At Middle Age Miles, we aren’t afraid to perform experiments to get valuable data points to help you earn as many points as possible. This article is a story of an experiment that resulted in failure, with a partially-successful bounce-back that allowed us to break even on our transaction. The experiment provides us with some useful data points about the US Bank Altitude Reserve – in particular, about 3x points earning in the travel category and about US Bank customer service. It also gives us an opportunity to report on recent news involving RoomiPay, a rent payment service that we have used for “strategic spend” and written about in the past.
Meet the Key Players
(1) US Bank Altitude Reserve Card
The Altitude Reserve card is the premium travel rewards card issued by US Bank. We hold an Altitude Reserve card and think it’s a very interesting card to have in our portfolio.
We wrote two pre-launch articles a few months ago about the US Bank Altitude Reserve card. These articles provide a lot of details and information about the card. I’ll link to them here so you can learn more:
- Persistence Pays – Approved for the US Bank Altitude Reserve Card!
- Getting Started with the US Bank Altitude Reserve Visa Card
The basic features and key benefits of the US Bank Altitude Reserve card include:
- Annual fee: $400
- Annual travel credit: $325 (automatically applied to purchases that code as “travel”)
- Current sign-up bonus: 50,000 points (for $4,500 minimum spend within 90 days)
- Bonus categories: 3x points on travel purchases and mobile wallet spending
- Point redemption value: 1.5 cents per point for travel (statement credit); 1 cent per point when redeemed for cash or other statement credits
- Real-time mobile redemptions via text message
- 12 complimentary Gogo Inflight Wi-Fi passes per year
- $100 Global Entry credit once every four years
- No foreign transaction fees
For me, the main impetus to get the Altitude Reserve (beyond the valuable sign-up bonus) was the ability to earn 3x points on mobile wallet spending, coupled with the introduction of real-time mobile rewards in early 2018 that allowed redemptions on a broad range of travel expenses (and not just bookings made through the US Bank online travel portal). This results in effectively a 4.5% return on spend in the “travel” and “mobile wallet” bonus categories (assuming that you have travel expenses on which you can redeem your points).
The ability to earn 3x points on mobile wallet spending is particularly valuable when you travel to Europe. Most card terminals there accept mobile wallet payments, and it’s far more convenient to pay using a mobile wallet than using the physical card, which requires a signature. Combined with the fact that the Altitude Reserve has no foreign transaction fees, it’s an excellent card to use during European travels. I’m also noticing that mobile wallet-capable terminals are becoming more common in the US. Hopefully this trend will continue.
Our particular experiment and data point today, though, is focused on the Altitude Reserve’s 3x bonus category for “travel.” The US Bank terms and conditions for the Altitude Reserve say this about the “travel” bonus category:
“Cardmembers will earn 2 additional Points [that is, 3 Points total] for every $1 in eligible Net Purchases during each billing cycle for transactions made directly with merchants who classify their business as a travel category transaction (such as purchases made directly with airlines, hotels, car rentals, taxicabs, limousines, passenger trains and cruise line companies)[.]”
RoomiPay was a fairly recent online service with the primary function of allowing users to pay rent with a credit card. RoomiPay was added to supplement the RoomiApp.com website and app, which focused on matching roommates to one another and to available rental properties.
We won’t rehash the full history of RoomiPay as a “strategic spend” opportunity – instead, we’ll just focus on the important point that led us to our experiment. In Summer 2018, we confirmed that RoomiPay coded as Travel and earned 3x Chase Ultimate Rewards (UR) points for payments made using a Chase Sapphire Reserve (CSR) card. [Hat Tip to Dave Grossman at MilesTalk for his efforts with RoomiPay.]
Although you can’t tell from this screenshot, RoomiPay coded as “Travel Agencies and Tour Operators,” which resulted in the 3x points earning on the CSR.
This gave RoomiPay substantial value as a points-earning mechanism. The standard fee for RoomiPay payments was 2.9%. Thus, 3x earning using a CSR meant that we could effectively “purchase” UR points at 0.94 cents per point, whereas UR points are worth at least 1.5 cents per point if you have a CSR card and redeem for travel.
Unfortunately, it appears that RoomiPay is dead, or at least so risky that we do not recommend pushing any money through it right now. Earlier this month, VentureBeat published this article: Roomi’s fall from grace: Major layoffs follow allegations of frivolous spending and nepotism. In addition, it is our understanding that RoomiPay may have been “paused” or be completely dead, and we’re not sure whether Roomi actually paid out to landlords all monies that it collected for November rent.
Also unfortunately, the new information reported by VentureBeat means that our experiment’s value is somewhat limited in the very specific RoomiPay scenario. However, we learned some valuable things about US Bank that have general applicability and will help us make good choices in the future.
Based on RoomiPay coding as “Travel” and earning 3x UR points using the CSR, we (and others) naturally wondered whether RoomiPay would similarly code as “Travel” and earn 3x points with the Altitude Reserve. If so, this would give us another valuable “strategic spend” avenue, as the US Bank points value of 1.5 cents per point (cpp) would comfortably exceed our “cost” of 0.94 cpp.
My first try at this experiment was to make a small $100 payment in September 2018. However, this payment was declined by RoomiPay. I had already made a major payment in September using my CSR card, and Roomi declined the payment based on making a second payment too soon after the first.
My second try at the experiment was a go-big approach (unfortunately). In October 2018, I made an entire rent payment of $4,874 on RoomiPay using my Altitude Reserve card. Including the 2.9% fee, the total charge on my card was $5,015.35.
Now, on the surface, you might expect this experiment to be successful and result in 3x points. Our target is for this purchase to qualify as “travel” with US Bank. Recall that we know that US Bank’s definition of a “travel” purchase is one “made directly with merchants who classify their business as a travel category transaction[.]” And we knew that RoomiPay codes as “Travel Agencies and Tour Operators.” It seems to us that RoomiPay is indeed a merchant who classifies its business as a travel agency. This all seemed pretty straightforward.
However, shortly after I completed this transaction, I got a bad feeling. I read more carefully an article on Frequent Miler where Greg reported on his experiments with real-time rewards. There, Greg found that purchases on Hotels.com did not trigger real-time rewards. He further concluded that purchases made through online travel agencies (OTAs) would not trigger real-time rewards unless the agency passed the charge through to the airline. This suggested to me that US Bank was not seeing charges from a “Travel Agency or Tour Operator” as qualifying “travel” for rewards purposes.
[Lawyer note: If US Bank really intends to exclude travel agencies/OTAs from its definition of “travel,” it needs to fire whatever lawyer wrote the current “travel” language in its benefits section and re-write that section from scratch. The current US Bank language clearly encompasses OTAs, and there is nothing to exclude OTAs from the definition of “travel.”]
And indeed, this bad feeling turned out to be correct. Even though RoomiPay coded as a “Travel Agency or Tour Operator” with US Bank on the Altitude Reserve card, I only received 1x points for the RoomiPay transaction. The experiment was a failure.
A Partial Bounce-Back
Once I received my statement clearly showing the 1x points earning on the RoomiPay payment, I called the number on the back of my Altitude Reserve card to speak with a US Bank customer service representative. I identified the issue, chatted with the representative a bit to establish some rapport, and politely explained to the rep why I had expected to receive 3x points on this large transaction. I asked for US Bank to extend 10,000 courtesy points to make me whole. The rep clearly understood the issue.
After about 3 rounds of being put on hold and having back-and-forth discussion with the rep – all very polite and friendly – she offered to credit my rewards account with 5,000 points. I pressed a little harder for 10,000, asked for a supervisor, etc., but she clearly said the maximum they could do was 5,000. She didn’t argue with me about the US Bank terms or say I wasn’t correct in reading them; however, she stood firm that 5,000 was the maximum they could offer me. I was convinced that they weren’t going to budge easily, so I told her to go ahead and credit my account with the 5,000 points even though I believed it should be 10,000.
I was making a judgment call that the amount of time and effort that it would take to potentially get an additional 5,000 points (which equates to $75 worth of travel credit) wasn’t going to be worth it.
And at the end of the day, the additional 5,000 points allowed me to break even on the transaction. The 2.9% fee had been $141.35. And I’d received a total of 10,015 points, which are worth $150.22 toward travel at 1.5 cpp.[Please don’t make me suffer by reminding me of the “opportunity cost” of this experiment compared to if I’d just used the proven method of paying with a CSR (basically $75 plus my extra time making the call). Oh well. At least I learned something. And at least RoomiPay actually made the payment!]
Even though this was a failed experiment and the specific RoomiPay situation may be dead or at least moot for us, I think we can draw some conclusions that have value going forward:
(1) OTAs and other “Travel Agencies and Tour Operators” won’t code as 3x Travel on the US Bank Altitude Reserve. So don’t bother. Put these charges on the CSR and earn 3x Chase UR points, which many would argue are worth more than US Bank points anyway.
(2) If you have put a substantial OTA/Travel Agency charge on the Altitude Reserve that earned 1x, it’s worth a call to US Bank to ask for courtesy points to make you whole. This experiment certainly provides one successful data point for that approach. The agent was very willing to give me courtesy points for this situation and never challenged my interpretation of the rules. The only challenge was the amount of points.
I hope this experiment and the resulting data points are helpful to you. Good luck with your own points-maximizing efforts!
Do you have additional information or data points on the US Bank Altitude Reserve or RoomiPay? We’d love to hear them, so please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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