Frequent Miler’s 5 Year Retrospective

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It’s hard for me to believe, but this blog is now officially 5 years old.  My first Frequent Miler post, on September 2nd 2011, was a simple one-paragraph introduction.  I followed up on September 4th with two posts: triple-dip shopping at Sears, and saving money with one-way flights.  The former is funny because 4 out of the 5 comments I now easily recognize as spam.  At the time I believed that aspiring bloggers really did love my site and really did want to know which blog platform I used.  In reality spammers simply posted comments in order to include links back to their own sites.  If the same comments were posted today they would most likely either get caught immediately by our spam filters or manually marked as spam after the fact.

Year 1: Double-Dips, Chase Ink, Staples, and Vanilla Reloads

September 2011 to August 2012

As mentioned above, one of my first ever posts was about portal double-dips.  The idea is to click through a portal to a merchant to buy a merchant gift card, then click through a portal again in order to use the gift card.  We call this a double dip because you can sometimes earn portal rewards both when buying and when using gift cards.  When portals have especially high rates, double dips can be amazingly lucrative.  In fact, one of my top 10 posts of the year was when I showed how to earn a Southwest Companion Pass by double-dipping when Sears offered 15 points per dollar through the Southwest Rapid Rewards shopping portal.

Of course, not all merchants allow you to earn points both when buying and using gift cards through portals, so I published the Frequent Miler Laboratory. This page is designed for people to suggest experiments, report experiment results, and find out what works and what doesn’t.

Early in my first 12 months of blogging, Chase overhauled their Ink business card line.  Previously they offered bonus points for high spend.  Now, all new versions of Ink cards offered 5X rewards for office supplies, phone, and internet.  While all 5X bonuses are a big deal, the 5X office supply category was huge.  Suddenly valuable triple-dip opportunities were readily available: Click through a portal to an office supply store that sells 3rd party gift cards or Visa gift cards (at Staples.com, for example), pay with Chase Ink, and then go through a portal again to use the gift card.  Years later Staples stopped offering portal rewards when buying most gift cards online, but it was a great deal while it lasted.  Even better, Staples used to regularly offer easy rebates on hundreds of dollars worth of downloadable software.  We would double dip by clicking through a portal to Staples and paying for software with our Ink cards.  We would then get all of our money back through the instant rebate.  More often than not, we wouldn’t bother downloading the software at all.  The point was to earn free points!Vanilla Reload Cards

Then, one day I wandered into an Office Depot store and found something called a Vanilla Reload card.  I wasn’t sure what it was exactly, but it sounded intriguing.  I was able to load $500 onto a card for $503.95, and I earned 5X points by paying with my Chase Ink card.  I then learned that I could transfer the card’s $500 value to a reloadable Amex prepaid card.  This meant that it was suddenly possible to earn 5X points pretty much anywhere.  This was a seriously big deal, and it led to my most popular post (by far) in my first 12 months of blogging: One Card to Rule them All.

Year 1 viewership: 948,506 page views

Year 2: Bluebird, Million Mile Madness, and Quick Deals

September 2012 to August 2013

Early in my second 12 months of blogging, American Express introduced a revolutionary new prepaid card: Bluebird.  Bluebird was similar in some ways to the reloadable prepaid cards that they offered before, but it was a billion times better (give or take).  The new card offered fee free bill payments, free withdrawals to your bank account, higher limits, and more.  My post “Bluebird takes flight and changes the game” was one of my most popular posts in my second 12 months of blogging.  With Bluebird, it was now incredibly easy to meet credit card minimum spend requirements (for big signup bonuses) or to simply generate points through “manufactured spend”.Bluebird is still alive

Shortly after Bluebird’s launch, Office Depot stopped selling Vanilla Reload cards (Vanilla Reload cards eventually returned, but were then cash-only).  Then, the race was on to find other stores that sold Vanilla Reload cards and allowed them to be purchased by credit card.  A popular three letter drugstore became the mainstay for many points & miles enthusiasts to the point where we knew most of our local cashiers by name.  We also found other types of reload cards that were almost as tasty as Vanilla.  In the long run most reload opportunities dried up, but in my second year of blogging many of us ran full steam ahead earning points, miles, and cash back for very little cost.

Another huge development during this time was the introduction of PINs to Visa and MasterCard gift cards.  PINs made it possible to use gift cards almost anywhere that debit cards were accepted.  The impact of this change took time to develop partially due to the fact that reload cards were still an easy option at the time.

With reload cards readily available, and products like Bluebird helping us turn their value back into cash, earning points & miles during this time was ridiculously easy.  It was so easy, in fact, that I got a little bored and proposed a challenge.  Could I earn a million points and miles in one month?  I called the challenge “Million Mile Madness” and after lengthy preparations, I kicked off the challenge on March 1, 2013.  It turned out that reload cards barely played any part in this quest.  The big points and miles opportunities were with credit card signup bonuses and portal double-dips.  The challenge turned out to be much harder than I expected, but in the end I was successful.  You can read a summary here: Million Mile Madness: How it was done.  Also see: Million Mile Madness: Final Tally.

As if all of the above wasn’t enough, I also introduced a new part of the blog: Frequent Miler’s Quick Deals.  The idea at the time was to have a simple blog on the side where I’d report deals with little or no analysis.  This way I was able to keep my main blog uncluttered, but still had a way to report deals that some readers may be interested in.  Quick Deals proved to be a very popular addition.

Year 2 viewership: 2,690,268 page views

Year 3: Portal Triple Dip, Vanilla dies, Debit gift cards rise

September 2013 to August 2014

VanillaVisa.jpgEarly in my third year of blogging, Sears surprised us all by briefly offering United cardholders 16 miles per dollar through the United MileagePlus Shopping portal.  Lab experiments showed that Sears’ double dips were still possible (and remain so today, by the way).  And, both Chase Freedom and Discover cards happened to be offering 5X at Sears at the time.  In total, it was possible to triple dip our way to 37 miles per dollar!  From this one promotion I earned enough miles to pay for a large portion of a first class family trip to Paris.

The reload game changed drastically when CVS stopped allowing the purchase of Vanilla Reload cards with credit cards.  The new challenge was to find the best ways to buy Visa and Mastercard gift cards and earn miles while doing so.  Thanks to now having PINs, Visa and MasterCard gift cards could be used in-store to reload prepaid cards like Bluebird and Serve (a product very similar to Bluebird), or even to pay bills that can’t usually be paid by credit card.

Year 3 viewership: 2,727,140 page views

Year 4: REDbird, and Quest for Necker Island

September 2014 to August 2015

My fourth year of blogging was dominated by REDbird: The Target Prepaid REDcard.  This was yet another prepaid reloadable card from American Express.  Unlike Bluebird and Serve, though, Target initially allowed REDbird to be loaded at the register, with a credit card, for free!  It was literally possible to load REDbird at Target with a credit card and then go online to use REDbird to pay the credit card bill.  The point, of course, was to easily manufacture spend with rewards-earning credit cards.REDbird grounded

The ability to load REDbird with a credit card lasted for 7 months.  Afterwards, Target continued to accept debit cards, including debit gift cards.  So, the REDbird game continued until Target stopped accepting debit card loads altogether, 12 months after they initially released the card.

While REDbird was still going strong, I added a key member to the Frequent Miler team: Shawn Coomer.  Shawn stepped in faster than planned when the flu temporarily sidelined me.  Since then he has been writing Quick Deal posts, updating credit card best offers, and maintaining our online tutorial.  See: Blog changes, an introduction, and the flu.

Another big event in my 4th blogging year was my decision to earn the 1.2 Million Virgin Atlantic miles needed to go to Richard Branson’s private island: Necker Island.  I introduced the idea in the post “Considering the 1.2 million mile Necker Island challenge… Who’s with me?”  Over the next 7 months I wrote up key milestones, and eventually booked my trip.  My wife and I will experience our all expense paid vacation in mid October 2016.  See: Necker Island, here we come! and 1,200,000 miles for Necker Island: Not easy. Not free.

Year 4 viewership: 6,586,177 page views

Year 5: The banks strike back

September 2015 to August 2016

My 5th blogging year was a tough one for credit card signup bonuses and manufactured spend.  Not long after the effective death of REDbird, Amex began freezing all Bluebird and Serve accounts in which the cards were used to manufacture spend.  Many less well known options for manufacturing spend died as well.  In the post “Credit Card Spend in 2016 and Beyond,” I argued that the only options for manufacturing spend that will last long term are those that incur risk or incur enough fees to cover credit card processing costs.  And that’s why I began writing more about techniques that involve risk (such as KickFurther) and fees (such as Plastiq).

Cheat Discover Apple PayAnd, for those who repeatedly sign up for credit cards in order to earn big bonuses, Chase quietly introduced their dreaded 5/24 Rule (where they’ll deny you if you’ve opened 5 new cards in the past 24 months), Amex expanded their “once per lifetime rule” to business cards, and Citi drastically expanded their 24 month rule to include all cards within the same brand.

Even Discover made waves.  They introduced an amazing promotion: 10% back on all Apple Pay purchases for up to $10K in in-store purchases.  This stacked with Discover’s ongoing Double Cash Back your first year offer and with their rotating 5% categories.  Overall it was possible to turn this promotion into 30% cash back at a wide variety of stores by stacking these promotions.  At minimum, this deal meant 22% to 23% cash back anywhere Discover and Apple Pay was accepted for those with a first year Discover It or Discover It Miles card.  And for those who manufacture spend, it was an easy way to earn over $2,000.  Or, so it seemed.  Discover quickly amended the deals terms to explicitly state that gift card purchases were excluded.  Worse, they actually did their best to enforce those terms.  Don’t get me wrong, it was still an amazing promotion, but it turned out to be much harder and riskier to maximize than expected.

On the plus side, we’ve seen signup bonuses rise to new heights.  Amex briefly offered 35,000 points for their Starwood Preferred Guest personal and business cards; 75,000 and 100,000 point offers for their Hilton cards; 50K and 60K offers for their Delta cards;

Chase increased the standard offer for their personal Marriott card to 87,500 points after adding an authorized user; briefly offered 100,000 points for the Marriott Business card; targeted many people for 70,000 points with the United Mileage Plus card; updated their Ritz card with new features and 3 free nights; and rocked our world with a fantastic new card and offer: 100,000 Ultimate Rewards points for the Chase Sapphire Reserve.

Year 5 viewership: 7,817,534 page views

What’s Next?

NeckerIsland4.pngI believe that easy and cheap manufactured spend opportunities are a thing of the past.  Yes, a few options still exist and new options are likely to be found, but I doubt that any will last long.  I’m still hoping that Starbucks will come through with something interesting (see: “Starbird? Will the Starbucks prepaid card be the next big thing?“), but I wouldn’t put money on it.  In the meantime, I’ll continue to look for and report on sustainable ways to earn points & miles without traveling.

Additionally, my 1.2 million mile Necker Island trip is coming up soon.  Expect a week or more of non-stop Necker Island coverage.  If you’re interested, it should be great.  If not, just ignore my posts for a while until I return to my usual post style.

As to the rest of the year, who knows?  The miles & points hobby has been ever changing in both good and bad ways.  The good stuff tends to lead to analyses for how best to take advantage, and the bad stuff leads to suggestions for how to work around new barriers.  I enjoy writing about both!

Thank you!

I’m incredibly fortunate to be a full time blogger.  When I started this blog, it was just a fun hobby: I had no idea that it was possible to make a living doing this.  But, thanks to readers who read the blog regularly and suggest it to friends, it really is possible for this to be my career.  In fact, I’ve been doing this full time for the past 4 and half years!

So, thank you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!  In case you missed it, to celebrate the blog’s 5 year anniversary, I’m giving away lots of good stuff through Wednesday evening, September 7th:  Frequent Miler’s 5 Year Blogiversary Giveaway! Free nights! Free gifts! Free upgrades!

And, if you’re wondering how a person can earn a living writing a blog, please read this post: My job? I blog. Here’s the answer to your next question…

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