August 12, 2014
In my recent post, “Easy wins,” I showed, among other things, easy ways to get credit card signup bonuses for luxury hotel stays. Another option for luxury stays, is to use points earned from credit card spend. Some people buy and liquidate gift cards in order to run up credit card spend and earn points. For this post, I analyzed what I believe to be the quickest ways to earn points through manufactured spend and compared these approaches to see which was best. The results might surprise you…
Shown above: The Intercontinental Bora Bora Resort. Overwater bungalow rooms are bookable for 50,000 IHG points per night.
For each included hotel chain, I looked up the number of points required for their top-tier properties. In a few cases, the number of points required varies seasonally, so I always chose the most expensive point rate. And, to compare to cash rates, I made the assumption that a $700 per night hotel room is a good target for top tier stays. I realize that some top tier properties sell rooms for much more than $700 per night, but I believe that $700 is enough to get a really nice room in pretty much any city or town, anywhere.
|Hotel Chain||Top Category||Points Required|
|Pay w Cash||N/A||70,000|
|Pay w Arrival Points*||N/A||63,000|
* Points required (shown above) when paying with BarclayCard Arrival Plus card points is after the automatic 10% rebate. For example, a $700 hotel night would require 70,000 points, but you would receive an instant 7,000 point rebate for a net cost of 63,000 points.
Next, I looked at the best credit card to use to buy gift cards to get the required points (or cash):
- Arrival Plus card: This card earns 2 points per dollar on all spend, so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased. I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $2.95 fee.
- Club Carlson Premier or Business card: This card earns 5 points per dollar on all spend, so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased. I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $2.95 fee.
- Hilton Surpass card: This card earns 6 points per dollar at grocery stores and gas stations. I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $5.95 fee. Note that it is possible to get 7.5 points per dollar by reloading Amex Campus Edition cards with a Citi Forward card (5X) and then transferring points to Hilton at a 1 to 1.5 exchange rate. Aside from the fact that you can do better with Citi ThankYou points, the Forward card is no longer available to new applicants, so I didn’t include this option in the analysis.
- Ink Plus / Ink Bold / Ink Cash card: This card earns 5 points per dollar at office supply stores. And, if you have a Visa version of the card, you can get 1% cash back at Staples for purchases of $200 or more by enrolling your card in the Visa Savings Edge program. I made the assumption that one would buy $200 Visa gift cards at Staples, each with a $6.95 fee. After the Visa Savings Edge rebate, the total fee would be $4.88. Of the hotel chains in this analysis, the Ink Plus and Ink Bold cards allow 1 to 1 transfers to Hyatt, IHG, Marriott, and Ritz Carlton.
- Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) card: This card earns just 1 point per dollar on all spend (except SPG properties where it earns 2X), so there is no restriction on where gift cards are purchased. I made the assumption that one would buy $500 Visa gift cards each with a $2.95 fee.
- 5% Cash Back card: There are several different cards that earn 5% cash back under various conditions (see “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole”). Most of these cards offer 5% at drugstores (among other locations) where $500 gift cards with $4.95 fees are usually available.
Other assumptions: In addition to the above listed assumptions, I also assumed that there would be no fees involved in cashing out gift cards. This can be done, for example, by using the cards to load Bluebird or Serve at Walmart, or by paying bills via Evolve Money. Fees for other approaches (such as buying money orders, etc.) vary a lot, so were not included in this analysis.
Gift card purchase fees shown in this analysis were based on my assumptions of the most usual scenarios. There are, of course, tricks for spending less (or earning more). For more details about buying Visa and MasterCard gift cards, please see: “Best options for buying Visa and MasterCard gift cards.”
For each hotel / credit card / gift card scenario, I calculated the number of gift cards needed to get a top tier free night, and added up the fees on each gift card. For simplicity sake, I didn’t count points earned from the fee portion of the gift cards. It wouldn’t have amounted to much, anyway.
Basically, Club Carlson kicked butt. Here are the results in tabular form:
# Gift Cards Req for Free Night
|Pay w Cash||28||$138.60|
|Pay w Arrival Points||63||$185.85|
Best Options: 28 to 32 gift cards; $82 to $190 in fees
The best options for manufacturing luxury hotel nights are: Club Carlson, Pay with Cash, Hyatt, and Hilton. To get top tier free nights via gift card purchases you would need to buy between 28 and 32 gift cards and spend between $82 and $190 in fees.
The Club Carlson approach beats the pants off the others because the Club Carlson credit card lets you book a two night award for the price of one. The downside is that they currently have very few luxury properties. And, of their top tier category 7 properties, I doubt many routinely charge anywhere near $700 per night. That may change a bit as Club Carlson builds out their new Quorvus Collection brand. For now, though, the choices are quite limited.
The next best option is to earn and pay cash. Not only does this give you the second best results as shown above, but by earning cash back and using that cash to pay for hotel nights, you can stay anywhere. And, since many desirable properties cost considerably less than $700 per night, you can probably stretch your rewards even further. And, don’t forget that when you pay for a hotel room rather than using points, you can potentially earn rewards in that hotel’s loyalty program or from a booking service such as Hotels.com (and you can make the latter even sweeter by going through a portal to book hotels).
Hyatt and Hilton are also good options here, although the Hilton option is fairly pricey at $190 in fees. Keep in mind that Hyatt has many very desirable properties at the lower category 6 level (25K points per night); and Hilton has a wide range for their top tier: 70,000 to 95,000 points. Also, Hilton elites can book five nights for the price of four, so that helps reduce the price point on long stays.
Middling Options: 45 to 50 gift cards; $219 to $244 in fees
Using the gift card buying approach to earn Marriott and IHG points (with Chase Ink cards) to cover top tier hotel nights is not a great way to go, but there are worse options. For one night in these hotels you would need to buy and liquidate 45 to 50 gift cards and would spend $219 to $244 in fees. Marriott, though, does have a 5th night free option to help reduce the sting if you plan to book a longer stay. And, IHG lets you buy points for only .7 cents each by booking and cancelling points & cash stays. So, you could actually do significantly better with IHG by using a cash approach (or even converting Ultimate Rewards points to cash) and then buying points as needed. This approach makes the most expensive IHG properties cost only $350 per night.
Worst Options: 63 to 70 gift cards; $185 to $341 in fees
The worst options for acquiring top-tier hotel nights through gift card purchases are the Arrival Card (with which you could book any hotel room), SPG, and Ritz Carlton. With these approaches, you would need to buy 63 to 70 gift cards and spend $185 to $341 in fees. SPG is actually even worse than it appears since some of their luxury hotels have no standard rooms and they therefore charge even more than 35,000 points per night.
Points & Cash Options
Hyatt and SPG have meaningful Points & Cash options for booking nights. Hyatt charges 15,000 points plus $300 at their top tier, and SPG similarly charges 15,000 points plus $275. What if you were to use two credit cards: one to earn points and one to earn cash? Here are the results:
# Gift Cards Req for Free Night
|Hyatt Points & Cash||27||$133|
|SPG Points & Cash||41||$143|
It turns out that Hyatt’s numbers are about the same in either scenario. The points & cash approach is a tiny bit better, but not meaningfully so. On the other hand, the SPG Points & Cash approach makes a big difference. Suddenly the number of gift cards required drops from 70 to 41; and the total fees drop from $207 to $143. This puts the SPG points & cash approach in the “middling” group of options.
What it all means
If your goal is to earn luxury hotel nights through manufactured spend, consider these best options:
Club Carlson: If Club Carlson’s limited set of luxury accommodations work for you, and if you like to stay in hotels two nights at a time, and if the rooms would otherwise cost over $350 per night, then running up spend on the Club Carlson Premier or Business Visa is your best option. Yes, a lot of “ifs”.
5% Cash Back: Unless you’re eying hotels that routinely cost significantly more than $700 per night, this is the single best approach. The tough part is that 5% cash back cards have time limits and/or prerequisites that make the cards best for really big spenders. See details here: “Playing 5X everywhere Whack a Mole.”
Hyatt: If your heart is set on staying in one of the six category 7 Hyatt properties (found here), then it can definitely make sense to earn Hyatt points with your Chase Ink card at Staples since these properties are often outrageously expensive. For other Hyatt properties or for off-season stays, you would often do better with the 5% cash back approach.
Hilton: I think that the Hilton approach for 95,000 point per night stays makes sense if: 1) You would like to stay at properties that cost over $700 per night; 2) You value top tier Diamond status (which you would get with $40K annual spend on the Hilton Surpass card); and 3) You plan to stay 5 nights to take advantage of a fifth night free award. The Hilton approach gets more attractive if you find otherwise expensive properties in lower categories or offering off-season point rates.
Next to signup bonuses, Cash is King.
See also: Luxury travel via Penny Points.