My Annual State of the Hobby Address and Happy 2019 New Year!

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In 2018, the credit card attrition war among U.S. plastic giants has kept raging on, knocking down old barriers, and creating new amazing, mind-blowing opportunities.

Yes, things have gotten harder for veterans of this venerable hobby.

But for the newbies they’ve gotten more awesome.

Yes, the space have become more crowded and even more complicated.

And yet, whoever enters the game right now can find themselves in a better spot than even in 2010, the year I remember so very kindly.

That is if they’re smart and play their cards right. Yes, pun intended. You bet! Just stay under the radar and quietly collect your miles and points, while banks are too busy playing a cool game of Whac-A-Mole with our heads.

Plastic Whac-A-Mole

By Mcal2015 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=45694205

American Express 2018 changes

I have my own version of what happened. I think Amex put their lawyers into a cold room and locked the door. After a short while, they all arrived at the conclusion that the once-in-a-lifetime Welcome Bonus was way too generous.

If we in our sole discretion determine that you have engaged in abuse, misuse, or gaming [Wow, what a cool legal definition is that new?] in connection with the welcome bonus offer in any way or that you intend to do so [Intend? Wow, even cooler!] (for example, if you applied for one or more cards to obtain a welcome bonus offer (s) that we did not intend for you [Huh?]; if you cancel or downgrade your account within 12 months after acquiring it [Take your annual fee out of my cold, dead hands!]; or if you cancel or return purchases you made to meet the Threshold Amount), we may not credit Membership Rewards points to [Whack #1], we may freeze Membership Rewards points credited to [Whack#2], or we may take away Membership Rewards points from your account [Whack #3]. We may also cancel this Card account and other Card accounts you may have with us [Whack #4].

Don’t you love it how they immediately go straight to the point, yet still manage to build anticipation and heighten suspense – right before climaxing all over you by the masterful execution of – not one, not two, not three – but four final blows! Wow, Amex, you are the champion!

Chase 2018 changes

Chase also decided it’d been too generous by allowing us to suck on the Welcome Bonus once every 24 months, and doubled the interval. The restriction currently applies to Sapphire Preferred and Sapphire Reserve cards.

The product is not available to either (i) current cardmembers of any Sapphire credit card, or (ii) previous cardmembers of any Sapphire credit card who received a new cardmember bonus within the last 48 months.

Am I sad? Nope! Due to Chase’s 5/24 rule that’s reportedly been extended to include all Chase cards, I’ll be eligible for the next Chase card … probably never.

Bank of America 2018 changes

This bank is quirky. In 2017, it introduced the new 2/3/4 rule, which wasn’t too bad, but then it started denying people who didn’t have another BoA relationship. WTF? Lately, they’ve been denying people for too many recent applications. There are no hardwired rules, but be careful

Barclays and Capital One 2018 changes

Strictly speaking, nothing about their restrictions is new. Barclays started tightening the screws and bolts at the end of 2016, but 2017 was the first year when I wasn’t able to get any cards out of them. Although Barclays agents mention that they look at your 2-year history, there are no official rules. They just hate churners, that’s all.

As for Capital One, those guys have kept me away for a long, long time.

Having said that, there is ample evidence that some folks have better luck than others with these two.

Citi 2018 changes

Nothing new to report. Citi is more conservative than others, so you’re still allowed to get a bonus once every 24 months.

Airline miles 2018 changes

Interestingly, 2018 hasn’t been that bad for the flying public. There haven’t been any devaluations for most major airline programs except Cathay Pacific Asia Miles, Japan Airlines, and Qatar — the Qatar devaluation would’ve been especially bad if their program hadn’t been such a joke to begin with.

In fact, I perceive 2018 as a mixed bag: on the one hand, airlines seem to be hell-bent on flying empty premium class seats rather than “selling” them to the members. On the other hand, however, we have often witnessed better award space on American; epic deals on Amex and Citi point transfers; and awesome Delta flash sales in economy (that aren’t really sales, but whatever). In other news, American relaxed its Basic Economy rules, so complimentary carry-on bags are back in business.

Hotel points 2018 changes

2018 has been dominated by the Marriott/Starwood merger and the resulting clusterf#$@.

The merger wasn’t entirely bad news on some levels, as the SPG/Marriott transfer rate (1:3) was fair, and the core SPG airline transfer benefits have been left intact. In addition, the Fifth Free Night benefit is now available across all categories, while the old SPG program didn’t apply it to the first two categories.

On the other hand, the mid-tier Gold Marriott status that used to be as good as Hilton’s got badly devalued (no more breakfast or a shot at lounge access). The merger has also been plagued by IT issues, poor customer service, lack of status recognition for top elite travelers, and frequent Marriott failures to provide even basic web functionality.

The issues caused a friendly internet war that briefly raged among WFTW, OMAT, and Frequent Miler on whether people who leave Marriott for Hilton are nuts.

Gary said yes, they are. Because no matter how screwed up the Marriott merger is right now, Hilton’s benefits for their top-tier elite are a joke.

Lucky said no, Marriott really, really, really sucks, and while, yes, Hilton sucks too, it’s easy to attain Hilton’s highest elite status just for the asking (applying for the $450 credit card can help, too).

Nick sided with Lucky, but also added a lot of substance and real-life examples, and this is the reason I truly enjoyed reading his post and learning a thing or two, along the way. Unlike Nick, I didn’t have a great experience with Hilton as a Diamond, but I strongly recommend reading his post and forming your own opinion.

Marriott ills were to be expected

It’s not like Marriott is dead set on pissing off its members. It’s just not as competent as SPG. And it’s huge! It was huge even before the merger, and getting even bigger has really brought lots of Marriott’s internal issues to light.

Marriott’s customer service agents are good people, and they (most of the time) really go above and beyond to help you out, but they lack proper training, and their IT system sucked even before the integration, requiring sometimes multiple calls and hours spent on resolving simple matters. Read this post for a good example of both Marriott trends.

So why again are we hearing all this talk about “defecting” or “migrating” to Hilton? Did anyone really expect that Marriott would get their act together after the SPG acquisition? Why? How many unicorns have you seen lately during your daily commute?

Hilton is not the answer

Seriously, if there is one hotel chain that shouldn’t be put on a pedestal, it’s Hilton. It may be strange to hear from someone who’s just gotten a $450 Hilton Aspire credit card (and I strongly believe you should too!), but that’s because I’ve never bought into this whole loyalty monkey business. It’s just that this card is awesome and a money maker, but I’m not giving Hilton all of my business!

By eliminating the award chart, HHonors became the SkyMiles of the land, but Delta at least has the smarts to continuouslyoffer all these so-called flash sales while Hilton just keeps raising the ante. They’ve moved one of the very last remaining bargains – DoubleTree Kuala Lumpur – from 10,000 to 20,000 points (working on an update).

Why on earth would they do that? Yes, it’s a great hotel with an excellent breakfast, but it costs $70 in cash on a good day. What’s their next role model? Radisson?

Speaking of which: Club Carlson (now Radisson Rewards) almost never failed to give me, a lowly Gold, a decent, and sometimes a fantastic, upgrade. Yet, as a Hilton Diamond I never got even one sensible upgrade. Their upgrades to the next room category are a joke, and in my experience they stick to their terms religiously (although I did receive an upgrade to a fantastic suite at Bangkok Hilton Millennium – but for an extra $30 a night, LOL!

Which brings us to …

Loyalty is stupid

I can’t be loyal to you if you’re not loyal to me. This is why almost everyone around Donald Trump ends up making a deal with the prosecution — aside from actually being guilty (allegedly). When you are loyal to Donald Trump and Donald Trump is only loyal to Donald Trump, you might find yourself at a disadvantage.

Sorry, I normally try to avoid hot-button topics, but this seems to be a good illustration for the point I’m trying to make.

Travel providers talk a big talk about loyalty, but that’s only in order to monetize it. All major airlines and hotel chains sell their made-up currency for real cash, while denying consumers the right to treat it as such. Consumers, however, have a choice, as airlines often remind us at the end of our flights. And they are totally correct even if this admission is yet another marketing ploy. We do have a choice!

Travel companies are loyal to their shareholders and their workforce (at least the part of their workforce that signs the checks). They are not and cannot be loyal to people who buy their services. That’s just dumb!

Which is why this whole Marriott/Hilton debacle is kind of hilarious. The driving force of the disillusionment with Marriott is not the Marriott Rewards members, but Starwood loyalists who are not accustomed to Marriott-style “loyalty” yet.

But that’s only because in the world of loyalty programs SPG was truly unique in the way it treated its members, and this is one of the major reasons why that acquisition cost Marriott as much as it did. The exception that only proves the rule.

Newbies 101: how NOT to be loyal!

It’s actually quite easy. Get everything! Unless you must fly with one airline and must stay with one hotel chain, don’t buy into this bullshit. Get as many miles and points from different programs as you actually can, and there is nothing wrong with cashback too. There are times when you’re better off with an airbnb or non-chain hotel or when you need to fly on an obscure airline, or when you’re better off using cash than miles, etc.

Last year I recommended starting collecting points and miles with Chase. This year, I honestly don’t know. Capital One cards are very valuable now, and they are hard to get after you lose your cherry.

Capital One cards now allow you to transfer points to 12 airline programs, which is the best benefit a credit card program might have. And there is more to Capital One cards that make them very attractive.

  • They have sizeable welcome bonuses.
  • They waive the annual fee for the first year.
  • Even after the first year, their annual fees are in the sub-$100 category. Compare that to super-high annual fees for Amex Platinum, Chase Sapphire Reserve, or Citi Prestige.
  • They earn 2x on everything! So even after transferring points to airline programs at 2:1.5 you’ll end up making 1.5x miles.
  • This 2x on everything makes me feel that you might be better off starting your journey with Capital One rather than Chase.

And did I mention the low annual fee already?

If that sounds about right, start with the Capital One Venture. Six months later get Capital One Spark Miles. These are 2 major Capital One cards that will get you at least 100,000 fake miles that you’ll be able to transfer into 75,000 real airline miles. True, it’s less valuable than Chase cards that transfer at 1:1 rate, but the 2x on all purchases make Capital One a serious contender.

You don’t have to choose one or the other, though. After you’re done with 2 Capital One cards, you still get 2 slots for Chase. Check my last year’s post on what Chase cards to pick; not much has changed in this regard.

After Chase, hit Barclays American Airlines Aviator cards. Then Bank of America Alaska cards. Always try to get both – the personal and the business cards.

Yes, you can apply for a business card even if you don’t have an official business. That’s perfectly legal, and it’s not cheating as long as you have any side hustle, no matter how small, and who doesn’t nowadays?

Citi and American Express don’t count your previous cards, at least for now, so you can leave them for the last.

Did I just recommend that you apply for a thousand credit cards in your first 2 years in this hobby? Hell no! Respect your comfort level. If you become uncomfortable with more than 2 cards, then this is where you stop.

And remember our mantra:

No credit card debt!

No credit card debt!

No credit card debt!

If you can’t pay off your card(s) every month, just stop! Forget this stupid hobby for a while and come back when you’re ready. The hobby will wait for you!

Happy New Year to all of you and Happy Travels!

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