Yesterday I reported my success in earning 1.2 million Virgin Atlantic miles which I plan to use for a week on Sir Richard Branson’s private Necker Island. In response, a number of readers wanted to know what it cost me to do this. The short answer: it wasn’t easy and it wasn’t free. And, if I were to do it again today, it would be even harder and more expensive.
As I reported in the previous post, most of the miles came from 8 Virgin Atlantic credit card signup bonuses, one Platinum signup bonus, and a couple of Citibank signup bonuses. All of those bonuses required manufacturing spend… a lot of spend… and most required paying first year annual fees. Here are the cost breakdowns:
- 8 Virgin Atlantic cards @ $90 each = $720
- 1 Platinum card = $450
- Total first year annual fees = $1170
Gift card fees
- Cash Back Portals: $1,132
- Airline fee credits: $200
- Airline fee credit (expected next year): $200
- Total Reimbursements: $1532
- Total Fees: $1808
- Total Reimbursements: $1532
- Net Cost: $276
$276 isn’t bad! Of course, I’ll have additional expenses related to getting to the Necker Island since flights aren’t included. But, I’m sure I’ll use miles or points of some sort to do so.
While the net cost does not include my time, fuel, or mileage on my car, I’m pretty happy with the final estimate of $276 out of pocket. But what if we look at opportunity cost, instead? In total, I had to manufacture approximately $120,000 (yes, you read that right). If I had manufactured that much with a no-fee 2% card instead, and if the final fees came out about the same, then I would have earned $2,400 – $638 (gift card fees) + $1,132 (portal rebates) = $2,894. Would I exchange $2,894 in profit for $276 and a week on Necker Island? Yeah, maybe. Necker Island looks pretty special and the usual cost for a week is just short of $30,000.
The opportunity cost equation looks much worse, though, when one considers signup bonuses. I could have signed up many other cards instead. Or, I could have used the same points for more valuable vacations. For example, the Membership Rewards points and ThankYou points I earned could have been converted to Singapore miles and redeemed for extreme luxury flights by booking Singapore Suites class. And, the 1.2 million Virgin Atlantic miles could have been converted to 1.8 million Hilton points. In my first post about Necker Island I wrote a bit about what could be done with that many Hilton points: 18 nights (or more) in top tier properties; many weeks in all-inclusive properties; or close to a full year in a category 1 Hilton.
Harder and more expensive today
Two of the key techniques I used for manufacturing $120,000 in spend are no longer available. When I started this pursuit, Target allowed REDbird loads by credit card for no fee. And, high denomination Amex gift cards were available through portals for up to 2.25% cash back. Some of my manufactured spend cost nothing: I simply used my credit card to load REDbird at Target, and then I paid my credit card bill with REDbird. And, some of the spend was better than free. I ordered Amex gift cards through portal at a profit, and then I liquidated those gift cards at Target through REDbird. Even when Target stopped allowing credit cards (but while they still allowed debit cards), I bought Amex gift cards for a profit, then used those gift cards to buy prepaid Visa debit cards, and then I liquidated those through REDbird. Even with the extra step, I still earned a profit doing this.
Today, REDbird is useless, and portal profits from buying Amex gift cards are a thing of the past. And, signing up for multiple Virgin Atlantic cards has become more difficult too. Today, if one were to find a way to sign up for the same number of cards and the same offers that I did, they would most likely have to manufacture spend at a significant cost. Let’s assume that all $120,000 would be manufactured today through Visa credit card purchases at $3.95 per $500 and that they would be liquidated for free through Bluebird or Serve:
- Purchase 240 $500 Visa gift cards, each with a $3.95 fee: $948 in gift card fees
- Total first year annual fees: $1170
- Total reimbursements (Platinum card airline fee reimbursements only): $400
- Net cost: $1,718
Advice: Look elsewhere for best value
I don’t regret the decision to book a week on Necker Island. I love the idea of using miles for a trip that I would otherwise never consider. But, I don’t recommend it to those looking to maximize value. As I discussed briefly above, points and miles earned from credit card signups can go much further. And keep in mind that the cards I signed up for had unusually high minimum spend requirements. Every Virgin Atlantic card required $12,000 in spend, and the Business Platinum card required $20,000 in spend. Most reasonable signup bonuses require $3,000 to $5,000 in spend, and some good ones can be had for much less. My recommendation: you can get much more bang for your buck looking elsewhere.