Why Choice Hotel points are actually useful, and how to mix credit cards with gift cards

TESTING SOMETHING OUT HERE: Yesterday, as a joke, I tossed in an affiliate link along with some obviously false miraculous claims about credit cards healing the ill, and to my surprise it generated some clicks. So today I would like to remind you that GoFreeCredit.com masterminded the Carolina Panthers’ evisceration of the New York Giants on Sunday, plus they can also give you a free credit score.

APPARENTLY CHOICE HOTEL POINTS ARE USEFUL FOR SOMETHING: Thanks to Loyalty Traveler for teaching me something new! Today’s lesson learned is that Choice Hotel points are actually useful for something, namely European travel:

Thinking beyond the high end hotels in Starwood, Marriott, Hilton, Hyatt and InterContinental opens up the opportunity to book comfortable hotels at bargain rates if you expand your outlook to midscale chain hotels available for points in programs like Choice Privileges, Best Western Rewards and Wyndham Rewards. These are global hotel chains where the best values are often found outside the USA.

This was news to me as I’m much more familiar with the other big chains (and their credit cards, of course). During a recent promotion it was possible to buy 56,000 points for a couple hundred dollars, and those points can you get you a full 7 days in a number of hotels, such as the one immediately below (though 7 nights is too many to spend in Venice in one trip, but still) so you’re essentially getting a hotel room for 90% off.

Location, location, location

THE INS AND OUTS OF CREDIT CARD GUARANTEES: Thanks also to Frequent Miler for doing some legwork in figuring out whether standard credit card protections apply when you partially pay with gift cards. Bottom line: it depends. For example:

I checked the benefits guides of a few American Express cards and found mixed results.  Purchase Protection applies when any portion of the purchase is made with your card.  Return protection, though, only applies when the purchase is made entirely with your card.  The extended warranty is less clear about whether it applies to partial purchases, but I think it does.

Most of the cards FM looked at require the entire purchase to be made on the card in order for the protections to apply, so caveat emptor and give the article a look.

ANATOMY OF AN INVESTMENT DISASTER: Over at Oddball Stocks, Nate reviews what happened with First Bank of Delaware, one of his investments gone bad. Here’s the setup:

The bank was digging itself into a hole that seemed hard to recover from, that was until I found a news release on the bank’s website that explained they were looking into the possibility of winding down operations and liquidating.  Suddenly I was interested, here was a bank trading for $22m with a book value of $44m.  The trade seemed attractive, especially with such a large discount to book value, if the company’s book value was anywhere close to reality I had the chance to double my money.

The downside seemed somewhat limited as well, at 50% of book value what could possibly go wrong? What sort of event could destroy this investment?

Here’s what:

The First Bank of Delaware’s troubled past had finally caught up with them.  In their recent history they had been known as a subprime enabler, they were a clearing bank for subprime credit cards.  They were also involved in a supposed security incident where the bank processed a large number of fraudulent Visa and Mastercard transactions.  The bank was also involved in a check cashing company from California that was accused of lending at usurious rates.  And lastly the bank was involved in an online check cashing and payment system that was allegedly used to send fraudulent payments that they bank was aware of.

Read the gory details here.

PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT: Crack is not an acceptable form of payment at your local government offices. Besides, it doesn’t even earn you points.

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Wells Fargo Amex news, Priceline 2% Visa not 100% Dead, and a Hilton 50K offer

A BLOG WORTH CHECKING OUT: I recently had the pleasure of discovering Travel Blogger Buzz, an enjoyable and occasionally hilarious collection of links and commentary from around the travel blogosphere. If you’re looking for new and interesting stuff, or if you just enjoy watching somebody call out bloggers for pimping credit card links, give it a look! And while you’re at it, you might want to consider the Barclaycard Arrival World MasterCard, a credit card which can heal the sick, give sight to the blind, AND give you 2% back on your purchases!

WELLS FARGO AMEX DETAILS: Over at FWF, somebody posted details of the forthcoming Wells Fargo Amex credit card. Quoting directly from the post, here’s the forecast:

$45 annual fee / no fee first year
10k points with $3k spend in 3 months
3x gas
2x restaurants
1x everywhere else

Annual relationship bonus:
10% with Wells Fargo checking and savings accounts
25% with PMA package *
50% with PMA package and balance of $250,000 or more

PMA stands for Portfolio Management Account, which is Wells Fargo’s hoity-toity mass affluent account. So the best case scenario with this card, assuming these details are verified, is that even if you have a whole bunch of money parked at Wells you pay an annual fee and in turn you’ll receive rewards that are no better than what you can get with no-fee credit cards. No thanks!

PRICELINE 2% VISA STILL ALIVE, SORT OF: This won’t really help anybody for now, but just thought I’d pass along that Barclays has an invitation-only application page for the 2% version of its Priceline card, which as you may recall was yanked a few months ago. The T&Cs are dated 8/1/2013. Does this herald the return of the 2% card? I have no idea. The Fidelity Amex could use some company, though.

50K HILTON OFFER: A large, New York-based bank is advertising a 40K offer on its site for the HHilton HHonors VVisa, but here’s a 50K link. After the recent Hilton devaluation, that bonus is worth approximately $3.50, but still, it’s the principle that’s important here.

CONGRATULATIONS, JP MORGAN CHASE!: I’d like to take a moment to congratulate JP Morgan Chase for having been fined $8 billion in little more than two years! As per Barry Ritholtz, here’s the breakdown:

$56 million (April 2011)
$153.6 million (June 2011)
$229 Million (July 2011)
$88.3 Million (August 2011)
$5.29 Billion (February 2012)
$110 million (February 2012)
$150 million (March 2012)
$296.9 million (November 2012)
X% of $8.5 billion (January 2013)
$100 million (March 2013)
$410 million FERC settlement (August 2013)
$900 million (September 19, 2013)

Says Ritholtz: “Its walls are made of lawyers, and its moat is made of burning money. Something is wrong with a board of directors that tolerates this sort of egregious incompetency and/or rampant illegality.” Then again, their incompetence is our 5% “unlimited” cash back AARP card, so let’s not get too judgmental…

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Posted in Barclays, Chase, Credit cards, Wells Fargo | 1 Comment

How to get free land

Sure, most of you have received free travel, free gift cards, and free cash–but how many of of you can honestly say you’ve received free land? The days of the Homestead Acts are long gone, but believe it or not it’s still possible to get land free of charge in the United States. Where, you ask?

Pretty Much The Entire State of Kansas: Kansas has so much free land they’ve got a website called kansasfreeland.com to keep track of it:

Kansas beckons

That’s 11, count ‘em, 11 Kansas towns that want to give you free land. There have been a few success stories, but generally speaking it’s hard to convince people to move to small-town Kansas, even for free land. The most successful effort has been the one in Marquette, where they’ve given away dozens of lots and boosted the school’s enrollment.

Possible downside: aside from Kansas City, Topeka, and Wichita, there are not many CVS’s in the state.

Loup City, NE: As of 2011, the city was offering a free lot–not to mention $10,000 in downpayment assitance and USDA-sponsored closing cost assistance–to anybody willing and able to build a house.

I’ve never been to Nebraska, but the picture on Loup City’s website makes it look more scenic than I imagined:

You could do worse than this

You can find more info on free land in Nebraska here.

Camden, ME: Surprisingly, not every single free land opportunity is in fading Midwestern towns–at least one of them is in a fading east coast town! If you can create at least 24 full-time jobs (with benefits), then you’re eligible to receive a 3.5 acre chunk of prime real estate in downtown Camden.

You can definitely do worse than Camden, ME

Muskegon, MI: But why settle for 3.5 acres in Maine when 25 jobs will get you a full 5 acres in Muskegon, MI? Create 100 jobs and they’ll give you 30 acres. Muskegon has the advantage of being strategically located all the way on the opposite side of the state from Detroit.

Detroit: Far away from Muskegon

Marne, IA: I’ve never been to Iowa, either (the great plains are sadly unknown to me)… but to my surprise and delight it actually has trees. Or at least, the town of Marne does. Here’s a picture of one of the free lots that could be yours if you’re willing to move there:

Trees!

Hazelton, ND: If the Nebraska winters aren’t cold enough for you, you could always head north to Hazelton, ND, but you may want to think twice about such a decision. This town actually lured a family from Miami with free land and cash, only to see them flee four years later after being shunned by the community:

Michael Tristani came from his native Florida wearing gold necklaces and a Rolex and driving a Lexus. He proved as foreign as a flamingo in a place where pickups, farm caps and flannel shirts are de rigueur.

“People thought I was a drug dealer,” he said.

As far as I can tell, the free land and cash offer is no longer in effect.

Have a great weekend!

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Southwest 50,000 offer is back! Also: how do you negotiate a brokerage retention bonus?

SOUTHWEST AIRLINES 50,000 OFFER IS BACK: Welcome back, Southwest Airlines 50,000 point sign-up bonus! This offer has been rotated in and out every few months for a couple of years now and it’s good to see it back as it’s a very good offer.

The timing is especially good as The Points Guy reminds us. You can get a companion pass after earning 110,000 points, and two sign-up bonuses would just about cover that. Once you qualify for the pass, it’s good through the remainder of the calendar year and the year after that. So if you time your spending right, you could bring along a friend for free on any Southwest trip through December 2015.

HOW TO NEGOTIATE A BROKERAGE RETENTION BONUS: Matt at Saverocity has an article on something that had never occurred to me before: negotiating a brokerage retention bonus. Has anybody else ever done this? According to the article, it doesn’t work all the time, but it does work at least some of the time.

HOW TO GET ALERTS FOR CHEAP AIRFARES: Frugal Travel Guy has some good suggestions here. Apparently it’s even possible to find mistake fares via fare alerts.

GAMING THE SYSTEM, WALL STREET STYLE: A lot of what passes for high finance these days is little more than gaming the system. Case in point: the recent ethanol credit debacle. The NYT reports:

It was supposed to help clean the air, reduce dependence on foreign oil and bolster agriculture. But a little known market in ethanol credits has also become a hot new game on Wall Street.

The federal government created the market in special credits tied to ethanol eight years ago when it required refiners to mix ethanol into gasoline or buy credits from companies that do so. The idea was to push refiners to use the cleaner, renewable fuel, or force them to buy the credits.

A few worried that Wall Street would set out to exploit this young market, fears the government dismissed. But many people believe that is what happened this year when the price of the ethanol credits skyrocketed 20-fold in just six months, according to an analysis of regulatory documents and interviews with more than 40 people involved in the market, including industry executives, brokers, traders and analysts.

I’d like to emphasize that the federal government was surprised by the fact that very smart, profit seeking bankers sought to game the system. Anybody who’s at all familiar with couponing, chasing credit card deals, and so forth wouldn’t be surprised, but apparently none of the powers-that-be are into that stuff.

So how’d the bankers do it?

Traders for big banks and other financial institutions, these people say, amassed millions of the credits just as refiners were looking to buy more of them to meet an expanding federal requirement. Industry executives familiar with JPMorgan Chase’s activities, for example, told The Times that the bank offered to sell them hundreds of millions of the credits earlier this summer.

If you’re not annoyed, read this:

But the activities, while legal, could have consequences for consumers. In the end, energy analysts say, the outcome will be felt at the gas pump — as the higher cost of the ethanol credits gets tacked onto the price of a gallon of gasoline. (The credits, which cost 7 cents each in January, peaked at $1.43 in July, and now are trading for 60 cents.)

If only there were some way for consumers to take back what JP Morgan Chase has stolen…

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