Tag Archives: Membership Rewards

How Kaiser Permanente’s unlawful harassment got me 1500 bonus Amex points…

Here’s a manufactured spend trick for you:

  • Step 1: come home to find your wife seriously ill
  • Step 2: call 911 in a panic
  • Step 3: spend most of the night in the ER thanking whoever the fuck your atheist ass can thank that she’s okay
  • Step 5: Get a bill from a collection agency, because Kaiser turned your account over to collections less than two months after the original incident and after telling you multiple times over email and in person that they haven’t generated a bill for you yet
  • Step 6: Immediately pay the collection bill, because your credit is now at risk due to Kaiser unlawfully harassing you into paying a debt before it’s due
  • Step 7: Rake in the points, because for some reason the collection agency is a small business in Amex’s eyes and you get double points at small businesses through the end of the year. (I’m sure this collection agency is a real mom & pop shop, too – just a guy named Sal, his wife Rose, and their trusty lead pipe Larry.)

RINSE, REPEAT! I’m kind of shocked no other blogs have written about this yet, but at least that will keep it from getting squashed like all the other good manufactured spend outlets. Let me know in the comments if you’ve become gravely ill and leveraged this amazing opportunity as well.

What do Alaska, Hong Kong, New York, and Vancouver Have in Common?

EDIT 1/18/17: This post is pretty outdated now… like how I talk about crediting miles to AAdvantage instead of Alaska? What a moran! Oh, and I never did end up taking the NYC-VAN flight on Cathay with my younger brother, although I’m sure I’ll get around to it at some point. Anyway, now that this post has been linked from higher-traffic pastures, I figured I’d mention this at the beginning so you know that I’ve matured as a Windbag Miler in the year and a half since this was originally written.

Disclaimer: I wrote most of this post longhand while I was flying last weekend, since the guy in front of me reclined his seat, and I didn’t have enough room to open my laptop. Due to my issues with flying (which I’m sure I’ll talk about at some point), my mind is kind of weird when I’m on a plane, and that’s reflected here… although I swear I kind of meant this to be tongue-in-cheek. Enjoy!

Looking at all the airlines, popular routes, mileage programs, and credit card options for earning points, a complex tapestry emerges. I’m reminded of Deleuze and Guattari’s essay on smooth vs. striated space, and how points/mileage enthusiasts find themselves wedged between the two (or, more accurately, lost in the fluidity between the two). It’s tough to think of any space smoother than the sky, but the way we traverse it in direct lines overseen and organized by a vast traffic control infrastructure converts what was previously thought to be smooth into striated space. In the same vein, the rules, terms, conditions, charts, redemption amounts, and everything else I try to memorize (or at least familiarize myself with) takes the freewheeling act of travel and imposes a rigid set of steps I have to follow in order to undertake a trip. However, in the sheer volume of information, including counterintuitive or contradictory rules and policies — that’s where the fun lies. And so, the mess of numbers, programs, the whole ball of wires that makes up “the hobby” starts to feel like Deleuze and Guattari’s famous quilt, which simultaneously consists of the orderly arrangement of fibers at the same time that it expands outward until the wide-angle view reveals a structure that doesn’t seem to follow any defined rule or pattern.

See what I mean? I wasn’t on drugs or anything, but my mind was going in a bizarre direction. Sure, it’s a great book, but I’m not convinced it belongs here…

Okay, that was a long, probably boring way to make two points. First, it’s really fun to dig into all these programs to try to find hidden gems, and second, you’re never going to know all there is to know, so the best thing to do is just to never stop digging. With that in mind, I started digging into Alaska’s Mileage Plan program, since I fly to Seattle on Alaska at least a few times a year. (I choose Alaska mostly for the occasional $50 upgrade and the fact that Alaska flies out of SFO’s international terminal, so the plane spotting opportunities are much better.) I always credit my flights to Amercan, since one of my longer-term plans is to bank AAdvantage miles slowly and then augment my balance with a big sign-up bonus before using my miles for a long-haul business class redemption of some kind. It goes against the conventional wisdom of earn and burn, but truthfully, I’m not earning enough for the inevitable devaluation to really hurt that bad.

But, I wanted to see what I was missing out on with Mileage Plan, since it’s so highly regarded in the points and miles world. Plus, it was on my mind after writing that post about Starpoints. Most of Alaska’s more interesting redemptions are on carriers I don’t really have occasion to use, specifically because I don’t have any immediate plans to fly to Asia or the middle east. However, when looking through their partner award chart, a particular redemption caught my eye:mileageplan

Cathay Pacific first class is one of those products that gets reviewed amazingly well from just about everybody. They don’t have an on-board bar or shower suite, but the seat looks divinely comfortable, and the service is supposed to be pretty good too. (Also, I know everyone raves about the novelty of showering on a plane, but I’m severely put off by the not-unlikely prospect of hitting turbulence and sitting belted-in on the shower’s safety bench nude and dripping wet while the plane lurches to and fro.) Plus, true first class is kind of a forbidden fruit for me, since I have very eurocentric travel goals, and one of the bummers about flying to Europe is that first class is tougher and tougher to come by… and when first class cabins do exist, it’s either difficult or prohibitively expensive to book awards in them.

So, imagine my delight when I found that Cathay Pacific runs a fifth freedom route (a route on which neither the origin nor the terminus is in a carrier’s registered country) between JFK and Vancouver. Cities I love and would happily travel to in order to enjoy a premium cabin I otherwise wouldn’t get to experience. (Fifth freedom routes are pretty cool in general, and at some point my goal is to fly in first class on both Emirates (NYC to Milan) and Singapore (NYC to Frankfurt).)

You know what I just realized? None of these premium cabins have overhead bins!

After some more research, I realized that both Lucky and The Points Guy have written about this route, but I missed it – again, due to the sheer volume of information that’s out there. Then, once I realized that the route exists, I found out that I can book it with Asia Miles (for 40,000 miles), which I can earn via transfers from Citi or Amex (meaning that the whole detour into Alaska miles wasn’t even necessary). Given the ease of earning Thank You/Membership Rewards points, it’s probably easier to book this way, although I’m hoarding points in those programs right now. As a result, I decided to do a Mileage Plan blitz and found myself with 39,000 Mileage Plan points almost overnight. (How did I do this? 25,000 points came from getting the Alaska Airlines Visa card, which awards the miles without requiring a minimum spend. Then I got the other 14,000 from my Chicago hotel stay, which I booked on Rocketmiles. Almost 40,000 Alaska miles in a weekend, and nary an SPG Amex in sight!)

I’m planning the trip for next June, and I’ll be traveling with my younger brother, since he’s the only person I know who appreciates premium cabins as much as I do. He’s based in Chicago, so we’ll meet in New York (which I’ll probably fly to on a paid Jetblue ticket so I can check out their Mint class), travel to Vancouver on Cathay, and then hang out in the Pacific Northwest for a while before returning home. It seems kind of crazy to fly to Vancouver via New York, but I’m the guy who started a blog post on points and miles by talking about French poststructuralists, so crazy is more or less the unifying theme here.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: What’s the most ridiculous routing YOU’D take just to fly a product you’ve never tried before?

Starwood Lust

Okay, let’s just get this out of the way. Every time someone talks about Starwood points, all I can think about is the episode of Broad City where Abbi accidentally gets super high and charges $1000+ of groceries at Whole Foods to her Starwood credit card that she got because she thought it would make her feel more like an adult. To be honest, it seems weird that all these serious points blogs write endlessly about the Starwood card, because I associate it with Abbi’s giant blue imaginary friend named Bingo Bronson.

Anyway, aside from strange pop culture associations, I guess I don’t really get the big deal about this card. I understand all the benefits – chief among them that you get a 5000 point transfer bonus when you transfer 20,000 Starpoints to airlines (for an average earning rate of 1.25 points per dollar), and I realize that they have really good transfer partners, including Alaska and American. Still, though, the card is kind of weak in a lot of ways, isn’t it? First of all (and the Devil’s Advocate guy on Travel Codex already mentioned this), you aren’t *really* earning 1.25 points per dollar, just like points aren’t *really* worth actual money. You have to get 20,000 points first in order to get the 5000 point bonus, and since the card only earns 1 point per dollar, that’s gonna take a long time. You’re “earning” that extra 1/4 point per dollar in the form of a futures contract on a transfer that you’ll make at an unspecified point. You don’t have it until you hit the 20,000 threshold, which means your entire earning and redemption strategy has to conform to 20,000 point increments. And the minute you top off an account with an odd number of Starpoints, you just blew up the entire value proposition people cite with this card.

Here’s the thing: last month, I earned well over two points per dollar on my Everyday Preferred card, meaning that I could earn 25,000 points on this card WAAAAAY faster than I could earn 20,000 Starpoints. It’s not as if Amex’s travel partners are super shitty either – you get reasonable business class awards to Europe via Aeroplan (though some – but not all – include fuel surcharges), other Star Alliance awards with ANA or Singapore, OneWorld redemptions via British Airways, and even competitive partner awards with Delta (which still has some value for Skyteam partner redemptions). Everyone’s all up in arms about Amex’s British Airways devaluation, but when they make it *so* easy to earn points, it doesn’t sting that bad. I could stick with Starpoints or Ultimate Rewards if a 1:1 transfer rate were important to me on principle, but given the earning potential of an Amex card portfolio (especially if you combine the Gold and Everday Preferred cards), you’ll earn circles around either of those other cards, more than offsetting the devaluation.

I suppose I sound like a Membership Rewards fanboy, and I should admit that I am… and also that I recognize that part of that might be due to being very heavily invested in MR right now, meaning I may have an instinct to defend it. I’m not denying that fact, especially since it’s really easy to find bitter message board comments about how MR has lost a lot of value as a program. But I don’t think that makes any of my arguments untrue (such is the advantage of having a blog with no readers).

But anyway, back to Starpoints. I think it’s significant that the sign-up bonus kinda sucks. You get 25,000 (or [GASP] 30,000 for the next month), which means that after your first amazing transfer bonus, you’ll have 5000 orphaned points for months while you build up another 15,000 points. Compared to a farily-easy-to-find sign-up bonus on the Amex Gold Card of 50,000 points, I can’t see how this card stacks up. Are Starpoints really worth 2x Membership Reward points? For big spenders who want to have skin in multiple programs, it certainly doesn’t make sense to ignore the Starwood program, but for most people making less than $100,000 year, it’s just too hard to put enough spend on the card to get meaningful rewards (unless you’re aggressively manufacturing spend, which most people don’t do – and the people who tout the Starwood card don’t just recommend it for MSers). The most common argument for this card is that it’s best for spending that doesn’t fit into other bonus categories, but (big surprise) I still don’t agree with that. Most point valuations peg the Starpoints as around 10% more valuable than MR points. So if you’re earning 1.25 Starpoints per dollar, that equates to 1.375 MR points, which is still less than the 1.5 minimum earning rate on the Everyday Preferred.

Purple is the new black?

Okay, okay – the transfer partners. They’re the best. I’m not going to argue that point… but if you can’t earn enough points to redeem, what’s the use? There’s more water in the ocean than there is in a lake, but if you can’t drink saltwater, what good is it? And one other thing: if it’s so damn important to be able to transfer to American and Alaska, why not just sign up for their co-brand cards and collect a bunch of miles that way? You can get 25,000 Alaska miles just for opening the card (plus a $100 credit), and Citi has an offer for 75,000 miles on their American Airlines premium card. What’s more, those bonuses are recurring, whereas you only get your precious 30,000 Starpoints once between now and when you die.

Okay, so obviously every program has its high and low points. I just don’t agree that Starpoints are the best currency for most people, given that anyone who isn’t a big spender is going to have a super hard time racking up points the way it’s possible to do in other programs. Lucky had a curious argument about the value of Starpoints recently, saying that the difficulty of earning them actually makes them more valuable due to laws of supply & demand. I’m not sure I agree with that (and I’m a bigger fanboy for Lucky than I am for Membership Rewards), since Starpoints aren’t tradeable like other commodities whose values are dictated by supply and demand. In the world of points, “value” doesn’t mean what something is worth in a resale transaction; instead, a point’s value lies in what it can get you, and unless you’re putting over $100,000/year spend on your SPG card, it ain’t gonna get you much. I’m not anti-SPG by any means, and I’ll probably pick up the card at some point in my life if I need 25,000 miles quickly for a program that doesn’t have other transfer partners. But the way people talk about this card, you’d think it could give you a reach-around from your back pocket, and I just don’t see it.

Requisite question designed to spur a flurry of responses in the comments section: Do YOU think Abbi made the right choice to use her SPG Amex at Whole Foods when she was high out of her mind?