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Middle Age Miles

Amex Hilton Ascend card – Keep or Cancel? and Did I Get a Retention Offer?

American Express Hilton Honors Ascend card

Introduction

My annual fee recently posted on my Amex Hilton Ascend card. Each time I have an annual fee post, I go through a full analysis of whether to keep the card, cancel it, or product change. In addition, I also make a call to the card issuer to see if there are any retention offers available to me, unless there’s a good reason not to make that call. I always like to share on Middle Age Miles my thinking and strategy with respect to these “Keep or Cancel?” decisions and my data points on retention calls.

Here are my thought process and results with respect to the Amex Hilton Ascend card:

Background

I first got this card a little over a year ago, in October 2017, when it was still known as the Surpass card. At that time, Amex had announced that it would be acquiring Citi’s portfolio of Hilton co-branded cards. We knew that change would be afoot, but we didn’t know the details at the time. To me, it seemed like a good opportunity to grab the Surpass card and hope for the best in terms of opportunities that might arise with the card as Amex acquired and integrated the Citi portfolio.

At the time, the sign-up offer for the Surpass card was 100,000 Hilton Honors points, plus a Hilton Free Weekend Night Certificate at the end of the first year of card membership. [We have already received this Free Weekend Night Certificate. It’s not contingent upon retaining the card or paying the 2018 annual fee, so it won’t impact our “Keep or Cancel” decision.] The annual fee for the Surpass card when we signed up was $75.

Now that this card is the Ascend, the general annual fee is $95. However, I must have been grandfathered in to the $75 annual fee, at least for this year, as that’s what showed up on my statement.

Current Sign-Up Bonus and Link

The current sign-up bonus for the Ascend card is 150,000 Hilton Honors (HH) points after you spend $3,000 within 3 months. The 150,000 point offer is an all-time high for this relatively new card. As noted above, the annual fee is now $95 (not waived first year).

At our baseline value of 0.5 cents per HH point, the current sign-up bonus is worth about $750. We consider this to be a very solid offer. One way to use the sign-up bonus would be to stay for 2 nights in a deluxe park view suite at the very popular Hilton Nashville Downtown, at 70,000 HH points per night. We recently stayed in this hotel and enjoyed it!

Hilton Nashville Downtown – overhead view of most of the lobby area

If you’re interested in signing up for the Amex Hilton Ascend card, here is our referral link:

Sign-Up Link for the Amex Hilton Ascend card (Referral Link)

We always appreciate it when you help support Middle Age Miles by using our referral links. The offer through our referral link is the same as the publicly-available offer, so you can help us out while getting the best-available deal. Keep in mind, though, that if you or your significant other have other Amex personal cards, you may be able to refer yourselves to the Ascend card and pick up extra points for yourself!

Benefits of the Amex Hilton Ascend Card

In addition to the sign-up bonus, the key benefits of the Ascend card are:

  • Bonus Category: 12x at Hilton properties (baseline value 6 cents per dollar of spend)
  • Bonus Categories:  6x for US restaurants, US supermarkets, and US gas stations (baseline value 3 cents per dollar of spend)
  • Complimentary Hilton Gold elite status
  • Hilton Free Weekend Night Certificate with $15k spend in a calendar year
  • Earn Hilton Diamond elite status if you spend $40k in a calendar year

The 12x bonus on Hilton spend (basically a 6% points rebate) is excellent. This earning also stacks with the regular Hilton promotions, such as the current Moments Made Bigger double/triple points promotion. With the Ascend, you can earn 52 HH points per dollar (effective 26% points rebate) if you stay at a Hilton “Luxury & Resort” property during the promotion period, or 42 HH points per dollar (effective 21% points rebate) at other Hilton properties.

The 6x bonus category for US supermarkets is also intriguing, as there aren’t many cards that can beat that rate. Similarly, 6x Hilton Honors points for gas would be top-of-wallet for many people.

Hilton Gold status is another great benefit, especially for a $95/year card.  Most importantly, Hilton Gold elite members get complimentary breakfast at Hilton-family hotels, which is huge.

And finally, I’m a firm believer in spending $15k a year on the Ascend card to get the Free Weekend Night Certificate. It’s very easy for us (and I expect, for most people) to get excellent value out of this – not to mention, it could turn into a luxurious stay in Beverly Hills or a night of fun in Nashville!

Philly and I had a very fun date night using a Hilton Free Weekend Night Certificate at the new Waldorf Astoria, Beverly Hills

For more details on the Amex Hilton Honors Ascend card, see the Amex web page for this card here.

Keep or Cancel (or Product Change)

The “Keep or Cancel” analysis starts, as always, with the annual fee. Here, we’re looking at $75. We’re going to have to expect to get comfortably more than $75 in value from the Ascend card to justify keeping it open.

We also need to think about what our product change options are likely to be. There are 2 product change options for the Ascend card:

  • The premium Amex Hilton Aspire card, with a $450 annual fee. We have a lot of love for the Aspire card, which we believe is one of the most valuable cards on the market. However, (a) we already have one Aspire card; and (b) Amex often has very generous upgrade offers from the Ascend to the Aspire of 100,000 HH points or more, and right now we don’t have any upgrade offer showing on our account.
  • The Amex Hilton No-Fee card. Points earning on this card is less than the Ascend in the bonus categories. But most importantly, we have never held this card; thus, we remain eligible to pick up a sign-up bonus on it some day (current sign-up bonus is 100,000 HH points). If we product changed into this card, we wouldn’t be eligible for a sign-up bonus on it in the future.

Thus, product change options are not appealing. So let’s go back to looking at the Ascend card itself.

Of the key benefits we listed above, the only one that’s really useful for us is the ability to earn a Free Weekend Night Certificate with $15,000 spend. We’ve already done this for 2018, but we can do it again in 2019 if we keep the card. This is a valuable and fun benefit for us. We have redeemed 3 Hilton Free Weekend Night Certificates during 2018, each time for a hotel night that would have cost more than $500.

Let’s stop here for a quick math review. Even though we’ve consistently redeemed the Free Weekend Night Certificates for nights costing more than $500, let’s value a certificate far more conservatively at $250. Now, let’s assess the cost of generating $15,000 in spend. Assume that it “costs” us 2.5% (e.g., the standard Plastiq fee) to generate the spend. We will also earn 3x HH points per dollar on that spend (1.5% if HH points are worth 0.5 cents per point), so the “net cost” of this spend is 1%, or $150. The value we get is $250 for the certificate, and the cost is $150 plus the $75 annual fee, or $225. If this is our math, we’re $25 ahead if we pay the annual fee and then earn the certificate, even if we don’t get any other benefit from the Ascend card.

And with respect to the other advertised benefits of the Ascend card, these are actually pretty much worth zero to us:

  • On the Hilton 12x bonus category – We can do better at 14x by using our Amex Hilton Aspire card
  • On the 6x bonux category for US restaurants (3%) – We can do better by using our Amex Gold card to earn 4x Amex Membership Rewards (MR) points (at 1.5 cents per MR point, that’s a 6% return) or our Chase Sapphire Reserve card to earn 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points (at 1.5 cents per UR point, that’s a 4.5% return)
  • On the 6x bonus category for US supermarkets (3%) – We can do better by using our Amex Gold card to earn 4x Amex MR points (6%)
  • On the 6x bonus category for gas (3%) – We can do equally well (if not slightly better) by using our Amex Blue Business Plus card or Amex Business Rewards Gold card to earn 2x Amex MR points (also 3%, but I’ll venture to guess that most commentators would rather have 2 MR points than 6 HH points)
  • Hilton Gold status – is not relevant for us since we have Diamond status by virtue of holding the Aspire card
  • Ability to get Diamond status if you spend $40,000 on the Ascend – also irrelevant because of holding the Aspire card

At this point, we’d be very close on our “Keep vs Cancel” decision. But there are three other huge factors that make our decision “Keep”:

  • I recently received a special targeted offer on my Ascend card – earn 40,000 HH bonus points with $4,000 spend. This is a very good offer that we plan on completing before the promotion expires on 12/25/2018. We wrote about this offer and some other recent Amex-Hilton offers here. It’s also possible that we could receive other similar offers during our cardmember year, as Amex and Hilton seem to be quite willing to extend offers of HH points in order to incentivize spend on the co-branded cards. If we were to cancel my Ascend card, I’d lose the ability to capitalize on this bonus offer.
  • It seems like there’s a decent chance that I would receive an offer of bonus HH points to upgrade this Ascend card to an Aspire at some point. Amex is pretty good about providing upgrade offers on cards that have been open for more than a year, where there’s a card in the same family with a higher annual fee. We know that Amex has given upgrade offers on Ascend cards of 100,000 HH points or more. It would be worth at least $500 in HH points if we received a similar offer and accepted it.
  • Even if we don’t receive an upgrade offer on this Ascend card, there’s a potentially valuable upgrade/downgrade play to be made with this card and our Aspire. Sometime after the first of 2019, after we’ve spent $15k to get the Free Weekend Night Certificate on the Ascend and after we’ve captured the $250 Hilton resort credit and $250 in airline credits on our Aspire, we should be able to simultaneously upgrade our Ascend to Aspire and downgrade our Aspire to Ascend. By doing this, we should be able to then get another $250 Hilton credit and $250 in airline credit on the upgraded card, and we should be able to then earn another Free Weekend Night Certificate in 2019 by spending $15k on the downgraded card.

These factors make the Ascend card a very strong “Keep,” in our specific circumstances.

As always, you have to evaluate each keep/cancel/product change in light of your own personal circumstances. But we hope that this analysis gives you a framework to size up your own situation, plus perhaps gives you some ideas on how to maximize the benefits of these cards.

Did I Get a Retention Offer?

As you can see from the analysis above, I was going to keep my Ascend card, regardless of whether I received a retention offer.

And in fact, I thought about not even making a retention call at all. Why would I even consider not calling? Here were my thoughts:

  • One, I currently hold 7 Amex credit cards. Amex generally has a limit of 5 credit cards per person. Eyes on my account may create a risk that Amex decides to enforce the limit, and I do not want to cancel 2 of my Amex cards.
  • Two, counting charge cards, I hold even more Amex cards so that it’s quite a portfolio. Again, fewer eyes on my accounts would mean less chance of Amex financial review or attention from Amex’s Rewards Abuse Team (RAT).
  • Three, I thought my chances of getting a retention offer were relatively low:
    • I’d just received the bonus offer on this card of 40k HH points for $4k spend, right around the same time my annual fee posted. This could have easily been my actual retention offer such that nothing further would be forthcoming. (And if so, that would have been pretty fair.)
    • Although I’d spent a little over $18,000 during my cardholder year, that was pretty much exactly $3,000 to meet the minimum spend for the sign-up bonus, plus $15,000 to earn the Free Weekend Night Certificate in 2018. I really hadn’t put any meaningful amount of “extra” spend on the card.
    • I hadn’t had great luck with Amex retention offers lately, and I wondered if that was related to the number of Amex cards I hold.

But … to see what would happen and to get a data point for Middle Age Miles readers, I plowed ahead with retention calls anyway.

Retention Call #1

The statement with my annual fee closed on 10/26/2018, and my payment was due on 11/20/2018. Readers should note that I should have started this process earlier.

On the afternoon of 11/14, I made retention call #1. I gave my standard spiel – I recently received the statement where my annual fee posted, I’m trying to decide whether to close the account or keep it open, and I wondered if there were any retention offers to help incentivize me to keep the card open.

This call went nowhere. I did not receive any offer. The customer service rep said that she had pinged her retention team and they told her no offer. (I have my doubts about whether she actually did this; my best understanding of the Amex system is that it will simply tell the rep whether there is an offer or not, and if so, the customer should be transferred to the team that handles retention offers.)  The only options she could give me were:

  • Cancel the card and get the $75 annual fee credited back so that I wouldn’t owe anything; or
  • Product change to the Amex Hilton No-Fee card (with no points bonus).

Neither of these options worked for me, so I politely told the rep I’d think about it and ended the call.

Retention Call #2

I called Amex back 2 days later, on the afternoon of 11/16. There was a bit of a system glitch to get my card verified, which required my call to be transferred, after which I hit a dead-end and had to call back in. But I eventually got to the right place. The front-line rep said she could see that it looked like I’d have an offer, and that she should transfer me to the retention department. After the transfer, the retention rep presented me with 2 offers:

  • $50 statement credit for $1,000 spend within 3 months; or
  • 10,000 HH points for $2,000 spend within 3 months

Despite the difference in the spend requirement, these offers were basically equivalent for me. I’m going to make at least $2,000 spend in the next few weeks anyway, to meet the bonus offer of 40k points/$4k spend. And at 0.5 cents per HH point, the 10,000 points are worth about $50. In fact, I’ve purchased HH points at 0.5 cents per point before.

I decided to take the $50 statement credit offer. One, it’s never bad to have cash instead of points. Given Hilton’s regular point-sale promotions, I could probably use the $50 to buy 10,000 HH points sometime anyway. Two, on the outside chance I decided not to hit the full spend for the 40k/$4k bonus offer, it would be better to only have to spend $1,000 to get the retention bonus instead of $2,000. Three, outside the context of my own personal circumstances with the active 40k/$4k bonus offer, the $50 statement credit retention offer was a straight-up better offer. I didn’t mind showing Amex that I can correctly select the “better” offer given two choices. Also, perhaps this will encourage them to increase the points amount for any offer in the future, if they’d prefer that I take points over statement credit.

I should also mention that on retention call #2, I specifically mentioned to the rep that I had spent about $18,000 during the previous year, and that sometimes Amex extends me offers when I’ve spent a fair bit on the card. Frankly, I don’t think it made any difference at all that I mentioned this. I believe the offers were pre-determined.

During the call, I also asked the retention rep whether there were any upgrade offers on my Ascend card. She checked and said that there were no offers at this time. I certainly would have considered an upgrade if there was a big bonus opportunity. But frankly, the timing of an upgrade bonus opportunity would be better if it showed up during spring or summer 2019. At that time, I could coordinate an upgrade bonus with the upgrade/downgrade strategy I discussed above.

Finally, it’s worth noting that none of the Amex reps I spoke with ever mentioned the number of Amex credit cards I have, the number of total Amex cards I have, the fact that I also hold an Aspire card, or anything else about my relationship with Amex. I was very happy with that!

What are your experiences with retention offers on the Amex Hilton Ascend card? What do you think of our “Keep or Cancel” analysis – did we miss anything? Please let us know in the Comments!


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