Think for yourself: it's free!

Here on the blog I very rarely make explicit recommendations.

When the "old" Blue Cash card surfaced, I suggested readers "strongly consider" applying, and am pleased as punch at the hundreds of thousands of dollars my readers earned taking advantage of that offer.

When the Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check card was being (gradually) retired I wrote that "when they finally close existing accounts, a lot of people are going to regret not trying their luck to see just how many Skymiles they could earn in that crazy period in the early 2010's when debit cards still earned rewards on PIN transactions." I, for one, am still going strong.

But as a rule, I don't give advice, and that's because I don't know anything about you, which I'm happy to admit. Unfortunately, the miles and points blogosphere is chock full of people who don't know anything about you who are absolutely giddy to hand out advice to complete strangers.

And they're wrong to do it.

How much is a weekday night in April at the Grand Hyatt Seattle worth?

Hyatt will sell AAA members a refundable room for $240.25 after taxes and fees, and there are folks, including among my beloved readers, who will argue that the retail price is the only true measure of what a product is worth.

But we're travel hackers, which means never paying retail. So here are some other options for paying for the same room:

  • Redeem 31,344 Delta SkyMiles through the Travel Marketplace. Total cost: $22 (if earned using the Suntrust Delta SkyMiles World Check card at Walmart). 
  • Transfer 15,000 Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt Gold Passport. Total cost: $150 (the value of the points if redeemed for cash instead).
  • Redeem 20,000 US Bank Flexpoints. Total cost: $200 (the value of the points if redeemed for cash instead).
  • Pay with a Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard and redeem Arrival+ miles against the purchase: Total cost: from $48.05 ($2 per $500 Nationwide Visa Buxx load).
  • Chase Hyatt Visa Signature annual free night certificate. Total cost: $75 (the card's annual fee).

Of these, the Chase Hyatt credit card is the third cheapest option, as long as you're staying for exactly one night.

That's fine as far as it goes, but what if you're staying more than one night? Do you move hotels? Or do you start spending $240.25 per night, or $200 per night, or $150 per night since you decided to "save money" by using your Hyatt free night certificate?

On the other hand, if what you want isn't really a night at the Grand Hyatt Seattle, but just a night in downtown Seattle, you suddenly have other options. The "Homewood Suites by Hilton Seattle-Conv Ctr-Pike Street" is literally across the street from the Grand Hyatt, and costs 40,000 HHonors points per night. Manufacturing spend with an American Express HHonors Surpass card at $4.95 per 3,030 HHonors points, a room costs about about $65. At $6.95 per 3,041 HHonors points, it costs about $91. And that's for each and every night, not just the first one. As an elite, if you stay for exactly five nights the price drops even further to 32,000 HHonors points per night, or $52 and $73 at the rates mentioned above.

Credit card rewards are traps; affiliate bloggers don't help

Hyatt, and Marriott, and IHG know exactly what they're doing when they give out annual free night certificates: they're trying to lock you into overpriced properties on the only-too-well-founded assumption that you won't look under the hood and realize how much money they're really making off you.

As travel hackers we should aim to break down these products and rationally choose the best and cheapest way of meeting our travel goals. As travel hacking bloggers, we should aim to help readers meet their travel goals by laying out analysis with as much detail and as many caveats and warnings as possible.

Affiliate blogging creates the opposite result: rather than laying out all the options and weighing them carefully and objectively so that readers can make the decision that works best for them, credit card affiliate links lead to motivated reasoning: since affiliate bloggers don't think of themselves as bad people, but do write blog posts promoting the credit cards that pay them affiliate kickbacks, it's absolutely necessary for them to be emotionally invested, for example, in the absurd notion that the Hyatt credit card annual free night certificate really is the best way to get a hotel room in downtown Seattle.

Why do I write about affiliate blogging?

I indulge myself once a month or so and point out particularly egregious behavior on the part of affiliate bloggers. And I typically get one or two annoyed readers who, quite rightly, point out that posts like this one don't help them earn or redeem their miles and points.

But at the end of the day, I understand that experienced travel hackers read my blog more for entertainment than anything else. If I write a dud every once in a while, it's no skin off their backs.

It's the novices who are just getting started in the hobby, the ones who are vulnerable to the ever-more-popular affiliate blogging platforms, that I have a real chance of helping by pointing out the conflicts of interest that are obvious to us, in hindsight, but are passed over with vague "disclosures" on the biggest affiliate blogs. As long as I think there's a chance of helping those beginners avoid rookie mistakes, I'll keep (occasionally!) writing about those abuses.

Conclusion: think for yourself

Of course it sometimes happens that affiliate bloggers make good points about the benefits of credit cards. Your only job is to be aware that they aren't making those points in order to help you — they're making them in order to get paid, and they find it convenient to ignore the benefits of all the credit cards that don't pay them affiliate commissions.

Understand the consequences of your actions. Decide on your own travel goals. Don't let anyone tell you what those goals are or should be. Think for yourself. It's free!