Did Barclaycard drop Arrival Plus travel statement credit redemptions back down to $25?

Back in November, 2015, Barclaycard devalued their Arrival Plus card in two ways:

  • they lowered the rebate on points redeemed for travel statement credits from 10% to 5%;
  • and they raised the minimum travel statement credit redemption amount from $25 to $100.

Since then, they have also quietly improved the card, adding a trip delay benefit in 2017.

But it appears they have also very quietly rolled back one of the 2015 devaluations.

I redeemed 2,630 miles against a $26.30 purchase today

Since I made a big purchase with my Arrival Plus card today, I logged into the Barclays mobile app to see if they'd fixed the annoying feature where you could only see your eligible travel purchases if you had 10,000 or more miles.

Sure enough, not only could I see all my eligible travel purchases, but three of them were also shown in bold, i.e., available for redemption: a $26.30 cab ride, a $49 shuttle, and a $61 Uber trip. Thinking the app had simply fixed one error and replaced it with another, I then logged onto the desktop website and saw the same thing: all three purchases were eligible for redemption (I had about 7,000 miles at the time).

This is either a glitch or an unannounced change

At the top of the "Travel statement credits" page you can still find the following text:

"Redemptions for travel statement credits, with the exception of your account annual fee, start at 10,000 miles for $100. Redemptions for your account annual fee start at 2,500 miles for $25. Please note, only qualifying travel purchases made in the last 120 days will display, and you may only redeem against a travel purchase one time."

But I was still able to redeem 2,630 Arrival Plus miles against a $26.30 purchase.

It's possible only "full" redemptions are allowed

Normally when redeeming Arrival Plus miles against a travel purchase you're offered several options. So, for example, when redeeming miles against your $89 annual fee, you might be given the option of redeeming 8,900 miles, 7,500 miles, or 5,000 miles (I happen to forget whether Barclaycard normally offers 3 or 4 redemption options). Due to the 5% rebate on miles redeemed for travel statement credits, it's typically ideal to redeem the smallest number of miles possible, in order to trigger as many rebates as possible (and asymptotically approach a 2.105% return on your unbonused spend).

But for the 3 travel purchases I had enough miles to redeem for, I was only offered a single option, to redeem my miles against the purchase in full.

It's possible only surface transportation is allowed

It was an odd coincidence that all three of my over-$25 and under-$100 travel purchases in the last 120 days were various taxis, shuttles, and Uber rides. As a result of that coincidence, I don't know if the new lower minimums only apply to surface transportation expenses, or if all travel purchases over $25 are now eligible for redemption again.

Conclusion

Barclaycard relaunched their overall US brand as Barclays and relaunched the Arrival Plus specifically earlier this year, and it's possible that the changes I've noticed have been in place since then, or they may have been introduced more recently.

Whether the changes are intended and just haven't been publicly announced yet, or are an unintended consequence of some legacy piece of code being reactivated is an open question, but I haven't seen these changes reported anywhere else, so if like me you only log into your Barclaycard account when you have 10,000 miles or more, it may be worth checking to see if you suddenly have some smaller redemption amounts available.

If I were starting a travel hacking blog today

I started this blog (and wrote my always-soon-to-be-bestselling e-book) because I was frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere. A tiny amount of actual information trickled out over and over again, mixed in with enthusiastic praise for credit cards that no one, let alone a travel hacker, should ever carry.

It hasn't gotten any better since then, but the landscape has changed. Many blogs that had a single author when I got started have either hired more writers or been consolidated into the ever-growing credit card affiliate empires, in both cases with the goal of being all things to all people.

I haven't changed though and, realistically, at this point I never will. I write about manufactured spend, about minimizing the price I pay for the trips I want to take, and about gaming loyalty programs, because that's who I am.

But if I were 25 again and frustrated at the state of the travel hacking blogosphere, I think the blog I'd start would look very different from this one, because the problems in the travel hacking blogosphere look different than they did back then.

Organize content differently

Actual travel hacking practices are fragmented between a bunch of different techniques, while blogs are almost all organized chronologically. On omnibus blogs like Doctor of Credit (who covers topics that can range very far afield from travel hacking), that makes it tiresome to scroll through pages and pages of posts to find out when the latest Kroger gas promotion ends, or the next Giant gas promotion begins.

If I were creating a website from scratch, I'd organize my posts differently. For example, Safeway Visa gift card discounts, Kroger fuel rewards promotions, and Giant fuel rewards promotions are all "grocery store" promotions: they're interesting to people who want to manufacture spend at grocery stores, and they're boring to people who don't.

By separating different kinds of content into separate sections, you could make the most relevant content immediately available to the people who want it. When was the last Office Depot gift card promotion? What are the best IHG Rewards Pointsbreak destinations (if any)? How about American Airlines Reduced Mileage Awards? These aren't exactly secrets, but it's information that would be much more valuable if organized in a coherent, persistent way by someone who knew what they were talking about, instead of in the chronological, stream-of-consciousness way we see on blogs today.

Keep timely content visible

Likewise, high-interest bank accounts and new account bonuses are variations on a theme: putting excess cash in accounts where it earns the most interest. But on a site like Doctor of Credit, which I rely on for such things, posts like "[NY, NJ] Northfield Bank $350 Checking Bonus" just disappear between "The Amex Offers Multi-Tab Trick is Dead, There’s Now a Hard Limit of One Offer per Person" and "Get $5 Amazon, Target, Home Depot Card with Verizon Up Rewards Program [YMMV]." These are all perfectly good posts, but they don't have anything in common with each other. Not to pile on DoC, but even the post category classification isn't intuitive. The assigned categories of those posts are, respectively, "bank account bonuses," "deals," and "loyalty programs."

Purely for my own benefit, I try to keep my Hotel Promotions page updated, so if I have a last-minute stay or unexpected layover I can quickly check my site to see if there are any promotions I have the opportunity to maximize. The opposite of that are the Loyalty Lobby hotel promotion pages (this is Hilton's, do yourself a favor and don't open it), which are inscrutable and unusable, besides consuming all your browser's memory to render.

How does it really work?

The question I got frustrated asking after reading travel hacking blogs for over a year, before starting my own, was "how does it really work?" Not "how is it supposed to work," or "how do people say it works," but "how does it really work?" So I do frankly nutty stuff like getting on a train to Philadelphia in order to buy a Momentum prepaid card to find out how the attached high-interest savings account worked (spoiler: it didn't).

That basic question, "how does it really work?" is the same question I ask today, and it's an incredibly powerful question, because almost nothing works the way it's supposed to. Sometimes the error works in your favor and sometimes it works against you, but to this day, almost no one is writing about the way things really work, and telling people about the world as it really is will always be an opportunity to build an audience.

Work for your readers

The one thing that hasn't changed in all the years I've been writing here is that the only way to serve your readers responsibly is to work for your readers. If you work for anybody else, you have no choice but to put your readers second, third, or last.

I'm absolutely open-minded about revenue models: I make money (enough to keep me writing at least) from blog subscriptions, from Google Adsense ads, and from Amazon Associates purchases. Somebody even once bought ad space on the site, which is very much for sale, if anyone is interested.

But the one thing that's impossible is adhering to content restrictions imposed by the people who pay your bills while giving your readers the best possible information they need to succeed. No one has ever explained to me how a person can both accept money from a credit card company, accept content restrictions from that credit card company, and plausibly hope to serve their readers' needs. If they ever do, I'll update this post.

If you're reading this, hopefully I'm in the Czech Republic

I've heard that our top scientists, in their wisdom, have determined that people enjoy the anticipation of a holiday even more than they enjoy the holiday itself. I'm no scientist, so I'm prepared to believe that they've crunched the numbers accurately.

On the other hand, I've anticipated this trip long enough, and I can't wait to spend the next 10 days in the Czech Republic.

I expect I'll have access to the internet much of the time I'm there, but unless something dramatic happens I'll mostly be posting about weird train-riding practices and whatnot.

If you want real-time updates from the trip I'd suggest following me on Twitter at @Freequentflyr, where I'm sure I'll be posting photos and cracking wise whenever I get a Wi-Fi signal.

My (boring) Citi shutdown story

For the past few years, I've carried three credit cards issued by Citibank:

  • Double Cash;
  • Dividend Platinum Select;
  • and AAdvantage Platinum Select.

These are all middling credit cards I held onto for no particularly good reasons. The Double Cash is a replacement-level 2% cash back card, the Dividend used to be good for $300 in annual cash back (although recent bonus categories have been fairly boring), and the AAdvantage card was good for free checked bags, generous retention offers, and periodic promotional interest rates on purchases, plus American's poorly-publicized "reduced mileage awards" to certain cities, which I've taken advantage of perhaps a total of 2 times in my life.

Now they're all closed

When my Double Cash statement closed at the beginning of June, I noticed I wasn't able to redeem my cash back rewards through the app as I had in the past, but I wasn't sure if I'd actually been shut down or if the app was just malfunctioning, as it does more or less constantly.

When I got back to a computer and logged into my Citi account they helpfully suggested I remove my credit cards from my login, which was my first definite clue I'd been shut down. Yesterday, I finally got a bunch of letters regretfully informing me my accounts had been closed as of June 7.

What should have, and what ultimately did, cause my shutdown

When I first moved back to the East Coast from the Midwest, I was glad that I had a Citibank branch a few blocks from my apartment. I started dropping off money orders there regularly in order to pay off my credit card bills, until I got a very odd phone call from a Citi employee who insisted everything I was doing was totally fine...she just had some questions.

After that phone call, I expected my accounts to be closed in short order, but they weren't. I stopped paying off my balances in-branch, and never heard from them again, until I received notice in June that my accounts had all been closed.

The proximate cause of my shutdown seems to be that back in March I started making payments to my Double Cash card using Walmart's in-store bill pay service. I only made four total payments, but that was enough to reanimate Citi's anti-fraud department and close all my accounts just a few short months later.

Conclusion

Citi has never been one of the banks I rely on in my travel hacking practice, and I suppose I've been a dead man walking with them ever since I started making what are sometimes facetiously called "anonymous payments" to my cards (there's nothing anonymous about them, of course).

But if you do rely on Citi ThankYou cards like the Premier or Prestige, or churning AAdvantage signup bonuses, to pay for your own travel, don't be stupid: make all your payments to your cards through Citi's bill payment service, and keep your head down.

It's the tall grass, after all, that gets mown.

There are no off-the-shelf travel hacking strategies

Last week I wrote what I thought was a commonsense corrective to the din of blogger voices encouraging readers to sign up for the IHG Rewards credit card before it was replaced with a couple of somewhat-more-expensive co-branded credit cards.

The post attracted a fair amount of disagreement (mostly polite disagreement, because my readers are phenomenal) by folks who had the card and enjoyed the annual free night benefit.

But, of course, people who already hold the card could not possibly have been the audience for a post titled "No, you shouldn't rush to sign up for IHG's crappy credit card." You can't sign up for a (Chase) card you already have. The post was explicitly addressed at people who had not yet signed up for the credit card, to discourage them from making a rash decision based purely on the fact that the card was going away.

Money is a sensitive subject, but travel hacking is about money

I understand perfectly well why folks who already carry the $49-annual-fee IHG Rewards credit card were upset by my criticism of it. How people earn, spend, and save their money is an area of almost-religious devotion among Americans, so if I say you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you don't hear that I think you're overpaying for a bad credit card, you hear that as criticism of your judgment or intelligence.

Unfortunately, that's just not going to work if you want my unbiased advice about travel hacking. You're going to have made mistakes in the past, you're making them right now, and you're going to make them in the future. If, every time you disagree with me, you treat it as a personal attack on you, you're inevitably going to experience this blog as a series of personal attacks.

I'm not here to tell you what you want to hear. I'm here to help you spend as little money as possible on the trips you want to take.

And, to be perfectly clear, I'm just as critical of my own decisions as I am of your decisions. The Delta Platinum American Express card is a tough card to justify keeping (impossible to justify if manufactured spend no longer counts towards MQD waivers), but I still have it. I'm just as much of a sucker for the overstated, overwrought, underperforming Platinum companion ticket as you are for your free IHG night.

Using someone else's travel hacking strategy is an expensive mistake

I can and do write about my travel hacking strategy:

  • Grocery store manufactured spend on my US Bank and American Express cards;
  • Office supply store manufactured spend on my Chase Ink Plus card;
  • Unbonused manufactured spend on my Chase Freedom Unlimited and 2% cash back cards.

But it makes no sense for me to recommend that strategy to an anonymous reader:

  • The Chase Ink Plus is no longer available to new applicants;
  • Not all grocery stores allow PIN-enabled prepaid debit cards to be purchased with credit cards;
  • Not every community has access to convenient liquidation strategies;
  • Some people have enough money with Bank of America to qualify for Platinum Honors rewards and earn 2.625% cash back with the Bankamericard Travel Rewards card.

I don't know you, I don't know your travel habits, I don't know your credit score, I don't know your net worth, how can I possibly give you advice about the right travel hacking strategy?

I can say under what circumstances a card is useful. A lot of readers seem to have glossed over my endorsement of the IHG Rewards credit card: "If you've got a favorite IHG property you stay at every time you visit your family, don't let me stop you from knocking off a couple bucks by using a credit card free night certificate."

I can say under what circumstances a card is worthless, like a US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards credit card in a city without grocery store or gas station manufactured spend.

But I'm never going to try to tell you the best credit card, travel hacking, or manufactured spend strategy for you without a long, expensive conversation about your travel needs and opportunities.

Footnote: it doesn't matter if I was "right"

Today it came out that even existing cardholders will have their free nights limited to properties costing 40,000 points or fewer per night, and you might have seen Nick Reyes scrambling to cancel his son's now-worthless application, but I'm not gloating that I "called it" or that this somehow proves me "right." As a travel hacker and friend of travel hackers, I wish existing cardholders got their uncapped free night certificates grandfathered from here until the end of days.

But if I was "right," I was only right because you shouldn't apply for cards you're not interested in just because there's a sudden blogger pressure campaign, whether it's based on a card's upcoming retirement or the periodic higher affiliate payouts that send them into paroxysms of prose.

And all it took to be "right" was applying the same logic over and over again: pay as little as possible for the trips you want to take.

2018 New Year roundup

Well, we made it. It's 2018, so here's a roundup of thoughts, ideas, and observations that I haven't got around to posting yet.

US Bank Flexperks Travel Rewards changes are in effect

Flexpoints are now worth 1.5 cents each when used to book travel through the US Bank Flexperks travel portal. The search engine defaults to basic economy fares when they're available, so if you want to book main cabin or regular economy fares, you'll have to call. Be sure they don't charge you a booking fee if your fare isn't bookable online.

I assume it will be possible soon to transfer Flexpoints both directions between Flexperks Travel Rewards and Altitude Reserve accounts, if it isn't already (transfers to Reserve accounts were already allowed).

Register for hotel promotions

I've updated my Hotel Promotions page with all the global hotel promotions I'm aware of. Be sure to let me know if I've missed any.

Note that I was able to register for all 4 of the current Club Carlson promotions, although since I don't have any Club Carlson stays planned I'm not sure if a single stay would really trigger a 15,000-point bonus, Silver elite status, and a 50% off e-certificate (and count towards the multiple-night promotion).

RIP my SkyBonus account

For the last few years I've kept my Delta SkyBonus account alive by scrounging Delta ticket numbers from friends, acquaintances, and out of the trash cans at baggage claim. In 2017 I definitively fell short of the $5,000 in Delta revenue needed to keep my account alive, so I assume they'll be closing it one of these days. I redeemed my points for a final domestic economy ticket and 30(!) drink tickets, which I'll give out to blog subscribers whenever they arrive (the drink tickets, that is).

Follow-up to MERRILL+ guest post

A number of people pointed out in the comments and on Twitter that the executive Delta Sky Club membership provided by the MERRILL+ credit card after spending $50,000 during the calendar year will not provide lounge access starting in 2019 when you are not flying on Delta.

How much that affects you depends on when you decide to trigger your membership year. Obviously if you trigger your membership in January, 2018, you'll only be affected by the changes for a single month of 2019. If you trigger your membership in December, 2018, you'll be affected by the changes for the entirety of your membership year.

Conclusion

So, like I said, we made it. Congratulations are obviously due all around.

What kind of content are folks interested in seeing more of in 2018?

Lifecycle effects, Thanksgiving car rental edition

I often talk about lifecycle effects when it comes to travel hacking. That's what I call the phenomenon of people believing that travel hacking has become objectively more difficult when in fact it's their own lifecycle progression that has made them subjectively experience travel hacking as more time-consuming, laborious, or downright boring than when they had more time and fewer responsibilities.

This is a totally normal and indeed ubiquitous phenomenon in all fields of human endeavor, but it's important to keep in mind when you hear a retiree explain how much better everything used to be: sure, travel hacking might have been easier, but he also had more hair, better joints, and fewer kids.

I had my own lifecycle effect moment the other day while renting a car for a Thanksgiving trip.

How I think you're supposed to rent cars

Travel hackers have a lot of options when it comes to minimizing the cost and maximizing the value of car rentals:

  • Redeem Discover cash back for car rental certificates. You can redeem $20 in Discover cash back for a $40 certificate with National, Alamo, and Enterprise.
  • Earn frequent flyer miles by using airline promo codes when booking. I often see Frequent Miler posting these codes, for example here and here, but you can also earn miles by booking through airline car rental portals, e.g. Delta's.
  • Use Autoslash to track car rental prices. Autoslash has changed quite a bit through the years but you can still use it to track your car rental reservation and alert you when the price drops, so you can make a new reservation at the lower price.

Five years ago I probably would have done all that, and made sure to minimize the price I paid and maximized the rewards I earned on our 4-day rental.

How I actually rented a car for Thanksgiving

I logged onto Chase Ultimate Rewards and redeemed 15,840 Ultimate Rewards points for a rental that priced out at $198, which seemed in line with the prices I saw glancing at Kayak.

I did create a Hertz account and earned 275 points for the rental (worth approximately $0), but I didn't bother searching for referral codes or promo codes to apply to the reservation.

Coming to terms with lifecycle effects

There are still lots of marginal travel hacking techniques I pursue. I still credit all my paid flights to a frequent flyer program, even if it's a program like United's that doesn't offer me much if any value. I still try my best to keep my Delta SkyBonus small business account active in order to gradually earn points towards redemptions like drink coupons and domestic flights. I use shopping portals when I buy stuff online, even if the rewards end up being just a few thousand points per year.

But when it comes to renting a car once a year, I can't bring myself to care the way a younger me probably would have.

Travel hacking without manufactured spend

I was having lunch with a travel hacker in my area the other day and we got to talking about different approaches to the game.

My personal approach depends almost entirely on manufactured spend. I think it's fair to say that if every manufactured spend avenue died tomorrow, I'd close all my travel credit cards and put all my regular purchases on a 2% cash back card (or a 2.625% cash back card if I ever had $100,000 in assets). I don't have any reimbursed business travel, either to generate real credit card spend or to take advantage of the benefits of elite status. And I'm poor, so I don't have enough monthly expenses to meet even a "modest" minimum spend requirement of $3,000 or more. Remember, we're imagining a world without any manufactured spend opportunities, including whatever you're thinking of right now.

That's one extreme, but obviously it doesn't apply to most or all of my readers, especially the well-heeled ones! The fact is, travel hacking is and would be possible without any manufactured spend at all. But the benefits would still depend on the discipline you applied to it. With that in mind, here are a few approaches you could take.

Target individual expenses

The most intuitive way to travel hack without manufactured spend is to target individual expenses on upcoming trips. As I often say, at least for economy travel, your hotel expenses can quickly outstrip your flight expenses, so that's a natural place to start. Once you have a destination in mind, it's easy to find the credit card or cards with signup bonuses that will save you the most money on hotel stays — emphasis on you. I truly do not care what a point is "worth" in the abstract; I care what it's worth to you, and what it's worth to you depends on how much money it's going to save you.

If you are planning a trip with stays at Marriott properties, the Marriott Rewards Premier card can earn you 80,000 points after spending $3,000. That's a minimum of 2 nights at all but their top-tier Category 9 properties, and at least 3 nights at Category 5 properties and below. Category 5 properties are an endangered species these days, which is one reason I cancelled my card; the annual free night certificate is only redeemable at Category 1-5 properties. But if you have upcoming Marriott expenses it's easy to calculate the precise value to you of the 80,000-point signup bonus.

Likewise with the current 100,000-point Hilton Honors Surpass American Express signup offer (you can find my personal referral link on my Support the Site! page), and the Chase Hyatt Visa Signature offer of 40,000 points. If you don't have the ability to manufacture spend, then those one-time points hauls can save you a lot of money on trips involving stays at Hilton or Hyatt.

The point is that this exercise doesn't require figuring out how much points are worth in the abstract. Instead, you can ground the value you're getting from a signup bonus directly in your own experience: the amount of money you would otherwise spend on nights you're able to pay for with a credit card's signup bonus.

Targeting airfare is somewhat more difficult, and should be done cautiously. For example, there's a big difference between cards which only allow you to redeem points for the entire cost of a flight (like US Bank Flexpoints) and cards which allow you to redeem points against the partial cost of a flight (like Chase Sapphire and Ink cards, Barclaycard Arrival cards, BankAmericard Travel Rewards, and others).

Likewise, there's a difference between airlines that allow you to pay for your flights with miles (Delta), airlines that offer last-seat availability at much higher rates (Alaska and American), and airlines that offer last-seat availability only to certain customers (United). This difference matters less in a world with manufactured spend, since with plentiful points you are always free to use the right points for the right job. In a world without manufactured spend you have much less room for error in earning and redeeming precisely the points you need. United miles simply won't get you where you need to go, if where you need to go is served only by American.

Build trips around the signup bonuses you're eligible for

A totally different approach to travel hacking without manufactured spend is to build your travel around the signup bonuses you have available to you. It often feels like this is the approach implicitly endorsed by affiliate bloggers who, in promoting a given credit card, explain exactly how and where they think you should use the card's signup bonus.

The advantage of this strategy is that you may be able to reduce your out-of-pocket expenses much more than you would with the strategy of targeting individual expenses, since each part of the trip will be designed around a particular points balance.

The disadvantage is that you have much less control over where you go. While to a travel hacker this may sound like a commonsense trade-off, it's worth pointing out how unusual it would seem to a civilian who plans trips around places they actually want or need to visit.

Even reimbursed business travelers need to think carefully

I often hold up reimbursed business travelers as a sort of platonic ideal of a travel hacker, one who is able to spend her employer's money, accrue elite-qualifying miles with the airline of her choice, and earn top-tier hotel status on someone else's dime.

But that's no excuse for reimbursed business travelers to relax: they still have to make decisions about the cards they use to pay for their reimbursed travel, and to a lesser extent which airline and hotel programs to pursue loyalty with. I say "to a lesser extent" because the various loyalty programs have become extremely adept at making the value proposition of their programs closely track each other. In other words, for actual paid hotel stays and for actual paid flights, the rebate you receive will be similar regardless of the program you select, as long as you direct all your paid business to a single program.

When it comes to credit cards, however, slacking off can be expensive. For example, a reimbursed business traveler who spends $1,000 at a Marriott property could earn 5,000 Marriott Rewards points by paying with a Chase Marriott Rewards Premier card, or 2,000 Starpoints with an American Express Starwood Preferred Guest card — which can be instantly transferred to 6,000 Marriott Rewards points. If you aren't aware of that, you're simply leaving points on the table.

Likewise, a reimbursed business traveler who is able to pay for their own flights still has to decide whether to concentrate or diversify. Should a reimbursed Delta flight be paid for with a Delta American Express card in order to earn as many Delta SkyMiles as quickly as possible, or with another card that bonuses airline purchases in order to diversify their points balances, even if that means lower balances across multiple accounts?

Conclusion

At the end of the day, travel hacking means different things to different people. For some people it means manufacturing spend, for others it means earning points cheaply and redeeming them dearly, and for others it just means occasionally signing up for a new round of credit cards in order to chop off a chunk of the cost of their travel expenses.

The thing I think it can't mean, or rather the thing travel hacking is in contrast to, is applying, spending, and traveling without thinking. So: don't do that.

There are no benign conflicts of interest

Back in January I wrote about the problem of conflicted advice, and the solution:

"Your stockbroker, your insurance agent, and your affiliate blogger are all required to disclose their conflicts of interest, and do so dutifully. The problem is that disclosure of conflicts of interest does not have any impact on the quality of the advice provided, and may perversely lead you to trust the conflicted party more, not less.

"Let me be clear: the logical response to "I may be compensated based on your choice of mutual fund/insurance product/credit card" is not to discount the advice given by 10%, or 20%, or 50%.

"The logical response is to discount the advice given by 100%."

Yesterday a remarkable article from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel crossed my Twitter feed (via @MilesperDay). The following passage startled many people

"Trusted websites such as TripAdvisor, Expedia and others have strict policies limiting what is allowed to be included in online customer reviews.

"So while readers might learn that a resort's seafood isn’t fresh and the beds are too hard, they won’t typically hear that guests were assaulted on the property or that they believed a bartender slipped something in their drinks.

"When guests interviewed by the Journal Sentinel tried to describe what happened on those sites, they said their comments were rejected."

There's no mystery what's going on here. Websites which receive their income from hotel reservations booked through the site are not in the business of providing a clearinghouse for user reviews of their hotel stays. They allow users to submit reviews as an ancillary source of content for their actual business: selling hotel rooms.

Reviews, even negative reviews ("beds are too hard"), are no threat to the underlying business since someone booking away from a negatively-reviewed property towards a positively-reviewed property still generates referral commissions.

The reviews that pose a threat to the business are those which cause someone to decide not to travel to Cancun at all because people are being drugged and raped in Cancun.

This is a useful example of the aphorism from my post in January: if you are not the customer, you're the product.

There are no benign conflicts of interest

At this point the analogy between credit card affiliate bloggers and hotel booking sites is hopefully obvious: unless special bounties are being offered for certain credit cards, it is much less important to your affiliate blogger which credit card you get than the fact you get credit cards — as many as possible as often as possible. The only advice you'll never hear is "the only credit card most people should carry is a no-annual-fee, no-foreign-transaction-fee, chip-and-PIN cash back card."

In other words, the conflict of interest between credit cards that pay affiliate commissions and those that don't is a relatively minor subset of the vast conflict of interest inherent in selling credit cards for a living: the preference for credit cards over not credit cards, just like Expedia's conflicted preference for travel over not travel.

I'm conflicted too — proceed accordingly!

While I may come across as some kind of fire-and-brimstone frontier preacher, every single thing I've said applies in full to my own blogs. This is a for-profit enterprise, after all! If you're reading this in a browser, you can see up top I have a disclosure:

"Disclosure: to the best of my knowledge, the only remuneration I receive for any of the content on this site is through my personal referral links, my Amazon Associates referral link, the Google Adsense ads found in the righthand sidebar, and my blog subscribers, who also receive my occasional subscribers-only newsletter. You can find all my personal referral links on my Support the Site! page."

As you can see, I'm hopelessly conflicted. I have personal credit card referral links, and while it's true that means I can only refer people to credit cards I actually carry, it also means I will benefit personally if my blog convinces readers to apply for an American Express Hilton Surpass card or Delta SkyMiles Business card (the only referral links I currently have available). Proceed accordingly!

I also have Amazon Associates links, so if I write about a book or object (since Amazon sells everything) I benefit if readers use my links to buy the thing. I don't provide Amazon Associates links to specific products, but it's still a conflict if I benefit from my readers' actions. Proceed accordingly!

I also have Google Adsense ads, and (I assume) writing about certain products or services changes the ads that appear there. So if I knew that a certain kind of ad paid especially well, I could write about that topic and try to bump my ad revenue in that way. In other words, I'd be writing for the Adsense engine, not for the benefit of readers. Proceed accordingly!

And of course the overwhelming majority of my income comes from blog subscribers, who also receive my periodic subscribers-only newsletters. That gives me an incentive to hold back content for newsletters, and it influences what I write about since I benefit when additional people become blog subscribers. Proceed accordingly!

Conclusion

Conflicts of interest, as I hope I've made clear, aren't inherently good or bad. The fact that my Adsense revenue increases when my writing attracts more readers may make me a better writer who writes on more timely or interesting topics, for instance, or it may cause me to write about topics which generate more lucrative ads. The same conflict, in other words, can have different outcomes.

But while disclosing conflicts of interest is an important legal requirement, and identifying conflicts of interest where not disclosed (like Expedia's preference for travel over not travel) is a critical task, both will prove pointless unless you take the additional step of synthesizing the content, conflicts and all, in order to reach decisions which, ultimately, you alone will benefit or suffer from.

Giving up on Drop? Unlink your accounts!

For the last few weeks a lot of us have been messing around with the "Earn With Drop" smartphone application.

As you may have seen around the blogosphere (Miles to Memories, Angelina Travels), Drop has suddenly cracked down on potentially lucrative uses of the application, as well as on folks who were just using it to grind out worthless points here and there on their everyday purchases.

It doesn't matter what I think, but...

Whenever these opportunities come along people get into the speculation game, and trust me, I'm no exception.

So let's speculate.

First of all, the company's current business model is clearly unsustainable, which they discovered (along with the rest of us) when they found they couldn't meet the redemption requests coming in for gift cards out of the limited amount of venture capital they had raised so far.

Second, the company may be in violation of certain banking and international currency rules, since they're based in Canada and for some reason have failed to incorporate a US-based subsidiary. That means not only are they transmitting bank transaction data internationally but they're also sending money across the border in the form of gift cards to folks who have inputted nothing more than an e-mail address. I'm not a lawyer (and I'm definitely not your lawyer), but there are rules on cross-border financial flows that this gift card nonsense is clearly indifferent to. 

Third, they've changed their Terms and Conditions page to exclude the kinds of transactions many of us were doing after the relevant transactions had occurred. Ordinarily I would say that's a violation of US law, except it's a Canadian company acting as a fly-by-night operation in the United States, so who knows what laws it violates?

All this stuff will get to court eventually, probably civil, maybe criminal, and I'll cash my $0.85 settlement check when it arrives.

That's not what this post is about.

Unlink your accounts before you delete Drop!

This post is about reminding you, before you delete the Drop app, to unlink any bank and credit card accounts you had linked inside the app! If the company does have a business model (an open question), it revolves around monetizing your transaction history. If you delete the app without unlinking your accounts, they'll keep monitoring and monetizing your transaction history until they go bankrupt and get acquired by someone even less scrupulous than them (if that's possible), who will do even more terrible things with your transaction history.

Don't let that happen. Unlink your banks and credit cards as soon as you suspect your account has been frozen.

Then grab some popcorn and wait for the fireworks.