I might just be jet-lagged, sleep-deprived and cranky, but I've grown increasingly annoyed over the last few weeks by many of the travel hacking blogs I subscribe to, and I'm curious whether the situation has actually gotten worse, or whether I'm just becoming more sensitive in my old age. One thing is clear: affiliate link-driven blogging is bad blogging.
Back on the 11th I saw this headline on Gary's View from the Wing: You Really Don't Have an American Express Bluebird Yet? Bluebird is pretty much the simplest product out there: you load it, either with Vanilla Reload Network reload cards or a miles-earning debit card (like Bank of America's Alaska Airlines debit card). Then you unload it using an ATM, bill pay, or a bank transfer. So why was Gary posting 776 words (yes, I checked) on this product, and why was he using that obnoxious tone? Of course: they've started offering referral credit. How do I know? Because on the 13th and 14th, the Points Guy posted his referral links as well.
For me, the worst offender lately has been Frugal Travel Guy's August countdown of what they're calling the Top 30 Credit Cards. Take a look at that page and you'll see what I'm talking about. While they claim to have "scrutinized and judged" on the basis of "initial signup bonus, category payouts, card perks, and point values," they don't actually provide any of that analysis. Instead, you get a one paragraph summary and an affiliate link. That's bad blogging.
For me, good blogging means first and foremost ideas, analysis, and experiences.
For a long time, Frequent Miler was the thought leader in this space. He sought to understand the nuances of various products and find new ways to exploit them. Not all of his experiments are successful, but his site is a great resource for outside-the-box thinking. Examples from my own blog are my PayPal Debit MasterCard hack and possible uses of Plink.
The problem with affiliate-driven blogging is that if you're getting referral credit for everyone who signs up for the America Express Hilton HHonors Surpass card, you can't tell people,
You should be using this card to buy $500 gift cards at grocery stores, earning 3036 HHonors points at a cost of $5.95, or 0.195 cents each, then unloading the gift cards for free onto a Bluebird or Gobank card at Walmart.
In other words, you can't say the one thing that people getting the card actually need to know.
Analysis means understanding that not every card is right for everyone, and taking seriously a framework that helps people decide which cards are right for them. This is where Frugal Travel Guy's list of top 30 credit cards becomes really egregious. Take a look at the top 5:
1. Ink Bold Business Charge Card
2. Ink Plus Business Card
3. Chase Sapphire Preferred Card
4. Starwood Preferred Guest Business Card
5. Starwood Preferred Guest Credit Card from American Express
No one could seriously suggest that a single person should carry all three of the "top 3" cards: the Ink Bold and Ink Plus have the same category bonuses, so unless you actually spend $100,000 at office supply stores every year, you'd be crazy to carry both. 98% of hackers would be better off with either a no-annual-fee Chase Sapphire and one of Ink Bold or Ink Plus, or a Chase Sapphire Preferred and a no-annual-fee Ink Cash.
With my point density charts, I try to provide actionable analysis on which hotel programs you should be using to maximize the rebate value of the points you earn on paid stays.
This is the area where travel hacking blogs may have degraded the least. A good blog should provide actual experiences with each technique so readers know what works, what doesn't, and what to expect when they try the same techniques.
Jason Steele got a lot of people into trouble over at the Points Guy by recommending AccountNow for manufactured spend. Of course it turned out that AccountNow was a disaster waiting to happen, and that left a lot of people with a lot of money tied up in what was essentially an elaborate scam. It should be no surprise that AccountNow offers referral credit.
Most travel hacking bloggers post trip reports, and while I normally skip them, I'm glad they're there as a resource I can go back to and check later, when planning my own trips.
On my blog, I share the actual nuts and bolts of various travel hacking tools, which too often are shrouded in mystery and superstition. For example, to the best of my knowledge I'm still the only person to report that US Bank doesn't verify the "teen" identity information provided when registering for a Visa Buxx card. That's actionable information that can help you manufacture an additional $2,000 per month in spend at a cost of $10. Likewise, I reported that American Express doesn't bonus spending at 7-11 store locations, even ones that are recorded as gas stations.
This post isn't intended to be a self-satisfied claim that I'm doing everything right and all other bloggers are doing everything wrong (even if it feels that way sometimes).
Instead, I'm genuinely curious: have travel hacking blogs recently become even more focused on generating credit card signups, and less focused on providing ideas, analysis, and experiences, or have I just become more sensitive to these ridiculous posts that serve as vehicles for affiliate links?