I’m starting today’s Devil’s Advocate column with an announcement. For over 2 1/2 years now, Scott Mackenzie – the owner of Travel Codex – has been exceptionally generous in giving me a platform to spout my nonsense, usually in this column but occasionally about other topics as well. He has been kind, gracious, trusting, and has become a true friend over the months and years.
That is why it is bittersweet for me to announce that this post will be my final one for Travel Codex. Starting today, I am becoming a full-time writer at The Points Guy, a website I am sure many of you are already familiar with.
To be honest, I’m excited about this move. Just like numerous other people in this community, The Points Guy was the very first website I started following many years ago in an effort to learn more about how frequent flyer programs really worked, so this feels to me like giving back to those who might be just starting out themselves. While I realize some folks will be surprised by this move, in recent weeks I’ve sat and personally spoken with Brian Kelly and the other great folks who work over there, and I’m convinced it’s going to be a terrific place for me to be.
I know readers aren’t particularly interested in navel gazing and we do have a Devil’s Advocate column to get to today, so I will keep this part brief. But I want to thank everyone here at Travel Codex for their help and support over the years. In particular, Tahsir and Amol were here before me and helped paved the way with their fantastically popular posts, and Omar from Travel Summary, Eric, and Hao have been awesome fellow writers as well.
I’m also sorry I won’t be around to see the tremendous growth of Travel Codex that’s already happening thanks to the merger with Upgrd. I’ve loved seeing the new posts and perspectives from Rohan, Kevin, Brad, James, Kyle, Carly, Michael, Sriram, and Rocky, and I look forward to reading more of their writing in the future.
Finally, I have to say one more thing about Scott. When I first approached Scott about writing this column, Scott didn’t know me at all. We had never even met. Yet he was trusting enough to literally give me the keys to the kingdom and essentially free reign over what I wrote. I would not have the opportunity I have today if it were not for Scott Mackenzie, and for that, I will be forever grateful to him. Yes, I’m leaving, but Travel Codex will always be my first home.
OK, </mushygoodbyes>. Let’s get down to business.
My 2016 predictions… umm, do we have to do this?
Most folks will start reviewing their 2016 predictions in another few weeks, but since it’s my last day, it seems only fair to take a look back at them now and see how I did. And boy, was I right or what???
(No, I wasn’t right. In fact, if “right” or “what” are the two choices, then I was extremely “what.”)
By the end of last year, Chase Ultimate Rewards had begun a slow decline. Chase hadn’t added any new features or cards to the program in a long while and their lineup felt stale. Citibank had vastly improved their own ThankYou Rewards program and Amex still had the market cornered on ultra high-end premium cards with their Platinum personal and business cards.
So my first prediction for 2016 was that the decline of Ultimate Rewards would continue. I wrote that I expected Chase to go on resting on their laurels, and for the situation to possibly even worsen.
Well, that’s a huge swing and a miss, huh?
Of course the hottest credit card of the decade turned out to be the Chase Sapphire Reserve, introduced in August 2016. The Sapphire Reserve has not only reinvigorated the Ultimate Rewards program, but it’s a strong competitor to the Amex Platinum. On top of that, Chase also launched the new Ink Business Preferred and Chase Freedom Unlimited. All in 2016.
I also wrote that I thought Amex would loosen up on their “once per lifetime” bonus rule. While that hasn’t happened, we have seen a decent number of targeted offers that don’t include this restriction. But the general rule remains in place and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere soon, not with Citibank tightening their own bonus rules and Chase clinging onto 5/24 for now.
So, yeah, this prediction was… but you see, I was drinking gin, so… okay, let’s just move on to…
My Delta SkyMiles prediction.
OK, this one looks a little better. My second prediction was that Delta SkyMiles would become a bit less worthless in relation to the other major airline currencies. I wrote that with the American devaluation slated to happen in 2016, and in combination with the previous United devaluation, SkyMiles would rejoin the pack simply by virtue of the others dropping down to the same level.
I have to say I think this prediction ended up being pretty accurate. While there’s no hard data on award availability, the general consensus is that low-level Delta awards are more plentiful than they used to be. That matches my own personal experience, as I’ve been able to find space on Delta or its partners when the other legacy airlines didn’t have any.
Additionally, as I pointed out in my predictions, the fact that Delta now has a gazillion award levels and no chart to keep track of them has had a perverse effect. Now when none of the majors have low-level award space, the more expensive award seats tend to be cheapest on Delta. So if you’re willing to pay for a seat that isn’t at the lowest level, you’ll probably do better on Delta than the other carriers.
Meanwhile, low-level American award space has become completely nonexistent. It’s so bad that I’m now actively trying to dump AAdvantage miles and am no longer making any effort to sign up for Citibank AAdvantage cards (because what’s the point in another 50,000 miles you can’t spend?) When it comes to award availability, there is no doubt that SkyMiles is now better than AAdvantage, and you’ll have a better experience flying Delta. (American, please note neither of these are “enhancements” to be proud of.)
Finally, United did not do itself any favors with its major IT and rules change in October. While I understand the Excursionist perk can be used in creative ways to make fascinating routings, in my opinion it still doesn’t come anywhere close to the loss of being able to piece together an award routing with the Multi City option. Obviously it’s another case of United following in Delta’s footsteps and using “it’s what the computer says it is” as an excuse to give less to their customers, but even delta.com still lets you find individual legs and piece together your own routing. Mostly.
To be clear, Delta SkyMiles is still a program I have zero trust in. I will continue to only collect Amex Membership Rewards instead of SkyMiles directly so that I’m ready when Delta pulls the rug out on us once again. But with that said, it has become standard procedure for me to once again check SkyMiles availability when looking for an award ticket (and to not look so shocked when I find some).
So I’m going to give myself the win for this prediction. Which is good, because my third and final prediction probably isn’t going to get me into the prediction playoffs.
Manufactured spend, where have you gone?
I knew I was in trouble on this one within the first ten days of January, but I had no idea how bad it was going to get.
For 2016 I predicted that even though mainstream techniques would generally die quickly, manufactured spend would remain alive and healthy. That turned out to be true only in the sense that a patient lying cut open on the operating table with a fluttering pulse while being read the last rites is still technically alive. Though it’d probably be difficult to argue “healthy.”
This was an extraordinarily terrible year for manufactured spend. Everything got killed. Bluebird. Serve. Buxx cards. Walmart kiosks. Rite Aid loads. Gift cards at many grocery stores (thanks to the horribly botched introduction of chip technology). It was bad. Bad, bad, bad.
I wrote that I thought 2016 would bring us at least one big new mainstream technique, even though it would die quickly. But no new technique even appeared.
Yes, there are still a few techniques running around. And I wasn’t completely incorrect when I wrote that there would still be “opportunities for people willing to work to find them.” But while that’s true, I’ll be the first to admit it takes a ton more work to find them nowadays.
Regardless, I don’t think it’s fair to say that manufactured spend is still “healthy.” It might not be completely dead, but it’s far from what it once was. So I was mostly wrong on this one. MS hasn’t completely left the building. But it spent most of 2016 trying very hard to find the exit.
Perhaps the Devil’s Advocate should be careful the door doesn’t hit him on the way out.
Well, after that performance, The Points Guy might be rethinking their invitation to me. I should probably stick to points and miles from now on and retire from trying to guess the future.
In the meantime, I do have one last thank you, and it goes to all of you – the readers of Devil’s Advocate. You are the reason I have been here week after week. There is nothing more satisfying to a writer than knowing what he or she puts out into the world is actually being read. Even when you disagreed with me (and I know that was often), I was still happy to know you were there.
I hope you’ll keep reading my work over at The Points Guy, where I’ll be covering points and miles as always, along with a lot more about travel and the industry. And yes, there’ll probably be a Devil’s Advocate or two along the way.
Until next time then… safe travels, everyone.Devil’s Advocate has been a bi-weekly series that deliberately argued a contrarian view on travel and loyalty programs. Sometimes the Devil’s Advocate truly believed in the counterargument. Other times he took the opposing position just to see if the original argument held water. But his main objective was to engage in friendly debate with the miles and points community to determine if today’s conventional wisdom was valid. You can still follow him on Twitter @dvlsadvcate or send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Recent Posts by the Devil’s Advocate:
- I Got My Annual AA Aviator Bonus Offer, but Here’s Why I Might Skip It This Year
- Is It Worth Buying Elite Status? The Answer May Surprise You! (No, really, it might.)
- Why The New “World of Hyatt” Elite Program Is A Major Enhancement
Find the entire collection of Devil’s Advocate posts here.