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2018 Points & Miles & Beyond
31 Dec. 2018
2018 Points & Miles & Beyond

Roller Coaster

This past year was a big one in the travel rewards/points and miles scene.  Much of the news was surprising too, which was kind of fun for the most part, although some of the news wasn’t good at all.  Here’s a rundown of my thoughts on 2018 in the points and miles world:

  1. The Plastic Merchant (TPM) meltdown – in one of my first interviews for my podcast (The Travel Points Podcast), I sat down with Mike Dean, founder and owner of the widely popular gift card reselling site TPM, to chat during a break at one of the national points conferences.  We had drinks one night at the event and then recorded interview the next day.  Unfortunately something happened with the recorder, and only a few minutes of audio was captured, so the interview never went to air.  Mike is an extremely bright guy and seemed to have the reselling game completely figured out.  I had done some reselling on his site and mentioned that I was looking to diversify away from manufactured spending, and that I hoped to do more reselling.  He said that there was room for larger volume players on his site, which seemed like a green light.  I learned a few days later that my TPM account became inactive due to a lapse in the time between my last resale, and had to apply again to get the account reinstated.  That application was basically denied, and the stated reason via email was that TPM “wasn’t taking on new clients at this time”.  I was really disappointed with that news and and even contacted the number 2 in charge at TPM, but to no avail.  I was ready to do some serious reselling volume too.  What I didn’t know then was that this rejection to get my account reinstated was a complete blessing, as I could have been left hanging for tens of thousands of dollars when TPM went under.  Why TPM actually went under is still a mystery, and still shocking even after all this time has passed.
  2. Walmart manufactured spend restrictions – I’ve written pretty extensively about Walmart’s doom and gloom changes linked with manufactured spend, and it’s been a big if not massive, setback for many people looking to earn points inside the hallowed walls of the MoneyCenter.  Some have quit manufactured spend entirely, as the time and costs now are legitimate factors for many.  Costs for money orders (at most Walmarts but not all) also rose this year, which continues the the cost per point pressure.  To go along with it, Walmart and Moneygram set out new policies for both money order daily volume via debit cards and bill pays as well.  Most manufactured spenders aren’t using bill pay as a method for fear of shutdown, but money order pinches hurt many – from the mid volume players to some big fish.  Now with 8k in money orders a day as a maximum for most, Walmart manufactured spend is a much less appealing venture than it was a year ago.
  3. Best Deal of the Year – Spanish carrier Iberia Airlines 90,000 mile offer for purchasing a series of cheap flights.  Basically, customers could earn 9,000 Avios for each ticket purchased on Iberia.com.  Throughout the promotional period, customers could earn a maximum of 90,000 Iberia Avios by purchasing a maximum of 10 tickets.  Even better, the customer didn’t actually have to fly to keep the 90,000 miles!  The total cost for those 90,000 miles depended on when you got in on the deal.  I didn’t do the deal, partly because I didn’t know much about Iberia and was skeptical of the deal.  I also didn’t want to go through the hassle of something that seemed likely to implode. So I passed, but I do wish now that I didn’t.  I would have just given the miles to relatives anyway, so letting such a deal go by is a little disappointing.  Oh well, life lesson.
  4. Capital One introducing 14 airline transfer partners in late 2018 – the earn rate of 2x points per dollar spent is still in tact, a kind of odd transfer rate of 2 Capital One miles to 1.5 partner airline miles, but does include some nice airline partner transfer options.  Along with introducing airline transfer partners, Capital One also rolled out a couple 200,000 mile credit card sign up bonus offers (with a possible max of $3,000 or 300,000 miles after all is said and done).
  5. Marriott/SPG merger mayhem – Marriott’s merger with Starwood (SPG) was a technical gong show.  You heard me, gong show.  People lost paid night stays, there were booking issues on the website and through the app, tons of customer complaints, long queues in customer service, and much more.  Marriott’s CEO downplayed the issues, and came off as kind of pompous in his handling, while many customers felt left behind, and some even jumped ship to other hotel programs.  Rather than gamble to see how the merger would shake out, I merged and then cashed out my SPG and Marriott points into the travel packages, then cancelled the hotel portion to get points back, as soon as I could.  My strategy proved correct, although I think I got a little lucky with the deal.  I valued SPG’s rewards program, credit cards, and hotels, but I don’t value Marriott’s.  I’m not completely sure what 2019 will hold for Marriott, but I’m not holding my breath for positive, meaningful changes.  I’ll likely cash out most of my Marriott points for more travel packages and miles in 2019.  Sorry Marriott, but you did it to yourself.
  6. Chase Expanding 5/24 – big banks got even bigger in terms of some of the rewards cards restrictions.  Chase included more cards (from 17 cards to 28 cards) into the 5/24 net to make it even more difficult to acquire more of the banks top rewards cards.  When the economy is good, banks can be much more precise in who they want as customers.  I’m fortunate and thankful that I have a very solid lineup of Chase cards already, and don’t really need additional cards at this point. I can earn rewards at rates that I’m very comfortable with going forward.  However, for those past 5/24 and kind of starting out, it’s tough out there!
  7. Amex getting tougher – some sign up bonus and promotion clawbacks, reducing the travel portal rebate from 50% to 35%, and increasing some top reward card annual fees (business platinum up to $595 in 2019), Amex is trying to make profitable banking great again.  Some blogs were really disturbed by some of the Amex decisions, however, I’m in the opposite camp.  While I don’t like annual fees, and especially those that increase, none of those changes have made me blink when it comes to Amex’s program.
  8. Citi, well, being Citi – taking some of it’s top products off the shelves for revamp, continuing to send out offers that bypassed 24 month sign-up bonus restrictions, and getting lost in the news from other banks, Citi is the last of the big 3 banks in the points and miles world (behind Chase and Amex).  Heck, I’d take the Capital One cards right now before those of Citi.  Citi doesn’t seem to have a solid identity in the travel rewards space.  They are on the starting sports team lineup, but they don’t make the highlight reel for the game’s highlights.  Hopefully Citi’s program and card offerings get better in 2019.

My Goals

My own personal travel, points and miles goals for 2018 were extremely positive.  Actually, even though the goals were pretty aggressive, the results were much greater than I had hoped for or targeted when I wrote about them a year ago.  Here’s a brief recap of those goals:

Reach 1 million SPG, Alaska, and Ultimate Rewards

There’s kind of an obligation that goes along with having am website with the moniker “MillionMileGuy” in it.  Thankfully, I did accomplish earning over a million SPG, Alaska, and Ultimate Rewards.  What I didn’t anticipate was also earning over a million Amex Membership Rewards.  For having a full time (and part time job for much of the year), I did good.  Very thankful for it too.

$500k of Manufactured Spend in a Month

I doubt I’ll write much about my specific MS volume going forward, but achieving high levels (high for me at least), was a learning experience.  I did accomplish this goal more than once in 2018, but also learned more about my strengths and weaknesses in manufactured spend.  Some people have help with their MS in various ways.  Some keep amazing and detailed records.  Others are tremendous with math, and others are part of a small high volume cabal that seem to have almost no limits.  For me, my goal here was accomplished, but I also learned some humility and what volume and plays might be best for me.

Getting a little Splashy with Award trips

I booked 2 Lufthansa first class tickets on the coveted 747-8 from Europe for myself and good friend this past year.  Unfortunately within 10 days of getting back, my buddy had open heart surgery, as he was having shortness of breath and some chest pain before and during the trip.  He’s better than ever now, but could have easily died on our trip with all of the walking, steps, and adventure we got into.  It was a great trip.  Also glad he didn’t die or end up in the hospital in Eastern Europe.  Can’t imagine bribing a doctor in Belarus for better care.  Not a fan of that action.

Change my Application Style

I used to apply for 4-6 new rewards credit cards every 91-95 days, but I thought changing that pattern would yield better approval rates, as I was starting to receive more pending and rejection notices in 2018.  As a quick, but not dramatic fix, I dropped down to 2-3 applications and also didn’t apply on for new rewards cards on a rigid timeline.  Sometimes I waited well over 100 days to apply, and sought out higher bonus on cards that I had targeted.  In 2019, I’m looking to start the path to getting back under 5/24, and only (mostly) apply for select business cards for the next 2 years.  It’s going to be tough, really tough.  We’ll see how it goes, but right now, I’ve kind of maxed out personal cards applications (for cards that I value).

Get New Rewards Credit Cards

I was a bit shell shocked writing about this 2018 goal, as Barclays had fairly recently shut down my accounts along with 3 reward cards that I had.  Barclays wasn’t very cooperative initially after my shutdown about giving me a fair price on my (several hundred thousand) Arrival miles, so I filed a CFPB complaint.  That same day of the CFPB submittal, Barclays called and renegotiated with me, offering a better deal.  I felt fortunate, as some banks don’t give back points/miles earned if you’re shutdown.  Anyway, I did manage to get a good amount of rewards cards in 2018, but also had more difficulty doing so, as I kind of reached my near maximum for credit allotments and top card approvals.

Earn at least 100,000 Membership Rewards via the Blue Business Plus

Starting 2018, I really didn’t value American Express’ Membership Rewards program.  My take wasn’t very thorough though, and I later reconsidered that take.  This goal was mostly done very slowly and at a low level and steady MS.  In short, it was a grind (even when it didn’t need to be).  After this goal was reached, some revelations about American Express and the program hit home, and I have adjusted my thought on the relevance on the program.  Thumbs up from this guy.  Thumbs way up actually.

Max out the Chase Ink Plus for 250,000 Ultimate Rewards

Done mostly through the no (or negative) cost Visa debit (gift) card promotions via office supply stores, this goal is a big earner for me.  It requires, effort and hours of driving and liquidating, but in the end, it’s still worth it.  I also buy a lot of store branded gift cards like Whole Foods, Amazon, Airbnb, Nordstroms and others at office supply stores too, so the 5x benefit here is an outstanding year perk.

Earn any spend bonuses on my cards

The Chase United Business card offered an additional 10,000 bonus miles for spending $20,000 on the card in a calender year, which I believe goes away in 2019.  Radisson also offered a maximum of 3 free nights for $30k of spend (1 night for each $10k in spend).  Spend was not an issue in 2018.

Achieving SPG Gold Status

After $30k in spend in a year, SPG rewarded customers with Gold Elite status.  For whatever reason, that was a goal of mine in 2018.  It was achieved and more. After the Marriott merger, I came in as Platinum Marriott, which is cool, but would be even better if I actually stayed at more hotels than I actually do.

Achieve Marriott Gold Status

Marriot Business offered Gold status if you spent $50k on the card in a calender year.  Although I wasn’t excited about the possibility of Marriott’s gold status, it was a spend goal that I listed.  I didn’t achieve it, but also kind of did – as I didn’t spend the $50k on any Marriott card, but earned Platinum status in 2018 nonetheless.

Earn Free Nights with Club Carlson

After spending $10,000 on the US Bank Club Carlson Visa, a free night is awarded along with 40,000 bonus points for renewing (paying the annual fee).  The annual fee is $75 for the card, but for that I’m getting 3 free nights – the 40k for renewing, a free night for 10k in spend, and from that (10k) spend, another free night (10k x 5x = 50k).  There’s a lot of haters when it comes to Radisson Rewards, but for me, there’s still opportunity within this program.

Achieve Platinum Status with Ritz

These goals that I’ve listed are quite personal and a little embarrassing now that I read through them again.  But I didn’t actually apply for the Chase Ritz-Carlton credit card, as the fear of shutdown linked to eyes on my account got the best of me.  However, I did ultimately achieve Diamond elite status with Marriott/SPG in 2018, so not all was lost….and I saved $450 from that annual fee too!

Other Wins (and Losses)

I recently cashed in over a million Amex Membership Rewards (MR’s) for $10,000 in cash.  There’s more to that deal, but I was pleased with the decision to tap out and take the money.  Those funds more than paid for an annual retirement investment that I make, and more MR’s are quite attainable in the future.  I also nearly made $10,000 from casing in Discover miles.  The big downside of the year though is that I lost $5,000 – $10,000 through some mix up(s) in manufactured spend and record keeping.  That money is still missing in case you’re wondering.

Some major rewards blogs also linked to some posts that I wrote, which was very flattering (and slightly embarrassing), but I’m thankful and appreciative of that.  I also met some great people this past year in the points and miles space – some through national points seminars and others locally (and yes, even at Walmart haha).  I also booked a honeymoon trip for my cousin and her fiancé using my points and miles, so helping them was pretty cool too.  It was a great year indeed.

Summary

This past year was a big year for me in the travel rewards space.  I’m thankful for every point and mile that I’ve accrued and earned.  I work for a good chunk of my points, but I see the path and light at the end of the tunnel.  I’m earning points faster than I can use them, but the rewards game is continually changing.  Unfortunately, much of that change isn’t for the better.  From all of the trip reports, Facebook posts, and other trips and redemptions that I’ve read about, many people have had banner 2018’s.  Hoping 2019 also goes well for everyone!

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