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:

  1. 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)
  2. 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).

Happy weekend!

A picture looking out of an A330 aircraft window at altitude, with a brontosaurus peeking in.
The reason for the previous flight’s delay.

Background

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.

New Details

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.

Gameplan

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).

As always, stay safe out there friends!

The OG big-bad: American Express Legal’s lead council.

Background

On Monday I was scheduled to fly home on a short-hop Delta flight paid for with 5,000 SkyMiles. As I’m sure you can figure out from the post’s title, that didn’t really go as planned. The short story is that my aircraft had big dent in the airframe from the inbound flight to the airport. Delta posted an initial delay of an hour right when we were getting ready to board.

If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s dealing with IROPS when traveling. If there’s another thing I’m good at, it’s making the best steel cut oats based breakfast bowl that you’ve ever had, but why would you care about that? Let’s stay on topic people!

I have a cardinal rule when it comes to flight delays:

If the delay posted is an hour or longer, you need to have a backup option in place.

The moment the delay was announced, and I mean that very moment, I speed-walked to the SkyClub to avoid any lines at the gate, and simultaneously I made a call to Delta Reservations in case they’d come back more quickly than the SkyClub (spoiler alert: they didn’t). When I got to the SkyClub, I scanned my boarding pass and asked immediately to be “protected on the next flight” to my destination. The agent was able to do that in about 15 seconds.

Flight Protection

What is flight protection? It’s when an airline holds a seat for you on another flight without giving up your seat on your original flight. Then you’ve got the option to take either flight, whichever departs first. With most airlines, you can select a seat on both flights and you’ll be on the upgrade list for both flights too if you’re eligible.

All you have to do to get protected on the next flight is to know how to ask. And asking is as simple as “My current flight is delayed. Would you please protect me on the next flight to XXX?”

Caveat: Some airlines will cancel any remaining flights on your itinerary if you miss a flight (I’m looking at you United, the only airline that’s screwed me multiple times with this), so after I scan my boarding pass on whichever flight departs first, I double check to make sure that the other flight drops out of my itinerary in the airline’s mobile app. If it doesn’t, then I ask the gate agent or another employee to take it off of the itinerary so the rest of my flights don’t auto-cancel.

My Conclusion

As you’d probably guess, a dented airframe is more than an hour long fix. Delta ended up flying in another plane and crew to operate the flight, and it departed 6 hours and 5 minutes past the original schedule which is frankly pretty good for an event like this at a non-hub. I was already home and on my couch by the time that original flight departed though — I got there via the protected flight.

Bonus: Delta proactively gave me 7,500 SkyMiles for the delayed flight without me contacting them, making that ticket a 1.5x SkyMiles earner. If only I could replicate that at scale.

It’ll prolly buff out, right?

I’m sure you’ve heard all about the new American Express Platinum changes ad-nauseam, but in case you haven’t there’s a nice overview here (short version: higher annual fee, more stupid benefits). Once we know a little more about what works for hacking the value out of the benefits I’ll make sure you’re all up to speed.

In the mean time though, I want to offer a piece of advice that will hopefully up your game: When it comes to the Terms & Conditions in credit card offers, shopping portals, spend bonuses, or anything else we deal with in travel hacking: Trust but verify. Here’s a concrete example for us to work with: The new, higher annual fee, stupified additional credit American Express Platinum card. If you read the Terms and Conditions for the card, you’ll see the following sentence at the beginning in big bold letters, slapping you in the face:

Welcome offer not available to applicants who have or have had this Card or previous versions of the Platinum Card.

That’s pretty easy to understand — if you’ve had a Platinum card, you’re not eligible for another bonus. Ultimately if you absolutely, positively must have this sign up bonus or you don’t want the card, you should probably trust what the terms say because that’s the legal framework that you’ll be working under if something goes wrong. However, (you knew there was a “however” coming, right?) that statement is verifiably not actually how sign up bonuses have been working in practice. Despite what the T&C says, you’ll get the bonus with American Express unless they give you a popup during the application that says: “… you are not eligible to receive the welcome offer. We have not yet performed a credit check. Would you still like to proceed?” The flip side is true, you may be eligible for a bonus according to the T&C, but you may still get the popup and you definitely won’t receive the bonus in that case.

So much of what we do in this hobby is reliant on the Terms and Conditions, and certainly if you ever go to mediation or court with a company, the Terms and Conditions will be hard to walk away from. That said, a lot of what we do in this hobby is to hide in the noise, and sometimes the noise is simply just overzealous T&C that doesn’t actually govern what happens in practice.

So, know what’s in the Terms and Conditions, but verify within in the community to see if they’re actually enforced. If you don’t, you’ll be missing out on a fair number of hiding “in the noise” opportunities.

Happy holiday weekend, don’t blow up your face with a firework.

Yes friends, even the firework’s Terms and Conditions “do not hold in hand” term isn’t enforced.

I alluded to some of the weekend train-wreckage that was happening in private groups on Monday, but now that the situation is public and many in the community are affected, I think we should go over a few points:

  • A semi-well known /r/churning Redditor, JonLuca, allegedly examined Chase’s source code last summer and manufactured or found links that bypassed Chase’s backend business intelligence rules (it’s unclear to me what is meant by “source code”, perhaps just looking at the HTML/JavaScript at chase.com, or perhaps something else).
  • This weekend in private groups there was a discussion about leaking the JonLuca hacked no-lifetime-language, pre-approved Chase business credit card links to the greater community as an attempt to shield a few heavy hitters from potential shutdown by overwhelming Chase’s fraud team with sheer numbers, allowing them to blend into the noise.
  • After a long discussion, the links were shared in several private groups, then at a semi-public event, and finally on Reddit. To be clear, I think the motivations were different for each case, and disclaimers ranged from none at all to very cautionary/”this might get you shutdown”. Certainly not all actors were malicious but some probably were and the cat jumped way out of the bag.
  • Yesterday, a wave of Chase shutdowns came and according to several other private groups, they keep coming. There are mixed data points, but it seems like if you used at least three of those links, or perhaps just two, you’ve been shutdown or you shouldn’t be surprised if you get shutdown over the next couple of days.

In the end, I think a fair number of shutdowns happened to people who probably weren’t going into the links with their eyes wide open or with full information, and that sucks. This game can be very caveat emptor and you should always be slightly weary.

Where do I stand in all of this? I didn’t use the links or share the links because I didn’t think they were safe, so I’m fine and I hope you’re right there with me. What’s the difference between these links and the American Express links I shared yesterday? The main difference is that the American Express links are low risk to me because they are semi-public, they don’t bypass any American Express backend eligibility checks, and they’re widely targeted.

My advice for you: Don’t use backdoor applications that bypass eligibility checks unless they’re public links you can find at the bank’s website, or if the links are widely targeted. Definitely never, ever use links that were hacked out of an examination of a bank’s source code, whether or not that source code was public. If you don’t know where a link came from, research it, ask around (feel free to ask me if you don’t know who else to ask), and do some diligence. Stay safe out there!

A stuffed cat emerging from a bag.
A freeze frame capture of the actual moment the cat jumped out of the bag.

In this hobby we’re really good at moving money around from bank a, to credit card b, to debit card c, then maybe back to bank a. We’re also good at parking money in accounts for a $750 bonus at Bank of the West or a $600 bonus at HSBC. If you’re like me, that means large sums of money are occasionally sitting in bank accounts, partially as a cushion for lax record keeping in order to avoid overdrafts in case you forget about a pending ACH or charge, and partially as a holding pen for sign-up bonuses or other perks. (And let’s not talk about the stack of gift cards waiting to be liquidated on my desk on any given day.)

When you’re letting money sit you’re subject to the opportunity cost of what that cash could earn if you didn’t leave it parked in some rando bank account. That money could instead be invested in high interest checking accounts (3-5% APR can be had with just a little bit of effort and some scheduled Plastiq $1.00 payments or with Debbit), maybe in US Treasury bills, perhaps you could be putting your money into buying Playstation 5s or graphics cards for resale, or you could be actively or passively investing in the stock market. All of those things will (hopefully) earn you money, and it’s quite likely that you’ll earn more money in those vehicles than the almost nil interest rate your bank probably pays. You’ll potentially earn more than you’re getting with sign-up bonuses too.

MilesEarnAndBurn Case Study: I’m a 90% passive index fund investor (VTI and VEU if you must know) with the other 10% being my own active stock picking based on fundamental market value and a very small smidge of speculation. I’m often right enough about my active stock picks that my 10% allocation grows to be 12% or 14%, so I rebalance back to the 90/10 split and keep going. What does that tell me? If I had a smaller cushion in my bank accounts and better record keeping about money flowing around, I’d have more money for investing, which will almost certainly outperform my stupid 0.005% APR checking account returns in the long run. I’m costing myself real money with my current strategies. I can and will do better.

Takeaway: Pease take a few minutes this weekend to think about your cash, how it sits and how it flows, and whether you’re using it in a way that you’re happy with. Don’t discount that there’s inherent value in simplicity too, if it’s just easier to let an extra $10,000 sit at a bank account to avoid the mental load of more strenuous record keeping, so be it. To be sure, I’m not suggesting any one particular investment vehicle or investment strategy — do what works for you, but please make sure what you’re doing is intentional.

A picture of quite a few US Dollar bills frozen in a large cube of ice.
A representation of how I’ve failed my bank account.

I have a travel hacking thought for you to mull over during the weekend: Inertia kills. Inertia kills deals, accounts, stores, good cashiers, loopholes, and redemptions. It’s easy to fall into a rut and ignore this but you really shouldn’t. What do I mean?

First a little refresher: Inertia is the tendency for something to continue as it has been, to avoid change*. In travel hacking, having big inertia means hitting the same technique over and over again. If your game is just buying a gift card every day and turning it into a money order, you’re in the rut I’m talking about. The same goes for singular focus on sign-up bonuses, or focusing on just gift card reselling, or sticking to cell phone burners. Or it could be using the same bank account for every single money order deposit.

When you’re singularly focused you’ve got massive inertia. The means you’re not:

  • Diversifying risk
  • Diversifying earning
  • Spreading spend
  • Exercising new techniques
  • Preventing burnout

If your bank decides they’ve had enough of your shenanigans, a shutdown there could cause a grinding halt to everything if you don’t have other bank accounts. If you visit the same grocery store every single day you’re going to stand out and you’ll be remembered. All it takes for the grocery axe to come down is a decision from an assistant-manager having a bad day that they don’t like what you’re up to. They may hold a store meeting to tell everyone to not sell to you, call the police, or you may even find your picture on the wall behind the customer service counter. Believe me, it happens.

When you’re constantly changing your game by switching your activities, stores, and techniques, you’re less likely to be noticed. As an added bonus your credit card company is less likely to be suspicious over buying “$506.95 worth of gas” every day when you call for a retention bonus after the annual fee posts. Frankly you’ll earn more and play more in the long run.

The same principle applies to the whole community; when everyone pounded uncle Tio, he passed away. When Plastiq‘s compliance team figured out why nearly every single account was sending $500 payments, they put a quick end to it. When Kroger awarded fuel points on variable load gift cards and watched their profit and loss statement explode, they stopped it. When the community collectively pounded the British Airways 4,500 mile partner redemption in the US for city pairs less than 650 miles apart, the chart changed.

Moral of the story: Keep your accounts, your methods, and your targets diverse and changing, and they’ll all live longer. You’ll probably end up earning and burning more too.

An unfortunate self-commentary.

* Yes, there’s a scientific definition too, you may have heard of it. It’s called “Newton’s First Law”. However my very real physicist hat is off right now and yours should be too.

The Gift Card reselling market usually sucks during the first couple of months of a year, prolly because consumers are detoxing with a hangover from holiday shopping and aren’t sick of their new toys (yet). The hangover is ending now though and the gift card secondary markets are really starting to pick up. A few of my observations for April:

  • Consignment sale holding time has shortened considerably, with the turn-around time dropping to one to three weeks for big retail brands (exceptions: Home Depot, Target)
  • Appetite in private markets for volume gift card sales is soaring, kinda like PLBY stock
  • BestBuy gift card resale rates are creeping back up (I’ve seen 1-2% higher in the last couple of weeks, and break even deals when grocery rewards are included)
  • Capacity for immediate/non-consignment sales in gift card clubs is growing

Retailers are also starting to offer big discounts for Easter, and usually this trend just continues to pick up steam until mid-Summer.

If you don’t have any gift card reseller relationships, there are a few good exchanges out there. Stick with something reputable, good volume, and a good reputation in the community. There are a couple of gift card sellers that I have gotten to know personally and that I trust with bigger volume. That said, always keep your outstanding float in gift cards no higher than the dollar amount you’d be willing to lose if everything went wrong, and spread out your reselling amongst as many reputable sources as you can so if one fails, your whole portfolio isn’t gone. (c.f., The Plastic Merchant, which went bankrupt in 2019 and left resellers holding the bag)

MS note: In the right circles, you can easily do $30-60k of gift card reselling per week after you’ve developed relationships and moved into inner circles, so don’t ignore this technique. Do start out with something really small and slowly ramp over time though, so if you make newbie mistakes they don’t cost you much. As always — don’t push this beyond the amount you’d be willing to lose if something goes wrong. It can happen and has happened.

The worst part of gift card reselling: having a bunch of plastic cards floating around that you can’t get rid of (“just in case”), but serve no useful purpose.