Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Credit Card Companies Invite us to Refer Friends...for Inferior Signup Bonuses? (and how to work around the situation)

Chase and American Express offer some of the best credit cards available in the market today. They've got generous sign-up bonuses and reward ongoing spend. They like to get more people to sign-up and use their cards because many of them carry an annual fee and they all generate swipe fees.

In order to encourage more people to sign up for their cards, banks offer affiliate links to websites which meet their criteria. You need to have a lot of traffic, and a professional website aimed at their target market. Family blogs like this don't qualify. Even high quality travel websites don't always qualify - you've got to have sufficient traffic for them to want to maintain a relationship with you. This is different than the Amazon model where almost any website can become an affiliate - they just pay at a higher percentage for sites that refer more revenue-producing traffic.

If you're like me and you talk to a lot of family and friends about which credit card sign-up bonuses are best there's another option besides affiliate links and that's Refer a Friend programs. Both Chase and American Express offer these options but there's one a catch:

The signup bonuses are almost always inferior to the best available option.

What kind of friend would refer a friend for a bad offer? This is a terrible way to run a referral business. You want to refer a friend for a great product with a great signup bonus.

I wish the credit card companies provided ways for referrals of the best offers. I'm sure this is a common complaint of affiliates as well: "Give us the best links if you want us to promote your products."

There's nothing I can do to change this, but I can offer up an assessment of the current referral offers available for some of the best credit cards out there along with suggestions of how to work around the problem to get the best signup bonuses -and- a referral bonus as well.

Chase Sapphire Preferred

Chase offers a referral option for some of their cards, for certain cardholders. If you have this card you can check whether you're eligible to refer friends here:

Chase invites you to refer your friends -
for an inferior signup bonus!
Refer a Friend Offer: 40k Ultimate Rewards (this is my referral link)
Better Offer: 40k + 5k for adding an authorized user, $95 annual fee (this is the standard link)

Workaround: None. If you refer a friend for the 40k offer the best you can do (with a lot of persistence) is get Chase to match the 5k authorized user bonus.

Guidance: If you're averse to arguing about signup bonuses go for the 40k + 5k authorized user bonus. You can probably go through a referral link and then request a match on the 5k authorized user bonus, effectively getting both the referral bonus and the 5k authorized user bonus. There was a 50k offer with a $125 annual fee for this card for a while there but it seems to be gone now unless you call in.

American Express Premier Rewards Gold

American Express offers a referral option by logging into then Rewards - Refer a Friend. If you're eligible you should see this:

AmEx's referral program also has inferior offers
sent through emails you can't customize
The way AmEx does referrals is a little quirky. You have to send an email to your friend which includes a personal link. Since it's new to me I'm unsure if the resulting link in the email can be used by multiple people. But since the referral links for the best available offer for the Platinum and Gold cards I wouldn't recommend using them anyway.

All three of these cards are terrific - but only if you catch a peak signup bonus. Even then you may want to consider which cards to apply for concurrently because AmEx blocks signup bonuses for products from the same family. For example, if you currently hold a gold card you can't get the signup bonus for a platinum card. More on strategies related to this in a future post. (subscribe for updates)

Refer a Friend Offer: 25k
Better Offer: Card Match or Targeted 50k

Workaround: None. In my experience AmEx is not friendly about matching better bonuses. I even had to fight with them to get the standard 25k bonus on the AmEx SPG I signed up for this year.

Guidance: Check and/or log into in an incognito browser window then go to Cards - Learn About Charge & Credit Cards - Your Special Card Offers

American Express Starwood Preferred Guest

25k might seem like a weak signup bonus compared to the big numbers other cards offer. But it's because Starwood points are very valuable. I'd estimate their worth a $0.02 a piece so even a 25k signup bonus isn't bad. Starwood points can be redeemed at their properties at favorable rates and - perhaps strangely for a hotel loyalty program - they can be transferred to a ton of airlines at a 20k to 25k ratio. Then, for example, you can redeem those points on Lufthansa for 34k roundtrip domestic flights within the US on United. Crazy, right?

Refer a Friend Offer: 25k (my referral link)
Better Offer: None right now. Best signup I've seen lately for this was 30k this past fall.

Workaround: Sadly, this is the only card of the bunch where the referral signup bonus is on par with the current best offer. If you're in the market for this card now, 25k isn't a bad signup bonus. I'm not sure whether use of a referral link (that I generated by emailing the offer to myself) will make me eligible for a referral fee. But it's worth a shot.

This is a really strange way to design a referral program (email only? what about Facebook and Twitter?). If you'd really like to make sure I get the referral bonus (5k) drop me an email and I'll send you one.

Chase Freedom

As I mentioned in this post this is a great card with no annual fee.

Refer a Friend Offer: 10k Ultimate Rewards
Better Offer: 20k Ultimate Rewards (expired)

Workaround: Apply through the refer a friend link. Then when you're activating the card (or shortly after via secure message) ask them to match the 20k offer. Chase is good about this in a case like this where the signup bonus has increased and the offer is otherwise identical.

American Express Platinum

I wouldn't apply for this card for less than a 50k signup bonus. For even semi-frequent travelers the $450 annual fee is easily justified by lounge access, $200 in airline incidentals (or gift cards twice a year), Global Entry (worth $100, good for 5 years and includes TSA PreCheck), and its Starwood/Hilton/National status (which can be matched to Hertz Five Star).

Refer a Friend Offer: 25k Membership Rewards
Better Offer: Targeted 100k (but hard to come by)

Workaround: None.

Guidance: Check and/or log into in an incognito browser window then go to Cards - Learn About Charge & Credit Cards - Your Special Card Offers


I understand that banks have to abide by regulations in place to avoid consumers getting duped by unscrupulous characters. But I wish they'd learn from how Amazon sets up its affiliates program. Almost anyone with a website is eligible to participate in the program. The more products you sell, the more your referral percentage goes up.

This seems like a bright way to run an affiliate program because as small sites grow they're already familiar with your program. And with social media we're all potentially affiliates aren't we?

I hope this is helpful in navigating your way to the best sign-up bonuses while, in some cases, maintaining your referral bonus as well.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Pasta Genovese alla Nonna

Showing me the tricks of her trade, 2003
These days my sweet little Nonna remembers the faces of the people she loves but much else is just a haze.  Now that she doesn't cook, I am so grateful that 10 years ago I stood beside her in the kitchen and watched her make one of my family's beloved dishes.  To this day, mention of it makes my husband and my father's eyes light up.  

"Genovese" is what she always called it, though, there's no basil to be found.  This one is authentic from her childhood and is absolutely perfect for a cold Fall or Winter night.  This pasta sauce is "peasant style" which is the polite way to say it uses very inexpensive ingredients.  From humble beginnings come memorable cuisine.  It also happens to be super simple and one you should put on your must-try list.  

Pasta Genovese
2 lbs. of onions sliced thinly into strips
1 and 1/2 lbs. boneless chuck steak (cut the meat into 4 large cubes and remove visible fat)
1 lb. hot linguini cooked in salted water
Parmigiano Reggiano to taste

Cover bottom of a dutch oven or thick pot with olive oil
Warm the oil, season meat with salt and pepper, then brown the meat on medium high
Cook for 5 minutes then add the onions.
Add 1 cup of beef broth and bring to a boil,
Turn down heat to a simmer and cook, covered for 2+ hours, until meat is easily falling apart into sauce.
Season with salt and pepper to taste.
Serve over hot linguini with lots of freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano.

I hope you enjoy a small part of the legacy that is my sweet little Grandma.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Maximizing the Value of the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Credit Cards

Key Link: Sign up for the Chase Freedom for a 20K bonus (regularly 10K) for a limited time

I've had the Chase Freedom credit card for many years but it wasn't until just recently that I explored (and figured out) how to maximize its value. In its simplest use, the card offers 5% cash back on quarterly rotating categories and 1% on everything else with no annual fee.

That in itself makes it a good card to keep forever since the average age of your credit card accounts and the age of your oldest account has a meaningful impact on your credit score.

See also: 10 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the Best Travel Credit Card

But there are two key concepts you need to understand in order to take the value of this card to the next level:

Trick 1: Pair it with an annual fee based Chase Ultimate Rewards card to enable quick conversion of points earned on the Chase Freedom into more-valuable-than-cash airline and hotel points

For many years I'd convert the points earned on my Chase Freedom into cashback. Cash is king right? Not necessarily. If you also have a fee based Chase card like the Sapphire Preferred or the Ink (business) cards you can combine the points earned on the Freedom with the points associated with your fee based card to transfer them to airline/hotel travel partners with favorable award availability and redemption levels like United and Hyatt. It pains me when I look back at my lowly past redemptions.

This makes Ultimate Rewards worth more than a penny if you like to travel and can redeem them effectively. For example, if you transfer 60,000 Ultimate Rewards points to United for a roundtrip ticket to Europe that would normally cost $1,600 that's a redemption worth $0.026 per point. This is much more valuable than redeeming for cashback. And the values get even more attractive when redeeming for premium cabin flights - especially internationally.

That's why I get excited about 5x Ultimate Rewards points (as opposed to 5% cashback). It's almost like 10+% back if you can redeem them effectively.

Trick 2: Maximize the 5x Categories by Category/Time Shifting and Manufacturing Spend

With the Chase Freedom, each quarter you can earn 5x (capped at $1,500 in spending) in rotating categories. That's 30k points per year for just $6k spent annually. Here are the categories for 2013:

A normal person would look at these and think "Hmm - I spend quite a bit on gas and restaurants. I should be able to get some nice 5x rewards." But in order to maximize these categories there are a few simple tricks you can leverage.

First, consider drugstores. Have you seen the massive gift card racks they have at drugstores like CVS? You can buy merchant gift cards for retailers like Amazon, gas stations, retailers and more. This is called category shifting. You spend money at drugstores (on gift cards) for 5x back and you spend the gift cards elsewhere.

Time shifting is when you buy these gift cards for future use. You want to maximize the $1,500 for the quarter but you're not going to immediately use the gift cards. So for example you buy retailer gift cards at a gas station when that's the bonus category -or- gas gift cards at Lowe's when that's the category and use them over the next couple months.

I'm personally not a fan of time shifting because I don't like to prepay for stuff. I prefer to "manufacture" spend. For example, at CVS they sell Visa gift cards and various "reload" cards that, for about a ~1% fee can generate bonused spend then be quickly liquidated. Since you're getting 5x (actually 10+% thanks to Trick #1) you can easily stomach a 1% fee. You then take these near-cash equivalents and liquidate them using various techniques. Loading Vanilla Reloads to Bluebird then paying bills (even your mortgage) or the credit card bill itself is the simplest and longest running scheme around. It sounds crazy at first but if you're interested it's not that difficult at all.

Sign-up Considerations

First, know your credit score and what goes into it. Read Does Churning Credit Cards Damage Your Credit Score for more info. If your credit score is south of 720 I'd work on improving your score up before playing any games with credit card sign ups.

Then, there are different things to consider depending on your credit history and the current cards you carry. If you've applied for a credit card within the past 90 days, especially another Chase card, I'd wait until 90+ days have passed before signing up for another.

If you already have a lot (as in, like, more than 6) Chase credit cards, especially if you've signed up for them within the last year, you might want to hold off on signing up for more. Chase allows users to have an indeterminate number of their cards but at some point you start to hit a wall with them. You can usually swap out a card you're not using when you apply and sometimes it requires a call to their reconsideration line if your application goes pending or is denied.

But you need to be choosy when picking your Chase cards because they have a ton of great ones and you only have so many "slots" with any one bank. I think the Chase Freedom is worthy of a slot though because:

  1. It has no annual fee (so you can keep it forever and use it to build up your credit score)
  2. It earns valuable and flexible Ultimate Rewards points (when paired with a fee based Chase card)

Sign-up Strategies

Again, everyone's situation is different. But here's what I'd do in terms of signing up for the Chase Freedom and Chase Sapphire Preferred with some family and friends in mind at various stages in life. Remember - you've got to have a fee based card to unlock the potential of the Chase Freedom card.

Young Single

I'd go for the Chase Freedom first to start building your credit history. Since it has no annual fee you can keep it forever and banks like to see that you've had one or two long standing credit cards in your portfolio.

Once you start accruing some points and are within striking distance (40k) of a desirable redemption sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred. Within the first year of having the Sapphire Preferred (before the annual fee hits) transfer the ponits to United, Hyatt, or other travel partner.

Single with Established Credit

Tough call here. There are so many great cards out there and if you're running enough natural spending through your credit cards (due to reimbursed business expenses and "other stuff") you can probably justify the annual fee of the Sapphire Preferred ($95). I'd go for the Sapphire Preferred first and supplement with the Freedom down the line when you have a better feel for how valuable Ultimate Rewards can be.


This is really the sweet spot of the Chase Ultimate Rewards scheme. You can transfer points to your spouse without a fee so you only need to have one fee based Chase card per family. That means you can each have a Chase Freedom which effectively gives you $3,000 per quarter you can earn 5x with plus you can each have a Sapphire Preferred (one of which you'd likely cancel the first year after receiving the signup bonus).

On top of this, you can add each other as authorized users (if desired) to one another's cards. Typically, I find that one of the two partners in a marriage are interested in points and miles. The other just goes along and is willing to tolerate it. For situations like this, add the point junkie as an authorized user of the cards with bonused spend categories that have a quarterly cap so they can do the hard work for both spouses.

Caution: Adding a person as an authorized user of a card will make the balance and usage of that card appear on their credit score. So only do this in cases where it's worth it. For me, it's worth it if 1) The card gives you points for adding an authorized user (the Chase United card gives 5k) or 2) The card continually needs to be accessed to rack up points and miles in bonused categories.

Advanced Maneuvers

Do you have a small business? Even a fledgling one? Have you ever thought of starting a fledgling one? The Chase Ink business cards that carry an annual fee also earn Ultimate Rewards, come with a lucrative 50k point sign up bonus and earn 5x at office supply stores and telecom services. The 5x at office supply stores presents a perpetual category shifting opportunity. These cards pair brilliantly with the Freedom and Sapphire Preferred, but to minimize fees you only need to carry one fee based Chase card per family any time you want to transfer to airline/hotel partners.

You could sign up for the Chase Sapphire Preferred and then the Chase Freedom and earn a signup for both. Then, I've heard you can "downgrade" the Sapphire Preferred to a fee-free Sapphire variant of the card OR a second Freedom card and have both a Freedom MasterCard and a Visa. This could effectively give you even more ceiling with which to earn 5x in rotating categories and would be worth pursuing so long as you have one fee based card you can use (either your spouse's or an Ink business card). I haven't tried this maneuver yet so I can't comment on how it's working recently.

If you sign up for the card through the link below I'll get 5,000 points for referring you and you'll get 10,000 points. I wish I could tell you that you could sign up yourself then refer friends or your spouse to get additional miles. But the current Chase Refer a Friend promotion is only available to existing cardholders as of the date the promotion started. Hopefully they'll run this same promotion down the road and you too can earn referral bonuses. But if you had a Sapphire Preferred -or- a Freedom before this offer started running you can refer your spouse or your other friends and family. To see if you're eligible to refer go here and enter your name/zip/last 4 digits on your card.


The Chase Freedom card is a terrific card to get if you like to travel and don't mind interacting with your cards enough to maximize its value. By pairing it with a fee based Chase card like the Sapphire Preferred you can maximize the value of the points earned with the no fee Chase Freedom card.

Key Link: Sign up for the Chase Freedom for a 20K bonus (regularly 10K) for a limited time

Feel free to drop me an email if you have questions.

Monday, September 02, 2013

10 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the Best Travel Credit Card

Key Link: Get 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in 3 months on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card

I've spent a lot of time researching and refining my strategy related to credit card signup bonuses this year. I've shifted away from a mostly cashback approach in favor of travel rewards after realizing I was leaving a lot of money on the table. I took the time to research how credit cards affect my credit score and learned that signing up for new cards can actually help my credit score in the long run.

I saw that I was able to refinance our mortgage without incident even though I'd recently signed up for a bunch of new credit cards. After racking up a bunch of points and miles in my first round of card applications I realized it was important to build a foundation in points programs that have flexible redemption options because you never know how your travel interests might change in the future and it's good to keep your options open.

See also: Maximizing the Value of the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Credit Cards

When I talk to friends and family about this interest I get mixed responses. Some people just don't want to bother with it. They've had bad experiences trying to redeem miles for free flights when they want to travel or they're just not interested in interacting with their finances in this way. Others really are interested and quickly catch the bug and are just a few steps behind me exploring this space. And finally there's the rest of you who are interested in "getting 80% of the benefit for 20% of the effort". They want the condensed summary: Just tell me what one thing I should do right now.

For this group, I think a "once a year" churn strategy is in order. Each year sign up for one or more new cards and then re-visit whether the card is working well for them when the annual fee comes due.

And if you're going to sign up for one card this year I think the best card to get is the Chase Sapphire Preferred. The card comes with a 40,000 "point" signup bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. The best way to use those points is to transfer them 1:1 to airlines like United, Southwest, or British Airways. Or to hotel partners like Hyatt and Marriott. Or even Amtrak. So rather than locking yourself into one airline or hotel partner you have access to many.

And if you can't find reward availability on the dates you want to travel you can redeem them for travel on any airline at a 20% discount. Or you can just cash out at a penny a point. It's really the best of all worlds.

Here's 10 reasons why I think the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best travel credit card...

1. Flexibility

You never know what life is going to throw at you. You may be living in one city where there's a dominant air carrier then unexpectedly move to another part of the country. You might have a new baby in the family and want to take it easy on the travel for a while. That's why I like this card - you can find a reward option that suits your needs. The best way to use the points is towards international airfare. But even if you can't use the points for that you're still getting good value out of them.

2. Transfer Partners

Their list of transfer partners isn't the longest, but they've established relationships with key partners: United, Southwest, and Hyatt. They're each great partners because they have some of the best award availability in terms of being able to redeem award travel at "saver" levels with reasonable advanced notice. For the most part, their partners haven't devalued their award redemption schedules. And their partners are well diversified for international and domestic travel.

3. Sign-up Bonus

Ultimate Rewards are worth a penny a point towards cash back. They're worth more if you transfer them effectively to travel partners. If you book a flight from the US to Europe on United worth $1,500 for 70,000 that's 2.5 cents per point which would make the sign-up worth $1,000. The key here, on top of the generous sign-up bonus, is flexibility.

4. Bonused Spend Categories

The card earns 2x at restaurants and on the broad "travel" category. 2x at restaurants is really nice in itself plus airfare, hotels, taxis, parking and more are included in the travel category so this is much nicer than just "airfare" (like the AmEx Preferred Rewards Gold car) or "hotels" (like the Chase Ink business cards).

5. Access to the Ultimate Rewards Shopping Portal

Certain Chase cards are included in the Ultimate Rewards shopping portal where you can earn extra points on top of the regular points you'd otherwise earn on the card for initiating online shopping transactions through the Ultimate Rewards portal. Check and http://evreward to make sure you're maximizing your value when shopping online.

6. No Foreign Transaction Fees

When using your credit card outside the US some cards have foreign transaction fees and others do not. This card does not. That's a good thing.

7. Turbo Charge your Chase Freedom Ultimate Rewards Points

If you happen to already hold a Chase Freedom card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred makes an excellent partner. Whereas with the Chase Freedom card you can only redeem your points for gift cards and cashback, once you have a Chase Sapphire Preferred card you can redeem all of your Ultimate Rewards at maximum efficiency. Specifically you can transfer the points earned on the lucrative rotating 5x Freedom categories towards airline/hotel transfers.

8. 3x at Restaurants on the First Friday of Each Month

This is a recent addition but a tasty one. On the first Friday of each month you'll earn 3x points (instead of the usual 2x points) at restaurants. This is a great reason to enjoy a special dinner out once a month. You can earn this more than once each first Friday - breakfast, lunch, dinner and even gift card purchases at restaurants can qualfify!

9. Heavy Duty Metal Card

This is totally subjective but everyone who receives this card notices - it's really substantial. All things equal I'll take it as a card benefit. When/if you cancel they send you a postage-paid return envelope to safely dispose of the card because it cannot be shredded. It's kind of like a really heavy bottle of wine - it doesn't guarantee a superior product but it does suggest that the producer wants to denote quality.

10. Provides Multiple Ways to Rack Up United and Southwest Miles and Points

One of the best things about Chase's tie-ups with United and Southwest (they issue their cards exclusively) is that points earned through the Sapphire Preferred card can be stacked with points earned through the United and Southwest cards. So if you want to fly a family for free you can sign up for both the Chase Sapphire Preferred and the United/Southwest cards. This isn't possible with programs like JetBlue and Virgin America where it's hard to earn miles through credit card sign-ups beyond their own card.

Conclusion and Recommendations

So there you have it - 10 reasons why I think this is the best travel rewards credit card to get.

The $95 annual fee is waived the first year. After the year is up see whether the card benefits outweigh the annual fee. I think they do - but be sure to call and ask for a retention bonus after about 11 months. If you don't like the card benefits you can downgrade to a no annual fee version of the card and the 40,000 Ultimate Rewards points - and all the bonused spend you've racked up - will be yours to keep.

Key Link: Get 50,000 Ultimate Rewards points after spending $4,000 in 3 months on the Chase Sapphire Preferred card

Questions or comments? Let me know by dropping me an email or pinging me on Twitter: @RobertDwyer

Further Reading: Maximizing the Value of the Chase Sapphire Preferred and Chase Freedom Credit Cards

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Tips & Tricks for Discounts at Disneyland Resort, Legoland, Sea World, and Four Seasons Aviara

We're just back from a fantastic trip to Southern California and I'd like to share what I found for discounts at the theme parks and resorts we visited. It drives me bonkers when I leave money on the table by not taking advantage of the best discount possible, and it never ceases to amaze me how some of the best discounts are the most peculiar.

Our profile: Two adults, two kids (8 and 5 year old boys as of this post) travelling from Massachusetts for a week-long stay. We're not going back to California again this year (as much as I'd like to) so annual passes, for the most part, aren't viable for us. I've entertained some annual passes that work for parks in California and Florida but haven't found them to be tremendously advantageous for our situation.

Read on for the best discounts and angles I could find and let me know what you've found that works better!

Disneyland Resort

Without a doubt, Disney Parks are the hardest places I've found to get discounts. Kind of like Apple, they do a fine job of maintaining the integrity of their pricing structure by minimizing the availability of deep discounts.

One angle I considered during the booking process, that has the potential to work for a variety of situations, is buying Disney gift cards at a discount. Target had a deal going last year where you'd get a $10 Target gift card if you purchased $50 worth of anything in the store, and gift cards qualified. It was a high involvement slightly shady technique (how many trips to Target would you have to make, and how many $50 gift cards would you have to redeem when you arrived at the hotel?) but 20% off your entire Disney vacation had people willing to do crazy stuff. Read more about it here in this massive thread on DIS Boards.

Also, though it's not the best redemption rate, many credit cards let you use points for Disney gift cards. Disney gift cards can be used at Disney Parks, Disney Cruise Line, and at Disney Stores across the country. Nice broad usability, unlike iTunes gift cards (for example) which can't be redeemed at the Apple Store.


The lodging portion of the Disney stay is probably one of the easier parts of the Disney vacation to get a discount on. 20%-30% offers seem to come up fairly regularly. I think I got 20% off the room by way of a promotion code my sister in law shared with me.

Staying at a Disney Parks hotel seems to put you on a list for future offers, and it also gets you into the parks early. With Extra Magic Hour, guests staying at one of the Disneyland Resort hotels (Grand Californian, Disneyland Hotel or Paradise Pier) get into either Disneyland OR California Adventure an hour earlier than the general public.

Main Street USA during Extra Magic Hour (wide open)

Cars Land during Extra Magic Hour
(quite crowded and it got worse from there because
Radiator Springs Racers opened late)

Park Tickets

We bought park tickets bundled with our hotel stay and they accounted for 60% of the total bill. As much as I wanted to get a discount on park tickets I didn't see a significant angle. Perhaps a few dollars off with AAA. The model with park ticket pricing is the longer you stay the cheaper it is per day. But the longer you stay the more you spend on food and merchandise (not to mention lodging).

Food and Merchandise

One angle is to get the Disney Dining Plan but I don't like to lock us into anything. What if the kids are sick and the day gets derailed? Or what if I want to grab something quick off site? I like to keep our options open so I didn't go for a meal plan. So we just ate a la carte.

But upon returning home, I just realized I left some money on the table here. We have an old no annual fee Disney credit card that gives you 10% off a lot of the restaurants and retail shops in Disneyland, including several we spent quite a bit of money at. I was confused about which venues it worked for in the past, so I filed the card away and haven't been using it. But if I were to do it again I'd bring the card with and give it a shot.

Good post: 10 Ways to Save Money on Food at Disneyland Resort

Park review: Fantastic. Disney continues to run their parks very well and we all enjoyed Disneyland a bit more than Disney World 3 years ago due to the kids being a bit older and more into it.

Related reading: These Disney Cruises Infuriate Me - Why Do I Keep Booking Them?


This was our first visit to Legoland so I wanted to see how we liked it before buying a multi-day or annual pass. This thread on DIS Boards about Legoland Coupons/Discounts pointed me to my local Toys 'R Us to find a free child ticket to Legoland with the purchase of an adult ticket on the back of $3.99/$4.99 Chima/Batman toys. How crazy is it that their $4 toys have a great coupon like this and their $100+ toys don't have much of anything to reward you for a massive purchase?

This "buy one get one" kind of discount works great for our situation and is much better than a percent-off coupon. I hear they have these at Target too. But if you find yourself in line at Legoland without a coupon, here's a Pro Tip: Buy one adult ticket and go into the park. Go to The Big Store (the Lego Store within Legoland) and look for these toys and coupons. As of February 2013 they had them.

A good thing about these passes is that for $20 per ticket you could upgrade everyone's visit to a 2nd day.

Free child ticket to Legoland with paid adult
on the back of $4 Lego toys
Park Review: Quite disappointing. Our kids love Legos but I felt like we were there for them rather than to enjoy our vacation with them. A few of the rides did a good job of integrating Lego themeing but many attempts felt half-hearted. Once the whining started I didn't feel much motivation to stick around.

The park makes too many attempts to grab additional money for attractions once inside. Carnival games and such were sprinkled throughout the park so they couldn't be avoided en masse. A mini-golf course for $5 per person particularly annoyed me: I paid at the gate!

Also, I was disappointed I couldn't use my Lego VIP card for purchases within the park. Lego VIP cards give you 5% back towards future purchases. They said the card couldn't be used because the parks weren't owned by Lego. They parks are now owned by Merlin.

The Volvo Driving School and the Police and Fire Academy were cool but we left at 12:30 and didn't feel the need to come back for more.

Sea World

I was seriously tempted to buy the Sesame Place Super Grover Pass late last year when it was 25% off. Sesame Place is owned by the same folks that own Sea World, Busch Gardens and Discovery Cove. It entitles you to admission to Sesame Place (which I might never go to) but provides a cheaper way towards an annual pass to all of the Sea World Parks (San Diego, San Antonio and Orlando) plus free parking at Sea World, discounts on food and merchandise, and reserved seating at shows.

The best time to get an annual pass is in the fall when it's good for more than 12 months, especially considering that's when the Super Grovers are maximally discounted. I can see us going to San Diego and Orlando in the same 14 month period perhaps as many as 3 times so I'll keep this option in mind for future years.

The best single-day discount I could find was 20% off at the gate (not available online) with a Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards card. This discount isn't widely advertised but I confirmed it by calling Sea World ahead of time. It was still valid as of February 2013. If you don't have a Rapid Rewards card number you can get one for free and print it out before you go. My Chase Southwest Rapid Rewards Visa happens to have my Rapid Rewards number on it (and it also happens to offer a highly usable 50,000 point signup bonus - more on that and 270,000 other signup bonus points here).

No discount on parking ($15), food (kind of mediocre but I do like Dine with Shamu if you haven't done it before, especially if you're visiting the Orlando park which includes all you can drink Budweiser products in 16oz aluminum bottles which sell for $6.99 each in the park otherwise) or merchandise (quite fairly priced compared to Disney in my opinion) with the Southwest angle so factor that in when going the single-day route.

20% off with Southwest Rapid Rewards
Regularly $78 adult/$70 child
Park review: Absolutely fantastic. This is the 4th time we've visited a Sea World and it has been thoroughly enjoyable every time. Something about the pacing of the parks (shows/exhibits/a few rides) and my affinity for marine mammal shows that seems to work out well for us. Your mileage may vary of course.

Four Seasons Residence Club Aviara

Poolside at Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club

This place is absolutely, without a doubt, the best family friendly luxury resort value in the United States. This was the third time we visited and although the adjacent hotel is now a Park Hyatt rather than a Four Seasons, the experience at the Four Seasons is still first class.

The first time we stayed it was on a timeshare preview weekend directly through Four Seasons. I was so "under the ether" I was ready to plop down $25k+ per week to buy one but Deanna talked me down off the ledge.

I'm glad she did because timeshares are a much better buy in the secondary market, and Four Seasons Residence Clubs have a very high maintenance fee on the order of $2,400 per week per year.

The next time we rented through TRI West - a timeshare broker who has a lot of units at Aviara for rent and sale. It was an easy transaction and went off without a hitch.

This time we went through a private party on TRI West was asking $2,395 and I was able to get a week in a 2BR from an owner on RedWeek for $2,150 for the week. A fantastic value for 7 nights in a 1,600sf villa that includes Four Seasons service.

If you'd like to stay for less than a week or want to keep the transaction simple you can book directly through Four Seasons.

What I've found while obsessing over watching rental weeks at Aviara is that if you're date flexible and/or opportunistic in when you visit, you can snag a week for less than the annual maintenance fees. Why would you pay to own when you can rent for less? You shouldn't. And that's why we rent. Until rental prices start trending significantly north of the maintenance fees plus property tax I'll continue to be a renter.

Or maybe I'd be a buyer if Four Seasons builds out their network of Residence Clubs to include more properties you can trade into (Scottsdale is the only other location that's viable, although they do have other Residence Club locations which are more true fractionals).
Four Seasons Aviara 2BR Villa Floorplan
Four Seasons Aviara Residence Club Review: Perfect once again. Paradise on earth. I'll follow-up with a full review of Aviara specifically. Subscribe for notifications of new content.


I was pretty proud of myself when I bought a couple pretzels for the kids at Wetzel's Pretzels at Seaport Village, used my AAA card for 10% off and got parking validation. But then my sister-in-law found a FourSquare check-in that led her to a discount booklet that included buy one get one free pretzels and other discounts.

Another option to consider if you're planning to visit 3 or more attractions in the San Diego is the Go San Diego Card available on I liked the savings associated with this card, and it includes all of the big attractions like Sea World and the San Diego Zoo. But the clock starts ticking as soon as you visit the first venue and you have to visit others on consecutive days to get maximum value out of the card. I like days of rest between visiting big attractions, and I don't like to lock us into something ahead of time (weather/sickness contingencies) so I skipped this option.

Question of the Day: What angles did I miss? Let me know for next time - I'd love to go back in a couple years!

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Does Churning Credit Cards Damage Your Credit Score?

One of the first things level headed friends ask me when I mention signing up for credit cards (for bonuses) is whether their credit rating will be damaged by playing the game.

It's a smart thing to think about. Our credit scores, and the ability to leverage credit to our advantage, is one of the most important assets we have (the most important being the earning potential our talents afford us).

In researching a bit how credit scores are determined I was surprised how much of what I thought I knew about credit scores was based on hearsay. Or folklore. Or a random collection of tidbits I'd heard over the years.

For sure, I think most of us will be totally fine if we, basically, "behave" when it comes to credit. Take on a responsible amount of debt, pay our bills on time, and have just a few credit cards.

But when you mention signing up for credit cards for bonuses, instinct tells us this will be bad for our credit ratings. Is this true? Let's take a closer look at what's good and bad about signing up for a new credit card.

First, signing up for a new credit card results in a "hard pull" of our credit score. This in itself knocks down our score a few points. But credit scores tend to recover from these checks after a few months.

If you're approved for a new card, it does two things:
  1. It increases our total credit line
  2. It decreases the average age of our accounts
Increasing our total credit line typically helps our credit score rather than hurts it because it's good to have a small percentage of our total credit line in use. If the total of our balances is low compared to how much credit we have access to it's a good thing for our credit rating.

Decreasing the average age of our credit card accounts is bad for our credit score, and it's a real concern when applying for credit cards for signup bonuses.

Here's who goes into determining a credit score (from My FICO):
Our credit cards are just one portion of our borrowing portfolio. A mortgage is of higher importance than credit cards and with lending standards tightening I wouldn't be willing to risk the ability to qualify for a mortgage by fiddling around with credit cards. Even if we already have a mortgage, it's important to have a good credit score in case a refinance opportunity pops up.

Automobile loans and leases are also important. But if your credit score is good, even in spite of signing up for a bunch of credit cards, you're likely to qualify for the most favorable automobile loans and leases.

A consideration adjacent this:

Should we cancel an old credit card (with no annual fee) which we never use? No! Absolutely not. Doing so would decrease the average age of accounts.

So, it's important to:
  • Understand what goes into determining your credit score
  • Get your credit report and make sure there's nothing on there you're not expecting
  • Monitor your credit score with a service like Credit Sesame or Credit Karma
  • Space out your signups over time
  • Pay your balance in full each month
  • Keep your balances low with respect to your overall credit line
Since I do these things I feel comfortable that signing up for credit cards (for bonuses) won't damage my credit score.

In fact, if I wasn't knocking down my credit score a bit by applying for credit cards one could argue I'd be leaving money on the table. How high do our credit scores need to be after all? Just high enough to get the most favorable loan terms. We don't get a bonus for a credit score higher than 760.

It's kind of like in college where there's no difference between barely scraping by with an A and getting the highest A in the class. You'd be better off getting the lowest A possible and devoting your precious resources to other endeavors.

Here are some links for related reading:

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Lessons Learned on the Way to 270,000 Points & Miles

Related Reading: 10 Reasons the Chase Sapphire Preferred is the best all around travel rewards credit card

As I was saying last week I've decided to wade into the credit card signup bonus game, primarily as a way to reduce our travel expenses. I previously employed a mostly cash back approach but after researching this a bit found I was leaving a significant amount of money on the table.

For my first set of "moves" I wanted to start out slowly (and simply) to get a feel for how well this works for me. I wanted to be sure to accrue points/miles with things we were sure to use. And I wanted the points/miles to be for things I wanted to use. 

Here's what I mean by that. The thought of having a bunch of United miles so I could fly the family across country in the back of one of their planes in cramped grey seats (they've got the shortest pitch in the industry) while experiencing their signature surly service left me cold. I like flying JetBlue, Virgin America and Southwest with the family domestically and the longer the flight, the pickier I am about the carrier. 

But what drives me especially bonkers about legacy carriers is when I can't use miles to travel on the dates I want to travel or without using a ridiculous amount of points.

So this suggestion from Travel Summary - REALLY know what you want - REALLY resonated with me. 

I thought about the trips we'd like to take in the next 2 years and came up with a short term goal -and- a long term goal. The short term goal is to have flexible nearly free travel on direct flights to domestic destinations on carriers we like.

So first I signed up for the JetBlue AmEx for a 20,000 point signup bonus. The $45 annual fee is waived the first year, and the minimum spend is $1,000 over the first 3 months.

Next I signed up for the Chase Southwest Airlines Rapid Rewards Premier card for its 50,000 signup bonus. The $69 fee is not waived the first year, and the minimum spend is $2,000 over the first 3 months.

In hindsight the JetBlue signup bonus is pretty anemic and the card isn't very strategic, but I really like JetBlue and I'm sure I'll use the points.

The Southwest card however is pretty valuable on its own for the 50,000 points. But a thing I really like about Southwest (in addition to their favorable fee schedule) is their award flight availability. Have a look at this chart of how frequently reward seats are available on each carrier. It's not your imagination that Southwest points are actually usable and your US Airways and Delta points are not!

Another thing that's enticing about the Southwest card is that if you get a Southwest business credit card you can earn another 50,000 points and then if you spend $10k on the two cards combined you'll (possibly) qualify for a Southwest Companion Pass for each flight you take through the end of next year. Lots of maybes here, and lines you may not want to cross but that could be a really nice overall situation.

So I was pretty content for the time being and wanted to wait and see how things went with these cards.

Then this deal popped up just a couple days later. An AmEx Platinum with 100,000 Membership Rewards points for $3,000 spend in 3 months and an AmEx Gold for 50,000 Membership Rewards points. The Platinum has a hefty annual fee of $450 (not waived the first year) but provides some great benefits like airline lounge access and reimbursement of airline fees of $200 per calendar year which some are using to get gift cards reimbursed for effectively $400 over the one year you'd have the card. Again, another line that feels wrong to cross.

But I was approved instantly for the Platinum and went for the Gold while it was still available. The Gold's $175 annual fee is waived the first year and the minimum spend is $1,000 over the first 3 months. I was instantly approved for that too.

I hear it's advisable to sign up for batches of cards no sooner than every 91 days so my approach here broke that rule. And I signed up for 3 personal AmEx cards within the span of 3 days. But the AmEx Platinum/Gold offer vaporized the next day and since this is my first foray into this realm I think it's okay. That's one of the benefits you have if you're new to this game - you've got presumably a healthy credit score and you haven't gotten signup bonuses for the best cards yet.

The Membership Rewards points haul is nice, but it wasn't really a direction I wanted to go necessarily. Their program offers a lot of options but there's a "catch" with many of them. You can convert your points to airline miles but American isn't one of the partners you can transfer to. You can fly American if you transfer the points to British Airways Avios but they charge massive fuel surcharges when flying to Europe. However they don't charge fuel surcharges when booking on American for flights within the US. Confused yet?

You can't transfer Membership Rewards to United but you can transfer them to other Star Alliance partners like Air Canada, Singapore, or All Nippon. But they charge fuel surcharges when flying to Europe, unless you're flying United. But if the flight is Lufthansa booked through Air Canada or Singapore or All Nippon there is a fuel surcharge. All in all it's a puzzle I'm still trying to figure out.

But I was done going for signup bonuses for a while for sure. Or so I thought.

Until @TravelSummary told me about this deal. 50,000 United miles for transferring $100k worth of investments over to Fidelity. We had some money sleeping in mutual funds with Vanguard so I transferred those over. Fidelity makes it really easy to do this transfer. It took about 20 minutes online with guidance over the phone. Further, I didn't have to liquidate the securities (and realize a tax consequence) in order to earn the bonus. The deal used to be even sweeter (and sketchier) before they addressed some loopholes but I'm still pretty happy with 50k miles for little effort or impact - not even a credit inquiry for this one.

Remember when I said I didn't want United miles for domestic travel? I don't. But I do want United miles so I can fly on Lufthansa to Europe at some point to pick up a BMW on European Delivery. That's one of my long-term goals for points and mile redemption. European Delivery can be a great deal especially if you don't have to pay for flights. And having United miles is the best way to fly from Boston to Munich on Lufthansa. This game gets complicated!

Just when I thought I was done for a while I found this summary of brokerage signup bonuses. $500-$1,000 (or more) for transferring over your old 401k to a self-directed IRA. I remember these signup bonuses from back in the late '90s when everyone was a day trader but they're still around. My goodness - I've been missing out on all kinds of money!

So there you have it 270,000 points/miles in my first wave of moves. There are some annual fees involved but overall the outlay is, I think, reasonable for the points and miles if I can use them efficiently. I know from previous personal experience that if I redeem the points inefficiently/unwisely I'll burn through them in a hurry and get very little value out of points. I'll try to be smarter with my redemptions going forward.

In hindsight I probably could have made some more strategic first moves. And I know I've only learned (at best) 10% of what there is to know in this space. But you've got to start somewhere and I'm looking forward to my next set of moves in a couple months.

It takes patience to meet the minimum spend each card comes with and wait for the miles and points to come through. In fact, none of the cards I've signed up for have paid their bonuses yet - though AmEx did mistakenly charge me the $175 fee that was supposed to be waived the first year. You've got to stay on top of this stuff. It's like navigating the tax code.

I'll write more as I go along and I'll look forward to comparing notes. I know some of you have concurrently caught the points and miles bug, and I know a lot of us are looking for ways to get 80% of the benefit with 20% of the effort. I'll keep a lookout for those opportunities and share them as best I can.

Further Reading: Does churning credit cards damage your credit score?

I'd love it if you subscribed or followed me on Twitter so we can keep in touch.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Wading into the Credit Card Signup Bonus Game

Each January I find myself taking the opportunity to assess our financial situation to see if I'm doing everything I can to make the most of our good fortune. After exploring the world of credit card signup bonues the past couple months I've found that I was leaving a significant amount of money on the table utilizing a mostly cashback approach to credit cards.

With a little work, I don't think it's too hard to earn roughly 10% of one's annual income in nearly free travel by navigating the credit card signup space effectively.

Here's how I came to this conclusion...

Family vacations are something I think about every day, and one thing that's been bothering me lately is the escalating cost of airfare. Relatively mundane domestic tickets with reasonable advanced notice were coming in at more than $400 per ticket. Rip off!

With 4 tickets to buy each time we take a family trip, a swing of a $100 or $200 per ticket can have a huge impact on the cost of our vacations. And being blocked from attaining family vacations is something this deal hound will not tolerate. :)

With this in mind I thought to reassess my longstanding aversion for miles/points based credit cards. My preference for the past few years has been cashback based cards. For quite a while I was happy with the American Express Blue Cash card in conjunction with a Chase Freedom Visa. Neither carry annual fees, and they each offer between 1 and 5% cashback. The AmEx offered 5% back on gas, groceries and drugstore purchases and 1.5% back on all other purchases once $6,500 in annual spend was achieved (1% prior to that). The Chase Freedom offered 5% back in rotating quarterly categories and 1% on everything else.

The main thrust of this strategy was to:
  1. Avoid annual credit card fees
  2. Maximize cashback by placing spend on the optimal card
  3. Use that cashback to reduce credit card bills
That seemed to work pretty well for us for a while. Things weren't overly complicated. You just needed to pick the best card for the purchase and in all you'd potentially drive your overall cashback north of 2%.

I'd estimate that about a third of our gross income was being funneled through credit card purchases. To share an example of how beneficial (or not) this approach was, for an annual income of say $100,000 about $3,000 per month ($36,000 annually) was going through credit cards. Of that $36,000 if we earned 1% cashback we'd get $360.

If we were really savvy and aligned our purchases with 5% cashback categories frequently we'd bring in 2-3% of $36,000 each year - about $700-$1,000 annually. This was a nice clip for not doing much of anything really so I thought we were doing pretty well.

Until I looked at what we might be leaving on the table by not taking advantage of credit card signup bonuses.

About a year ago I saw an offer pop up for a Capital One Venture credit card that paid a $1,000 signup bonus. Wow! By merely changing the card we used we'd earn $1,000 plus the card offered 2 "points" per dollar. Each point could be used to "erase" travel purchases which was virtually a cash equivalent for us so this card was a great one for us for the past year. It carries an annual fee after the first year but at this clip it was worth it because it effectively increased our average cashback percentage. So I was inclined to stick with it for another year.

But I was hungry for more lucrative signup bonuses like this one.

Even the Venture card doesn't offer a 100,000 point signup bonus any more. I think it's down to 10,000 points. As I looked around I found a number of moderately attractive signup bonuses, but they were mostly for airline/hotel cards and programs like Chase Ultimate Rewards and AmEx Membership Rewards.

I'd grown skeptical about miles/points based programs because the provider can devalue the points at any time by changing the terms of the program. And finding flights/rooms when you want them for a reasonable amount of points can be elusive.

I also wondered why anybody in their right mind would prefer points vs. cashback.

But in looking at this game closely over the last couple months I've come to understand how earning points can indeed be more lucrative than cashback. And how signup bonuses can be worth more than either.

By applying a variety of techniques in the example $100,000/$36,000 scenario I described above I think it is/would be fairly easy to go from $1,000 cashback to an effective $10,000 back in nearly free travel realized through a combination of credit card signups and other techniques.

10x leverage - that gets my attention.

Further Reading: Lessons learned on the way to 270,000 miles and points

Here are some concise and helpful resources which I think would be useful in quickly getting up to speed on how to navigate this interesting space:
The Points Guy:
If you're thirsty for more the next action I'd recommend is subscribing to the collective blogs in your feed reader.

And if you've really got it bad poke around the FlyerTalk forums.

I'll look forward to discussing this further. I'd love it if you subscribed to Casa Dwyer for future updates.
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