Friday, April 11, 2014

Manufactured Spending: Cautionary Tales

I've previously discussed the  benefits of using credit cards to purchase prepaid debit cards.  Now, I'd like to share a cautionary tale from Flyertalk.  ma91mph posted an example of losing (temporarily, one hopes) the funds on two of his cards after they were refunded to the card through a failed billpay transaction.  The takeaway is that if you pursue this route, it's important to keep your receipts and your used cards.  Even after you think you've used the card up, it could be important to prove that you purchased it.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Tweetdeck & Amex Sync

Big tip of the hat to The Frequent Miler.  I've mentioned American Express' "Sync" offers here before.  Amex frequently offers some really great discounts (in the form of automatic statement credits) for places that I regularly shop.  For instance, they are currently offering $10 off a $50 purchase at Lowes.  The trick is that the Amex website will only allow you to sign up for these offers for your primary user card.  If you want to sign up authorized users, you need a work-around.

Twitter works great for this because if you sync an Amex card to your Twitter account, you can sign up for many of the Sync offers by tweeting a specific hashtag (#AmexLowes, for example).  The trouble is that you can only sync one card per account.  So naturally, I set up 8 different Twitter accounts for each of my primary and authorized user accounts.  There was still a bit of effort, but in a matter of minutes, I could sign up every card I controlled for any particular Sync offer.

I thought I was being very clever, but some others had me beat.  As TFM points out, you can use TweetDeck (a Twitter service) to send out identical tweets from every Twitter account you control!  That means one sign in, one tweet, and you can sign up 8 (or 10 or 12) Amex cards for any Sync offer that's available on Twitter.  Sweet!

Suntrust Delta Debit Card Going Away?

It appears that one of the simplest ways to earn Delta Skymiles may be going away.  Suntrust Bank has partnered with Delta to offer the Suntrust Skymiles Debit, a nearly unique debit card that earns Skymiles on both PIN-based (Debit) and signature-based (Credit) transactions.  This has been a truly fantastic way to earn miles because it means that if you were in Suntrust's business area  (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Maryland, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, and Washington, D.C.) you could get a Suntrust checking account, get the Skymiles debit card for a $75 annual fee, and use the card to pay taxes, load Bluebird, or buy money orders.  Essentially it has been a license to print Skymiles.  For example, here's a screenshot of one monthly Skymiles statement:

A guy I know earned over 20,000 Skymiles in April.
Even with the devaluation of Skymiles, that is pretty good earning.  However, it appears that this opportunity is going fast.  According to Gary at View from the Wing, Suntrust seems to have pulled it's links to apply for the card.  Some people are still reporting success by applying in person or by phone, however.

If you have ever considered getting this card, DO IT NOW!

Edit:  The number at this LINK has been reported to work for signing up.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Thoughts on Manufactured Spending

     To briefly explain to those who may wonder what I'm talking about, Manufactured Spending is a term coined to describe ways to spend money on credit cards without actually incurring credit card debt.  In the glory days, it involved buying actual dollars from the United States Mint with a credit card and depositing those dollars into your bank account to pay off your credit card bill.  Nowadays, it mostly consists of purchasing prepaid gift cards and reload cards, liquidating those cards through various means, and using the proceeds to pay off your credit card bill.  Manufactured spending has proven useful for meeting initial spend requirements for many credit card bonus offers and, in many cases, as a means for effectively purchasing miles or points at a very low cost.

     In the past few days there's been a tremendous kerfluffle in the miles & points world regarding the possibility that a national drug store chain will stop allowing customers to purchase a particular reload card with their credit cards.  This "crisis" has generated a over 500 (ed: 503!) page thread on Flyertalk.  The thread is full of much wailing and gnashing of teeth over the possibility that the cards will no longer be available.

     But here's the thing:  this is no surprise.  Manufactured spending opportunities are freaks.  There simply isn't any market-based reason for most of them to exist.  Some, like the Dollar Coin Direct Ship Program, were products of perverse incentives created by the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the United States Congress.  Others, such as the PIN requirement for prepaid credit cards, are the product of presumably well intentioned regulation by the wretched hive of scum and villainy known as the Executive Branch.  When an organization decides that allowing those opportunities to continue is sufficiently troublesome or unprofitable, they will go away, e.g. Office Depot's decision to stop allowing credit card purchases of reload cards more than a year ago.   As it's been said many times, "if something can't go on forever, it won't."

     The silver lining is that there will almost certainly be new opportunities.  The world didn't end when the Mint stopped selling coins at face value, and it won't end now. 


Monday, March 17, 2014

Retention Bonuses: Thinking about cancelling your card? Call first!

So, you signed up for a great credit card bonus.  You met your spending requirement, got the points, and now a year has gone by.  Your offer may or may not have come with an annual fee for the first year, but now the first renewal fee is coming due.  Should you cancel the card?  The answer is "maybe."  Many card companies are interested in retaining your business and will sometimes make quite attractive offers to get you to stay.

For the most part, American's are not a haggling people.  We don't like to negotiate prices, upgrades, or services.  That tendency can cost us and just a little moxy can save a lot of money.  This principle applies to credit card annual fees just as much as it does to furniture purchases, cable bills, or any other transaction.

I'll give you a specific example.  For several years, I've had an American Express Business Platinum card.  It carries a hefty $450 annual fee, but generally the benefits were worth keeping the card.  Well, since the card lost AA lounge access and the Delta lounge access benefit was reduced to 1 person per card, I've been slightly less enthusiastic about it.  So, when my annual fee posted recently, I decided to call in and see what Amex could do for me.

I called the number on the back of the card and reached a representative.  I explained that the fee had just posted and that I was considering cancelling.  He tried to push the option of downgrading to a card that had a lower fee, but that's not what I was interested in.  I either wanted to cancel the card or keep the card but get a statement credit or Membership Rewards points to offset it.  It quickly became clear that I wasn't going to get anywhere with the guy, though.

So, what to do?  Assume that no offer is available?  NO.  One of the most frequently cited axioms in the points & miles world is:  "You don't like the answer the representative gave you?  Then hang up and call back."  So, I politely ended the call and called back.

This time I explicitly asked for the retention department.  When I reached someone in "Membership Consulting" I explained the situation and asked if there was anything Amex could do for me.  The result?  50,000 Membership Rewards points as a thank-you for keeping the card.  Since the value of the points far exceeds the annual fee (not to mention the value of the card's other features) I thanked her and accepted the offer.  But you know what I would have gotten if I hadn't called to ask?  Nothing, that's what.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Doin' the Bluebird Website Shuffle

The Bluebird Prepaid card is a wonderful tool for meeting spending requirements on new cards because you can load it with Vanilla Reload cards purchased with your credit card.  You can then use Bluebird's billpay function to pay off your credit card or you can simply withdraw the funds to your bank account.

However, Bluebird keeps moving the "withdraw funds" option around, and each time they do so users have to hunt it down again.  Well, they've done it again, but here's how to find its new location.  First login to your homepage and click on the "settings" tab.
This will take you to the "settings" page, which is the new location for the "withdraw funds" option:
I love Bluebird, but I sure wish they'd quit tweaking the website!

Intercontinental Buckhead- Atlanta hotel review

I was recently in Atlanta for business and had the chance to visit the Intercontinental Buckhead for a one night stay.  Since I'm still a IC "Royal Ambassador" I wanted to see how this property treated elite guests.  I qualified for a government rate @ $133 and booked the basic level room.  A few days before my stay, my online reservation showed an upgrade to an Executive Suite, but the day before I arrived, I was downgraded to an Executive Club King room.  I would have fought it if I'd thought to print the confirmation page showing the suite.  Unfortunately, I hadn't taken that precaution.

In the end the room was perfectly fine for a one night stay.  The Executive Club floor rooms are fairly typical for an upmarket hotel.  The bathroom is just off the entry hall:
It features a single vanity, tub and separate shower.
The toiletries are Agraria branded:

The bed was comfortable and the room had a large flatscreen television:

Surprisingly, the IC Buckhead does not have pay-per-view movies, so I wasn't able to use the free movie perk that comes with Ambassador status.

The hotel does have a pretty good minibar, though:
Not pictured here was a bottle of red wine and two miniatures of Patron Silver tequila that were in an area above the minibar.  Among the shortcomings of the minibar are the absence of any local beer (despite Atlanta offering some good ones) and the substitution of sparkling white wine for Champagne. 

I guess that this was my Ambassador gift, though other reviewers have reported receiving a full bottle of wine:

I was given Club access so I popped in for a visit.  The club is fairly small, but was not crowded while I was there.  There is an open (but modest) bar in the evenings:

There are also two fridges stocked with beer and soft drinks.  The club offered a better selection of beer than the minibar, including Stella Artois.  The food spread was surprisingly good, though my picture of it is not:
The best thing was some really good shrimp "ceviche" (steamed shrimp, so not really ceviche).  The single hot offering were some mediocre empanadas.  Also on offer included was the usual cheese, bread, crudites, and crackers along with a number of small salad plates.
Breakfast in the morning was decent, but not memorable:
There is, however, a good selection of teas on offer along with an espresso machine.