This seems to be a very fragile time in the points world. There has been more arguing and more “angries” the last few months than I can remember there ever being in this hobby. Even topics or techniques that are seemingly harmless or well-known can set people off about how this or that shouldn’t be blogged because it will “kill” the deal. This week has been a microcosm of that debate, and unfortunately I’ve been sucked into it to the point where I feel the need to write this post (and will likely anger some friends).
Here’s my opinion of the current state of our game: most “expert” and even mid-level points hobbyists currently have or have recently had most of the credit cards that earn big bonuses, so the focus has shifted to manufactured spending (MS) to earn large numbers of points. To get 50K points now often requires spending $50K on your points/miles-earning credit cards instead of just a signup bonus. That’s obviously a lot of money to cycle through your accounts, so it’s not easy to find a method that allows you to work with that much money. These opportunities do exist, however, and people build their routine and scale up their MS purchases.
The problem we’re running into now is that many MS avenues have recently been shut down, while at the same time award chart devaluations have significantly increased the number of points needed. The perception has become that there are limited MS techniques left available, and the people that partake in those techniques have become extremely defensive (and sometimes offensive) whenever a blogger writes about it.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how to use PIN-enabled gift cards to buy money orders. My thinking was that this is clearly an established technique, discussed by dozens of blogs before me, but I wanted to write it in my voice because I like to simplify things. I mentioned buying gift cards at CVS, which everyone knew could still be done, and then liquidating them at Walmart, which everyone knew could be done (note that you can’t use Vanilla-branded cards anymore). I didn’t mention any other stores, any other gift cards, or any new technique. But I got absolutely blasted by the community; just check the comments in that post.
The reasons were many, but in general the criticism was “Why tell more people and risk it getting shut down? It doesn’t help anyone when that happens.” This is absolutely a fair point, and while I understand this criticism…I don’t agree with it. My point of view is that this technique was so widely publicized in blogs and on FlyerTalk that I didn’t provide a single bit of new information – I only simplified it. Sure, I’ll reach some people that didn’t know about it before but that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the number of people already doing it, plus they likely would have read it somewhere else anyway if they made their way to my blog.
I was accused of being a bad “steward of MS” for that post by not protecting the technique. My point of view is completely the opposite – I think I was being a good steward by simplifying the process and and providing tips and advice so that people who use this technique don’t mess it up by saying or doing the wrong thing. Would you rather have someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing try to figure it out by trial and error, or have them already know the process so it can go smoothly without raising a single eyebrow? I pick the latter every time, and that’s why I write many of the posts I do.
A very similar case to mine above happened just a couple of days ago. The Points Guy, a blog I don’t read anymore and don’t even like, had a post about Amazon Payments and how to use it to MS. People (including good friends) were furious on Twitter and in the comments section of the post. I took a look and honestly I see little or nothing wrong with the post.
You know why? Because it’s been on Fat Wallet since August 10, 2010; it’s been on DansDeals since September 3, 2010; it’s been on FlyerTalk since November 5, 2010. It’s been on Million Mile Secrets since July 7, 2011; and it’s been on TravelSort since December 21, 2012. Just google “Amazon Payments Points” and read the dozens of pages of points and travel blogs that have discussed it over the last four years, including many this year and the last few months.
And you’re going to tell me that TPG was irresponsible for posting it? The only part that might be slightly objectionable on his post was the last FAQ section mentioning gift cards, which could have been left unsaid because it was so obvious. Still, I see no basis for the argument against it except that the people with knowledge don’t want anyone else to have it, because as far as I can see it was disseminated in an appropriate way with appropriate cautions.
And the argument that he’s just trying to get people to sign up for credit cards? Normally it’s 100% warranted on his website…but there’s not a single credit card link in that post – something that’s shocking even to me.
One of my posts again caused a small amount of controversy a few days ago. My post was about how to MS 135K AA miles for a round trip First Class award ticket. Again, my logic was that I was bringing no new information to the table, but rather explaining how to calculate the costs of using a certain technique to MS. I mentioned money orders and Bluebird, which everyone already knows about, but the one thing that angered people was a single sentence in that post: “Simon malls sells gift cards up to $500 for a $3 fee for normal personal/consumer purchases.”
I provided no link, and again I provided no new information. It’s been on Milepoint since April 6; PointChaser wrote about it on April 6; Million Mile Secrets wrote it about it on April 22; PointChaser wrote about it again on June 23; and View from the Wing wrote about it on June 23rd. There are tons of other blogs and websites that have written about it as well.
So…my one sentence with the term “Simon malls,” with the rest of the post devoted only to calculating costs and credit card strategy, was enough for me to be called irresponsible. George from Travel Blogger Buzz (whom I consider to be a friend – I’ve sought is advice numerous times on a variety of things) said the following about my post:
“I don’t want to link to the post because the last thing we need is more exposure. I understand the pressure between full time blogging and aiming to earn a living doing this and the incredible fragility of some of the deals out there. I mean, is it any wonder so many of us keep our mouths shut and only tell our close friends we trust?”
Wow. I made a post that contained no affiliate links, and I earn maybe a few dollars a day from ads on the blog, so the “earn a living” comment is just incorrect. The “fragility” of this deal? First of all, I didn’t even talk about that deal in any kind of detail. Second of all, two heavyweights of the points world, Million Mile Secrets and View from the Wing, wrote about Simon in great detail, but my post is the one that gets criticized (no offense to Ariana btw). How does that work?
And you know how I know TBB has a double standard? Because another great blog, Frequent Miler, just discussed all the good opportunities to buy gift cards for MS. It was a great post, as most of Frequent Miler’s posts are. View from the Wing even linked to it as part of a summary on useful information for the day. In FM’s post, he had a section titled “Shopping Malls” and he wrote the following:
“Many indoor shopping malls have gift card displays, often near the information desk. Visa gift cards aren’t always on display so you may have to ask for them. Usually, fees are $2.95 or less for cards with values up to $500 each. Simon Mall Visa cards work well, but watch out for Glimcher Visa gift cards as these seem to be useless as debit cards. Unfortunately, I’m not aware of any credit cards that earn a category bonus for generic shopping mall purchases.”
All of it is good information. But since I got blasted for my post, I’m sure Frequent Miler would receive the same condemnation on his post, right? I asked George about it, and here’s the response:
Also, it seems people have short memories. I write posts like this one pretty regularly, and one of my first ones was the Ink/Bluebird Award Cost Charts (a post that’s still valid today for the most part). Not only did I explain where to buy gift cards, but I went into extreme detail of the costs to get around the world AND posted an affiliate link. And guess what…that post received almost universal praise, including from TBB himself in the comments:
“OMG, an affiliate link that does not warrant bitching as it is clear you actually put some time in this post AND it is very helpful for your readers!”
In one year I went from being praised for a detailed post to condemned for a more vague post. Go figure.
Okay, So What?
Many, many people have voiced their opinion on what they think is inappropriate to post. For every person that says something shouldn’t be posted, there’s usually another (usually a beginner in the points world) that says they’re thankful for that post. I think the real takeaway here is this: who the heck cares? Do you (the angries) really think you’re affecting any change by saying how inappropriate it was to post something? Do you think you’re changing the minds of bloggers?
You’re not. You have the opposite affect, actually. You comment, tweet, and complain, and it gets the attention of everyone else that wasn’t even going to read about it. Controversy sells – it’s what TMZ is and what TBB is – and all you do is bring attention to it. My gift card and money order post was the most read post I’ve had in months, and all because so many people kept commenting on it. I wouldn’t have even read the TPG post if I didn’t see so many people complaining about it on Twitter.
These posts are going to be written whether you like it or not. Every blogger has his or her own line that they will not cross (Frequent Miler even tried to define it), and it’s an arbitrary line set by each individual. It’s highly unlikely that angry comments will move that line, so really your best course of action is to stay silent. Don’t make a fuss, don’t bring any more attention to it. You’re already stuck in the quicksand…struggling will only make it worse.
But Bloggers Only Do It for Money!
It’s soooooo easy to say “oh they do it for the money.” It’s a convenient explanation, but it’s also a cynical and sometimes incorrect view of the world. Sure, some bloggers operate this way and are rightly chastised for it. TPG is one of them, but how can you blame his motivation for money in that post where he wouldn’t even make any conversions or commissions?
The angry, anti-bloggers will then say that it’s all to attract more viewers, which can then lead to making money. Let’s not kid ourselves – bloggers are trying to make money. Many, like myself recently, are now full-time bloggers. The assumption then becomes that everything a blogger writes about is to make money, either immediately or down the line. I have two things to say to that. 1) I feel very sad for you if you think that way, because some people do like helping other people without the expectation of payment, as hard as that is for some of you to believe; 2) Okay, bloggers hope to be paid in the future. So what? Isn’t building good-will and a devoted following by writing informative posts a good thing? The problem is that most angries make the assumption that all bloggers will end up making money in an inappropriate or dishonest manner by shilling credit cards or writing solely to collect referral bonuses. These angries make a lot of assumptions and have a very stark view of the world. And if that’s what you’re criticizing me for, then you’re literally criticizing me for something I haven’t even done yet!
I think everyone needs to take a deep breath and think about this for a bit. Yes, bloggers want to make money, but there’s nothing wrong with that itself. If someone gives bad information or writes unnecessary posts filled with affiliate links, then you absolutely have an argument. But otherwise, like all three examples above in my opinion, there’s really nothing wrong with it. And don’t assume that blogging is the only way to make money. Most bloggers have award booking services and I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re involved in other money-making endeavors. This blog certainly isn’t the only way I make money now that I’ve quit my “real” job.
The New Points “Community”
These days everyone’s a blogger or knows a blogger. This hobby used to be about sharing so that others can get in on the deal, but now it’s devolved into a highly sectarian community where most deals have gone completely underground for fear of them being blogged about and killed. There are so many mistake fares and MS deals around that you just don’t hear about because no one posts them anymore. People have formed small groups and alliances where they feel comfortable sharing information in exchange for their promise not to share beyond that group. That’s why there aren’t as many new deals you hear about – they exist, just not publicly.
We in the points world have serious trust issues, are extremely paranoid, very selfish, and some have very real anger issues. That’s the current state of the points world from my perspective.
To support Tavel Summary click this affiliate link (juuuust kidding) 😛