Maybe it was a bad idea to get all those sign-up bonuses I didn’t need, unless it wasn’t.

Wowie zowie that was some pandemic, wasn’t it? I don’t know about you folks, but the last fourteen months for me sucked pretty bad, and I didn’t even have to deal with anyone close to me dying. No, just the psychic toll of living through what amounted to a nationwide slow motion car crash stuck in a vehicle commanded by people who were looking into each others’ eyes and belting out “WELL I’M PROUD TO BE AN AMERICAN, CUZ AT LEAST I KNOW I’M FREEeeEEEEEeeE” rather than looking at the road.

Planning hypothetical trips and then figuring out how to arrange earning the points and miles necessary to take said trips had always been one of my main hobbies, but suddenly that “hypothetical” was stretched to the point of utter absurdity, and for a few weeks it felt like my life was pretty damn absurd as well. (Thankfully I had my dual hobbies of board gaming and working out in my living room to keep me sane, but that’s for another post. This is a blog about points and miles and I *only* talk about points and miles here, remember?) Anyway, after a seismic shock to my income early on in the pandemic, I switched up my credit card strategy to focus on cash back, and especially to focus on cash sign-up bonuses. Luckily Bank of America was there to answer the call, tossing me around $2000 in “free money” between two Premier Rewards cards, a Business Rewards card, and a bank account opening bonus. Thanks for the extra stimulus, guys.

Since this is ostensibly a post about credit cards, here’s a picture of some credit cards.

Of course, once things started to stabilize again, I got back to my normal business of earning as many points and miles as I could. I officially adopted the motto of my personal hero Connor 4 Real (“Never Stop Never Stopping”) and got back to earning points wherever and however I could. As they’re wont to do, Amex made my job a little easier, tossing me some pretty huge retention bonuses on a couple of my cards (25,000 points to keep an Amex Gold that I was planning to keep anyway and 35,000 on a Delta Platinum that I was planning to dump but got roped back in by the big bonus. Some may say it was dumb to essentially pay $195 for 35,000 Delta miles, although I would disagree — as long as they keep the “pay with miles” option, that sign-up bonus was at a minimum a $350 gift card for $195, which is a good deal. Plus, it may end up being worth more than that, although potentially not given how enthusiastically they’ve been devaluing award redemptions. But more on that in a sec.)

Amex came through in other ways, such as with 30,000 point referral bonuses, or upgrade offers on basic cards. My wife took a 25,000 point upgrade offer on her Amex Everyday, which was nice since she’s currently in Amex Jail and can’t earn any sign-up bonuses. Oh, and I got 10,000 points for enrolling in pay-over-time, which brought my lifetime total of Pay Over Time bonuses to around 100k. (As an aside, is there an easier way to earn 10,000 points than enrolling in Pay Over Time? I love it so much.)

I also kept hitting up Bank of America for more and more goodies — they used to auto-reject me for new cards, but once I enrolled in their relationship rewards program by moving my IRA to Merril Lynch, they’ve gotten a whole lot more permissive. I don’t know what the official “rule” is with BofA these days, but I have opened four cards with them in the last year, which seems downright Amexian. Specifically, in addition to my Premier Rewards and Business Rewards card, I got a Flying Blue card when they bumped the sign-up bonus up to 50,000 points, plus an Alaska Business card with a 40,000 point sign up bonus (but — notably — no bonus restriction based on having had the card in the past). I was even honest on my application and said my business income for 2020 was $750, and they still approved me.

Then, I rounded out the year with two Citi Premiers, a Delta Gold business card with an elevated sign-up bonus, and finally spiced things up with a BBVA card that had a $1000 cash sign-up bonus and waived first-year annual fee. 2021 started off pretty well too, with me finally being targeted for a 30,000 sign-up bonus on the Amex Blue Business Plus, which is a card I’ve wanted to get for years.

Now, however, as we emerge from the pandemic, there’s a dual trend that makes my strategy of earning points without any immediate way to use them potentially seem pretty dumb. First, banks are eager to get new customers who are suddenly in a spending mood again, so there are some downright nutty sign-up bonuses going around. The Chase Sapphire 100k bonus comes to mind, but there are other less-publicized ones as well. I’m seeing 50k now on the Blue Business Plus (although for a higher spend requirement), and even the Flying Blue card is now offering a statement credit along with the 50k.

In parallel, as everyone predicted, airline loyalty programs are engorged with debt via outstanding miles, and they’re devaluing like a wheat thresher in, err…, wheat threshing season? They’re cutting award value to the bone, is what I’m saying. It’s not unusual to see 500,000 point awards on Delta, and American just announced they’re getting rid of charts altogether. In the past, I’ve always said that — especially in Delta’s case — the ever-increasing sign-up bonuses on airline co-brand cards soften the blow of the frequent devaluations, but Amex cards are once-per-lifetime, meaning that future increased bonuses on the Gold and Platinum Delta cards aren’t going to help me at all.

Where does that leave me? Justine got a Chase Sapphire card in 2019 even though we had no need for 60k Chase points at that time, because she was finally under 5/24 again. Now, that 100k bonus is nothing but an evil temptress, teasing us from behind a veil that has a repeating “5/24” print on it like the Louis Vuitton logo. We both got Citi Premier cards in 2020, so are we going to feel stupid when Citi launches 75k or 100k bonuses on those cards later this year? (I’m speculating here — don’t frantically start searching for these bonuses in the wild.) We’re probably less than a year away from 125,000 mile offers on the Delta Platinum card and 100,000 on the Gold card. I could have even been $50 richer if I had held off on the Flying Blue card for 10 months.

On the one hand, I deserve to be chastised for not adhering to the foundational gospel of the points and miles hobby, which of course is “EARN AND BURN.” If you don’t burn, your miles are gradually worth less and less, and due to ever-stricter sign-up restrictions, you’re locked out from higher bonuses down the road. But, there’s an other hand, too. You may not have heard from this blog in a while, but I assure you it’s not because I only have one hand. Oh no, dear reader, I’m two-handed and I’m never going to sway from my mission of always giving you BOTH hands.

One of the most frustrating things about the hobby in general is shifting goalposts. You see it in awards being devalued, where you save and save and then as soon as you’re ready to use your miles, you don’t have enough. However, another big way the goalposts shift is with updates to the way banks restrict who can earn sign-up bonuses or even open cards in the first place. This was painfully apparent a couple years ago to anyone who spent 18 months with their foot off the gas while waiting get under 5/24 and then realized that Chase had increased the bonus restriction on the Sapphire cards from 24 to 48 months. Citi did something similar when they changed the restriction on cards to one bonus per card family, rather than per card. Citi has started to change some of those rules back, but now they’re taking a page from Chase’s book and dabbling in 48 month language. Barclay has an unofficial 6/24 policy that they started using without notice. And on and on.

So, while I’ll feel mighty stupid if the Delta Gold card has a 100k bonus next month, I’ll feel mightier smarter if Amex adopts a once-per-family rule out of the blue (something I’m convinced will happen, although I’ve been convinced of this since 2018, so maybe don’t put too much stock in my predictions). I’m not saying Earn and Burn is wrong — clearly hoarding miles is not ideal, and I’d love to be burning through my stash rather than staying at home because I don’t have enough saved up for a trip right now anyway, even if the rest of the world were open. But, I will always defend an aggressive earning strategy, even if you don’t have the ability to use your miles right away. On the one hand, it gives you a lot of flexibility when the opportunity to travel does come up, rather than putting you on a treadmill where you need to earn a bunch of miles quickly in order to afford your trip. But on the other hand (see there’s that second hand again, I told you it wasn’t going anywhere!!), it also ensures that you will actually be able to earn those miles and open those cards, which is something that’s definitely not guaranteed in the long term.

Now if I could just figure out a way to burn through these FlyingBlue miles…

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