I’m laying all my cards on the table. Tomorrow evening (June 22 9pm ET), the Frequent Miler team will be livesteaming our 3 Cards 3 Continents draft (details here). We’ll take turns picking 3 card bonuses from our Best Offers page and we’ll use the resulting bonuses as our budget to build the most amazing 3 continent trip we can dream up. The winner will be chosen by readers after our trips are done. In this post I’m going to lay out my full strategy… cards up.
Why reveal my plans?
Nick, the guy who gets to pick first in the draft, recently suggested that he might use his first pick to try to block Stephen’s and my plans. Surely, by revealing my strategy here, I’m just making his nefarious plans that much easier, right? Right. Nevertheless, there are multiple reasons I decided to go ahead and publish my full strategy…
- Despite what Nick wrote, I don’t believe for a second that Nick or Stephen will risk their own plans in order to block mine. With award availability at an all time low, this challenge is going to be hard enough even for the person that gets all 3 of their first choice cards.
- Before writing this post, my head (and spreadsheet) was spinning with ideas, strategies, contingencies, and back-up contingencies. Writing this post helped tremendously to clarify my thoughts.
- I believe that I have a plan that will work regardless of what Nick and Stephen do. Even though I am handicapped with the 3rd pick in the first round, I also get the 1st pick in the second round. This is very helpful! No matter what Nick and Stephen do with their first picks, I know that only two cards will then be off the table. I can then pick the next two best choices to meet my goals. My 3rd pick will be the last of the night, but I’m confident that I can make that work too, regardless of what goes before.
- Neither Nick nor Stephen can be sure that what I published here is really true. They’re probably reading this thinking “aha, Greg is really documenting what he won’t do in order to throw us off.” They’re wrong about that, but they can’t know for sure, can they?
My high level approach
I have two specific self-imposed goals in this challenge. The first is to make use of ANA’s Star Alliance Round the World award. This is one of the sweetest award sweet-spots in existence today and it’s high time I’ve booked it.
Second, I want to show the extremes of what is possible with Citi points transferred to Choice for high end hotel stays. Since Citi points transfer 1 to 2 to Choice, the current 80K Citi Premier offer would net 160K Choice points. I could do a lot with that! Choice has some excellent Ascend Collection hotels and Nordic Choice hotels to choose from, as well as the ability to book some really amazing Preferred Hotels & Resorts.
The problem with my Choice plan is that I get the 3rd pick in the first round of the draft and so I think I’ll be pretty lucky if the Premier card is still available for my turn. My backup plan for hotels is the Bonvoy Boundless offer for five 50K free night certificates. I would then do my best to stay in a different awesome Marriott hotel each night, perhaps on 5 different continents (that would be kind of cool, wouldn’t it?).
Why wouldn’t I pick Hyatt for my hotel plans? Hyatt would be easy. There are some amazing properties around the world that go for under 15K points per night. Plus, it’s often possible to stay in incredible suites for just a bit more. To me, Hyatt makes it too easy. I want to find Choice’s hidden gems (or Marriott’s hidden gems if I really have to). Plus, I’m hoping that Nick or Stephen will go for Hyatt stays.
ANA’s Round the World Award
While most airline loyalty programs have increased award prices many times over the years, ANA’s Star Alliance Round the World award has remained intact for as long as I’ve known about it. This award offers extraordinary value, especially for business class. Award prices are based on distance bands. While distances flown can vary tremendously, common Round the World itineraries will cover between 20,000 and 29,000 miles flown. Given those distances, business class, around the world, would cost anywhere from 115,000 to 170,000 ANA miles:
ANA doesn’t offer any credit cards with significant bonuses. The only way that I can get enough ANA points to build a Round the World award is to sign up for Amex Membership Rewards cards. Amex Membership Rewards is the only transferable points program that supports 1 to 1 transfers to ANA.
Lots of Cash Needed
Flight awards are rarely free. In addition to exchanging airline miles for flights, you often have to also pay government taxes, airport fees, and fuel surcharges. Some loyalty programs do not pass along fuel surcharges on award tickets, but ANA does. And fuel surcharges can be huge. In order to have a chance of coming in under budget, I will have to find awards on airlines that don’t have high surcharges and/or on routes that limit surcharges. And I’ll have to avoid departing from airports that require huge fees. But award availability these days is at an all time low, so this will be a huge challenge. My guess is that I’ll need at least $1,000 available to book ANA’s Round the World award. But that’s not all. I’ll also have to account for airport transfers (e.g. getting from/to the airport and my hotel). My guess is that I can make that work with another $200.
Altogether, I think I need at least $1,200 to make this all work (this is just a very rough guestimate!). Since we start with only a $1,000 budget, and each card with an annual fee reduces that budget, I’ll need to sign up for at least one credit card that offers a big cash bonus or offers points that are redeemable for cash or for travel purchases. For example, the Capital One Venture and Spark Miles cards offer “Miles” which can be used to reimburse travel spend. Bonuses from those cards would work.
How I’ll get enough Amex points
The 150K Option
Initially, I thought my best option would be the Amex Platinum 150K offer. That would give me enough Amex points to fly up to 25,000 miles around the world in business class. This offer requires $6K spend which is a bit more than I’d like, but not too bad. It would still allow me to sign up for two more cards that have $4K spend requirements.
The problem with the Platinum card is its $695 annual fee. That would leave me with only $305 to cover the annual fees of two more cards. Worse, it would leave me with almost no cash cushion at all. I would have to earn a lot of cash with at least one of my next two credit card picks in order to cover the $1,200 that I think I’ll need for this trip. And guess what? There is no single card I can pick up within the rules of this contest that would give me that much cash. Well… the Schwab Platinum 100K offer would come close (since it allows points to be redeemed for cash at 1.1 cents each), but I wouldn’t be able to afford two Platinum card annual fees within the rules of this contest. If I got the cash from two welcome bonuses instead, I’d be stuck without an approach for lodging. From the Platinum card itself, all I’d have is its $200 hotel benefit (for Fine Hotels & Resorts or The Hotel Collection). That’s not enough.
The one way I could make this work is if my three picks include the Platinum card, the Citi Premier card, and the Capital One Venture card. With all 3, I would have $115 left over from the original $1K budget. Plus, after spending a total of $5K on the Venture card, I’d have 85,000 “Miles” redeemable for $850 in travel. Then I’d only have to cash in around 20,000 Citi points to have a big enough budget overall.
The chance of me getting to pick all 3 of the above cards seems incredibly unlikely. What if I swapped in the Sapphire Preferred 60K offer instead of either the Premier or Venture? Would that work? If I used it to replace the Citi Premier, I would need all of the Chase points to cover hotel stays, so no that wouldn’t work. If I used it to replace the Venture, I would end up with $200 less to work with because I wouldn’t be able to use the Chase points at 1.25 cents value for things like award taxes and fees. It might be possible to make this work, but it would be a stretch.
The 130K Option
The next possibility I considered is the targeted 130K Business Gold offer. By opening a referral link in a clean browser, it is sometimes possible to get targeted for this one. As a team, we agreed that offers like this would be fair game as long as the offer is listed on our blog’s card page as an alternate offer AND as long as we can show that we can get the offer to appear during the livestream draft. That last part proved to be difficult for me. I had no luck with private browsing Chrome, Firefox, or Edge on my laptop; nor with Chrome or Safari on my phone. Finally, thanks to reader comments, I tried out the Brave Browser (which was new to me!) on my laptop and was able to pull up the offer. That doesn’t guarantee I’ll be able to pull it up during the draft, but it makes it much more likely.
After meeting the required spend, I’d have 140K points from this offer. 140K points is more than enough to fly up to 22,000 miles around the world in business class. I could make that work, no problem. Plus, I may find a good use for the 15K points I’d have leftover. The Business Gold card’s annual fee is only $295, so I’d have an extra $400 in cash to work with compared to if I signed up for the Platinum card. That’s almost a sign-up bonus worth of cash right there.
The problem with the Business Gold card is its $10K spend requirement. That would leave me with only $5K to spend on other cards because each contestant has a maximum of $15K they can spend towards meeting offer spend requirements. Most of the best offers that I’d be likely to pick in round 2 (including the 80K Citi Premier offer) require $4K spend and so I’d only have $1K left for round 3 to try to get more money to cover award taxes & fees and airport transfers. That would be really tough because most of the good cash and cash-like offers require at least $4K spend. The best current cash back option I can find with $1K or less spend required is for the Disney Premier Card which would get me $251 back after paying the $49 annual fee. That’s not enough.
If I went with the Business Gold option, the Citi Premier would be my second pick, but I would have to use a significant portion (around 60K) of the Citi Premier 80K bonus as cash back. If the Citi Premier isn’t available, my next best second pick is the Capital One Venture 75K offer. After the card’s $95 annual fee, this would give me $655 of travel spend. Either way, I’d then sign up for a hotel card with a $1K spend requirement (maybe the no-fee Hilton card, for example). My hotel budget then would be super tight, so I don’t at all love this option. That said, I would have some Amex points left over that can transfer to Hilton 1 to 2 (and hopefully better if a transfer bonus returns). Still, finding great Hilton properties for few points is not a game stacked in my favor.
Overall, I’m not too enthused by the Business Gold option!
The 90K Option
One of my favorite options is to go with the consumer Amex Gold 90K offer. This one requires only $4K spend and has a modest $250 annual fee. At first I dismissed this since I didn’t think 90K would be enough for a Round the World award (and I don’t think I can afford to pick up two Amex Membership Rewards cards), but then I did some research and found that it is actually possible to do the around the world award for 90K by keeping the total miles flown to under 14,000. This is possible because ANA doesn’t count open-jaw segments in their distance calculations. So, for example, I could fly to western Europe from the U.S. east coast, find an inexpensive way to get to eastern Europe or perhaps the Middle East, then continue around the world to Hawaii to complete the award. Finally, If I had 7,500 Citi ThankYou points or Capital One Miles, I could transfer to Turkish to book a United flight home. Since the Gold card only requires $4K spend, I could still pick up a good hotel card option (such as the Citi Premier or Bonvoy Boundless) and a good cash-like option (such as the Capital One Venture) and I should be good to go!
My Draft Decision Tree
Most of my decisions hinge on what Nick and Stephen pick in the first round of the draft. I will then get to do my round 1 and round 2 picks back to back. So, this decision tree is organized around which cards may be available for me to pick in the 1st and 2nd round…
First preference: If both the Citi Premier & Venture are available, then:
If both the Citi Premier & Venture are available for my round 1 and 2 picks, then I can make my plans work with whichever of these is still available for my 3rd pick: the Amex Gold 90K offer, Amex Platinum 150K offer, or either of the Schwab or Morgan Stanley Platinum 100K offers. So my picks would be:
- Round 1: Citi Premier 80K
- Round 2: Capital One Venture 75K
- Round 3: Amex Gold 90K, or Amex Platinum 150K, or Alternative Platinum 100K [Note: It’s impossible for all 3 Platinum cards to be gone because the annual fees are too high for someone to take more than 1]
Second preference: If Amex Gold 90K is available, then:
- Round 1: Amex Gold 90K
- Round 2: Citi Premier 80K, Capital One Venture 75K, or Chase Sapphire Preferred 60K
- Round 3: Marriott Bonvoy Boundless 5 Free Nights, or IHG Premier 140K, or IHG Premier Business 140K
Third preference: Business Gold 130K
If I get down to this option it can only be because the consumer Gold card has been taken, and one of either the Citi Premier or Venture cards has been taken, but not both. I can make the Business Gold option work with either one of them. So…
- Round 1: Amex Business Gold 130K
- Round 2: Citi Premier 80K or Capital One Venture 75K
- Round 3: Any $1K spend hotel card (Hilton, Wyndham, Sonesta)
Back up plan: if I can’t get the Business Gold 130K offer to appear…
If I get down to this last-resort option it can only be because the consumer Gold card has been taken, I can’t get the Business Gold 130K offer to appear, and one of either the Citi Premier or Venture cards has been taken, but not both.
- Round 1: Chase Sapphire Preferred 60K [If we get this far, this option will be available because Nick and Stephen took the Gold card and either the Premier or Venture card in round 1 picks 1 and 2]
- Round 2: Citi Premier 80K or Capital One Venture 75K
- Round 3: Amex Platinum 150K, or Alternative Platinum 100K [Note: It’s impossible for all 3 Platinum cards to be gone because the annual fees are too high for someone to take more than 1]
This is my backup plan because it doesn’t leave much room for a hotel budget. It will help that I’ll have $200 to spend on Fine Hotels & Resorts or The Hotel Collection, but I’d have to be in a very cheap hotel market to stretch that to more than 1 or 2 nights. I’ll have to also be creative with the Sapphire Preferred points transferrable to Hyatt. That wouldn’t be hard except that I think I’ll need most of those points to cover award fees and airport transfers.
Do you see any holes in my plans? Do you have suggestions for better options? Please comment below!