Last year, Angelina Aucello took 90 flights across the globe. The 28-year-old stay-at-home mom spent close to nothing on trips to the Middle East, Australia, South America, and Asia.
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Her secret? Credit cards—and not just three or four. Aucello currently has 24 cards; she’s been avidly collecting points and miles on them for a decade.
Aucello picked up her credit card habit from her father, who took her along on European vacations using his own accrued points when she was growing up. After attending a seminar on how to live off card rewards led by a prominent credit card blogger, she was inspired to bring her obsession to the next level by starting a blog of her own, Just Another Points Traveler.
“I used to think the hobby was ridiculous and crazy, and I attended the Chicago Seminar led by the Frugal Travel Guy in 2010 with zero expectations,” Aucello recalls. “I was blown away by the community. I couldn’t believe there was a whole culture of people who were just as nerdy as I was about collecting credit card points.”
Aucello is now an active member of a massive online community of credit card obsessives that grew out of early internet forums nearly 20 years ago. Today, there are countless blogs dedicated to educating consumers about which cards are the best when it comes to miles and points. Many bloggers have turned their hobby into a full-time job, making loads of cash off teaching readers how to earn the most benefits with the magic swipe of a credit card.
There are currently over 2 billion credit cards in circulation worldwide. A 2014 Gallup survey found that the average credit card-using American has 3.7 cards; while 33 percent have one or two credit cards, nine percent have five or six and seven percent have more than seven.
The modern credit card came into existence around 1950, but the rewards model is even younger. AT&T’s Universal credit card was the first to give cash back, to be put towards phone calls, in 1986. Now just about every credit card comes with some sort of rewards program, whether it involves miles for flights or discounts for shopping.
In the credit card blogging community, the main objective is to amass travel rewards. Consumers can opt for other alternatives, like receiving cash back or purchasing gadgets from their credit card company’s overpriced catalog, but rewards tend to weigh out in favor of travel perks. The value of a first class ticket to Seoul on Korean Air, for example, is $13,000, but can be bought with 160,000 miles—miles that can be earned with a few of the right credit cards.
“Using points for travel is smarter from a financial perspective,” explains Joe Westreich, a 27-year-old accountant from Queens who follows several credit card blogs. “The option to get cash back is reliable, it goes to your bank account, but you really don’t get more than one or two cents per purchase. Using the rewards for miles, though, translates exponentially to dollars. It’s really like getting free travel.”
Most credit card obsessives align the hobby with a love of travel; they tend to suffer from strong cases of wanderlust or want to see family living abroad. As Emily Jablon, who runs the blog Million Mile Secrets with her husband Daraius Dubash, puts it, “We’re able to travel to places we’d never have gone otherwise, and we’re making memories that will last a lifetime. We’ve taken my parents on a world trip, we visited my grandmother in Florida before she passed away. Just in the last two years, we’ve gone on $220,000 worth of trips and we didn’t pay anywhere close to that out of pocket.”
For others, the motivation is less goal-oriented. “My friends and I say, ‘Chase the fare, not the destination,’” admits Michael Rubiano, a tech consultant who’s been collecting credit card miles for 25 years and calls himself a points “junkie.” Ben Schlappig, the 24-year-old blogger behind One Mile at a Time, kickstarted his points obsession at the tender age of 14 by doing mileage runs, taking trips for the sole purpose of earning miles. He adds that “a large part of the community doesn’t actually like to travel, but they love gaming the system.”
“It’s like extreme couponing: Those people get, like, 10,000 diapers for free even though they don’t have kids. In this case, some people care about screwing the airline,” says Schlappig, who also goes by the name Lucky. He started his blog in 2008, and with a wide-ranging readership that includes “18-year-olds and 80-year-olds,” he says his site now enjoys several million page views a month.
Most bloggers point to FlyerTalk as the mothership of the entire credit card community. Randy Peterson, a 61-year-old Colorado Springs resident who describes himself as a “nice farm boy from Iowa,” started the site in 1995 right around the time dial-up internet was becoming commonplace in people’s homes. Peterson had quit his job working in merchandise presentation to start the magazine Insider Flyer in 1986 and initially spread the word about his new website by handing out pamphlets at JFK and Newark airports.In 2007, he sold FlyerTalk to Internet Brands and is now focused on his latest venture, Boarding Area, a company that hosts the sites of some 200 credit card bloggers.
Many of the tenets of credit card point gamingthat Schlappig and his fellow bloggers espouse originated from FlyerTalk. Schlappig sees himself as an educator tasked with helping people get the most bang for their plastic buck. Each credit card comes with its own set of rules, regulations, restrictions, fees, and loopholes to navigate, and many in the community admit it took them months of reading FlyerTalk before they were able to grasp some of the more difficult concepts. Credit card bloggers exist in part to help parse the details for the average consumer.
Of course, educating people isn’t the only motive: There’s plenty of money involved too. Peterson says that some credit card bloggers pull in more than $500,000 a year—and that’s not including all the free travel they earn from their own accrued points. Credit card blogs today don’t just have display ads and sponsored posts, bloggers also work with credit card companies to promote certain cards, and in return make a profit through affiliate links. Some credit card blogs have even been acquired; The Points Guy was sold to financial services company Bankrate in 2012 and the Frugal Travel Guy blog was bought by Internet Brands that same year.
“It’s hard to trust bloggers when they’re making a living off the products they are pushing,” says Westreich. “The old readers are going to be more educated than the new ones who will sign up for the first few credit cards they read about, but there’s something inauthentic about trying to get people to click on referral links.”
Peterson argues that the industry has turned into a business just like any other, but believes readers need to be smart about which sites they frequent: “If five of the ten blog posts are about credit cards to sign up for, you’re reading the wrong blog. If eight out of ten posts are about how to fly first class, you’ve found a good blogger.”
The credit card blogging community has grown tremendously over the years, with scores of loyal FlyerTalk readers having gone on to start their own blogs. Schlappig says there are plenty of sites that rise and then fizzle, but that the ones that maintain success usually have a specific niche. Heels First Travel is a credit card blog aimed at fashion-loving readers, while Muslim Travel Girldevotes many of her posts to helping readers score deals to holy travel destinations. Mommy Points is dedicated to traveling with children.
One blog that amassed nothing short of a cult following is Dan’s Deals, a blog started in 2004 by a non-pulpit Chabad rabbi from Ohio named Dan Eleff. His passion for scoring deals dates back to middle school; he was a tween Beanie Baby flipper, dragging his parents to the mall at the age of 12 to purchase the toys, only to sell them on eBay for 30 times the price. He used eBay back when the site awarded users points and learned the ins and outs of rewards programs through its Anything Points system.
Later, as a rabbinical student, Eleff often scoured the internet looking for toilet paper deals for his yeshiva, which led him to start his own blog detailing his scores. He bought the domain DansDeals.com in 2007 and claims to have worked his way up to two million page views a month. He now holds multiple seminarsa year and has garnered a particularly large following among Jews looking for flights to Israel. Eleff says he’s had well over 500 credit cards in his lifetime and has taken multiple first-class around-the-world trips with his family thanks to miles from sign-up bonuses. Two years ago, he traded 25,000 miles to steal second base at a Cleveland Indians game.
Eleff believes the expanding community of bloggers has come with more duplicitous credit card pushing—he adds that he’s lost several business relationships because it’s difficult to advocate for readers while keeping up with the expectations of advertisers—but says his strategy is to only write about things that interest him. He frequently posts about deals from Amazon and Charles Tyrwhitt in addition to sharing credit card tips because he sees his blog as a full-service money-saving destination.
“I think people like that my toes are always in the water,” he says. “I’ve had pitches where I’ve turned them down because I don’t believe in this random Disney card or the Visa Black card so I’m not going to write about it. On the other hand, I often write about air travel news in Cleveland—I know most of my readers don’t care about that, but I do!”
Like Eleff, other credit card bloggers use their sites to talk about general money saving. Longtime Dan’s Deals reader Oren Wachstock, a 29-year-old dentist living in Teaneck, New Jersey, spends his days filling cavities and busies his nights writing about credit cards with the most cash back and researching where to buy discounted gift cards for his own blog. Take his recent recent purchase at the Children’s Place: one item originally cost him $47, but between a coupon code, a discounted gift card, and an affiliate rewards site, he bought it for $20.88, as well as earned some cash back and credit towards his next purchase. His wife thinks he’s crazy, he admits, and has threatened to start a support group called “Dan’s Deals Wives,” but Wachstock maintains it’s worth it.
“There are people who think it’s a time trap and that it’s extremely stressful. I love it. This is my hobby and the more intense it gets, the better I feel about it. It’s kind of perverse logic,” Wachstock laughs. “If I was doing this to make money, I’d be doing a pretty bad job at it. I get tremendous satisfaction out of helping people get cash back, get more income, and be able to travel. That’s enough for me.”
The notion that having too many credit cards hurts your credit is widely considered a myth in the credit card blogging world. Those who stay on top of their finances argue that the hobby is actually good for their credit. Jablon of Million Mile Secrets says that in the eight years she and her husband have been opening up new cards, her credit score has improved since she’s been able to demonstrate she’s financially responsible by paying off each of them on time every month.
However, the dangers of debt still loom for many. Arianna Rebolini, an editor at BuzzFeed who has written openly about her years in debt, ventured into the credit card game as a way to build her credit. Once a job switch resulted in a lower salary, “everything snowballed so quickly.” After racking up some $17,000 in unpaid bills and having collection agencies on her tail, Rebolini eventually moved back in with her parents and spent almost two years paying off her creditors.
“It’s easy to get manipulated by credit card companies when they are treating you well and showering you with bonuses,” she says. “I think people know the dangers of credit cards, but it’s hard to grasp the reality of what can really happen.”
Schlappig agrees that credit card points chasing is something that must be carefully considered.
“Certainly people are fascinated by the idea, but most are not willing to put in the proper amount of work,” he says. “For most of us, this is a full-time obsession—I literally work 16 hours a day, seven days a week. It requires a lot of organization and spreadsheets. You don’t want to ruin your credit score by having late payments, so you really have to be on top of everything. It’s not meant for people who can’t afford to travel. It’s meant for people with disposable income.”
Those who are knee-deep in the rewards world say that the right amount of dedication and organization can take you far—literally.
“Every once in a while, you have so many cards lying around, you’ll get hit with a late fee because you goofed, but as long as you’re organized, it’s a real cupcake,” says Bobby Finken, a commercial lender living in Texas who has over one hundred credit cards to his name. “I’ve probably collected over a million points and it’s taken my wife, three kids, and I on vacations every single year. I even keep some cards just for the annual free night in a hotel I get from having an account open; it’s a no brainer.”
While it’s easy enough to sign up for multiple credit cards and take advantage of high point-to-dollar ratios, first-class flights across the world are still a relatively hard score. It’s for that reason that many credit card obsessives turn to manufactured spending—that is, purchasing something that has monetary value, like money orders or gift cards, on a credit card to receive points while cycling that money back into your own pocket.
In 2011, the U.S. Mint halted the production of silver dollar coins because people were ordering them by the thousands, paying by credit card, only to bring the coins back to the bank and have the value deposited into their accounts (one man claims to have earned 4 million points doing this). Manufactured spend methods come and go as credit card companies do eventually catch on.
At the moment, with Target’s prepaid RedCard (dubbed the RedBird), users can load money onto the card via credit card, and then transfer that money back to their bank account while still racking up points. Similar transaction systems have existed through Amazon’s Payments program, a Visa card called Vanilla Reload, and the Bluebird card from American Express.
“For people who have a lot of time, manufactured spend is a way to earn a lot without spending a lot,” notes Peterson. “If you can learn the nuances of gift cards, big bonuses, refillable credit cards, and rollovers, they can hit big.”
While the system might seem like a form of abuse, Peterson believes manufactured spending is a “win-win” since consumers can accrue points while credit card companies make margins off transaction fees, annual fees, and customers who don’t pay their bills on time and accrue interest. These types of workarounds don’t last forever; Amazon shut down its Payments system in October, but until then, shoppers were able to move money between credit cards and bank accounts, acquiring points without ponying up any cash.
It’s not just manufactured spending that credit card companies are attuned to, Eleff notes. You used to be able to sign up for certain American Express cards several times over, cashing in on multiple sign-up bonuses in the process, but companies are beginning to limit this practice, known as “credit card churning.” Spending minimums to receive sign-up rewards have climbed too, he adds, likely because credit card companies are recognizing how just invested consumers are.Take the Chase Sapphire Preferred card, for example: The customer favorite increased its sign-up bonus threshold from $3,000 to $4,000 this past November.
Then there’s the fact that the growing number of blogs and subsequent overexposure of deals has created a sense of resentment—a schism, even—within the blogging community, notes Brian Kelly of The Points Guy. Kelly says old-school forums like FlyerTalk are littered with angry users whofeel the communityhas gotten too saturated and that new blogs are exposing well-kept secrets, ruining it for everyone.
“There’s definitely this old boys’ club aspect,” Kelly says. “The tone has gotten nasty, with people giving me slack for sharing deals, but whose right is it to close off membership? We were all newbies at one time and there’s no gatekeeper of information on the internet. One tweet can reach a million people with the right amount of retweets. If they think they can keep things private on the internet, they are stupid.”
All Rights Reserved for Chavie Lieber