The COVID-19 State of Mind: We Are Grounded and Cash Is King Again

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Edward Munch: The Scream 1893

Edward Munch: The Scream 1893

Look who’s back after the longest writer’s block in the history of writing! 🙂

Warning: This is a long read (need to cover a lot of ground).

Anyway, I wrote my last post on Dec 11 “touting” the  great value of the Wyndham Rewards points sale that would allow you to gain cheap access to Caesars Casino lounges. Can you believe I actually wrote that piece not too long ago? Me neither.

Three things have happened since then.

  • I decided to quit blogging (or so I thought)

  • I spent 5 fabulous days at Hyatt Zilara Cancun

  • I spent 12 amazing days in Brazil

Wait, have I forgotten anything? Hmm, never mind, I’m sure it’ll come back to me.

Hyatt Zilara Cancun: The view from the balcony

I decided to quit blogging because it started to feel like a burden. My freelance writing (a day job, not a hobby like this blog) was picking up, and the resulting time crunch began to threaten my lifestyle of the rich and famous. If I wanted to keep traveling the way I did, something had to give.

Hyatt Zilara was amazing. Had a nice dinner at the resort’s buffet with George of TBB fame on the last night of my stay. Good times!

Hyatt Zilara Cancun: … and from the room

Hmm! Hotels, buffets, pools … What is that thing I’m trying to remember? Anyone?

Ah, never mind.

Brazil! Brazil is my most favorite destination in the world I keep coming back to. Amazingly diverse, huge and gorgeous, it’s like several countries in one depending on where you go! And it’s home to at least 2 World Wonders – Iguassu Falls and Lençóis Maranhenses.

Tranquil and spectacular Ilha Grande

Timmy and I spent 3 days in Rio, then revisited Ilha Grande (our last time on Ilha Grande was roughly 10 years ago), before moving on to our last stop – the beautiful colonial town of Paraty.

The rains were following us wherever we went, and not just rains, but torrential downpours that amazed even Brazilians. But it was fine. Rains didn’t slow us down. Not one bit.

We still enjoyed our tours despite never-ending rains

We came back from Brazil on Feb 11. Just in time for that fourth thing that has shot down the world without making a single shot between then and now.

“The World’s Only Superpower”

One day we’re going to start flying again. When?

When it’s safe.

But not this summer. Or fall. I’ll probably have to cancel my October reservation for Israel and Portugal, which I booked with expiring ANA miles back in February. I hope I’ll be able to reinstate them and perhaps without penalties. But if not, oh well!

For more restless travelers — young, healthy, invincible — the decision will be made for you. Europe’s already extended their borders closures until September. I believe it will extend them again, at least until the end of the year. I’m also confident that most other countries will follow. Sorry.

But what does it matter? Look at most travel blogs, and it almost feels it’s business as usual. Sure, there are some articles dedicated to this pandemic, but the narrative hasn’t changed.

Miles. Points. Credit cards.

Just to be clear: I don’t blame any bloggers for trying to stay afloat in these difficult times and for writing about things they know. For some, their blogs are the major if not single source of income. It’s just that our priorities have so dramatically shifted that these things we know are not relevant nowadays.

Look, life will come back to (almost) the way it was before. I’m sure of this. It won’t happen tomorrow or any time soon. But if there is one thing we can count on, it’s that this threat will eventually go the way all threats go. When its time is up or when we finally get the vaccine (and we might get that vaccine sooner rather than later), people will start flying again and with a vengeance! COVID-19 is profoundly nasty, but it won’t be the end of the human race (but the next pandemic might if we keep learning nothing).

But for the time being, there are other things, more important than miles, points, and elite statuses, like, I don’t know, staying alive. Among all the travel blogs I follow, only TBB consistently covers COVID-19. His high quality collections of relevant coronavirus links are superb and highly recommended. Full disclosure: TBB has hired me as a writer before, and I consider him a friend. If it seems like an advertisement – well, no harm done; I hope my 2 or 3 readers can forgive me.

Below is the link to one of the articles I found on TBB, and whether you’re an ardent Trump supporter or hate his guts, you should do yourself a favor and spend 3 to 4 minutes to read it. The article explains in no uncertain terms whether or not (NOT!) you can rely on the federal government to find a way out of this mess.

The Coronavirus Is the World’s Only Superpower

Turnover at the upper levels of Trump’s White House stands at eighty-three per cent (emphasis mine), according to a Brookings Institution tracker. In his Cabinet, Trump has had far more turnover than Presidents Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, and both George Bushes. The capacity of the federal government to respond to this catastrophe—even if Trump had been so inclined—has never been weaker. The virus was not of Trump’s making, but his government’s incoherent, disorganized response to it was utterly predictable.

And that was written before the infamous retweet threatening to fire Dr. Fauci. Seriously, read the article to evaluate the full “capacity” of our first line of defense.

COVID-19 and your financial security

Skift reports that people are still buying 100 million miles and points a day (found here).

If this is true – WTF!!!

First of all, buying miles and points is plain dumb (with very few exceptions). Even in better times. Even with a hell of a discount. Even if you end up paying $$$ less for that coveted lie-flat seat, which is almost never the case with Points.com.

But wasting your precious emergency cash reserves (and yes, you should treat your credit card lines as your cash reserves right now) on miles? Today? During the worst crisis of our lifetime?

I don’t know. Maybe we just can’t really snap out of adolescence. Sure, we go to extraordinary lengths to look like grownups, to talk like grownups, to play the part and be perceived as grownups by others, but is it all just for show?

People buying miles in the time of the world’s worst pandemic since 1918 – HELLO!!!

I relate the above to myself in full measure. I’m as capable of childish, immature behavior as the next guy. But I’m also quite advancedly middle-aged, and I have some underlying health issues that put me in the greater coronavirus risk basket. I’d rather avoid contracting this disease if I may, thank you very much. And I’m sure I’m not alone.

But what if it does happen?

I’ve decided to examine my health insurance policy more closely

What I’ve found surprised me quite a bit.

I have decent insurance. Not the top of the line, mind you, but also not one of those high-deductible policies designed to camouflage the lack of access to actual care. My plan does have that evil combination of deductibles, co-payments and co-insurance, but still – it’s not too bad for routine care.

What I’ve found, though, were a slew of limitations on everything that costs real money. I won’t go into the details, but I wasn’t thrilled to find out that the maximum covered hospital stay, for example, is limited to 10 days. And we all know how long this terrible disease can keep one in a hospital.

I don’t want to scare anyone, but do check your own policies again. Read the fine print. Call if you must. You might find you’re not insured as comprehensively as you might’ve thought.

But even if you have very good insurance, the chances are it might still limit the coverage one way or another. And then there are all kinds of out-of-pocket expenses that don’t make things any easier. This disease has often proven to be a long road from contracting to recovery, in which case, god forbid, you might need access to emergency cash.

That doesn’t even begin to address the real elephant in the room: loss of income for millions of Americans. True, some are lucky enough to keep working remotely, but how many have been let go? In just one month 22 million people have applied for unemployment benefits.

But you’re fine financially. And you’ve saved for a rainy day. And you’re a junkie and love the game!

Fine, who am I to tell anyone what to do? As if I know! I just can tell you how I feel.

I feel a bit confused. Just like we could’ve never imagined that one day we might desperately need tens of thousands of extra hospital beds, I bet very few folks have saved for a really long rainy day. What if the whole affair will take 18-24 months as some experts predict? How well are you prepared for that?

You probably know where I’m heading with this.

Look, most of us know better than to buy miles on Points.com. But that’s not the point.

The point is, cash is more important than anything right now. Only after you have cards that maximize your cash back should you go ahead and think about miles, points and whatever. Yes, there are plenty of cards with excellent travel bonuses right now, but I dare say they’re not the priority. Besides, I somehow don’t see these offers fading away.

First, be very careful with money for the time being. Try postponing buying things you don’t really need.

I know, Captain Obvious, right? Whatever, I had to say that.

Then consider this course of actions to get more money coming in

Note: I do NOT get commissions for the products I recommend. The information is correct at the time of writing, but the terms change all the time. Visit the issuers for updated information.

Also keep in mind that credit card companies have tightened their approval standards, and they’re likely to become even stingier in the future. That’s hardly a surprise; every business is hurting, big or small.

All purpose credit card

Apply for the Alliant Cashback Visa Signature Credit Card and use it on general purchases. Alliant is a credit union, but it’s very easy to join by donating $5 to Foster Care to Success.

This card is nowhere as good as it used to be, but it’s still the best cashback card there is, at least for the first year.

It used to offer unlimited 3% cash back for the first year and 2.5% afterwards. That’s gone, both 3% and unlimited. It’s 2.5% now and only on the first $10,000 per billing cycle. Still, earning $250 a month should be good enough if you can pull it off.

In an unlikely case your spending pattern exceeds $10,000 a month, just get your partner to apply for another one, but please be very careful with any manufactured spending activities right now. The $99 annual fee is waived for the first year, which makes this card quite lucrative.

Next best thing: Citi Double Cash

This card is the easiest 2% general cashback purpose card you’ll ever find. Get 1% cash back when you buy something and another 1% when you pay your credit card bill. No annual fee!

Next best thing: Discover it Miles

Discover it Miles earns you a whopping 3% cash back, but it’s a delayed action. You get 1.5% cash back in the first 12 billing cycles; then Discover will “match all the miles you’ve earned.” This is a fantastic earning opportunity!

This offer works only with Discover it Miles, not Discover it Cash, which offers 1% regular cash back (and which you must get too, but for another reason). If you’re concerned about the “miles” thingy, don’t be. This is just a marketing trick, as the so-called miles you earn are very easy to cash out.

Your choice (provided you can be approved for either Alliant Cashback or Discover Miles) is whether to take 2.5% today or 3% one year later. I’d take 2.5% today, but it’s your call. That’s unless you really spend over $10,000 a month and don’t have a partner – then just get both.

UPDATE 4.21.20:

Forgot Bank of America Premium Rewards (thanks bluecat!). 50,000 points ($500) bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. Very easy to cash out. The annual fee is $95, so the card nets you an easy haul of $405.

I don’t recommend using the card for general spending. Normally, if you have a qualified account with BofA or Merrill Lynch, the Platinum Honors status ($100K+) gets you 75% more rewards, up to 3.5% cash back on travel, which is pretty awesome. But we’re staying put for now, so what’s the point?   

For most of us one general purpose credit card is quite enough.

Best 5% quarterly rotating categories cashback cards

However, just one general purpose credit card is not enough when you’re trying to max your cash back. There are at least 3 more, some of which you either have or might want to consider.

Chase Freedom (currently 5% at Grocery Stores, Fitness Clubs and Gyms, and on Select Streaming Services) Discover it Cash (currently Gas Stations, Uber, Lyft and Wholesale Clubs) and Citi Dividend (currently Drugstores and Amazon.com) give 5% cashback on select categories each quarter.

Note: you can’t apply for Citi Dividend any longer, but you can, supposedly, product-change to it from another Citi card.

Your 5% bonus is limited to $1,500 spent every quarter on all these cards, which means the best you can earn with the 5% bonus is $300 per year for each card (Citi Dividend limits all cashback to $300).

However, Discover it Cash will match all your earning after the first 12 months, so you’ll actually get $600 after all. If you must only have one 5% rotating category card, I’d pick Discover it Cash over others. To make things even more interesting, have your partner apply for it too if you can max it out every quarter in the highest 5% category.

US Bank Cash+ is another 5% quarterly category card, which I like a lot (and might apply for) because it doesn’t rotate categories but lets you choose two 5% categories every quarter from the list, and the limit is a bit higher: $2,000 in purchases per quarter rather than $1,500. If you top up the 5% categories, you can earn $400 a year.

Other cashback credit cards worth mentioning

I’m only highlighting the best cashback payouts. When cash back is less than 3%, the Alliant Cashback card is a better option.

  • Capital One Savor Rewards offers 4% on dining (relevant) and entertainment (not relevant) plus a $300 bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 90 days. The $95 annual fee is waived for the first year.
  • Chase Amazon Prime pays 5% on Amazon.com and Whole Foods Market purchases. No annual fee, but you need to be a Prime member ($59-$119 a year).
  • AmEx Blue Cash Preferred pays 6% at supermarkets (up to $6,000 in purchases) and on select streaming services. It pays 3% on gas and transit (“taxis/rideshare, parking, tolls, trains, buses and more”). You also get a $300 bonus after spending $1,000 in 3 months. There is a $95 annual fee (not waived), but this card is still a moneymaker, at least for the first year.
  • Wells Fargo Propel pays 3% on dining, transit/rideshare, gas, streaming services and travel. Also has the welcome bonus of 20,000 points ($200) bonus after spending $1,000 in the first 3 months, and cell phone protection. No annual fee.
  • Chase Ink Business Cash offers 5% at office supply stores and on internet, cable and phone services (on the first $25,000). Also a $500 Welcome Bonus after spending $3,000 in the first 3 months. No annual fee. Easily the best business cashback card if your 5/24 situation doesn’t prevent you from applying.

Many credit cards offering welcome bonuses have extended the spending periods for them. Visit the issuers’ sites for more details.

A penny saved is a penny earned

In addition to maximizing my earnings, I would stop paying an annual fee for any super-duper premium cards, like Citi Prestige, AmEx Platinum, or Chase Sapphire Reserve. I’ve already canceled the AmEx Business Platinum and Hilton Aspire cards, and will cancel Citi Prestige when the annual fee hits in August. Come to think of it, I’ve had way too many super expensive cards (should’ve canceled Amex Gold too). If you’re still on the fence, consider how many fancy benefits you won’t be able to enjoy with any of the super-duper cards in the next year or two.

Cash flow woes? Forget everything I’ve said before and get an intro 0% APR card.

There are 3 kinds of APR cards: for balance transfers, purchases, and both. Please read carefully what’s on the menu before applying for any card. Below are the best cards with 0% APR on purchases, which also offer 0% APR on balance transfer. Alas, the Chase Slate card is no longer with us, but there are more.

Please be disciplined and pay them off by the time the intro 0% APR rate is over.

  • Wells Fargo Platinum – 0% Intro APR on purchases and balance transfer (3% BT fee) for 18 months
  • AmEx EveryDay – 0% Intro APR on purchases and balance transfer (no BT fee) for 15 months
  • Bank AmeriCard – 0% Intro APR on purchases and balance transfer (3% BT fee) for 15 months

Where does this blog go from here?

I don’t know. Wherever it takes me. I’m not going to stop blogging after all.

I’ll aim for posting twice weekly (or more when I have something to say). As we’ve entered the UTC + COVID-19 no-fly time zone, expect this blog to become more eclectic and even less coherent if that’s even possible. Aside from travel, I’ll be covering COVID-19 related stuff as well as totally non-related stuff, like I’ve seen this amazing movie on Netflix and hated it with all my guts. I can’t wait to tell you guys all about it!

Have a safe weekend, everyone!

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TravelBloggerBuzz

Welcome back! Nice read again, I will link to this on Monday. Thanks for the kind words amigo. Wish we could go back to the Zilara resort in Cancun soon!

RunningGirl

I am so happy to see your thoughtful post. I wish others would see the logic of adjusting to the new reality of life going forward (at least in terms of aspirational travel and our economy in general). Thank you so much for coming back into the blogosphere, as you and TBB have always been my favorites!

bluecat

Great to have you back writing again! And very good observations. Loved hearing again about Brazil—I will make it there one day! (There are the Fernando de Noronha is on my special wish list!)

Not sure why you are mentioning all those “cash back”-style credit cards. All that 2-3% back stuff is “noise”, unless you are doing MS, and that’s not a smart move these days for most people. To me, the safer play now is organic spend to get a juicy sign up bonus.

But, like George says, we are all different…

Sally

Thanks for the info

Nick @ PFD

Glad you’re back, Andy! I always enjoy your posts.

Christian

It’s great that you’re back. You’re one of the few voices of unmitigated integrity in your field and I like your common sense style. On a side note, how do you communicate with people in Brazil? I speak a little Spanish but no Portuguese, so I’m wondering how tough it would be to get by there.

Bluecat

Ok, Andy, I agree with you you 100% that this is probably not the time to be earning points for airlines and hotels—yes, Cash is King!

In this vein, I would suggest that there are some credit cards with a good sign up bonus that can be easily converted to cash. Like the BofA Premium Rewards card, for $500. To get the equivalent cashback on a 3% card would take over $16K of spend.

Every little bit helps but sometimes it’s not worth it to sweat the small stuff (if you can chase a big goal)

John

Andy,
I am happy to hear you are continuing to blog. You are always a great read….
I have a trip planned in October as well, to Easter Island and South America. I took advantage of that great post you wrote on cashing in on Latam miles before they moved with Delta. Now, it looks like that might be dead in the water.
I have already canceled two trips one to Middle East and North Africa, and the other on the Trans-Siberian Railroad….
Oh, how we privileged we suffer so….🤪…on a minor note, I’m still alive!

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