Like many of you, I remember where I was, last May, when I first read the Frequent Miler’s now-legendary post, “One Card to Rule Them All.” I remember the shirt I was wearing. I remember the crisp, perfumed aroma of dew-flecked spring blossoms in the air. I remember the burrito I wolfed down with one hand as I drove across town to the closest Office Depot. And thanks to American Express, and Chase’s fantastic Ink Bold and Ink Plus cards, nearly every dollar I spent for the next six months earned me five lucrative Ultimate Rewards points. The impending cornucopia of points looked even sweeter when AmEx rolled out the Bluebird card later in the year. Finally, the Holy Grail, earning points – 5X points! – on your rent and mortgage payments, seemed well within reach.
Unfortunately, I also remember where I was when I learned that Office Depot had given the boot to Vanilla reload cards. I was in the bathroom, checking blog feeds on my smartphone (Hey, I can stop any time I want). I think my Holy-Crap expression matched the one on Hank’s face at the end of the Breaking Bad season finale. And though there were alternatives, the writing was on the wall for quintuple points lovers. Vanilla reload cards became harder to find than an Amish Radio Shack. Stores that did carry them stopped accepting credit cards as payment. And with the recent news that Office Depot is dropping variable gift cards altogether – including the fantastic cost-to-reward-ratio $500 Vanilla Visa – the book is sadly closed on yet another points-earning party. Friends, Romans, countrymen, I come, not to praise Vanilla, but to bury it.
But is the 5X party really over?
Over? Did you say “over”? Was it over when the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor? Nothing is over until we say it is! Just one particular strategy is over. The Chase Ink cards still earn quintuple points at all office supply stores, just like they did last week, last month, last year. Yes, the points are going to be a little more challenging to come by. Will it involve more work? (Cue Grampa Simpson voice) Son, work is digging ditches in the driving rain for ten hours a day. We’re talking about buying gift cards here. Yes, it’ll be more hassle (and believe me, I hate hassle). But there are still all kinds of possibilities.
Right now, the largest denomination of Visa, MasterCard, or AmEx gift card to be found at an office supply store is $200, and that card comes with a $6.95 activation fee. How does the math work out on this purchase? Assuming it’s bought with an Ink Bold, a $200 gift Visa generates 1035 Ultimate Rewards points, which I value at 2.94 cents apiece, for a total points value of $30.42. Not too shabby. Let’s expand our example a little bit – let’s assume that we want to generate enough points for a round-trip award to Europe in business class. You would have to purchase ninety-seven $200 Visa gift cards to generate the necessary 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points. Putting aside the fact that you’d need to find a way to use, redeem, or otherwise liquidate $19,400 in gift card Visas (admittedly, no small feat, but you don’t have to do this all in one weekend), this means that you could “buy” a business class ticket to Europe for $674.15. Not exactly free, but not terrible, either.
The appeal does start to diminish when you consider using the same approach for economy travel. To earn enough for a 25,000-mile domestic economy award, you’d have to buy twenty-five $200 gift cards (24.15, rounded up), paying out $173.75 in activation fees. And while that would certainly be a bargain for certain routes and times, it’s also right in the ballpark of what you’d pay, in cash, for a miles-earning ticket itself.
The numbers improve when you consider using gift cards to actually, you know, buy stuff. I don’t eat out at a Red Robin, buy a shirt from Macy’s, drink a cappuccino at Starbucks, or buy anything from Amazon unless I’m using a gift card that I bought at an OfficeMax for quintuple points. These points are free. I love free. Assuming that you conduct just $1,000 of your regular spending per month using gift cards, that’s a free 60,000 UR points in a year. If you add an additional five monthly $200 Visa cards (which you then liquidate via Amazon Payments), you’re up to 120,000 UR points a year, for a total of $417 out-of-pocket. That’s a business class ticket to Japan.
Yes, there are still a lot of details to iron out. But we’ve just barely begun to explore the 5X possibilities. Yes, it’s going to be a little harder to generate the points now. But that will just make that business class seat feel a little more comfortable, and make that ice cream sundae taste a little bit sweeter.