Why I think it’s funny that people get so aggro about Amex’s overly complicated bonus structures

An entire industry has evolved around making things simple for people who want to earn free travel with their credit cards. The most disingenuous, in my opinion, is Capital One, since they overclaim how complicated loyalty programs are while simultaneously aping those programs’ terminology by calling their points “miles.” Despite what Jennifer Garner wants you to think, you’re earning 2% cash back, but not even, because you can only spend it on travel. Pass. This focus on simplicity also extends to cards that earn cash back in rotating categories – the Capital One pitch is that you can earn 1.5% cash back everywhere, rather than having to spend every waking hour trying to remember for the life of you what the bonus category is this month. I mean, it changes FOUR TIMES PER YEAR! That shit’s hard! It’s hard enough for me trying to walk and chew gum at the same time, so it’s no surprise that I can’t possibly memorize arcane quarterly bonuses in categories as random as “groceries” or “restaurants.” Sheesh.

Of course, this focus on simplicity is a reaction to something on the opposite end of the credit card market, and while I think that Capital One overclaiming the complexity of normal travel reward cards and loyalty programs is cynical, it’s true that some banks are worse than others with their Byzantine programs. As you probably guessed from the title, Amex is the worst in this regard. Or should I say best?

Amex gets tons of flak on FlyerTalk and environs for making it a pain to use their cards. A common question on forums (I refuse to say “fora”) is whether it’s better to earn 1.5 Ultimate Rewards points per dollar with the Freedom Unlimited or 1.5 Membership Rewards points per dollar with the Amex Everyday Preferred. A common answer on those same fora is that the Freedom Unlimited is better, because Amex, those cruel and heartless bastards, make you use the card 30 times per month in order to unlock the 50% points bonus that yields 1.5x per point.

How about the Amex Platinum airline credit? Citi gives you $250 per year to use on just about any airline expense (including tickets) and Chase gives you a $300 travel credit that is so broad that I wouldn’t be surprised if they credited back Zappos purchases because shoes are used for walking, and walking is a form of transportation, which counts as travel. On the flip side, Amex gives you $200 to use only for airline incidentals and only on one airline. People constantly complain about this, like Amex is putting $200 on the ground and then kicking you in the butt when you bend over to pick it up.

The new Platinum benefits include an Uber credit that gives you $15 per month and doesn’t carry over month-to-month (why don’t you shit in my car while you’re at it, you jerks). It’s another example of Amex including a benefit but not quite going all the way with it, similar to offering 5x on hotel bookings, but only those bookings made through Amex Travel (and even then, only prepaid bookings). And they have never gone so far as to offer a bonus on all travel, like many other cards do – it’s always airfare directly with  airlines, etc.

However, here’s why I don’t care that Amex does shit like this: because I’m the person in the best position to figure out how to take advantage of it. Everyone in this hobby is. The whole point of these structured bonuses is to minimize the number of people taking full advantage of them. I think it’s significant that Chase lost a fuckload of money rolling out the Sapphire Reserve (and I think they stand to lose more when a bunch of people cancel their cards this year without paying the fee a second time), and Citi had to roll back the benefits on the Prestige card. Meanwhile, Amex has been improving their premium offerings (while increasing the fee, yes, but still – they’re the only ones moving forward right now). I stand by my earlier point that the Chase Sapphire Reserve isn’t that great to begin with – it’s basically a Sapphire Preferred that earns more points and has Priority Pass. And really, would you be surprised if Chase trimmed the travel credit or dropped the earning at some point? I wouldn’t, and I certainly wouldn’t expect them to add any benefits.

Amex has been losing a bunch of money, but it seems like they’re able to improve their cards because of how many people can’t figure out how to use their Everyday Preferred card 30 times in a month, or people who forget to use their new Blue for Business card on restaurant purchases, or whatever else. Meanwhile, churners are the ones that stand at the self checkout kiosks paying for each grocery item individually; they’re the ones who used Mileage Plus Explorer to get Amex to reimburse them for Amazon gift cards under the airline credit until that went away, and then they switched to United Gift Registry credit.

For their trouble, churners earn 1.5x Membership Rewards points on everything, 3x on gas, and 4.5x on groceries, whereas people who value simplicity above all else use the Freedom Unlimited and get 1.5x on everything and no bonus categories. Any time a churner says that one card is better than another because it’s simpler, remind them that anything that is complicated can also be gamed, and gaming things is how you get outsized value in the first place.

I’m not going to lie and say I don’t appreciate the simplicity of the Sapphire Reserve’s earning structure. I also wrote a post last month about how I refuse to get so into the weeds that I pull out a calculator to figure out my earnings per point every time I make a purchase. However, I think a lot of this stuff can be mastered without all that much mindshare being devoted to it, and given the attitude of most people (“Jennifer Garner said that’s WAY too complicated to ever understand”), I’m happy to be one of the relative few who bother to learn the ins and outs of all these cards and programs.

In the end, I fully expect that someone will figure out a way to combine Amex Platinum Uber credits or game the 5x bonus on hotel bookings, and it sure as hell isn’t going to be some Richie Rich who uses his Platinum card for everything because he likes the concierge service.

(This is probably a topic for another post, but speaking of gaming the new hotel bonus: it has occurred to me in the past that Amex’s convoluted way of awarding bonus points might present an opportunity for the more ethically dubious among us to try canceling prepaid bookings way after the fact to see if the bonus points get clawed back. It depends on how they ultimately award the points. Right now the Platinum card earns bonus points on airfare that are factored into the card’s base monthly earning, whereas certain promotions – like the Blue for Business bonuses or the shop small promotion – award points incrementally. In my experience, when you get a refund on a purchase that earned points this way, Amex doesn’t revoke the bonus points. If the bonus on prepaid hotel bookings posts as a separate 4x bonus, I wouldn’t be surprised if canceling the booking leaves the bonus intact. I’m sure repeated abuse would get you shut down, but I’d be interested to find out. For a friend.)

3 thoughts on “Why I think it’s funny that people get so aggro about Amex’s overly complicated bonus structures”

  1. Exactly. Not a monthly Uber user, so not too thrilled at moment with the $550 AF on the Amex personal Platinum, but that’s just me. Your overall point is spot on. Like you, I think life is too short for to worry which card one is using for $30 here and $8.90 there. Plus, even if life is not too short, there is — literally — no percentage in worrying about this. Whereas folks tend to get too mad at Citi and ignore the fact that TYPs are still (until 23 July 2017) paying out 1.6x on AA airfares with Prestige, that the card still gets you and anyone with you into AA lounges (for whatever that is worth, which is something), and that I just turned a $300/night hotel into a $225/night hotel with the fourth night refunded (which will stick around). I realize that you were writing about Amex, not Citi, but I just grabbed the Citi Prestige as an example of how not following the crowd and thinking for about ten minutes late last summer can save me more money than can Jennifer Garner (who is not even my type) or figuring out which card to pull to buy a ham sandwich (which is, alas, my type).

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  2. “Chase gives you a $300 travel credit that is so broad that I wouldn’t be surprised if they credited back Zappos purchases because shoes are used for walking, and walking is a form of transportation, which counts as travel.” — Dude, I just spewed diet coke all over my new work laptop when I read that… LOL

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