As I’m sure you know, many applications and techniques in our hobby require a mobile phone and maybe a particular application running on that phone. When it’s time to scale a deal that needs a mobile platform, don’t let the hardware you carry around with you be a limiting factor. You probably already know that I’m a big fan of burner cell phones, but that doesn’t mean that I carry six phones everywhere I go (even though I might use six phone numbers to scale a deal).
Even if you’re not trying to scale, even a single cell phone is annoying for lots of reasons: copy and paste are hard, you don’t have a full size keyboard, sometimes you get a phone call in the middle of a transaction, or your toddler wants to play a game on your phone.
Scaling and working around mobile phone limitations is easy with three Android emulators that run on Windows, Mac, or Linux:
I’ve heard from a couple of you that a barrier to using emulators is two factor authentication: when you get a text message code as part of logging into a service or for transferring a big dump of cash. Don’t let that stop you from scaling though, there’s no reason you can’t have the physical phone nearby to receive the code and then type that directly into the emulator.
Literally no-one: What’s the bane of every manufactured spender’s existence?
MEAB: Great question! It could be: Karen cashiers, broken money order terminals, gift cards that have been tampered with, other customers in line, made up rules, or a dozen other things.
I want talk about a workaround for one of those banes in particular today, credit card fraud alerts.
Going on a Manufactured Spend Trip
The best manufactured spend techniques let you spend large amounts in a single transaction, but these are also the most likely to be flagged as potentially fraudulent by credit card issuers, more so if they are round numbers. In fact, if you have a $2,500 purchase at a grocery store and the bank rhymes with pretty-skank, I’d give you 9 out of 10 odds that you’re going to get a decline on the first swipe and a subsequent fraud alert that takes at least a couple of minutes to sort out.
There’s an easy way around those algorithms though; when banks think you’re on a trip they expect abnormal purchases. So before buying $2,500 worth of “kombucha”, open the bank’s mobile application on your phone and set a travel alert for the state you’re in, even if it’s the same state you’re always in. Afterword, that purchase is likely to sail right through.
In October I signed an LLC up for Brex using their TravelBank partner landing page (no, I don’t have a TravelBank account). The sign-up bonus through that link is 75,000 points for spending $1,000 in 30 days, which I knocked out within 24 hours of funding. Side note: You can get another 20,000 points easily by linking PayPal to Brex as your “payroll provider”, which I also did.
On Monday of this week I was looking at the “Bank Bonuses” section of my manufactured spend tracking Google Sheet and saw that 60 days had passed since signing up for the account and meeting the terms of the bonus, so I logged on to the account to make sure that the 75,000 points had posted. Spoiler alert: They hadn’t.
I double checked the landing page’s sign-up bonus terms and also that I had spent $1,000 in the first 30 days, then chatted with Brex using their live chat. It took about 10 minutes, but the support representative confirmed that I met the terms of the offer and said the points would post in 24 hours. Several hours later, I got an email notifying me that the points were in my account. There isn’t more to the story: the points were indeed in my account. Brex’s support had the meatball.
If I didn’t have at least a tiny sliver of tracking, I probably would have forgotten that the bonus should have posted because between then and now I’ve done a dozen other sign-up or spend bonuses and it’s easy to let one slip through the cracks. It would have cost me 75,000 Brex points, which is worth at least $750 and potentially quite a bit more with mileage transfer partners.
Tracking might sound daunting, but it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what I tracked on my “Bank Bonuses” tab of the spreadsheet:
Account open date (October something, 2021)
Sign-up bonus terms (75,000 points after $1,000 spend in 30 days)
Bonus received? (No)
What’s your point, MEAB?
Make sure you’ve got at least basic tracking in some form for sign-up bonuses so you’re not letting money slip through the cracks. It’s surprisingly easy in this game to have a $500 gift card sitting on your desk that you forgot about, a spend bonus that didn’t post, a BestBuy gift card sitting in a stack that was never entered into anything, a gift card email that you marked as read and never saw again, or some other mishap. Please do at least the minimum necessary to make sure that doesn’t happen to you.
I book a bunch of trips every month (fun fact: I cancel about 40-50% of them), and as a result I’ve developed a playbook for how to handle flights as departure nears. And by using the playbook I’m able to get around most delays as long as there’s more than a single option for flights. I’m also usually able to do that without waiting in any lines at the airport or gate, and without sitting in the airport watching rolling delays.
To wit: Yesterday my original flight was delayed by a little over two hours because the aircraft was passing through SLC earlier in the day, and SLC had a big winter-storm at the same time. The delay for my flight didn’t post until about 15 minutes before boarding. But, I knew it was going to happen hours prior and I already had a backup plan. I wanted to write up my game-day playbook to give you ideas for doing the same in the future so let’s dive in eh?
About 12 hours before departure:
Check the FAA Delay Map for a quick view on any airports that aren’t operating at, err, peak-efficiency
Click “track inbound flight” repeatedly until I see all the aircraft’s prior flights to its inbound flight, and I also note the time on the ground between flights for each airport the aircraft will stop at (anything less than 45 minutes is almost certainly an airline pipe dream, and you can assume that those legs will be delayed)
Set alerts in the airline’s app or in flightaware for the flight and for the inbound flight
Once I know where the bad airports are and I know all the routes my inbound aircraft is flying before getting to me, I’ll have a good sense for whether or not my flight will be delayed due to weather, congestion, airport closures, or other external factors (of course mechanical issues, dented aircraft, San Francisco fog, or any other number of things could delay the flight too — but those things are harder to predict).
If my flight is going to pass through an airport on the delay map or if it has a bunch of overly optimistic 20 minute turns (I’m looking at you, United Express), I’ll proactively call the airline and ask nicely to switch to an alternative flight with a better chance of going out (side note: I use ITA Matrix with forced carriers to find alternatives that may not appear on the airline’s own site.) At 12 hours out, getting another routing is easier than you probably think it is — often just saying “the plane is flying through Newark in a few hours and Newark has major delays, could I switch?” is enough to get the alternative routing you want.
Check the airline’s status page for my flight and the inbound
Again, I’m at a decision point: if anything looks sketchy, I may want to jump to my own backup booking or rebook on an alternative flight on the same airline. The two hour mark here is key because alternative flights probably haven’t filled up, none of them are likely to be under gate-control, and other non-avgeek passengers on your flight haven’t done anything proactively yet. This is also the point where if you call the airline it’s very easy to switch to another flight by mentioning issues with the inbound aircraft, even if they haven’t posted in the airline’s system. (Side note: New ticketing while a flight is under gate-control is something I don’t wish on my worst enemy, it’s like another layer of hell.)
The first thing to check when boarding time hits is whether or not the aircraft is at the gate. If it’s not, you’re probably going to be delayed and it may be again time to jump to flightaware to see where the aircraft is. (Hopefully it’s not diverted to Lubbock, TX, which has happened to me twice. Thanks United Airlines.)
Most US airlines board 5-10 minutes later than the boarding time printed on the boarding pass or at the podium, but it’s very rare for the airline to start boarding any later than those 10 minutes unless something is going on. If 15 minutes have passed from the posted boarding time and no one is getting on, it’s time to investigate: Is the aircraft door open? Is the gate door open? Is anyone walking around the aircraft? Is luggage being loaded? Is there someone with a maintenance vest wandering around?
If anything looks fishy, it’s time to explore alternatives on the current airline and other airlines, so if/when a delay posts I already know what I want to do and what’s available. If I think the airline is going to have a long hold-time or wait at the lounge/customer service desk, I may dial-in or line-up to get myself in the queue at this point too.
The last thing I do once I’m on-board is cancel any backup flights that I may have booked. Trying to do anything else with your itinerary is basically out of your hands at that point, so, the only thing left to do is to get annoyed when you’re approaching your destination and the flight attendant announces “ladies and gentlemen, we’ve been cleared to land so please […]”. Why should you be annoyed by that? Well, I absolutely, positively guarantee that you haven’t been cleared to land — that happens within 3-5 miles of the airport, or the last two minutes or so of the flight. The more you know.
Your email inbox, WhatsApp, Slack, and Telegram are about to kersplode over the next three days. (If that’s not true yet and you want to take advantage of tens of thousands in manufactured spend, see Monday’s post.) There’s going to be so much going on that it’ll be impossible to follow everything, so let’s talk weekend ground rules today.
To start, what’s your time worth? I know it’s variable at any given point, but what about this weekend, the Super Bowl of manufactured spend? For me it’s at least $400 or 40,000 points per hour for manual things (versus what I’ve automated away). Given that, I have a cutoff for whether or not I focus on a deal as it rushes through my phone — is the deal going to pay out at $400 per hour? If not, something else will. Move on.
Buying an e-gift card for resale (e.g., Kroger online offers 20% off of Groupon)
1 minute ($6)
Yes, if I get at least $200 in spend
Buying a Happy gift card to swap to something else for resale
5 minutes ($30)
No, move on, swapping the gift card and the accounting takes too long
Buying a console for resale (e.g., Gamestop has a PS5 in sock)
30 minutes ($200)
Yes, if I can make at least $200
Going to a store to buy gift cards for resale (e.g., $115 in Target GC for $100)
30 minutes or more ($200)
Yes, but only if I can do twenty of them back-to-back at self check-out
Buying money orders with gift cards
20 minutes ($120)
No, everything is super-busy right now and you can do this the rest of the year
Buying something for a buyer’s group
10 minutes ($60)
Only if it’s a high ticket item for big credit card spend or pays a decent commission
Using FinTechs for bill payment and other shenanigans
5 minutes ($30)
Only if I’m getting four figure spend or higher
I’m sure on December 28th I’ll revisit this table and laugh, and by February 4th I’ll revisit it and cry while I remember how good it used to be and with the knowledge that I’m valuing my February time at roughly the same as a Taco Bell cheerios-infused enchiritaco. (Ok, I made menu item that up, but 50/50 it actually exists knowing Taco Bell.)
For the second ground rule: Your time is precious, and it’s ok to walk away from everything and spend time with your friends/family. That time can absolutely be worth more than $400 per hour.
Theexistingarticlesabout what resets the expiration of miles in AirFrance/KLM’s FlyingBlue mileage program are all over the board, and they conflict with one another at the surface level. There’s only one thing that’s been certain to this point: crediting an actual SkyTeam revenue flight to your FlyingBlue account will reset expiration and kick the can down the road for another two years.
What about points transferred from partners and from the FlyingBlue shopping portal? You’ll find different information in different articles and they’re all correct at some level. It’s taken several months of experimentation and now with the help of Gary and Connor, I now have a proper test and validation set to explain what’s going on:
Some partners reset expiration of transferred miles, and some don’t.
No partners reset the expiration of miles earned through flying
Miles earned through a FlyingBlue credit card reset the expiration of all miles
Ok, but most of us don’t have a FlyingBlue credit card and don’t want to credit a flight to the FlyingBlue program, so we rely on transferred miles to reset the clock (and transferred miles is probably how we got them in the first place). Here’s the scoop:
Resets Transferred Mileage Expiration
FlyingBlue shopping portal
No (UPDATE: This may be YMMV or Yes)
See the stick in the mud there? Our best friend and aspirational colleague American Express is different than the rest. When you transfer miles from American Express to FlyingBlue, it doesn’t reset the expiration on other transferred miles, and that’s why we’ve had mixed data-points about this topic for years.
UPDATE:Greg from Frequent Miler wrote in with screenshots showing a conflicting experiment on the American Express mileage reset of expiration on FlyingBlue miles. My data-point is from late summer, so either the coding has changed and AmEx now resets expiration, or it’s a your mileage may vary situation.
Now that we’ve tested and validated this, can we collectively move on to something else?
I recently spent just over a week in Switzerland and although I’d love to talk about that, it’s not really the purpose of this blog. Instead, I wanted to talk about something that I encountered as part of the booking process for both the outbound and the return: I booked a business class award from my home city connecting in Chicago O’Hare to Zurich and the reverse routing for the return.
In it’s eternal crapulance, United often “breaks” business class awards by only offering coach saver awards for most domestic legs, especially when there’s good availability on the route in business class internationally. I consider these mixed-cabin awards broken because it’s frankly punitive to withhold domestic first class seats on international business awards where the business segment is the vast majority of the cost to United, and where the domestic first class cabins are often empty despite the lack of award space. Let me tell you too, there’s nothing quite like flying in a Swiss Throne business class seat only to be followed by a three hour flight in the last row of an E175 with slimline unpadded seats.
How do we fix these awards? You’ve got two options:
Periodically check the United site leading up to your trip to see if they open saver award space on your domestic first leg, then you can call reservations and have them reticket you in the domestic first class cabin for no additional charge (spoiler alert: United almost never opens first class award availability)
Call United and ask to be added to the upgrade waitlist for first class on your domestic legs, which you’re entitled to be on as a business class award ticket holder whether or not you hold any status with United. Note that not all reps know how to do this and you may need to hang up and call again, but fortunately it seems that most reps know how in recent memory.
Note that if you use the second option, you’re considered to be on an instrument supported upgrade which puts you ahead of almost all elite complimentary upgrades on the upgrade list. That also means you’ve got a great shot of clearing the first class upgrade and un-breaking your business class award. You can see the wiki on this post at Flyertalk for more detail on upgrade list priorities.
How did this go for me? Well, because I was flying United I was hit by another form of crapulence: They waited until the last minute to clear upgrades, which mattered because the previous flight to my city was delayed by 8 hours because United is United, and essentially all of the confirmed first class passengers on the previous flight switched to my flight. I went from #1 with 8 seats available in first to #1 with 0 seats available in first within the final hours of my flight.
If Jurassic Park taught us anything, it’s that life will always find a way. My corollary is that United will also always find a way (to break your travel).
It’s been a week and a half since the first report of the recent wave of American Express shutdowns surfaced, and a week since the culprit became clear. No new shutdown reports have been reported since Friday — presumably because it’s been a long holiday weekend and the teams involved have had three days off. I’ve had several of you write me expressing your concern about being shutdown and there’s been a ton of discussion online about it too. I do want to talk about what I would do if I were currently very concerned about a shutdown, but before we dive into that let’s chat a bit more about new discoveries in the last week.
I’ve been able to confirm with an inside source that the shutdowns are coming from the American Express Legal department, and the return address for physical letter notifications of shutdown reference AmEx’s General Council and the subject “Organization Litigation Investigation”. My speculation is that the reason the legal department is involved is that the shutdowns are related to an investigation started in early 2020 based on a whistleblower’s report on the Small Business Credit Card Team at AmEx. We know the investigation currently involves the FDIC, Treasury, OCC, and the Federal Reserve and is ongoing. Quoting the linked article:
In March of 2020, The Wall Street Journal reported on the “strong-arm” practices that American Express employees were using against small business owners to boost sales. Part of the story alleged that American Express employees misrepresented card rewards and fees or issued cards that customers had not sought.
I can say that I’ve seen several emails from Adam to various small business owners, and my non-legal interpretation is that the above paragraph is probably more correct than not.
We’ve also been seeing mixed reports of shutdowns from people who used targeted, no-lifetime language mailers, though I’ve as of yet been unable to confirm that any of these have actually occurred with anyone I know personally (compare with the fact that I’ve been able to confirm dozens of shutdowns from trusted people for using Adam for applications). I’m not saying for sure that they’re not happening, but at this point it feels a lot like a red-herring without a dependable source to confirm and it could be a single rumor that grew wings and muddied the waters. Certainly I hope that’s true.
Are you concerned that you still may be caught up in the shutdowns and the axe might hit any day? Personally, I’m not very concerned at this point because I didn’t have dealings with Adam Winslow and I’m currently dubious about other recent shutdown reports possibly being result of a giant internet game of “telephone“. But, not everyone is me (obviously). If I were concerned I might be shutdown, here’s what I would do:
Cash out all of my Membership Rewards, or transfer them all to travel partners. For the latter, the most valuable in my opinion would be:
AirFrance/KLM Flying Blue (if you value business class to Europe)
Delta (if you live in a hub city and want domestic travel)
British Airways (if you want great availability to Europe or short-haul AA works really well for you)
Aeroplan (for star alliance awards with reasonable pricing and low fuel surcharges)
Cancel every single one of my American Express cards
Why would I do this? Well, the first bullet point should be obvious: get anything of value out of your rewards account while it’s still there. The second bullet though is probably less intuitive. I think there’s a very decent shot that if you closed your accounts and didn’t have a current relationship with AmEx, the team involved will just pass right over you without consequence. Then, in a year or two, you could (hopefully) open new American Express cards and fly under the radar of the current big-bad.
There are caveats here: first, this isn’t guaranteed to work (though I think it’s likely to do so); and second, if you have retention offers or new spend offers that require you to keep a card open for 12-13 months and you close the account before that time is up, you may get those bonuses clawed back and you may get into some sort of American Express penalty box that makes you ineligible for new sign-up bonuses (I wouldn’t worry very much about the penalty box though, after a year or two I’d open a new account and spend $20k-$30k on the card which historically has typically gotten people out of the penalty box).