside, in the course of working on this post, I also found some SFO-CDG awards for an eye-watering 320,000 Sky Miles, which is new to me. For a while it seemed like 280k was the upper limit, and while that was certainly bad enough, “bad enough” is not nearly bad enough when it comes to Sky Miles.)

In the case of the Air France partner award i found for 75k via Delta, that same flight is available for 71,000 Flying Blue miles, which is the new “saver” amount for that route, This suggests that Air France treats a certain subset of its inventory as “saver” which means both that it gets released to partners and that it is priced at the current lowest level for that award. That’s pretty intuitive, but what I found when I was trying to book my DEN-CDG award definitely was not. See, I poked Delta in a variety of places to try to find a low-level award, but alas every business class seat on Delta from the USA to CDG on the day I needed was 280k. That’s why I wasn’t that optimistic when I went to check Flying Blue — I was actually hoping to find a mid-level (non-saver) Air France award, since I had backed myself into a corner and knew I’d probably have to use more miles than I wanted to.

However, what I found BLEW MY MIND. (Well not really, but I never use clickbaity words on this site, so cut me some slack.) What I found was a near-perfect Delta award from DEN-MSP-CDG with the MSP-CDG leg on a refurbished 777 featuring Delta One Suites for only 72,000 miles and $5.60. I immediately went back to Delta and pulled up the exact same flights, thinking I must have missed something… but it was at 280k, just like I had originally found. So what was this flight I was seeing on Flying Blue then? If you’re a seasoned travel hacker, you’re probably muttering something involving “phantom award” under your breath, or maybe even yelling “I CERTAINLY HOPE YOU DIDN’T TRANSFER POINTS TO FLYING BLUE TO TRY TO BOOK AN OBVIOUS PHANTOM AWARD YOU FUCKING MORON!” at your screen.

While I was pretty sure I was looking at a phantom award (what other explanation could there be???), I still did the extremely reckless thing and transferred 72,000 Amex points. The transfer was instant and I went all the way through the booking process, only to be confronted with an error that the award couldn’t be booked. No big deal, I’ve had this error before, and I was able to book the award on the second or third try in those cases. Five tries later (across three different browsers), I was ready to admit that I had wasted 72,000 Amex points (or at least severely limited their usefulness), but I was deep enough in the process that I didn’t want to give up without pleading with a phone agent to book the award for me.

I called in and got a nice French guy on the line right away, and he went in and booked the award without a hitch. He even waived the phone booking fee since the website wouldn’t let me book it online. I was in shock, and for a couple weeks I figured Delta was going to email me to tell me that the award was booked in error… while that hasn’t happened yet, I’m still mentally prepared for it, since this whole situation is so weird. Is Delta releasing partner award space that prices at their insultingly high rates within their own system? (That wouldn’t exactly be off-brand for them.) Was this a Flying Blue glitch? I haven’t been able to find any other instances of it, so it could very well have been a one-off. That being said, if you’re trying to book a Delta award, it’s definitely worth your time to check on Flying Blue just in case Delta is hiding the good scotch in Flying Blue’s liquor cabinet.

Anyone else have any similar stories? I’m really curious about this, since we’re literally in unCHARTed territory now that so many programs are moving to this crappy dynamic pricing model. (I’m sorry, I had to.)

You liked this post enough to read to the end, but did you like it enough to give me money? If so, check out my Patreon page. There’s even a podcast!

Wait, there’s a Windbag Miles podcast? Yes, it’s called the Windbag Windcast, and it’s okay.

Earlier this year, I decided it would be fun to start recording a podcast, so I did. It kind of started in the same spirit as this blog, which is to say it’s totally unstructured, unresearched, and unprofessional. I’m not going to go on and on about how you SHOULD listen to it, but if you like my blog posts and think you’d like hearing me blab my way through thoughts even less fully-formed than what I write here, I’ve got you covered.

Here’s the thing: you gotta pay for it. The podcast started as an extra incentive for my Patreon supporters, and I think it’s really funny to put so much effort into something that only 10-12 people are able to hear. At first, supporting me on Patreon was a truly charitable gesture, since there wasn’t much extra I could offer the brave and generous souls willing to give me $3 per month. At least now they get access to a podcast that no one else gets to hear.

I went ahead and put together a “sampler” episode with clips from the past six episodes so you could get a sense of what you’d be in for. I’ve been recording one every week, but I’m certainly not going to guarantee that I’ll stick to that schedule. Here, check it out:

One other thing that I decided to do, even though I’m sure the interest level is about on par with the Barclay Arrival Premier card, is to make a “physical blog post.” See, Patreon kept sending me emails about doing a “special offer” for my supporters, and one of the things they stressed was that I need to send something physical to my supporters to thank them for their support. I’m not about to order a bunch of chintzy Windbag Miles luggage tags or anything, so I decided to combine my interests in publishing/graphic design with my blog and make a poster of one of my posts.

Why would anyone want this? As I mentioned above, no one does. I still think it looks cool, though, and I like making museum-quality prints of shit like this. So if you want to cough up $10, I’ll send you this and you can use it as a napkin or whatever.

It’s all happening over at my Patreon Party, which I really hope you join… but if not, I still love you. And I promise I’m gonna start writing posts again here this week, so you’ll have that to look forward to no matter what.

I spent way more time messing around in Photoshop on my jokey graphics than I did actually writing this post about Marriott Bonvoy.

It’s old news by now, but in case you’ve been stuck in cave and have just learned that the shadows you saw were not an accurate representation of the world, Marriott rebranded their sensibly-named Marriott Rewards loyalty program as Marriott Bonvoy. I’ll wait here while you do the finger-down-the-throat pantomime for five straight minutes. I swear it seems like there’s a group of marketing/branding consulting firms who are daring each other to propose ever stupider ideas for stodgy hospitality companies, waiting for the idea that will finally get rejected by the likes of Marriott, Hyatt, etcetera. And that idea never comes, so the next batter up has to come up with something even more insane. It’s why five years from now IHG will announce that it is rebranding its loyalty program as follows…

Until IHG’s flashy “HDR” rollout, however, we are stuck with Bonvoy as the newest worst brand in the loyalty/hospitality space. If I wasn’t bored after spending 10 minutes subtly adjusting the text of “Hitler’s Dildo Rewards” to look like IHG’s standard font, I’d put together one of those memes with Marriott looking at Hyatt’s stupid loyalty tiers (Explorist, Discoverist, Globalist) and saying “Hold my beer.”

Plenty of blogs have pointed out the audacity of Marriott investing so much in the rollout of its new program while its integration of Marriott Rewards and SPG is shitting the bed left and right, but I’m going to point this out as well. I maybe wouldn’t care as much, except I recently spent almost an hour on the phone with Marriott trying to recover a bunch of SPG-era reservations that had disappeared from my online account and thrown errors when I tried to look them up using the confirmation number. And while I was on hold for 30+ minutes, every 90 seconds or so the hold music would be interrupted by a very enthusiastic voice telling me about how Bonvoy is coming on February 13th and how it’s going to be the greatest thing I’ve ever experienced. And every damn time, I thought the music was cutting out because a rep was finally picking up, but no… another Bonvoy commercial.

I’m pretty sure that I’m not the only one that has dealt with this over the past couple weeks, which means that Marriott is actively making people hate Bonvoy by dripping that stupid recorded message about it onto their angry members water-torture-style. But it’s not just the fact that they’re focusing on flashy branding right now instead of fixing the numerous bugs in their program, it’s that the brand is so. goddamn. obnoxious.

Bastardization of French words didn’t work for Joon, an actual French brand that was pitched to appeal to millennials, so it’s entirely predictable that Marriott would announce that they’re adopting exactly the same strategy within a couple weeks of the announcement that Air France-KLM’s new CEO was pulling the plug on Joon. (RIP Joon… although you were good for some memes, I suppose.) It’s like they’re all reading from the same playbook, which is what makes their craven attempts to woo millennials so irritating.

You know how millennials are so self-centered, always snapping selfies with their selfie sticks and shit? Well on Marriott’s fancy website introducing Bonvoy, this is the first feature:

Marriott Bonvoy means good travel — this idea guides everything that we do. That’s why we’re creating a world of travel opportunities, centered on you.

Centered on ME? IT’S ABOUT TIME SOMEONE MADE A LOYALTY PROGRAM WITH ME AT THE CENTER, SINCE I’M A SELF-CENTERED MILLENNIAL!!! However, you may have heard that millennials care more about “experiences” (whatever that means) than material things. Don’t worry, though: Bonvoy’s got you covered there too. Here’s the third main feature of the program:

Marriott Bonvoy connects you to new experiences in extraordinary places.

Oh thank god I’m going to be inspired with new experiences, I was afraid that this hotel loyalty program would earn me free nights at hotels, WHICH IS THE LAST THING I WANT, SINCE I’M A MILLENNIAL!!!

It’s almost as if they needed to make the name as vague as possible because they were afraid of being boring and actually tipping people off to the fact that they’re a loyalty program, rather than a nebulous collection of experiences that means nothing to anyone. Maybe the consultants told them that millennials really hate Saussurean linguistics, in which language is underpinned by signifiers (“Marriott Rewards”) and signifieds (“free hotel rooms”). Instead, they prefer poststructuralist critiques of structuralist linguistics in which the link between signifiers is open to disruption and questioning, such as by substituting familiar signifiers with idiotic nonsense words (“Bonvoy”) and smearing concrete signifieds into meaningless tropes (“experiences”). Yeah, that must be it.

But wait, it gets worse! There are all the SPG credit cards, remember? And those need to be renamed too, and the names absolutely have to be dumber than “Hilton Ascend” and “Hilton Aspire.” (It’s bad enough that I constantly confuse those two names, but Amex decided they had to make the cards almost identical too. Luckily that won’t be a problem here, as I’ll get to in a second.) As a result, the high-end SPG Luxury card will soon be renamed as — and it legitimately makes me nauseous to type this — the “Bonvoy Brilliant” card. The only way I can live with that is if I imagine a British person saying “Brilliant” sarcastically. Because the name “Bonvoy Brilliant” really is bloody brilliant.

I swear, we’re so far away from product titles that have a connection to anything concrete that I half expect these companies to start pulling from The Jabberwocky to fill their mad lib sheet of items that need to be renamed. At least I won’t have to worry about the Bonvoy Brilliant card looking identical to the standard Amex Bonvoy card, though, since that one is getting a new design by a famous artist. I’m so exhausted by this point, is it even worth asking why the fuck Amex (or Bonvoy, or some hellish Hydra combining the two) is paying to commission an artist to design a card that isn’t available to the public and will be discontinued soon, while the actual cards that you can apply for get generic Bonvoy branding?

The crazy thing is that the original artwork for the card was totally off-the-hook bananas, and apparently someone at Amex got scared of getting sued by Shepherd Faerie, so they pulled the design at the last minute and replaced it with that anodyne geometric design that you’ve probably seen already. I was poking around Amex’s website trying different URL extensions to see if I could find a page where the original artwork was still uploaded, and I actually managed to come up with something. Can you believe this? The only consolation to this whole Bonvoy Boondoggle would have been getting to have this nutsoid card in my wallet, but alas it was not to be. Bummer!

You liked this post enough to read to the end, but did you like it enough to give me money? If so, check out my Patreon page. Subscribers get access to additional posts, and there’s even a podcast!

A couple Hilton updates, including a “trick” that’s either a great award booking hack or just me having good luck over the phone for once.

I’ve been pretty critical of Hilton in the past, mostly because things that are easy to do with other hotel loyalty programs are inexplicably difficult with them. Case in point is the free night certificates that you can earn through their co-branded Amex cards (either by having the card and/or by spending a certain amount in a year). You can read my earlier article on the matter, but the gist is that many of their phone agents don’t know how to handle them (and that’s assuming you get an agent that even knows what the free night certificate is in the first place).

For my previous redemptions, I’ve had to hang up and call back multiple times until I reached an agent that knew what they were doing. The worst instance was a few weeks ago when my wife called in using my phone, and due to the mismatched phone numbers, they insisted on creating an entirely new Hilton Honors account for her. She hung up right away, but we then had to deal with having the duplicate account combined with her main account.

However, I think there has been some improvement here recently. My wife tried again to book a reward night using the certificate, and the agent knew exactly what she was talking about and even said that Amex had attached it to her Hilton account automatically. I don’t know if this was just luck of the draw, given the wide disparity in Hilton agent knowledge I’ve encountered in the past, but it’s an encouraging sign that the certificates seem to be more visible to agents now — she didn’t even ask for the number, she just confirmed the last four digits to make sure it matched the email Hilton had sent out with the certificate ID. 

I’m looking for feedback here — is it true that Hilton/Amex are simplifying the process of redeeming the free weekend night certificates, or was this just luck of the draw? 

Speaking of luck of the draw, I found out something interesting when I tried to book two nights at the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills. As one of the nicer hotels in Hilton’s system, it’s predictably difficult to find award nights here. Sure the base rate for a standard room award is 95,000 points, but there are barely any of those in the hotel, and the next category up is a premium redemption that goes for over 200,000 points. So while it’s theoretically possible to get a room for 95k, it’s not going to be easy.

(As an aside, these 95k redemptions are the last pockets of outsize value in the HIlton program, since — thank god — Hilton hasn’t decided to add redemption levels for standard rooms above 95,000 points. Once they do (and this is most likely an inevitability), well, I hope they leave a good option to cash points out on Amazon. But if you can get a hotel that normally goes for $7-800 per night for 95,000 points, you’re doing significantly better than the normal 0.5 cent value people usually put on Hilton points. Of course this opens up the interminably irritating question of whether a room is really “worth” $800 when you wouldn’t pay that in cash. Regardless, some hotels cost lots of money and at those hotels, you can get a pretty good return on your Hilton points.) 

The problem I kept having yesterday when trying to book two nights at the WABH was that I could see standard awards available on the first page of search results, but when I clicked through to choose a room, my only option was premium awards. I finally called in to see if I was missing something, although I didn’t expect Hilton to be particularly helpful, since the norm is for them to deny standard room awards exist even when they’re easily bookable online. 

Much to my surprise, however, the agent I spoke to was very helpful, and she explained that some upper tier hotels kill two birds with one stone by making the ADA rooms the only ones that are normally available for standard redemptions. Since those rooms often don’t show up online, the system thinks the hotel has standard awards when it lists the hotel in the search results, but the rooms aren’t listed in the available room types when you try to book the award.  

Luckily I got a great Hilton rep on this call, and she went ahead and booked the ADA room for two nights and put a note on the reservation requesting that I be upgraded “although it’s at the discretion of the hotel” or translated into Beverly Hills-speak “not a chance in hell, you threadbare street urchin.” Still, the small design concessions an ADA room has to make in order to be accessible are immaterial in my opinion, and I’m still as excited for the Waldorf Astoria Beverly Hills as I’ve ever been for a hotel stay. 

Is this an award booking hack when Hilton won’t let you book standard awards that show up online? Maybe… It’s tough to tell with Hilton, since their reps often have wildly divergent stories when you call up with requests like this, and it probably also depends on how helpful the agent is feeling at that particular moment. If you’re running into the same issue at a hotel that limits available standard rooms, at least try calling in and requesting an ADA room — you may get lucky. 

You liked this post enough to read to the end, but did you like it enough to give me money? If so, check out my Patreon page. Subscribers get access to additional posts, and there’s even a podcast!

How does the Morgan Stanley “Invest with Rewards” program work?

Quick Windbag Miles update: I have a podcast now! It’s only accessible if you’re a Patreon subscriber, though, so if you want to listen to my dulcet tones, consider supporting the blog with your money in addition to your eyeballs. As of this writing, I have eight subscribers, which means that, yes, I make a podcast that only eight people are able to hear. Okay, now on to your [ir]regularly scheduled blog post…

Earlier this month, I wrote about Morgan Stanley’s suite of Amex cards, which includes a basic no-fee card and a co-branded version of the Amex Platinum. This post is a continuation of some of the topics I talked about in that post, with a focus on the “Invest with Rewards” benefit, which allows you to cash out Membership Rewards points into a brokerage account at $.01 each.

The previous post goes into more detail about why this may or may not be a good deal. After all, a penny each isn’t a great value for Membership Rewards points, especially when the Charles Schwab Amex Platinum cashes out at a ratio of 1 point : 1.25 cents. However, depending on your individual needs and how many points you realistically plan to redeem this way, it could make sense to use Invest with Rewards. Here are a couple ways it could make sense:

  • You’re averse to annual fees, so you don’t want either the Charles Schwab or Morgan Stanley Amex Platinum cards. If you want to backstop your Membership Rewards balance with a cash-out option, the no-fee Morgan Stanley card is your only opportunity (since the no-fee Schwab card earns cash back, not points).

  • It’s important for your spouse to have an Amex Platinum card too, so the free authorized user on the Morgan Stanley card saves you $175 per year. If you plan to redeem less than 70,000 points per year, you’re actually better off with Morgan Stanley’s inferior cash conversion after you factor in the authorized user fee you’d need to pay on the Schwab card.

Unlike Schwab, however, cashing out points with a Morgan Stanley card is a little more convoluted. Instead of doing everything through the Membership Rewards portal, you have to go to your Morgan Stanley account and then back through Amex to get it done. It took me forever to find it in my MS dashboard, but I’ll save you the trouble: it’s under the “Services” drop-down menu.

Clicking that link will take you to an Amex webpage that’s separate from your online account.

Instead of logging in, you enter in a bunch of information about your card in order to verify that you’re eligible. Then you reach a somewhat cumbersome menu to select how many points you want to use, along with a dropdown menu to select the brokerage account into which you want to transfer the funds. (This is the same mechanism that the Schwab card uses, which leads me to believe that there’s no reason why Morgan Stanley has to make it more difficult.)

I was really happy to see my Access Investing account listed here, since it confirms that the whole Access end-around to get the Morgan Stanley card was never a backdoor in the first place… turns out the person I spoke to on the phone who told me that Access accounts didn’t qualify for Morgan Stanley Amex cards was wrong. (And we just won’t talk about that whole “open an Access account but never fund it” trick.)

After not one but two screens asking me if I was absolutely SURE I wanted to do this, I got a confirmation and the points were immediately deducted from my Amex account. The confirmation said that the funds would take 4-6 business days to show up in my Access account, but when I logged out and back in, the money was already there.

And that’s it… harder than Schwab, but not that bad. It’s great to know that this feature still works with Access accounts, and that the error I kept running into the last time I tried to test this was just a random glitch.

Finally, I was thinking about how these points-to-investments features really fuck with the valuation of points in a hilarious way. There’s been a lot of discussion about the value of points lately, and I swear every time I hear people debating what points are worth I care about the subject even less. But, for those people that want to get really scientific about it, I present this scenario to you, which I call “The Membership Rewards Ouroboros of Tautological Value.”

  • You cash out 27,500 points into $275.

  • The market doubles, and your $275 investment is now worth $550.

  • You spend $550 on the annual fee for a version of the Amex Platinum card you haven’t had before, effectively buying 60,000 points for $550.

  • But you paid 27,500 points to get that $550!

  • Which means that Amex points are worth more than twice what they’re worth.

  • Unless you do it again and the market drops by 2/3, in which case Amex points are worth…. [head exploding gif].

  • Okay Frequent Miler, have at it!

  • (J/K please don’t stop linking to me because like 70% of my traffic comes from you.)

I’m still curious, though… would anyone ever actually cash out a meaningful amount of Membership Rewards points at a penny each, besides some dumb blogger who decides to waste 1000 points “for the content”???

Oh hey don’t forget that Patreon page!

American Airlines gave me four months of “Platinum Pro,” which is an elite status tier, not the name of an extended warranty on a laser printer.

I finally know what it feels like to be an upper-tier elite member!!! How to describe it? It’s not unlike the feeling you get when you pour pure maple syrup on a hot golden-brown waffle. Or the spark of excitement when you see a lover after an extended time apart. Now I know why people pay hundreds of dollars to go on status runs where they calculate the price-per-EQM while conveniently leaving out the fact that they’re using up sick days to fly around for no reason.

That’s right, I’m now an American AAdvantage Platinum Pro, or at least I get to play one on the internet for the next four months. I have to earn something like 20,000 EQMs in that timeframe in order to keep the status, and obviously that’s not going to happen. Even though this is American’s second-highest elite tier (not counting the invite-only Concierge Key level), I don’t expect to get much benefit out of it besides a hefty 80% bonus on earned mileage. Most of my flights on American are in paid first class (they generally have the cheapest paid first class fares between SFO and ORD, which I fly multiple times a year), so priority check-in, boarding, and upgrades aren’t that big of a deal for me. Plus, as we all know, assholes like me buying up all the first class seats are why Concierges Key and Executives Platinum are still sitting in economy because their upgrades didn’t clear.

Don’t get me wrong — things like free Main Cabin Extra seating and oneworld business class lounge access are great for people that fly American all the time, so I’m not out here saying that Platinum Pro is worthless for everyone… just that I’m not the right person to take advantage of those benefits. That said, I certainly won’t turn down the opportunity to try Platinum Pro on for size and enjoy the perks of being elite, even if it just means a bunch of extra miles on my trips to Chicago.

I’m curious about why American is doing this, though. Ever the cynic, I jumped on Twitter to note that American must be sending out these offers because elites are fleeing en masse, and they’re desperate for new loyalists. I’ve received status challenge offers before, but I can’t recall just being given free high-level status for a third of the year — I was so surprised by this offer that I did a bunch of digging before entering my info just to make sure I wasn’t being phished.

Here’s a response to my reaction that brings up a good point:

“Simplistic thinking” may be an overly simplistic way to think about my erudite hot take, but he’s not wrong. As someone in a non-AA hub who does fly AA premium cabins multiple times a year, I suppose I’m a halfway decent target for an offer like this. And I can’t deny that the offer worked — in that I went ahead and booked a flight on American for an upcoming trip when I had originally planned to fly United due to its proximity to the SFO Centurion lounge. Now, this was solely for the additional miles and not out of a newfound sense of loyalty, but regardless of why I decided to do it, they got additional business from me due to this offer.

On the other hand, it’s no secret that people aren’t happy with American lately. After singing their praises for years, One Mile at a Time has been pretty vocal that American has lost a step and that he’s even considering giving up status with them. View from the Wing calls their new 737 MAX planes “torture tubes.” And I even heard on a podcast that Trevor from Tagging Miles is tired of American “firing customers left and right.” Those are three equally high-profile examples, but there are certainly others if you comb through the blogosphere. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that American needs some new blood. I mean, there’s a reason Delta doesn’t have to send out offers like this, and people hate Sky Miles. Despite constantly devaluing both elite benefits and award redemptions, Delta still has a stable enough membership that they don’t need to make it rain free status like American.

Did anyone else get one of these offers? I saw people on Twitter who had received Gold or Platinum, but I don’t know how common it was to receive Platinum Pro. For anyone who’s curious, I flew American four times on revenue flights last year and once on an award flight (all in first), so maybe that makes me a hot prospect? I dunno, I like my family and all, but I’d have to shuttle between SFO and ORD a lot in order to earn Platinum Pro for real. Sorry Mom and Dad.

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How brutally are people going to game this new Citi card before it gets nerfed?

If you haven’t heard, Citi is introducing a new card in the Thank You Rewards portfolio. It doesn’t earn transferrable points on its own, but you can combine points with Citi’s premium cards. You know the drill. It’s not an especially compelling card, except that it rounds every transaction up to the nearest 10 rewards points. Spend $10, get 10 points. Spend $1, get 10 points. Spend $0.01, presumably, get 10 points. Has there ever been a card more ripe for gaming than this one? Right off the bat, I figured you could immediately start earning 20 points per dollar on Amazon via $.50 gift card reloads. And then, of course, there’s the whole issue of automating one cent transactions thousands of times in order to earn millions of points.

Sure, it is very likely that Citi will shut you down for this behavior, but there’s a line, and it’s pretty much a guarantee that churners are going to figure out where that line is. I remember when the US Bank Altitude card came out, people were excited to game the shit out of the 3x Apple Pay bonus category, but US Bank was fairly aggressive about shutting people down who did that. I’m more willing to poke the Citi bear since my overall churning strategy doesn’t really involve them too much. I’d never mess around with anything like this on a Chase or Amex card, but I don’t have the same fearful respect for Citi that I do for the other two.

Recently One Mile at a Time addressed the issue of whether or not people could or should game this card, and his advice was basically that you shouldn’t try, either because you’ll get shut down or you’ll ruin it for everyone else and Citi will nerf the card. That’s sound advice, really, but again, Citi simply can’t release a card like this and just expect people to treat it with dignity and respect, regardless of the pleas for civility from their affiliates.

OMAAT also made a couple other points I need to quibble with… the first is that “Citi isn’t dumb.” “Dumb” may be the wrong term, but anyone who got fifteen American Airlines cards in a year and pocketed the bonus on each one will probably beg to differ with the conclusion that Citi is too smart to be gamed. The second point is that no merchant would ever let you run multiple one cent transactions through them, since they’d lose money on each one. I guess we’ll just have to see if that ends up being true or not.

ON A COMPLETELY UNRELATED NOTE, I’m happy to announce the launch of the Windbag Miles Official Store! There’s only one product for sale so far.

Maybe it was a bad decision to launch the store for real and then connect it to my PayPal account and everything, but let’s be honest, I’ll probably take it offline before the card launches. Or will I? You’ll just have to check back on January 10th. Who’s in for some Windbag Miles Diamond Centurion Reward Points?

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Hilton’s Turkish hotel in Norway and two dream hotels that will probably never open

It’s no secret that I love Scandinavia. If you told me I could only ever travel to Scandinavia, I’d miss Paris but I’d be okay with it. The only problem with points-and-miles trips to Scandinavia is that the typical US-based hotel programs are much weaker there than elsewhere in Europe. Well, I should qualify that: US-based hotel programs are much weaker in Norway, which is my dream destination right now. There are plenty of Hiltons, Marriotts, and IHGs in Sweden and Finland, but for some reason Norway is something of a chain hotel desert. (Denmark is a mixed bag — Copenhagen has a Marriott and an IHG, but they’re both located out of the city center, and the CPH airport hotel stopped being a Hilton at the end of 2016.)

Unless, of course, you’re talking about Radisson, which has hotels in Scandinavia like my street has stray cats. (My street has tons of stray cats.) There are two Radissons attached to Oslo airport, which gives you a preview of what to expect in the rest of the country. The only problem with all those Radissons (Blu and otherwise) is that their loyalty program totally sucks, and ever since the co-brand credit card was devalued a couple years ago, it’s hard to earn enough points to put together stays of any meaningful length. Plus if I’m gonna try that hard to rack up hotel points, I’m going to want the redemptions to be at least somewhat aspirational. While most Radissons in Norway look perfectly serviceable, we’re awfully far from Park Hyatt territory here.

God I wish Hyatt would merge with Radisson. That would probably be bad for all kinds of reasons, since Hyatt’s “we try harder” approach to loyalty would no longer be necessary if they had a larger footprint, but at least it would mean that I could redeem points at what would inevitably be a bunch of category 3 and 4 hotels peppered among the glaciers and fjords. (As an aside, when there was talk of Hyatt merging with NH hotels, I was stoked. I read a few bloggers who were lukewarm at the idea, since NH doesn’t have many aspirational properties. That seemed crazy to me, since HYATT ALREADY HAS A TON OF ASPIRATIONAL PROPERTIES. Dear bloggers: they don’t ALL have to be five-star hotels! Wouldn’t you rather be able to use your precious category 1-4 free night certificates for stays at, oh I don’t know, Lyon airport in France and then Louvain-la-Neuve (Belgium, located right next to the Tintin museum)? I just picked those hotels at random, and I’m certainly not referring to two NH hotels I’ll be staying at later this year. I don’t wish there were more nice Hyatts, I just wish there were more Hyatts period.)

Every once in a while, I’ll go on Hilton’s and Hyatt’s websites to see if they’ve added any hotels in Norway, since I don’t always catch every new hotel opening in my daily crawl through the blogosphere. (Plus, Hyatt’s new partnership with Small Luxury Hotels has led to results popping in places where there were no Hyatts before, like Bruges.) That’s why I was happy the other day to see a brand new Hilton opening up near Stavanger, Norway.

Kind of a weird name for a Norwegian hotel, but the on-site museum and ancient mosaics sound pretty cool, right? And here’s the exact location, right at the mouth of a giant fjord in a supremely scenic location along the southern coast.

Except, as you probably noticed after looking at the actual address of the hotel, it’s in fucking Turkey, not Norway. I know they’re really close together, so it makes sense why Hilton would display a map of Norway when showing the location of their brand new hotel in Turkey. Websites, amirite?

Sometimes I chide myself for my reliance on chain hotels, but it’s not like I wouldn’t prefer a little boutique hotel or an airBNB apartment — I simply can’t afford to pay for lodging every night of a two week trip. I need at least a few nights to be covered by points, which is why it bums me out that my dream destination (Norway) doesn’t have the same opportunity for mid-level award nights as you’d find elsewhere in Europe.

Moving beyond the points hotels, though, if I am going to go into a Norwegian vacation with the intention of paying for a hotel, I at least want to find a really cool hotel to pay for. The kind of place that becomes a destination in itself, rather than just a place to sleep and keep your suitcase… Which brings me to two absolute dream hotels in the north that are pretty much numbers one and two on my travel bucket list. The only hitch, and it’s a very minor one, is that they will probably never open.

The first is the Lofoten Opera Hotel, which got a lot of press in 2015, since the architecture firm behind it (Snøhetta) sent out a bunch of renderings trying to gin up interest. According to their website, it started construction in 2010 with a goal of being finished by 2020, which means I only need to wait another year! Here is what the hotel is supposed to look like (image from Snøhetta):

Is that not the most scenic fucking thing you’ve ever seen in your life? (In case it wasn’t clear, the hotel is the snail-looking thing in the foreground.) And Snøhetta isn’t some fly-by-night operation either — this isn’t Aura Airlines we’re talking about here. They’ve designed projects all over the world, including the Oslo opera house, the San Francisco MOMA expansion, and Times Square among hundreds of others. If they say they’re building a hotel, I’m inclined to believe them. However, here is a Google satellite image of the exact location of the hotel:

I know Google satellite images of more remote areas can be years out of date, but for a project that began in 2010 and is scheduled to be finished next year, I’d say they’re a tad behind schedule. Of course that doesn’t stop me checking for updates every few months, though.

It was during one of those routine checks that I came upon talk of another hotel in the general vicinity, also designed by Snøhetta, and also in the shape of a circle. (Hey if you’ve got a winning formula, by all means use it.) This one is a couple hundred miles to the south, situated at the foot of a glacier and the end of a fjord. I KNOW RIGHT?!

Honestly, fuck you. You can’t show me stuff like that and then just be like “yeah, we hope it gets built too!” (Image from Snøhetta, in case that wasn’t clear.) This hotel seems like it might be a tad more real, since at least they’ve given it a fancy website that’s good for a half hour of uncontrollable drooling. The timeline also seems a bit more realistic, running from 2017 to 2021. Not that Google satellite gives any reason to be optimistic…

However, since this project only started in 2017 and the satellite image may be a couple years old, it makes sense that the hotel may not be visible yet. Of course, that’s not going to stop me from checking back over and over again to see if anything is different. (It’s also possible to sign up for email updates on the hotel’s website, so if it ever does open, I’ll probably hear about it that way too.)

Oh oh get this: you may notice that there aren’t any roads leading to the location where the hotel is supposed to go, and that’s because you can only get there by boat. The hotel is going to offer carbon-neutral boat transfers from Bodø, which is a short flight or long scenic train ride from Oslo. STOP DOING THIS TO ME SNØHETTA!!!

Sorry there isn’t any useful information in this post unless you love learning about hotels that are too good to be true. They look pretty cool though, right? I’m sure they’ll both be ungodly expensive if they ever do open, but maybe by that time I will have achieved tycoon status in the travel goods industry in which case you’re all invited to come with me.

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Fuck it, I’m going to be optimistic about churning in 2019

There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of credit card churning and travel hacking.. It’s always getting worse — can you remember back when you could get an Amex bonus once every twelve months? I barely do. Or that time I signed up for five Chase cards in one year? That was so crazy! 2018 saw its share of new impediments, from the Hyatt and IHG cards getting roped into 5/24 (or that whole thing where Chase would just shut down your entire account just for opening a new credit card) to Bank of America rejections piling up to news that 5/24 might be expanding to 5/48 (please no).

But here’s the thing: we evolve and adapt, and we’ll continue to do so, even as it gets harder and harder to earn points. I remember back when Amex instituted the once-per-lifetime rule, there was a thread on FlyerTalk called something like “Stick a Fork In It” — except anyone who’s cared to put in the effort has likely earned millions of Membership Rewards points since that thread was started. I have a low-level anxiety that my days of business/first class international flights and five star hotels are numbered, but given that my goal is to take 2-3 trips per year and I’ve already planned everything through 2019, I should be able to keep up.

Even though I struck a decidedly pessimistic tone only a few months ago, I’m going to try to go against type and list the reasons I’m optimistic about 2019 and beyond. It feels weird to do this, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to be less of a calcified ball of concentrated hatred and negativity, so here we go. There are three basic categories that my optimism falls into:

  1. New products keep showing up. They may not be world-beaters (like the LOL Barclay Arrival Premier that didn’t even make it to its first birthday), but new products mean new opportunities. Frequent Miler pointed out something really interesting today, which is that there’s a company that provides middleman services between bank currencies and loyalty programs, and that has the potential to be a game-changer. I’m not too worried about it leading to a slate of devaluations, since the presumable middleman markup (reflected in 2:1 or 1.7:1 transfer ratios) will limit the number of miles that travel programs end up awarding. There’s a clear push-and-pull going on between banks’ desire to lure new customers by offering competitive products and their efforts to cut down on churning. This hobby lives in the vicissitudes therein, though, and that’s why I continue to be optimistic.

    I suspect that Capital One was tired of hearing about the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which is why they added transfer partners, even though the whole idea of transferring points to loyalty programs contradicts everything Jennifer Garner has been telling me during football games for the past decade. (As an aside, there’s a larger marketing lesson to be learned here, which is that customers want what they want, regardless of what a company’s marketing has been telling them to the contrary. Apple processors were superior to Intel until Apple and Intel teamed up, and no one seemed to care that Apple had been talking shit about Intel for years before that. Capital One is smart to know they can have their Jennifer Garner and eat their Points Guy too.)

    So what else was I excited about this year, since the new Barclay card was such a lead balloon? The Capital One thing was a big deal, and even though I can’t get a Venture card, it signals a recognition by banks that they can’t continue to let Citi, Chase, and Amex have the entire frequent flyer pie. Chase introduced new Hyatt and IHG cards, as well as Iberia and Aer Lingus cards. Again, even though I didn’t personally get any of these cards, I’m energized by the fact that the landscape never stays the same for long. I got a nice surprise earning 100k Marriott points from the new Amex SPG Luxury card, and between Justine and I, we got around 500k Hilton points from new Amex cards and upgrade offers. And let’s not forget about the USBank SkyPass Visa Select Premier or whatever it’s called!

  2. I think we’re starting to see an points-earning arms race, and I fucking love it. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin a start-date on this trend, since the Citi Premier was doing three points on travel back when the Sapphire Reserve was just a glint in Jame Dimon’s eye, but it definitely started to accelerate this past year. While cards like the Chase Inks had been doing 5x on narrow and/or business-focused categories and plenty of cards offered 5x on rotating categories, Amex took a big step with the Platinum revamp to move a broad category (airlines) to 5x permanently. Then they followed this up with the new Gold card, offering 4x on grocery stores and restaurants, which are both very broad categories. Sure the Everyday Preferred offers up to 4.5x on the first $6000 in monthly purchases, but given how much of my everyday spending is usually consumed meeting minimum spend requirements, I’m really into the idea of earning 4x on groceries without also having to do 30 transactions per month.

    Then, Citi announced the revamp of the Prestige card with an eye-popping 5x on restaurants (as well as airfare), leading some to question if the Amex Gold card would be dead on arrival. (My answer is no, and it has to do with the fact that I’d rather earn four Amex points than five Citi points.) What’s going to be next? Additional 5x categories on the Platinum to compete with Citi? A new card offering 7x on airfare? A $900 USBank Korean Air card that earns 10x points on Korean Air purchases and has no other benefits?

  3. Opportunities on existing cards keep coming up, and I find myself constantly adjusting my strategy around new opportunities. For instance, when I first started looking at how to get a Morgan Stanley Platinum card, I felt like it was the end of the Amex sign-up bonus road for me, and 60k would be a nice finale to my Membership Rewards journey. But, around 6 months later, Amex came out with a 60k upgrade offer on my Green card that had no lifetime language. And then they started sending out Gold card referral offers also without lifetime language. That’s 110,000 points that I never thought I could get back in October, and I’ll have the points in my account by next month.

    Amex is clearly the most aggressive with these offers, as I mentioned in my back-and-forth with Robert at Milenomics. I’m hoping that — just like the arms race around points earning or the drive to offer transfers to loyalty programs — other banks see how effective these promotions are on encouraging customers like me to put spending on my Amex cards (or in the case of the Green card, to keep it open past the one-year mark in the first place). Chase is finally rolling out discount offers, so it’s pretty clear they do look to Amex at least in some cases. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike this year, but I’m sure when I write my 2019 wrap-up, half of it will be shit I had no idea about today.

These aren’t “2019 predictions” in that the only thing I’m really willing to bet money on is that I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. However, all of these reasons for optimism are based on past trends I have witnessed, so I believe in them enough to feel pretty good about the state of churning right now. Like I said, the halcyon days of opening ten of the same American Airlines card or liquidating a shoebox of gift cards at a WalMart Bluebird kiosk are gone, and they clearly aren’t coming back. But let’s be honest: that also thins the herd. While points and miles blogs are more popular than ever, I’d also be willing to be that most of The Points Guy’s readers open a card or two, take their “free trip” and call it good. It may be counter-intuitive, but the fact that it takes so much work to earn points nowadays is what guarantees that it will continue to be possible to earn points.

There’s a reason that people aren’t doing Amazon FBA reselling in anywhere near the same numbers as they were manufacturing spend with Bluebird cards: because one was easy and one is a serious pain in the ass. I don’t think the current state of churning is that much different, and I’m happy to be one of the weirdos who’s committed enough to the game to keep pushing forward no matter what hurdles the banks throw at me. (Unless Chase and Amex shut me down, in which case I promise I’ll write a post that’s pessimistic as fuck.)

What about everyone else? How are you all feeling about 2019, and what strategies do you have on deck?

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