Like many people in our current movement-restricted world, we’ve had a challenge using some of the travel credits that come as benefits of certain credit cards we hold.
Recently, we had a successful experience using the remaining travel credit on our US Bank Altitude Reserve card by purchasing a gift card, and we thought it would be interesting to share the experience with Middle Age Miles readers.
The US Bank Altitude Reserve (USB AR) card is a premium card with an annual fee of $400. The annual fee is largely offset, though, by a $325 annual travel credit (per cardholder year). The USB AR is one of our favorite cards, owing largely to the ability to earn 3x points on spend using a mobile wallet (like Apple Pay) and the ability to redeem points for travel purchases using US Bank’s Real-Time Rewards system. We’ve expounded on the benefits of the USB AR card previously, including in our most recent “Keep or Cancel” article about it:
- Middle Age Miles: Keep or Cancel – US Bank Altitude Reserve – and Did I Get a Retention Offer? (July 15, 2019)
We’re always looking to maximize value by how we pay for travel, juggling paid rates with different cards, points and miles, gift card purchases, travel credits and the like. Our annual card renewal on the USB AR card was in June, and by the time the coronavirus travel restrictions hit in early March, we hadn’t fully used our $325 travel credit for this cardholder year. We’d used about $145 and had a little less than $180 of credit remaining. Without the travel restrictions, it wouldn’t have been a problem to use the other $180 in the next 3 months prior to our card renewal date, but when the virus hit, it became a bigger challenge: Use about $180 in travel credit on the card at a time when we can’t travel.
Before we turn into what we did to solve for this challenge, we have a few asides that you may find interesting:
- Our original plan was to use the travel credit for a hotel payment of about $550 back in January 2020. Our stay would be about $800, and we’d split payment at check-out, putting $550 on our USB AR and the balance on a different card. We had a precise reason for choosing a $550 payment – that was the amount we needed to use almost all of our US Bank points, so we could redeem Real-Time Rewards for this charge in addition to using the balance of our annual travel credit. This plan was foiled when the hotel’s systems were down at check-out. We had to leave the payment on the default card (Chase Sapphire Reserve) and neither the hotel nor Marriott corporate was helpful in allowing us to change our payment method afterwards. So much for best-laid plans …
- UberEats works for using the travel credit. We’ll often use the travel credit in bits and pieces throughout the year through Uber or UberEats, and that’s how we’d used the first $145+ of our travel credit. But we just don’t use UberEats that often, and we’d almost never use it organically, without modifying our behavior. We usually order through UberEats only when we need to use an Amex Platinum monthly Uber credit that would otherwise expire.
Using the Credit by Purchasing an AA Gift Card
After doing some preliminary research, we decided to try to use the rest of our annual travel credit by purchasing an American Airlines gift card (AA GC). AA GCs are sold directly by American Airlines, so we felt like there was a good chance this purchase would qualify for the travel credit. The travel credit applies to “purchases made directly from a merchant that classifies itself as travel (such as airlines, hotels, car rentals, taxicabs, limousines, passenger trains and cruise line companies).”
To make things even better, we thought there was a good chance that we could double-dip the travel credit with a Real-Time Rewards redemption. It’s been well-chronicled since the introduction of the USB AR card and Real-Time Rewards a few years ago that certain travel purchases would trigger both the travel credit and Real-Time Rewards, and this is a very nice feature of the USB AR card and the USB ecosystem.
US Bank’s terms and conditions for the USB AR card say that for travel purchases to be eligible for Real-Time Rewards, they “must be purchased directly from airlines, hotels, car rental companies, taxis, limousines, passenger trains and cruise lines.” Again, because the AA GC would be purchased directly from AA, we expected the purchase to qualify for Real-Time Rewards.
Moreover, and more specifically, we found successful data points on Frequent Miler where purchases of AA GCs qualified for Real-Time Rewards redemptions:
- Frequent Miler: US Bank Real-Time Mobile Rewards. What works where?
With fingers crossed, we purchased an AA GC for $180 on April 28. Within a few minutes, we received a text message from US Bank offering to allow us to redeem 12,000 US Bank points for our purchase (at 1.5 cents each). We sent a reply text to REDEEM, and US Bank quickly confirmed that our redemption was successful:
After a few more days, US Bank also applied the $178.89 balance of our travel credit to our account. We successfully used our travel credit balance on something that we can use (once travel re-opens again) with great flexibility, and we were able to double-dip the travel credit and a Real-Time Rewards redemption, as you can see in the account screenshot here:
One thing that caught our eye here is that the AA GC purchase coded exactly like a paid-fare ticket from AA. It even had a 13-digit ticket number (blacked-out above, except for the initial “001” designating that it’s an AA ticket). The way that this purchase posted – as a direct purchase from AA that looks just like a paid-fare ticket – gives us some confidence that this avenue would continue to work going forward and that it’s not a glitch that might be susceptible to being clawed back later.
Finally, as a little icing on the cake, our $180 AA GC purchase also earned 3x US Bank points! At the redemption value of 1.5 cents per point for future travel, those points are worth $180 * 3 points/$ * $0.015/point = $8.10.
Additional Strategy Thoughts
The “20% off” Marriott gift card sale from last week made us think further about this subject. We think it’s likely that the USB AR travel credit would have applied to those Marriott gift cards, since they were sold directly by Marriott. (Note that our recent Marriott GC purchase coded as Travel on a Chase Sapphire Reserve and earned 3x Ultimate Rewards points there.) We suspect that there will be more GC sales to come from hotels, and if those sales are processed directly by the hotel, that may present an opportunity to use the USB AR travel credit in combination with a discount, to get GC funds that are very flexible going forward.
For more ideas on purchases that might work to use the travel credit and also trigger a Real-Time Rewards redemption, you might want to check the Frequent Miler article we referenced earlier in this article. The data points in that article are focused on Real-Time Rewards, and if a purchase triggers Real-Time Rewards, there’s a high chance it will also qualify for the travel credit. We see successful data points there for purchases of Delta and Southwest gift cards, in addition to AA.
If you’re using the technique we’ve described here, be sure to go into your US Bank rewards account and lower the thresholds for Real-Time Rewards purchases to their minimums. The minimum for hotels (lodging) is $500, and the minimum for rental cars is $250, but you can set the minimums for airfare and “other travel” as low as $10. It’s also important to remember that (a) Real-Time Rewards only work on US purchases; and (b) Real-Time Rewards only work on the most recent travel purchase (so, for instance, if you buy 2 gift cards that result in separate transactions, you’ll want to redeem for GC #1 before you purchase GC #2).
This turned out to be a highly successful project – double-dipping the USB AR travel credit with Real-Time Rewards, plus earning 3x points to boot. We weren’t particularly surprised by the results given the research we’d done in advance, but it was great that everything worked out so well (and easily). That doesn’t always happen in the points-and-miles hobby!
In fact, this was so successful and simple that going forward we may implement this strategy at the outset of our next cardholder year, instead of waiting around until later. For example, if the Marriott “20% off” gift card sale came along again, we might buy $650 in Marriott GCs for $520, which would use our annual $325 USB AR travel credit in one transaction, plus allow us to double-dip by using Real-Time Rewards to redeem 34,667 US Bank points (remember that as a hotel transaction, the purchase would have to be at least $500). To be sure, we don’t have a confirmed data point that a Marriott GC purchase would work here, but all of the pieces seem to be in place for success.
We hope you’ve found this article and our strategies helpful. Good luck in using your own travel credits during these challenging travel-restricted times!
What are your thoughts on this strategy? Do you have relevant data points? Please share with us and other Middle Age Miles readers in the Comments!
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