What’s in my wallet? A credit card that comes with free upscale hotel nights

And you thought only airlines offered great credit cards?  Here’s one that will get you major brownie points (as well as hotel points) for date night.

The InterContinental Hotels Group (ICH) may not sound familiar, but many of its brands are.  In addition to the upscale InterContinental hotels, the group includes brands such as Holiday Inn (and all of its spin-offs), Crowne Plaza and Candlewood Suites.  It also offers a number of brands such as Hotel Indigo and Even Hotels that you may never have heard of.  The key for you, though, is the InterContinental brand, which isn’t quite as luxurious as a Four Seasons but is much nicer than your average Westin or Hyatt (noting, of course, that there are always a few bad apples in any collection; I’m looking at you, Four Seasons Las Vegas.).  How would you like to wake up with this view?

PARIS - AVENUE MARCEAU

The card comes with a 60,000 point sign-up bonus, which is enough to get a room anywhere in the system (Reward nights range from 10,000 points to 50,000 for the most luxurious) and have enough left over for at least one more free night.

It gets better, though.  Every year, you get one free night at any hotel in the IHG system without restrictions.  Other hotel cards do offer free nights, but they exclude their nicest hotels.  The cost for this perk?  The annual fee is waived the first year and just $49 per year going forward.  We recently used our free night at the beautiful InterContinental Boston and got a room with a view of the water.

Other Benefits:

  • One point per dollar for most purchases; two for gas, groceries and restaurants; five for money spent at the hotel.
  • A rebate when you use points for a room.  When you redeem your points for a room, you get an automatic rebate of 10% of the value.  So if you stay at a 25,000 point hotel, you’ll get 2,500 points back.
  • Platinum elite status in ICH’s program.  It’s not worth much, but it’s something.
  • At least once per year, the chain does a bonus offer where you can often earn 100,000 points or more.  Unlike most hotel programs, which give the best offers to their most loyal guests, ICH gives the best offer to people who rarely stay with them, hoping to get you to stay more.  Often, there’s a huge reward for staying just a couple of nights at an ICH property, making it worthwhile to do a mattress run (the equivalent of an airline’s mileage run).

Intercontinental is a program that I don’t use frequently, but I’m always happy to take advantage of the bonuses they offer, and you should be, too.

The link to sign up for the credit card is here.  And for those who are wondering, I do not receive any sort of commission, bonus, etc. for referring you to this site.  It’s all part of the service ’round these here parts.

 

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And finally, you can apply for credit cards through the Credit Cards for Charity link above. All card proceeds are donated to charity, so please do well by doing good!

Using the Bluebird card for Manufactured Spending

Note: In response to a few readers’ questions, I’m going to spend a couple of days talking about manufactured spending.  Today, I will discuss the Bluebird card, but turn to other (and possibly easier) methods tomorrow.

A couple of days ago, a reader asked about the best way to manufacture spend using the Bluebird cards.  Manufacturing spend, for those not familiar with the term, is generating spending on your credit card solely for the points and ending up as close to zero dollars out of pocket.  Huh?  Here’s an example.  A few years ago, the US Mint allowed you to buy dollar coins directly from the mint, using your credit card, with no fee.  So you could buy, say, $5,000 worth of coins and, when they arrived, deposit those coins in your local bank and use that same cash to pay the credit card bill.  Your net is zero dollars out of pocket, but you’ve earned 5,000 credit card points/miles for your time.

One of the most popular ways to manufacture spend is with the American Express Bluebird Card, which can best be described as a bank account on a debit card.  You would deposit money, either by check or by reload (more on that later) and could use your account to get money at an ATM, pay bills, etc.  One popular way to reload, or add money to, the card was with a card known as a “Vanilla Reload.”  You could buy Vanilla Reloads at CVS for up to $500, with a $3.95 fee, and then type the numbers on the back of the VR into its proprietary site.  The money would go directly to your Bluebird account and you could then get it out at an ATM, by paying a bill or simply by transferring the money to your own bank account.  You could manufacture up to $5,000 in spend per month this way, meaning that you earned points at the cost of about 0.8 cents per point ($3.95 fee divided by the $503.95 you spent), which is not a bad rate of return, but not a great one, either.  Many people, however, had cards that paid them 5% for drugstore purchases (See the post here.), meaning that they received $25 in rewards, which more than offset that $3.95 fee.  Sadly, however, the ability to buy Vanilla Reloads with a credit card at CVS went away a few months ago, shutting down that particular avenue.

There is still one way to play the Bluebird, though, but it’s more complicated.  It involves numerous trips to Walmart (Amex’s partner in the Bluebird venture) and possibly some frustration when you get there, so if you don’t live near a Walmart, this method may be more trouble than its worth.

It’s not well known, but most of the prepaid debit cards that you can buy at stores like CVS can be used instantly, just by establishing a PIN number on the card.  Each card has a different method of establishing a PIN, so just read the instructions that come with the prepaid debit card.  The easiest ones to use are the Vanilla prepaid debit cards that you can buy at CVS (You can still use a credit card to buy a prepaid card.  You cannot use it to buy a “reload” card, which is a card that transfers funds onto yet another debit card, such as the Vanilla Reload described above.  Bottom line: If you can use the card instantly, you can probably buy it with a credit card.).  The Vanilla prepaid debit cards that you buy at CVS can then be taken to Walmart and loaded onto the Bluebird cards.  You can do up to $1,000 per day and, if you’re lucky, your Walmart has a Money Center kiosk, which means that you can load the cards by yourself and not have to go through customer service.  Here is an example of what the cards look like, courtesy of Google Images:

Visa GCs

 

If it sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is.  But if you have a Walmart convenient to you and a 5% cash back card, you can make a couple of hundred dollars per month this way.

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And finally, you can apply for credit cards through the Credit Cards for Charity link above. All card proceeds are donated to charity, so please do well by doing good!

Some weekend tidbits…

I’d like to wish everyone a happy Friday.  Here’s a few things I’ve seen over the past few days that may be of interest:

  • A day after United modified its frequent flyer program, it decided to rub salt into the wounds by sending out an email offering to sell you miles for “up to 40%” off the list price.  A couple of things: Up to 40% is still a lousy price to buy miles.  In addition, the airline had the audacity to say “Buy miles for summer travel…”  If you haven’t booked your summer travel yet, you’re probably not going to get it with miles.  Read this post for some hints, but the middle of June is a bad time to be booking.
  • As you may have noticed, oil prices are going up.  While airline fuel does not correlate exactly with the price of oil you see on CNBC, it’s pretty close.  Rising oil prices are a bad sign for travelers, as airlines raise prices to keep up with the commodity.
  • Want some easy miles?  100 miles won’t get you very far, but they’re free if you sign up for Bing Rewards, Microsoft’s attempt at a search engine.  Check it out here.  With thanks to The Point Traveler for the tip.
  • And if you do decide to book travel online, don’t forget to check out my recommendations for saving a few percent on your trip.  Look here for airline and hotel savings, and here for car rentals and online travel agents.
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A request for my readers…

The past few days have been full of frequent flyer news, but that’s not always the case.  Likewise, I want to make sure that I’m giving you what you want to hear.  Thus, I have a favor to ask:

Please tell me what you’d like to hear about.  It helps if you are as specific as possible.  For instance, “more ways to earn lots of miles” doesn’t give me as much to work with as “the best credit card mileage offers without annual fees.”  Travel advice is also here for the taking, but “how do I make my trip easier” is less specific than “what should I do if I’m traveling with screaming toddlers.”

Thanks everyone.

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Delta introduces “Upgrade with Miles”

Yesterday, Delta formally introduced “Upgrade with Miles (UwM),” a program that allows you to use miles to upgrade a ticket.  UwM is different from its existing program, “Mileage Upgrade Awards (MUA),” which allows you to, um, use miles to upgrade a ticket.  Confused yet?

After reading, rereading and re-rereading the press release, I think I’ve got it down.  The “old” program, MUA, allows you to use a fixed amount of miles to upgrade your ticket.  For instance, depending on the fare class of your ticket, you could upgrade a domestic seat for either 5,000 or 12,500 miles.  You could take advantage of the opportunity anytime before your flight.  The downside to this program is that you had to buy the most expensive fare classes even to be eligible to upgrade.  Those buying the cheapo tickets (like yours truly) got very familiar with a middle seat at the back of coach.  MUA, by the way, isn’t going away.

The new program, Upgrade with Miles, allows you to upgrade from any fare class on a flight within the 50 states and your miles are given a dollar value.  For example, in the the screen print below(taken during the process of booking a ticket), the passenger is being offered the opportunity to upgrade their ticket for either $262 one-way or 26,200 miles.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that Delta is valuing the miles at a penny apiece, not exactly a great deal (more on that point later).  This upgrade opportunity is only available during the booking process, though, so if you want to use it, do it quickly.  The spend does count toward your elite status, so you’ll get some benefit.

Trip Summary Example

So is it worth the penny per mile to upgrade?  Under most circumstances, no.  For instance, in the above booking, you’re paying 26,000 miles for a relatively short flight from Atlanta to New York (I have no idea why the booking already shows the person in First Class.), so you’re paying the equivalent of a free ticket for a short upgrade.

The only circumstances where it might be worth it is if there is a reason you must be in First Class on a flight or you have so many miles that you don’t know what to do with them all.  Delta miles are among the easiest to accumulate, so the latter reason is not necessarily an impossibility.

I always believe that it is better to have more, rather than fewer, choices for mileage spend, but you need to decide if the spend is worth it.

And for those of you who are currently receiving free upgrades because of your elite status, this will be a slight blow, but not a serious one.  Due to the amount of miles involved, I don’t see a lot of travelers taking advantage of it.

 

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United follows Delta, miles earned to be based on dollars spent, elite status

And another one has fallen.  As of March 1, 2015, redeemable miles will be based on the cost of your ticket and your elite status, as opposed to the number of miles you fly.  Note that Star Alliance partners or other partners (ticket numbers that don’t start with “016”) will still earn based on distance.  Also like Delta, the maximum you can earn on any ticket is 75,000 miles.

All the details, including a cool mileage earning calculator, can be found here, but the program looks a lot like Delta’s.

Base members will earn five points per dollar spent, with Premier Silver, Gold, Platinum and 1K earning 7, 8, 9 and 11 miles per dollar spent, respectively.  These changes apply only to redeemable miles, not miles toward status, which (for now) will still be based on miles flown.

I continue to believe that American will not make any changes until 2016.

No doubt this change was made because of Delta’s changes and I believe that it will result in increased revenue for the airline.  It may not be just from flights, however.  With passengers earning fewer miles from flights, they may feel a need to pick up other sources of miles, including credit cards.

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Update on American and US Airways frequent flyer programs

American Airlines sent out an email to elite members today as an update on the frequent flyer program integration.  Since we’re still in the early stages, AA can concentrate on the “warm and fuzzy” parts of the merger, in preparation from the ceremonial “dropping of the other shoe” that will likely occur in 2015 and 2016.  Note that US Airways and AA elite holders got slightly different emails.

  • Starting June 11, AAdvantage elite members will be able to upgrade to First on US Airways within 24 hours of departure.  US Airways elite members already have this ability.  You can upgrade yourself and a companion when you check in or, if there are no upgrades available, put yourself on the waiting list. [important] Check in at exactly 24 hours in advance for the best chance of an upgrade, since these seats are first-come, first-served.  Waitlisting will not be an option for US Airways elites traveling on AA, and aren’t entirely free for US Airways members who are not Chairman Preferred elite.[/important]
  • Transcontinental flights out of JFK (to Los Angeles and San Francisco) will all be on the new A321T airplane.  So what, exactly, does that mean?  Simply put, AA is going from a two-class to a three-class service out of New York with lie-flat seats in both First and Business classes.  This is big news for AA travelers out of New York, as AA will instantly have one of the best, if not the best, business class products in the market.
  • The programs will be combined in 2015.

In general, these changes tend to fall into the category of “enhancements.”  Right now, there is no incentive to talk about any of the “bad” changes that will be coming, but here’s my first guess: Currently, Executive Platinum members on American receive eight upgrades per year that are good for anywhere American flies.  I’m guessing that we’ll be kissing those goodbye by 2016.

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“Hello, Richard Branson? I’m Pro Moe.”

Every industry has its cast of characters, and the “mileage-accumulation” business is no different.  Among the characters that I know, Pro Moe is one of my favorites.

Pro Moe is one of the nicest guys that you could hope to meet.  He’s the guy you want as a neighbor, who will come help shovel out your walkway in the winter or dig up your front yard during planting season.  No reason is needed, other than he’s your neighbor, and that’s what neighbors do.  And when it comes to miles, PM has an absolute passion for the game, which he’s happy to share.  He’ll search for obscure opportunities to earn points and miles and then hang on for the ride.  The game, as much as the reward, is the joy for him.

Pro Moe is also 100% trustworthy, so when he asked for me to send him some Membership Rewards points from American Express, for an asset to be named later, my only question was how many.  The answer?  All of them, to be converted into Virgin Atlantic miles.  It was a six-figure sum, so I knew he had something big planned with them, and figured it had something to do with his family abroad.  The points were sent in the form of miles the next day.  And like Tom Sawyer trading for Sunday School tickets, Pro Moe spent six months accumulating Virgin Atlantic points.  He traded not only with me but with several other individuals.  He opened a Virgin Atlantic American Express card, which had a 30,000 miles bonus, plus offers two miles per dollar spent, which he maximized through manufactured spending.  He converted his own points and then made more trades for points to convert.  In six months, he had almost 1.2 million Virgin Atlantic miles.

It wasn’t until a few weeks ago when I had lunch with him that I learned the ultimate fate of Pro Moe’s VA points: Necker Island, Richard Branson’s private hideaway.  The island, which normally goes for $60,000 per day for a group of up to 26 people can also be accessed during certain “celebration weeks” for the low low cost of 1.2 million Virgin Atlantic miles, giving a couple a week in Branson (Richard, not Missouri) paradise.  Naturally, everything is included, including a staff to pamper you.  When they say “private island,” they really mean private, as even the Celebration Weeks include only twelve couples.  As in, private enough for celebrities such as Prince Harry, Oprah and the Rolling Stones to have vacationed there.

And now, Pro Moe.  More from him after he makes his visit.

A note about gifting points: Airline will allow you to do it, for a fee.  Hotels will allow you to do it for family members.  Both will allow you to book a flight for someone without too many issues.  Credit card points, such as Membership Rewards from American Express or Ultimate Rewards from Chase, prohibit it in their Terms and Conditions.  I have found, however, that they are willing to make the occasional exception and may not bother you if you do it on your own.  They do, however, reserve the right to confiscate points and I know people who have faced that fate so, as they say in the biz, your miles may vary.

Richard Branson’s private island not good enough for you?  Then how about this option: If you have a spare two million Virgin Atlantic miles, you can use them to enter a drawing to win a trip into outer pace on Virgin Galactic.  No word on whether you get your miles back if you don’t win the drawing.

 

 

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How airline credit cards may save you money and time (even with an annual fee)

As fees continue to mount in the airline industry, it is becoming increasingly advantageous to have one of their credit cards. While each airline has its own cards and its own advantages, I’ll talk about “the Big 3,” since the benefits even at the smaller airlines will be similar.

Even with an annual fee, a card for the casual traveler can make sense.  Unless you have elite status with the airline, you are likely paying for checked bags, waiting in long security lines and boarding in the middle or at the end of the process.  An airline credit card can solve most or all of those problems.  Forget the miles that you earn; These cards will save you big bucks in luggage fees alone.  Some will also get you priority screening, Group 1 boarding and even discounts on in-flight meals, now that we’re paying for those, too.  My feeling is that Delta’s credit card offers the best benefits (if I were choosing an airline based solely on its credit card), but all of them are quite good.  I’m not going to list every benefit that the cards offer, but here are some of the standouts:

Delta Gold Card, found here.

  • $95 annual fee, waived the first year.
  • First bag fee waived, for you and up to eight others on your itinerary.  Checking four bags?  Congratulations, you just covered your annual fee.
  • Priority boarding, so you’ll get the overhead space above your seat.
  • Sorry, no priority security lines with this card.

United MileagePlus Explorer Card, found here.

  • $95 annual fee, waived the first year
  • First bag fee waived, but only for you and one companion.
  • Priority boarding
  • Two one-time passes annually to the United lounges, which are quite useful in case of flight interruptions

American Aadvantage Platinum Card, found here.

  • $95 annual fee, waived the first year (notice the pattern?).
  • First bag fee waived, for up to five in your group.
  • Group 1 boarding, right after first class and the highest elite levels.
  • Spend $30,000 in a year and get a $100 flight credit.

All cards have other benefits and you should choose your card based on the most convenient airline for you.  Don’t let the tail wag the dog.  But an airline credit card is a good way to save on a bunch of fees.

 

 

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SunTrust Bank Delta SkyMiles card still accessible (but hurry)

A reader was kind enough to write in and notify me about a conversation he had with SunTrust regarding the fate of the Delta SkyMiles card.  For those not familiar with the card, it is a debit card linked to your SunTrust bank account that offers one mile per dollar spent.  The card is particularly powerful in that you can use it to pay taxes for a nominal ($2-3) fee through any number of sites, or use it to buy money orders (excluding the ones at the US Post Office) and receive miles for your purchase.

The fate of this card has been in doubt for some time, given that it is no longer on the front page of the website, but it does exist.  According to the conversation that my reader had with a banker, it is around through June 21 and is only available to certain types of accounts, including Signature Advantage Banking, Solid Choice Banking, SunTrust at Work Solid Choice Banking and Balanced Banking.  If you are opening the account online, the card is hidden in the application process.

The easiest way to get the card and an account is by walking into a branch, but for those of you who do not live in their catchment area, you may be able to open up an account using the chat feature online.

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And finally, you can apply for credit cards through the Credit Cards for Charity link above. All card proceeds are donated to charity, so please do well by doing good!