The New Reality for Acquiring Miles

As long time readers know, we’ve spent many years acquiring miles through credit card sign up bonuses alone. With two adults pursuing these miles, we’ve accumulated between 250,000 and 350,000 airline miles and hotel points per year. The old rule of thumb was to apply for 2-4 cards at one time every three or four months as the banks would not be able to see an inquiry on your credit report instantly for a card you just applied for. Therefore, it made sense to batch the applications together.

This caused some issues for people who weren’t able to employ “manufactured spending” (MS) techniques. They simply weren’t able to meet the minimum spending requirement on 2-4 cards within 3 months. We were lucky to have a Simon Mall retailer selling Visa Gift Cards 5 minutes down the road and a Wal-Mart nearby where we could use those gift cards to load our Bluebird accounts and then in turn pay off our bills from our Bluebird account. This was one of the most common MS techniques out there.

Unfortunately, over the past few months, American Express (who administers the Bluebird accounts for Wal-Mart) has disabled the ability to load any Bluebird accounts that appear to be manufacturing spending. And that included us. While I initially was able to re-sign up for another Bluebird account almost immediately, the subsequent account was disabled as well. I’ve tried to sign up for another account again, but American Express has taken it further this time around, not allowing one to sign up for a new account if they are part of the group that has been disabled (presumably).

So, I’ve spent some time researching other manufactured spending techniques that I’d be comfortable with that don’t require a huge amount of time to employ and that aren’t at risk of outside attention (oftentimes, manufactured spending has the same hallmarks as money laundering). And there are many methods out there that serious players use to manufacture spending. But I’m not that die hard. And I don’t want to draw attention to myself for doing something that may appear illegal to others when in fact it is only to sustain our travel habit. So, for now, I’m back to where I started many years ago. Only applying for cards that I can afford to meet the minimum spending on in a traditional manner.

Given that banks now see an inquiry on your credit report as soon as a card is applied for, and that I no longer have an easy way to manufacture spending, I’m now employing a “one card at a time” application process. Applying for one card at a time allows me to meet the spending before moving onto a new card. My former process had me applying for 2-4 cards every three months. I now apply for a card about a week before it appears I will meet the spending on my current card. That means that sometimes it will be one month between applications and sometimes it will be three. It all depends on the spending requirement and my spending patterns.

On top of these changes, there have also been changes with banks and their credit card offers in particular. Generally speaking, the banks are tightening up on their approvals, with how many cards you’ve applied for in the recent past playing a bigger role. And the offers themselves aren’t stellar at the moment. Of late, I’ve focused on Bank of America cards more as they don’t seem to have made these sorts of changes that Citibank and Chase, in particular, have made. I’ve made no secret of the fact that I love the Alaska Airlines cards and I’ll continue to focus on that card, in particular.

But for those of you who have not had the Chase Ink Plus for businesses in the past two years, I’d recommend signing up for this one sooner rather than later. Chase is now employing a “5/24” standard on personal cards. That means that if you’ve applied for more than 5 cards in the last 24 months, you will not be approved for a new card. That’s more than 5 cards from ANY bank. Not just Chase cards. That basically excludes anyone who has pursued using credit cards to accumulate miles, even modestly.

Chase has not yet initiated this policy when it comes to their business cards but I believe that it will only be a matter of time before they do so. As a result, I applied for the Ink Plus card recently since its bonus is up to 60,000 Ultimate Rewards after spending $5,000 in three months (from 50,000 Ultimate Rewards). There is a $95 annual fee that is not waived, but this is still a great deal and those Ultimate Rewards will go far for us.

I’ve mentioned it before, but I’m also a fan of the Capital One Spark for business card. You can’t beat $500 cash back after spending $4,500 in three months – with no annual fee for the first year. While the Capital One Venture personal card is very difficult to secure, I’ve had no trouble getting the Spark card a few times.

And the one card that I have my eye on once I’ve met the spending requirement of these recently acquired cards is, surprisingly, the new JetBlue card issued by BarclayCard. You get 30,000 True Blue points after spending $1,000 in 90 days. There are some pretty reasonable redemption rates on JetBlue, depending on the date and destination (the number of points required is directly tied to the cost of the ticket). And you can combine your points with one other “family member.” I see some value in JetBlue for our future travels so this card is on my short list.

But, in the meantime, I’ve found myself trying to meet the spending on two cards that have high minimum spending requirements. I was a little overzealous in my last application and did not fully understand that the Bluebird gravy train may truly be over. I have a few ideas to meet the spending that I will use this time only, but I won’t make the “overcommitment” mistake again.

All of these changes aren’t great for those of us who leverage credit card offers to travel the world. But they don’t mark the end either. I do believe that credit card sign up bonuses and the ability to acquire miles through credit cards will always be around. However, banks are doing much better these days and can be a little more selective in who they approve for cards and what they offer for bonuses. It’s unlikely we’ll continue to amass an average of 300,000 miles and points a year, but I’m sure we’ll still be able to travel the world at prices we can afford thanks to generous banks. What’s that saying? Slow and steady wins the race?

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