Welcome to the Travel Hacking from Scratch Series – a series dedicated to getting those new into Travel Hacking up the curve as quickly as possible. Below is the layout of the series with links back to already published articles.
Today our topic is Category Bonuses and how we can use them to maximize how we collect points.
|The Benefits of Travel Hacking|
|Credit Cards – Which Card and Why|
|Churning Credit Cards|
|US Credit Cards (ITIN)|
|Using Your Points|
|Alternatives to DIY|
|Understanding the Power of Partners|
|Weighing Convenience vs Cost|
|How to Avoid High Taxes and Charges|
|How to Travel Better|
|Why You Need Status|
|Understanding Your Rights|
|Beyond Travel – Financial Freedom|
What Are Category Bonuses and Why Do They Exist?
There are quite a few cards out there that provide bonus points or accelerators when you use them at certain retailers. Some are specific retailers like in the case of the American Express Business Gold card but generally, cards provide bonuses when you use them within certain categories of retailers.
The standard categories that provide bonuses are gas, grocery, drug store, and travel. For the most part, these categories are there so that you use the card on a consistent basis. Please need to eat, drive and take care of themselves medically so these are very common bonus categories. Travel is a common bonus category because most people collect points in hopes of travel, so the bonus feels like a natural extension of the benefits of the card.
You may or may not be aware but credit card processors and banks make money through the interchange fee they charge to retailers for the privilege of settling their credit card transactions daily. This means that retailers can accept a credit card and then get paid daily in exchange for a small percentage of the total amount charged. The banks and credit card companies take on the risk of not getting paid rather than the retailer. for this fee. Most retailers gladly pay for this privilege.
Banks understand that most people hold 1-2 credit cards and their ultimate goal is to make their card a “top of the wallet card”. This refers to the card that you naturally pull out without thinking about it. The theory goes that if you use the card on an everyday basis to pay for gas, grocery or drug store purchases, you won’t think twice to pull it out to pay for a movie or when you are out for a coffee.
It’s a pretty easy equation. The consumer (you) gets incentivized to use the card more and the bank/credit card processor makes more money.
Now that you understand the why, let’s talk about how you can take advantage of these category bonuses.
The Right Mindset
When you see a card with a category bonus, you should be asking yourself, “how can I best leverage this benefit?”
Most people think to themselves, “With this category bonus, I’ll use this card when I purchase gas, groceries, or when I pay for my prescriptions”. The travel hacker thinks “I’ll use this card for its intended purpose but what else can I do with this card?”
When I’m in a grocery store, drug store, or at a gas station’s convenience store, I’m always on the lookout for ways to take advantage of category bonuses. As an example, when I’m about to purchase something from Amazon (which I do a lot), I’m typically going to a grocery store to make a purchase of an Amazon gift card. The purchase cost nothing extra and I receive the category bonus. Typically I’m using my American Express Cobalt card, which earns 5x points on grocery store purchases.
Let’s say the item that I am purchasing is $100 on Amazon. If I make the regular purchase on Amazon.ca, I’ll earn 100 points. If I use a little forethought and purchase a $100 gift card for Amazon at a grocery store, I will earn 5x on that purchase. There is no transaction cost for the purchase of the gift card, only a time/convenience cost.
Most gas, grocery and drug store retailers usually have some gift cards or pre-paid credit cards that are of some interest. Gift cards usually are frictionless, meaning they don’t garner an additional charge when making the purchase, whereas pre-paid credit cards do. It’s really up to you to determine if the cost is worthwhile.
This is where paying attention in math and understanding the value of a point will really come in handy.
The Cards to Consider
I hold quite a few credit cards that feature category bonuses but my favourite by a landslide is the American Express Cobalt Card. When the Cobalt card was first introduced, it was the first of its kind to provide such lucrative category bonuses including 5x on grocery and restaurants, 2x on travel, transit, and gas and 1x on all other purchases.
The trade-off for such lucrative category bonuses was the fact that you earned Membership Reward Select points, which differ from Membership Rewards points in that you cannot transfer them to airline programs, only hotel programs (Marriott and Hilton) but you could use them to pay for flights directly with American Express Travel.
American Express Cobalt Card
Monthly Fee: $10
Points (Public Offer): 30,000* Membership Reward Select Points
Great Canadian Rebates: $75 Cash Back
Spend Requirements*: Earn 2,500 Membership Reward Select points for every month that you spend at least $500 on the card – total benefit for the year = 30,000 MRS
Category Bonuses: 5x on grocery and dining (including restaurants, bars, cafes, and food delivery; 2x on transit and gas; 1x on all other purchases.
When the Cobalt Card launched, it was met with great enthusiasm by Canadians in general. Americans have had category bonuses for quite some time and it was slowly being introduced to Canadians. You could commonly find 1.25x multipliers through the American Express Platinum cards and 2x on things like travel but this was the first time that such a large multiplier was given on everyday-type purchases.
Of course, with something like a 5x multiplier on any grocery retailer, there was some abuse of the system through things like gift card and pre-paid credit card purchases. About 2 years after the launch of the Cobalt, American Express introduced an annual cap of $30,000 spend at the 5x category. This means that you can still take advantage of the 5x category bonus, but only until you earn 150,000 MRS. That’s still a lot of points and represents a 5% return (150,000 points are worth at a minimum, $1,500 towards travel).
The other category bonuses within the Cobalt tiers are not really that awe-inspiring but it’s a “nice to have” with transit and gas purchases ringing in at 2x.
Suffice it to say, the Cobalt card is the most lucrative card when it comes to category bonuses and something that every self-respecting travel hackers should have in their wallet. When I attend Travel Hacking conferences, there isn’t a single person there that doesn’t have this card. Trust me. You need to have this card, if for no other reason than to understand what you should be doing to quickly earn points towards travel.
This card comes largely into play when we talk about things like Manufactured Spending.
American Express Platinum Personal
Annual Fee: $699
Points (Public Offer): 50,000
Points (Referral Offer): 60,000
Spend Requirements: $5,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: Priority Pass membership, which provides free access to all Priority Pass lounges for you and a guest. You also receive access to American Express Centurion lounges and a $200 travel credit every card anniversary year.
Category Bonuses: 3x MRs for every dollar spent at restaurants and 2x MRs for travel.
While certainly not as lucrative as the Cobalt category bonuses, the Personal Platinum card has the added benefit of transferability to airline rewards programs such as Air Canada’s Aeroplan, British Airways’ Avios, and Delta’s SkyMiles program (to name a few). This card is more designed to reward discretionary spending at restaurants and food delivery services. These types of services are considered “discretionary” because during times where cash flow is an issue, eating out is not a necessity. The Cobalt’s strategy is to capture spend on everyday required spend.
If you are in a job that allows you to put your expenses on your own personal card and you travel or entertain, this is a great card to put in your wallet. It is worth noting that there are no caps associated with these bonuses so if you have a lot of restaurant spend, do yourself a favour and get this card.
American Express Business Gold
Annual Fee: $250
Points (Public Offer): 30,000
Points (Referral Offer): 40,000
Spend Requirements: $5,000 in 90 days
Additional Benefits: 2x Membership Rewards at your 3 selected preferred vendors.
Okay, you’ll have to stay with me on this one because at first blush, the category bonus doesn’t seem all that appealing but if you take a few steps, you’ll start to understand the possibilities.
Once you get the American Express Business Gold card, you are invited to select 3 retailers where you will earn 2x Membership Rewards. Most of these retailers are aimed at true business spend but there are a few in there that can be well leveraged.
- Plastiq – Plastiq is a service that will make payment to retailers/services that normally don’t take credit card payments. One example is payments to the Canadian Revenue Agency (CRA). I had previously paid my mortgage through Plastiq until American Express changed their terms and conditions to disallow such transactions. That being said, there are still quite a few retailers that you could make this work with. If you are new to Plastiq, you can receive $500 in Fee Free Dollars (FFD), meaning that you won’t pay any fees on the first $500 you send through Plastiq. If the link doesn’t work for you for some reason, you can use Referral Code 19101 and get the same offer.
- PetroCanada – I haven’t looked into it too deeply but with PetroCanada as a retailer that earns 2x, there must be a few gift cards or pre-paid credit cards on offer that would make sense to purchase.
- BestBuy, Shaw, Lowes, 407 ETR – These represent retailers that you probably have spend with anyways. Why not earn 2x Membership Rewards for spend you are already making.
Annual Fee: First Year Free until December 1, 2019
Points (Public Offer): 40,000 (15,000 on First Spend, 20,000 on $10,000 Spend, 5,000 when you add an authorized user)
Spend Requirements: $10,000 to earn 20,000 Aeroplan Miles in the first 90 days.
Category Bonus: 1.5x on gas, grocery, drug store and AirCanada.com purchases; double up on Aeroplan eStore purchases
This is a strategic card to have during large holidays sales such as Black Friday or Boxing Day. The Aeroplan eStore is expected to have 10x bonuses on some retailers during Black Friday. If you use your TD Aeroplan for the purchase AND go through the Aeroplan eStore, you can earn 11x on some purchases (assuming the rumoured 10x promotion drops as expected). This is known as “double dipping”, which is a great way to earn points/miles quickly.
The Take Away
I haven’t listed all the cards out there that have category bonuses but only the select few that I know I can personally leverage. Card issuers are starting to understand that using category bonuses is an excellent way to ensure the use of their cards so I don’t expect to see this ending anytime soon, in fact, I expect more issuers to use this strategy going forward.
Category bonuses are a boon for our hobby and really quite necessary if you want to make hay with your points earning potential. The way you should be thinking about category bonuses is not necessarily the bonus you would earn with your normal spend, but more how you can make purchases at retailers that fall within these bonus categories that can then be flipped for little or no transactional cost. More on this on my Manufactured Spend post but suffice it to say, if you want to participate and really start to earn those points quickly, you’ll need these tools in your toolkit.
Next up, we’ll talk about churning credit cards – what it is and why you want to do it to maximize points.