When travel hacking goes wrong…

When we went to Japan 2 years ago, we redeemed Marriott points to stay 5 nights in Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel. At 37,420 Japanese Yen per night (~$411 Canadian), we saved over $2,000 Canadian by redeeming points. It was one of the nicest hotels I have stayed at and it was quite unique to stay on the 46th floor with great view of Osaka.

I have been accumulating rewards points whenever I travel for work. But accumulating points for the occasional business travels can only take you so far. Staying at Marriott properties for a few nights here and there and flying to USA and Asia here and there don’t really accumulate that many points.

Therefore, I started applying for rewards credit cards.

I found myself reading more about travel hacking and learning what these rewards points can do. For example, you can transfer American Express points to many different frequent travel programs, like Aeroplan, Delta, and SPG.

For a few years, Mrs. T and I talked about going to Hawaii for our 5th wedding anniversary. That never happened. But we still talk about going to Hawaii one of these days.

How cool would it be if we could go to Hawaii and stay at a place by redeeming rewards points?


How many miles & points do we need?

With Aeroplan, we need 135,000 miles for 3 people (you can’t book seat infant on Aeroplan website, need to call in later) on fixed mileage rewards to book connecting flights. With two little kids, direct flights are ideal so we don’t lose our minds (ha!). For direct flights, we need to book flights under market fare flight rewards. This means with 3 people, we need 179,400 Aeroplan miles.

After some research on Marriott website and other travel sites, we determined that the Wailea Beach Resort on Maui would be a great place to stay. Wailea Beach Resort is a category 8 Marriott hotel, so we would need 40,000 Marriott points per night. Staying for 7 nights at the resort would require 240,000 Marriott points (you get 1 free night when redeeming for 4 nights). At $3,913 for 7 nights, this means we would get ~1.63¢ per Marriott point, much higher than the usual estimated value of 0.9¢ per Marriott point.

That is a lot of Aeroplan miles and Marriott points needed! Can we do better? Further research showed that Marriott offers hotel + air packages. Since Marriott points are usually transferred to Aeroplan miles at a 5:1 rate, this is an excellent deal (essentially you are transferring the points at 1:1 rate).

Thus, we need 360,000 Marriott points to 7 nights of hotel stay and enough Aeroplan miles to get 3 return tickets for free (I have ~60k in my Aeroplan account).


How to get 360,000 Marriott points?

To hit the 360k mark, we have been applying for rewards credit cards the last few months.

  • Marriott Visa – 50,000 Marriott welcome bonus points after first transaction. No fee the first year, $120 after.
  • American Express Personal Gold – 25,000 Amex welcome bonus points after spending $1,500 in the first 3 months. No fee the first year, $150 after.
  • American Express Business Platinum – 75,000 Amex welcome bonus points after spending $5,000 in the first 3 months. $399 annual fee.

The American Express Business Platinum card is the only card that has an annual fee for the first year. We plan to cancel all the credit cards before end of the 1st year to avoid paying annual fees.

With Amex points, we can transfer them to SPG at a 2:1 rate. We can then transfer SPG points to Marriott points at a 1:3 rate. For example, if we have 20,000 Amex points, we end up with 30,000 Marriott points (20k Amex -> 10k SPG -> 30k Marriott).

Based on my calculation, when we get all the welcome bonus points (2x 50k Marriott, 2x 25k Amex personal, 1x 75k Business platinum), we would have enough Marriott points to redeem for the hotel + flight package.


How to meet the spending limits?

How do we ensure that we meet the spending limits for the Amex cards?

  • Time the card applications prior to big expenses like car insurance renewal, house insurance renewal, and plane ticket purchases
  • Using one card at the time for all expenses until we hit the spending limit
  • Donate money to charities

When travel hacking goes wrong!?!?

Things are chugging along nicely. We got a bunch welcome bonus points already and are working on the spending requirement for the Amex Business Platinum card. Based on the Excel sheet that I have for tracking credit card spending, we have spent over $5,000 in about 2.5 months. Since we have crossed the spending limit, I have stopped using the card and put expenses on other travel rewards cards.

I waited for the points to show up but they never did. This led me to phone American Express the other day.

Then the customer representative gave me the bad news.

Sir, looks like you are short by $110. You have only spent $4,890 on the card and it’s already past the 3 months period.

Wait…what? WTF?

I was as confused as a cat trying to catch a laser dot. Based on the Excel sheet, I was 110% certain that we spent ~$5,300 in the first 3 months.

After getting off the phone, I checked the sheet again and cross referenced with the monthly statements.

CRAP! I messed up on an entry. I have mistakenly included the $399 annual fee in my calculation! Annual fee does not count toward the spending limit.

!#[email protected]$%^%#^%#[email protected]!!!!

I was so upset at myself. I couldn’t believe that I messed up!

This meant we have spent $399 for no welcome bonus points. What a giant waste of money!!! Arrrrr!!!

(Mrs. T later told me that she has never seen me that upset…)

When I calmed down a little bit I called American Express again and explained my situation. Before calling, I decided to donate $250 to Canadian Red Cross for the BC Wild Fire relief. This would put the total spending to over $5,000.

When I reached the customer representative, I explained how I messed up on my $5,000 spending requirement and asked for forgiveness. I also mentioned that I had just spent over $5,000 and I was only about 4 or 5 days outside the 3 months time frame. I then asked to talk to the supervisor. I tried to be very nice & reasonable and explained everything to the supervisor again. I kept telling both the representative and the supervisor that I was very appreciative of them hearing out my case.

The supervisor said he would do what he can to get the welcome bonus points for me. During the phone call he mentioned a few times that he honestly hadn’t seen a case where American Express provided the welcome bonus points when customer failed to meet the spending requirement.

I knew it was a tough battle but I asked him to see what he could do. Deep inside I thought this was it. We had spent $399 for nothing.

Say goodbye to my plan of going and staying Hawaii entirely on rewards points.

Mrs. T kept comforting me by telling me to treat this as a learning lesson. We could always pay for the plane ticket, or pay for part of the accommodation.

So now I must wait for a few days to find out American Express’ decision. Would I luck out? I have no clue.

Deep down I am a bit disappointed that I let myself down. Using points to go and stay in Hawaii was an ambitious goal I set for myself. I was doing all I could to accomplish this goal.

I have failed myself….


How you could maybe help me

I know this is asking a lot but I’m getting desperate… 🙁

If you’re a fellow Canadian, one way you can help me out is to apply for an American Express card through my referral link.  This way I would earn referral points and you would get more welcome bonus points than if you were to apply directly with American Express. These are the cards you can apply.

The American Express Business Gold is good if you don’t want to pay for the annual fee. The American Express Personal Platinum is good if you travel a lot and value access to airport lounges. The hotel gold status is a good benefit too. With the $200 annual travel credit, you can get $400 taken off for holding the card for a year. This means the annual fee is only $299 (i.e. apply now, get $200 credit in 2017, then in 2018 you get another $200 credit, cancel the card before the year is up).

I applied for the American Business Platinum so I could get more points when referring Mrs. T to the personal gold card (sadly American Express recently removed the American Express Personal Gold card from the referral list).

If you end up applying for a card to help us out, thank you and merci beaucoup! I truly appreciate that.


Lessons Learned

What did I learn from this travel hacking gone wrong experience? Well, I need to be more careful and track dollar amount properly! Also, don’t just spend to the required spending limit, spend a little bit extra to make sure we are good to go. I also realized that it important to always talk nicely to the customer representatives. They are there to help you out. Be appreciative of what they do and do not yell or scream at them. They are just doing their jobs. By being nice to them, perhaps they will be willing to help you out.

So now we wait for the decision…

*fingers crossed that I will get good news in a few days.*

Update: American Express phoned and told me that they have deposited 75,000 Amex points in my account. Yea! So happy everything worked out. I really appreciate American Express (especially the supervisor that I talked to), for helping me out and keeping me as a happy customer. 🙂

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  • Reply
    John R
    July 26, 2017 at 9:14 am

    An informative write-up.

    When considering using a CC or loyalty program to accumulate travel rewards there are many factors to take into consideration as you’ve pointed out Bob, from justifying all expenditures to now having to spend more in a short period or over a year – to constantly switching CC’s.

    Bob do you know if there is a per-person ‘booking fee’ when redeeming reward points for any travel, merchandise , car rental, booking flights, a holiday package deal or even a hotel?

    These would be some of the other hidden costs that need to be factored in IMO, especially if it’s possible when using a web based travel site such as expedia, Trivago that it may be possible to get comparative all-in pricing.

    I have seen on the web that there are some restrictions, to black-out periods, even longer layovers when redeeming travel rewards – maybe you can address these few points I’ve mentioned

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 9:35 am

      With Marriott points and Aeroplan miles there’s no per-person booking fee. Both of these rewards points you book through the companies. The only hidden cost would be Aeroplan’s fuel surcharge if you book with airlines that cahrge fuel surcharge (i.e. Air Canada). But you pay for those when you pay for the plane ticket with cash too.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 9:47 am

    Ouch. Can’t say weve ever has that issue but usually I either pick a card with a spending amount within our normal bounds or I sign up to correspond with a known big spending event. For example I just grabbed the Marriott premier card and we have upcoming lawyer fees for a will redo.

  • Reply
    Ms. Frugal Asian Finance
    July 26, 2017 at 10:11 am

    I’m so sorry to hear about the incident. I know it doesn’t feel good when you put so much hard work and even money in something and don’t get the return you’ve been expecting. I do hope that the rep will be able to give you the rewards. No matter what will happen, I think you’ve drawn great lessons from the experience. I’m sure they will be helpful to a lot of the readers out there.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 10:47 am

      Yeah it sucks but it’s a good lesson to learn.

  • Reply
    Mrs. Adventure Rich
    July 26, 2017 at 10:17 am

    Oh man, that is really frustrating, I’m sorry! I wish I was in Canada and could help out!

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 10:47 am

      Yeah it’s frustrating but all I can do now is wait for Amex’s decision.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 10:34 am

    Dear Tawcan,

    So sorry about your situation. I know that my words won’t send you to Hawaii but I think that it is totally impressive that you found a doable way to get there for free. I’m not one for travel hacking, yet. When I do, I’ll definitely check for peoples referral links.

    Question, if I get the card and then cancel in the first year (so I don’t have to pay the annual fee), do I have to book a trip or else lose the points?


    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 10:49 am

      If you cancel the card in the first year you will lose the points if you don’t use them. This is unless you transfer the points to another frequent travel rewards program.

      For example say you have 20,000 Amex points by holding an Amex card. If you transfer the Amex points to Delta or Aeroplan before you cancel the card, you’re good to go. With Delta and Aeroplan, however, they may have their own points expiration rules.

  • Reply
    John R
    July 26, 2017 at 10:42 am

    On a re-read, I must have missed something or I’m having a senior moment, maybe my Arithmetic is not up to snuff.

    Bob, they way I read this points accumulation/redemption – in order to get 360,000 Marriot points to redeem flight+ 7 nights hotel say 12 months from today, one would need a spending combination (include bonus points from Marriot & Amex) somewhere between $75,000 to approx $100,000 when using the Amex card (fee free for 12 months)

    Is that right or did I miss something?

    If so, there is absolutely no-way the average family could spend minimum 6k/mth, if they do, then they have a huge net income

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 10:56 am

      Hi John,

      No that’s not correct.

      With Marriott you get 50,000 points for the card as soon as you do a transaction on the card. So if you spend a $1, you get the points.
      With Amex there are specific spending limits. With the business gold card, you need to spend $5,000 in the first 3 months to get 40k points. With the business platinum you need to spend $5,000 in the first 3 months to get 40k points.

      In our case for 2x Marriott cards, 2 Amex personal cards , and 1 Business platinum card we needed to spend slightly over $8,000. By applying these cards before big expenses we aren’t spending extra money.

  • Reply
    The Luxe Strategist
    July 26, 2017 at 10:55 am

    Oh my god, this has totally happened to me, too! And it’s maddening as well. I signed up for 40k points from Capital One Venture, only to have NOT made the minimum spend amount because I wasn’t paying attention. Never again. From now on, whenever I *think* I’ve made the minimum spend I’ll send a secure message ASAP so the customer service rep can confirm. The card wasn’t for a specific trip like yours, so I was able to recover. Good luck getting the points, though. Maybe they’ll give them to you as a one-time courtesy?

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Yuck sorry to hear that. 🙁

      I learned that I need to be more careful next time. I’m certainly they’ll give the points to me as a one-time courtesy. We’ll have to wait and see.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 10:56 am

    Damn, sorry to hear. Let’s hope you get some good news! We’ve just used some points for a weekend get away for the family. Love travel hacking.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 11:49 am

      Travel hacking is great if you can do it right. 🙂

  • Reply
    Money Beagle
    July 26, 2017 at 11:57 am

    We had a SOuthwest card that falls under the same rules. I happened to catch it. I also made sure to spend 5-10% over the required limit just to make sure that I gave myself a cushion.

    Hope it works out for you.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks, hope we’ll hear the good news soon.

  • Reply
    Scott @ Two Investing
    July 26, 2017 at 12:18 pm

    Great story. Will love to hear the update when Amex hopefully rewards you those points.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 1:31 pm

      Thanks will certainly provide an update later.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I had a somewhat similar situation. Just a few days back, I used a “refer a friend” promo code when I opened up a TFSA through Questrade and based on the amount I funded I was to be awarded $x amount in one week’s time. When I contacted Questrade and asked when I can expect the bonus cash earned, I was explained that I would not qualify for it since Questrade does not charge a commission for buying ETFs and I was supposed to make at least one commissionable trade.

    What upset me was that prior to opening the account, I specifically inquired about that specific term and condition and was told that I would still qualify even if I did not make a commissionable trade considering there is no fee to buy ETFs.

    So when I very politely, yet assertively, pointed this out to the agent online, they said they would escalate the issue with their leadership team. The agent was very empathetic, as I pointed out that I felt as if I was a victim of a “bait and switch”. I was very polite the entire time but made sure to explain that I was highly distressed based on an expectation that was set to me. Later that same day, I was told I would be award the bonus cash anyway. 🙂

    So, I agree with you entirely, you always need to be polite and honest with customer service reps, they are there to help you and that is fundamental key that most people forget. I know this because that is my industry. I am a problem solver for customers and work with the biggest technology company in the world, and because of this you can imagine the sentiment of people I get who think if they yell and scream and make a scene that will somehow change their situation, but when people are polite, I go out of my way to see what I can do for them.

    So, fear not, hopefully Amex will take your situation into consideration, since its clear it was a simple oversight and only a few bucks short and not the whole the way. Good luck Bob!

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 1:32 pm

      Great story, I find that being polite and nice to the customer preps is the best thing to do. They are just doing their jobs and typically they’ll try all they can to help you out if you are nice to them.

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 1:24 pm

    That’s a tough break Bob. My experience with Amex has been pretty good. They’ve gone out of their way to make things right when things have gone wrong. I’m hopeful they’ll do the right thing with you.

    Amex is my card of choice, even though other cards might grant more bonus miles or other swag. I would encourage anyone to sign up (and if you are a Canadian, through Bob’s link). I’ve found it worth the annual fee.

    • Reply
      July 26, 2017 at 1:33 pm

      I’ve been pretty happy with Amex so far too. Hopefully they’ll give us the rewards points. 🙂

  • Reply
    July 26, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    Im rooting for ya Bob! Best of luck. Thats pretty dam cool if you all go there on just points. Dont beat yourself up too much sounds like you had a awesome system just one lil glitch.

    • Reply
      July 27, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Thanks, hoping for the best.

  • Reply
    Mr. Tako
    July 27, 2017 at 9:03 am

    I hope the decision works out in your favor Tawcan!

    We’re in the process of travel hacking out way to Japan right now, and I noticed those annual fees don’t count towards the total too. It’s probably hidden in the fine print somewhere.

    Spending slightly more than the requirement seems like a good idea!

    • Reply
      July 27, 2017 at 10:03 am

      Travel hacking your way to somewhere it totally awesome! I’m jealous that you guys will spend 1 month in Japan.

  • Reply
    Financial Samurai
    July 29, 2017 at 9:15 am

    Any good news Bob?

    I gave up travel hacking at about 25 yo when I realized I could not keep track if it all! lol

    I decided to just focus my attention on making as much money as possible and travel hack that way.

    But now, no more travel for us with the baby.


    • Reply
      July 29, 2017 at 2:30 pm

      Hi Sam,

      Got the good news. 75k points deposited in my account! Phew! When it comes to credit card rewards points, Canadians don’t have as much choices compared to US. Making as much money as possible is a great way to “travel hack.” 🙂

      No travel with the baby? You can do it! We traveled to Denmark from Vancouver when Baby T1.0 was ~10 weeks old. I think it’s actually easier to travel with babies when they are young than travelling with a toddler.

  • Reply
    July 31, 2017 at 8:40 am

    I’m not too surprised they hooked you up with the points. I find the credit card companies to be pretty accommodating if you’re “pretty close” to meeting the terms. They want your business since Platinum/Premium/big spenders are usually rather profitable for them, even after the 75k points award. They figure most people will keep paying the $399/yr and keep spending $$ on the card (transaction fees!!) and many will pay interest (12-25% for cards in the US typically).

    As for that gut-wrenching feeling when you realize you messed up by a small amount? Horrible. Been there a couple of times and only once did I have to suffer the consequences. I almost let the $450 annual fee mistake happen on my Chase Sapphire Reserve – I added up the total amount I had paid for past months and added the outstanding balance. Then I remembered the annual fee doesn’t count toward spending. What I try to do now is make the required spending at least a week ahead of time then use the online secure message to confirm with a CSR that I’ve met the terms of the program to get the bonus pts. If not, they’ll tell me and I can tidy it up in the last few days before the 90 day window closes.

    My mistake was actually letting miles expire with United. 1 day late generating activity to keep the points from expiring but they wouldn’t budge. I had to pay $200 to reinstate the miles plus jump through a challenge hoop (fly somewhere on United or get a United Credit Card). I got a new credit card, another 30k miles for bonus, and reinstated 90k miles that had expired, all for $200. Not bad, and that was about half the miles I needed to fly the five of us to Europe for the summer ($2,400 cash price to buy the same tickets).

    • Reply
      July 31, 2017 at 11:43 am

      Yeah I guess it makes sense for them to award the welcome bonus points and keep the customer happy instead of losing a customer.

      I wish here in Canada we have more choices when it comes to travel rewards cards. The welcome points we get aren’t nearly as good compared to what you see in the US.

      That’s good that you were able to get the points reinstated. The extra cost was well worth it then.

  • Reply
    July 31, 2017 at 11:52 am

    Wow, great job getting those points. We’re pretty bad at churning cards. It took us 2 years to accumulate 200k points and 4 nights at Hyatt. Should be a cheap vacation this year. 🙂
    There are too many things to think about already and I don’t like having more on my plate.

    • Reply
      July 31, 2017 at 3:25 pm

      It’s nice to have a cheaper vacation by churning cards, that’s for sure. Travel hacking does take a bit of planning and researching. When you’re really busy you might not have time to do all that. 🙂

  • Reply
    Adriana @MoneyJourney
    August 3, 2017 at 8:15 am

    I’m so glad I’m late to the party, because I got to read your update! Phew! Good thing everything worked out!

    Taking full advantage of travel points seems kinda stressful though. I haven’t attempted to do any travel hacking before, I just choose to fly with low cost airlines and book accommodation months in advance (when possible). So far, I can’t say I spent a heck of a lot of money on travel 😀

    • Reply
      August 3, 2017 at 9:43 am

      If you can travel hack to reduce your travel cost that makes a lot of sense to me. 🙂

  • Reply
    Dividend Wisp
    December 21, 2018 at 6:58 am

    Happy to hear you go those points added! And hopefully you ended up going on your trip already! I can definitely attest, as someone who works in retail banking, that being nice to the reps never hurts. Also keep in mind, when you call in, or walk in to a branch with an issue. It may only be a few minute transaction for you, but for the people on the other side, it takes a considerable amount more time to submit reports, track down other departments and follow-up/push to make things happen.

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