There are plenty of reasons to be pessimistic about the state of credit card churning and travel hacking.. It’s always getting worse — can you remember back when you could get an Amex bonus once every twelve months? I barely do. Or that time I signed up for five Chase cards in one year? That was so crazy! 2018 saw its share of new impediments, from the Hyatt and IHG cards getting roped into 5/24 (or that whole thing where Chase would just shut down your entire account just for opening a new credit card) to Bank of America rejections piling up to news that 5/24 might be expanding to 5/48 (please no).
But here’s the thing: we evolve and adapt, and we’ll continue to do so, even as it gets harder and harder to earn points. I remember back when Amex instituted the once-per-lifetime rule, there was a thread on FlyerTalk called something like “Stick a Fork In It” — except anyone who’s cared to put in the effort has likely earned millions of Membership Rewards points since that thread was started. I have a low-level anxiety that my days of business/first class international flights and five star hotels are numbered, but given that my goal is to take 2-3 trips per year and I’ve already planned everything through 2019, I should be able to keep up.
Even though I struck a decidedly pessimistic tone only a few months ago, I’m going to try to go against type and list the reasons I’m optimistic about 2019 and beyond. It feels weird to do this, but one of my New Year’s resolutions is to be less of a calcified ball of concentrated hatred and negativity, so here we go. There are three basic categories that my optimism falls into:
New products keep showing up. They may not be world-beaters (like the LOL Barclay Arrival Premier that didn’t even make it to its first birthday), but new products mean new opportunities. Frequent Miler pointed out something really interesting today, which is that there’s a company that provides middleman services between bank currencies and loyalty programs, and that has the potential to be a game-changer. I’m not too worried about it leading to a slate of devaluations, since the presumable middleman markup (reflected in 2:1 or 1.7:1 transfer ratios) will limit the number of miles that travel programs end up awarding. There’s a clear push-and-pull going on between banks’ desire to lure new customers by offering competitive products and their efforts to cut down on churning. This hobby lives in the vicissitudes therein, though, and that’s why I continue to be optimistic.
I suspect that Capital One was tired of hearing about the Chase Sapphire Reserve, which is why they added transfer partners, even though the whole idea of transferring points to loyalty programs contradicts everything Jennifer Garner has been telling me during football games for the past decade. (As an aside, there’s a larger marketing lesson to be learned here, which is that customers want what they want, regardless of what a company’s marketing has been telling them to the contrary. Apple processors were superior to Intel until Apple and Intel teamed up, and no one seemed to care that Apple had been talking shit about Intel for years before that. Capital One is smart to know they can have their Jennifer Garner and eat their Points Guy too.)
So what else was I excited about this year, since the new Barclay card was such a lead balloon? The Capital One thing was a big deal, and even though I can’t get a Venture card, it signals a recognition by banks that they can’t continue to let Citi, Chase, and Amex have the entire frequent flyer pie. Chase introduced new Hyatt and IHG cards, as well as Iberia and Aer Lingus cards. Again, even though I didn’t personally get any of these cards, I’m energized by the fact that the landscape never stays the same for long. I got a nice surprise earning 100k Marriott points from the new Amex SPG Luxury card, and between Justine and I, we got around 500k Hilton points from new Amex cards and upgrade offers. And let’s not forget about the USBank SkyPass Visa Select Premier or whatever it’s called!
I think we’re starting to see an points-earning arms race, and I fucking love it. I don’t know if it’s possible to pin a start-date on this trend, since the Citi Premier was doing three points on travel back when the Sapphire Reserve was just a glint in Jame Dimon’s eye, but it definitely started to accelerate this past year. While cards like the Chase Inks had been doing 5x on narrow and/or business-focused categories and plenty of cards offered 5x on rotating categories, Amex took a big step with the Platinum revamp to move a broad category (airlines) to 5x permanently. Then they followed this up with the new Gold card, offering 4x on grocery stores and restaurants, which are both very broad categories. Sure the Everyday Preferred offers up to 4.5x on the first $6000 in monthly purchases, but given how much of my everyday spending is usually consumed meeting minimum spend requirements, I’m really into the idea of earning 4x on groceries without also having to do 30 transactions per month.
Then, Citi announced the revamp of the Prestige card with an eye-popping 5x on restaurants (as well as airfare), leading some to question if the Amex Gold card would be dead on arrival. (My answer is no, and it has to do with the fact that I’d rather earn four Amex points than five Citi points.) What’s going to be next? Additional 5x categories on the Platinum to compete with Citi? A new card offering 7x on airfare? A $900 USBank Korean Air card that earns 10x points on Korean Air purchases and has no other benefits?
Opportunities on existing cards keep coming up, and I find myself constantly adjusting my strategy around new opportunities. For instance, when I first started looking at how to get a Morgan Stanley Platinum card, I felt like it was the end of the Amex sign-up bonus road for me, and 60k would be a nice finale to my Membership Rewards journey. But, around 6 months later, Amex came out with a 60k upgrade offer on my Green card that had no lifetime language. And then they started sending out Gold card referral offers also without lifetime language. That’s 110,000 points that I never thought I could get back in October, and I’ll have the points in my account by next month.
Amex is clearly the most aggressive with these offers, as I mentioned in my back-and-forth with Robert at Milenomics. I’m hoping that — just like the arms race around points earning or the drive to offer transfers to loyalty programs — other banks see how effective these promotions are on encouraging customers like me to put spending on my Amex cards (or in the case of the Green card, to keep it open past the one-year mark in the first place). Chase is finally rolling out discount offers, so it’s pretty clear they do look to Amex at least in some cases. I have no idea what’s coming down the pike this year, but I’m sure when I write my 2019 wrap-up, half of it will be shit I had no idea about today.
These aren’t “2019 predictions” in that the only thing I’m really willing to bet money on is that I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. However, all of these reasons for optimism are based on past trends I have witnessed, so I believe in them enough to feel pretty good about the state of churning right now. Like I said, the halcyon days of opening ten of the same American Airlines card or liquidating a shoebox of gift cards at a WalMart Bluebird kiosk are gone, and they clearly aren’t coming back. But let’s be honest: that also thins the herd. While points and miles blogs are more popular than ever, I’d also be willing to be that most of The Points Guy’s readers open a card or two, take their “free trip” and call it good. It may be counter-intuitive, but the fact that it takes so much work to earn points nowadays is what guarantees that it will continue to be possible to earn points.
There’s a reason that people aren’t doing Amazon FBA reselling in anywhere near the same numbers as they were manufacturing spend with Bluebird cards: because one was easy and one is a serious pain in the ass. I don’t think the current state of churning is that much different, and I’m happy to be one of the weirdos who’s committed enough to the game to keep pushing forward no matter what hurdles the banks throw at me. (Unless Chase and Amex shut me down, in which case I promise I’ll write a post that’s pessimistic as fuck.)
What about everyone else? How are you all feeling about 2019, and what strategies do you have on deck?
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