Of US Airways Credit Cards and a Serious Ethical Deficiency in the Points Blogosphere

My day (and sometimes night) job is as an attorney.  Although we get a terrible rap and are accused of being unethical, the reality is that most good lawyers (and many bad ones) actually think about ethics A LOT.  We have to take a separate ethics exam before we get our license, and many jurisdictions have additional ethics content on the bar exam.  We have to take ethics continuing education courses regularly.  And believe it or not, I’ve had dozens of email chains, conference calls, and meetings discussing the ethical implications of a particular issue.

In my career, I’ve also primarily worked with low-income and middle-income people — many of whom were taken advantage of by an “expert” or a salesman.  So I am particularly attuned to consumer scams, deceptions, and half-truths.

When I started reading points and travel blogs, very few people made a living off them.  It was a hobby.  And people blogged to share info or to amuse others.  Alas, that has changed drastically, and many people now blog and travel as a full-time job.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that per se.  It’s not how I personally would feel like a contributing member of society, and it makes me sad that people rather travel all the time than build meaningful relationships, but there’s nothing *wrong* with that.

But what is wrong is pretending to give “advice” when in reality you are selling a product.  Several bloggers now  make money by “referral links” — essentially selling credit cards through links on their sites.  Calling something a “reader question and answer” or a “credit card review”, and including a link that gives the writer a kickback — that’s wrong . Letting people think you’re on their side, when you’re really on your own — wrong.   Encouraging people to take out credit cards so you can make fifty cents and not making clear that you’re a salesman — wrong.  Telling people that it’s foolish to have a cashback credit card because they can pay a high annual fee and get miles to fly in Lufthansa business class (by themselves, pending availability) and so you can get fifty cents– wrong.  It’s almost as if we don’t live in a country where credit card debt is one of the top reasons for bankruptcy, or that we haven’t seen the devastating effects of an overleveraged working class population. (And don’t get me started on the ethics of people encouraging various forms of bank fraud.)

Update: One of my heroes, George, points out that it’s closer to $100 commission per credit card sale.  My inaccuracy speaks volumes as to the transparency to the general public.

So where am I going with this.  One of the clearest examples I have seen of patently outrageous unethical behavior has come in the form of recent blog posts about changes to the US Airways Mastercard issued by Barclaycard.   I’ve had this card for years.  Besides a sign-up bonus, the only real value of the card comes from an annual pass to the US Airways Club, and a $99 companion ticket which, though restricted, has come in handy for me and my boyfriend and saved us hundreds of dollars a year.   Well, these benefits, which were unique to this card — Chase United card gives lounge access passes on a sub-$200 annual fee card — are going away, and the benefits of the US Airways card are going to be aligned with the American AAdvantage card issued by Citi, and become comparable to other cards.

This change was covered in 4 of the blogs still left in my reader.  A quick google search has found another 5 in the past two days, with more to come tomorrow as America’s favorite bow-tie wearing “Manufactured spender” hasn’t weighed in yet.  All of them are of course encouraging you to get this card, and buy it through them.  (That’s what a referral link is, essentially.)

This isn’t the worst example I’ve seen, but it is such a clear demonstration of how you can’t be both a reviewer and a salesman. If someone makes money off you buying a product, you cannot trust a word they say “reviewing” that product.  Even if they happen to be acting honestly in that one instance.  I have no idea if each of these bloggers truly thinks the US Airways card is manna from heaven and the new benefits are worth a ding to your credit score and a ring on their cash register.  But I view these things from a perspective that’s echoed in the  federal law for judges, 28 U.S.C. s. 455, which states a judge shall “disqualify himself in any proceeding in which his impartiality might reasonably be questioned.”  The standard isn’t whether you actually *are* impartial.  It’s whether knowledge of all the facts would cause someone to question your partiality.

You can’t actually be a legitimate “expert” and a salesman of the product of your expertise at the same time.  If I want an honest review of a new Chevy, I don’t ask the Chevy dealer.  And if a Chevy dealer was pretending to be a neutral impartial expert, he very likely would be violating consumer protection law.  And as the comments, “reader questions”, and massive amounts of people being driven to Flyertalk as a result of these “Get Rich Quick! You can fly first class too!” shysters makes clear, LOTS of unsophisticated consumers are falling prey.

There are some honest bloggers out there.  And there are bloggers who give advice that doesn’t include a dozen referral cash-generating links.  And to be fair, some bloggers have added a “disclaimer” informing people they make money on the link.  But that’s not good enough.

The list of blogs I follow in my Feedly reader is shrinking as of late, because I don’t have patience for shysters, and for I don’t have patience for overentitled Peter Pans.

And yes, I am perfectly aware this is basically a rant.  But I’m okay with that, because I think I rant interestingly.  A shout-out to Jared Blank who has had a recent post on a related topic, entitled “If You Don’t Get Credit Cards, You A Loser!”

I rather pay for my travel in coach then cheat to go for free in First Class.


12 thoughts on “Of US Airways Credit Cards and a Serious Ethical Deficiency in the Points Blogosphere

  1. Brian (@CTravlr)

    This may be the best post I’ve read on credit card shilling yet. Solid writing, and I gotta say I agree with you on nearly all points

  2. TravelBloggerBuzz

    If it was only 50 cents this would not be happening at all 🙂

    I am guessing a couple of hundred for the Chase Ink cards and close to $100 for the Barclays Airways card. IT IS REAL MONEY. It is Greed and they need to pump to make their quotas so they are not dropped.

    The pumping is getting worse…my eyes see it every freaking day.

    Ok, I like your rant, follow my thinking!

    1. Adam1222 Post author

      My complete ignorance as to the amount of money involved proves my point! Even a relatively sophisticated reader/consumer has no idea.

  3. Adam M

    You general rant has a solid point; a lot of blog advice isn’t an honest accounting of benefits and costs. But comparing a blogger to a judge is not appropriate. Judges are paid specifically to be impartial. If you want impartial long reviews, you either have to hope for people’s goodness or pay them. There’s not that much goodness around.

    Times have changed. It’s not 2009 anymore. The move from a hobby system to a business system is always painful. Look at eBay. Look at etsy. Major bloggers are now saleswomen and salesmen. Society has different expectations of salespeople – basically, just not outright lying.

    As someone who does not have a points/miles blog, but cares about the system, I believe in exposing the new reality – making sure people know about the sales. Nothing we will do will make it go away – unless someone reading this is a credit card marketer and realizes affiliate links aren’t good.

  4. Hua

    Thanks for driving home the point that most of these mikes and points bloggers are nothing more than affiliate marketers dispensing self-serving “advice” under the guise of being helpful. It has been getting *really* bad lately with the likes of FTG’s card selection tool recommending the same cards regardless of user criteria, blogs like “WalletSlot” on First2Board, and the transition of bloggers like VFTW and OMAT from sources of valuable information and entertaining reading into almost daily card pumping. An affiliate marketer can’t be viewed as an objective evaluator, but I certainly respect those bloggers who are transparent, self aware, and have demonstrated ethical behavior.

    BTW, I have the Barclay’s Dividend Miles card, too. I actually like it for the 10,000 annual miles and the 5,000 award discount. I don’t care about the lounge passes and have yet to ever use the companion fare, but am disappointed to hear that the elite qualifying miles for spend are being eliminated.

  5. William Charles

    “… sad that people rather travel all the time than build meaningful relationships”

    It’s pretty condescending to assume that because somebody travels they can’t build meaningful relationships. I travel for work, A LOT. I still probably spend more time with my friends & family than most people working traditional jobs.

    1. Adam1222 Post author

      Good for you. There are other bloggers who brag about living in hotels and some who travel by themselves every weekend.

      1. Reader

        “There are other bloggers who brag about living in hotels and some who travel by themselves every weekend.”

        … which still comes off as condescending. I get — and agree — with the general points you’ve been making in your posts recently about the kickstarter, affiliate links, etc. But you seem a bit unfairly dismissive of non-traditional travel — that it’s not possible to have a meaningful life if you don’t have a stable, permanent presence in a community. Someone living in hotels or someone traveling by themselves every weekend may very well still have meaningful relationships, strong ties, etc.

        Most of your criticisms seem directed at One Mile at a Time, but could just as easily be directed at some of the more interesting and rewarding blogs in this space — say Rapid Travel Chai who jets off by himself for weekend trips, or Travel Is Free who is living out of hotels with his wife.

        Anyway, just my two cents. Enjoying the blog.

        1. Adam1222 Post author

          One man’s condescension is another man expressing an opinion on the lifestyle people openly blog about.
          As I said in the initial post, this isn’t the thing I find ethically troubling- it’s just not how I would choose to live my life and I see a lot of downsides that don’t get mentioned on their blogs (and I actually had some you didn’t mention in mind).
          Thanks for reading and commenting.

    2. Adam1222 Post author

      I should add, I had no familiarity of your blog until you posted here. I would have assumed “the Doctor of Credit” was a payday lender or other usurer. But reading your blog makes pretty clear it is not what I was talking about at all, as your blog doesn’t pretend to be a travel advice blog when it is really just selling credit cards. I don’t see any posts, for example, on “what to do in Madrid” that some how turn into “click this credit card link.”

  6. Paul

    Glad that more are speaking out about the obscene amount of card pimping. The solution is to NEVER click on ANY affiliate link.

    1. William Charles

      That’s not a solution as it doesn’t reward good behavior. You should be using affiliate links when you find the content provided is sufficiently useful.

      If it’s never useful to you, I’d question why you’re reading any blogs in the first place.

      Money talks and the best way to reform an industry is either through government regulation (which is extremely time consuming and difficult) or by using your wallet power.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.